The Great Dismal Swamp

In my last post I referred to wetlands as an arduous ecosystem for many creatures. Some species simply can’t adapt to the anaerobic, flooded, and nutrient-poor conditions that these ecosystems present. Surely it is no surprise that humans are one of the few exceptions to this rule.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

An article published in the Smithsonian online in 2016 summarizes an archaeological dig in The Great Dismal Swamp of the Virginia/North Carolina area. The dig uncovered evidence of a community of runaways. Indigenous people, former slaves, indentured servants, and those running from the law sought refuge in this space. Here, they lived in log cabins, grew corn, and consumed hogs and waterfowl.

The photo above exhibits the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge of Virginia. A swamp varies from a wetland due to vegetation type and water depth. Here you can see what is likely several feet of water covering the peat, as opposed to less than a foot of water in a typical wetland. I looked at this and wondered, “How in the world did people lived in a flooded swamp and manage to stay dry?

bird park river egret
Photo by lovely john on

Allegedly there are over 200 islands in the swamp which are elevated slightly above the waterline. The scenery was also probably slightly variable to what you would see in the reserve today. Most importantly, the swamp was a lot larger. In the areas where they dug out artifacts, there were hoards of mosquitoes and other bugs that thrive near still water. Brush had to be macheted down rigorously just to create a walking path. It’s no wonder this location provided repose for the weary. The same things that made this environment hostile for some made it welcoming for others.

calm body of water near mountain
Photo by James Wheeler on

One quote in the article briefly references the fact that there were many more swamp communities like this one, just not as extensive as the ones in Great Dismal Swamp. According to the Commonwealth of Australia, there are a number of initiatives that promote wetland preservation in AU by hiring indigenous people to manage fire, wild animals and weeds in lands that have cultural value to them. The fact sheet states, “[The natives] manage or jointly manage 11 of the 65 Australian wetlands designated as internationally important under the Ramsar Convention”. It’s interesting to see that this ecosystem still holds cultural value for some.

new york statue of liberty usa monument
Photo by Pixabay on

When I read this story from the Smithsonian I was reminded of another place for refuge mentioned in a poem by Emma Lazarus. There are many similarities between the poem and the swamp, at least for me. Enjoy.

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ ”

by Emma Lazarus

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