The swamps of western Maryland provide the setting for a series of poised (if somewhat precious) meditations on our universal human desire to define, clarify, categorize, and plan.
Breaking with the stereotype of solitary spiritual journeys into the desert, Hurd, a poet and teacher in Frostburg, Maryland, instead seeks self-knowledge, communion with nature, and some kind of divine peace in swamps, bogs, and marshes—places teeming with life yet lacking solidity or definite boundaries. Wetlands such as these, neither land nor water, give rise to all sorts of category-defying creatures: carnivorous plants, turtles equally aquatic and terrestrial, coniferous trees with needles that turn yellow-gold and drop off in autumn, like leaves. Hurd writes that “humans don’t seem to be this kind of edge species, and mostly we’re not comfortable here.” In nine essays, the author combines an intimate, detailed knowledge of the swamp ecosystem with her cache of literary, mythological, and Eastern-religious reference points to pursue a simple notion: that our imaginative, spiritual selves are nourished by ambiguity and formlessness. Despite an occasional lapse into preciousness and a tendency to belabor metaphors, Hurd makes her point with clarity and quiet humor. In a muddy bog, she wonders, “How did such a sloppy place get past the Creator?”
All contemplative types, but latter-day Thoreau-worshippers especially, will love these meditations. The world-weary, however, may grumble a bit.