News Column

Photographer documents Dismal Swamp recovery

June 3, 2014

By Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot



June 03--PORTSMOUTH -- The tone is clear, matter of fact and reeking of man's folly.

Pam Ponce, a Virginia Beach artist, explored the ecology of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge following a 2008 summer fire that burned more than 4,800 acres over 111 days.

The fire was started by a spark from logging equipment, there to remove trees felled by Hurricane Isabel five years earlier.

Ponce, a former pediatrician who has her head in both science and art, wanted to learn what really went on in the swamp to keep that fire going so long.

More particularly, she hoped to document the regeneration of the swamp after that four-month blaze.

Before long, her focus went to trees and peat and falling water tables; all of which have a place in the photos, background and specimens she collected that are now on exhibit at the Visual Arts Center at Tidewater Community College in Olde Towne.

Ponce, who specializes in ecologically concerned art,

had to get a special permit to go out by Corapeake Ditch, close to the Virginia-North Carolina line, where fire had destroyed so much, and take pictures and hang out.

The first time she went, in early fall 2009, the charred smell was gone but the landscape was clearly devastated.

When she returned a few weeks later, she was able, because of a drought, to walk into the swamp and shoot panoramic photographs, which she learned to do just for this project.

She saw blackened stumps rising out of the low waters, as if trying to walk away. A logging company already had sliced the trunks off the stumps to remove debris.

Lush regrowth, in the form of grasses, provided an encouraging sign of regeneration.

"I wanted to show the vastness," she said.

Ponce printed her own photos, which tend to keep both close and far elements in focus, enhancing the sensation that you are standing before the scene.

"With the panoramas, I'm trying to get this feeling: You go out there and it goes on and on, and you can hardly see the boundaries. There was this vast destruction and human interference with the canals and ditching, which allows the water table to fall over time."

She returned numerous times.

An April 2010 photo showed downed trees in the foreground near a stand of intact trees, capturing the point at which the fire had been contained.

Ponce didn't just take in the scene with her eyes. She absorbed the situation with her mind.

She read and spoke with experts who explained that natural fires are part of a helpful cycle. But the 2008 fire happened during a drought.

It was deemed likely that it burned deep into the swamp's peat foundation and destroyed even the seeds of the Atlantic white cedars that had just been planted over 1,100 acres.

Because the swamp's water table is lower now, fires can burn longer and hotter and destroy seeds that might evolve into plant matter.

The ditches and canals that were dug, starting in the 1760s by a George Washington-led company, have drained the swamp to the advantage of humans, and to the swamp's disadvantage, in terms of biodiversity.

Starting in May 2010, crews were again sent out, planting about 234,000 cedar seedlings over 800 acres, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service website.

Atlantic white cedars were chosen because the species once grew along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Mississippi, and only about 2 percent of its range remains.

In August 2011, just weeks after the crews finished planting, a second fire broke out in the same area. It was caused by lightning. This time more than 6,300 acres burned for months.

Ponce feared the worst. She returned in December 2011, camera in tow. She titled a photo she took that day "Desolation." The occasional stick rose up from a watery expanse, which reflected the foreboding clouds above.

Other titles indicated what she saw: "Scorched Trees," "Barren Vista," "The Expanse of Destruction."

In one image, grassy brush takes on a reddish tone in a certain light. She called that January 2013 photo "Reminder of the Flames."

"I was going to follow the regeneration for five years, but that other fire kind of blew that. The Atlantic white cedar can't even grow in that area," because it can't live in standing water.

She shifted her exhibition's focus from regeneration to education. Her show features maps of the fires and the refuge and easy-to-grasp explanations of the swamp's issues.

Ponce also made a digital illustration blending two photos and her own drawing to make it look like a ghostly stand of Atlantic white cedars.

Turns out, the swamp stumps really could walk. Ponce retrieved a cluster of them from the Great Dismal. A welder, Jack Kennedy, created steel supports and they are arranged in a circle inside TCC's main gallery, as if in a circle dance.

Photos from her last visit to the site are on view, too.

March 11, she saw clumps of dormant grasses in an area now covered by water year round, because so much of the ground burned away. It appears to be transforming into a marsh.

That section of Corapeake Ditch used to be quiet. "But this spring I started hearing a lot of frogs. They were very noisy, all these different frogs. I guess with that water, they moved in."

____

If you go

What "Fire & Water: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp," an art installation by Pam Ponce

Where Visual Arts Center, Tidewater Community College at Olde Towne, 340 High St., Portsmouth

When Up through June 19; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Cost Free

Contact 822-1888, www.tcc.edu/vac/

____

Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485,teresa.annas@pilotonline.com

___

(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters