After a rain day yesterday that found us in the Special Collections room of the College of William and Mary’s Swem Library, we were back out in the Swamp today on a mission to cover some serious ground. Our goal was a promising looking spot currently designated MONW* on the project map.
Easing down a canal road through the morning fog, we caught sight of a lovely black bear bounding across the road and disappearing into the vegetation on the other side. Sadly, the cameras were all in our packs in the back of the truck so we didn’t get a photo. The cameras were also not handy when Emily flushed a vulture at close range from behind an uprooted tree out near MONW. Too bad: that moment- or at least our reactions- would have made a great video clip.
This week, we’ve been able to eliminate several locations from the list of ‘potential islands.’ MONW definitely stays on the list. In a Swamp with topography that can be best described as ‘subtle,’ MONW stands out with a noticeable change in elevation. And, it’s far from everything- and would have been in the 18th and 19th centuries- placing it firmly in the ‘interior’ zone of the Swamp with all the security that would have afforded maroons. We’ll certainly be putting the waders back on to map and test MONW and its surroundings. Who knows what we might find (we might not find anything).
Exploration should never really and there are a few more spots I want to check out. But, starting next week, we’ll be shifting the focus away from finding new to spots to learning more about the spots we’ve already found.
Thanks so much to Emily for willingly bashing around in the Swamp with me this week and to my colleagues and friends at Outward Bound Baltimore for letting her take the week away. She’s back to supporting and delivering amazing programming for the youth of Baltimore on Monday.
*Middle Of No-Where
(edited to make the video viewable)
Rare open areas like this speed our travel considerably.
by Emily Shames, Field Assistant
I’m beginning to realize that everyday is an adventure out here, but today was one for the books. It began with a trip to town to pick up a small blow up boat. The mission: cross a narrow but deep canal in a quest to explore what seems to be an “island.” I will admit that ferrying ourselves across the black stained canal water made me feel like the Greek ferryman Charon crossing the river Styx (which I find quite exciting as an amateur Classicist).
Other than a near miss with a swarm of bees, the bushwack through the foliage was uneventful compared to our ferry across the canal. After 45 minutes or so, we were on a raised, dry patch! Huzzah! We sat for lunch on the ‘island’ and declared it definitely promising for further testing. A successful day!
All in all the swamp has proven to be a learning experience. Yesterday the swamp seemed to have either snakes, ticks, or poison ivy at every turn. Today however, I was able to appreciate the flowers and awe at the maze like foliage. I am slowly gaining appreciation for the swamp and am eager for the days ahead.
The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge covers about 190 square miles. This project examines a 46 square mile corner of that. LiDAR and satellite data allow us to target certain spots and GPS helps us get to them. Even so, finding what we’re looking for can feel a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Today, after several hours of bashing our way through reeds and vines and shrubbery, eliminating more potential spots from the list than we kept on it, we saw something. The terrain wasn’t right: we’re looking for dry islands and this area was mostly soggy. Some meters away, barely visible amongst the brush was an iron wheel. Closer inspection revealed four such wheels- the chassis of a small railcar made in Richmond, VA in 1914 (not all artifacts have such clear labels).
Here was a reminder that the 18th and 19th century enslaved laborers and African-American maroons are only one chapter in the human history of the Dismal. Lumbering continued after the Civil War until the 1970s and early 20th century laborers laid (and moved) temporary tracks for cars like this one throughout the Swamp to help move lumber and supplies hither and yon.
Here also was a reminder to keep our eyes open even if the surroundings don’t match our ideal. Becoming too focused, having tunnel vision, risks missing other important discoveries. This haystack contains many needles and we found one today.
The field season begins in less than a week! While we’re busy packing, charging batteries and preparing maps, you can watch this great documentary by award winning filmmaker and fellow AU Phd student Beth Geglia. The film introduces the history of African-Americans in the Great Dismal Swamp.
Landscape of Power: Freedom and Slavery in the Great Dismal Swamp from Beth Geglia on Vimeo.
(this is a post recycled from 10 December 2015, after my first solo foray into the northern Swamp)
In the spirit of the Rising Star Expedition’s excellent example of sharing science as it happens, I offer these Notes from the Swamp:
Any trip to the Swamp that ends tick- and poison ivy- free is a success. Bear sightings and surprise rainbows are bonuses.
After countless hours poring over maps and squinting at colors in lidar images (and after overcoming the requisite academic hurdles and securing all the appropriate permissions), I officially began my dissertation fieldwork by spending the last three days on a reconnaissance adventure in the Great Dismal Swamp. This wasn’t a trip for digging holes and collecting artifacts. This was a planned reality check and test run.
Are any of the “islands” I hope to find actually out there? (some of them might be)
Will the winter lack of foliage really make a difference moving through the Swamp? (yep)
Will the fancy GPS work under the tree canopy? (mostly)
How difficult will it be to get where I want to go? (that depends on how one defines ‘difficult’)
Am I crazy to think exploring the deep interior of the Swamp is a viable research plan? (don’t answer that)
The working title of my dissertation is “Against the Map: Resistance Landscapes in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1680-1860.” The tromping around in the Swamp these past few days, the targeted exploration after the new year, and, ultimately, the excavation I hope to do in the spring are all aimed at expanding our knowledge of how thousands of marginalized people— enslaved laborers and maroons (people of African descent fleeing the oppressive conditions of slavery (‘runaway slaves’))— lived in the Swamp before the Civil War. Maroons especially capitalized on the Dismal’s dense vegetation and harsh environment to make lives for themselves in a place that was viewed by outsiders as wild and forbidding. I’m trying to understand their landscape by locating archaeological sites in the Swamp. In this way, this project will contribute the ongoing work of The Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study
It is also, ultimately, exploring issues of social justice.
I won’t be back in the field for several weeks. Meanwhile, I’ll be studying the data I just collected, waiting to hear about a grant I applied for, writing background research up into a journal article and a conference paper (SHA2016!), and skiing (if winter ever comes to the East).
(and looking for a good place to blog about the process- stay tuned)