Into the Swamp


I have been measuring time, for the last couple of days by how long it’s been since I was in the swamp. I tell myself this morning–two days ago I was waking up in the swamp– to attempt to connect this life to that one. The swamp was so dreamlike it takes some effort to believe I was there.

This week I was a lucky participant in a canoe trip up the Roanoke River Estuary with biologists from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a representative from the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program. Our destination was a site deep in the swamp where we camped on platforms, ate hearty, looked around in amazement, and studied the ecosystem.

Surrounded by dark water and trees with conical trunks, I was mesmerized by the way pollen landed on the water’s surface and created marbled patterns.
At night, so far from civilization, the stars were brilliant but in competition for viewing with the leaves on the trees. It seemed like there were stars visible all the way down to the horizon. The Milky Way was apparent in tiny snatches between clusters of leaves.

Sitting on a platform after a great dinner, dusk falling, we identified birds by sound. The cover of leaves prevented our seeing the birds, but we learned to isolate one call at a time. Our wonderful guides, Melissa and Mike, pulled out their ipod which was full of bird calls instead of music and played some for us. They pointed out an interesting behavior of the barred owl. The barred owl has an easily recognizable call, but for reasons unknown to scientists, occasionally several barred owls will get together and indulge in a group song of raucous random noises. I likened it to the soundtrack of an out-of-control frat party. There is no pattern to it. It is wild, loud, aggressive and unpredictable. In the dead silence of the night while we slept, their street fight broke loose just over our tents.

I learned the difference in a brown water river and a black water river. I studied a bottomland forest. I learned that the Roanoke is called the Amazon of North Carolina and carries more water than any other North Carolina river.

I saw my first Prothonotary Warbler, watched a water moccasin sun himself, saw dozens of turtles dive off logs. I saw the tiniest crayfish. It looked like a half inch long lobster. I watched reflected light travel up tree trunks like stripes on a barber’s pole. The background music was the rustling of leaves and the splashing of fishes. The precussionists were woodpeckers.

And in the night, even my dreams opened out to me. My mind relaxed in its place on earth, both there, and on the two nights since I slept there, my dreams have been open books, as vivid as my waking life, and a good deal less otherworldly than the swamp.

4 comments

  1. This gives me chills, Elizabeth. Would love to read pages and pages more about this amazing experience — and I would rather experience it through your eyes than through the eyes of anyone else I know.

  2. Elizabeth our little explorer! You are the only person I know that can bring a story to life like that. I was right there with you. Write me more and more!

  3. Is this the Mrs. Millsaps that used to teach art at East Lincoln High School?? If so, do you remember me?? I would love to reconnect with you! Your work is STUNNING!

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