I am wallowing in the swamp again. Face mask, snorkel – naked. Sharp blades of cat tail and bullrush slice through the thick ooze as I grope for elusive frogs in the slime.
I can’t see anything through my face mask, but it allows me to keep my eyes open and battle back the claustrophobia that makes me want to scream a mouthful of mud.
It’s a job.
In fact, I write technical manuals for a living but it feels the same. No. The swamp would feel a lot better.
I’ve been stuck in a swamp. Maybe it was a bog or a fen, but it was greasy with the thick mud we call loonshit. At the time, I was sure I had discovered the ultimate terror and tomb of the claustrophobic. I thought I was in quicksand.
In the swamp, critters lay clumps of gelatinous eggs. As children, Monroe and I grabbed handfuls of these gobs, killing more potential green frogs in an instant than a hungry trout could in a week. We fed this slimy treat to our Mastiff. The dog developed a taste for frogs and was often seen lurking in the pond scum – only his nostrils, eyes and the top of his head visible above the slimy algae as he awaited an unwary frog. I discovered dragonfly nymphs, walking sticks, a newt and tadpoles amidst the oozing mud luscious goo and the razor sharp sedge.
J.P. and I were working in the swamp, building bafflers in an attempt to control the beaver’s encroaching water park. The Beaver Baffler is a length of plastic pipe pushed through the dam which allows a controlled water flow. It is subsurface, so the beavers don’t detect the escaping water. The sharp edge of the plastic pipe gashed my leg and I told J.P. that I was worried about the loonshit getting into the deep cut. Waist-deep in the same mud, she said:”I have a vagina.” It wasn’t sexual. It was just the facts, man.
You wade through it to get your first moose if you grow up in the north.
You get hopelessly mired in it on the short cut home.
You get swamped at work.
Swamped at sea.
Swamped with emotions.
Let me tell you about a swamp. I’ll try to take you there.
A swamp at night. In April. Smell the decay and the regeneration. The loonshit mist has ice crystals in it. Smells cold. Starlight peeks through the black spruce and sparkles off the sphagnum moss frozen to your icy pants.
Lucky you have matches. As if anything would burn here. Even the dead branches are like chunks of woody ice. You have to dry peat moss before it burns. Or wait for succession.
The Wendigo, that spirit of lonely places, lives here. A giant composed of mud and ice, she lives on moss when she can’t find human flesh and lost souls to devour. She lurks, unseen, behind every tree or mossy clump. You feel her watching you.
Brittle spears of dead balsam, punji sticks, lunge at your face with every move.
Every step is deeper.
The way back, isn’t. Ponder that.
When your boots weigh 100 pounds and your face is oozing blood like sweat, you cut your shin against a steel culvert and tumble onto a gravel logging road.
The headlights pick you up on the shoulder and veer towards you. You lie flat and the tires somehow miss you. Back-up lights. Fast. You roll away but the front wheel catches your leg and the fender knocks you into the ditch. The swamp again, wet, bleeding, crushed leg. Your rescuer stops.
“Oh. It’s bleeding Julie and it looks cold”
“We should put some salt on his wounds.”
“We don’t have any Julie. How about some beer?”
Beer splashing your face. Trying to drink it. Muskeg madness.
“Beer’s not salty until after you drink it. Piss on him, Jim.”
Jim trying to piss. Julie pulling down her pants and squatting over your face. You can see her in the headlights. She has a vagina. Warm. Burning. Salty. Asparagus?
Jim kicking your crushed leg for looking at Julie’s pussy. Julie wants to see you naked.
This didn’t happen.
I write technical manuals.
I’m just swamped at work. Bogged down. Caught in a quagmire. I have too many projects – too many deadlines. I sometimes ease the tension by amusing myself with inappropriate details in the midst of research notes and essays.
”the male leopard frog, as an integral and seemingly necessary part of the courtship ritual, rhythmically licks and penetrates the cloaca of the female with his extremely long and prehensile tongue…”
Then, later, when the appropriate phrase springs to mind, I delete the fun portion, spell check and send it off for publication – out of the swamp.
I keep coming back to swamps. They are things of beauty aren’t they? Lush plant, insect and amphibian hatcheries that not only provide food and habitat, they naturally purify water. We can learn a lot from swamps. Scoop up a handful of that muck and look deeply into it. It is teeming with life. Nymphs, larvae, eggs, tadpoles – all an intrinsic part of a complex and delicate ecosystem designed to feed the living forest. Is it becoming more beautiful now? Is that odour of decay also redolent of regeneration?
The plant communities in the swamp are constantly changing. As water levels fluctuate from drought to flood, different plant communities emerge, others die off and become part of the ever expanding peat layers. This swamp was once a marsh – an area of standing water. As water levels receded and the bottom emerged it became a fen – covered in sedges over a spongy sphagnum base. Water levels and drainage caused the plant communities to change again and transform the fen to an open bog. Now the wooded areas, the large cedar trees, and the standing water define it as a swamp. This succession can take decades or centuries depending on climate, and, to some extant, beavers. Retrograde beavers. They can set back the process with a well placed dam and a little flooding. But the beaver ponds eventually fill in and march on to their swamp destiny.
Let me take you to another swamp.
The Bog is the pet name for this dank summer office, reeking of armpits and deadlines. It is a muggy July afternoon. Overhead, bare fluorescents augment the scant sunlight filtering through the limp and tired mini blinds. Behind the walls of your divided cell, you wait for some sort of astral osmosis to ooze into the muggy, stagnant part of your brain where the muses live. Staccato keyboard attacks from nearby cubicles feed your stalled anxiety. Smell the decay and the regeneration. Succession is a palpable thing in the bog. The young feed off the old until they are strong enough to replace them. The dead decay and become part of the bog. Life goes on.
Jim walks in with the magazine in his hand. His booming voice carries over the cubicles and you realize he is reciting your nightmare as Julie follows him in, laughing – choking with laughter.
“…penetrates the cloaca…”
“Is he just lubing her for some anal?”
“Why? They live in organic KY.”
Panic wells up in your throat, acid, like muskeg. This can’t be real – this is the childhood dream. This is grade two. You are at school. Naked.
Your clothes suddenly cling to you and you smell yourself. Fear stinks.
The way back – isn’t. Ponder that again.
Was Julie telling Jim to piss on you?
You emerge from the mud. Wipe the slush from your face mask. It’s true. You submitted it.
They printed it.
This happened. I used to be a wetlands biologist for the province. Now I write technical manuals.
Muskeg is an Algonquin word. It usually refers to mossy areas with scrub tree growth and sedge tussocks. Home of the mighty moose. Moose eat the shrubs, the pondweed and water-shield that are abundant here. Moose is also an Algonquin word meaning “twig eater”. Anishnabe rolled wood ashes in their moose hides and returned the hide to the swamp. The lye from the ashes and the tannins in the swamp worked together to render the hide hairless, tawny and butter soft. The hide was then rubbed with the moose’s brain to complete the tanning and keep the hide velvety and pliable. One brain does one hide. Animals are smart enough to tan themselves.
The Wendigo provides the madness. Her overwhelming absence proves she is there. Just behind the hummock. No. Over there. She’s in the bog hole. Now she’s running, one step behind.
There is one more swamp.
This one is more like a fen. In a fen, the water is at, or just above the surface, and they drain slowly. Trees are sparse in a fen, but sedges, mosses and shrubs are abundant. Floating mats of vegetation are trap doors into the black water waiting beneath.
Come with me – once more, and then we’ll shake the mud off.
It is night again. Smell the musk of mushrooms, mother earth and midnight. Smell the pong of love. City lights shine through the open curtains and paint two bodies dancing naked in harsh sepia contrasts.
You stumble through the familiar doorway as brittle spears of dread lance your chest with every move.
Every step is deeper.
The way back, isn’t. Ponder that one last time.
When your feet weigh 100 pounds and your brain is racing with doom and denial, you bump your shin against the bed.
Faces collide and turn towards you. Fast. You turn away but they don’t disappear. The dance takes a few seconds to peter out. You sink into the swamp again, crushed and bleeding, you look into these familiar faces.
”Well, don’t look so shocked, you must have known.”
“Just …just leave, okay.” They can’t look at you.
“Maybe he wants to join us. How about it?”
Hands pulling at your clothes. Trying to join in.
I lied. We’re not done yet. I’ve been skirting the edges of this swamp. Beating around the bulrush. These swamps, bogs and fens are all about Monroe. Monroe and I waded through the swamp together to claim his first moose. He knocked the young bull down with a single shot through the ribcage – now the work would begin: gutting, quartering, and slogging the heavy beast back home. Monroe was proud. Mom and dad would be pleased –– we would bring home meat for the whole family. I coached Monroe through the first cut – told him how to avoid slicing the intestines and helped him with the heavy stuff. I hoisted the moose-laden backboard onto his skinny 16 year old shoulders and turned to grab my own. Two trips each – we weren’t trophy hunters and would leave the head to forest scavengers – ravens and whiskey jacks, fox and brush wolves. As I hefted my backboard, I saw Monroe stagger and heard the shot. A single bullet ripped through the quarter on his back and into Monroe’s ribcage. I struggled to lift the backboard from him as he lay face down in the loonshit. When I rolled him over his eyes were blank and my brother was gone.
I remember the voices.
“Is he down, Jim?”
“I don’t see anything moving”
But then I moved. I knocked down Jim with a single shot to the button on his hunting shirt pocket. Aim small – miss small. I waited for his companion to appear and shot him as he knelt by Jim. They are still in that swamp. I carried Monroe home and went back four times for the moose. We had to eat.
I wake to sleeping.
I’ve built a natural swimming pond in our suburban backyard. No chlorine. No bromine. Flora and fauna work together to filter and purify the water. Natural processes moderate the temperature and I swim in it until it thickens with ice crystals. I venture on the surface when the ice is thick enough to hold my weight – my wait. I lie on my belly and look through the ice – hoping to catch a glimpse of mud movement from a burrowed frog or bass, but everything is still – motionless in the pond. Dormant. I want to break through the ice and awaken the fearsome critters lurking below, but it isn’t time. I wait.
Black ice reflects my face and I peer through the muddy layers of me to the murky bottom. Sky behind, above and below, I look darkly back, forward, up and down in the same murky stare.
Rick Vosper lives in Northern Ontario where he explores boggy places and writes about fearsome creatures, rocks, and birds. At work, Rick tries to tame the wild and shares forest tales in travel magazines and local publications. When he is able to channel his serious side, Rick writes history.