The swamp was cypress forest within your parents’ lifetime; it will be open water within yours.
Death and the Midden
The swamps of Southern Louisiana are deep wells of iconography. In pictures, stories, legends and tchotchkes, the swamp and its denizens occupy a space of allegory larger and far healthier than what remains of the swamp’s miserable, mostly destroyed reality.
Experienced directly over a span of years, the swamp in actuality is a depressing Global South trash-heap, gutted and ruined at an every-accelerating rate by global industries. These days, to spend any length of time in the swamp is to understand it’s too late for the swamp. It’s poisoned; it’s ravaged beyond recovery. We’re just working out the last few variables of the equation’s already obvious result.
The tipping point is far back. The balance of the swamp’s life, the complex interplay of flora, fauna, tides and weather that comprise its intricate algebra, was fatally skewed long ago, first by the region’s logging boom in the late 19th century, and later by the petrochemical industry.
The very canals by which we navigate the swamp are tunnels carved through its guts, infected bullet-wounds aerating its organs. The timber industry dug the first canals, to expedite clear-cutting; the oil industry dug many more. Salt from the Gulf of Mexico has flowed into those injuries, poisoning the swamp at least as seriously as the constant spills and effectively unregulated effluvium from the refineries.
Those refineries glitter now on the swamp’s periphery, their towers topped with eternal flames, cybernetic future-cities expressly built to generate toxins in quantities sufficient to satiate the ravenous realities of late capitalism. These Blade Runner-looking post-nationalist metropolises each gush a million gallons of toxins, both liquid and gaseous, daily into the swamp; they’ve been doing so for decades.
The swamp is still beautiful, but it’s a morbid beauty. The time I spend in it speaks to me of death: my own death, the swamp’s death, and the inevitable and incipient death of everything I’ve ever known.
Come with me into the swamp, into the dumping ground for all the breakthroughs made by all the bright and clever chemists, scientists and engineers. This is the sacrifice zone, and most of you reading this will outlive it. This swamp was cypress forest within your parents’ lifetime; it will be open water within yours.
The anchoring cypress, those that haven’t been logged, are already mostly dead thanks to salt-water coming up the canals. What we call the cypress are actually corpses, their bodies slowly rotting in open air. Fading to lifelessness, the trees become their own picturesque tombstones. Because cypress trees convulse as the water around them brines, throwing up knees and arms in doomed efforts to escape the escalating salinity, the swamp is a graveyard in which the statuary monuments’ limbs are twisted in pain, ossified mid-writhe.
There are still some holdouts. When what lately passes for winter has passed, the few trees who’ve yet to fully succumb sprout fluff the bright color of a praying mantis; their frilly leaves cycle through the colors of a comice pear, turning yellow and then a deep, bloody russet in fall.
Migrating red-winged blackbirds sweep through in great chattering flocks, but fewer every year. The monarch butterflies that once bedecked the irises and water lilies by the thousand are no longer seen at all.
This is death.
It’s beyond denying, beyond argument; the only real question is what to do with the information.
Fear fuels all the great engines of control, and for those of us pathetic alienated ants burning under the magnifying glass of Western individualism, there is no higher-octane fuel than the fear of death. “Nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” Nothing more compelling, nothing more certain, nothing more unimaginable than the cessation of the sacred, solipsistic self.
Vast economies blossom and metastasize around the falsehood that death can be deferred, demurred, sanitized or managed. Science and religion and the ephemeral phantasm of fame all beguile with the promise of exemption... for a price.
Our unthinking greed to exist and our craven terror of the inevitable have led us far into the hell we now collectively inhabit. Desperate to believe, we’ve followed the fairy-lights far, far from the last traces of solid ground, deep into where we now find ourselves – surrounded by dead cypress and eight-foot invasive cane, wandering the slough of despond.
Hope is what the fi’follet entices us with. Hope is what they sell us, and what we’ve come this far pursuing. Hope, no matter how far-fetched – narratives of exceptionalism, willow-whispers of the determined individual triumphing over and surviving against the odds. Hope is the opiate that numbs, for a moment, the controlling fear. Hope is the drug.
To live in hope of something better, or to struggle from a place of hope, is to be a slave of fear.
I revere the swamp because it is death. It is wracked and destroyed, and also exhibits in every facet a thrilling indifference – perhaps a rebuke? – to our personal survivals, to our ambitions, to our romantic ideals, to the meaningful perseverance of our constructed individualities.
The mosquitoes here will bite through denim. They evince commendable indifference to fashion – similarly to race, class, gender or any signifiers of social status. The swamp’s broad array of variously elongated and majestic birds, unlikely entities available in every color the sky can turn, are afraid of you no matter who you are, regardless of what’s in your heart.
Of course, the swamp is also full of alligators. They are not endangered; they somehow thrive even as the canals clog again with dead fish from the latest ambiguous industrial oopsie or algal imbalance. The gators are unstoppable apex predators, toothy inscrutable dinosaurs whose belches and booming roars still fill the sunsets in summer.
And it is sunset, reader – sunset for me, for you, for the swamp, for this rotting shitheap of a ruined planet. If the archetypal forest of fairy tales and the Gothic novel symbolizes our unconscious fears, then the swamp represents our shame. It’s the dirty, the used-up, the discarded – the shit we try to hide and ignore. Here in the literal sewers of the global extraction industry, sit beside me in the shallow boat: let us watch the sun itself, the great sky-god, decline.
The remaining clouds become clots of nu-rave neon, a palette rarely seen outside video games. The cranes and egrets group themselves in the bare branches of the dead cypress; with their wings folded around themselves, they look like canopic urns.
The water’s ripples fill with dancing coins. The deepening sky and cotton-candy clouds reflected in the lapping canal seem realer somehow, sharper than the originals. The swamp doesn’t exhale – its breath is too subtle for humans to touch or measure – but the scents begin to change. The heavy air, pungent with decay, gives way to a cooler mustiness, a close and more intimate funereal damp.
The frogs are starting. Not as many as there used to be, but still a loud chorus. Now, across the emptiness that used to be cypress forest echoes the deep, insinuating baritone chuckle of the gators: prehistoric, eternal, and undiminished. Their muttering is like the low, lurching idle of an overcammed engine. One murmurs and another responds, closer to hand than you would have thought. You don’t see them unless they let you: totally motionless, lizard-still ’til they lunge.
Living somewhere hopeless is a bummer, of course, but it also has its perqs. Watching the swamp die, year after year, frees one from reformism and the tired delusion of self as savior. I don’t squander my time envisioning a brighter future. There is none. The swamp cannot be saved; we are paddling through its death throes.
The sky is bruising to darkness, the sun a mere ochre smear above the reeds. The air is close. In a labyrinth of narrow, twisting canals, in a low boat surrounded by high grass, it’s hard to keep track of the way back. The land here is flat for hundreds of miles in every direction. There are no hills, no higher ground. You’re lost, and when you’re lost enough, there’s no longer any point wasting energy on fear.
This is what’s been waiting for you in the murky, miserable beauty of the swamp: the dream-like primordial freedom on the other side of hope and the fear hope requires. This is the second-to-last liberation. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a position of nearly unlimited leverage and potential; once you accept you’re hopelessly lost, you’ve no longer anything to lose.