A PERSONAL ESSAY: MERCHANT'S MILLPOND
spring, on their toes on the white sand. It
is only a little farther back from here that
my grandfather used to sink his fish trap
made from the buggy wheel and catch
50 speckled perch at a time, to feed his
family. It was illegal, but it also was the
1930s, and they depended on the catch.
This also was the part of the swamp where
Charlie and BH went hunting and where
in 1947, as Charlie was stepping back
into the boat, his shotgun went offinto
his ston"lach. The amazing part of the
story is, I think, as I look around here,
that Charlie made it out. It happened
somewhere near the goose nest.
This is the start of what is marked on
our map as Lassiter Swamp.
Back here, a snaking path of clear water
that is free of duckweed marks where the
creek used to run, before Merchant's Mill.
We find the old run and paddle against
the current, the wind at our backs. As our
boat slides toward the far shore behind a
stand of trees we leave the pond and hit
the old creek. Everything suddenly seems
very old. As one park ranger told me:"It's
just like going back a thousand years when
you're out there." We are now in clear
running water bordered on both sides by
thick stands of tupelo and cypress. Patches
of resurrection fern grow on the swollen
bases and upper surfaces of the branches
of many of these trees. Resurrection is an
apt term for all these trees, as these are all
either the survivors oflogging or new
growth since then. As a result, most of
the cypresses at the mouth of the swamp
are tall and thin, and most of the tupelo
are gnarled and contorted- wood that
would not have been marketable.
'In afew weeks, the air
will be thickly sweet
from all the blooms.
The water itselfis still
As we go farther up, the trees gradu-
and clear, dark brown,
like strong iced tea.'
ally become larger and their branches fan
out overhead as the channel becomes a
bit narrower. This must have been the
swamp as the Chowanoc Indians knew
it. Mter they were forced from their land,
this area, the "twelve-mile-square area
south of Bennett's Creek," served as their
reservation until the mid-1700s, when
the nation was exterminated. Before that,
from about 1000 AD until the 1600s,
when the Virginians headed south, this
was the home ofthe Lower Chowanocs.
But even thousands ofyears before that
agricultural nation settled here, Indians
hunted these woods and plied this creek
with dugout canoes.
Soon we notice the banks ofthe creek
rising. Though the run is still quite wide
and clear, the land to either side is high
and open. As the trees back here are
larger, there is very little underbrush.
Leaves and moss carpet the ground rather
than the rough tangle of vines, thorns and
weeds in the millpond. Our boat easily
slips between cypress knees to the shore,
and we walk on moss crushed by countless
other visitors. It was on such high ground,
and most likely this very ground, that
Indians since the Middle Archaic period
set up seasonal camps and smoked fish
over open fires. Before logging, most
woods must have been like this-open
and sheltered by limbs hundreds of feet
in the air. But these woods aren't that
old, and there are dogwoods blooming
not too far over our heads.
Once we are back out on the water,
our way becomes more difficult very
quickly. The beavers have been at work.
At first, we can coast me boat over the
dams, though the water level rises almost
an inch at each. We pass the largest beaver
lodge that I've seen so far-it's about 10
feet across and several feet out of the
water. The feeling that everything is get-
ting just a bit bigger-the water, the
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