I’ve snapped photos like this one likely many dozens of times; always at a spot where Wild Nature is still the big show. This photo, taken by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, looks due east, more or less, on the trail adjacent to the Washington Ditch, an aquatic link to Lake Drummond, which, at 3,100 acres, the largest natural lake in Virginia.
Both are inside Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Virginia.
From a dirt-and-gravel parking lot to a small dock on the north shore of Drummond is a 4.5-mile walk. Call it a “hike” if you want, but it’s level terrain all the way, unlike, say, the seven-mile trek up Mt. Marcy, which at 5,344 feet altitude, is the highest summit in the Adirondacks and a good, stiff hike, not a walk.
But that hike – first through a forest of hardwoods, then up (with a couple of switchbacks) through a coniferous forest to the treeline and on up to the summit rocks – is special to the human soul because it takes place in nature, not on the sidewalk (if there is a sidewalk) adjacent to a two-lane highway built to keep cars happy, not people on foot.
Same with walking at the Great Dismal.
The first thing one notices upon prepping – car trunk open – for the trek out to the lake is the forest and its trees. There are nearly 50 species in these woods. (See the whole list at www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_5/NWRS/South_Zone/Great_Dismal_Swamp_Complex/Great_Dismal_Swamp/Plants.pdf)
Then, particularly if yours is a springtime visit, are the sounds of nature. (On my daily fitness walks in Vermont it is both hopeful to hear some of these sounds above the din of an urban place, and saddening to realize all that’s been lost). Back to the big wetland.
It’s the third week of April and the spring migration at this latitude is at its peak. That means listen up and start identifying the birds voicing their thoughts. Some sought-after species (by northern birders like me) at the Great Dismal are the Prothonatary Warbler and Swainson’s Warbler. (Peruse the refuge’s bird checklist at www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_5/NWRS/South_Zone/Great_Dismal_Swamp_Complex/Great_Dismal_Swamp/GDSbirds.pdf)
The Great Dismal is also a butterflying hotspot. My weekend visits over my years of duty at the Air Force base in Hampton, Va., were made all the more memorable by Lepidoptera like the Great Purple Hairstreak, Palamedes Swallowtail, and Carolina Satyr.
Protecting places like the Great Dismal is integral to conserving their diversity of plant and animal species. And by putting them out of reach of the myriad despoilers and their machines of “progress, we preserve them as keys to the health of the human life.
The language of preservation, in this case, includes this: “The Dismal Swamp Act of 1974 directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to: “Manage the area for the primary purpose of protecting and preserving a unique and outstanding ecosystem, as well as protecting and perpetuating the diversity of animal and plant life therein. Management of the refuge will be directed to stabilize conditions in as wild a character as possible, consistent with achieving the refuge’s stated objectives.”
Note the word “wild.” That connotes the spirit of place. And we’d better take a good, long gander at our own place.