A new force of nature
The story goes, that once there was a man so mean and so ornery, that when he died and went to hell the devil said, “No. You’re not staying here.” He gave him a piece of coal and told him to go make his own hell. He made the Great Dismal Swamp.
And if hell was created by an outcast of heaven, then what force of nature is created by an outcast of that God-forsaken place?
The swamp gave its marooned residents a treacherous kind of protection. If the mosquitoes didn’t scare you off, the alligators, bears and snakes did. Yet the swamp water’s high acidic content, stained bourbon-red from the Juniper and Cypress trees, kept its outliers healthy, immune to autumnal fevers. They made a living making small wages and food trades by working in the swamp, building roads, canals and flat boats to cut and carry out shingles from a seemingly endless supply of Juniper trees. By the late 1700s the swamp and its laborers turned out 1.5 million shingles per year.
Some businesses had great success. Others would burn, flood or buckle under the swamp’s thick, indecisive peat. Spas and mills turned to saloons and whisky stills. Skilled explorers got lost. Things had a way of getting discombobulated.
Even today, the swamp enforces its treacherous protection. In 2008 they tried to replace the Juniper trees. The 6,000-acre nursery burned after a tractor malfunctioned and caught fire. They tried again in 2011 and a lightning strike burned up 8,000 acres. The Juniper is gone now.
That ornery man made his own damn heaven when he made the Great Dismal Swamp, and he needed a damn good rocking blues song.
CHAPTER THREE | Glass Hills in Steel Heels
A song and story series by Molly McGinn, inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp. Album available now, online.