Mitchell Guist, Bayou denizen and one of the humbler members of the History Channel's Swamp People, died on Monday, falling into the body of water he spent a lifetime calling home. And in this modern American culture, we'll most likely relegate him to the dustbin of ancillary reality TV characters. We shouldn't.
Guist apparently suffered a seizure while aboard a boat on the Intracoastal Waterway near Pierre Part, La. He would have turned 49 on Friday.
He was known as the humbler half of the show's Guist brothers, serving as the low-key foil to his slightly more boisterous brother Glenn.
The History Channel is mourning the loss of an integral part of one of its more popular shows, which set a record 5.5 million viewers for the channel during its season 2 finale. But Mitchell Guist was much more than a reality TV star, his value immeasurably greater than eyeballs glued to a TV screen.
Swamp People viewers, myself included, initially got their yucks out of a snobbish reaction to novelty -- a buncha swamp jockeys wrastlin' dem gators and shootin' guns while drinkin' beers and talkin' funny. It's not until after a handful of episodes that nobility, even respect, sets in -- a sentiment brought on by Mitchell Guist's complete disregard for the fact that his lifestyle and values are dead to the people living outside his swamp.
The show begins every episode with a heads up, a means to justify a reality show's presence on the History channel.
The way of life depicted in this program dates back 300 years, it says in yellow block letters. All of the value in that assertion rested with the Guist brothers -- the actual history portion of Swamp People.
Because for all the bluster of other Swamp People stars (see: Troy Landry), Guist was the truest anachronism the show had to offer: a unique fusion of what America's geography, and the melting pot we all laud, can produce; arguably among the last of this nation's post-Mayflower aboriginal people.
For all of the gap-toothed smiles and hokey So I says to him... patois, the Guist brothers aren't caricatures of the America we urban and urbane folk mock. They're the part we stupidly choose to degrade. Guist led a lifestyle wholly alien to the modern American experience with an air of nobility, in the same house his grandparents called home on the Conway Bayou.
The Bayou -- that singularly American chunk of the North American continent. As much a novelty as the Amazon, Sahara or icecaps. That's what Guist knew as well as anyone, and with a minimal amount of modern conveniences no less. Just scope out his diet. I ate 'coon, I ate deer, squirrel, rabbit, frogs. You have to love an American who probably thinks Big Macs are odd.
And while the better part of this nation's population travels the world apologizing and downplaying the backwoods we long-ago relegated to movies like Deliverance, Mitchell Guist was something to be proud of. The spirit of Lewis and Clark, the humility of Thoreau and the playfulness of the best Mark Twain characters, bundled together.
Mitchell Guist didn't give two craps about Facebook. He would have used an iPad as a cutting board. And while we deadhead our days away with celebrity news, Guist was busy negotiating a humble life spent living off a swamp hell-bent on making survival a dicey prospect.
No, Norman Rockwell never painted the Mitchell Guist's of the world. But he should have. As soon as we, as a culture, lump Mitchell Guist together with the novelty bookends of reality TV, we allow the truest part of our culture to die with him.
So here's to Mitchell Guist, a model American embodiment of a long-forgotten principal laid out best by Thoreau.
A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can affort to let alone.