cover image Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination

Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination

Barbara Hurd. Beacon Press, $23 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-8070-8544-8

Essayist Hurd posits that the creative spirit thrives in ""the sodden ground of swamps where the profusion of growth defies the old image of a wasteland."" Judging from this collection of imaginative, evocative essays inspired by Maryland's Finzel and Cranesville swamps, she may be right. Vivid, unusual analogies (""trying to define the edges of a swamp is like trying to put a neatly folded shadow into a dresser drawer"") and clever parallels between swamp and human life provide lively and engaging reading. Reflecting on the prevalence of animal-like plants in the swamp, for instance, Hurd infers that ""there's a camaraderie here, a tolerance for hybrids and mongrels, a kinship among the patrons of an all-night, half-sunken bar for cross-dressers."" Knitting together such diverse subjects as Buddhist philosophy, mythology and her own childhood, Hurd evokes the landscape through a series of unexpected and sometimes fascinating physical and mental wanderings. A pair of shoes left behind in the swamp prompts musings on the allure and taboo of mud. A trip through the New Orleans bayous yields insights into the elusiveness of our thoughts and our very identities. A late fall foray into the swamp in search of a bear becomes a consideration of longing. Hurd's reflective style makes for a relatively slow pace, and the occasional digressions can seem forced. But her musings are poetic, and her loving descriptions of the wetland world will likely convince some readers that there are universal truths lurking out there in the mud and mire. (Feb.)