Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hockomock Swamp, South Easton, Massachusetts. What it is like to die there.

Punch a person from Easton in the face and the blood that drips from their nose will have been drunk at least once by a mosquito from the Hockomock Swamp.

On September 3, 2003 I got up at dawn and drove down Washington Street four miles from Unionville to the Easton/Raynham line and crawled through an endless thicket of clethra and red maple to the old cinder railroad bed the MBTA wants to use to wreck the heart of the Hockomock. On this hot and sunny September day, the Hockomock was so dry that the hummocks of sphagnum around the highbush blueberry roots were like fluffy hotel pillows. You could sleep on them.

I thought about what Jack and Anne Marie Kent said to us swamp stomping little kooks at Wheaton Farm Day Camp in 1972 about the Easton legend of the Wampanoags using sphagnum moss as diapers.

After an hour of crawling, I reached the old railroad bed and then an open glade to a well-made and new deer stand in a big hemlock tree on a small island in the swamp, almost to the Easton Rotten Gum Club and then I turned back, chased by one septillion mosquitoes as the sun got to noon.

There are no paths in the Hockomock's heart. Even the deer get lost. What trails exist on the edges peter out as the higher ground sags into the swamp proper. It is automatic you will get lost, especially on a cloudy day when you cannot use the sun for direction. Due to the high ilmenite content of the glaciomarine clay that underlies the deepest parts of the swamp, GPS units give unreliable directional readings.

Getting lost in the Hock can kill you. There are no directions, no maps, no signs, no bearings, no paths, no trails. The Hockomock doesn't care about you. You could be crying and crawling in circles under briars on your hands and knees and be just a few feet from a faint deer trail that leads you back to higher ground, but you will never know it. And this is in the dry season, when the Hockomock is at its most kind and gentle. When the Swamp is dank, dark and wet, which is most of the time, there are no dry spots. Imagine 6,000 acres of dark, still water and every inch alive with writhing, wriggling, squiggling larval mosquitoes. Imagine them hatching out by the thousands every second and starving for human blood. And you are the only human. And you are lost. Imagine 500 female mosquitoes landing on you every second needing your blood to make eggs, even as you slap the 500 already on you. Imagine this until you are a lump of bloody welts and your eyes are swollen shut. Imagine it is dark, you are too weak to walk and you try to bury yourself in the stinking, cement-like mud that surrounds you. Imagine the last sound you ever hear is the whine of a dozen mosquitoes inside your middle ear canal as you try to breathe.


What fascinates me about the Hockomock is how it cannot be defined. I went into the Hock on Sept. 3, 2003 under ideal conditions -- extremely dry weather, end of the mosquito season -- but was still chased out by a billion of the buggers. As it neared noon, I would kill 30 mosquitoes on my calf and in a few seconds another 30 would land. I had to run and could not even think of setting up the camera tripod to take footage. Just walking slowly would invite a horde of them to land on my face, arms and legs. I purposely chose the most ridiculously difficult route in: straight west from Route 138 at the Easton/Raynham line into the red maple swamp. This route requires you to crawl. But it was dry, so crawling was an option.

What I notice most, now reviewing this video footage, is how quiet it is. The Hockomock is one of the only quiet places left in eastern Massachusetts. The sounds of the Hockomock are, to me, as precious as the sights. The sounds of the mid day, late summer crickets and (what else?) unidentifiable insect sounds are the backdrop -- the blue sky -- to what it means to have grown up around and in the Hockomock. These were the sounds we heard hiding from the Easton cops as they searched with flashlights for us and our beer at any one of many dirt roads and turn-outs. The endless cricket rhythm is like a night light.

What is also striking about the Hock is that every square inch is occupied by a plant. Aside from the 37 octillion mosquitoes and deerflies landing on your head every second, entering the Hockomock is to enter a place completely occupied and ruled over by plants. Everything you see, touch, step on, trip on and over is a plant. The peat in the Hockomock is over 40 feet deep. There are no rocks. You are walking on 40 feet of plants. 12,000 years of plants. The only non-plant elements are you, the mosquitoes and the sky.

Don't Knock the Hock.

Respect it.

The Hockomock is our cradle.

The sphagnum is our pillow.

The cedars are our great great grandparents.

There is a spot in the Hockomock near the Raynham Dog Track which has a grove of Atlantic White Cedars that are close to 500 years old. They are huge. It is nearly impossible to reach them, except by crawling for a hundred yards on your knees and hands in cold Moxie-colored water and muck and being bitten by one billion mosquitos. This is probably the only reason why these mammoth cedars still exist: nobody has yet to get close enough to them to kill them.

They are truly beautiful. Each of these cedars creates its own little island and plant ecosystem in the swamp.

Next time, I will take you there.

If I get there.

UPDATE 1: I believe the large daisy-like yellow flowers in the video are Helianthus strumosus or a close relative. Given how far they are into the Hockomock I am assuming they are native. If anyone knows otherwise, please shout at info "@" dougwatts.com

UPDATE 2: Since this was filmed and written, there has been a sighting of the Bormonderlandster behind the grassed-in kennels at Raynham Dog Track. Broken branches, tree limbs and bloody scratch tickets suggest it went toward the deepest part of the Hockomock, or Ryan Iron Works, or Landy's Market, or the Great American Pub. Or all three. More details as they emerge.


jake said...

Brave work...enjoyed the footage

Jack said...

Hi Doug,
Stumble across your blog and found your article regarding the Hockomock Swamp. I found your reference regarding the comments about the ferns that you learned about from your days at Wheaton Farm interesting. I recall commenting on that in those days as using them as a hat to keep the bugs off your head. It seems to work and my theory is that the bugs are laughing too hard to bite you with a fern on your head. It's good to see that Wheaton Farm has given you a great appreciation of the land around us and most importantly a concern of keeping our environment intact for everyone's future. By the way, my sister's name is Jeanmarie. Thanks,


lia said...

Hi, looking back at these posts I'm wondering if this blog is still "alive"? My boyfriend and his buddy decided Sunday, the highest UV day of the season July 10 2011, to try as a threesome to kayak a path they'd once begun by canoe, only to turn around due to time or depth, or... well after the first ten minutes I'm surprised the pair ofthem ina canoe made it further. Anyways, this being my fifth ever trip kayaking, I don't like the idea of uncharted territory or three hours. However, this bright and sunny 90* day we parked an sugar our "destination" a boatramp on lake nippenetucket on lake St. Off of 104 in bridgewater.. I think... nothing was explained to me before of course. Well we started somewhere by 106 andkayaked away. I never saw yells flowers. Purple morning glories, pussy willow, lots of grass. After 15 minutes way too many carenes into branches, I already had enough. But I have to proove myself to these men. We come to a path that we have to land and relaunch, to the left of a large farm. I hear dogs animals... saw a small turtle... no fish. Black birds w red faces. This adventure would take eons to describe. But three hours in we reached land by following the stream and skiing through grasses toward power lines to a dirt road. Once docked I ran left.it forked. I turned right. It went forever, I wanted o follow the road. It seemed to eventually clear. The men chosen he opposite dirrectio. At on point I almost gave up. Five hours in, and handed car keys to Eric. I'm not gonna make it, I thought. Actually I wanted to turn back toward the road and walk til I found people. Or call someone, I'm not an idiot. But my boyfriend refused to split. I wasted half an hour whining and used my wrath to forge on. Battled a fallen tree by limboing under... br got out, the other got soaked trying to follow me. About to give up, the moon now whitening g in the darkening blue sky... five becomes six... but I swear my clock went backwards and forwards. We came to 24, exactly where we weren't headed. About ten minutes up we came to Stanford/ elm St bridge. After debating, I start the power walk toward ft 104 three miles away, one stayed w the kayaks the other came w me. At 715pm six hoursafter the trip began, leadingme to believe my clock screwed w meearlier, we are reunited all three and loaded, headed to launch point. Fingers not blaiming, feet blistered, heads bowed in shame. The hockomock beat me. And I doubt w wen anywhere but circles.


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