The Great Dismal Swamp

Continuing our summer wetlands theme, this seemed like a good time for a post about the Great Dismal Swamp, which plays a crucial if complex role in the history of the eastern United States. It’s a true borrowed land—a space that humans have inhabited for centuries, but have never quite tamed.

For some, this wildness has been a curse; for others, an asset. George Washington wanted to drain the swamp. Escaped slaves took refuge in it. Though it’s been logged and drained—the modern swamp is about an eighth of its original size—the Great Dismal remains a dark, shifty place that’s difficult to navigate. When I first visited the swamp this winter, I was struck by the waist-high grasses that carpet most of the landscape’s higher ground. There’s no way to tell if the waving stalks index a gust of wind, or the movement of a body.

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Literary ha-has

When people modify landscapes, their interventions often reflect ideas about what to reveal and what to conceal. Beautiful vistas prompt the construction of scenic overlooks; drainage ditches cue the strategic planting of trees. It’s no secret that landscape architects structure environments in ways that achieve certain behavioral, social, and ecological effects. But people who write about landscapes do this, too. A description of a place is also an argument about how to experience that place. What has the author decided to say—or not say?

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