Sunday, July 05, 2009

"Emma K II, Dismal Swamp Canal" 1980, John Bonanno photograph

"Lake Drummond, The Great Dismal Swamp" 1980, John Bonanno photograph

Swamp-1624 (first used by Capt. John Smith, in reference to Virginia), perhaps a dial. survival from an O.E. cognate of O.N. svoppr "sponge, fungus," from P.Gmc. *swampuz; but traditionally connected with M.E. sompe "morass, swamp," probably from M.Du. somp or M.L.G. sump "swamp." Related to O.N. svöppr "sponge." The verb sense of "overwhelm, sink (as if in a swamp)" is first recorded 1772; fig. sense is from 1818. Swamp Yankee "rural, rustic New Englander" is attested from 1941.-Online Etymology Dictionary

This is one of the fantastic places of the Earth. It straddles southeast Virginia into northeast North Carolina. The oval-shaped Lake Drummond may have been formed by a crashing meteoroid or a peat burn or a fire bird. The water of the swamp is unique in that the chemicals (primarily tannic acid) leached from decaying trees act as a germicide. Barrels of this amber water were once upon a time loaded on ships to take advantage of its famously persistent freshness. The dark color of the water is evident in the "Emma K" photograph above.
George Washington owned a 1/12 share in two syndicates called The Dismal Swamp Land Company and The Adventurers For Draining The Great Dismal Swamp to (obviously) drain it and build a canal from Chesapeake Bay to Albemarle Sound. Fortunately Washington and his successors failed in most of their efforts; a canal to Lake Drummond was dug but the great swamp could not be drained. It survives, less magnificently, today, as most of the original white cedar, cypress and gum has been logged. About half of the original swamp comprises the 107,000 acre Great Dismal Swamp National Refuge. Much was donated or sold by logging companies to the Nature Conservancy and transferred to the Department of the Interior after the last virgin forests were finally harvested by the 1950's and logging was discontinued in the early 1970's.
Runaway slaves hid here. There are bigfoot, ghost and ufo stories in a place like this, of course. One may see the eerie foxfire in the night. But it is not necessary to have heard the strange tales people tell to feel the magic when paddling utterly alone in its depths.

The Slave In The Dismal Swamp
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse's tramp
And a bloodhound's distant bay.

Where will-o'-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

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