Photos by Nina Riggio | nina-riggio.com
The Venus flytrap grows only in the swamps around Wilmington, North Carolina. Are laws against poaching it too harsh?
By Joe Purtell
A light rain patters on our windshield as photographer Nina Riggio and I pull into the Holly Shelter Game Land, a state-owned sixty-three-thousand-acre preserve north of Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s October 2018, and white-tailed deer season is underway.
A wildlife officer named Fred Gorchess waits for us on a side road. His truck, with a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission decal on the door, is partially obscured by the forest. As we pull up, Gorchess jumps out, pistol and taser on opposite hips. He’s a tall, muscular man who leans in when he listens. He gets back in his truck and leads us farther into the reserve, along a road that curves gently through unwavering pines.
Gorchess pulls over at the site of his most prominent arrest and walks into the forest in long strides, telling us the story. Three and a half years earlier, on another rainy day, he was parked at the entrance to the preserve when he saw a minivan on the way out. The nervous driver stopped to chat with him, and Gorchess, suspicious, looked over the man’s shoulder. Someone was crouched down in the back seat.
Gorchess opened the trunk and two more men tumbled out onto the wet road. A loaded backpack and pillowcase fell with them—both full of Venus flytraps.
“If I was going to poach, I’d choose a day like today,” he tells us, citing the mist and cold, which keep away prying eyes and poisonous snakes.
Gorchess stops walking and crouches, then beckons us closer. He spreads the low grass, brown from cold, and reveals a patch of fifteen flytraps, each one no bigger than my thumbnail. Tooth-like wires spread outwards from yawning red mouths, waiting to close around unsuspecting insects. The Venus flytrap hunts by temptation. Lacking the mobility of the animal kingdom, the plant draws insects and small frogs in with a sweet nectar. Tiny hairs line the inside of the traps. If a curious spider touches only one hair, the trap will remain open, but if it brushes a second, a cage of green wires descends. In these woods, it pays to tread lightly. Gorchess tickles one with a pine needle and the trap snaps shut.
Gorchess has been after “trappers” since 2014, but men of his occupation have been hunting poachers for at least four hundred years. In a different time, Gorchess would have been called a game warden instead of a wildlife officer, tracking down the peasants who dared to hunt deer or rabbit on gentry-owned land instead of poor men tired of supporting their families on $7.25 an hour. In 19th-century England, possession of poaching equipment could land a person in jail for a year. In 2014 the North Carolina State Legislature upgraded the punishment for illegal “taking of flytraps” from a misdemeanor to a Class H felony. The men Gorchess arrested were the first to face the new charge and a possible two years of prison time and a fine. Two of the men settled, but the driver maintained his innocence. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to six to seventeen months.
We have come deep enough into the woods that I can no longer see the road we drove in on. The rain has stopped, although the mist remains, and now the only sound is the warble of distant birds. I wonder who else might be hearing it and what drives them into the forest to risk encounters with wild animals and quicksand, hidden cameras and the law, to seek these thumbnail-sized, meat-eating plants.
“There’s a community where it’s almost like it’s tradition to go take ’em,” Gorchess says. “I doubt they’re gonna talk to you, but I could tell you a street to go down. You're on your own when it comes to safety. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Driving back to Wilmington, we cover a quarter of the radius of the flytrap’s total habitat in thirty minutes. The Venus flytrap is both indigenous and exclusive to the United States, and the plants only grow within ninety miles of Wilmington, an area where a nitrogen deficiency in the soil (among other things) caused the plant’s unusual evolutionary development. From the five-foot-tall monkey cup pitcher plants of Southeast Asia to the alpine butterwort of the Siberian mountains, carnivorous plants flourish in nutrient poor and acidic soils around the globe.
We also pass backhoes and construction sites, the precursors to the developments that have beset this pine savannah in recent years. Names like St. James Plantation and RiverSea Plantation are displayed on neat rock walls, their tidy lines separating the cookie-cutter homes from the forest.
Scientists agree that land development poses a much greater threat to the flytrap than the poachers Gorchess searches for, but while poachers face prison time for picking plants, land developers do not have to consider the flytrap. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture lists the flytrap as a “species of special concern,” a step below threatened, so the state does not require an environmental impact assessment to give the go-ahead to bulldozers. In North Carolina, it’s legal to pave over flytraps it would be illegal to pick—if you buy the land first. Poachers and land developers both seek to live off the land, but the poachers operate on a much smaller scale of both profit and destruction. To date, everyone arrested for poaching has been Black.
Ted Davis Jr., one of Wilmington’s representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly, introduced the bill that increased the penalty for picking flytraps. He says it was intended to stop poaching, not land development.
“The main thing about this bill was to try to prevent people from taking them and reselling them. If a developer buys land, that’s his land,” Davis said. “I certainly have no problem with the severity of the punishment.”
For some, the risk is still worth the reward. While flytraps sell for only fifty cents a plant, full-time poachers can usually make around $1,000 a week on three days labor, bringing in hundreds of traps on each outing. Working a forty-hour week at the federal minimum wage, they would earn $290 before taxes. In 2018, twenty-one percent of Black people in North Carolina lived below the poverty line compared to just under ten percent of whites.
In the past, poachers sold the flytraps to local plant nurseries. Some still do, but the 2014 law has made it more difficult. Nurseries are as nervous as poachers, which has pushed the trade further into the shadows. One poacher I spoke with said she now takes the plants to a stranger buyer, a man whose name she does not know and some suspect is an agent of an international medical company that sells flytrap pills and tinctures as a cure-all.
While many are fascinated by the flytrap, which Charles Darwin called “one of the most wonderful in the world,” few have seen it in the wild, and the dense swamps the plant favors make it impossible to count its numbers precisely. According to a 2016 estimate in the New York Times, which was attributed to the Durham, North Carolina–based branch of the Nature Conservancy, there were only thirty-five thousand flytraps left in the wild, which meant that poachers were removing around three percent of the plant’s entire population on each day they went out into the swamps. The Conservancy, however, says the number didn’t come from them. A 2013 study they conducted estimated the number of flytraps is in the millions.
“We’re not even sure if we’d describe it as threatened,” says Debbie Crane, a Nature Conservancy spokesperson. “Its biggest threat is not poachers, by any stretch of the imagination.”
Poachers are among a small group that have actually seen the flytrap in the wild, and Officer Gorchess thinks they know what they’re talking about. “The guys who actually take them probably know more about flytraps than ninety-nine percent of the public,” he says.
Poachers also know the swamps, and Gorchess says they’re extremely difficult to catch. “If someone was lying down fifty yards away, you’d never see them,” he says. “You’ve either gotta see them get dropped off, picked up, or just happen to get lucky and walk up on ’em, which is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
He does not mention how afraid they must be, hiding in the brush.
I want to find this poaching community that Gorchess referenced, and I figure talking to the people who have already been arrested is a good place to start. So I call Alice Williams. In March of 2019, her son Archie, forty-one, was arrested in possession of two hundred sixteen flytraps. He helped the officers replant them, then the state charged him with seventy-three felonies. The court determined that a $750,000 bond fit the severity of the crime.
On the day of his trial, scheduled for August 2019, Archie’s rap sheet will fill several pages of the court docket with a repeated line: “Felony taking of Venus flytraps.” If he had not been caught on video, he could have made $100. Instead, Archie faces a hundred fifty years in prison.
Archie experienced a traumatic brain injury in 2001 and cannot hold down a standard job. He has nine children, five of them still at home. Alice raises them, although she says Archie helps as much as he can.
I meet Alice outside of her house, which has a garden full of flowers by the front door and a chicken coop in the back. She and her husband have cows in a pasture across the road and grow crops in a field next door. This is the second house they have owned. They bought the first with flytrap money.
“I used to dig. Me and my husband built a two-story house off them. That was our income, raising two kids,” she said. “It’s a part of the lifestyle, always has been. When we had our children, we would take them too, to get money for their school clothes. You go to work and your paycheck don’t pay the bills, so you go out there and get it.”
The Williamses have been in Brunswick County for generations. They have farmed the land and fished the rivers. They have raised their children and their grandchildren and showed them how to walk in the dense and pathless woods. Those woods are being cleared around them, replaced by retirement communities and strip malls.
For Alice, St. James Plantation is a symbol of how the county has changed. The first homes of the retirement community were built in 1991. In 2020, the development spreads its four and a half golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, and enough houses for more than six thousand people over what was pine savannah. The residents of the development that calls itself a plantation are one hundred percent white, according to the U.S. Census. The median household income in St. James is $101,000—nearly double the county average of $54,000.
“When I was a little girl, St. James on 211 wasn’t there, and that was flytrap headquarters,” Alice says. “You could go over there and get plenty, plenty, plenty of flytraps. I mean they were all over the place in St. James. They just tore down a whole bunch of property where we know that flytraps, pitcher plants, sweet trumpets, sundews, all kinds of carnivorous plants grow. They just destroyed them.”
New developments can both directly and indirectly force longtime Brunswick families out of their homes. Resea Willis, sixty-one, has been working to keep land under Black ownership in Brunswick for decades. She says the land is taken in many ways, some underhanded. Looking to build a new golf course, a developer might buy out a single individual’s portion of a family-owned plot, then use their partial ownership to force the remaining members to sell. Once the golf course is built, adjacent property values go up, bringing taxes with them—another opportunity for expansion.
Willis is working with one elderly woman who has been unable to keep up with rising property taxes and now owes around $8,000. Brunswick County is coming for the land, but Willis says the county itself, which is sitting on land it could have foreclosed on a decade ago, has no interest in using the property. The golf course, on the other hand, is looking to grow.
Thus, the land in Brunswick County has been consolidated—hearkening back to the centuries-old English process of “enclosure,” what historian Karl Polanyi called “a revolution of the rich against the poor”—and practices that used to support families have been made into crimes. In 1978, Black families owned four hundred thousand acres of farmland in North Carolina. In 2007, that number had dropped to a hundred thirty-three thousand. As the land of North Carolina leaves Black hands, the punishment for living off of public ones has increased.
Since 1995, nearly ten percent of the total landmass of Brunswick County has been developed, not including land inside the county’s nineteen municipalities. With development comes profit. In neighboring New Hanover County, home of Wilmington, land managers approved $6 billion in development projects between 2009 and 2019.
When poachers dig plants, the flytrap is removed but its habitat is preserved. While scientists do not support poaching, they agree that development and fire suppression are far more detrimental to the flytrap’s future. The Venus flytrap cannot grow through pavement.
“Some people get to do whatever they want to do, and some people can’t,” Williams said. “As far as the Venus flytraps go, it’s always been a Black person thing, and I think basically that’s the reason why.”
Williams’s poaching days are over, and Archie is trying to keep a low profile while the trial runs its course. The Williamses say Archie’s arrest scared people, and poachers might be harder to find.
“Why would they stop people from making money off the wild?” Williams asks.
We post on Craigslist “seeking flytrap stories” and get a message back with a phone number. There is no name attached. I call that evening and speak with a man who introduces himself as Max, although he hesitates, and I suspect it’s not his real name. I ask about flytraps. “Let me put it this way,” the man says. “When I needed school clothes, that’s what I did.” He says he plants flytraps in the swamp as a kind of rainy-day fund.
On a warm November afternoon two weeks later, we pick up Max. His house, a trailer bordering the swamp, is not visible from the road. I ask if we can see some of the fields he’s planted. “I don’t know, man,” he says. “Those are deep.” Lean, with a short buzz cut and almost-trim beard, he references poisonous snakes, alligators, hogs, and quicksand. His uncle got lost in the Green Swamp and had to spend the night. When he got out, he moved to Seattle. Max fervently believes a panther escaped the local zoo and is roaming the swamp. I ask if he can show us some of the plants that grow by the road. “Let me go grab my boots,” he says.
Max jumps in our van and starts giving directions. We motor through Green Swamp byways, partially submerged forests just a few feet from the road. Eventually he tells me to pull over. We stop and walk down a short hill. There are five billboards spread a hundred feet apart in various states of disrepair. The ground between them is covered with flytraps, some half the size of the nail on my pinky finger, others larger, with mouths that look like they could eat small frogs. “And they say they’re endangered,” Max says.
As we walk the length of the billboards, Max looks down. Every now and then he points. “Big one there,” he says. “Lots over here.” They cover the ground for some five hundred feet and then disappear. Max says they’re a peculiar plant. The fields just stop, responding to some unknown change in the soil. Up on the road, a cop flashes his lights at us but keeps driving.
The term poachers has always irked Max: He believes its implications of destruction are unfounded. He prefers “harvester” and sees picking flytraps as a sustainable practice. People who depend most on the plant, he says, have an active interest in keeping the population stable.
Back at the car, he says he’ll show us another spot. As we drive, he points out new developments, shopping centers, and golf courses that weren’t here ten years ago. Backhoes excavate the roadside. A 2007 draft of the law that felonized picking flytraps stated: “[T]he incidental disturbance of protected plants during agricultural, forestry or development operations is not illegal.”
Max directs us to a new housing complex, with metal gates and an encircling wall, green lawns and identical houses. We turn around in the entrance as a man in a fedora gives us a questioning look. Then we park along the road, jump out, and duck into the brush. Riggio keeps her camera close as we move into the swamp.
Pushing through dense vegetation, Max looks for seemingly invisible landmarks. We move between pathways, low tunnels where we nearly crawl, and brush so dense that the only option is to force your way through by pushing with your back. Every now and then, the thickets dissolve and we’re left in open pine glades, sunlight spread across the forest floor in a patchwork of light and shadow.
Max points out a plant called a sweet trumpet, which he says used to be boiled as a home remedy for polio. Flytraps, too, are rumored to have medicinal benefits. Max was stabbed in the back while being robbed after a party six months before our visit. He says he used a flytrap tincture to help him heal. He’s mixing up something for a friend who has stomach cancer.
Max scouts, backtracks, holds branches aside for the newcomers to the swamp. He takes phone calls. Someone starts shooting something semi-automatic nearby, slowly at first, but quickly increasing in pace. Max looks up, annoyed. “That’s coming from the development,” he says. “That’s another thing you’ve gotta look out for.” He decides we’re on the wrong side of a dense hedge. He’s also worried that we may be shot. We backtrack through paths I cannot remember.
We push through the final bushes onto the road, with Max leading the way. Leaving the shelter of the woods, he comes face to face with a broad-shouldered sheriff’s deputy, a bulletproof vest covering his six-foot-tall frame. He’s holding an AR-15. The deputy sees Max while Riggio and I are still concealed by the bushes. He is terrifying, stern, condescending. He stares at Max ruthlessly. Max holds his phone in plain sight and says a cordial hello before I can even register what’s happening.
I take a breath, then step out of the overgrown sanctum. The deputy’s expression changes from anger to confusion. He doesn’t know what to make of the situation, or of Riggio’s camera. “What were y’all doing in there?” the officer asks. Max, not missing a beat, tells him we’re making a documentary. He puts the assault rifle back in his car and then apologizes to me, not Max, making vague excuses about hunting season and hooligans. Facing the deputy and his gun, Max was startled but not surprised.
“Shit gets real in Brunswick County,” he says as we drive away.
Max has a history with the sheriff’s department, starting, he says, in 1996, when the then-sheriff pulled him off a bus headed to summer camp and told Max he’d get him one day.
Fifteen years later, Max was arrested and jailed for assault and kidnapping, after he tagged along on a robbery that went south. Max says he was an accomplice to the crime but didn’t touch anyone himself. The judge was not convinced.
Max did two stints in prison, first ten and then six months. He says he lost sixty pounds inside and didn’t see anyone from his family. He made spending money by writing poems for other inmates to send to their wives.
After getting out, he felt he had nowhere to turn. A 2018 study found that the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people was twenty-seven percent—two percent higher than the national unemployment rate during the Great Depression. The North Carolina prison population, just over thirty-five thousand in 2018, is fifty-one percent African American, although Black people are only twenty-three percent of the state’s residents.
“Who’s going to hire someone fresh out with all these felonies?” Max says. He fell back on flytrapping. “For the first year of me being out, I went in the woods and built myself back up. Got me a vehicle, got me a place to stay.”
Max has been able to work as a manual laborer in the past, where employers are more likely to overlook a criminal record, but since he got stabbed, he says he can’t lift anything heavy. Max has kids, and the $7.25 an hour minimum wage won’t feed them. He knows he’s made mistakes, and that they mean he has fewer options.
Max is faced with a conundrum. His best remaining option to escape a life of criminal activity has been criminalized. Picking flytraps carries the same punishment as selling Vicodin. Alice Williams says people in her family have faced similar options.
“I would rather for anybody in my family to go out in the woods and dig flytraps than to sell drugs. They both are a felony,” Williams said. “If they’re out there just trying to make a living, a decent living—and I’ll call it an honest living because it’s work—what’s the problem? Let people live. Let people prosper.”
In late November, two days before my flight out of North Carolina, Max calls me up and wants to chat. He’s with friends, also poachers. “I’m gonna take him to get his boots wet,” I hear him announce.
Max stands in the front yard of a friend’s house. He’s with another guy, Jake, one of the few white flytrap poachers, who asked that we not use his real name. They prepare for a day in the woods, donning Carhartts and rubber boots. Jake carries a backpack while Max prefers a pillowcase. Both bring machetes. We get in the back of a black SUV. Their friend, whom I’ll call Trap Lord, a variation on a nickname he goes by, rides shotgun. He has been poaching since the age of thirteen.
We get dropped off on a scant dirt road off the highway and the four of us scramble out of the back seat. We jump a wire across the road and walk quickly down a sandy track. “Walk on the patches,” Max says, jumping between small green tufts. “No footprints.”
Gunfire from a nearby shooting range is constant and unnerving, and we pass a number of currently vacant hunting stands. The sound of the highway masks smaller noises.
The tone of one vehicle’s engine stands out to Max, and he cocks his head. “Get in the woods,” he says, hushed and urgent. We sprint off the road, running noisily through low bushes. I’m worried that my loud steps will give us away, but I’m more scared of being seen. Max and Jake hit the deck and I follow their example.
Flat on my belly, I peer through the brush, listening to an ATV approach. It reaches our spot on the road in less than a minute. Then the driver stops, engine idling. I press close to the trenchant brambles. The pricks on my skin are a small price for this shield between us and the driver’s gaze. After many long moments, the ATV pulls away. I wait for Max to stand before stirring myself. He thinks that whoever it was saw our footprints. From then on, my head swivels at small noises.
We continue through the lightly forested pine savanna, making good time before dense underbrush starts to appear. Primordial brambles lie in wait, catching my feet at unsuspecting moments, tearing my shirt and scarring my thick rubber boots. We can’t be more than a mile from the road, but the swamp has enveloped us. I breathe deeply and admire the quiet of the place.
There is still no sign of flytraps, other than the peat moss they commonly grow in. We navigate several swampy hurdles that run in tracks through the forest, where boggy black water is the only pathway through corridors of spike-laden bushes. The footing is sometimes false, and what looks like a safe step becomes a boot full of water. I stop to extract myself from pernicious scrub. Ahead of me, Jake is picking pitcher plants, which he can sell for forty-five cents apiece. His buyers are only interested in the roots, and he tears the carnivorous traps off and tosses them back to the swamp. Max whoops: “Flytraps.”
Venus flytraps, which prefer the marshy boundary between bogs and pine savannas, have shallow root systems, evolved to the nutrient-poor soil. To remove them, the poachers simply push their machetes into the dirt and pop the plant up in a levering motion. A screwdriver or chisel will work just as well. They move quickly though patches on hands and knees, shaking dirt from the roots of big traps before throwing them into their bags. They replant the small traps and leave some big ones to seed. Jake says he expects the patch to be fully replenished soon. In some places, he says, mats of flytraps spread for hundreds of yards. “We’re not killing them,” he says. “We leave enough.” They move from group to group, digging.
“You don’t dig all of them,” Max says between machete thrusts. “What the hell do you expect to come back to? You gotta have something to live off of.”
We hear more gunfire, closer this time. Max thinks it’s from one of the tree stands we passed on the way in. In North Carolina, wildlife officials are suspicious if you leave the woods without a firearm. Max calls our ride and tells him to wait at a nearby grocery store until we’re ready. We cross more swamp, more roads and fences. Some of the older poachers say they’ve been spotted from the air in the past, so we hide from planes when they pass.
The last hundred yards before the highway are only partly covered, and Max breaks into a run, his loaded pillowcase bouncing on his shoulder, streaked with dirt. We hunker behind a roadside bush as Max calls the ride. “You see anyone?” he asks. Apparently not. The SUV pulls up and we run, piling into the back seat as the driver pulls out. Trap Lord passes back cold beers, turns on a beat, and starts rapping.
Growing up, Max played in the woods. He went out with family, learned how to avoid snakes and how to get home safe. He turns to the wilderness to find relaxation. Outdoorsmanship and self-reliance are traditional American values, but some are punished for exercising them. In North Carolina, not everyone is allowed to live off the land.
For Max, there is an easy solution: let people pick traps off of land before it gets developed, which would at least eliminate redundant destruction. But no one is listening to poachers.
After Max got stabbed, the doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to walk for eight to twelve weeks. He woke up at 6 A.M. every day to do his exercises and was moving again in less than a month. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to find work, he turned to flytraps. “I was helpless,” he says. “And there ain’t nothing worse than feeling helpless.”
Without flytraps, people like Max are left with nowhere to turn. He says the flytrap has always been there for the people of Brunswick County. Now, the future looks less certain.
On the day of Archie’s trial, Alice drops him off in the parking lot of a courthouse that was itself cleared from the wilderness. Archie walks through the four imposing pillars of the cavernous entryway, and into the building where he is about to face seventy-three felony charges. The court, completed in 2001, is set for expansion—fifteen thousand new square feet for $11 million.
One of a dozen defendants in the courtroom on charges varying from drug possession to domestic assault, Archie walks down the neat rows of pews to receive his judgment.
“Do you understand that you're pleading guilty to nine counts of felony taking of a Venus flytrap, which is a Class H felony that carries a maximum sentence of thirty-nine months in the North Carolina Department of Adult Corrections on each of those charges?” the judge asks from his bench.
“And that’s a total maximum exposure in prison of three hundred fifty-one months, do you understand that?”
“Do you now personally plead guilty to those charges?”
Alice hired Archie a lawyer who negotiated a plea deal: nine felony charges and two years on probation, so Archie walks out of court headed home, not to jail. He thinks it might have been better to take some jail time instead. If he violates, he will do mandatory jail time of up to five years. Alice thinks there's a good chance he will do something to get into trouble. Some days, he doesn’t know where he is.
Archie steps outside of the stone courthouse doors and lights a cigarette, smoking in long, slow drags. He pulls his black rain jacket up over his head and walks toward the sheriff's department to get his ankle monitor removed and begin his probation. He hates the thing but walks slowly despite the heavy rain, the same way he always walks. The three-story stone courthouse to his left blocks my view of the sprawling forest. To his right, the first few rows of pine trees are visible through the sheets of rain. A square of turned-over dirt sits between Archie and the woods, bulldozer working through the newly cleared land despite the foul weather.