Our common word swamp comes from a rustic dialect of English, and only became widely used in North America in the seventeenth century. Swamp is a truly popular word, with a broad range of meanings, referring to wet spongy ground and often used interchangeably with bog, marsh, mire, and fen. But in precise usage, swamp refers to land with more trees than a marsh, better drained than a bog. A swamp has stretches of low-lying ground often interspersed with pools and hammocks of raised soil. Swamp water steeps roots and rotting vegetation, and is often colored like tea. Large swamps are found in saturated, low-lying flat terrain, but small upland swamps are common where the soil is clay and underground seepage abundant, for example in the Finger Lakes region of central New York. Most swamps have little peat accumulation, and no floating mats of vegetation typical of bogs. Swamps are Noah’s Arks of species, where scores of birds, insects, spiders, and amphibians live in the recesses. A paradise of alligators, muskrats, sometimes bears and panthers, swamps are a significant refuge for wildlife partly because they are of little commercial use unless drained. The Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia are two of the largest and best known. Swamps are places of overwhelming diversity of life, of primeval, melancholic gloom and ecological subtlety, haunted by poisonous insects, spiders, reptiles, and rare flowers, and sheltering great beauty.

Robert Morgan