Nothing dismal about this swamp
Updated: Dec 30, 2017
You leave the cypress trees, wide-skirted in black water, and the water itself, laced in ice. You leave the cold silence, punctuated only by the chuckle of robins in the hollies. You leave the Great Dismal Swamp, a sprawling wetland that conceals bobcats and bears and, once, enslaved human beings seeking freedom.
Off you go, past Merchants Millpond State Park, itself a swampy spot full of wild winter beauty, down roads flanked by drainage ditches. Wave to the trailers, the yards loopy with leaning-over Christmas decorations, the farmhouses graceful in their decline.
This is eastern North Carolina, a pocket of the coastal plain, low-lying land with little that shouts for your attention. Vine-choked thickets bide their time, waiting until everyone's back is turned so they can take back what is theirs. The sun is setting; it's not even 5 p.m. It's 24 degrees outside and when you pull over and stand outside, your face hurts.
It's no longer Christmas, not yet New Year's. This strange in-between time hangs empty, waiting, open – like the very landscape through which you wind. Fallow fields, wide skies, miles and miles of what looks like nothing.
But it's a nothing that offers itself to the imagination. How else can you explain the optimism of George Washington, who looked at the Great Dismal Swamp's impenetrable acres of boggy peat and saw a hub of commerce, bisected by a canal linking the Albemarle Sound and Chesapeake Bay. His mind buzzed with the idea that he and his business partners could sell off lumber from the swamp, reap profits as drained wetland was turned to plow and cash in as boats zipped through his man made waterway. (Of course, no one understood that the Great Dismal wasn't, in the words of one early surveyor, "a miserable morass where nothing can inhabit," but instead a vital link in the coastal plain's ecosystem.)
Washington's business proposition unleashed a wave of human misery, as enslaved people were forced to cut shingles from swamp trees and dig ditches in chest-deep muck, falling victim to venomous snakes and mosquito-borne disease. After a brutal day of this, wrote one writer, the enslaved men would "lie down in the mud which has adhered to them. ... No bedding whatever is allowed them; it is only by work done over his task that any of them can get a blanket."
And yet, even as the swamp was a stage for suffering, it offered a surprise: Freedom.
For generations, slaves slipped into its mysterious recesses, hiding children they feared would be sold, forming communities on islands of dry ground. These communities, called maroon colonies, were the largest in the United States, with some families living entirely hidden lives, depending on the Great Dismal Swamp to shield them from capture – either long enough to escape north, or in some cases, to exit society permanently and live forever in the wet forest.
Eventually, someone else dug part of Washington's dreamed-of canal. Kayakers now ply its black waters, slipping up silently on prothonotary warblers, herons, eagles. The once-hoped-for bustle of business never materialized, and some 250 years after Washington's plan, the federal government has begun re-soaking the swamp. It's an attempt to repair the harm from centuries of logging, the Chicago Tribune reported – harm like massive peat fires that released into the air the annual carbon dioxide output of 1 million cars.
The strangeness of all of this – how so often our dreams twist on themselves and turn out to be something utterly different, how darkness can usher in light, how an idea can wind up being something better than its beginnings – this is the sort of thing you muse on as you put the swamp in the rearview mirror and head through North Carolina's lightly populated eastern counties.
The new year is waiting. In an emptiness like this, you can write your own story. Who knows? Anything is possible.