The Devil's Tramping Ground
Deep in the remote woods of North Carolina is a place that few have visited. It's quiet there, often lonesome — and sometimes terrifying. When the moon rips through the clouds at midnight, it's said the devil himself appears, and tramps in a crazed ring, around and around, leaving a perfect circle of dead earth where nothing will grow. The woods have closed in around it, but that profane circle remains, a zone of oblivion, that sucks the life and the spirit from any who dare to visit. It's called the Devil's Tramping Ground.
Here is a description from a ghost hunting website:
If you'd like to have a look, many photos are available online, and there are plenty of YouTubers who have walked around it with their camera, and you can pretty much get the complete picture. From the road it's a short hike along a path through the woods, and the path widens into a barren place before continuing out the other side. Near the middle of that clearing is a well-used fire pit, surrounded by a couple meters of bare dirt, and then a couple more meters of grass, and beyond that the low shrubs and then the pine woods.
I call it a fire pit but this one is really more of a fire heap: a great pile of ash, broken glass, plastic garbage, beer cans, scraps of burned wood, and all the detritus you'd expect to accumulate over the decades of people bringing in junk to burn and never taking any of it back home. Could this squalid scene truly be the Devil's Tramping Ground of legend, the site of unearthly impossibilities like a circle where nothing can grow?
One little tip that the skeptical mind tries to always keep at hand is Hyman's Categorical Imperative: Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained. In this case, we should ask if any of the claims about this place are true. Explanations aren't needed for things that aren't even true.
So one thing we can do is go there and compare the legend as reported to what's actually there — as many people have done — but another thing we can do is compare the legend today to what it was originally — which it seems almost nobody has done. Legends often change over time, as authors write about them, exaggerate them, borrow from one another, and outdo one another. So I like to go back to the very earliest printed mentions to learn first-hand what the original legend actually says.
The earliest proven mention of the Devil's Tramping Ground in print — so far as I've been able to find — is a letter from an H.T. Ivy, MD, to the editor of The Weekly Star, a North Carolina newspaper, published on January 6, 1882. I excerpt the most relevant parts here:
Among the interesting revelations in this seminal mention in print is that the spot's best-known feature — being bare of any growth — is unambiguously contradicted. Dr. Ivy described the "soil within the circle" as "covered with a thick growth of long wire-grass".
So with this new context for the Devil's Tramping Ground, let's have another look at a few of the claims that are so often repeated today:
Is it perfectly round?
We'll start with the first one: that it's perfectly round. Well, we're not off to a good start. Although the bare patch around the fire pit is generally round, there's nothing else about the place that says circle — Dr. Ivy's assertion aside that it is a clean cut circle as perfect as if drawn with a compass. The overall shape of the clearing is not close to round, as it's easy to see from the videos and even from Google Earth. More like a snake that swallowed a football, where the snake is the pathway through it.
The line where the grass dies closer to the fire pit is not a clear circular border. It's patchy. Grass encroaches farther in some places, and not in others. The only thing about the place that's generally round is the bare dirt where people sit around the fire. But the natural features around it are just that: natural. Even the nearest trees around the border are here and there, and cannot reasonably be described as a circle.
Yeah, so, like I said... not off to a good start.
Does nothing grow in it?
So on to the next question of whether anything grows in the Devil's Tramping Ground, one need only take a glance at any photo: the whole clearing is covered with grass and low weeds. The exception is the fire pit area, which should not be surprising. Now, granted that grass is pretty sparse in a lot of it; but that's hardly the same thing as "nothing can grow there at all."
Toward the edges there are shrubs here and there, and beyond those are the pines.
So is it unusual to have a clearing like this in these woods? Well, again, have a look in online aerial imagery. There are many, many such clearings. The only thing different about this one is that you can see the bright white ash of the fire pit, while other clearings are bare brown dirt. Not only is it in no way mysteriously devoid of flora, it's not even remotely unusual to have such a clearing in that part of the state.
In complex scientific terminology, these are what we call "meadows". Meadows are not unheard of, and they are not unexplainable. Meadows occur wherever hydrology, geology, or soil conditions favor herbaceous growth over wooded growth. It could be bedrock is too shallow, preventing tree roots from taking hold; it could be groundwater is too shallow for the larger shrubs; or any of a myriad causes.
Can soil chemistry explain the lack of plant life?
So let's move on to the next claim: that soil testing has found no reason why plants shouldn't grow there. Well, first of all, since plants do grow there, results indicating no problem are exactly what we'd expect. However, let's be charitable and focus on the part of the ground that is, in fact, actually just bare dirt: the ring around the fire pit.
The first record of anyone doing actual soil testing came from 1946, as reported in the November 24th edition of the Raleigh News and Observer. It reported testing done "some time ago" by the W. A. Bridges Laboratory and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. The only reported results were that the soil was acidic and "sterile," with no additional details.
More recently, a local retired soil scientist named Richard Hayes has taken up the torch, and he's been on the local news here and there telling what he's found. Hayes's hypothesis was that there must be some natural cause for the lack of growth.
Comparing soil from near the fire pit to soil from outside the Tramping Ground, he found the soil from inside had higher pH and more zinc, copper, and sodium — but not enough to impact the soil's fertility. Ash from any campfire would raise the pH (which is the opposite of the high acidity reported in 1946) and also potassium and zinc, so it was very close to what he expected, with the exception of a few variances that could more than be accounted for by whatever heinous junk got burned. If someone had ever burned one tire in there, for example, that alone would account for the elevated zinc.
So Hayes is still without his natural explanation. As he told a local PBS news program in 2015: "The fact that there are written accounts going back hundreds of years about this spot being barren of vegetation, makes me think there's something going on here besides just people camping here and burning big fires."
Mr. Hayes may want to re-examine his sources. The oldest known mention of the spot is from 1882, less than 150 years ago; and it describes it as being not barren, but "covered with a thick growth of long wire-grass".
In a 1935 issue of The Independent, from Elizabeth City NC, the Devil's Stamping Ground (its name varies in many accounts) gets a single sentence in a column of odd and interesting things. It too says that no grass will grow.
Has it been known to the locals for 300 years?
So what of the claims that the story existed hundreds of years ago, and that the place was known to the local natives? Dr. Ivy's apocryphal assistant, too terrified to dig further, seems to be the only written account. But nearly all the later articles written, including the 1946 one, make broad, nonspecific claims, always devoid of any references or sources. It's never enough for a printed piece to simply assert the existence of an earlier printed work; we have to actually find and produce that earlier piece. If we can't, it might well be imaginary — because sometimes authors make things up, such as the existence of earlier articles or books, to support their claims. We've scant reason to suspect Dr. Ivy didn't make up his entire letter, and it appears to be the sole point of origin for the entire story.
So are we left with any mystery at all? Well, there is that bare soil surrounding the fire pit, and that's about as much mystery as we can find here. And it isn't much of one. Campfires are hot. Think of any campground you've been to. Note that every fire pit is surrounded by bare dirt. Either the heat from fire or the heavy foot traffic will do that; fire pits have both. The real surprise would be if the Devil's Tramping Ground fire pit had grass growing right up to it — then we'd have a real mystery on our hands. A couple meters of bare dirt surrounding the pit is the expected norm.
So we're going to award this round to Dr. Ray Hyman, for his imperative "Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained." It seems there never was any mystery about the Devil's Tramping Ground. We're going to add it to Skeptoid's ever-growing list of urban legends whose roots can be traced in their entirety to a single dubious letter to the editor.
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