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I love a broad margin to my life.... Sometimes I sat from sunrise til noon ... in undisturbed solitude and stillness.... I grew in those seasons like corn in the night.
Henry David Thoreau
It is March and I have left the tidy community of Finzel perched on the ridge of Little Savage Mountain, left its black roads, its tavern, the Community Fire Hall, and small, dark houses, each with its plume of smoke rising into the winter air, turned east and dropped into the white valley of Finzel Swamp. I have walked out of order and certainty and into the margins of a land still shadowed by the Arctic.
Finzel Swamp is a relict community, formed thousands of years ago when the icy tongues of glaciers pushed Canadian flora and fauna south for hundreds of miles. When the glaciers receded some ten thousand years ago, most of the boreal plants and animals migrated slowly back with them. But not here. Here they stayed, the tamaracks and black calla, in a poorly drained bowl perched high in the Maryland Appalachians, protected by the even higher ridges on either side. Here in this frozen valley, now owned by the Nature Conservancy, there is no asphalt, no stop sign, no sidewalk, just the wide, white space, pathless, interrupted only by the frozen etchings of alder and black spruce, the scribbled, heart-shaped tracks of deer, the marginalia of some creator who mused for a while on the edge of the page, then dropped the pen and headed north, leaving us to decipher the notations.
I am standing on thefrozen surface of the swamp, surrounded by the just-emerging tips of skunk cabbage, a plant that can work on March snows the same way my mug of hot tea does if I set it down on a snow-covered log. The frozen hoods of the skunk cabbage spathe locked in ice just a few inches below the surface begin to breathe in midwinter, and the heat produced by this respiration can actually melt the surrounding snow. Though they say its temperature can be twenty degrees higher than the surrounding air, I have never tried warming my hands over that thick nub of a plant shouldering through the surface. I am too plagued by the memory of my father's decree that we children should weed every last leaf of it out of the streambed that bordered our yard. I hated everything about this chorewading among fleshy, purple-splotched spathes that rose like hooded bruises, wrapping my small hands around a clump of leaves, large as elephant ears, the fetid smell of mangled green. I know that skunk cabbage has its benign momentsit shelters the nests of warblers, soothes toothaches and whooping cough, and calms the seizures of epileptics, has even, some say, graced dining room tablesbut I cannot rid myself of the image of its thick root, like a pale arm plunged into the wet ground, the fist on the buried end tightening its clench around some iron bar of survival each time we tugged. I cannot forget the banks heaped with its yanked and withered leaves, the streambed tidy at last. Or that blurry sense of loss.
Tracks in the untidy edges offer hope, the promise that the page might yield something beyond its justified margins. All my life I have been stumbling over asterisks embedded in texts, slipping out of paragraphs and searching for the footnote, combing the margins for some small note of explanation, the next clue in the treasure hunt, the translation of a word I didn't understand. Always there is the invitation to lift our eyes from the tidy print of our lives and look to the bottom of the page, the end of the chapter, for the source of some idea, for the elaboration of a theory too hastily mentioned. Always there is the chance to trace the path of a creature like the star-nosed mole with its twenty-two pink fingerlike projections blooming on the end of its nose. Crammed with nerves and blood vessels, these extremely sensitive tentacles probe and shimmy through the muck, foraging like an asterisk.
When the German poet Rilke tells us to leave our houses and enter the enormous space outside, surely what he means is to follow the asterisk to the bottom of the page, to drop to our knees in algae, push hands into the fringed and seepy edges into which pieces of our lives have sunk, places where year after year the crust grows thin, too thin, finally, to mask the sense that underneath this unkempt border something else is breathing: the origins of our words, wiser afterthoughts, the whispered asides of the spirit.
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Viewed with suspicion and dread by many cultures for thousands of years, wetlands are habitats where the water table has bulged up close to the surface of the land or where poor drainage allows shallow water to linger for months or decades or hundreds of years. Technically, Finzel Swamp is a palustrine wetlandmeaning marshy, but not associated with a river or lake. The presence of woody vegetationtrees and shrubsmakes Finzel a swamp. Not far from here, at the other end of the county, lies Cranesville Swamp, also palustrine, but more truly a bog, characterized by evergreen trees and a bog mat of sphagnum moss.
After weeks of cold, Finzel and Cranesville Swamps are both frozen. My boots crunch in the mud as I step between skunk cabbage tips and set off in a northeast direction, where the swamp is bordered by wooded hills. Whether bog or swamp, all wetlands have edges, rich strips where two hands clasp. On the edge, vegetation is always more varied, a mix of mature trees and grassland, or bog mat and shrubs, water lilies and spruce saplings. Browsing creatures and wind-carried seed cross over from one biotic community to another. The young are often raised along these edge zones where, for example, the forest on one side offers shelter and the open fields on the other offer food. These margins are places of transitions and diversity and abundance, one of the most highly trafficked places in the natural world. They are visited not only by creatures who normally inhabit one community or the other and occasionally cross over, but also by creatures known as "edge species" who have specifically adapted to spending their lives in this strip between two communities, which winds, wrinkled and bunched, like the imperfect and wavy seam at the waist of a full-skirted dress.
Humans don't seem to be this kind of edge species, and mostly we're not comfortable here. This margin is, after all, not the continental margin as we know it on summer beaches, where land and sea, in decent intervals, take turns on a tidal edge. Here there is only a constant and languid saturation. It looks as if someone has snapped a photo of a shallow lake and then another of a shrubby, welted, plant-tangled valley and forgotten to advance the film between shots. What you get is a double exposure. You stare at it, trying to separate one photo from the other, assigning this pool of water to the first photo, that clump of grass to the second. Everything is a tad blurry, including yourself as you crawl through both pictures at once.
Maybe our discomfort has something to do with the vulnerability of having an internal skeleton or with our deeply folded brain's hunger for tidy categories. I happened upon an article once by William Hammitt, a professor of wildland recreation, that describes researchers' attempts to figure out how to design boardwalks and trails in wetland areas. They wanted to know what would most appeal to visitors and so they measured their visual reactions to bogs. Either before or after a guided hike through a bog, visitors studied photographs of various bog scenes and then indicated how much they liked the scene in the photograph. What interests me most about this study is the comparatively low ratings visitors gave to photographs of the edges of bogs. Ecologically rich and diverse, that overlap of bog and forest habitats did not appeal to visitors, who found them "unreadable," having no focus and little coherence. This uneasiness is partly about lack of definition. It reminds me of creative writing students whose first drafts of poems are scribbled messes. "I don't know where this is going; nothing hangs together," they wail, and I urge them to slow down and stay where they're uncomfortable. I tell them "being on edge" is partly what good writing, especially poetry, is all about and I hope they never get used to it. I want them to move out of the places where they feel safe and secure, out of the centers of attention or power or knowledge, out of the center of an ideology, a class. I want them to creep to the edge, nervous and uneasy, to sit as long as they can in that margin between the known and the unknown.
According to Hammitt's research, the least preferred bog scene is the one depicting the open bog mat. In these photos, the bog mat looks like an ordinary field where you might find cows grazing, a couple of deer switching their tails as they raise their heads and watch you, an ordinary field ringed, in the distance, by low hills and dark forest. Yet the people rating the appeal of this scene knew all about deception. They knew any cow who ventured into the mat would sink to its knees, that what is most disorienting about a bog is not only its lack of ground but also its indistinct edges, which make it difficult to find the exact point where you left the forest and sloshed into its quaking belly, the point that, heading home now, you might want to aim for. Hammitt's researchers note this dilemma is easily solved: at the edge of the forest where you enter the bog, you tie a handkerchief. It's an agreement you make with yourself, that no matter how much wandering in tundralike habitat, no matter how disoriented you get keeping your eyes on your boots, making sure they emerge from the muck still laced to your feet, when you're ready to head home, you agree to recognize the bit of cloth you fastened on some spruce branch several hours ago.
It's an agreement you should think twice about, if only because handkerchiefs carry too much history of deception and forgetfulness. Think of Othello, spying Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's possession, agreeing yes, this is hers and therefore she must have been with him, her dying, innocent, in his murderous arms. Or Aegeus, waiting on the cliffs to see if the cloth tied to the top of Theseus's mast would be white, signaling his son's safe return from slaying the Minotaur, or black, signaling his death. Theseus, caught up in the revelry of triumphant homecoming, forgot to lower the black flag and haul up the white one, and his father, spying the dark flutter, hurled himself off the cliff. Whole families have been haunted by murder and suicide caused by putting too much significance on the location and color of a bit of cloth. You'd be better off forgetting about fabric. Things in the margins, including humans who wander there, are often on the brink of becoming something else, or someone else, whose memory may not include the significance of old markers.
Under a maple tree where the snow hasn't accumulated, a small hole, maybe two inches across, a tidy entrance. Chipmunk, I think. I picture them down there, half dozing in winter torpor, in their maze of underground tunnels, chambers for napping and eating, and wonder whether they raise their sleepy, tawny heads at the pound of my boots on their ceiling. What goes on in the margins is not always visible. Sometimes, of course, that's because the edges are teeming with what the center does not want to seethe homeless, the abused, the disenfranchised, whatever does not fit the current definitions of normal. We love high drama in this country, mountain peaks and soap operas. They offer us something to tilt our lives towardthat triumph of ascent, that heart-pounding eye-to-eye intensity, that feeling of being wildly alive. Our nature aesthetics sound like movie reviews: We thrill to the surprising twist in the road that reveals the vast panorama, the unexpected waterfall. We canonize beauty that can be framed on the walls, in the camera, or on the postcard.
To love a swamp, however, is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight, where the imagination can mutate and mate, send tendrils into and out of the water. It should come as no surprise that the most common carnivorous plants are found in wetlands. Here there is room for the thought not fully formed to stretch, roll over, poke its eyes above water. Here is the valley of split-pea soup where what floats like a chunk of ham might lift its meaty head out of the muck and haul itself onto the log next to you, blinking in the sunshine.
Away from the rigor of scrutiny and definition, the need for distinction falls away. Drifting deepens into reverie. You lie half asleep at four A.M. while your life as you know it unravels, plays footsie with some other life. You slip toward the borders of yourself, toward the obscure blooming in the creases, into the forgotten pockets against whose seams your fingers have fretted and chafed until threads finally thin and your fingers plunge into dark, invisible territory of thigh-skin. You drift in a bog as you do in those moments just after sex, everything matted and moist, when you don't know if you and your partner are one body or two. Hours later you crawl out of bed and examine your feet, searching for mud, some smudgy evidence of having traipsed through a place where there is no such thing as ground, where sphagnum moss, curly and limp, holds the lingering twilight the way it holds water. You recall a line of poetry and you know why poets love that white space at the end of a line, how that space invites you to forgo the usual eye-dropping to the left and down to the next line. How it invites you, instead, to launch yourself into that white margin of imagination, where the countryside lies uncharted, wild habitat at the edge of civilized thinking, where the mind is rampant with phrases (the opposite of stones, the sound of emerald green) and you feel a certain exhilaration in the tangle and thicket of plant and word, image and water, the mind curling and leaping at the far edge of itself, tiny tendrils of imagination twining their way down stems of waterweeds, cartwheeling across cranberry mats and sundew, never minding the here-and-there unexpected plunge into tea-colored water. At the edge, an open mind leans out so far it brushes the landscape, like the hand of a blind person exploring a patch of grass. This is the edge of a mind foraging through the edge of a landscape. Daddy longlegs and salamanders clamber between your fingers; lichen-covered rocks settle into the folds of your mind.
When I was a child I used to love lying down in the profusion of green that bordered the stream in our backyard after we'd pulled out the skunk cabbage. I'd imagine lying there so still and so long that the fertile fronds of cinnamon fern would drop their spores onto my body. Ideas themselves would become sensuous, so that months later when I rolled my head to one side, I'd feel in my hair the tangle and tug of their woolly stalks.
I scan the hillsides surrounding the swamp, knowing there are bear dens up there. I think about that she-bear, who, last December, lumbered away from the eating and mating mania at the center of most mammals' lives to drift, pregnant and groggy, in the white fields of winter. By now, her fleecy black cubs have emerged, uncurled, and begun to grow. She may still be almost oblivious to them, may only roll over slightly to make her teats more available. Certainly they are invisible to us, hidden in a cave or rock ledge in some isolated spot in the white margins of winter.
Twice I have had the opportunity to head out with folks from the Department of Natural Resources to tag bear cubs. Both times it was March. Both times we bumped over old logging roads in the backs of pickup trucks and hiked over snow-covered ridges to the isolated dens of she-bears snoozing away the last days of hibernation. Both times, a DNR biologist, guided by a radio signal emitted from the bear's collar, crept toward the den, leaned in, and stuck a jabstick loaded with a paralyzing drug into her fur. The drug acts fast and the bear lies immobilized while he gathers her cubs. They chill quickly, yanked by the back of their necks from the warm mound of mother fur and swung out into bitter March air. They are four or five pounds, the size of very small human infants, their fur so soft you cannot help but rub your nose in it. Their eyes are blue and they have no problem looking you in the eye as you take one and open your jacket. They whimper and burrow against your chest as you snap your jacket back up. Or they scoot up your chest, wanting their stubby snouts against your neck, their heads poking out of jacket neckholes like prairie dogs. I swing between the sheer joy of smelling this wild fur, feeling long claws scrambling against my neck, and guilt. The mother bear, unable to move, watches all of us. I imagine our roles reversed, me lying paralyzed in bed, milk dribbling from my breasts, while creatures from some other world sniff my babies' skin and staple tags into their ears. I know why the DNR does this; I know they are monitoring bear population in this county in an effort to protect them. They are quick, careful, respectful. I am the one needing to make amends. Once when a large male bear ambled out of the woods fifty feet from my house, crossed a thin strip of grass in front of the windows where I stood watching, and lingered awhile among the green beans in my garden, I whispered, Sure, help yourself.
Birth is, of course, the ultimate creation. That the she-bear does it while she's half asleep should tell us something about the importance of that twilight zone. Brain specialists say that children's brains are rich in theta waves, and that these waves decrease as we move into adolescence and adulthood. Their most frequent reappearance in adults is during the hypnagogic state, the marginal state in which waking and sleeping overlap, where dreams and reality intermingle. Even our use of the term "twilight" reflects this knowledgethis is the time of twinlights, of the light of day mingling with the light of night, a time rich in dreams and fantasy.
Thomas Edison evidently knew something of the hypnagogic state and used to try to induce it. He would Sit in a chair with his arms draped over the armrests, each hand holding a metal object. On the floor below his hands, he positioned two metal pie pans. As he dozed off, his hands relaxed until the metal objects dropped and clattered on the pans. Suddenly awake, he would quickly jot down any ideas that had drifted through his mind in that theta-rich state.
I'm surprised. Not that the hypnagogic state is profuse with half-formed ideas and traces of brilliance, but that Edison's intention to harvest something from that wetland of possibilities didn't dry up the source. How many times I have sat down at my desk, deliberately letting myself drift into some kind of reverie, hoping for a poem, and found only the irresistible desire to cuff up on the bed for a quick nap? How many times have I stood running soapy hands over the rims of dinner glasses and had a line of poetry spring unexpectedly through my head? The creative spirit is a shy being, diaphanous. It flits around the edges of things, in the margins, in the sodden ground of swamps where the profusion of growth defies the old image of wasteland. My incursions with the DNR are a kind of trespassing into the margins, a crossing into peripheral land armed with scales and tranquilizers and intentions. Although I am heartened by knowing, up close, the smell of bear fur, I am more glad for the bear with his big feet in my garden, more glad for the slight movement out of the corner of my eye that made me look up from my book that evening to see him standing at the edge of the woods like some soft boulder.
A cold wind rattles through the snags, upright and dead, in the middle of the frozen swamp. I tie a scarf around my neck and zip my jacket. I won't go up into the hills today to poke around for a bear den. There will be better, and safer, chances to see one in summer or late fall. It is, perhaps, the single thread running through mysticismthat you must wait patiently, that to go hunting what is mysterious and life changing with a magnifying glass orjabstick, armed with intent and a sense of your own deserving goodness is futile. Biologists say that wild animals often interpret a head-on stare as an act of aggression. The moment you decide to stare down the periphery, it is no longer periphery. What might have been there either will overwhelm you or, more likely, will sink out of sight, melt back into the trees, retreat to the inaccessible reaches of memory.
The paradox is that to see clearly, you must learn to see obliquely. You must look ahead and, at the same time, widen your peripheral vision so that it extends not just in great arcs around your head, but over the edge, into the margins where the visible and invisible, dreams and reality, land and water, emptiness and profusion mingle. The sublime is like poetry; it will not be caught or chased down. It exists at the edge of things, in the vast margins, like a wild animal. The trick is to learn how to wander there without intention, to float eye-to-eye with fringed orchids, to make yourself available to what lives there, whether it is the rare bittern or a poem or the whole damp and water-lilied world.
The imagination loves freedom first, and then form. And there is an odd kind of freedom in the fringes that comes, in part, from jettisoning our love of function. For centuries, so much in a swamp seemed uselessall this muck and dead trees and algaeand lack of function in our culture means lack of value. What's it for? we want to know. What does it do? One of the reasons we are now beginning to preserve wetlands, such as Finzel, has, of course, to do with learning their function. We can tick off their benefits on our fingers: they help control flooding or they filter toxic waste, both of which have to do with our physical and economic health.
But what kind of cultural enlightenment will it take for us to freely say that we value this or that because it is beautiful, because it nourishes the imagination, because it is good for the soul? How much longer until we grant ourselves carte blanche to move beyond the neatly printed page into the margins strewn with skunk cabbage, the twilight world of dozing she-bears, to drift in the liminal space between what is and what could be? And after that, what kind of handkerchief knotted at the edge of the familiar could possibly lead you back the same way you came in?