Book stirs meditations on mud

On The Bay

Inspired: Barbara Hurd appreciates Maryland's wetlands for more than their environmental benefits. She says they are just plain good for the soul.

May 18, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WE GET "BOGGED" down, "swamped" by debt, "mired" in triviality, writes Barbara Hurd, noting how society has taken an often-dismal view of earth's wet and muddy places.

The Frostburg State University professor begs to differ in her excellent book, "Stirring the Mud; On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination"(Beacon Press, 2001).

The book is a remarkable contribution to the literature on Maryland's natural places -- also testament to nature's power to inspire art.

When the Nature Conservancy preserved the Finzel and Cranesville swamps near Hurd's Western Maryland home, it was to protect rare plant communities, islanded there after the glaciers retreated.

She fully appreciates this, and all the other sensible reasons we nowadays preserve wetlands: "We can tick off their benefits. ... They help control flooding, they filter toxic waste."

But she also knows such attitudes need further evolving:

"What kind of cultural enlightenment will it take for us to freely say that we value this or that because it is beautiful, because it nourishes the imagination, because it is good for the soul?" she asks.

While most of us flock to Western Maryland for its picture-postcard autumn foliage, its mountains and trout streams, Hurd was drawn to the less obvious charms of Finzel and Cranesville.

"To love a swamp," she writes, "is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of the mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised."

Of the swamps' natural denizens she writes beautifully and evocatively. On a turtle surfacing: "Here is the valley of split-pea soup where what floats like a chunk of ham might lift its meaty head out of the muck and haul itself onto the log next to you, blinking in the sunshine."

On the sundew, a carnivorous plant, as it "pureed an ant, whose body began to shrink, wrinkling, collapsing into itself like a black leather balloon with a slow leak."

On a dragonfly emerging from its chrysalis: "It inched along the boardwalk, unsteady, dragging its newly unpacked tail like a drunken bride with a too-long train of tulle."

The ubiquitous skunk cabbage poking its hooded, monklike shoots from the cold, spring mud she describes as "hundreds of hunched, tiny Yodas whispering, Feel the force, Luke, Feel the force."

There's a great section where Hurd tries to sneak up on spring peepers in full chorus. As always, they go silent as one approaches, then resume piping as one retreats.

She ends up "loping back and forth on the road, using my body the way a conductor does his baton. Play strings! I wave my arms and command the frogs in the east as I trot backward down the road away from them.

"Silence! I point to the west section, striding toward them, and sure enough they put down their instruments. I bound back and forth along the road, Leonard Bernstein springing off and on his stepstool, his small baton bobbing wildly ..."

But "Stirring the Mud" is not just -- not even primarily -- a natural history. It's about swamps as springboard for the imagination, inviting meditations on the nature of our lives.

It's the ambiguity of swampy, boggy places that inspires Hurd; their being not quite liquid, not quite solid, lying in the seams between more familiar territory, permitting one to imagine anything might lie within their impenetrable interiors, in the unknowable depths beneath their clotted surfaces.

The bog's lack of definition at first makes us uneasy, Hurd says. She compares it to her creative writing students' common complaint, struggling with first drafts of poems, that they don't know where they are headed: "I urge them to stay where they're uncomfortable. I want them to move out of the places where they feel safe and secure. ... to sit as long as they can in that margin between the known and the unknown. ... "

Hurd also guides us through swamps in mythologies, from the Tibetan to the Egyptian; also swamps as burial grounds -- a perfectly preserved, 2,000-year-old man was found in a bog; also swamps as refuges for everything from Revolutionary War raiders and Seminole Indians to endangered Carroll County bog turtles.

Each chapter is a meditation -- on death, on acceptance and letting go, on humans and nature, on love, and on mud ("delicate, a puree of thinned chocolate pudding ... a stained, warm fog, the damp and drifting debris of fine-grained walnut ash.")

Again and again, her imagination is sparked by the swamp's resistance to easy definition:

"I think that perhaps the ultimate mystery is not that there are no clear, impenetrable boundaries in the universe, but that we can live as if there are. If bogs were human, therapists would make a fortune treating their problems with boundaries."

If we, boglike, can get comfortable with letting all the lines we think are there in life dissolve, Hurd writes, we find "much richness in this place betwixt and between, in this realm of ambiguity."

Read the book. Visit the swamps, accessible by footpath or boardwalk. Cranesville is 1,672 acres in Garrett County and in Preston County, W.Va. Finzel is 326 acres in Allegany and Garrett counties.

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