Drain the Swamp! It’s the refrain of a U.S. President who prefers time on the barren grass of golf courses to life’s abundance in natural wetland. Calling somewhere a swamp is never a compliment, and it’s not a pretty phrase as a metaphor. It brings to mind a miasma, a malarious bog, a wasteland. That’s how George, the first president, regarded the Great Dismal Swamp when he surveyed it in the 1760s, and William Byrd II before him described it as a “miserable morass.” George was a land speculator who hoped that draining the swamp would create arable land to sell at a handsome profit as prime farmland in the growing colonies. He wasted his investment.
I was thinking about the Dismal as I prepared to return this week for a kayaking trip to the vast area straddling the Virginia-North Carolina border. It’s a swamp, not a marsh, because, while both are wetlands, the first is forested while marshes are vegetated with reeds, sedges or saltmarsh grasses. Both are very productive biologically, and plants put down roots into moist, deep humus to provide habitat for countless wildlife species. In George’s day, the Dismal Swamp provided food and shelter for over two hundred species of resident birds or migrants on the Atlantic flyway, and there were plenty of snakes, alligators, panthers, otters, and bears. Many of those species still thrive there today in a reduced but still vast area of over 100,000 acres centered around Lake Drummond in what is now protected as a National Wildlife Refuge. Birders and naturalists are swamp-huggers.
This is neither the first nor the last time this blogger will be a contrarian. I love swamps, not just for the animals and plants they harbor, but for their hydrology, resistance to erosion, and pure freshwater. I admit they are forbidding places in the summer when clouds of insects circle you hungrily for a bite, ticks crawl over your socks for a longer meal, and water moccasins with lily mouths slither around your waders in tea-colored water. But as tormentors’ tormentors they have been friends and allies to people who lived in the swamp.
After the Dismal was occupied by Native Americans, refugee slaves moved in after escaping from plantations. They were called maroons, from the Spanish and French word marron meaning chestnut (brown), and lived on higher patches of land called hummocks deep in the swamp where they hid from bounty hunters who dreaded leaving the main tracks. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a story about the former slave Dred in the Dismal Swamp who preached revolution and ventured outside to rescue enslaved African-Americans. Life as free men and women was a happier existence in the bog than what they were used to.
Anyone who visits the Dismal goes knowingly with a definite purpose in mind. A young white man headed there in 1894 because of its dreary reputation and intent on never returning. Instead, he found a salvation and came out alive.
That was Robert Frost down on his luck and still unpublished. According to the latest biography by William & Mary Professor Henry Hart, he had presented a few days earlier a leather-bound collection of his poems to his sweetheart, Elinor White, but she shut the book and the door on him (there was a happy ending because they later married). Frost, like Tennyson, had a family history of mental illness and when he was jilted fell into a deep melancholy and left Boston in the dead of winter. He took a steamer from New York to Norfolk from where he plodded through the country for ten miles to the swamp only clad in light clothes and not even carrying a knapsack. He was rescued from throwing his life away by a chance meeting with a group of jolly boatmen carrying a jug of grog. It made all the difference. He hints at this dark episode in his life in Kitty Hawk, a long poem composed at the end of life.
Washington DC was never a swamp like the Dismal, and only had a tidal river coursing nearby. Trump’s metaphor doesn’t ring true, although we understand his meaning. His slogan to drain the swamp is also likely to ring hollow because there is more to love and cherish in those rich habitats that to loathe and cull. Like George, he will probably find swamps have allies and advocates, and are more resilient than he imagined.
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