- In the Lowlands LowSwamping About the South
In Memory of Brooke Meanley, Jack Temple Kirby, and James Kilgo
Beneath the canopy we paused at the edge of what appeared to be not water but a pale green floor; through it rose a thin forest of tupelo gum, red maple, pond cypress, and pine . . . As I glanced over my shoulder at the green surface beneath me, I felt suddenly that I was suspended above the primal generative slime itself, composite of earth, air, fire and water . . .—James Kilgo, Deep Enough for Ivorybills
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gaither’s lagoon & the great dismal
Gaither’s Lagoon, a small, dark backwater off the Pasquotank River in northeastern North Carolina, was less than two blocks from my childhood home in Elizabeth City, and my boyhood friends and I were always roaming its seemingly enormous vine-shrouded reaches at will. Hurricane Hazel had laid a big gum over into the crotch of an oak, and someone had nailed steps onto it and built a platform up there, and we climbed it and sat in this crow’s nest and looked down on our swampy world. Always there seemed to be more birds and turtles and bullfrogs at-large than snakes, and we felt little if any fear in that place.
The vast Great Dismal Swamp lay not far north of town, and our river, the Pasquotank, wound down out of the Swamp. On field trips up to Norfolk, our metropolis, we stared out of the school bus windows at the Great Dismal’s unbroken forest during the twenty-two-mile swampside transit up the Canal Bank, the old towpath and swamp highway that paralleled the Dismal Swamp Canal. At every turn in this country, there was a branch, a slough, a poquoson, a swamp, and most of us sensed that we did not simply live near swamp—we belonged to it.
Yet we were often warned against the swamps—of their desperado hideouts, of runaway slave camps of old, of moonshiners who had no use for company, and of ghost lights that could lure you in and lose you. And how no one, not even the law, would come in looking for you. My father and I once did get lost (though we never used that word—if anything, we might have said turned around) for a spell in a branch of the southern Dismal one wintry Sunday afternoon, but we made it out all right before sunset. We marched any number of times into our family’s swamp woods on Big Flatty Creek in southern Pasquotank County. I recall very well the first time when we studied the big pines and the cypress-fringed branches one late fall afternoon, and how we made it out of there too. We roamed the sound-side woods of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head on the Outer Banks, maritime forests, wooded dunes with ponds and swampy bogs set close in between them, green with duckweed in summer, and these dense, wild places always accepted us readily and then let us go without threat. But we were mindful: I learned to step lightly, and carefully to test wet ground that may be solid, or that might be the quaggy top of a deep pit of sandy, silty mud, deeper than I was tall.
I was twenty-three before I ever spent a night in such a place. In September of 1972, John Foley and I camped for a week at the Feeder Ditch spillway, a quarter mile east of fabled Lake Drummond at the heart of the Great Dismal, tens of thousands of wilderness acres memorialized in the nineteenth century by poets Thomas Moore and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and by novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose preacher Dred lived and led his people there.
We got to know Old Frank, as the Corps of Engineers spillway operators called him, a self-proclaimed swamp rat without portfolio, a slow-moving sexagenarian [End Page 79] who spent his days projecting around...