Learning to love swamps, even the dismal ones

A fire whirl appears after a prescribed burn in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, once part of an even bigger swamp that once physically separated Virginia and North Carolina. (PHOTO: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Bureau, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Another northern Minnesota fall brings me to the family hunting shack in Greaney, a scrubby stretch of land near Cook and Orr. Most folks would get there on Highway 53, but I live north of Nashwauk. That means I get there by cutting across the back roads of Itasca and Koochiching counties, through the ghost town of Togo along the shores of the Willow River. And I’m always careful to wear the right shoes because they will get wet.

You could call it the family hunting land, as we are a family. “Land” is a small fib, as it’s pretty swampy, but “hunting” is probably the biggest lie. Guns are toted and occasionally fired, but deer generally escape to safety, at least on our account. Half the fun of being out there is the peaceful surroundings of the swamp. Here, one orients their way around a beaver dam found along the north east corner of grandpa’s 40-acre plot. All kinds of birds and plants may be found along the trails.

As I’ve often mentioned, I grew up in the Sax-Zim bog — a place where migratory birds, moose, bears and taconite trains dissolve into a silent expanse of tamaracks, jack pines and peat.

A friend told me that tannins in bog water have a preservative quality. Swamps have been known to keep skin healthy, even long after ancient people have drowned in them. No doubt you’ve heard the farcical refrain of “drain the swamp” in American politics these days. Yet, most folks would be surprised how clean and vibrant life really is in the swamp. In fact, I love swamps.

Swamps have long been places of healing and rebirth. In the September 2016 edition of Smithsonian Magazine, Richard Grant told a story of one of the biggest swamps in the United States.

The Great Dismal Swamp once stood as a titanic 2,000-acre border between Virginia and North Carolina. Colonists found it almost impossible to pass on carriage, horseback or even on foot unless you knew the terrain. Almost immediately, British leaders associated it with lawlessness, waste and debauchery. In truth, it was just that no one other than the lawless, debauched, or oppressed were motivated enough to venture inside.

Grant writes about archeologist Dan Sayers’s efforts to explore the Great Dismal Swamp. Sayers and his team discovered the swamp itself has “islands” often just inches above the meniscus of the muck and water. On this hidden terra firma his excavation found evidence of ramshackle villages. There, runaway slaves, Native Americans and others lived out their days outside the view of an oppressive society.

If you could tolerate the mosquitos, and make no mistake they were then and and remain today like billowing dark clouds, you could live out your days here, maybe even raise a family.

Sayers 2014 book about the Great Dismal Swamp is “A Desolate Place for a Defiant People.” It’s the story of the people who refused the fate handed to them by men of the 18th and 19th Centuries and made their own.

“These people performed a critique of a brutal capitalistic enslavement system, and they rejected it completely,” Sayers told Grant for his Smithsonian story. “They risked everything to live in a more just and equitable way, and they were successful for ten generations.”

Seeing the old swamps of Northern Minnesota reminds us that we all have a place, too, should we need to defy order or just escape. Low land, not worth much, unless you need it. And we do. Because we all need the kind of healing that only time in a swamp can give.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

A beaver lodge found in a swamp in Greaney, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

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