Earlier explorer called this northern Florida refuge ‘enchanted’
“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, the most dismal swamp. I enter the swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum.” Henry David Thoreau
Northern counties in Florida are slightly known and little appreciated. They are woodsy and delightful, especially in winter.
On this particular day, I was driving north when I passed a sign that read, “Georgia 55 miles.” I knew that an entrance to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was just across the border. To me, a seasoned rambler, it seemed like a 5-minute foray, so I pressed on.
Okefenokee has a fabled place in Native American tradition. Just the name is captivating. I had read about it in the papers of naturalist Francis Harper. A researcher with Cornell University, he explored the place for many years and even lived there for a time with his family. He collected specimens, documented the folklore — including anecdotes from residents — and recorded his findings about these 400,000 acres of wetland, lakes, swamps and prairies.
Francis Harper had a great interest in the explorations of John and William Bartram and knew that although he never set foot in the place, William Bartram had mentioned Okefenokee in Travels when writing about the St. Mary’s River and surrounds.
William heard tales of this “enchanted” place in his encounters with Creeks he met on his travels. They told him about “a most blissful sort of the earth: the way it is inhabited by a peculiar race of Indians, whose women are incomparably beautiful.” Hunters lost in this place were helped by these women, “whom they call daughters of the sun, who kindly gave them such provisions they had with them” but were warned to flee for their lives from their “fierce” husbands.
Okefenokee has had many names — Bartram uses the Creek name, Ouaquaphenogaw. It still is known as the “Land of the Trembling Earth” because of the instability of the swampy peat, which moves when stamped upon.
Once, it was an easy place to get lost in. It has always been a refuge for the oppressed. The Georgia Historical Society writes ”[T]hroughout its history, the mysterious nature of the Okefenokee furthered its use as a refuge. This was especially true throughout the 1800’s leading up to and during the Seminole wars, when Native Americans sheltered there, melting away into the swamp or hiding undetected when pursued. Escaped slaves also hid there and during the Civil War, deserters banded together on the swamp’s islands.”
In On Harper’s Trail, Elizabeth Shores writes that Francis’s brother, Roland Harper, a renowned botanist, regarded the swamp as a “bright” place and did not believe it bred disease. He pointed out that healthy people lived in the Okefenokee.
I was hugely expectant, but at first the place disappointed me. The park had recently experienced a major wildfire, and there were many charred stumps with new growth just starting at the base. I was anticipating dark, dense swamp. I was there some years ago. Most likely, regrowth has galloped along as it does after a fire.
Fran Palmeri is the author of Florida Lost and Found. This essay is from her new book, A Bouquet of Days, to be published this spring.