Mamie Garvin Fields, a Black girl who grew up a generation later than Alcott and Schoolcraft, split her time between the refined city of Charleston and rural South Carolina cotton fields. After a community-oriented career as a teacher and Black women’s club organizer, Fields published her personal account of a Southern upbringing, Lemon Swamp and Other Places: A Carolina Memoir, in collaboration with her granddaughters, Karen and Barbara Fields, in 1983. Born in 1888, the year of Louisa May Alcott’s premature death, Mamie Garvin Fields was raised as a relatively privileged African American girl in the post-Reconstruction and Progressive era South of the 1880s and 1890s. She spent leisure time on a family farm at Lemon Swamp, a place of sweet and bitter memories where her grandmother “was lost.”
As an adult storyteller recalling her childhood, Fields voiced ambivalence about Lemon Swamp, which had been the scene of captivity and freedom, diminishment and daring, love and loss over the course of her family’s history. Mamie’s grandfather had once been enslaved on a cotton plantation at the site. After his owners ran out of fear of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops during the Civil War, Mamie’s Grandpa Hannibal remained on the grounds. By squatting there, he assumed informal “ownership” of the remote place, which the family referred to as a farm rather than a plantation, obscuring its ugly roots through their choice of language, as Mamie realizes when she tells the story to her granddaughters decades later. Mamie traveled to Lemon Swamp with her family each summer, delighting in the relaxed rhythms and wild surrounds. Lemon Swamp shimmered as a special place in her memory. “All kinds of wild things grew in Lemon Swamp,” she recalled, “tall, sweet-smelling pine trees, huge live oaks that touched one another over the road, ferns of every shape growing close to the water, other plants growing right in the water.” There she watched birds “that you could never see anywhere else,” observed “little animals,” and enjoyed the way the cool swamp enclosed her as if a “room,” where “trees and bushes threw shadows…like the curtains.” Here was a world of “strange places and secret hideouts,” the refuge and rejoinder for an agile-minded African American child.
Memory, for this young daughter of enslaved grandparents, is yoked to outdoor spaces with complex intergenerational meanings.
While this secluded pool transfixed the young Mamie, it was a painful place for her grandfather, who cried as he told the story of losing his wife at the swamp when their owner took her away to serve the mistress and white children. This was a story her grandfather told her always through tears. The legal owner of her grandparents, Mr. Garvin, heard Sherman’s soldiers were on the way and ordered the self-exile of his family and the Black people they owned, who helped to transport “the best furniture, the good dishes, his silver and his gold.” As the party wound clandestinely through Lemon Swamp, Garvin decided to divide them, sending Mamie’s grandfather and children to hide a stash of food but commanding Mamie’s grandmother to remain with the white family. As the child nurse, she was directed to tend Mrs. Garvin’s four children: “a breast child, a lap child, a floor child, and a walker.” Mamie’s grandfather “begged the master not to take his wife.” Garvin refused to relent, prioritizing his own family’s comfort. “Not a word ever came back from the owner and his wife, or from Grandma,” Mamie Garvin Fields concludes. “My grandmother was lost in Lemon Swamp and was never seen again.” The American Civil War that had divided the nation over the institution of slavery had shattered Mamie’s own family. Yet it also resulted in her grandfather’s emancipation and his attainment of the very land that held the bog she loved.
Mamie Garvin Fields withholds this disclosure of horror at the swamp until the final moment of her telling, perhaps reluctant to tarnish her golden memory of the place or to cast the site and the book named for it beneath the existential shadow of slavery. “So that was Lemon Swamp,” Fields says, at last, in summary. “If it was a beautiful, secret room in the daytime, it was the Boogeyman’s pit at night.” Memory, for this young daughter of enslaved grandparents, is yoked to outdoor spaces with complex intergenerational meanings. In her poignant recollection of the emotional contradictions that can be embedded in beloved places, Mamie Garvin Fields reflects Toni Morrison’s famous insight about the temporal and natural movement of memory. Writers are like floodwaters, Morrison lyrically relates, “remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.” Wordsmiths are not only observers of nature in Morrison’s recasting; they are akin to nature’s elemental forces in returning essential memories to us. Writers flood the canyon walls of our cultures, flushing and remaking our corporate shapes. It is apt and not coincidental that Toni Morrison crafted this waterborne analogy, for she holds a place in the underground tradition of Black women nature writers that includes the poet Audre Lorde as a contemporary and Mamie Garvin Fields, as well as Harriet Jacobs, as literary ancestors.
Across geographical, racial, and ethnic distances, the brooding yet beautiful Lemon Swamp, the wild but endangered Lake Superior, and the placid yet dangerous Frog Pond shaped the lives and imaginations of Mamie Garvin Fields, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Louisa May Alcott. These waters prove transformative in the women’s recollections. Frog Pond was the place where Alcott “became” an abolitionist, or at least developed an early consciousness of a racial divide with gendered aspects that privileged the protection of white girls. Lake Superior was the source for Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s declaration of an Indigenous form of spiritual understanding that could survive the influx of American encroachment. And Lemon Swamp was the place where Mamie Garvin Fields first grasped a family history of racial terror that would haunt but also politicize her. These women writers who spent uncountable childhood hours outdoors returned to meaningfully ambivalent places on the page, flooding the valley of the past with reflective light and washing new visions onto the banks of the future.
Featured image: Brian Stansberry
Excerpted from Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation by Tiya Miles. Copyright © 2023. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.