Supernatural Wetlands

Mist creeps over a saltmarsh. Moisture settles heavily onto the cordgrass that pop and sizzle as water sinks into muddy soils. The air is thick with salt and mystery. Nocturnal sounds of animals awaken the imagination and remind us of campfire stories and superstitions.

I love legends and lore, especially having to do with nature.  As a kid, lessons on ecology were sometimes fused with fiction. While my dad taught me which plants were edible if I were to get lost in the woods, my mother fed me tidbits of stories from Uncle Remus’ folk tales about “Brer Rabbit” or the world of Beatrix Potter.  Reading C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia filled my head with talking animals and singing trees.  The symbolism associated with plants and animals has been part of our cultural unconsciousness for centuries, dating back to early human civilizations. It shows up in daily life, in common expressions, “old wives’ tales,” or in superstitions that are alive today, as in the Cajun culture in the Bayou. For instance, if Cajun children misbehave, they are taught to fear the boogeyman. Cajun hunters are wary of “fifolet” or swamp gas, which may let them know that something is following them, or  lead them to treasure. Read some “weird true stories” from Cajun legend here.

Depending on the region of the world, some cultures believed animals to be demons or witches in disguise. In another part of the world, the same creatures were considered blessings, good luck or to embody the spirits of loved ones. Often poets will write about the “magic of nature”…but there are also cultural beliefs about paranormal aspects or supernatural powers associated with the creatures that live in wetlands. Why wetlands? Part of the reason may be rooted in the medicinal properties of some wetland plants like willow, red mangrove or sedge discovered by early healers—and through an oral tradition of using folklore to explain elements in the natural world.  These gave rise to a belief that wetland places had supernatural properties. In Native American custom, sage, cedar and sweetgrass are used for spiritual healing through a process called smudging. Furthermore, in some native stories, streams and wetlands and even water itself has a spirit, possessing spiritual healing powers.

Fact or fiction? Don’t step on a spider or it will rain. Seeing a robin is a good omen because it is a harbinger of spring. In folklore, if a person steals a robin’s eggs, s/he will fall prey to witches.  My brother and I were taught to revere the white swans that swam in the pond across from our house—not aware of the myths of the swans that pulled the chariots of Norse gods.  Ferns are believed to bring good fortune. For instance, it’s said that if you bite the top off a fern in spring, it will keep you safe from toothache and if a woman puts a fern leaf in her lover’s shoe, he will love her forever. Male ferns were used to protect a household from evil-doers. Other wetland plants have superstitions linked to them.  Elders were given to bewitched folk to break a spell and restore them to health. Ash tree leaves, which sometimes have equal numbers of leaflets, were thought to be lucky leaves, even used in divination. Moss that grows in graveyards was said to cure illness, especially in animals, according to Welsh and English lore. In some African stories, wetlands are dreaded places, home to witches or demons.  This was true for western folklore as well where marsh and moors were metaphors for darkness and evil. Darker stories gave birth to certain fears about entering wetlands, which were believed to hold illnesses and death.

All over the world, there are wetland-dependent and aquatic species thought to have supernatural powers, like the maned wolf of South America that lives in tropical savanna.  There are real-life frogs that freeze themselves (cryogenically!) and frogs depicted as the guardians of freshwater springs and wetlands in Native American mythology, sometimes called “Frog Woman.” In Native American stories, human characters take on animals’ traits to show the relationship between people and the natural world, for instance, stories about “salmon people.” Reptiles, and their role in wetland habitat, are rich in superstitions throughout the world possibly because of their secretive, nocturnal natures and sometimes dangerous attributes.  Turtles have also been long regarded as sacred and ancient creatures. Inuits believed thatpolar bears held a “personhood” even though they were not human.  In science, there are some aspects of an animal’s life cycle that simply defy logic and thus take on “supernatural” characteristics. See “Supernatural: The Unseen Powers of Animals” (video documentary): http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/supernatural-the-unseen-powers-of-animals/

Kingfishers bear good news of calm seas to fishermen and sailors, who say, “So long as kingfishers are sitting on their eggs, no storm or tempest will disturb the ocean.” Frogs and cranes have long believed lucky money signs, predicting good fortune. Owls have both good and bad superstitions surrounding them.  Although owls are believed to be wise in many folk tales, they are also foreboders of ominous outcomes, especially related to pregnant women who hear the hoot of an owl. More of these legends are explored in Ruth Binney’s natural history book, Nature’s Way – lore, legend, fact and fiction (2006). Her book is on the General Wetlands part of the Wetland Bookshelf that I put together for ASWM, a wetlands nonprofit.

In Australia, there are several myths associated with wetland creatures that take power from water and wetlands: http://www.mythocreatology.com/Wetland.html But that’s getting into cryptozoology—the study of creatures that (probably) do not exist, e.g. the Loch Ness monster, or mermaids. That’s another Strange Wetlands story still to come!

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