A Massive Morass of Elemental Beauty

By , Jeffery Beam is the assistant to the biology librarian in the Botany Section Library at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

THE GREAT DISMAL: A CAROLINIAN'S SWAMP MEMOIR by Bland Simpson, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,

185 pp., $16.95

THE Great Dismal Swamp, shaped like a giant hourglass, rides the border between North Carolina and Virginia for about 15 miles. Near the center of the green tangle lies Lake Drummond, ``the color of tea, madeira, port, brandy, bourbon, ruby, chocolate, [and] blood...'' Once more than a million acres in size, the Dismal refuge still, despite draining, farming, and timbering, encompasses a mammoth 160,000 acres.

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Nearby, in Elizabeth City, N.C., Bland Simpson grew up. Fascinated by and participant in the changes wrought daily and yearly in the Swamp by the seasons of nature and man, Simpson has, in this memoir, evoked the mystery and wonder of his youth. With Joycean lilt, he states, ``Ours was a riverine world, and the dark water was everywhere.'' Throughout ``The Great Dismal,'' Simpson demonstrates his sensitivity to the vulnerable, ominous beauty of the Swamp.

Simpson's book, however, presents more than just a descriptive hallelujah for this wild, vast track of wet wilderness. Simpson's concerns are broader, which make this more than just another nature book. It is about memory and history; about language, childhood, and manhood; about man over nature and nature over man. In language neither over-flowery, nor too simple, Simpson uncovers the interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, story of the Swamp.

The book intertwines the physical history of the Dismal with the history of its use and abuse by man, and chronicles Simpson's personal relationship with its ``whole massive morass'' and the people connected with it. The book also describes man's evolving awe of the Dismal's resources and beauty. That awe led to the Swamp becoming, in 1973, the ``largest single land donation to that date ever made [to] the American people for wildlife preservation'' when Union Camp logging company, through the Nature Conservancy, donated the Swamp to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Great Dismal has been home to Nansemond Indians, hunters, bootleggers, lumbermen, runaway slaves, and government men. From the early 1600s to the present, the Swamp has been drained, farmed, logged, burned, surveyed, and admired. Nevertheless, it remains home to rare plants such as the dwarf trillium and Stewartia (the wild camellia), as well as numerous species of animals such as bobcat, bear, and otter, and about 85 species of (mostly song) birds. Its qualities have been celebrated in poetry and song, photography and paint. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a novel of the Swamp and Robert Frost visited there as a young man on a failed suicide journey.

Simpson blends written, oral, and natural history with personal experience to create an invigorating, erudite, and intriguing portrait of one of the East Coast's last great wildernesses. Sticking to facts, but enhancing them with others' fantasies and his own, he brings the Swamp to life.

``The Great Dismal'' is nature-writing at its best, classic in its fervor for its subject, sincere in its integrity of fact, transfixing in its gem-like language. Simpson reveals to us by the sheer power of his prose the importance of preserving such places as the Swamp, and of the joy of writing about and visiting them.

As a member of the Red Clay Ramblers, an internationally acclaimed string band, coauthor of several musicals, including a Broadway show, ``Diamond Studs,'' and author of a novel, ``Heart of the Country,'' Simpson further establishes here his versatility as a writer and sympathy as an observer. His concluding words speak for themselves: ``This vast wild region is a place well fit for a grand gathering of ghosts, a place simultaneously aswarm with the spirits of all ages here, of fin, feather, fur, and manflesh; nor am I exempt. ... And at last I see in our Great Dismal Swamp not so much the indomitable sorrow it suggests as the incalculable and evolving beauty that it is.''

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