Don’t send for the preacher
I am a faithful woman. My introspective nature requires that I have a Higher Power. Without it, I can easily slip into a hopelessness stronger than a riptide on the Outer Banks. And I pray. Rarely with folded hands. Often with a clutched fist. Mostly on my knees.
By November 2013, my luck had turned. I had a job and some gas money. There was no black 1973 El Camino, like I’d hoped. But I still had my two-door Chevy Blazer, newly dubbed the Black Bull. And I was headed for the Dismal.
November is the end of tourist season in the swamp. All the fall foliage tours on kayaks and canoes had wrapped and I couldn’t find a guide. A ranger with the Dismal on the Virginia side filled me in on a few things.
“No, I wouldn’t stay there. Not by myself, anyway,” he said, to several places.
I must have asked about the Juniper trees, because in my notebook I wrote:
“The Juniper is gone.”
I checked into the Hilton Hotel in Suffolk, Virginia, a lush, hoity-toity palace by a canal. I took a four-pack of seltzer and a cigar to the dock and celebrated on the waterway. Snapped a selfie (the kind where you pretend you don’t know the picture is being taken, even though you’re holding the damn thing).
That night in the hotel I searched online for first-hand accounts about life in the swamp. I wanted to read narratives from the folks who worked the canals in the late 1700s, one of the swamp’s boom times. I had imagined a work force where the maroons did their work, got paid for it, and flipped the white world the bird.
On a web search I found the narrative of Moses Grandy, a man who helped build the Great Dismal Canal, and who commanded several boats that ran merchandise from Elizabeth City, North Carolina to Norfolk, Virginia.
“The labour there is very severe. The ground is often very boggy: the negroes are up to the middle or much deeper in mud and water, cutting away roots and baling out mud: if they can keep their heads above water, they work on.
A few hours into reading Grandy’s narrative, my hope for a belligerent baptism in the Great Dismal started to burn out and drift like cigar ash.
I turned out the light and went to sleep.
The next morning I walked into the swamp via Washington Ditch. The swamp today is a national park, 22 square miles, a little smaller than Manhattan. On google maps it looks like the shape of the state of Indiana, but the bottom hem sweeps to the right and toward North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
In the fall, the swamp colors are stunning. The trees are lean on leaves and the ombre blonde and gold swamp grass bend and scrape; and the cypress trees stand like cathedrals in glass black water.
As I walked in, I bent my ear to the corduroy roads but I couldn’t hear the blues or fast-dancing cajun music that I had imagined I would. I tried to call on Dred, the main character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel about a slave uprising in the swamp, “Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.”
His soul seemed to kindle with almost a fierce impatience, at the toleration of that Almighty Being, who, having the power to blast and to burn so silently endures.”
Back in the hotel room with the guitar, I was discombobulated. I’m too white to write these stories and songs, I thought. I have no right.
I drove home, shaking my fist, ready to quit.
For the next several mornings, I sat at my kitchen table and strummed. On one of those mornings, what came out sounded like a prayer inspired by this passage in Grady’s testimony:
“After a time, I was disabled for a year from following this employment by a severe attack of rheumatism, caught by frequent exposure to severe weather.
… I therefore had myself carried in a lighter up a cross canal in the Dismal Swamp, and to the other side of Drummond’s Lake. I was left on the shore and there I built myself a little hut, and had provisions brought to me as opportunity served.
“Here, among, snakes, bears, and panthers, whenever my strength was sufficient, I cut down a juniper tree, and converted it into cooper’s timber. The camp, like those commonly set up for negroes, was entirely open on one side; on that side a fire is lighted at night, and the person sleeping puts his feet towards it.
“One night I was awoke by some large animal smelling my face, and snuffing strongly; I felt its cold muzzle. I suddenly thrust out my arms, and shouted with all my might; it was frightened and made off. I do not know whether it was a bear or a panther, but it seemed as tall as a large calf. I slept of course no more that night. I put my trust in the Lord, and continued on the spot; I was never attacked again.”
I used to think an answered prayer brought a bright light and a white robe. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. For me, the most lasting transformations come from prayers I’ve said in the middle of the night, when fear and sweat hovers and shakes until I reach for the light. And real relief doesn’t come easy. It’s often days, weeks, sometimes years later. The times I’ve punched the hardest—when I swipe at the night—those prayers have the most enduring effects.
Not all prayers are said with folded hands. Not all baptisms feel clean and pristine. Sometimes you just need to wade through the shit and shake your fists.
The song that came out at my kitchen table feels like that kind of prayer. Sung by my Lady of the Lake over Moses Grandy when he thought he was swiping at a creature in the night, he was swinging at a belligerent prayer.
CHAPTER FIVE | Rocking Cane, the sardine sessions.
A song and story series by Molly McGinn, inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp. Album available now, online.