Stirring the Mud

by Barbara Hurd

Photo by Arleen Hartman

Viewed with suspicion and dread by many cultures for thousands of years, wetlands are habitats where the water table has bulged up close to the surface of the land or where poor drainage allows shallow water to linger for months or decades or hundreds of years.

My boots crunch in the mud as I step between skunk cabbage tips and set off in a northeast direction, where the swamp is bordered by wooded hills. Whether bog or swamp, all wetlands have edges, rich strips where two hands clasp. On the edge, vegetation is always more varied, a mix of mature trees and grassland, or bog mat and shrubs, water lilies and spruce saplings. Browsing creatures and wind-carried seed cross over from one biotic community to another. The young are often raised along these edge zones where, for example, the forest on one side offers shelter and the open fields on the other offer food. These margins are places of transitions and diversity and abundance, one of the most highly trafficked places in the natural world. They are visited not only by creatures who normally inhabit one community or the other and occasionally cross over, but also by creatures known as “edge species,” who have specifically adapted to spending their lives in this strip between two communities, which winds, wrinkled and bunched, like the imperfect and wavy seam at the waist of a full-skirted dress.

Humans don’t seem to be this kind of edge species, and mostly, we’re not comfortable here. This margin is, after all, not the continental margin as we know it on summer beaches, where land and sea, in decent intervals, take turns on a tidal edge. Here there is only a constant and languid saturation. It looks as if someone has snapped a photo of a shallow lake and then another of a shrubby, welted, plant-tangled valley and forgotten to advance the film between shots. What you get is a double exposure. You stare at it, trying to separate one photo from the other, assigning this pool of water to the first photo, that clump of grass to the second. Everything is a tad blurry, including yourself as you crawl through both pictures at once.

Maybe our discomfort has something to do with the vulnerability of having an internal skeleton or with our deeply folded brain’s hunger for tidy categories. I happened upon an article once by William Hammitt, a professor of wildland recreation, that describes researchers’ attempts to figure out how to design boardwalks and trails in wetland areas. What interests me most about this study is the comparatively low ratings visitors gave to photographs of the edges of bogs. Ecologically rich and diverse, that overlap of bog and forest habitats did not appeal to visitors, who found them “unreadable,” having no focus and little coherence. This uneasiness is partly about lack of definition. It reminds me of creative writing students whose first drafts of poems are scribbled messes. “I don’t know where this is going; nothing hangs together,” they wail, and I urge them to slow down and stay where they are uncomfortable. I tell them “being on edge” is partly what good writing, especially poetry, is all about and I hope they never get used to it. I want them to move out of the places where they feel safe and secure, out of the centers of attention or power or knowledge, out of the center of an ideology, a class. I want them to creep to the edge, nervous and uneasy, to sit as long as they can in that margin between the known and the unknown.

To love a swamp, however, is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight, where the imagination can mutate and mate, send tendrils into and out of the water. It should come as no surprise that the most common carnivorous plants are found in wetlands. Here there is room for the thought not fully formed to stretch, roll over, poke its eyes above the water.

For the Buddhists, taking refuge in the dharma means cutting the ties, letting go of whatever hand you’ve been clinging to, whatever boat you’ve been floating in. It means shedding your armor, letting what’s underneath soften, grow squishy and open. It means, as Buddhists say, not reaching for protection…relaxing in the uncertainty of the present moment.

What hungers in us is so large. What we feed it so small. You kneel in the wet bulging earth, algae clinging to your skin, and you pray that at least once in your life every pore will open, that what knows no boundary between land and water will know no boundary at the edge of your body, that what lies riddled and pocked and hungry within you will fill and fill and fill.



[Barbara Hurd is author of several books. Her essays and poems have appeared in numerous journals. Hurd is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, where she teaches creative writing.]