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Book Review

A Naturalist's Essays on Human Nature Drift Up From the Bog

STIRRING THE MUD On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination By Barbara Hurd Beacon Press 144 pages, $23


In the beginning, the world was something of a mess. Separating the light from the dark, and the Earth from the heavens must have been easy compared with cleaning up the mud at the end of the second day. It had to have been everywhere--the water was, after all, drawn apart from the land--a deep, dark primordial ooze that from the idyllic perspective of the seventh day must have been downright disgusting.

Finzel Swamp in western Maryland still has a lot of that ooze left, a shoe-sucking, goopy variety fringed with duckweed and cattails, skunk cabbage, tamarack, red maple and black spruce. It is a perfect place to lose a shoe and explore the messiness of creation, which is exactly what Barbara Hurd does so brilliantly in her collection of essays, "Stirring the Mud."

Hurd, an English professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, is drawn to the seductive mystery of Finzel, a protected watershed of some 300 acres. Thrusting her hands deep into its goop, she playfully speeds up the clock and brings a continent into focus:

"Yesterday it was an outcropping on the mountain that pebbled into bits under a harsh gasp of wind and sudden dump of water. Last night it pelted into a plane, which rose and fell and rose again, and this morning it lurched down a water chute into this valley where a hundred acres of plants up and died and glommed their decaying matter onto its clayey mush. This evening its silkiness filigrees your hands. Tonight it will plummet below the surface, be crushed by its own weight. Tomorrow it will stiffen into stone."

Beyond such wonderful ruminations, however, "Stirring the Mud" is a difficult book to characterize. Hurd is a consummate naturalist, writing with the grace and precision of a Peter Matthiessen or an Annie Dillard, but she is also remarkably curious about human nature, spinning her discussion to bring in Joseph Campbell, the I Ching and Thomas Edison. One moment you're holding a bog turtle in the palm of your hand or watching a dragonfly unfold its wings, and the next you're learning how Monet went about exhibiting his water lily canvases in 1922 or why the cold acidic water of peat bogs so perfectly preserves a body.

Like a watercolorist, Hurd lets the wash determine the density of the color, but she is quick to pick up a pencil, if needed, to trace the outline of a tree, a moment of history, a personal recollection. It is a measure of her skill that she steps among these elements so effortlessly, and it is a measure of her ambition that she keeps the aperture of her camera wide open to capture what might otherwise have laid hidden in the dark.

Although the swamp is a metaphorically rich region--a place to face our fears (reptiles, disorientation, death)--it is only a starting point. Hurd's real destination is the in-between-ness of life, which makes "Stirring the Mud" more than a study of the space between water and land. It is also a consideration of the margins of life, which--like the bog itself--tells us more about ourselves than we may want to know, for it is here--in the in-between--that the subconscious lies, together with our imagination, our secrets and fears.

Hurd takes us to the twilight between waking and sleeping, the hypnagogic state in which the brain is flooded with theta waves, a font of creativity. She looks at the past and the future and sees a virtue in the mindfulness of the absolute present, and she charts the distance between life and death and uncovers a profound spiritual need. "What hungers in us is so large," she discovers. "What we feed it is so small."

Feeding it, however, may be as simple as learning how to step into these margins of life more frequently, more comfortably. "I can watch a spider, no more than an eighth of an inch, scramble over the rusted rim of a baked bean can, a sundew dissolving an ant, an Indian pipe decaying on a paper towel. Meanwhile, there are galaxies inside us, all around us, universes we can't usually hear. Does it take a dream, a near-death, a bone-deep vulnerability to sense it?"

Ours regrettably is a culture with little patience for slow revelation, which perhaps explains our aversion to swamps and bogs and comparable states of mind. We fill them with monsters; we cut brush and clear forests. "We're not only the ones with the crayons, trying to stay inside the lines; we're the ones who produce those books in the first place," Hurd writes, suggesting that our fear of tangled things lies in a discomfort with our turbulent psyches.

But knowing and certainty, she would tell us, are more unnatural. "We are shape shifters, all of us, liquid mosaics of beautiful and transient urges, and we give ourselves headaches when we pretend otherwise, when we stiffen ourselves into permanent and separate identities unsullied by the drifting slop, the very real ambiguities of ourselves and the world."

The poet John Keats once admired a man for being able to live with uncertainties without having to reach for fact or reason, and Hurd plainly celebrates her own unknowing-ness. Whether tracking the sublime, revealing her own fears or marveling at the peculiar beauty of the star-nosed mole--indigenous to Finzel--she avoids the easy answers. And how could she not?

Walt Whitman once declared:

Do I contradict myself?

very well then . . . I contradict myself;

I am large . . . I contain


"Stirring the Mud" proves the courage of not rushing to perceived truths. That we all could live so open-mindedly.

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