Henry Thoreau:
A "Patron Saint" of Swamps
By Dr. Rod Giblett, Leader, Space, Place, Body and Technology Research Group
Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts, Technology Education & Communications
Faculty of Education and Arts, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia

© Excerpt from Postmodern Wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology (Edinburgh University Press, 1996), pp.229-239.  Reprinted here with permission.
Thoreau Reader: Home


“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” - Walking

IF SWAMPS COULD be said to have a patron saint, it would be the nineteenth-century philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who maintained that "when I will die you will find swamp oak written on my heart."(1) The swamp not only wrote on Thoreau; he also wrote repeatedly on it, a fact not often remarked upon by the literary critics or writers on the American ideas of modern and postmodern wilderness.(2) One of the few critics to do so is Carl Bode who refers to Thoreau's "love for swamps" and how "he enjoys being in them, enjoys writing about them."(3) Unlike William Byrd and Jean-Paul Sartre, who found slime an impossible writing surface and feared slime writing on him, Thoreau loved to write on the swamp, and be written on by the swamp, or at least by the swamp oak.

[2]    Thoreau's writing on swamps touches on and counters, or subverts, many aspects of standard swamp-speak which we have encountered previously. Although Thoreau by no means addressed, and countered, every point of standard swamp-speak as he seemed to be more concerned to produce affirmative press for swamp rather than simply rebuff, or even rebut, the pejorative, he did turn the rhetoric against itself. He refused the miasmatic theory of disease by stating that "miasma and infection are from within, not without."(4) He countered the theory by suggesting that "the steam which rises from swamps and pools is as dear and domestic as that of our own kettle."(5) For Thoreau swamps and stagnant pools were not the antithesis of, nor a threat to, the homely, but of comparable value. He did not valorise the wetland over the homely but gave them equal value unlike those of his (and my) contemporaries who denigrated and feared the wetland (and accordingly valorised the canny over the uncanny).

[3]    Rather than seeing the airs of swamps as bearers of disease, Thoreau made a crucial distinction between fog and miasma, and even saw fog as healing:

The fog ... in whose fenny labyrinth
The bittern booms and heron wades;
Fountain-head and source of rivers ...
Spirit of lakes and seas and rivers, ...
Bear only perfumes and the scent
Of healing herbs to just men's fields! (6)
In a poem devoted exclusively to the subject and entitled "Fog," Thoreau referred to it as "dull water spirit - and Protean god," as "incense of earth," "spirit of lakes and rivers" and as "night thoughts of earth."(7) Rather than a vector of disease and a cause of death like miasma, fog is a source of new life. Rather than regarding fog and mist as vapours bearing disease and death, why not see them as the visible manifestation of the exhalations of the earth, particularly of the trees, on which we are dependent for life? After all, we are in symbiosis with the oxygen-producing plants of the Earth.

[4]    The swamp vapours were as equally homely for Thoreau as kettle steam because the swamp itself was better than a homely garden. Indeed, if Thoreau had to choose between them he would have chosen the swamp every time:

yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighbourhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.(8)
Why? Because "I derive more of my subsistence from the swamps which surround my native town than from the cultivated gardens in the village."(9) The swamps are "the wildest and richest gardens that we have. Such a depth of verdure into which you sink."(10) Thoreau was no mere walker by the wetland, but a wanderer in the wetland who was not afraid of sinking into it as long as he eventually found "a hard bottom."

[5]    Rather than the Garden of Eden, for Thoreau "some rich withdrawn and untrodden swamp ... is your real garden."(11) Yet this preference for swamps over town gardens was no mere nostalgia for a pastoral paradise lost as "hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps."(12) Thoreau's rhetorical tactic against the stratagems of standard swamp-speak was to displace and upset the usual or normative disjunction between swamp and garden by seeing the swamp as garden, and so exploit the favourable associations of the garden as a place of light and life.

[6]    Thoreau also upset the usual dissociation between swamp and city by seeing the city as swamp and so subverted the unfavourable connotations of the swamp as a place of darkness, disease and even death. Rather than the swamp, Thoreau saw "society," "civilisation," and the modern city as bearers of disease, or perhaps more precisely he saw the modern city as swamp in the conventional sense of an uncanny and unhomely place of disease and horror, and saw simultaneously the swamp as canny and homely, as postmodern dwelling in the unconventional sense of a homely, but also wild, (homely because wild) place. Thoreau could "see less difference between a city and some dismallest swamp then formerly. It is a swamp too dismal and dreary, however, for me." Although he would prefer the swamp as swamp over the city as swamp, he nevertheless goes on to make a finer distinction: "I would prefer even a more cultivated place, free from miasma and crocodiles."(13)

[7]    The city as swamp, however, had its own diseases and horrors:

let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place which we call reality.(14)
Thoreau's homoerotic search for a hard or tight bottom (in a number of senses) has been remarked upon by a number of critics.(15) What has been less remarked upon is the fact that the hard bottom is primarily at the bottom of a pond or swamp, though "there is a hard bottom everywhere," even "with the bogs and quicksands of society."(16)

[8]    Thoreau could "fancy that it would be a luxury to stand up to one's chin in some retired swamp a whole summer, scenting the wild honeysuckle and bilberry blows, and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes!"(17) Such music is the counterpoint to modernity: "in all swamps the hum of mosquitoes drowns this modern hum of society,"(18) the black noise of thermodynamic industrial capitalist technology. Standing up to one's chin in a swamp was also a good place to smell the smell of the swamp, "a strong and wholesome fragrance" of the vegetation "by overgrown paths through the swamp."(19) He even said "I love the smell of the swamp, its decaying vegetation."(20) Thoreau valued the sense of smell over the sense of sight to the point that "methinks the scent is a more primitive inquisition than the eye, more oracular and trustworthy ... The scent reveals, of course, what is concealed from the other senses. By it I detect earthiness."(21) Indeed, for Thoreau "that peculiar fragrance from the marsh at the Hubbard Causeway" was "the fragrance, as it were, of the earth itself."(22)

[9]    A deep- and hard-bottomed lake for Thoreau is symbolic of a kind of highly philosophical self-reflexivity, rather than of merely narcissistic self-contemplation. For him "a lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."(23) The swamp, by contrast, for Thoreau is shallow and soft, the first birth of nature:

that central meadow and pool in Gowing's Swamp is its very navel, omphalos, where the umbilical cord was cut that bound it to creation's womb. Methinks every swamp tends to have or suggests such an interior tender spot. The sphagnous crust that surrounds the pool is pliant and quaking, like the skin or muscles of the abdomen; you seem to be slumping into the very bowels of the swamp.(24)
The surface of the swamp is the soft spot of nature, even the breasts of Mother Nature when Thoreau refers to "the soft open sphagnous centre of the swamp" as "these sphagnous breasts of the swamp - swamp pearls."(25) The soft centre of the swamp is also related to the human body for Thoreau as "the part of you that is wettest is fullest of life."(26) Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Stowe, who figured slavery as a swamp, slavery for Thoreau was the part of the body politic fullest of death: "slavery ... has no life. It is only a constant decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils," in other words, the dead black waters of a polluted waste wetland, unlike the recurring decaying, death and rebirth of the living black waters of a healthy wild wetland fragrant to Thoreau's healthy sense of smell.(27)

[10]     For Thoreau "my temple is the swamp."(28) He said:

When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum.(29)
The swamp is the holy of holies, to which, like the High Priest, he would "annually go on a pilgrimage."(30) He would perform the ritual of life-giving, self-baptism in the swamp whose waters were not rank poison: "far from being poisoned in the strong water of the swamp, it is a sort of baptism for which I had waited."(31) Thoreau upset the conventional view that swamps were poisonous by parodying it in his reference to the "rank and venomous luxuriance in this swamp."(32)

[11]     Rather than a reason for avoiding the black swamp of depression and melancholia, Thoreau suggested that "if you are affliced with melancholy ... , go to the swamp."(33) He did not subscribe to a miasmatic theory of malaria nor melancholy. Even at the worst of times he could prescribe a swamp cure:

when life looks sandy and barren, is reduced to its lowest terms, we have no appetite, and it has no flavour, then let me visit such a swamp as this, deep and impenetrable, where the earth quakes for a rod around you at every step, with its open water where swallows skim and twitter ...(34)
When desire is diminished and life is dissatisfying, both figured here orally, the quaking zone of the swamp has depths and softness which the shallowness of its waters belie, and which the depths of the lake cannot dream of. Thoreau values precisely those usual pejorative connotations which attach to the "depth," or horizontal extension, and impenetrability of the swamp.

[12]     For Thoreau, the swamp is "the strength, the marrow of Nature."(35) The strength of nature, for him, lies not in the hard bones of the dry land, but in the soft marrow of the wetlands, what he also called the liquor of nature which feeds the body environmental:

the very sight of this half-stagnant pond-hole, drying up and leaving bare mud ... is agreeable and encouraging to behold, as it if contained the seeds of life, the liquor rather, boiled down. The foulest water will bubble purely. They speak to our blood, even these stagnant, slimy pools.(36)
They speak to our blood because they contain water which for Thoreau is "the most living part of nature. This is the blood of the earth."(37)

[13]     Thoreau's blood circulates with the blood of the earth and with the liquor and marrow of swamps in the body of the Earth: "surely one may as profitably be soaked in the juices of a swamp for one day as pick his way dryshod over sand."(38) Thoreau would prefer the problems of travel through the wetland, the marrow of the Earth, than the ease of passage over the dry land, the bones. Yet the problems of travel across the wetland are seasonal anyway in the higher latitudes as "the deep, impenetrable marsh, where the heron waded and bittern squatted [in summer], is made pervious [in winter] to our swift shoes, as if a thousand railroads had been made into it."(39) Thoreau sees himself as part of nature, as circulating in the body of nature not via the circulatory system of rivers, but in the stagnant system of marrow through immersion in the swamp by a kind of secular baptism.

[14]     Without the wetland, the world would fall apart. The wetland feeds and holds together the skeleton of the body of nature. Without the wetland there would be nothing to replenish the skeletal system of the dry land, the backbones of mountain ranges, the ribs of ridges, the limbs of peninsulas and capes, and the fingers of land reaching into the sea all of which (including the marrow of the wetlands) supply and make possible the fertile plains, prairies and steppes on which agriculture takes place, on which industry depends, on which cities "live," or more precisely which they parasitically suck dry.

[15]     Instead of the standard rhetoric of swamp-speak in which the swamp is a place of death and disease, for Thoreau the swamp is the stuff of life and death. Indeed, for Thoreau, "death is only the phenomenon of the individual or class. Nature does not recognise it... "Death" is "a law and not an accident - It is as common as life ... the law of their [flowers'] death is the law of new life".(40) The swamp, as with nature generally, upsets the hard and fast distinction between life and death. Thoreau inverts the morbid Christian orthodoxy of the saying from the Book of Common Prayer that "in the midst of life we are in death" by maintaining that "in the midst of death we are in life."(41) In the midst of death in the swamp we are in life. The swamp as marrow is constantly being renewed by the life-blood of the earth and constantly renews the bones of the body of the Earth.

[16]     One of the attractions of the swamp for Thoreau, especially in winter, was that here was a place on which no other "man" had left a trace, and so it was a place where Thoreau could leave his mark on a tabula rasa: "I love to wade and flounder through the swamp now, these bitter cold days when the snow lies deep on the ground ... to wade through the swamps, all snowed up, untracked by man ..."(42) Unlike the snow of field, pond, or road, the snow of the swamp could remain untracked for a time in order to allow Thoreau to write his own message on its clean sheet, its "blank page,"(43) without fear of interruption or interference from fellow humans, especially citizens, those denizens of the city.

[17]     After wading around in a swamp Thoreau felt like an explorer:

I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place ... far away from human society. What's the need of visiting far-off mountains and bogs, if a half-hour's walk will carry me into such wildness and novelty.(44)
Thoreau explored swamps not just physically but also metaphysically. Indeed, he did not even need to go on a half-hour's walk visiting bogs to be carried into wildness:
it is in vain to dream of wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bogs in our brain and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess in Concord, that is than I import into it.(45)
Wild(er)ness is a cognitive, corporeal and cultural experience, not a geographical category of (wet)land conservation or use, or lack of it, indigenous or industrial.

[18]     Thoreau saw the swamp explorer as a kind of Columbus of the new world of swamps not only without but also within. He asked rhetorically "is not our own interior white on the chart? black though it may prove, like the coast, when discovered." He then exhorts his readers also to "be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought."(46) The interior is either a kind of swamp in winter, a frozen tabula rasa, to be explored, mapped, written upon and so colonised or a swamp in summer with its quaking surface which could be decolonised and demapped.

[19]     For Thoreau it is the screech owls, or more precisely "their dismal scream," which best express his view of wetlands as dialogic other:

I love to hear their wailing ... as if it were the dark and tearful side of music ... They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling.(47)
Nature has just as much capacity for "evil" as it, or "she," has for "good." Nature is not all goodness and light for Thoreau but also has its dark and evil "side." Yet the owls are unlike the stymphalian birds in that they are not a monstrous deviation from nature which define and maintain the norm by contrast, but are a part of nature.

[20]     Nature for Thoreau is both "our common dwelling," our homely setting of steam rising from kettle and swamp, and "this vast, savage, howling mother of ours" from whose breast "we are so early weaned ... to society."(48) Nature for Thoreau, unlike for his contemporaries and for western "man" in general, is both homely and unhomely, canny and uncanny. It is both a place of goodness and light perhaps exemplified by the clear "eyes" of the lake and pond, and a place of life and death, light and dark represented by the "marrow" of the swamp. Thoreau's double vision, arguably postmodern avant la lettre, embraces and entertains both at once without any sense of contradiction between them. The swamp is not a place of melancholy and madness for Thoreau, but a place where melancholy and madness are mediated and alleviated.

[21]     The screech owls function for Thoreau as a kind of postchristian "scapegoat" (or more precisely scape-screech owls) which instead of being driven off into the pre-modern wilderness to bear the sins of "men" away from civilisation and the city, are part and parcel of the postmodern wilderness (or in this case more precisely the scape-wetland of the wetlandscape), in which "men" can find the sacred and solace, can find refuge and sanctuary from the rigours and stresses of modern city life:

I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognised. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have. All day the sun has shone on the surface of some savage swamp ... but now a dismal and fitting day dawns, and a different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature there.(49)
The owls suggest a pre-modern wetland which has not yet been subject to a patriarchal developmental and industrial technological imperative, yet which is now subjected to that imperative in the very act of naming it as "vast and undeveloped" with its meanings expressed by owls.

[22]     The postmodern wetland is worlds away from the melancholic marshes and the slough of despond: "there can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still."(50) The place par excellence in which to live literally in the midst of Nature, even up to one's chin, is the swamp. Given the difficulties the swamp poses for travel, it is the perfect place to still the senses, and the limbs, and allow the swamp to write on them, not as a tabula rasa, but as a responsive surface. As for dwellings, Thoreau enjoins us to "bring your sills up to the very edge of the swamp, then (though it may not be the best place for a dry cellar)."(51) The slimy edge of the swamp for Thoreau is not the place from which to flee for the bright and sublimed city lights, but the place to live for the bright swamp lights of ignited marsh gases which do not lead to madness, but could even lead to Thoreau's ultimate goal: "unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o'-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no man nor firefly has shown me the causeway to it."(52)

[23]     Thoreau seems to be developing a conservation language which would counter the standard Romantic perception that "unless Nature sympathises with and speaks to us, as it were, the most fertile and blooming regions are barren and dreary," in other words, are a modern wasteland.(53) The postmodern wetland, by contrast, is where Nature does not necessarily sympathise with us, nor we with it, but speaks to us, as the screech owls do, in the most fertile and blooming regions of the swamp. The swamp may be bare, but certainly not barren: "in swamps where there is only here and there an evergreen tree amid the quaking moss and cranberry beds, the bareness does not suggest poverty."(54) The bareness does not suggest barrenness but fertility. Swamp water is living.

[24]     The postmodern wetland may not be beautiful in the conventional sense of possessing appropriate qualities of form, texture, depth of field and point of view. Perhaps that is why it has been regarded as barren and dreary. If the wetland had been regarded as beautiful, perhaps its perceived uselessness would not have been held so badly against it. Perhaps if the wetland could now be regarded as beautiful, the fact that it is 'useless' as its stands for agriculture or urban development would not matter so much. For Thoreau, "whatever we have perceived to be in the slightest degree beautiful is of infinitely more value to us than what we have only as yet discovered to be useful and to serve our purpose."'(55) The trouble with wetlands is that they have been regarded as lacking both beauty and utility.

[25]     The swamp may lack the typical characteristics of beauty, but it does possess gradation which Thoreau saw as one of the fundamental aesthetic and ecological hallmarks of nature: "nature loves gradation ... the swamp was variously shaded, or painted even, like a rug, with the sober colours running gradually into each other."(56) Rather than subjecting wetlands to an aesthetic and utilitarian, even capitalist, imperative, perhaps it would be preferable to see wetlands as fulfilling vital, ecological functions necessary for life on earth to be sustained. Nature not only loves gradation in colour, but also gradation between land and water, life and death, light and darkness.


Notes

1.  Quoted by Robert D. Richardson, Jr, "Introduction: Thoreau's Broken Task," Henry David Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Covelo, California: Shearwater Books, 1993, p. 17.
2.  See Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, third edition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982; and Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. Both books have chapters devoted to Thoreau, Muir and Leopold. Neither mention their love of swamps.
3.  Carl Bode, "Epilogue by the Editor," The Portable Thoreau, New York: Penguin, 1982, p. 686.
4.  Henry David Thoreau, "Huckleberries," Natural History Essays, Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1980, p.261. and Journal, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, 1906; rept. New York: Dover, 1962, V, p.394.
5.  "A Winter Walk," The Portable Thoreau, p. 61.
6.  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers The Portable Thoreau, p. 166.
7.  "Fog," The Portable Thoreau, pp. 237, 8.
8.  "Walking," The Portable Thoreau, pp. 612, 3.
9.  "Walking," p. 612.
10.  Journal, IV, p. 281.
11.  Faith in a Seed, p. 198.
12.  "Walking," p. 611.
13.  Journal, II, p. 47.
14.  Walden, The Portable Thoreau, p. 350.
15.  See, for example, Walter Benn Michaels, "Walden's False Bottoms," Glyph, I, 1977, pp. 132-149.
16.  Walden, pp. 568, 9.
17.  A Week, p. 187 and Journal, I, p. 141.
18.  Journal, I, p. 83.
19.  Journal, IV, p.478.
20.  Journal, IV, p. 305.
21.  Journal, IV, p. 40.
22.  Journal, VI, p.288.
23.  Walden, p. 435. See also pp. 67, 339, 437 and 527.
24.  Walden, p. 524 and Journal, IX, p. 394. Carl Bode coyly excludes the first sentence and last phrase when he quotes from the latter in his 'Epilogue by the Editor,' p. 686.
25.  Journal, IX, pp. 38,9.
26.  Journal, X, p. 262.
27.  Journal, VI, p. 365.
28.  Journal, IV, p. 449.
29.  "Walking," p. 613.
30.  Faith in a Seed, p. 197.
31.  Journal, IX, pp.376,7.
32.  Journal, IX, p.60.
33.  Journal, X, p.150.
34.  Journal, IV, p. 231.
35.  "Walking," p. 613.
36.  Journal, IV, p. 102.
37.  Journal, XIII, p. 163.
38.  A Week, p. 187.
39.  "A Winter Walk," p. 71.
40.  Quoted by Robert D. Richardson, Jr, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, pp. 114, 5.
41.  Faith in a Seed, pp. 100, 1 and Journal, XIV, p. 109.
42.  Journal, VIII, p. 99.
43.  Journal, VIII, pp. 160,7.
44.  Journal, IX, p. 42.
45.  Journal, IX, p. 43.
46.  Walden, p. 560.
47.  Walden, p. 376.
48.  "Walking," p. 621.
49.  Walden, p. 377.
50.  Walden, p. 382.
51.  "Walking," p. 612.
52.  "Walking," p. 625.
53Journal, X, p. 252.
54.  Week, p. 195.
55.  Faith in a Seed, p. 144.
56.  Quoted by Richardson, p. 360.


Thoreau Reader: Home