Morning time in the swamp pours like honey. The first hint of light serrates the darkness; shadows pliantly chip into opaque shapes. Coolness begins a torpid retreat. Nocturnal unfamiliarity surrenders to the squabbling of squirrels and chatter of songbirds. In my tent, I can hear deer slowly step, crunching dried leaves and snapping brittle sticks.
I am at Merchants Millpond State Park in the northeastern corner of North Carolina, a thirty-five-minute drive to the Great Dismal Swamp. My goal today is simple: explore both swamps.
Walking through the woods, I’m always looking at my feet. I’m not looking for snakes or mudpuddles, but the small, overlooked, the unnoticed: these are the things of beauty here. The green-hewed bark of a tree with lacey patterns resembling nothing else in the universe. The light-caught tips of some sort of fern whose leaf is called a pinnatifid, which I know only because the park offered a brochure on ferns. Blue-eyed Mary’s and fire pinks and jewelweed and lady’s slippers, a rose-tipped grass and a family of mushrooms. The swamp is less about alligators and mosquitoes, though they are here too, and more about flora’s curios.
I leave Merchants Millpond and make the drive to the Dismal Swamp. The road between the two swamps cuts old land, the sort of land ten generations deep with abandoned, haunted-like houses. I am sure there are gossamer faces looking at me behind the broken window frames. The fields are full of soybean, corn, and cotton and will be soon harvested. The swamp, of course, is older than the farmlands. Its heritage isn’t found on the surface with fallen leaves or rotted-out tree stumps but in the sixteen-feet deep peat that sits above an even more ancient ocean bed.
The hardline between swamp and farmland is, of course, engineered. But it wasn’t always so. The Algonquian-speaking Native Americans lived in the swamp before William Byrd II, who in the early 18th century surveyed the land to formally separate Virginia from North Carolina. Byrd wasn’t impressed with the swamp and was credited with calling the area Dismal. But where Byrd saw gloom, George Washington, advancing the American entrepreneurial spirit, helped form the Dismal Swamp Company to drain the swamp for settlement. Today, the swamp is estimated to be between a third to a tenth of its original size.
William Byrd hasn’t been the only person to be unimpressed or afraid of swamps. Expressions such as “Drain the swamp” are cawed by a bloated frog. The Swamp Thing and the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Swamp Shark and, my favorite, Man-Thing are just a few of the B-movie classics that exist only because we are afraid of the marsh. Do I even need to mention swamp gas? These bogs and bayous, marshlands and glades have a bad reputation because we have confused, to borrow from Denis Donoghue, fantasy with imagination.
Runaway slaves imagined the swamp as a place of liberation, and so they hid there. Much like the ancient Hebrew slaves fleeing Egypt, slaves who retreated to a place called the Sea of Reeds, slaves and the underground railroad found a home in the swamp.
“Away to the Dismal Swamp he speeds, --
His path was rugged and sore,
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds,
Through many a fen, where the serpents feeds,
And man never trod before.”
I arrive at the Dismal Swamp, have a good chat with the park ranger who opens the gate for me to cross the bridge over the canal.
“Before you go in,” she says to me, “tell me your name.”
“Brent,” I say.
“Brent, what’s your last name?” she asks, writing down what I tell her on an official looking clipboard. I give her my last name, and she asks, nodding, “And that’s your truck?”
“Uh, yeah.” I pause for a second. “Say, this is the only park I’ve been where you write our names down and record what type of car we’re in.”
“It’s for your safety,” she says, cheerfully.
“Let’s just say that if you’re not back by the time we go home, something bad has happened to you. You go have fun now, you hear?”
I walk across the canal separating the swamp from the parking lot and wonder what could happen to me. This is the place where a young Robert Frost decided he would end his life. His love-broken heart couldn’t take it anymore, so he came here to die. Why he changed his mind is unknown, but I’m wondering if I will figure it out walking some of the same trails.
On my back I’m carrying forty pounds of camera gear. Sometimes I think my camera gear could drive me into the woods with loathsome ideation, too. I bet Frost was smart enough not to carry camera gear. I step onto the Swamp Boardwalk trail. The first step puts me underneath the trees.
I was born for just this moment. Underneath the swampy canopy, the temperature drops. Light weaves knots and sinewy bands as though the swamp floor were the bottom of a swimming pool. The soft wind fosters an ambiance of trickling leaves. The leaves gently stretch, extending their range of motion, brush against other leaves and branches until they shiver to the ground. The wind shuffles each leaf here and there until the foliage seizes a fixed resting place where, for the next million years, it will sink lower and lower into the earth. Eventually all these leaves will become something else altogether. Will they become dirt that will nourish crops? Will they turn to peat moss and become fuel? Will these leaves be crushed into coal or diamond stones? I can’t help these thoughts. They make me feel like the magician who challenged Moses or those priests of Baal who tried to call down fire from heaven – some sort of want-to-be mystic, and I am embarrassed by their lah-di-dah banality. I should be asking what Annie Dillard asked, “The real and proper question is: why is it beautiful?”
A deer and her two fawns spring out from underneath the boardwalk. I step towards them, and they freeze. I freeze. I want to look at them. They want to know if I’m safe. I don’t have a good answer. I try sitting down, slowly. I want to get a picture, but the slightest movement will send them away. I like them looking at me more than I like looking at them. This is a backwards sensation for a photographer. Yet, there is a joy in being seen, being studied. For a photographer, being seen is a loss of control. Being seen as a human is a different kind of loss of control. This loss of control is a freedom that subverts norms, subverts comforts levels. And being seen by a deer, I sometimes think, is about all I can handle.
The swamp is a place of this moment, these deer, these falling leaves. But the swamp is a place outside of history. It is all history. It has no past and yet the past is everywhere around me. The swamp has no memory; it does not recall yesterday or the day before or Robert Frost. But the bootleggers’ busted-up, prohibition-era stills litter the Supple-Jack Trail, and if I listen to the breeze I could easily mistake it for whispering voices. Are they saying my name? Do I answer back? Is creation groaning?
It is time to go. My name is checked off the list. I head back to my camp and start a fire.
Two combatants spiraled around each other, tumbling from somewhere above, off a branch or a leaf, or they simply flew into each other. When they hit the ground, the earth bruised with a sharp thunklike a ball bearing striking the hood of a car. A golden maroon stinging creature, larger than any hornet or wasp or common nuisance, a malefic partisan force caucused by every choreographed gesture, pinned a green antagonist, a katydid, to the ground. The katydid kicked and poked the Jurassic-like foe with a silent futility. The insect vulture, throbbing, with iridescent rage, rolled the katydid over and stripped, one-by-one, each leg from the abdomen, like buttons being plucked off a blouse. With the katydid’s severed legs still twitching, the lord of flies gnashed teeth on the katydid’s throat, cracking open the abdomen, slurping and gulping until fully-gutted and bloated; the katydid was taken.
Confirmed by bleating crows, the tail-horned hornet flew underneath a white-domed mushroom. A bloated, amber frog sat with the honorable paragon with equal measures of apology and felicitations. The contest had ended but the consequences had not yet started.
A spider, double-long legged and opportunistic, paraded the fallen katydid over tiny granules of rock and began a second feast. The day sky faded. The swamp erupted with shouts and commentary, all of the voices came out of the dark and artificially pedestaled. The crimson knave, cheered by swamp voices, returned to the carcass and reclaimed his prize. “Away spider,” he shouted. “Away.” He was the champion. He was the trophy keeper. He deserved this high court of honors.
I had sat in my chair, occasionally poking a stick into my campfire, and had watched death unfold before me. I had thought about intervening. Even after the katydid had perished, I had thought about killing the wrongdoer. With the weight of my boot, I could have quashed his ambition. But I had been too entertained. Too enthralled.
Why do I tell this story? I don’t know. It really did happen. And I really did just sit there and watch. But just because something happened doesn’t automatically qualify it for memory. Maybe I feel embarrassed, having authored up purple-prose, maudlin spite. Got to make it real. Make it cruel. Make it connect. Perhaps, I tell the story because I think I should, the way good music enjoys a robust counterpoint. There are some who could call my story the repression of beauty – the fear of naivete masked by shock and discord. Is it beautiful to watch violence? To pinch outrage for no other reason than to reflect what masquerades as “real life?” To passively participate?
Surely the answer is no. I believe beauty has an existence, a transcendent reality that meanders down into this world. Our lives can be graphed onto the beautiful much the same way we can be graphed into the body of Christ. But what do we make of the farmland that drained ancestral homeland of American Natives? How do we reflect on a place called Dismal that sheltered human beings from other human beings? What do we make of the hornet that killed a katydid? What do we make of ourselves, we, who watch what is not and cannot be – what is not beautiful?
Do we mention it? Or do we strive merely for the raw, unfettered beautiful, shoving aside the diluted glints and glitters as tainted? We do, I think, mine the beauty out of the slag heap of existence. But we are not perfect miners. From that first story where we collectively sank our teeth into the juicy fibers of death and despair, we are called to speak of the unbeautiful, the absence that is. But how? Or, maybe, how do we respond to it? Ambrose of Milan upended that old story by calling it our happy fault, felix culpa. And, I suppose, Ambrose, being Ambrose, could make such a claim. But the katydid wouldn’t squeal over such an interpretation. Christ, in another garden, didn’t think it such a happy thing.
I don’t want answers to these questions. My mind cannot comprehend story without conflict, narrative without arc. Beauty, absolute beauty, is, and, surely, is the only thing that is. And so, I will happily live in the absence, where paradox and contradiction essay in and out of reality like random fluctuations. The swamp has been drained. The katydid has fallen. Beauty cancered by that first old story is a story that will not survive into eternity because eternity suffers no occlusion.
In the meantime. In the meantime. Cauterized with broken memory and deferred temperance, until the last insomniac falls asleep, I’ll dally with these bargained treasures, these two combatants.
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