Thursday, March 1, 2018

SWAMPS

Several weeks ago when l shared lunch at Dr. Mary Ann Wilson’s home in Lafayette, Louisiana, I noticed a handsome volume entitled Swamp: Nature and Culture lying on an end table in her den. “It’s a book written by my youngest son Anthony — his new swamp book,” she explained, “and is a historical, cultural, and ecological story about swamps. I think it’d interest you.” I was intrigued and spent part of our visit looking at the photography and chapter headings in the book. I ordered a copy of this intriguing volume the following day. 

Swamp: Nature and Culture is Dr. Anthony Wilson's second book about swamps in a series called “Earth Series,” which provides readers with authoritative and interesting narratives, combining science and literature. A scholar and English professor, Dr. Wilson writes in a highly accessible style, and the photographs in the series are stunning illustrations of swamp terrain, some of which were taken by the late Greg Guirard, Louisiana’s former “swamp man” who was the guru of bayou and marshlands of Louisiana’s wetland system.

I was fascinated by the range of Dr. Anthony Wilson’s interests, but blog length requires brevity, and I’ll concentrate primarily on Louisiana wetlands that he includes in a work that spans swamp landscapes from Louisiana to the peat bogs in Russia. I know that he spent his high school years in Louisiana, and his interest in wetlands was fanned by the 10,000 square miles of the State’s swamps and marshlands. He describes the wildlife in the Atchafalaya Basin, including alligators, snakes, snapping turtles and the colorful birdlife, reminding us how our great wetlands are shrinking at the rate of 40 percent of America’s total wetlands. 

A glimpse of chapter headings in Swamp: Nature and Culture shows the reader the comprehensiveness of this volume. Dr. Wilson's range includes “People of the Swamp;” “Swamp as Horror: Monsters, Miasma and Menace,” “Swamp as Spectacle;” “Paradise Lost,” and includes an Appendix titled “An Array of Major World Wetlands” that will titillate the interests of biologists and environmentalists worldwide.

The layperson will be intrigued by the mysteries and mythologies of swamp landscapes in which Dr. Wilson relates how the “breath” of the swamp was once regarded as the origin of sickness and death. “Underlying the various superstitions, legends, and lore about devils, witches, and supernatural terrors in the swamp was, it long seemed, a legitimate terror that could poison with a single breath…” Wilson explains that swamps actually filter pollutants from water; e.g., the water of the Great Dismal Swamp was pure as the tannins that leeched into the water from tree bark, preventing bacteria from growing, even though the water became an amber color.

Dr. Wilson probes the histories of swamp monsters as portrayed in comic books and film; e.g., the “Swamp Thing,” showcasing a doctor who died in the Louisiana swamp and was enveloped in a plant body that thought it was still alive and was superhumanly strong with the ability to regenerate itself (much as the creatures in Dr. Victoria Sullivan’s book about giant Louisiana polyploids in her speculative volume, Adoption).

Dr. Wilson’s book is both scholarly and accessible. His knowledge of literature illuminates the chapter on Monsters, Miasma and Menace with references to Greek mythological stories, which date back to the first or second century BC when Hercules meets his fierce foe in the swamp of Lerna: the Hydra, a nine-headed beast. Dr. Wilson also features Grendel, a character in Beowulf  he considers one of literature’s earliest marsh monsters. 

In the concluding chapter, “Postscript: Paradise Lost? The Swamps’ Uncertain Future,” Dr. Wilson writes about the film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, exploring what he terms “equal parts ecological commentary and primitive, mythic fable…” He summarizes his treatise on swamp landscapes as “sites of mixture, where reality and myth blend inextricably, to imbue the landscape with unique and indelible meaning.”

This is a “must read” about the diverse ecosystems of our fragile wetlands, as well as a compendium of folklore, legend, and mysticism based in the beautiful, ecologically-important wetlands of Louisiana and other exotic places. 


Dr. Anthony Wilson is an Associate Professor of English at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia and the author of Shadow and Shelter: The Swamp in Southern Culture



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