RODNEY JACKSON learned from his older brother how to survive in the vast, vine-entangled swamp that for nearly three centuries has been known as ``the Dismal.'' ``Lord, there were bears, deers - snakes I reckon as big as the big part of your arm,'' shouts Mr. Jackson, a little deaf now at age 88, recalling the almost impenetrable thickets and sucking mud.
But centuries of draining have destroyed much of the wild and mysterious wetlands here. Logging roads and canals have sliced the dense forest.
``Bears have ate the farmers' stuff so bad they've about killed all of them,'' says the old woodsman.
``And you don't see any birds to amount to anything at all,'' he adds.
Reportedly once covering some 2,000 square miles of the low-lying, mosquito-infested eastern border between Virginia and North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp has been drained, logged, and developed. Until recently, it seemed possible that it could vanish in this century.
The swamp's bobcat, mink, and otter are scarce. Giant, water-loving swamp trees - Atlantic white cedar, bald cypress, and tupelo gum - have been mostly logged out.
But despite encroachments, the Dismal - still one of the largest swamps in the United States - has defied man's efforts to eliminate it. It has endured to become a treasured anachronism: a piece of unconquered wild.
Throughout the centuries, local folks hunted, fished, and trapped in the swamp, and some made illegal moonshine in its tangle.
B.E. Winslow, who lives across from the swamp on White Marsh Road in a neat frame house, fished for 40 years with his neighbors from hunting cottages around the bronze-colored lake.
``We'd go in there Friday night and stay until Sunday evening,'' says Mr. Winslow, now 71, working on the engine of his tractor while his two grandchildren play barefoot in the freshly plowed garden.
Until recently, families in the region grew most of their own food, and helped put meat on the table by hunting in the swamp.
``They used to eat squirrels and coons and birds and rabbits,'' recalls Winslow.
``Bear eatin's good eatin','' maintains Rodney Jackson, outside a workshop with a row of bear paws nailed across the wall.
Development from what is now called Chesapeake City, where Mr. Jackson raised a family 60 years ago, is moving down the eastern side of the swamp.
``It wasn't nothing but pretty near woods when we moved here,'' says Jackson, whose 10 hunting dogs now look out from their pen at a four-lane road, a convenience store, and a stoplight.
Today the area south of Norfolk is a sprawling megalopolis, and a shopping center on the edge of Suffolk actually touches the western side of the swamp.
Made a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974, about 165 square miles of the Dismal are now a protected part of the national heritage.
``We manage the habitat and we manage the people,'' says refuge manager Martin Kaehny. ``If you provide the habitat for the animals, they are going to take care of themselves.''
Wolves and Eastern cougar have been hunted to extinction here. But most of the species that once inhabited the Dismal are believed to still exist within it.
The swamp is home to 275 to 350 black bears, one of the largest concentrations on the East Coast. It is the critical habitat for the endangered Dismal Swamp Southeastern shrew.
Along with the southern Appalachians, the Everglades, the coastal marshes of North and South Carolina, the pine barrens of New Jersey, and parts of Maine, the Great Dismal Swamp is one of the few environments in the Eastern US that provide a habitat for a significant number of wild creatures.
By building water control structures to allow the bog to rise to its former level, selectively cutting and burning, and restricting uses by man, refuge managers hope to promote the return of the original ecosystem. Then the habitat can again nourish a diversity of wildlife.
A boardwalk crosses the black, rotting vegetation, curving past fallen trees velvety with moss. Deep in the wetlands, green light falls in tiny flecks from an unseen sky.
Silence is riddled by a woodpecker's jackhammer drumming, a bird's warning call, and the whine of mosquitoes. Almost perceptible is the slow, soft crumbling of rotting wood. And everywhere the bog gleams black with tannic acid and shiny as patent leather.
Americans Indians considered the swamp sacred, but European settlers determined to destroy it almost from the day they discovered it. They perceived the swamp as sinister, yet coveted its valuable trees and fertile soil.
In probably the earliest written report on the swamp, ``Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina'' (1733), William Byrd decried the Dismal's ``Eternal Shade,'' ``musketas,'' and ``foul Damp'' - and concluded, ``It wou'd require a great Sum of Money to drain it, but the Publick Treasure cou'd not be better bestow'd.''
His prescription could hardly have been better followed than in the next two centuries.
George Washington set up headquarters for the Dismal Swamp Land Company in 1763 and began draining and logging operations. A five-mile ditch, dug by his slaves on the west side of the refuge, still bears his name.
Logging proved commercially successful, and more roads and ditches were built. The entire swamp was logged over at least once. Local farmers joined in the draining to create farmland, eventually claiming thousands of acres.
By the turn of the 19th century, much of the swamp seemed tamed, or on the verge of being. With the opening of the 22-mile Dismal Swamp Canal, a major navigation route linking Norfolk, Va., with Elizabeth City, N.C., the area became a wild and melancholy resort for the adventurous, with two major hotels.
The Irish poet Thomas Moore composed the romantic ballad ``Lake of the Dismal Swamp'' after visiting the area in 1803. President James Monroe stopped by the canal in 1818.
Later, the canal was connected to Lake Drummond, the swamp's three-by-six-mile interior lake. The entire cut became part of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Pleasure boats traversed the canal under management of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Then, during World War II, pleasure was abandoned as the lake was used as a bombing range.
With most of the valuable timber gone, in 1973 the logging and paper manufacturing company Union Camp donated 50,000 acres of wetlands to the Nature Conservancy, which gave it to the US Department of the Interior. The federal government bought another 50,000 acres from private owners and established the refuge.
``There was a great stir over it to start with,'' says Winslow, recalling opposition from local landowners when the government condemned hunting cottages and adjoining farmland.
``Now you got to get permits, and they let you go in certain days,'' he remarks.
Gentler environments have been plowed under and paved over across the eastern US. But the Dismal still endures, a sulking tangle of vegetation and mud that has outlasted man's desire to destroy it.
``Because it is so difficult to get into, it is one of the very few places that haven't seen heavy manipulation [by man],'' says Rob Sutter, an endangered-species botanist with the state of North Carolina.
``You can still get lost in it. It still has the feeling of the wild.''