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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Swamp Things

Despite the popular vision of swamps as creepy wastelands, these environmental oases offer some of the richest opportunities for wildlife

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An osprey sits atop a bald cypress tree at dawn, Eustis, Florida.

A swamp by any other name would certainly sound sweeter. Just the mention of these soggy woodlands is enough to send Northerners packing back to the temperate climates of their upstate homes. What most people don't realize, however, is that our verdant swamps offer some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing, solitude and adventure south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Cypress and tupelo trees, Congaree National Park, South Carolina.
There are few other ecosystems in the world that carry such undeserved negative baggage, born from millennia of cultural misunderstandings. When a group of professional nature photographers recently were asked what adjectives they associated with swamps, their answers ran the gamut of "muddy," "smelly," "buggy," "scary" and "dangerous." Of the 20 or so descriptors that echoed back, not one was positive. If this is what seasoned outdoorspeople thought of swamps, what hope can we hold out for the general public or the elected officials tasked with governing these natural havens?

Unfortunately, we're left with a PR nightmare for bottomlands, one that has pervaded generations since our ancestors first arrived to the United States. For centuries, swamps have been relegated as wastelands, landscapes only suitable for draining and harvesting timber. In fact, during the 19th and 20th centuries, turning swamps into farmlands or cities—relieving its citizens of the ceaseless wetlands—was the very essence of conservation. We've certainly come a long way in the last 100 years. With the establishment of national parks, nature preserves and sanctuaries to protect these critical habitats, perhaps there exists a chance we might reconnect with what's left of our low-country heritage and tear down our old biases toward swamps.

A red rat snake slithers across a fallen live oak on Kanapaha Prairie, Gainesville, Florida.
Today, America's flooded woodlands have been diminished to only a handful of fragmented old-growth tracts. While hiking or paddling through these timeless backwoods, you get the feeling there's something inherently primordial and sacred that governs. In the humid whispers of bottomland swamps, life continues as it did thousands of years ago. Under the creaking limbs of ancient cypress trees, some dating back to the height of the Byzantine Empire, wilderness takes its form. Alligators, which have changed very little in the last 60 million years, are still today the dominant predators of the blackwater. They're the freshwater equivalent to sharks, their reputation marred by bad press and preferring a life far away from people.

In the shallows, gnarled cypress knees boil up from the tannin-stained tributaries like petrified lava, radiating from flared buttresses of bald cypress trees. Their unique formations, sometimes mimicking deformed faces, haunted British soldiers during the Revolutionary War, purporting the myth that swamps were cursed. We know better now than to believe mythological creatures lurk in the hollows, yet our imagination runs wild in these habitats. Perhaps that's what draws me to swamps.

As a Floridian child reading Where The Wild Things Are, I could romp around the creeks and cypress sloughs of my backyard and immediately be transported to another world. With neighboring alligators and venomous snakes, going out to the swamps around Gainesville was the only time I could experience the visceral tug of vulnerability. In the 21st century, it's a welcomed discomfort to feel part of nature, rather than its master.


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