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Swamp Stories Find Holiness in the Muck

Professor writes lyrical, playful essays on the wetlands and their inhabitants.

July 06, 2001|PETER CARLSON | WASHINGTON POST

FROSTBURG, Md. — Thwww-uffft!

Or maybe Fffffffffthuppf!

Or perhaps Glufftht!

To sink your foot a couple inches into the deep primeval muck of the Finzel Swamp and then abruptly yank it out makes a gloriously rude, wet, sucking sound--a noise that's difficult to imitate and impossible to spell.

"It's a great sound," says Barbara Hurd, who's slogging through the swamp in knee-high rubber boots. "It's kind of sexual but also playful. A gloop, a slurp."

She leans on her left foot, and yanks her right foot out of the oozing mud that's down there beneath about eight inches of cold swamp water.

Ffflapppth !

"You can't go into a swamp and keep your dignity--and that's good," she says. "That's part of the allure of it." She mimics a child's singsong: "'Nyah nyah! I'm getting mud-dy!' I sometimes think that anything children absolutely love that we give up as adults is probably basic and primitive and wholesome--like playing in the mud."

Hurd loves this swamp. She's the bard of bogs, the Walt Whitman of the wetlands, the poet laureate of mud.

This spring, Hurd, 52, a professor of English at Frostburg State University, published "Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination." It's a book of lyrical, poetic, playful essays about her beloved wetlands and their eccentric inhabitants, which include bears, snapping turtles and a human hermit. Plus one plant, called the sundew, that traps and eats insects, and another, called jack-in-the-pulpit, that changes gender depending on climatic conditions.

The reviews have been good, comparing her to the great American nature writers. Like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of the 1947 classic "The Everglades: River of Grass," Hurd loves stories of eccentric characters who are drawn to swamps. And like her hero, Henry David Thoreau, she gets off some wonderfully quotable lines:

"Trying to define the edges of a swamp is like trying to put a neatly folded shadow into a dresser drawer."

"If bogs were human, therapists would make a fortune treating their problems with boundaries. Psychologists' waiting rooms would be jammed with jack-in-the-pulpits, sundews, larches, all the swamp creatures who haven't sorted out their eating disorders and gender issues."

Here's how she describes a dragonfly emerging from its pupa: "It inched along the boardwalk, dragging its newly unpacked tail like a drunken bride with a too-long train of tulle."

And here's her wry take on the first skunk cabbage shoots popping out of the icy spring mud: "Hundreds of hunched, tiny Yodas whispering, Feel the force, Luke. Feel the force."

In the book, Hurd writes about Louisiana bayous and Denmark bogs but mostly about swamps near her Western Maryland home--Cranesville, a big bog on the West Virginia border, and Finzel, a smaller swamp just a few miles from her house.

Today she's sloshing through Finzel Swamp.

"It's such a sensual, gorgeous landscape," she says. "I think a swamp is one of the most erotic landscapes because in order to enjoy it, you really have to pay attention. That's what a swamp asks--that you pay attention to it."

Thwoffkt! Floooopt!

She spots a little grove of skunk cabbage on higher land and climbs up to investigate. It's June now and those "tiny Yodas" of spring have grown into gargantuan plants.

"They're humongous!" she says. "They seem too big, like they've been raised next to a nuclear power plant. Most of the swamp is a subtle place to me but there's nothing subtle about this plant. It displays itself."

Some people hate swamps. They detest the nasty smells, the icky algae, the bloodthirsty mosquitoes, the deadly snakes, and the sheer impenetrability of a landscape that feels like it could swallow you without a trace.

Throughout history, humans have seen swamps as hostile terrain--evil places of disease, decay and death, the birthplace of monsters.

Hurd recounts evil-swamp stories from various cultures but she has never shared that view. She grew up near swamps in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and she's always liked them.

When she was about 9, a couple of boys her age took her into the local swamp. Chanting pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo, they stirred the mud, struck a match, and a sapphire-blue flame shot forth.

"I took it as proof that God lived in the mud," she wrote.

Actually, it was just swamp gas, the flammable methane produced by the constant rot in a swamp. Still, Hurd never abandoned the view that there was holiness to be found in the muck.

She went to college at William and Mary, and grad school at the University of Maryland. She got married, moved to Western Maryland, had two kids, got divorced. She drifted into teaching, published a book of poems, "Objects in This Mirror," and started writing about swamps.

At first she thought her book would be an academic study--"a look at wetlands imagery in American literature"--but there was one little problem. "It was awful," she says, smiling.

So she shucked the straitjacket of academic prose and cut loose, writing essays that move with the fluidity of poetry.

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