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We crossed the circle to its other bank,
passing a spring that boils and overflows
into a ditch the spring itself cut out.
The water was deeper dark than perse,
and we, with its gray waves for company,
made our way down a rough, strange path.
This dingy little stream, when it has reached
the bottom of the gray malignant slopes,
becomes a swamp that has the name of Styx.
Dante, Inferno VII
The going is shaky at first, but by the time you reach the main river you find your rhythm. A tight canal opens out into a wide section of the Suwannee below where the Middle and South forks join. You turn right, upriver, into a great nave of massive bald cypress bearded with Spanish moss. Their bark is the color of stone in the late evening sun. They guard the riverside like a row of medieval jamb statuary lining the portal to a Gothic cathedral. Their bodies are firm and unyielding, but their green tops sway almost imperceptibly, like the inclining heads of old saints. They are more than just alive; they seem to regard you. On either side the tree-walls converge to a point in the distance. The yellowing sky repeats itself identically on the flat glossy face of the water. Together they form an x-shape, whose center point upriver marks, somewhere, the spot of your final judgment.
There is an X-mark deep in the Okefenokee Swamp, but not many people know where it is. Maybe it’s not actually the site of your final judgment, but it is named for one. It is an origin in a borderland, a meeting of land and whatever is beneath it, a place with no real identifiable location, a permanently immobile point of crossing-over. Deathless daughter of Ocean, boundary between life and death, the final frontier: this is where the Okefenokee springs. It all begins in a headwater named The River Styx.
Like Queequeg’s native Kokovoko in Moby-Dick, “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
There is a map-knowledge of a body of water or land that anybody can have just by looking closely, and then there is the kind of knowledge that can only be had from the inside of a thing or a place. You can try, but finding the precise location of the Styx would be difficult, since it is indistinguishable from a massive watershed that has no distinct beginning and no distinct end. Linger here for long enough and the unwritten legend of non-existent maps will make itself plain to you: here be ancient gods, and their shadows.
The more famous but equally enigmatic Suwannee River has inspired songs and excited hypotheses about the name’s origins: it’s a corruption of “San Juan.” Or maybe “Shawnee,” no one really knows. The name’s origins are probably as multiple as the swamp’s. What St Isidore of Seville, the seventh-century Spanish theologian who could wring speculative etymology out of a single word like swamp-water from a dishrag, could have done with this place. The Suwannee that may or may not be named after the Beloved Disciple leads to the Gulf of Mexico; the Styx feeds the St Marys River, which perpetually empties itself into the Atlantic. A paradox, perhaps, that the Styx feeds a river named for the virgin God-bearer, but not really: the Okefenokee is an impenetrable mystery that humans have strained to meet with adequate names.
You might assume the site in the swamp is named for the mythological river separating the living from the dead, but it’s as easy to believe that the Georgia Styx came first. Moss-laden cypress brood over the face of the waters. Swallow-tailed kites surveil and skim its surface, while other beings more primal still break it from underneath. This place feels ancient, harrowing, and gorgeous. In geological time, it’s much younger than it seems: only about 7,000 years old, but old enough to have preceded by a long shot Hesiod and Homer, Herodotus and Tacitus, Virgil and Dante, all of whom imagined the frontier between life and death as an eternal swamp.
In the Aeneid, Virgil refers to the “swamp of Styx,” and Virgil’s most famous disciple borrowed the motif in his own epic poem 1300 years later. Crossing the swamp in Inferno, Dante notes that the “water was deeper dark than perse,” an eerie similarity to the depth of hue in the Georgia swamp. At the edge the river is the color of a glass of Coca-Cola in summertime, after the ice has melted — a gradient tone from clear at the surface to amber to dark brown. In the middle it is deep black. (I’m told it’s also delicious, and drinking it will fill you, like the lotus flower of Homer’s Odyssey, with an insatiable desire to return to the swamp.) In Dante, the river-swamp is teeming with souls in violent contest with one another, “faces scarred by rage.” Here there are faces like that, too, but not human ones, and you don’t really want to see them in that state.
The swamp is enchanted by spirits of its own: indigenous prehistoric reptiles whose eyes you begin to think you see around you everywhere. Alligator mississippiensis and Agkistrodon piscivorus. Both names are peculiar hybrids, of Latin and Chippewa and Latin and Greek, which give the creatures they name a kind of classical dignity that they don’t really need, since they are of a heritage more ancient than Latin or Greek, and inhabit a world that on the surface is as remote from classical influence as it is possible to be. The American alligator alone is so august and majestic that if Homer had ever witnessed one, he would have made it into a god, and the swamp its teeming Olympus.
You don’t need to come to the Okefenokee laden with such symbolic baggage. The swamp provides plenty of its own.
Alligator mississippiensis is feared for its power, but like the gods of ancient Greece, its attitude towards human beings is mostly indifferent. Unless, like Prometheus, you provoke them, they are just not that into you. Yet promethean attempts to hoodwink the river-god have often met with the blessings of Mammon: ever since white tourists began tossing money to roadside Seminoles hunting gators for food, wrestling alligators has become a lucrative practice. What began as a set of techniques designed to subdue prey, gator wrestling as a form of entertainment has its roots in an incurable white desire for exotic spectacle. Although still practiced by many Seminoles, the real intention of gator wrestling to magnify the fearsomeness of the reptile, and therefore to magnify the greater fearsomeness of human power. It is prometheanism as roadside show, human lust for domination as circus act. It may produce in the viewer a sense of respect for alligators, but it is more likely to leave one with a sense that there is nothing in heaven and earth that cannot be dominated by human trickery.
But you won’t find gator-wrasslers here. That’s mostly a Florida thing. But you will find vestiges of human guile. And while it should be a self-evident truth that alligators are dangerous, I’ve seen more than enough kids and adults throwing things at alligators to get their attention to be suspect of human rationality. But if there is anything truly scary about the Okefenokee Swamp, it is not really the alligators or the snakes, but its terrifying intensity of life.
Life is everywhere here, but it is mostly hidden from you: in the tangle of moss and mangrove, under the black surface of the river. Back in those recessed dens and hammocks, who can tell what bodies lurk, or what spirits? The Okefenokee is the landscape of unknowing, a terrestrial incarnation of inscrutable mystery, where even the living creatures who deign to reveal themselves to you are familiar yet strange, distant from you but nearer than you think, and, like the Seminoles whom white men forced out of here, “unconquerable,” yet in perennial danger.
The Styx of Virgil and Dante is not for the unburied, and the Georgia version isn’t either. Its extensions teem with real (if famously exaggerated) mortal dangers that often furnish the mythology of Okefenokee as a land of threat, where people go mysteriously missing by “accident” or where they go to disappear on purpose, to divest themselves of something. The swamp is a site of confrontation: you can’t come here and not face something within yourself or within the vast outland beyond its iffy boundaries, within everything that is not Okefenokee. It has a reputation as either actual or potential gravesite, a perpetual natural charnel-house where the ancient gods still contend with human desire for mastery.
Loggers and industrialists may have poached lumber and heavy minerals from the swamp, but writers and other word-traders have often made off with their own booty of imagery, legend, and mythos. Most of this has been benevolent, perhaps out of an undeniable urge to do this extraordinary wetland some justice in language, but sometimes the mostly negative reputation of the swamp is invoked with more nefarious intent. In 2017, during a Facebook exchange with LaDawn Jones, a Black attorney and state legislator from Atlanta, fellow state representative Jason Spencer took issue with Jones’s defense of removing Confederate monuments around the state. Spencer, from Woodbine east of the swamp, warned Jones not to bring her “Bolshevik” “hate” to his region. “People in South Georgia are people of action, not drama,” he wrote. He further threatened that anyone who came down there to remove those statues “will go missing in the Okefenokee.”
Spencer had bared his figurative white nationalist tuchus for all to see, but it wasn’t the last time. In 2018, you will remember, he got punked by Sacha Baron Cohen and bared his actual white ass on Showtime. Baron Cohen, playing a fake Israeli anti-terrorism expert named Col. Erran Morad, convinced Spencer that the best way to repel a homophobic terrorist was to show them your bare ass. Spencer went along, shuffling around the gym with his khakis around his ankles, grunting “America!” and shouting “I’ll touch you with my buttocks!” “USA mother----er!” It aired in July 2018. He resigned within a week. His political career vanished, but not in the Okefenokee.
The Swamp is a source, not an end: life comes out of it more than into it. The reward human civilization has paid the swamp for thousands of years of generating life is a particularly industrial kind of death: what does flow into the life-giving swamp these days tends to be in the form of the very real material detritus of human ambition and desire for wealth. What human life does come into it now tends to leave it after a short while, like the thousands of tourists who visit it each year to motor through the Suwannee. Like passing for a moment into and out of the Heraclitean flux of the river, tourists pass into and out of its particular mode of being. The flux is in a particularly south Georgia mode: unhurried, deliberate, patient, suffering with blithe indifference the impatience of tourists buzzing through the swamp in rented motorboats to survey as much as they can in a few hours.
I get it: the desire to see it all is strong. I’ve toyed with the motorboat idea myself, and I am sure one day I will spring for one, too. But no place I know of so resolutely resists being finally compassed as much as this swamp. The history of attempts to do so is a history of failure. The swamp is defiantly insistent: you cannot possibly take it all in. Don’t even try; instead try to ask what it means for you that you can’t.
No river is ever the same river twice, as Heraclitus is supposed to have said. But the Suwannee/St Marys in the Okefenokee is not even the same river once. It is permanence and transience all at the same time. A gator emerges to cross the river then submerges. A peregrine falcon roosts and dives, an epitome of the swamp itself as a terra peregrina, an unstable and pilgrim drift-land of wanderers and permanent residents, originally named “water-shaking,” or “the land of trembling earth.”
In the nineteenth century, the Swamp was regarded by many as a dismal backwater whose unexploited value was a “great waste.” One early surveyor, a Frenchman who had served as an aide-de-camp to Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo, described the site as “emphatically dismal.” Draining the swamp was characterized as a “liberation:” as if nature was holding itself back from freedom, human agency intervened to set loose the swamp unto its salvation. The Christian God—at least in one version—has also marked this place. Language about the Okefenokee in the nineteenth century echoes John Bunyan’s disposition towards boggy wetlands in The Pilgrim’s Progress. “The Slough of Despond” served Bunyan as a site of withering despair, an allegory for “the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run.”
Bunyan’s spiritual descendants inherited his pejorative metaphorical baggage, but the era’s enthusiasm for “progress” did not share Bunyan’s belief that his slough “cannot be mended.”
In time, the Okefenokee would become a site for the enactment of Manifest Destiny: an 1847 speech before the Phi Delta and Ciceronian Societies at Mercer University, then barely a decade old, holds the germ of that enactment. The speaker, a young Georgia lawyer with big political ambitions, sounded as if he were trying to win a contest in oratory. The speech is high-falutin, self-consciously erudite to the point of caricature, ecstatic in its praise for the divinely-ordained pedigree of the American project, and a classically over-the-top bit of nineteenth-century Southern declamatory rhetoric. It is a tour de force of Enlightened Anglophilic white supremacist Christian colonialism, of the sort which is making such an energetic — if somewhat less “Ciceronian” — coming-out in recent years. It is also highly illuminating for the chilling theological rationale that underpins it.
The design of God, in reference to the future glory of our country, is unequivocal to the mind of the christian philosopher who believes in the sublime doctrine, that the hairs of our heads are all numbered. Upon any other supposition, how inscrutable and apparently unwise are His dealings towards the aboriginal tribes of this continent! Behold how rapidly they disappear before the progress of the Anglo-American race! From the evidences of the past, there is strong probability that they are doomed to extinction. Having hitherto almost entirely resisted efforts for their civilization, and eschewed social incorporation with the whiteman, they must, while they persist in such a policy, continue to recede before his approaches, until finally the blaze of their council fires shall expire in the darkness of total extermination. Like us, they are creatures of God, made in his image, and endowed with intellect. They are a brave and hardy race, and they possess many, though savage virtues. But they refuse to cultivate the earth, which is the first great law of civilization; and they roam the forest, wild as the game they chase in pursuit of subsistence. Ignorant of the true God, they worship their Great Spirit, as he whispers in the breeze, roars in the cataract, or thunders in the storm. It is not, therefore, for the mere purpose of exchanging one race for another, that the Indian tribes are thus permitted by the Divine Being, to be driven before the mighty tide of white population. This were unworthy his wisdom and beneficence. But it is to substitute civilization, in all its beauty, excellence and glory, for barbarism, in all its cruelty, deformity and degradation. It was for this, that the infant colonies, in their weakness and paucity of resources, were shielded against the daring intrepidity, or the ambushed assassinations of these fierce and numerous nations. It is for this, that their title to the soil has been gradually extinguished, by treaty stipulations, to meet the emergencies of increasing population. It is for this, that in all our border contests, since the formation of our government, our arms have been victorious and our savage neighbors awed into respect for rights which they did not recognise.
The speaker got what the speech itself suggests he wanted, apparently: an honorary membership in the Ciceronian Society and the accompanying mantle of the famous Roman himself (as well as publication of the speech). He had an appropriately classical name to boot: Herschel Vespasian Johnson.
The patronage of the Roman imperator and demi-god suited him. Eight years after this speech, Johnson was Governor of Georgia. A slaveholder himself and enthusiastic defender of the moral propriety of slavery on Biblical grounds, Johnson believed that “southern slavery is a great necessity of the civilized world, and consequently, those who wage war against it are hostile to the welfare of mankind.” For Johnson, “the design of Providence” called for “the substitution of the white for the redman on this continent.” In his first term as Governor, Johnson initiated a process to reclaim the Okefenokee swamp from the “savages,” in order to “improve” the land. On February 26th, 1854, the state legislature approved the following motion:
Whereas, the State of Georgia holds the title to a large tract of unimproved, and at present worse than useless land, known as the Okefenoke Swamp [sic]; And whereas, in the opinion of many intelligent persons that said lands could be rendered so valuable by drainage as to yield a large revenue to the State.
It would be another several decades before anyone really followed through with those plans. The state of Georgia eventually gave up on trying to reclaim the swamp itself, and began exploring other means to do so privately. But the internal theological logic of reclamation endured.
The Atlanta Constitution funded an ongoing expedition in 1875 to explore the “mammoth mystery of Georgia.” In September of that year the newspaper published its first dispatch from Valdosta. By the third letter, the explorers had moved from wonder to seeing lucre: “the Okefenokee would be A GOLD MINE if it could be drained. There is no telling what this pond would produce if an industrious and scientific farmer had hold of it.”
By 1890 the Okefenokee had “caught the eye of capital” and prospectors and the venture capitalists of the day drooled over the commercial potential of the region. Governor John B. Gordon — former Confederate general and leader of the Klan in Georgia after the War—put the swamp up for sale to the highest bidder. By the time the Okefenokee went on the market, it was drawn into an ongoing debate in the state legislature over the convict leasing system. (Governor Gordon was drawn into it, too, as a beneficiary of the leasing system he supported.) The Okefenokee, some argued, could provide the solution to the intractable debates over the convict leasing system for which many argued, in the form of a permanent supply farm. Some New South advocates believed the Okefenokee could be the next Mississippi Delta with many of the same features: incredibly fertile soil, fabulous riches, and a lucrative convict lease system furnished by a prison farm like Parchman. In his defense of the reclamation project, W. G. Cooper claimed that “Out door work is generally conceded to be best for them.”  In both senses, the human and natural economies, jurisprudential and criminal systems were to be put into the service of white wealth.
For just over $63,000, the property went to a newly-incorporated company called the Suwannee Canal Company, led by Captain Harry Rootes Jackson, Jr. of Atlanta. The digging commenced immediately. In 1892 a writer for the Constitutiongushed about how the swamp was being “transformed into a busy scene of industry and progress, with sawmills spinning and freight boats adrift all conspire to make this an interesting study to the scientist and the progressive citizen.” Like many of his contemporaries, the same writer envisioned the draining of the swamp as a liberation, in which the “waters of famous old Okefenokee will be turned loose in freedom to run on to the blue waves of the Atlantic.” In a telling possible typo, the author described the waters of the swamp as “damned up.”
The “reclamation” project depended heavily on convict labor, in a reflection of the era’s prominent theology of white mastery: inferior to man, nature was to be tamed, controlled, and even “reclaimed” from itself, in much the same way that the inborn “laziness” and “brutishness” of Black people were to be tamed, controlled, and “redeemed” from themselves. It is no accident that the “salvation” of the Okefenokee coincides with a period in which white Southern politicians thought of their work as “Redemption.” Defenders of drainage also used the language of “redeeming” the swamp, and the convict labor system that replaced chattel slavery and which would be engaged to do the actual work of draining, was driven by a similar logic of moral improvement.
That redemption of brute nature was to take place in spectacular fashion, as Captain Jackson described it in 1892:
We are going to put tremendous loads of dynamite all under the earth the balance of the distance of the canal that is yet not cut and will connect each load with wires and will touch it off with electricity. It will all go off with a thundering explosion, tearing away the earth, and instantaneously the gigantic pumps will be throwing water into the canal at a fearful rate, thus giving a very effective washout. The work is something immense and you cannot fancy at all accurately what it is until you could go and see it with your own eyes.
“[Y]ou cannot fancy at all accurately what it is until you could go and see it with your own eyes:” this could be a motto for the Okefenokee itself, but Jackson didn’t mean the swamp. He meant the buzzing and hissing battalion of titanic steam skidders, sawmills, and locomotives: the sounds of progress.
Jackson’s ambitious project lasted only five years before the swamp defeated it. Jackson himself didn’t make it that long. He died in 1895, and The Suwannee Canal Company went under in 1897. The doomed attempt became known to locals as “Jackson’s Folly.” Strictly speaking, it should be known as “Jacksons’ Folly:” after Captain Jackson died in 1895, his father, Harry R. Jackson—a poet and former Confederate General — took over the Suwannee Canal Company, but he couldn’t sustain it either. The elder Jackson’s heart wasn’t in the Okefenokee Swamp, anyway. It was more likely in “The Red Old Hills of Georgia,” the subject of his most well-known work of sentimental poetry.
In 1937, thanks largely to preservation efforts by Roland, Francis, and Jean Harper, northerners with the ear of President Franklin Roosevelt, the Okefenokee was spared further devastation through purchase by the federal government and designation as a National Wildlife Refuge. By then most of the native cypress had been hacked down and shipped out. The remains of white settlements and failed attempts to generate white wealth from scouring the swamp are now scarce. The built environment around the swamp — such as it is — bears the visible legacy of both segregation and federal largesse: in a particularly ironic turn of fortune, the roads and facilities that now serve visitors to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge were built by an all-Black unit of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
For the most part, the Okefenokee has managed defiantly to resist the encroachment of the empire of expedience and its graspy gods. But they still skirt along the tenuous borders, even now.
In its final months in office in 2020, the Trump Administration dissolved portions of the Clean Water Act, which broadly defined the “Waters of the United States” to include navigable rivers and lakes as well as wetlands like the Okefenokee. Trump had long had his eye on these regulations: in one of his first executive orders, he targeted the 2015 Clean Waters Rule for review. Effective June 2020, The Navigable Waters Protection Rule curtailed federal protection for 45 million acres of wetlands including the Okefenokee, opening the door for land-hunting developers and industrialists. It should have been obvious that the intention to protect the nation’s waters from environmental damage was all talk. The real intended audience for Trump’s new plan was in the audience at the Las Vegas Convention Center where he unveiled it: the National Association of Home Builders.
It didn’t take long for industrialists to seize the opportunity. Even before the Clean Water Rule was revised, in 2019 an Alabama Company called Twin Pines Minerals filed for a permit to build a 600-acre titanium mine along Trail Ridge, the Okefenokee’s eastern boundary. Protests were swift and loud. The potential threat to the swamp could be serious, and irreversible. (In 1997, DuPont abandoned similar plans for a titanium mine of its own after intense opposition from conservationists and politicians.) But following the the new regulation in 2020, Twin Pines went ahead, saying it no longer needed a federal permit to strip mine Trail Ridge. The ruling that made it possible was initially co-signed by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. But after the Twin Pines proposal threatened the fragile ecosystem of the largest wildlife refuge on the east coast, even the EPA’s own regional manager said the mine would “have a substantial and unacceptable impact” on the swamp. The current leadership of the EPA vowed in June 2021 to revise the The Navigable Waters Protection Rule, and re-intensify federal protections for wetlands like the Okefenokee. The fate of the mine — and the swamp — remains unclear, but as a result of the Trump-era ruling, the Okefenokee/St Marys River is now considered one of the ten most endangered rivers in the country.
But the object of desire of the proposed Twin Mines project has a perversely classical poetic ring to it. Just what is this precious and sought-after buried treasure along Trail Ridge? Titanium dioxide, a natural mineral compound frequently used in paint pigments to achieve the “whitest white” possible. It’s the reason why “Titanium White” is so named. It is a mineral embodiment of the ideal and idol of whiteness, used in toothpaste to achieve that pearly smile, in sunscreens to ward off darker skin and the offending beams of the Sun-God, to communicate the aura of purity in the pages of Holy Bibles, and in whatever devilishly delicious matter constitutes the filling inside of an Oreo cookie.
Named for fallen gods, titanium can claim a fitting patronage for a mineral whose pursuit here has a history of failure. Nomen est omen, they say. To name is to destine. According to Hesiod, Titans were those sons of heaven who “strained in insolence, and did a deed for which they would be punished afterwards.” In antiquity the Titans were the avatars of defeat, who bore “the characteristics of ancestors whose dangerous qualities reappear in their posterity.” Descendants of those deposed gods continue to materialize here on the margins of the Okefenokee as they have done ever since white men found out about this place. There is, possibly, some solace to be taken from the old myths: banished to Tartarus, the Titans, the “over-reachers,” belong to the past, as reminders to the living of the peril of hubris. But deathless Sytx is still with us, at least for as long as the unburied cannot locate it.
 Atlanta Constitution, 27 June 1892, p. 1.
 E. Merton Coulter, “The Okefenokee Swamp: Its History and Legends, Part II,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 48.3 (September 1964), pp. 291-312, at 291.
 Herschel Vespasian Johnson, The probable destiny of our country; the requisites to fulfil that destiny; and the duty of Georgia in the premises: an address before the Phi Delta and Ciceronian Societies of Mercer University; delivered on the 14th of July, A. D. 1847 (Penfield, GA: Printed at the Temperance Banner Office, 1847), p. 7.
 The Daily Constitutionalist and Republic (Augusta, GA), 27 July 1858, p. 3.
 Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, 1855-56 (Milledgeville GA: Boughton, Nisbet & Barnes, State Printers, 1856), p. 273.
 Atlanta Constitution, 7 September 1875, p. 2.
 Atlanta Constitution, 15 September 1875, p. 2.
 Atlanta Constitution, 29 July 1889, p. 8.
 Atlanta Constitution, 28 April 1892, p. 8.
 Hesiod, Theogony, tr. Dorothea Wender (New York: Penguin 1973), 209, p. 30.
 C. Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks (London: Thames & Hudson 1951), p. 20.