Category Archives: Sci-fi

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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How to Make a Swampthing Halloween Costume

Admit it: You’ve always wanted to go to a Halloween costume ball dressed as Hydrilla the Invasive Aquatic Witch.  No? What about Swampthing? Designing original—and often, obscure—Halloween costumes is a specialty of mine. Growing up in haunted houses with a childhood phobia of rubber masks has made it a big deal for me to venture out to any Halloween event. But I have over-compensated by turning the fear factor into a challenge:  the fun of coming up with an original costume that will surely win points in a costume contest.  Readers may remember my Ode to Swampthing in which it was revealed that the original Swampthing’s costume was made of heavy thick rubber. That’s not very realistic for the average Trick-or-Treater, or costume party-attendee. Here’s a Strange Wetlands take on the Swampy costume, or if you prefer,Creature of the Black Lagoon, or Black Lagoon Lady. Images are from others’ take on it.

Wetland professionals probably have most of the necessary materials for a Swampthingcostume. If not, it would be easy enough to assemble some of these things to augment what you don’t already own. Pull together the following things:

  1. An old wet suit (already torn, or one that can be cut)—or, waders/rubber boots
  2. Old rubber gloves, preferably green – as many pairs (up to 10 pairs) as possible
  3. Netting – e.g. fishnet stockings, fishing net that can be altered and stained green or black
  4. Dark green wig, or dye a light-colored wig dark green, or buytemporary green hair spray
  5. Green plastic bath loofa sponge (or a couple of them)
  6. Real or fake vegetation (houseplant cuttings, weeds from the garden, wrack, or artificial green vines, plastic flowers) Or, cut strips of green cords, or gift wrapping ribbon
  7. Elmer’s glue and green body paint, green, black and brown Halloween make-up, or real mud—to create scales; optionally, colored glitter
  8. Green bathing suit/tank top/tights/short dress (for women) or green shorts/pants and tee shirt/tank top (men) Last resort, green sweat/work pants will suffice.
  9. Small clean sponges for applying green body paint or make-up (to create scale effect)
  10. Paper plates (preferably green, at least 10 paper plates)

While there are many variations on how to create the underlying “Swampthing” costume, which ranges from wearing parts of an old wet suit to green clothing and rubber boots—to a full-bodied foam suit spray-painted with two shades of green, the main challenge is to create an aquatic look, without dripping all over the dance floor.  The degree of difficulty varies from costume to costume.

Step 1. To make gills, cut paper plates into pie-shaped triangles with the scalloped edges included.  Layer three pieces of paper plate, fan out the shape and glue the points together.  Fasten twosets of “gills” on either side of a hair band, or pin them into the wig/hair to hide your real ears.

Step 2. To create webbed fingers, use glue and green body paint to add a thin layer between fingers, or stretch an old pair of green tights over your hands, cutting the nylon to make fingerless gloves.  As an alternative, wear green rubber gloves and glue fake green fingernails onto the fingertips of the gloves to create monster claws. (See also, Martha Stewart photo). Alternatively, use an old pair of gardening gloves and add strips of green tissue paper to the fingers to create a scraggly look.

Step 3. Create a scales effect. Stretch fishnet stockings (or fishing net) over arms, parts of the neck and face, and apply green body paint or make-up over the netting to create a patterned effect that looks like scales; remove the fish netting to reveal the pattern. 

Optionally, apply body glitter here and there to create a wet, sparkling—fresh from the swamp look! A little goes a long way.

Step 4. Fake a supernatural aquatic look. Create the look of water bubbles sticking to skin or fake “scales” by squeezing a soapy sponge or plastic bath loofa in a few places, leaving suds behind to dry. Apply green/yellow/brown costume make-up to face and neck in clumpy dabs to create the appearance of bumpy, scaly skin. Or, if you want a more appealing version, use green make-up, eye shadows and lipstick.  For full supernatural effect, make an aquatic-looking Swampthing nose and ears with fimo polymer clay or soft nose putty, fastened to an altered animal nose worn around the head on an elastic string, or simply apply make-up artistically to distort facial features. Alternatively, glue bits of moss or fake moss (as found with model train sets) onto face, neck and arms.  A Google search can show several ideas for costume make-up.

Step 5 (optional). Make it scary. Use toilet paper and glue, applied to the face with a papier mâché method, to create a scary aquatic look. See this video for a quick how-to (an alternative to wearing a store-bought rubber mask—warning, this look is frightful): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iemwLymV0uk

Step 6. Assume a “vegetated” state.Assemble what you plan to use for weeds, vines and leaves—and it’s up to you whether to use a combination of real and fake vegetation.  Keep in mind:  don’t trail invasive weeds to someone’s Halloween party. Garden supply stores, craft stores and flower shops carry silk flowers and plastic plants, often with vines, cattails and weedy choices. Alternatively, use strips of green cloth.

Here are some other alternatives to using real vegetation:  Unravel green bath loofas and sponge dark green paint onto parts of the loofa netting and leave it to dry for a while.  After the loofas are dry, loosely wrap the long netted parts of the unraveled loofas around arms and waist to create a vegetated look. Or, curl green, black and yellow/gold ribbon and hang this from a belt, tank top strap, pin onto a tee shirt, and/or fasten into a messy looking green/black wig. Instead, if preferable, wear a hunter’s camouflage hat with the fake tree litter attached to it and wear camouflage netting. Create the look of leaves using real leaves and wax paper—the same way kids seal fall foliage in wax paper—but with green leaves. Cut out the leaves, keeping a wax paper border to prevent them from falling out, and glue to various parts of your costume.
The wax paper will make the leaves look wet.

Step 7. Walk like a swamp creature. (Optional) Decorate a pair of diving fins with washable green paint, glitter and/or molding clay. The ideal look to achieve is along the lines of webbed feet, or “Creature from the Black Lagoon” alligator feet.

Alternate articles with other ideas on designing a swamp-themed Halloween costume:

Here’s a guy who went all out for his Swampthing Halloweencostume and tested it in this video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MwSlNJIuNc

Martha Stewart’s silk leaf swamp costume—a more conservative option (for men and women):http://www.marthastewart.com/274774/no-sew-halloween-costumes/@center/276965/halloween#268517

A variation on Swampthing costume (totally covered in weeds):http://www.halloween-online.com/costumes/swamp-thing-halloween-costume.html

How to make a Swampthing or sea creature costume (intended for kids): http://www.ehow.com/how_2316666_make-swamp-thing-halloween-costume.html

Swamp Monster make-up and costume how-to video (for teens and adults):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WXJsslkR6I

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!

Fun Wetland TV Shows

In a past SW post, I recommended some good wetland documentaries and educational films in this previous post. But wetlands show up in other types of media. Some TV shows take a less serious approach to using wetlands to set the scene. Others are educational. It’s nothing new to feature a wetland-rich setting for a TV series. But it seems like wetlands are gaining ground in popular shows like True Blood, Swamp People and The River, which premieres Feb. 7, 2012.

Mysteries of the Amazon. A new dark mystery-drama set in the Amazon called “The River” will leave you at the edge of your seat. See a trailer and explore this thriller-mystery series here.  The River looks eerie and suspenseful, and reminds me of Peter Benchley’s1999-2000 mini-series, “Amazon,” which beat the show “Lost” to the punch! Benchley’s story took place in a remote part of the Amazon rainforest, where a community of people were so isolated, they still spoke Elizabethan English and didn’t have modern conveniences—until a plane crashed, making for an intense, weird drama. (I liked it a lot, but then I am a big fan of all of Benchley’s stories. Just to get you hooked, watch Part 1 here.)

Reality TV has been the “in” thing for over a decade now. There are two wetland-related reality shows of interest. “Swamp People,” a History channel show, features the lives of alligator hunters in Louisiana. Also, an episode of Dirty Jobs: Wetland Warrior, followed TV host Mike Rowe on his adventure in the Florida Everglades.

Public Television Programs. Iowa Public Television featured a series of programs on lakes, marshes, streams, floodplains and forested wetlands. For more information about this series, go to:http://www.iptv.org/series.cfm/15216/freshwater_wetlands/ep:104/episodes

Science Education for Kids. Dragonfly TV – a public television series based in North Carolina featuring hands-on science activities and investigations had one episode that brought young girls to coastal wetlands; this led to the creation of a children’s show called “SciGirls,” which encourages girls to get interested in science.http://pbskids.org/scigirls/ This is similar in theme to Bill Nye the Science Guy’s program, which has had several episodes on wetlands (a three-part series here).

Science fiction. In this genre, the sky’s the limit. The SyFy Channel offers a few strange choices, including “Swamp Shark,” a TV movie about invasive sharks in Louisiana’s bayous that airs Saturday June 25th.  The highly anticipated 4th season of “True Blood,” a sci-fi fantasy series about vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings in Louisiana and Mississippi just started on HBO. The show’s colorful locals frequently hunt and hide in the familiar swamps; the lead heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress, lives beside a swamp and a cemetery. Incidentally, this show has a great swamp rock soundtrack!

Environmental-Themed Drama. The newest TV show with an environmental theme—and plenty of wetlands—is called “Terra Nova,” a Fox series in which a select group of people travel back in time (because humans have depleted natural resources by the year 2149) to prehistoric Earth. It’s like “Jurassic Park” in reverse. PROs: there’s a lot of vegetation and a good water supply. CONs: Large predators abound. Yes, dinosaurs. Apparently TV writers are either being pessimistic here or not interested in putting their protagonists in real-life wetland-management situations.

Update June 2012: Great A&E detective show, “The Glades” takes place in the Florida Everglades. Features environmental crime plots, endangered species, etc. It’s available on Netflix and on the A&E channel.

The “Other” Wetland Heroes

Last year I paid homage to the fictional characters, Mark Trail and Swampthing, as unsung wetland heroes. But what of others? Let’s not forget Ranger Rick. As a kid, I looked forward to receiving my monthly issue of Ranger Rick magazine in the mail. I inhaled the stories. I treasured the magazines like they were living things. My mother kept one issue with a coiled-up snake on the cover in a basket of secrets so I would not snoop. When passing the basket, I gave it a wide berth as if the magazine snake might come alive and spring. I learned a lot about nature and wildlife from reading Ranger Rick.

Today the raccoon dressed as a park ranger, “Ranger Rick,” continues to teach kids about wildlife and the natural world. For instance, here Ranger Rick educates kids about wetlands and the Gulf oil spill: http://www.nwf.org/Kids/Ranger-Rick/People-and-Places/Ranger-Rick-on-the-Big-Oil-Spill.aspx Ranger Rick also teaches kids about the importance of wetlands: http://www.nwf.org/Kids/Ranger-Rick/People-and-Places/Whats-a-Wetland.aspx Kids today might suggest another environmental hero close to their hearts (and DVD players): Shrek, the swamp-dwelling ogre, fights development pressures from the royal kingdom and restores balance in his wetland home. http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0002004/ A different generation might think of a certain Muppet, who lived in a swamp and sang, “It’s not easy being green…”Of all the comic book heroes, it is safe to say thatCaptain Planet is a well-recognized environmental hero. His main role is to protect the planet and all its natural splendor, wetlands included. EPA’s Wetlands Program worked with the creators of theCaptain Planet cartoon series, especially an episode called “Jail House Flock,” which taught kids about the importance of wetlands.http://www.turner.com/planet/mission.html Watch the episode depicting the eco-emergency about migratory birds and destruction of wetlands here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ur-Kss-yTxwEco-geeks to the rescue!

Often comics and cartoons take an extreme slant in portraying heroes and villains to communicate an environmental message. In the Swampthing comics, a recurring anti-hero called Floronic Man, aka Jason Woodrue, feels that humans are destroying the Everglades. Unlike Swampy, who’s fairly conscientious in his noble attempts to save the wetlands, Floronic Man plots for the plants to take over to the point of killing developers with a chainsaw.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floronic_Man Man-Thing was another large misunderstood, empathic human-plant mutant character living in the Florida Everglades. This Marvel Comic character was criticized for being too similar in origin to Swampthing,even though Man-Thing came from a 1960s comic series called “Tales of Suspense,” which means that he preceded Swampy,who first appeared in 1971. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man-Thing For Strange Wetlands’ Ode to Swampthing, see:http://aswm.org/wordpress/
strange-wetlands-ode-to-swampthing/

Science fiction sub-genres span a wide spectrum of stories that carry an obvious environmental message, from post-apocalyptic, including an obscure comic series called “The Puma Blues,” (1986-1989) featuring wildlife and nature with prose poetryhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Puma_Blues to fantasy realms of authors like Ilona Andrews (her recent book is called Bayou Moon http://www.ilona-andrews.com/) and Kim Stanley Robinson, who has been called an environmental hero for his series of books(Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) about the terraforming and settling of Mars, after global climate change has caused wide-spread flooding on Earth.http://sciencefictionbiology.blogspot.com/2008/09/kim-stanley-robinson-hero-of.htmlThere are too many science-fiction authors to name here. If you have one you’d like to recommend, please leave a comment.

Wetland-dwelling protagonists are also abundant in fiction and creative nonfiction. Novels like A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and some of Carl Hiaasen’s stories that take place in the Everglades are linked on ASWM’s Book Service On-Amazon, under the categories for fiction and nonfiction here:http://www.aswm.org/propub/bookservice/fiction.htm If after visiting the book list, you have a suggested title to add, please leave a comment.