War Angel | 3 of 6

postcards from the swamp
Moses Grandy bought his freedom three times and worked on The Great Dismal Swamp Canal.

Moses Grandy bought his freedom three times and worked on The Great Dismal Swamp Canal.


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.”

Cigar and seltzer selfie.

Cigar and seltzer selfie.

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.

Glass Hills in Steel Heels | 2 of 6

postcards from the swamp



Finding Eve in the swamp

The piece of coal myth was a perfect start to a creation story. I just needed a balancing nature. I needed a heart. I needed an Eve.

Lake Drummond is a perfectly circle-shaped lake at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp. Native Americans believed a giant firebird made her nest there, and when she left, water filled the crater-shaped bowl and created Lake Drummond.

Unlike most swamps, water in the Great Dismal doesn’t run in to Lake Drummond. The lake sits 20-feet above sea level. Like a heart, it pumps water out, feeding seven rivers and sending its black elixir through miles of artery-shaped canals.

In 1803 Thomas Moore wrote one of the most enduring poems about Lake Drummond, “A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp.” The Irish balladeer wrote about a woman who drowned in the lake on her wedding night and haunts the lake by firefly light.

They made her a grave, too cold and damp

For a soul so warm and true;

And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,

Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,

She paddles her white canoe.

On my own late-night firefly walks through Westerwood, I’d fantasize about finding the woman at the center of the lake. I wanted her side of the story. I’d grown tired of the poems and fairy tales that kill off bright, intelligent women—by prince charming or by drowning. Little boys get stories about flying to Neverland. Girls get glass shoes.

If the shoe fits … it’s bull shit.

Those old stories don’t seem to suit the times. I loved the “Modern Love” columns in the New York Times. I’d search for insight and a light between the lines of the mini-documentaries about detached hipsters, skeptical divorcées and over-analyzed lovers.

My own little love vignettes looked nothing like the fairy tales, or the crisp, heavy-edited endings of the Daniel Jones columns. And I thought I had appropriately waited and apprenticed to love like the woman in the “Black Bull of Norroway,” a Scots myth about a woman who climbs a glass hill in steel boots to earn her keep for love.

That summer, the losses and the love’s lost hovered heavy, like the hot, humid July. I could feel a malaise settling in. I didn’t want to let it in. Malaise is a horrible roommate.

I needed a story that didn’t suck. I wanted a “Modern Love” approach to those old fairy tales. I wanted the Lady of the Lake in the Great Dismal to get a new legend. I wanted the girl on the glass hill to get down.

So I rewrote it. The “Black Bull of Norroway” and Moore’s Ballad combined to make a new story for the swamp.

The Eve of the swamp is love’s outcast. And the song is her story, her epiphany, the one that comes when she stands at the top of the glass hill and decides its time to get down.

I wanted my own damn fairy tale.

The Black Bull of Norroway is the story of a woman who climbs a glass hill for seven years to apprentice to love.

The Black Bull of Norroway is the story of a woman who climbs a glass hill for seven years to apprentice to love.

Modern Love

His T-Shirts Wouldn’t Turn White

We grew up on the outskirts of the Great Dismal Swamp. I was one of three sisters. We didn’t have much to give or take in those days and my mom sent us all off to work and live in other towns. I was headed to a blacksmith in a nearby town and I was fascinated. I’d lived in the swamp my whole life and was curious about dinners beyond stolen milk and river oysters.

My mother packed a sack of green apples and told me to wait outside for a black bull, who would take me there. When he arrived, we rode through the night, until sky turned blue.

The blacksmith looked like vintage clothing curator Christophe Loiron.

The blacksmith looked like vintage clothing curator Christophe Loiron.

When we arrived, the blacksmith stood on his front lawn and peeled green apples with a pocket knife. He looked to me like Christophe Loiron in a leather apron.

“I’m here,” I said.

He told me I’d learn to smoke cigars and build a pair of steel boots to climb a glass hill. When I finished the first pair, Christophe Loiron pointed to a glass hill one town over. He told me to put the shoes on and climb it. On the first step, my foot pushed straight through and shattered the glass.

The next summer, fall, winter and spring, and for the next seven years, I’d pour and pound the metal and destroy my hands in the fire. The designs improved over time until finally, I could pound the steel slipper thin. I put the shoes on and climbed. The glass didn’t shatter.

“Your apprenticeship is finished,” the blacksmith said. “There’s a prince in the next town. If you can get his t-shirts white, wash away the wounds from his old lovers, your apprenticeship to love is finished. He’ll be your king.”

I climbed the hill one last time and as I climbed, I missed my stolen milk and river oysters. I missed the swamp.

“He can do his own laundry,” I thought about the prince.

I gathered my things and walked home. As I neared the swamp, I stole the logging tools that the working men in the swamp had left overnight and I pounded the steel hammers and axes into slipper-thin silver sheets. I laid them one-by-one on the rooftops of the lean-to shelters of the men and women who lived there.

And I do this still, every night: Smoke cigars and pound the steel and set off a fireworks-worth of sparks that hang like stars in the night. It’s better than doing laundry.

And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,

Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,


A song and story series by Molly McGinn, inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp. Album available now, online.

Ornery Economy | 1 of 6

postcards from the swamp
One myth says the swamp was created by an outcast of hell.

One myth says the swamp was created by an outcast of hell.


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.

Googling for Water | Prologue

postcards from the swamp
A six song story series inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp in eastern North Carolina.

A six song story series inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp in eastern North Carolina.


And it stoned me

The song was a divining rod that summer, the year they painted the little carriage house apartment I’d rented from a friend. The A-framed efficiency sat back off the old neighborhood roads in the Westerwood ‘hood, so flush with green and old expansive magnolia trees that it shook the temperature down a full five degrees, even in July.

One of the house painters, Austin, arrived early in the mornings. I’d lay in bed under thin summer sheets and listen to him set up paint buckets and brushes and wait for the music.

He’d paint and play songs all day from what looked like a hard drive. It was a collection of .mp3s from old iPods and music players that his friends tried to throw away. It created a musical refuge of the most surprising stuff. Traditional Irish reels, Sinatra, Wilco’s “Summerteeth,” and that one song.

“What’s that?” I asked, when I first heard it, leaning out the window to ask Austin, standing on the scaffolding outside.

“I don’t know. I’ll burn it for you,” he’d say. He’d always say that.

“And It Stoned Me,” from “Unplugged In The Studio” by the astral, Irish, Van Morrison. A super spare record. No orchestral arrangement. No horns. Just up-bass and drums on a reel-to-reel tape that didn’t completely erase something they had tried to record over.

After the morning coffee was long gone, I’d sit for hours under the paddle fan on my one chair in the middle of the main room, listen to that record and google for water. A search for a free swimming hole turned up Lake Drummond at the center of The Great Dismal Swamp in eastern North Carolina.

Between the 1600s and 1800s the Great Dismal was home to 5,000 outcasts, outliers, maroons and indigenous americans—one of the largest refuge swamps like it in the United States. A portion of the Underground Railroad went through there.

I fantasized about renting a 1973 black El Camino truck and driving there. I would buy expensive coffee, plunge my hands in the mud and turn my luck around. But I couldn’t afford the gas money that summer for the 231 mile drive from Greensboro to the swamp. No job. No money. No luck.

I did, however, have a brand new Greensboro Public Library card and a short walk downtown.

CHAPTER TWO | Ornery Economy

A song and story series by Molly McGinn, inspired by the Great Dismal Swamp. Album available now, online.