The Grace of the World

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“I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

–From “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry

About 18 miles outside the main gate of St. James Plantation, down 211 and a little more than five miles after it crosses Highway 17 in Supply, is a time machine. Within minutes, you’re in a habitat that looks almost exactly as it did two centuries ago.

You’re in the Green Swamp Preserve, a nearly 17,000-acre ecosystem managed by the Nature Conservancy. It’s one of the last remnants of a great longleaf pine forest that once spanned more than 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas.

The pressures of development took a toll. Today, the longleaf pine forest is less than five million acres, and the Green Swamp Preserve is one of the largest remaining contiguous pockets of the longleaf ecosystem.

The longleaf pine forest was an important resource basin as the U.S. grew rapidly in the 19th century. Longleaf pines produced tar, turpentine and timber (known as “naval stores”) for commercial and military ship production. The durability of longleaf logs, some as old as 500 years, was renowned. Many of the ships that landed at Normandy in World War II were made from longleaf timber, according to Robert Abernathy, president of the Longleaf Alliance and a resident of Duplin County.

In 1977, the Federal Paper Board deeded a large tract of land in the Green Swamp to the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation organization, which has managed the property since then.

The Nature Conservancy’s focus is on gradual clearing of loblolly and slash pine, quick-growing species introduced by the lumber industry. At the same time, it’s promoting more robust reproduction of longleaf pines, primarily through controlled burns. Fires prompt cones to drop their seeds and clear the ground of brush so the seeds can take root.

Today, Green Swamp is home to 14 species of carnivorous plants, including the Venus flytrap, as well as several endangered animal species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Henslow’s sparrow, Bachman’s sparrow and Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly.

The swamp is also home to alligators, fox squirrels, bobcats and a black bear or two. In addition, orchids and a profusion of other wildflowers can be found there.

Peak season at Green Swamp is just about to start.

“From April through October, there is a succession of different wildflowers blooming in Green Swamp,” said Roger Shew, a naturalist and lecturer in geology at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “It’s like different chapters in a long book.”

Shew recently delivered an informative talk on Green Swamp to the St. James Birders, and his enthusiasm was contagious. “People from all over the world visit Green Swamp,” he said. “I once ran into someone from Germany who traveled all the way here to see a Venus flytrap.”

Green Swamp is also notable for being part of a recognized biodiversity “hotspot.”

In 2015, the North American Coastal Plain, which stretches from Cape Cod to northern Mexico, was recognized by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) as the 36th biodiversity hotspot in the world. To qualify, an area must contain at least 1,500 endemic species (those that are not found elsewhere) and have experienced 70 percent or more of habitat loss.

Preserving those natural habitats is critical to a healthy environment, Shew said. “Fragmentation of natural ecosystems is devastating.”

Visiting Green Swamp is a great way to while away a morning or afternoon. Take state Highway 211 toward Supply. About 5.5 miles past Highway 17, a small sign marks a parking area on the right-hand side of 211 (also known as Green Swamp Road through this area). Park next to a large pond called the “borrow pit” (so named because it’s where sand was “borrowed” to build nearby roads).

From there, follow the trail marked by red diamond tags on the trees. After a half-mile, you’ll enter a prime example of a longleaf pine savannah — a vast, open field of pines and grasses bordered by a thick growth known as a “pocosin,” a Native American word for “swamp on a hill.”

Now, here’s one of the best ways to experience Green Swamp Preserve and connect with the spirit of the Wendell Berry poem extracted above. When you’re in the savannah, stand still or sit down — whatever’s comfortable. Wait for the skies to clear of airplanes. Wait for the road to clear of traffic noise. Take a deep breath. Listen to the breeze through the pines, the songs of the birds, just as it was 200 years ago. Feel time slow down, and experience “the grace of the world.”

(This piece originally appeared in the May 2018 edition of the award-winning “Cat-Tales.”)

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