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A Massive Morass of Elemental Beauty

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THE GREAT DISMAL: A CAROLINIAN'S SWAMP MEMOIR by Bland Simpson, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,

185 pp., $16.95

THE Great Dismal Swamp, shaped like a giant hourglass, rides the border between North Carolina and Virginia for about 15 miles. Near the center of the green tangle lies Lake Drummond, ``the color of tea, madeira, port, brandy, bourbon, ruby, chocolate, [and] blood...'' Once more than a million acres in size, the Dismal refuge still, despite draining, farming, and timbering, encompasses a mammoth 160,000 acres.

Nearby, in Elizabeth City, N.C., Bland Simpson grew up. Fascinated by and participant in the changes wrought daily and yearly in the Swamp by the seasons of nature and man, Simpson has, in this memoir, evoked the mystery and wonder of his youth. With Joycean lilt, he states, ``Ours was a riverine world, and the dark water was everywhere.'' Throughout ``The Great Dismal,'' Simpson demonstrates his sensitivity to the vulnerable, ominous beauty of the Swamp.

Simpson's book, however, presents more than just a descriptive hallelujah for this wild, vast track of wet wilderness. Simpson's concerns are broader, which make this more than just another nature book. It is about memory and history; about language, childhood, and manhood; about man over nature and nature over man. In language neither over-flowery, nor too simple, Simpson uncovers the interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, story of the Swamp.

The book intertwines the physical history of the Dismal with the history of its use and abuse by man, and chronicles Simpson's personal relationship with its ``whole massive morass'' and the people connected with it. The book also describes man's evolving awe of the Dismal's resources and beauty. That awe led to the Swamp becoming, in 1973, the ``largest single land donation to that date ever made [to] the American people for wildlife preservation'' when Union Camp logging company, through the Nature Conservancy, donated the Swamp to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

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