On finding our way in swamps, and reclaiming the dismal and dark as places of transition and learning.
I was recently provided some useful reflections on how to navigate out of a situational ‘swamp’. It got me thinking about what the experience of being in a swamp is, and whether there is a way to rethink what seems heavy and hard and see it as an opportunity.
When we first think of swamps, perhaps it draws us to an experience of being stuck. Gumboots lost, suctioned into the mud. Attempts to move thwarted, stuck feet causing the body to be off-balance. A desire to ‘get out’ causing us to move faster, only increasing the risk of being more lost, more stuck and very covered in mud. In literature and folk tales swamps are places of dark magic, cruel creatures, and lost quests. They are never-never lands. Places to avoid by choice, or to go to when you are thrown out and have nowhere else to hide. Where no one will want to look. Of course these are understandable imaginings, swamps are the unknown, they are not places of easy human habitation. You do not build your house there; you cannot grow your crops or tend your flocks.
In politics, swamps are places you drain. They are where the bureaucrats and bad decision makers hide. Leaches in the mud. Mosquitos spreading disease. These analogies drawn in part from farming, where swamps were drained to create increasing arable lands. Turning wastelands to something better.
But swamps were already good — and draining swamps it turns out is not a good idea. Swamps are a valuable part of our ecosystem, they absorb water and moderate the effects of flooding, they protect coastal areas. They filter and clear water, process carbon and are home to a rich ecosystem of animals and plants. When swamps are drained or cleared, they can go from being a positive contributor to our ecosystem to one that releases carbon into the atmosphere. Livelihoods are lost, ecosystems pushed faster towards destruction.
Swamps are importantly places of transition, somewhere between water and land an in between state. In anthropology too, transition — or liminality is central to rites of passage and ritual, these are constant in all people and cultures. Liminality is a place where people [or systems] are between one state and another. They are transforming, neither the same as before nor emerged into the future state.
In Cynefin this is described as aporia, an impasse, a place of impossibility. Here you embrace contradiction, you don’t try and tidy it up, classify it and put it in a box. Here you map context and build evidence to start moving out of this state.
And so it is that we find ourselves in a swamp somewhere between the new and the old. And we are here quite by purpose — or perhaps by accident (depending on the scenario). As we navigate this place of transition, flailing won’t help. You move slowly in a swamp, you test your footing, you take a stick, and a guide that perhaps knows a little more. If your stick hits deep mud you find another way around. Swamps may be valuable ecosystems but by their nature, they are not a place you want to get pulled down into and remain forever. Equally they are not places to avoid, but maybe places you find yourself in or enter with intent – and take the chance to reflect, and transform with a sense of direction.
Henry Thoreau found comfort in the liminal power of the swamp. He knew the swamp to be a place of transformation and reflection:
“…my temple is the swamp… When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum… I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…
And Barbara Hurd too found beauty in the mire:
“To love a swamp….is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most praised. And sometimes its invisibility is a blessing. Swamps and bogs are places of transition and wild growth, breeding grounds, experimental labs where organisms and ideas have the luxury of being out of the spotlight, where the imagination can mutate and mate, send tendrils into and out of the water.”
And so it is, we can find hope, life, and a way forward in the swamps we enter. We can come out unstuck, different, and changed, and all the better for the journey. A swamp becomes a fertile wetland that contributes to the thriving ecosystem around it.
Part of the ebb and flow of life and change.