Friday, January 16, 2015

Trembling Earth (A book review on my birthday)


Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 262 pages including notes, index, bibliography and a few photos. 


The Okefenokee Swamp is huge bog located mostly in South Georgia, just above the Florida border.  Today, much of it is a National Wildlife Refuge, but before it was protected in the 1930s, the swamp existed as an unknown barrier. Nelson calls it an "edge space."  The name, "Okefenokee," comes out of a Native American term meaning "trembling earth."  This name describes the floating peat islands inside the swamp.  Since there is only a little "solid" high ground inside the swamp, it wasn't a settled area.  Prior to European immigration, there were a few native communities existing along the edges of the swamp.  The interior was only probed for hunting.  This changed over time as the Spanish began to populate Florida and the British began to move into Georgia.  The swamp and the native populations served as a buffer between British and later Americans in the north and the Spanish in the South.  Native communities began to move into the swamp during the Seminole wars of the early 19th Century, using it geographical barrier to their advantage.  Another group to find the interior of the swamp beneficial were runaway slaves.  At first, Georgia didn't allow slavery.  However, because Africans had some immunity to the diseases that affected Europeans, and the need for new areas to expand rice plantations which had dotted the coastal plains of the Carolinas, there was a push to employ slaves.  Being close to Spanish Florida, some slaves would hide out in the swamp and then try to make their ways south.  Interestingly, the last group to find refuge in the swamp were poor white men who were trying to avoid conscription in the Confederate army during the Civil War and crackers who lived under the radar in the swamp, living off the bounty of the land.

After the Civil War, serious attempts were made to "conquer" the swamp.  The first was a failed attempt to drain the swamp through the St. Mary's River to the Atlantic Ocean.  It was with hopes that the rich ground could be utilized for farming.  This attempt failed to understand the geography for most of the swamp actually drains through the Suwanee River into the Gulf of Mexico.   After the bankruptcy of the dredging company, the swamp fell into the hands of northern timber companies who built "mud lines" (temporary railway spurs) which allowed them to harvest much of the cypress and pine within the swamp.  During this time, another group began to make the swamp their home.  These "crackers" or "swampers," both worked for and were often resisted the various dredging and timber companies who were attempting to change their environment.  As the timber was being harvested, the interest in birdlife in the swamp increased as various surveys were made of the birds and waterfowl within the swamp leading to the land being transferred to the government in the 1930s. 

Using a historicity which she labels "ecolocalism," Nelson tells the history of the swamp through the stories of competing groups who relate to the landscape in different ways.  These groups include Native Americans, slaves, colonists, developers, swampers, scientists, naturalists and tourists.  This book is a distillation of her dissertation and although it has been edited into its present form, it still maintains an academic distance from her subject.  Only in an opening essay does she acknowledge having been into the swamp.  This lack of a personal connect makes the book seem a little aloft.  She does draw upon many of the groups stories which makes the book very readable. 


I read this book because of my recent move to Georgia and a desire to understand a place I am setting out to explore.  This book just scratches the surface.  I am even more curious now about the Okefenokee.  In a few days, I'll hopefully have up a post of my post-Christmas solo trip across the east side of the swamp.    

And yes, today is my birthday and I am still in Orlando.  I return home tomorrow.   Below is a photo of from my trip from last month into the Okefenokee--of sandhill cranes.  If you remember, I had posted about these birds when I lived in Michigan.
December 28, 2014
On the west edge of Chase Prairie 

27 comments:

  1. I have dozens of books on areas that I have visited over the years. While others hit the trinket section of a souvenir stand, I always head for the books. I have found they have far greater value than the trinkets!

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    1. I agree with books, but I do also tend to seek out more serious books on subjects and was disappointed that there are so few about the Okefenokee

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    2. Maybe that's your cue to remedy the problem with so few books about the Okefenokee! I've got several books in my head that I would like to write and I've actually tried a couple of times but I just don't have what it takes evidently. Perhaps someday in the future I will try again and succeed.

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  2. I love this kind of book. I remember reading "The death of a salt marsh" years ago. I'm going to have to check into this one. I haven't read a lot in this area lately but I miss it.

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    1. I have read "Death of the Salt Marsh" but I am assuming you are referring to the one by John Teal. I need to read it at some point.

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  3. A most happy of birthday wishes just for you! I like and do remember those Michigan cranes. I'm head to the lake today too, well sort of. But there will be open water on the river where I'm heading with a special little munchkin to say hello to the Trumpeter Swans! Safe travels back home and enjoy your special day.

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    1. Have a great trip and enjoy the swans.

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  4. It must be nigh on impossible to write for peer review and then convert and give the swamp/bog/marsh a personality. Not least that one has it being acted upon while the other the main actor.
    I checked it on Amazon but it seems there's no Kindle edition.

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    1. I have read enough dissertations in my life... I have also written a few pieces that were in peer review journals and then rewritten for a magazine (that paid cash). It is a different style of writing.

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    2. I've done first edit on a few back in the day. Weeks I'll never get back.

      It shouldn't be a different style. There's absolutely no need beyond a idiotic convention developed to convert Latin back to English having started there in the 1st place. How many history books -an area that affects us all and should be equally accessible to all- have you read that are so esoteric and longwinded such they destroy the will to live in the reader.

      Gettin paid. Good for you. Next it's nicked from a library.

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    3. I forgot to wish you a happy birthday.

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  5. Please do post your own photos of the swamp. It's played in many books I've read, but I've never had the good fortune to see it myself.

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    1. In 3 days, I shot over 200 frames with two cameras (a waterproof fuji point-and-shoot and a Nikon DSLR--the above shot with the later). I think I will have a few shots that can make it into a blog post!

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  6. Happy Birthday, Jeff!

    Love those cranes.

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  7. Happy birthday!!! I think it's great you're seeking to learn more about your new homestead. We all should learn more about the places we live. I hope you're having fun in Orlando.

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  8. sounds like a fascinating book!

    Belated birthday wishes, hope you had a great day!

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  9. happy belated birthday sage...

    we were just talking about the swamps in earth science, so this might give me a little more ammo for next year...hmmm....

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  10. Always an interesting post here, Sage. I had forgotten the Spanish connection to Florida from my grade school days.

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  11. I'd like to read this book, too. I intend to visit the Swamp this summer. I think it would be interesting to see and explore.

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    1. Sherry, I thing you'd have to be brave to visit during the summer--hot and lots of bugs and snakes. The first day I was in the swamp, t he mosquitoes were pretty bad (in late December)

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  12. Happy belated birthday!!!! :) I love learning about the history of place. Thanks for this!

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  13. Sounds like a wonderful book - and place. I've never been there. Hope your birthday was good!

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  14. happy belated!! and this book sounds fantastic.

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  15. How cool that you are learning more about your new home. This sounds like an interesting read, especially since you were planning to start exploring the area. I hope you had a happy birthday and thanks for sharing this book with us.
    ~Jess

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