Sunrise brings a humid, warm air. The humidity is so great that it tints all things around. Nature looks as if you are viewing it through rose-colored glasses. The strange sounds of night life have ended. There is a distant caw, a faint warble. Water sloshes as somewhere an alligator has slipped into it. It is an eerie abandoned natural amusement park with invisible caretakers. It is off limits to people, but it is preserved and maintained like an old watch, a watch that has stopped. It is America before humans were here. No human could survive in here for long. It is therefore naturally a self protecting wilderness. But it is also a wilderness by decree of the US Government.
The Okefenokee is not the Georgia that most envision in their minds. It doesn’t recall the Deep South of polite manners, ante-bellum homes, plantations and cultivated cotton fields. It really doesn’t suggest America at all. It has a primordial feel, which in essence is appropriate because that’s what this place is. It is devoid of civilization because it is incapable of hosting mankind. There is very little bottom throughout the whole “land” because the bottom is nothing but the accumulation of peat— the wooded part of vegetation. The retreat of the ocean at some distant past left a sandy basin here. The off-scouring of endless time, the rain and seepage of countless generations, 10,000 years the bloom and leaves of spring and autumn have created this area. The swamp is mulch. It is a massive tea pot of nature. Here under the sun, in the humid wraith, it has steeped together the fresh water and the wooded residue to create a cola colored water saturated with tannic acid. Decomposition has made it very acidic.
The passing of mankind cannot be found here. Man’s acquaintance with the area survives only in the Indian word: Okefenokee. This means the Land of Trembling Earth. It was given this name by the Indians because walking on its lush, verdant prairies only produced vertigo. Stamping on islands caused the ground to move and the trees to sway. It is so unstable because everything is growing into peat, not earth. Furthermore, the peat, even miles and miles of prairies, floats over the cola colored water beneath. Beneath the water there is that ancient sand. Altogether this means a deep bottom of loose sand, 15 feet of water, perhaps on top of this 6 or less feet of peat.
Things grow beautifully and quickly in such a rich medium, but they do not grow so securely. Therefore indeed it is the land of trembling earth.
You can walk on some of it. But it is possible that you could fall through the prairies at a thin point. The areas that are truly solid sport a vegetation known as titi (pronounced tye-tye). It is thick, brambly and grows in an intertwining basket weave. It is basically impossible to hack through. There are billions of carnivorous bugs around, uncounted number of species of poisonous snakes. About 15,000 alligators (one got 14 feet long!). On top of this there are species out there that have never been cataloged.
This is not what makes the Okefenokee completely unique. What truly sets it apart is that it covers about 650 square miles of southern Georgia. It is swamp, peat bog, wetland forest, and miles and miles of old canals dating to the 19th century. It is truly an abandoned part of America. And there is nothing so isolated and desolate in our senses as a place that is abandoned.
The momentos of mankind, in this instance, are the miles and miles of canals. On a few occasions there were attempts to farm the area for timber. The lumber companies dug these canals to help access huge groves of 500 year old cypress. Cypress is a slow rot wood,. For the humid South this was highly desirable. However, they soon found out the area has no bottom. Railroad tracks collapsed. The canals were overgrown. It simply wasn’t feasible to build, maintain, dig, and excavate to access an isolated grove of trees. The companies went broke. Therefore one rightly says it is abandoned. The canals remain. They remind one of the artifacts left behind in a ramshackle cabin. They are the reminders of human passing, but also the reminders of failing.