Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Swamps never really go to sleep; they only wake up.

Campfire in Dragon Run Swamp. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    I was a few paddle strokes into one of Virginia’s own when this thought came to mind. I could feel it.

    The aroma of black swamp water--of cypress and tannin--burned like incense as a fiery sun yielded to the chill of night over Northern Neck farm fields, behind a labyrinth of crowns and tangles.

    Noises grew as their sources disappeared under cover of darkness. Red-winged blackbirds whistled gurgling shrills in staggered succession. A choir of spring peepers, and its baritone bullfrogs, sounded off eternally. Dragon Run, trickling audibly as thick roots and channel tighten its course, rounded out the background.

    A blue heron made its last flaps of daylight across the landscape, breaking limbs, pushing air, and emitting a raspy squall as it found a roost in a cypress crown. Odd screams--from bobcats, foxes, or something else altogether--broke the rhythm, but went unquestioned, as part of the age-old awakening song that commences every day as dusk turns out the lights.

    The horizon blazed orange, and I intended to keep it alive as long as possible, but craved nightfall. With a heavy-footed boot, I carved out a wide circle in the leafy understory—six feet wide, about. With a strong stick, I dug a shallow pit into the dirt--through humus, mud, and veiny roots—just two feet wide, enough to harbor a modest pile of sticks.

    It didn't take long, or much roaming, to ascertain a healthy collection of wood—twigs and branches of increasing thickness. Each size went into its own pile, ready for application. From an undisturbed site, I took handfuls of leaves from the floor—dry ones, untouched by the dampness of the swampy ground. In an airy ball, they represented my last ditch effort to retain light, with the sun gone, light fading quickly.

    A match brought it back, slowly. It caught as a glowing edge on the finger of an oak leaf, smoked, smoldered, and grew to engulf the pile. One by one, I added small twigs, then larger ones. As the flame gained strength, I invested a pile of arm-thick branches, leaning them to rest against each other over the blaze, hopefully to catch, and keep the light on.

    But the swamp is old. The wood that was readily accessible was punk—rotten, flaky. It burned through in minutes, making upkeep a chore. It was a happy chore, though.

    Fire has long been a symbol of civilization, of life—the only thing that sets humans apart from animals. It grants hope and comfort. A fire illuminates more than just the night.

    If ever there was an old-world essence surrounding my activities, it disappeared the moment I bit into an imported mango. Dinner was finished off with a handful of cashews.

    After a final fueling of the fire, I lashed rope to two old oaks, and hung a hammock, from which to become, with the fire, the only thing fading away in the swamp.

    For the time, the fire granted enough light to read by--A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean's masterpiece--and the shadows it cast made the plot all the more dramatic. In the swamp, a river runs through the forest—is the forest--save for a few firm spots where the oak trees grow—a long way from the glacial canyons and bustling logging camps of western Montana. Maclean probably never saw the likes of a southern Virginia cypress swamp, but the drama, and the haunting, he knew is rich here, too.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian.

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