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The Cursed Swamp
Jack Olsen
November 26, 1962
Abandoned to terror and mystery for years, the East Coast's Great Dismal Swamp is giving up its secrets as hunters and naturalists find it brimming with life and primeval beauty
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November 26, 1962

The Cursed Swamp

Abandoned to terror and mystery for years, the East Coast's Great Dismal Swamp is giving up its secrets as hunters and naturalists find it brimming with life and primeval beauty

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Drivers whirring southward on U.S. 17 come to a stretch of road in southern Virginia where there is no temptation to stop or even to slow down. No matter what the time of day, the road seems to darken along this passage. A canal runs beside the highway; its waters are black and ominous, its banks hung over with heavy stands of willow and maple. Cypress knees huddle along the fringes; waxy-leaved bay bushes shut off the view of the woods beyond, and vines spiral up through Spanish moss until they reach the tops of the trees and meet the parasitical mistletoe, the botanical freeloader of the forest. The canal itself looks so opaque and unpleasant that the visitor finds himself mentally populating it with cottonmouth moccasins and alligators and all the reptilian powers of darkness. The few identifying signs on the right-of-way tell the driver only what he has suspected all along—that he is in an area inhospitable to man, characterized as well as anything by its name: The Great Dismal Swamp. For decades now drivers have reacted by tromping on the gas pedal, eager to be away from a place so funereal and grim, eager to get on down the road a piece to the well-tended gardens where $1 tours are conducted and the water is clear and tinted blue, the way God intended.

This is the driver's loss; the Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina, almost two-thirds as large as Rhode Island, as wild as Bechuanaland, remains one of the last major repositories of eastern wildlife, both southern and northern varieties, a boggy, watery wilderness full of secrets.

Indeed, man is only now beginning to know the swamp; books are being written about it, studies are being made and each year a few more bold adventurers are swallowing their fear of snakes and bears and bobcats to venture into the dank interior. They find fox fire and screech owls and prothonotary warblers, skinks and wood ducks and timber rattlesnakes, black gum and tupelo trees and bear briers. Sometimes they find just about everything except their way out, and then vast rescue expeditions must be laid on, with the swamp becoming almost diabolical in the tricks it plays to keep the traveler from breaking free. The floor of the swamp is a litter of humus and wet wood and peat; it absorbs and cushions sound, like acoustical tile. Sometimes rescue parties and lost explorers circle around each other for days, never more than a few hundred yards apart but never hearing each other's calls and shots in the deadening forest.

Luckily, most visitors to the swamp have enough sense to stay on the beaten path. The name of the swamp is enough to keep them from wandering into its blackness, and if the name is not enough, there is the grim folklore. Augustine Herrman, an early mapmaker, described the area in 1670 as "Low Suncken Swampy Land not well passable but with great difficulty. And herein harbours Tiggers Bears and other Devouring Creatures." In 1728 Colonel William Byrd II of Virginia was commissioned by the Crown to chart a dividing line between the colonies of North Carolina and Virginia through the swamp. Though he himself barely set foot into the interior, Colonel Byrd waxed unenthusiastic in an early report. "The ground of this swamp," he wrote, "is a mere quagmire, trembling under the feet of those that walk upon it.... 'Tis remarkable that, towards the heart of this horrible desart, no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile. This must happen not so much from the moisture of the soil, as from the everlasting shade occationed by the thick shrubbs and bushes, so that the friendly warmth of the sun can never penetrate them to warm the earth. Nor indeed do any birds fly over it...for fear of the noisome exhalations that rise from this vast body of dirt and nastiness." Byrd hung on it the name Dismal Swamp. French visitors, not to be outdone rhetorically, called it the marais maudit, the cursed swamp.

Today natives of its environs are quick to claim that the swamp is neither cursed nor dismal. Professor John Baldwin of The College of William and Mary, a biologist who has organized a massive study of the swamp right down to its tiniest insect, is still capable of feeling anger toward Colonel Byrd for tagging it with such a dreary name. "Colonel Byrd was a liar," Dr. Baldwin says, "and I don't mind if you quote me on that. He was just trying to make the swamp look worse than it really was so he could get more money out of England for the surveying."

It is axiomatic that nothing can bear so depressing an appellation as the Dismal Swamp without attracting the attention of poets and novelists. The Irish poet, Thomas Moore, reportedly sat in a tavern in Norfolk and composed a ballad about a lunatic lover seeking his dead sweetheart in "The Lake of the Dismal Swamp." Sipping and writing, Moore told of "tangled juniper, beds of reeds,/Through many a fen, where serpent feeds,/And never man trod before."

Longfellow was excited by

Dark fens of Dismal Swamp....
Where will-o-wisps and glow worms shine,
In bulrush and brake:
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And cedar grows and the poisonous vine,
Is spotted like the snake.

The fewer the men who went into the swamp, the wilder the tales about it. Harriet Beecher Stowe made it the setting for her novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Runaway slaves added to the mystery by holing up deep in the interior. An enterprising reporter from Harper's New Monthly Magazine wrote a description of one in 1856:

"...I saw a gigantic negro with tattered blanket wrapped around his shoulders and a gun in his hand. His head was bare, and he had little clothing other than a pair of ragged breeches and boots. His hair and beard were tipped with gray, and his purely African features were cast in a mold suggesting the highest degree of strength and energy."

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