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