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[Detail] Major-General Zachary Taylor--President of the United States. 1848.

Descriptive Writing

The natural world provides the subject matter for much descriptive writing. Consider the following descriptions of Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp from various documents in The Capital and the Bay:

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Immigration thinks that the swamp may properly be accounted a natural wonder. It is an extensive region lying mostly in Virginia, but partly in North Carolina, and covered with dense forests of cypress, juniper, cedar and gum. It is a remote, weird region formerly inhabited by many wild animals. Its silence is broken by resounding echoes of the woodman's ax in hewing its trees that are of great value, for the manufacture of buckets, tubs, and other varieties of wooden-ware, for shingles, staves, and ship-timber. In the middle of the swamp is Lake Drummond (lying entirely on the Virginia side), a round body of water, being the largest lake in the state. It is noted for the purity of its amber colored water, the hue being derived from the roots of cypress and juniper. This water will remain for years without becoming stale or stagnant and is used by ships and vessels going on long sea voyages.

(page 19, "In Spring," in "The Lake of the Great Dismal, by Charles Frederick Stansbury")

The Dismal is a very large swamp or bogg, extending from north to south near 30 miles in length, and in breadth, from east to west, at a medium about ten miles. It lyes partly in Virginia, and partly in North Carolina. No less than 5 navigable rivers, besides creeks, rise out of it, whereof 2 run into Virginia, viz. the South Branch of Elizabeth, and the South Branch of Nansimond Rivers—and 3 into North Carolina, namely, North River, North-west River, and Perquimonds. All these hide their heads, properly speaking, in the Dismal, there being no signs of them above ground. For this reason there must be plentiful subterranean stores of water to feed so many rivers or else the soil is so replete with this element, draind from the higher land that surrounds it, that it can abundantly afford these supplys. This is most probable—because the ground of this swamp is a meer quagmire, trembling under the feet of those that walk upon it, and every impression is instantly filled with water. We could run a long stick up to the head without resistance—and wherever a fire was made, so soon as the crust of leaves and trash burnt through, the coals sunk down into a hole, and were extinguisht. The skirts of the Dismal towards the east were overgrown with reeds ten or 12 feet high, interlaced everywhere with strong bamboe-bryers, in which the men's feet were perpetually intangled. Among these, grows here and there a cypress, or a white cedar, which last is commonly mistaken for the juniper. Towards the south end of it, is a very large tract of reeds, without any trees at all growing amongst them, which being constantly green, and waving in the wind, is called the Green Sea. In many parts, especially on the borders, grows an evergreen shrub very plentifully, that goes by the name of a gall-bush. It bears a berry which dyes a black colour, like the gall of an oak, from whence it borrows its name. Near the middle of the Dismal the trees grow much thicker—the cypresses as well as the cedars. These being always green, and loaded with very large tops, are much exposed to the winds, and easily blown down in this boggy place where the soil is soft, and consequently affords but slender hold for the roots, that shoot into it. By these the passage is in most places interrupted, they lying piled in heaps, and horsing on one another; nor is this all, for the snags left upon them point every way, and require the utmost caution to clamber over them.

(Page 17, "A Description of the Dismal," in "A Description of the Dismal Swamp and a Proposal to Drain the Swamp," by William Byrd)

Search for more descriptions of the swamp in these two documents and in other documents in the collection.

  • What descriptive words or phrases are used by several authors?
  • What unique descriptions can you find?
  • What descriptions are most helpful in creating a mental image of the swamp? Why?

Search the collection for descriptions of other natural features, such as the Chesapeake Bay or James River, and analyze those descriptions. Write descriptions of a natural feature near the school and analyze class members’ writing using the questions above.