We took a day trip yesterday to Okefenokee—a swamp with a percussive Native name roughly translated as “land of the trembling earth,” or “waters shaking.” The swamp’s name refers to its peat bog, which is neither dry land, nor part of the water, but a sponge-like floating habitat, that squishes and quivers as you walk upon it. Okefenokee is a vast expanse of protected land–a National Wildlife Refuge–on Georgia’s southern border, with a romantically gloomy cypress swamp at the western entrance and upland swamp islands on the eastern edge.
We visited the western side years ago, so chose the eastern entrance for this trip. Although the day was sunny and mild, the southern version of winter was hanging on, so it was very quiet, with few visitors, a skeleton staff, and little visible wildlife. The quietness contributed to its stark beauty, though, with tall longleaf pine forests–burned over by wild fires or intentional burns that are necessary to maintain the pine ecosystem—very still except for birdsong and hammering woodpeckers.
The drive from St. Simons to the swamp took only a little over an hour, but brought us from the affluent coast to a sparsely populated inland area with pockets of heart-wrenching poverty. The area’s housing consisted mostly of stark rows of rickety, weathered trailers that no one should have to live in.
The area used to be inhabited by hundreds of people logging the swamp’s old-growth cypress, with a system of railroad cars and waterways for transporting the logs and lumber out of the swamp, and by homesteaders, scratching out a living on the sandy flats. At the swamp’s eastern gate, the Chesser family’s homestead cabin has been preserved as a museum. It was like stepping into Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ book, The Yearling, although this area is farther north than her home place in Florida.
The homestead’s yard was swept white sand, with no vegetation, to keep down the fire danger and discourage bugs, snakes, and other crawly and hopping creatures from coming into the house.
For natural aerial bug control, the homestead had gourd nests for martins, swooping birds that feed on mosquitoes and other flying insects.
After the Chesser homestead, we walked a boardwalk that extends three-quarters of a mile out into the swamp.
The burnt-over pines created a wonderfully eerie landscape, especially in the areas with standing water, which reflected back the stumps and contorted tree remains and had its own colorful water plants and algae.
We only dipped our toes into a tiny edge of the park. Dogs are not allowed on the boardwalks or in boats on the water (they’re alligator bait–so tasty). Next time, perhaps we will leave Zoe at home, take the plunge, rent a canoe, and really explore.