Category Archives: Overthinking It

The Moor Metaphor for the Dark Place in our Hearts

The Lake of the Dismal Swamp

“They made her a grave too cold and damp
For a soul so warm and true;
And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where all night long, by a firefly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.”
– Thomas Moore

When a friend says he cannot attend the office holiday party because he’s “swamped at work,” he means he’s very busy and has a lot to do. Idioms like, “bogged down” and “swamped” come from people’s experiences with getting physically stuck in bogs and swamps. The metaphor has carried over into urban office talk, even though some of us don’t work in the field and don’t have wet feet.

As with any great metaphor, there’s a deeper meaning associated with the images of the swamp:  slimy water, stinky undergrowth and roots slither like snakes through American literature. David Miller’sDark Eden: The Swamp in 19th Century American Culture provides a wide-sweeping study of the swamp metaphor in American literature. He writes, “swamps were symbols of female nature, of social crises, especially slavery, in the work of Stowe, Simms, Church, Heade, Strother, Tuckerman, Lanier, and others.” He gives examples of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia in the 1850s and the ways in which wetland areas created creepy moods in popular fiction, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the narrator must travel across swampy country and past a gloomy tarn. The tarn, a dark lake that surrounds the House of Usher, reflects his narcissism and negativity. It’s not a pretty picture.

A dark swamp at night can serve as a good metaphor for the mysteries of life, a problem or crisis that a protagonist might have to solve, or possibly, represent evil. But why? Just as the sea used to symbolize great danger and perils in art and literature, so have swamps stood for darkness, disease, destruction of the soul and the devil. A popular video game has a level called, “The Swamp of Evil,” and American television shows have often portrayed swamps as places where bad things happen, to the extent that audiences can predict the danger, usually set to ominous music. Perhaps this is why there are so many horror films that set their stories in swamps. In the same vein, Strange Wetlands’ totem hero, Swampthing, often solved environmental crimes that took place in the Florida Everglades.

By contrast, moorlands, a type of habitat in temperate grasslands, comes from the Old English word, mor, meaning low-lying wetlands, which were found throughout Southwestern England but also found in tropical parts of Africa, North Australia, Central Asia and North America. Biodiversity in moorlands is very rich. Moorland and tundra constantly shift their boundaries and the distance between them with climate change. Two of my favorite novels took place in moorlands:Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett both carried their protagonists through the moorlands they loved. Bronte and Burnett, as well as many British authors, treated the moor with affection; it was a place their protagonists loved, a retreat for secret rendezvous for lovers, a place to roam, escape and contemplate. Moorlands are misty, wild places of mystery. Dreamy and poetic. For poems and other examples of literature that take place in moors, go to:

                                                                      Speak of the North!
~by Charlotte Bronte

Speak of the North! A lonely moor
Silent and dark and tractless swells,
The waves of some wild streamlet pour
Hurriedly through its ferny dells.

Profoundly still the twilight air,
Lifeless the landscape; so we deem
Till like a phantom gliding near
A stag bends down to drink the stream.

And far away a mountain zone,
A cold, white waste of snow-drifts lies,
And one star, large and soft and lone,
Silently lights the unclouded skies.

The Wetland Phobia Factor

When I first started working in the wetlands field, I was warned that it’s a controversial subject, full of drama. It would not be the right area for politicophobes, or those who suffer from liticaphobia, an irrational fear of law suits. A phobia is a persistent, irrational fear of something—an activity, a place, anything—and it compels the afflicted person to avoid certain situations. For example, as a child I wasn’t afraid of ghosts but I was absolutely terrified of rubber Halloween masks. I refused to go into drug stores because they sold masks. As an adult, I like competing in costume contests on Halloween and it’s no longer a phobia. I just don’t like masks. Phobia goes beyond extreme dislike.

I feel sorry for people who are afraid of things found in nature. I have “city friends” who freak out when a squirrel runs by because a squirrel can resemble a rat, and some people are musophobic—afraid of mice and rats. Although many people have a fear of snakes or the well-known arachnephobia, there are some lesser-known phobias that might prevent or dissuade a person from visiting a wetland. First off, limnophobes are terrified of lakes, ponds and marshes, made worse by books about haunted lakes
. Others might worry that a sea serpent or fish, especially if that person is also a bit ichthyophobic, might lurk in the dark water. Hydrophobic people are afraid of water—period. A close relative is hygrophobia, a fear of dampness. After living through several floods, one might develop a case of antlophobia (fear of floods), or become lilapsophobic, if they can’t handle hurricanes. Those afraid of rain suffer from ombrophobia. My mother is a bit gephyrophobic when crossing a bridge but she doesn’t have potamophobia, a fear of rivers.

Although there is no such term palustriphobia for a fear of swamps, there are phobias for things found in swamps. Botanophobic people are afraid of plants, and it gets more specific: pteridophobes are freaked out by ferns. Ornithophobia is a fear of birds, and no wonder when sometimes, birds attack! Even though frogs are endangered, one is too many for someone with ranidaphobia. And if any reptile or amphibian bothers you, you might be batrachophobic. More specifically, a bufonophobe will run away from toads (perhaps a fear of warts?) and a batrachophobe will scurry from a newt or salamander.

Wetlands are often plagued with weather conditions like fog, which would be bad for a homichlophobe. Job descriptions for wetland scientists often warn that candidates, “must be able to deal with frequent insect bites,” a definite problem for anyone with cnidophobia, a fear of stings. Many people are afraid of dragonflies because of the needle-like shape of the insect’s body; in certain cultures, dragonflies are considered good luck but in other places, they are bad signs. Most insect phobias stem from a lack of interaction with insects and misinformation.

Some people are afraid of bacteria, which are important members of a balanced ecosystem. Nonetheless, pathophobia, a fear of disease, and blennophobia, a fear of slime, would probably steer the afflicted person away from some types of wetlands, even if only based on historic misconceptions that wetlands were sources of disease. In addition some people might avoid a wetland due to pneumatophobia, a fear of spirits, or bogyphobia, trouble with the Bogeyman. In a Google search, there are no found instances of a phobia related to Swampthing, but just the opposite. People who hunt Big Foot and swamp creatures will tell you a tale of heart-thumping anticipation!