Category Archives: Dreams

Haunted Wetlands

“…there are deep, silent forests, plunging ravines and gorges,
tumbling waterfalls, still lakes, soaring mountains, and bird-haunted wetlands.”
~ Lincoln Barnett, The Ancient Adirondacks, 1974

Mist rolls off the pond like tumbleweed. Over Columbus Day weekend, I swam in the lake with a juvenile loon, listening to its creaky voice. A flock of geese flew in a V across a sunset hazy sky. They squawked. Alone in the water, I pushed through hydrilla and slippery reeds, coiled ‘round my wrists like odd bracelets. Back home, thumps and thuds clamor through the woods. It’s just deer and moose. A murmuration of starlings explodes suddenly from trees and even the woodpeckers pause their pecking on a rotten birch. My black ash seep, Fern Gully, smells of sweet fern and wild grapes, a strange brew of grape and goldenrod. A perennial stream trickles through the woods and flows into the pond.

A neighbor told me something eerie about the land—that’s mostly forested wetlands and uplands. We live next to a pond previously called Little Rattlesnake Lake.  It was known as a sacred place. A legend told of a healing energy and spiritual protection over all who lived there. I’ve noticed that a number of healers, and others who work in the health profession, live in the neighborhood. My neighbor retold stories about ghosts and spirits, which she had believed to have seen in the woods between our houses. She thought the land was haunted. A hydromancer came with a dowsing rod and he identified several places where water was hidden underground, matching my neighbor’s maps showing the location of pipes and springs. He also confirmed her suspicion—but clarified that the area was charged with a kind of water force and spirits, and they held positive sway over the land. I listened to all of this with great curiosity because I, too, had felt good vibes. When I first moved here, I named my new home “Nixie’s Vale,” with a nod to Tennyson and to water spirits.

Growing up in haunted houses in coastal Maine, I was no stranger to ghost hunters. My family lived in a home that was featured on the TV show, “Unsolved Mysteries,” for one thing, and tourists wandered in through the parlors when I was a teen-ager.  Wetlands of all kinds, but especially bogs, moors, swamps, meadows and seashores, set the scene for a good ghost story. In classicliterature, wetlands represented something dark and mysterious. In modern fiction, wetlands are still a preferred setting. Read a short story called, “Phantom Lovers of Dismal Swamp,” by S.E. Schlosser or the famedSookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, set in a rural swampy Louisiana parish with quirky stories of the undead.

Skeptics and believers alike may have a strange experience, then share their story with others, like this one in Florida: Spirit in the Swamp. Others are legends retold over time, such as the story of the “swamp girl” in South Carolina. Ghost hunters or “paranormal investigators” are drawn to the places where the stories originate—and sometimes that means wetlands. Read the story of the “Floating White Mist of the Laguna Wetlands” involving a tiger salamander. Or arrange to go on an Appalachian ghost walk in the Wetlands Water Park in Tennessee (note the “Spook & Slide” vacation package.) If you’re in Maryland, visit the wetlands of the Haunted Eastern Shore, notorious for ghost sightings, along with sightings of phantom-like swans.  In Louisiana, there are many Cajun tales and other ghost stories…too many to mention here. Here’s one website that links to a number of Louisiana ghost stories, some of which are set in swamps: http://www.prairieghosts.com/hauntla.html

If you prefer to curl up with a book of wetland ghost stories, try Ghosthunting North Carolina by Kate Ambrose. Most of the book is set in coastal wetlands. For stories set in other parts of the country, there’s Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Seattle and Puget Sound andGhosts of Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak.

By contrast, some deer hunters’ tales read like ghost stories. Read “Going after Swamp Ghosts.” But that isn’t science fiction.

Strange Wetlands wants to read your ghost stories set in wetlands, fact or fiction. If you have a link to your story or blog, please send it to us for consideration.

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Romantic Ecology: Fairy Tale or Serious Thing?

If you’re like me, you can’t resist a good fairy tale. I’ve been hooked on the new CBS series, “Grimm,” based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. One of the theories in analysis of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen is that the characters in fairy tales represent problems in nature that humans must face. Sometimes a fairy tale depicts a “lost Eden,” a lost paradise, but in more cases, a fairy tale presents an environmental problem and the characters symbolize various solutions. Often the hero of the fairy tale makes a choice based on something equivalent to “best professional judgment” and the morals to the story deal with making the “right choice.” Many of Andersen and Grimm fairy tales were set in a natural environment—a marsh—as in “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” the woods, a riverbank, even—in the case of Thumbelina, upon the water lily pads in a stream. This has been called “nature romanticism,” or “Romantic Ecology.” 

            Thumbelina – a wetland fairy tale

Far out in the stream grew a number of water-lilies, with broad green leaves, which seemed to float on the top of the water. The largest of these leaves appeared farther off than the rest, and the old toad swam out to it with the walnut-shell, in which little Thumbelina lay still asleep. The tiny little creature woke very early in the morning, and began to cry bitterly when she found where she was, for she could see nothing but water on every side of the large green leaf, and no way of reaching the land. Meanwhile the old toad was very busy under the marsh, decking her room with rushes and wild yellow flowers, to make it look pretty for her new daughter-in-law. Then she swam out with her ugly son to the leaf on which she had placed poor little Thumbelina. The old toad bowed low to her in the water, and said, “Here is my son, he will be your husband, and you will live happily in the marsh by the stream.” For the full fairy tale, click here.

Readers may recognize the imagery associated with “romantic ecology” in fairy tales like Andersen’s “Thumbelina.” This romanticism is present in some classic poetry and other literature, too. Romantic ecology is a phrase first coined by Jonathan Bates in his book, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (1991) but the term is later used by a number of environmental writers. Romantic ecology in literature is believed to have shaped environmental consciousness and action, influencing readers of poetry and literature—spanning a wide spectrum of people with varied beliefs and values—and appealing to their sense of the natural world. For some, the idea of a “paradise lost,” a beloved homeland or wild place, which has since been developed for urban or suburban use, is most persuasive. For others, it’s simply the beauty of nature—a romanticized version, seeing the naturalenvironment through rose-colored lenses, as depicted in love poems or nature writing from the era of The Romantics that inspires readers to fall in love with the environmental cause. I must admit I fell under their spell, long ago as a teen-ager. My high school classmates weren’t assigned to read The Romantics—but a favorite aunt encouraged me to read Wordsworth and Blake, for starters, and I’m sure that their words affected my budding interest in ecology. I carried thick biology books along with slim volumes of poetry as if they were a combined discipline.

But is it just a fairy tale, or does “romantic ecology” give roots to something more important? The writings of early American “nature writers” persuaded us to shift our perception of the environment—in essence, to care about it. In the early part of the 20thcentury, critics of the Nature-Study Movement wrestled with whether it was a romanticized version of ecology, or if it should be taken seriously. Given the success of that movement, and how The Romantics are required reading for any student of environmental studies in colleges today, it is clear that “Romantic Ecology” is beyond the blush of fairy tales. It’s gotten serious.

Swan Lake, a Nutcracker and Sleeping Wetlands Poem

With the holidays upon us, I think back to childhood experiences of visiting the theater to see ballets. I played the part of “floating garbage” in an environmental ballet called “A Blue Whale.” Three of my favorites are among the most popular of classic ballets, all orchestrated by Peter Tchaikovsky —the Nutcracker (1892),Sleeping Beauty (1889) and Swan Lake (1876).

Tchaikovsky lived in Russia and died of cholera, most likely from drinking contaminated water. Several of his most cherished operas and ballets interpreted stories that took place in wetlands or around water, like the story of the riverine/lake-dwelling mermaidsUndine. In Swan Lake, the dancers crawl through a small river. The Sleeping Beauty has a love scene that takes place beside a stream in a forest. Many of his ballets premiered in St. Petersburg (Russia), a nature-lover’s paradise known for its forested shores; often new productions echo those origins.

The musical group, Voice of the Wetlands Allstars, have performed in concert with ballet productions of “The Nutcracker” throughout the U.S. in recent years. In the original story of the Nutcracker and the King of Mice by E.T.A. Hoffman, Clara dreams that her toy Nutcracker turns into a prince, who takes her into an enchanted pine forest wonderland, the “Land of Snow.”

But there is another type of nutcracker: the Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) a jay-sized corvid that lives in alpine wet meadows, rocky mountain fens and shrublands, rocky mountain forests and savannas. The little bird likes ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and white-bark pine. It’s found year-round in Montana and throughout the west. It, too, retreats to a dreamy pine forest.

Sleeping Beauty is the longest of the ballets. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan stretches along 35 miles of shoreline (Lake Michigan) and covering 3000 acres of park rich with bogs, marshes and swamps.http://www.nps.gov/slbe/naturescience/wetlands.htm I have visited “the Dunes” and explored the trails running through this national park. It is a beautiful, peaceful area. Visitors may agree it’s a true “sleeping beauty.” For those traveling to British Columbia, the Sleeping Beauty Mountain Provincial Park provides day hiking trails and opportunities to see wildlife, such as grizzly and black bears, moose, mountain goats and blue grouse. One major trail takes hikers 6 kilometers (about 3.75 miles) through hemlock/fir forest and sub-alpine meadow. The Sleeping Beauty Valley boasts the “quintessential Terrace experience” with overnight camping allowed and views of the alpine lakes and meadows. http://www.vancouverisland.com/regions/towns/?townID=3677 (This is not to be confused with Sleeping Beauty Valley in the Mojave Desert. Broadwell Lake is a dry playa at the center of this desert valley, home to 350 rare plants, including the crucifixion thorn.)http://theguzzler.blogspot.com/2009/09/sleeping-beauty-valley-heart-of-mojave.html

Swan Lake has been so popular for 200 years that women have had their wedding dresses made to resemble the costume of Odette, the enchanted swan princess, who turns into a swan by day and into her human form only at night. Throughout the ballet, Odette flees to the lake, where she is under influence of the “bad swan.” If the eternal vow of faithful love is broken, Odette will remain a swan forever. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Lake (This has become a trendy theme for weddings now thanks in part by a recent film production called “The Black Swan.”)

The “good swan” / “bad swan” dynamic also plays out in wetlands. In some states, the dredging of wetland habitat has stressed the population of the native North American trumpeter swan. Iowa DNR developed a plan to restore its population of trumpeter swans in 1993, successfully reintroducing 50 pairs of swans to wetland sites.http://www.iowadnr.gov/wildlife/files/swanrestor.html A collaborative group between the Blackfoot Challenge, Wyoming Wetlands Society, FWS, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have worked to restore the trumpeter swan from 2005-2010. http://www.wetlandslegacy.org/swan.html By contrast, a number of states have been regulating the invasive species, mute swans, which were introduced to states like Minnesota in the mid-1800s and early 1900s from Eurasia. Mute swans are aggressive, known to chase people or other waterfowl out of wetland habitat. Their wingspan rivals that of the majestic trumpeter swan.http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/
terrestrialanimals/muteswan/index.html

While there have been many reinterpretations of the ballet and new references to Swan Lake, so have many places shared the same name. For instance, the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri contains over 7,000 acres of wetlands.http://www.fws.gov/Midwest/planning/swanlake/ Swan Lake Nature Study Area in Lemmon Valley, Nevada has mudflats, marshes and high desert.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Lake_Nature_Study_Area As snow falls and winter creeps over fens and marshes, freezes creek beds and streams to skate upon, the wetlands become sleeping beauties waiting for spring’s kiss.

For a poem by the same name that I wrote for my grandmother, see: http://aswm.org/wordpress/110-2/swan_lake_leah_stetson/

The Moor Metaphor for the Dark Place in our Hearts

The Lake of the Dismal Swamp

“They made her a grave too cold and damp
For a soul so warm and true;
And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where all night long, by a firefly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.”
– Thomas Moore

When a friend says he cannot attend the office holiday party because he’s “swamped at work,” he means he’s very busy and has a lot to do. Idioms like, “bogged down” and “swamped” come from people’s experiences with getting physically stuck in bogs and swamps. The metaphor has carried over into urban office talk, even though some of us don’t work in the field and don’t have wet feet. http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/get+bogged+down

As with any great metaphor, there’s a deeper meaning associated with the images of the swamp:  slimy water, stinky undergrowth and roots slither like snakes through American literature. David Miller’sDark Eden: The Swamp in 19th Century American Culture provides a wide-sweeping study of the swamp metaphor in American literature. He writes, “swamps were symbols of female nature, of social crises, especially slavery, in the work of Stowe, Simms, Church, Heade, Strother, Tuckerman, Lanier, and others.” He gives examples of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia in the 1850s and the ways in which wetland areas created creepy moods in popular fiction, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the narrator must travel across swampy country and past a gloomy tarn. The tarn, a dark lake that surrounds the House of Usher, reflects his narcissism and negativity. It’s not a pretty picture. http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Eden-Nineteenth-Century-Cambridge-Literature/dp/0521375533/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1291327363&sr=1-3

A dark swamp at night can serve as a good metaphor for the mysteries of life, a problem or crisis that a protagonist might have to solve, or possibly, represent evil. But why? Just as the sea used to symbolize great danger and perils in art and literature, so have swamps stood for darkness, disease, destruction of the soul and the devil. A popular video game has a level called, “The Swamp of Evil,” and American television shows have often portrayed swamps as places where bad things happen, to the extent that audiences can predict the danger, usually set to ominous music. Perhaps this is why there are so many horror films that set their stories in swamps. In the same vein, Strange Wetlands’ totem hero, Swampthing, often solved environmental crimes that took place in the Florida Everglades. http://aswm.org/wordpress/strange-wetlands-ode-to-swampthing/

By contrast, moorlands, a type of habitat in temperate grasslands, comes from the Old English word, mor, meaning low-lying wetlands, which were found throughout Southwestern England but also found in tropical parts of Africa, North Australia, Central Asia and North America. Biodiversity in moorlands is very rich. Moorland and tundra constantly shift their boundaries and the distance between them with climate change. Two of my favorite novels took place in moorlands:Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett both carried their protagonists through the moorlands they loved. Bronte and Burnett, as well as many British authors, treated the moor with affection; it was a place their protagonists loved, a retreat for secret rendezvous for lovers, a place to roam, escape and contemplate. Moorlands are misty, wild places of mystery. Dreamy and poetic.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moorland For poems and other examples of literature that take place in moors, go to: http://www.squidoo.com/manymoors#module109786541

                                                                      Speak of the North!
~by Charlotte Bronte

Speak of the North! A lonely moor
Silent and dark and tractless swells,
The waves of some wild streamlet pour
Hurriedly through its ferny dells.

Profoundly still the twilight air,
Lifeless the landscape; so we deem
Till like a phantom gliding near
A stag bends down to drink the stream.

And far away a mountain zone,
A cold, white waste of snow-drifts lies,
And one star, large and soft and lone,
Silently lights the unclouded skies.