Stirring the Mud

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In a series of nine essays, author Barbara Hurd records her several treks through wetlands, primarily Maryland’s Finzel and Cranesville swamps. Her first essay, “Marginalia,” sets her thesis: the mysterious edges of swamps and bogs, neither land nor water, symbolize the ambiguities she has experienced in life and art. For most, these are uncomfortable places, but for Hurd such “untidy edges offer hope.”

Although she writes in the tradition of Henry Thoreau and Annie Dillard, Hurd has a new topic and a distinct voice. Both capture the reader from beginning to end. Hurd’s essays are fluid, moving from the swamp environment to history, to mythology, to teaching writing, to being human—often in one paragraph. Permeating this movement is a style rich in images: “The air thickens from smoke-pearly gauze to muslin to wool . . . draws up close, drops a shroud over my head.”

As Hurd says, readers have gone into swamps via the fearful experiences of runaway slaves, of Grendel, of the Creature of the Black Lagoon; they have been swamped and bogged down. Rather than with such feelings of fear or suffocation, Hurd travels into the wetlands with a spirit of kinship, for water, muck, and skunk cabbage, for turtle, crocodile and bear.

Preservation of the wetlands, once treated as valueless, is a major goal of conservationists. Hurd, without proselytizing, makes the reader realize that bogs and swamps and their inhabitants are a vital natural environment, to be reclaimed literally and spiritually.