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Swamps, Squash, Slavery

It is difficult to imagine a sufficient motive to have induced any man to penetrate a mile into the swamp before paths were cut and made solid enough, for the purpose of getting the timber.  And these obstacles long prevented any person from going far from the borders.  Edmund Ruffin, “Observations Made During an Excursion to the Dismal Swamp” (1837)


In 1728, William Byrd set out to mark the border between Virginia and North Carolina, to sort the industrious Virginians from the Carolina riffraff.  The one problem was that the task required traversing the “vast mire of nastiness” known as the Great Dismal Swamp, a “quaking morass” of submerged cypress and juniper trees, gnarled underbrush, and menacing wildlife, bears, lions, snakes, even ferocious wild cattle.  The trudge through the swamp was so treacherous and slow that Byrd’s crew nearly ran out of food ten miles in and had to exit north to resupply.  They found the swamp a blighted and melancholy terrain, foul, corrupt, and unsuited to human life.  Indeed, “not even a turkey buzzard [would] venture to fly over” the swamp’s stinking center.

The obvious thing to do, then, was to develop it.  In 1763, George Washington founded the Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp, established to convert the swamp into farmland.  If the water could be got rid of, the soils below were sure to be extravagantly fertile.  But all Washington’s efforts failed.  When after three decades developers were finally able to cut a canal from Elizabeth City to Norfolk, they settled for the modest profits of “shingle getting,” harvesting the junipers that hugged the canal.  In all, the “impenetrable fastnesses” of the great quagmire resisted the big plans early Americans had for it.

In the words of the historical archeologist Daniel Sayers, the Great Dismal Swamp became a “node of remoteness,” embedded with the spatial limits of the developing zone but unassimilable to its goals.  Because the swamp was so close yet so far away—geographically proximate but environmentally befuddling and culturally distinct—it became a dynamic scene of marronage.  Fugitives reinterpreted the very same environmental conditions that frustrated and frightened developers as safeguards against slave catchers.  They learned to navigate its fastness and formed sustained maroon communities, turning dry plateaus into gardens, hunting the prolific game, and poaching fowl and crops off nearby plantations.

In the swamp, resistant people joined up with a resistant landscape. There, they defied both terms of the paradox of racism: slaveholders believed, on the one hand, that slaves could be cultivated into totally obedient laborers and, on the other, that their unruly natures could never be cultivated into full humanity, let alone citizenship.  So very remote, so alarmingly close, slaves farmed a stinking wasteland, taking cultivation—of the ground, of their lives—into their own collective hands.



parterre reconstructionPlantation landscapes are often spoken of as “articulated” landscapes.  In the more technical sense, an articulated landscape is one designed to move people through it in a particular order and to produce particular views.  Plantation visitors might have been shepherded down a live oak avenue, say, past a bowling green and apple orchard, toward a formal parterre garden with its crushed-oyster paths creating geometric patterns in the fashion of the French.  In the more colloquial sense, to speak of a landscape as “articulated” is to suggest that its design is meant to communicate something, in this case, the (myth of the) natural and social order used to justify plantation slavery.  Tightly trimmed boxwood and perfectly spaced tulips displayed the planter’s power to manipulate the stuff of nature, and by situating the mansion at the highest topographic point amid luscious, sculpted gardens, planters reinforced spatially their supposed superiority over enslaved people, who could be seen toiling in the monocultural fields below.

When I picture plantation landscapes, I see them absolutely infiltrated by nodes of remoteness, like tiny, significant snags just everywhere in the fabric.  One thing that you won’t find on plantation site plans, for example, are slaves’ gardens.  In fenced areas next to their dwellings, U.S. slaves grew potatoes, field peas, pole beans, squash, collards, tomatoes, and so on, crops that became the basis of an internal economy between slaves and, most commonly, the plantation mistress or another female member of the planter family.  At Monticello, for example, over half of the adult slaves traded with Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ann Cary Randolph, transactions she meticulously recorded as part of her official training in housewifery.

Many planters encouraged slaves to keep gardens because homegrown vegetables reduced the cost of production and, they believed, made slaves less liable to run away.  They are, in this sense, conceptually vexed spaces that could, no doubt, be read as Frederick Douglass reads plantations’ jubilant Christmas festivities: as mechanisms for letting the steam out of a system that would otherwise boil over, Exhibit A of the psychological manipulation exercised by slaveholders.  But slaves’ gardens were not, I don’t think, simply zones of exploitation, although they were also that.  Toni Morrison describes the smell of a spring-harvested turnip as “bitter but happy,” and this seems an apt description of the garden.  Unarticulated within the formal landscape, evacuated from the plan, gardens were remote in the sense their presence conspicuously contradicted supposed truths of slavery—that to be property was to be by definition unable to hold property, for example—and scrambled the messages being articulated, horticulturally and every which way, above.



fugitive trimmedI’m fairly obsessed with the historical unfolding of remoteness, as well as the ways its correlatives have been enfolded in and disarticulated from our received histories.  No doubt, the absence of slaves’ gardens from the historical record has to do with the forced textual illiteracy of enslaved people and the systematic delegitimation of their experiences, as well as the ephemerality of the space itself.  But the record’s relative silence on them seems also a quality of their continued remoteness.  As you get close to the plantation, the garden recedes, even now, tactically, beguilingly, wonderfully.  As slaves’ gardens blur into view, one gets the feeling that they are still being guarded, this time from the inexorable violences of history-making.

But I also love this concept, well, conceptually.  The swamp and the garden give us a way of thinking about being “in but not of”—one of the many elegant and shattering phrases that Moten and Harney use to describe inhabitants of our modern day “undercommons,” the place where the labor whom capital absolutely requires and absolutely excludes gathers “to abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony.”  The swamp and the garden teach us that remoteness has little to do with distance (indeed, in a way, the closer the better) and more to do with power, the power to poach and to have a motive and to enact a vast mire of commonness.


Lynne Feeley: Can make it if we run. 

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