George Dent Williams could have gone anywhere, so he did.
He left Seale, Ala., and traveled the world, and then came home again.
“He lived a life of adventure,” his son George “Trey” Williams said during a memorial service Saturday at a family plot on a pine-shaded rise beside a lake.
“He prospected for gold in Canada. He taught English in Iran. He hiked up into the hills of India, into some remote village, and met some Indian holy man and got to talk with him. He fought a monkey in India over a backpack, and he lost. He was bitten by snakes, both venomous and non-venomous, as his deformed thumb would attest to.”
Wherever he ventured, he lived close to the land. He knew it intimately, its plants and animals both living and dead, and its ever changing forms, from the ancient sea in which giant sharks shed the black teeth embedded in Russell County’s clay creek banks, to the dry ice age when a dying mastodon dropped its jaw beside a neighbor’s fishing hole, to the contemporary wetlands where Dent caught snakes and fed alligators.
Some people walk through the world like they’re watching it on TV, and never touch it. Others spring from it as naturally as a tree or a deer, like Dent.
Trey remembered coming home to watch Dent release a captive rattlesnake: “It was in a 55 gallon drum, long and kind of lean and old looking. And he said ‘You know, it didn’t even rattle when I caught it. … Some are more mellow than others. They have their personalities, just like we do.’ ”
Dent tipped the barrel, poured the snake out, gently grabbed it behind the head and put it in a burlap bag. The snake lay still when they released it, until Dent tapped it on the tail, and it slithered off.
“He never ceased to be amazed by the natural world, and he never ceased to enjoy sharing his amazement with other people,” said the son, who relayed a memory from an aunt:
At family gatherings, Dent took the kids on adventures. “He would show them how to find shark teeth, and he would take them to this place deep in the woods where he said the runaway slaves would go,” Trey said. “And she said, ‘We all just thought he was so wonderful. … You know, he didn’t have to do that.’ ”
He was a canny fossil hunter on whom academics relied. When farmers, hikers, hunters and anglers who know old bones from new found intriguing clues, they called Dent. He had a dual sense of nature, of seeing not only what was but what used to be: Once the sea where mosasaurs swam, once the land mastodons roamed.
And now that he’s gone: Once the place where he released and fed alligators, like some wildcat zoologist in his own Jurassic Park.
Born on Valentine’s Day 1941, Dent died Oct. 2, at home, where he wanted to be. His illness was acute. He was not eaten by the alligators he fed and wrestled, as some expected, but he wanted to be, posthumously: He wanted to be cremated, with some left over to “feed the alligators one more time.”
“Though he traveled around the world, he always gravitated back home,” said his son, who read from a journal of Dent’s mining days on a 1981 survey in British Columbia, where for three weeks his dog was his only company.
“Enjoying to the utmost my solitude,” he wrote, though he looked forward to a friend’s visit. “It’s a way of life, and it’s full of blessings. A man has many blessings, always, but out here you have a chance to live in almost constant awareness of it.”
As if on cue Saturday, in a long pause between “way of life” and “and it’s full of blessings,” the birds cheerily sang a tune Dent Williams would have known.