by Tim Gilmore, 11/21/2021
Grant and D.J., five and eight years old, enlisted neighborhood friends to defend the “sacred lands” on which they’d built their forts at the edge of Possum Head Swamp. When D.J. took a pellet in the knee from an Airsoft gun and fell into the muck, the afternoon instantly emptied of little boys who vanished into the houses backing onto the swamp from Candlebark Drive.
Perhaps the proximity of places named Queen’s Harbour and Possum Head Swamp demonstrates the split personality of a town like Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the pretentious British spelling of “harbor,” there’s no actual queen in the history of the former, and while the etymology of the latter seems apparent, who named the swamp “Possum Head” and why is unclear. I find the name on a 1949 U.S. Geological Survey map, but I don’t trace it further back. Meanwhile, it was a football team owner named Bubba who named Queen’s Harbour.
“During the summers,” D.J. says, “when no one dared go near this bug-infested area, the swamp would flood with mucky green water, making it impossible to visit. In the wintertime, the insects and the waters would dissipate, opening two paths to enter the now dry woodlands.”
The Rich brothers couldn’t keep out of Possum Head Swamp, but they feared the snakes and spiders. So their mother and grandmother strung up Christmas lights from the boys’ house through the woods and the swamp to their grandparents’ back yard. All the neighborhood kids were welcome to the Christmas Light Trail, which stayed lit year round.
“We and our friends would ride our bikes to the little orange house on Candlebark Drive and walk ourselves onto the back porch unannounced where my grandparents would welcome us and make hot cocoa topped with marshmallows as we sat and looked into the fireplace and the flames that caught our eyes at first glance,” D.J. says.
Possum Head Swamp was once much larger, he points out, before developers built the subdivision of Waterleaf “on top of it” in the early 2000s. Waterleaf wrapped around what part of the swamp it preserved. D.J. thinks of the whole city as built on wetlands and built in wetlands, which it is.
And though the boys thought of the swamp as a place, they couldn’t help but notice it was always changing. It was a different place at night than in the day. They’d see deer out in Possum Head at night, just as drivers on Kernan Boulevard just the other side of the swamp crescent sometimes hit them. And throughout the year, the labyrinths of the woods altered and shifted. Possum Head became more navigable in the winter, while at the height of the year’s heat and humidity, D.J. says, “The paths would grow over and our forts would collapse after being untouched and unattended during the cruel summer months.”
Sometimes during the day, D.J. would lay in his hammock in his back yard and “stare at the long slender pine trees” over the wetlands. They looked weak, like they could easily snap, yet “seemed to shoot straight into the sky.” At night he’d watch the sky “flood with stars” and listen to “the thousands of deafening voices of an entire nation of frogs and crickets.”
When the seasons shuffled the swamp about, unsettling and resettling it, making land of the water and water of the land, getting lost became easy, especially in the dark. At least the Christmas lights were out there, guiding the boys along their way. And then they weren’t. Something had chewed through the wires, even made off with segments of copper and PVC, blown glass and metal filament. You could imagine a squirrel’s nest composed of Christmas lights high up in a cypress and almost wish they’d light up at night. But this particular night, D.J. and Grant vanished in the woods.
“We felt we were closer to my Nana’s house,” D.J. remembers, “so we screamed for her to hear us.” The boys had gone round in circles and grown frantic. The path had turned back on itself while pretending to go straight, looping and dissembling. Finally their grandmother heard their frantic voices. “She came rushing into the woods and told us to wave our flashlight beams in the air so she could find us.” And she did. And she brought them inside and called home and let them stay the night. She brought out the dependable hot cocoa and obligatory marshmallows.
In his early 20s now, D.J. no longer calls this subdivision home. He thinks of Possum Head as a swamp enclosed by his childhood neighborhood, but that night inverted the relationship. The swamp was there, beneath, around and before these houses and these streets. That inversion revealed the true state of things. People built the world, but the earth was there before it. The world always falls back into the earth and the earth regenerates always, including even, that night, the brothers’ safe refuge with their grandmother, through the primordial and all-encompassing woods, 11 doors down.