On my desk is a photograph of the North Branch of Tranters’ Creek, a blackwater creek that narrows to a trickle above the highway bridge. In the photograph, the sun dapples the company of grasses crowding the water’s edge and the trunks of bald cypress rooted in the water. There seems a staggering variety of green shading into the near distance (there is no far distance in the intimacy of the swamp.) A fallen log floats on the water in the foreground, a preview of what the standing trees will eventually become. And the still water perfectly mirrors the trees and grasses, an inverted world that intersects at the water’s surface. In a small boat, it feels like you’re floating in the sky.
There’s no better way to experience the intimacy of water than in a cockleshell of a boat that can float on a heavy dew. I could paddle on the great rivers and sounds of the Carolina coastal plain but prefer small creeks, sometimes so narrow the branches of cypress, tupelo, and sycamore trees on either bank almost touch overhead. I paddle mostly at a slow walk among cathedrals of greenery and dappled light. Kingfishers and blue herons keep me company, box turtles sun themselves on logs, and sometimes wild turkey roosting in the tree canopy take raucous flight.
The headwaters of blackwater creeks are largely shunned except by a few adventurous fishermen in shoal draft boats. Swamp waters carry our cultural baggage, the taint of moral disdain inherited from the Puritans who first condemned them as the habitat of the devil and rebellious Indians. The wet ground and periodic flooding make these creeks unprofitable for development. They have been largely preserved because we haven’t found a way to wring money from them. Their worthlessness is their greatest value.
I’ve wondered what draws me to these places where few people go. Unexpectedly, I think I’ve found a sense of place here, a sense of the present rooted in the past, a sense of continuity and continuance. The land is shaped by us, but it also shapes us.
This is a land of water. Four major rivers drain the North Carolina coastal plain and empty into 3,500 square miles of estuaries. There are 10,000 miles of shoreline here and 3,200 square miles of wetland. It was once the floor of a shallow sea, shaped by water, smoothed like the inside of a shell. Even the light here is liquid, falling upon the leaves of trees that crowd the banks of blackwater creeks, falling like rain upon the water.
I grew up in the desert of Los Angeles, a place without a sense of history, a fiction invented by Hollywood and Disneyland. I’ve lived in many places since, rootless as a sailor, but it wasn’t until I came to these lowlands that I found a historical context.
On almost any country road you’ll pass a roadside cemetery, a small plot with a handful of graves usually near a farmhouse, even if it’s a ruined farmhouse. It startled me at first, keeping the dead so close, without even a wall to enclose them. Where I was raised the dead are segregated in landscaped necropolises and kept at a reasonable distance where death was plausibly deniable. Here the dead are familiar neighbors. The past isn’t forgotten.
There is also a timelessness about swamps. They look much the same in the present as they did in the past. The slow beat of blackwater creeks measures time in centuries. There are cypress trees in Carolina swamps more than 26 centuries old. They were saplings during the Bronze Age.
So here, in the swamps and wetlands of North Carolina, in a rural backwater bypassed in the rush to populate increasingly dense cities, I’ve found my place.