Gertrude’s right when she says the color of the swamp just ain’t natural. I hear the hint of a Southern drawl, slow and easy, as if she has all the time in the world. Her voice goes up at the end of the sentence, at first glance, making it seem like a question. Except with Gertrude you know she’s never asking.
The soupy muck is an eerie neon green, something akin to the florescent glow of LED lights. It’s not the green of any grass I’ve ever seen—Bermuda or Kentucky bluegrass or tall Fescue—no matter how much it’s been watered. And it’s not the green of trees. Or leafy vegetables. If anything, the color of a swamp approaches the skin-tone of Kermit the Frog who may be best known for his soulful lament: “It’s not easy being green.”
Especially when it’s the spectral shade of a swamp.
The trees grow right out of the muck, with long strands of Spanish moss tangled in the branches. Sometimes the moss is heavy enough to sever limbs. Just to see what would happen, I dropped a flimsy piece of bark into the soupy mix. Thinking the thick layer of muck was solid, I was surprised when the bark immediately dropped into the darkness below.
Lurking underneath are alligators, with only their eyes above the water and a hint of their flat-nosed jaws, ready to unhinge at a moment’s notice. You know they’re watching your every step, languishing, unassuming, sluggish. Poised to snap off a few fingers or a foot. If you get too close.
In a landscape where the flora grows and grows, but doesn’t change, history has got to linger…
Marsh birds abound. And tortoises. And snakes. This is the stuff of pulp fiction and murder mysteries, creepy tales of horror and mayhem and revenge. Deliverance and Interview With The Vampire. William Faulkner. Eudora Welty. Flannery O’Connor. Southern writing is complex and lush, dense with description. The characters are often creepy and flawed, yanked between inescapable forces of good and evil.
It makes you wonder how much the physical landscape of childhood molds our psyches. Sculpting the possibilities, limiting our vision. The simmering, relentless heat of the South. Ghosts and vampires and sorcery. Dank, claustrophobic spaces. Standing on the edge of a marsh in the Savannah Wildlife Refuge, I swear the reeds and the lily pads ached for a breath of wind, just enough to cause a ripple in the water.
In a landscape where the flora grows and grows, but doesn’t change, history has got to linger. It is a terrain that holds age-old secrets. Only once in our travels to Charleston and Savannah did any of our tour guides mention the Civil War, opting to call it the arguably more accurate: War Between the States. Not one of them uttered the word slavery. I don’t know what to make of the omission, just that it was strikingly noticeable. Was it out of politeness? Or shame? Or a past that seems too far away?
There’s something about the power of place. I grew up in New York where the landscape vibrates from the frenetic screeching of car horns and the rumbling of subways. Most of what is green has been over-taken by concrete and glass. There are too many people in too little space, and you have to crane your neck to see the sky.
It’s a different landscape. And a different kind of writing.