The author's vantage point on a small wooden boat which they rowed through the privately-maintained swamps of Cypress Gardens. The water is dark, nearly black, and is speckled with patches of green algae and plants. Cypress trees lie ahead, thinned out from past timbering. Though the path is a little unclear, there is only one direction visitors are allowed to follow.

The Containable Quagmire? Colonial Environmental Legacies and Continued Attempts to Control Swamps

In August 1938, nearly 12,000 majority-white New Deal laborers employed by the federal government began clearing land, relocating communities, and erecting a forty-two-mile system of dams and dikes under the direction of the South Carolina Public Service Authority. The project, which would eventually be known as the Santee-Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project, transformed the ecologies of Lowland South Carolina by creating two reservoirs that inundated over 170,000 acres of land in the center of the state. The landscape once contained tens of thousands of square acres of swampland, old-growth cypress forests, 901 (mostly Black) family homes, fertile agricultural land, and timber mills, but in New Dealers’ visions of progress, such spaces needed to be left behind or destroyed as they did not fit within the purview of “modern” America.

In June of 2022, I went to South Carolina in search of bygone terraqueous spaces. Notably, I wanted to experience the swamplands of South Carolina as residents encountered them a century ago. But, because my field sites now sit dozens of feet beneath 756 billion gallons of water in the man-made reservoirs of Lakes Marion and Moultrie in central South Carolina, these spaces technically no longer exist. Instead, I visited the ecological spaces that seek to mimic the antediluvian landscapes as they once were: the few extant swamps that surround the reservoirs.[1]

I spent several sticky summer days paddling through murky waters, identifying cypress trees and their knees, riding in a boat out to an island where a mill once stood, and peering fearfully at unblinking alligator eyes from afar. I swatted mosquitoes and listened for woodpeckers waded in ever-migratory shorelines. Still, something about it felt not quite right, as if my encounter with the Carolina swamplands was perfectly curated, entirely different from the ecotonal world the people I study experienced a century ago. And, in a way, I was right: the swamplands of Lowcountry South Carolina today are the swamplands that white settlers dreamed of centuries ago: knowable, containable, and possessable.

As I have written elsewhere, historical swamps were difficult, liminal terrains—transient, terraqueous ecotones in which groundwater and surface waters converge.[2] But they were also spaces of refuge for Black and Indigenous people, who took to the swamps to escape the gaze, control, and manipulation of white settlers and slaveowners who could not easily navigate the dense, terraqueous landscapes. Because of this spatial and social impermanency, swamplands do not easily conform to or align with designated property lines; swamplands cannot easily or naturally be contained.

To contain the uncontainable, and to make some swamplands worthy of conservation, white settlers first needed to destroy and drain other portions of the swamp. In the Santee-Cooper Project, this destruction was enacted through the creation of an intricate system of dams, canals, dikes, and locks and the inundation of Lakes Marion and Moultrie. This infrastructural maneuver simultaneously inundated over nearly 200,000 acres of land while also draining thousands of acres of swamp on the periphery. As my colleague, Rozalinda Borcilă, and her collaborator, Andrea Carlson, argue, “Draining regulates the distinctions between agentic and inert, life and non-life, between human and nonhuman and subhuman—it is an ongoing process of geopolitical mattering, a dismemberment of and from Indigenous place.”[3] Manipulating swamp boundaries is, therefore, the manipulation of ecological, biological, and social life therein.

What remained after the inundation and drainage were several swamps with firm geographical boundaries, state or private ownership, and, in many cases, a price of admission. Wetlands with whimsical names like Cypress Gardens and Sparkleberry Swamp feature lily pads and footbridges, flat-bottom boats, and guided tours. As one South Carolina tourism site writes, “The much-maligned swamp––a notorious haven for snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, and the occasional slimy monster––is not the muddy wasteland it’s made out to be. Think of it as a flooded forest where beautiful bald cypress and tupelos rise out of water as black as tea.”[4] While swamps may still be novel or unfamiliar environments to visitors, they are now entirely knowable, easily navigable, and a South Carolina bucket list item for anyone interested in visiting the romanticized Old South. Cypress Gardens, for example, which was once part of the Dean Hall Rice Plantation, often avoids its plantation history in promotional materials, and instead advertises itself as the site of the rowboat scene from The Notebook.

While I recognize the value of the conservation and preservation of these historic ecologies, very little about these swamps remains “natural.” Park perimeters are clearly defined, visitors are only allowed to row their boats through designated paths, and park operators appear to be more concerned with curating an appealing experience of the environment, rather than depicting the ecologies in their natural, unruly, difficult state. This tendency harkens back to the earliest days of white settlement, when colonists operated under a “make profitable, or destroy” mindset.

When I began this research, I knew it would be difficult to conceive of what 901 destroyed family homes once looked like scattered across nearly 200,000 acres of land prior to the creation of the reservoirs. But what I did not account for was the near impossibility of imagining what it would have been like to move through the now-destroyed swamplands. Very few swamps that exist in central South Carolina today reflect the landscape as it once was. This is because infrastructure projects facilitate forms of colonialism and governance that endure well beyond the immediate period of construction.

We are living in the wake of Black and Indigenous dispossession, and in the afterlife of historical ecologies. I am not quite sure if it would ever be possible to undo the drainage, containment, channelization, and destruction of our Southern swamps, at least not in our lifetime. But, in spite of this outlook, I will never stop dreaming about the unruly, the fugitive, the wretched, and the damned (rather than the dammed) ecologies where our ancestors loved and lived, learned and made abundant life.

[1] SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, “Santee Cooper Country” (2023), Discover South Carolina.

[2] Morgan P. Vickers, “On Swampification: Black Ecologies, Moral Geographies, and Racialized Swampland Destruction,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers (2022).

[3] Rozalinda Borcilă and Andrea Carlson, “Swamp-Wetland-Bank,” nY (June 25, 2020).

[4] SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, “5 of South Carolina’s Most Beautiful Cypress Swamps” (2023), Discover South Carolina.

*Cover image: Boat picture in the swampland, author’s archive. Visitors at Cypress Gardens are encouraged to take a free, self-guided tour of the swamplands which were featured in The Notebook. Visitors are guided by arrows and are only allowed to go in one direction, following a pre-planned path. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: The author’s vantage point on a small wooden boat which they rowed through the privately-maintained swamps of Cypress Gardens. The water is dark, nearly black, and is speckled with patches of green algae and plants. Cypress trees lie ahead, thinned out from past timbering. Though the path is a little unclear, there is only one direction visitors are allowed to follow.]

Edited by Lívia Regina Batista, reviewed by Aly Kreikemeier.

Tagged with: