Swamp Songs by Tom Blass Review – an odyssey through wetlands | science and nature books

YYou never know what horrors lurk at the bottom of a swamp. Moore, on the other hand, sound weird. Swamps are more pleasant, though reminiscent of malaria, while wetlands exude health but are also wet in a do-or-done sense. But as Tom Blass explains, these words all refer to the same thing: a place where land and water have engaged in a battle and can’t decide who won. The result is less an equilibrium, though these states of semi-submersion can hold their nerve for millennia, and more a temporary détente, with both sides too weary to announce an outcome. In search of these intermediate places, Blass travels from Cyprus to Lapland, from Romania to Virginia, eyes open and careful not to fall into the darkness below.

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Early on, Blass turned out to be more of an ethnologist than a natural scientist. While he pays respectful attention to the fauna he encounters on his trek from the Romney Marshes across the Danube Delta to the bayous of Louisiana, it’s the people he seeks. The Lipovans, Cajuns, and Seminole are all ethnic groups who forged a culture from the mud crushed between their toes, and this is the true theme of Blass’s invigoratingly original work. Above all, he is meticulous about avoiding clichés. There are very few glorious sunsets in Swamp Songs, for example, or encounters with gnarled old locals who act as aquifers for ancient knowledge, small graces for which the reader should be grateful.

This desire to skewer the clichés of his chosen genre begins early on, when Blass takes a trip to Dungeness, which in the summertime “gets overrun with sea kale, psychogeographers, and bloody hell people like me.” What people like him are looking for, of course, is Prospect Cottage, the isolated, shuttered dwelling where film director Derek Jarman spent his final years cultivating his garden, a Shintoesque, salt-blown wonder in the lee of the looming nuclear power station. Here, too, Blass cannot resist subverting the conventions of his chosen genre, which may well be psychogeography. “‘That’s it,’ they say. “This is Derek Jarman’s house.” And they move on because there really isn’t much to see.”

Such deadpanning is also clearly seen as Blass heads toward the coastal plain of Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp. Even the name of the place is tautologous, because from the 17th century the word “gloomy” was a collective term for a swamp. “In other words, all swamps were murky because they were swampy,” he writes. Still, Dismal seems to fit modern usage, offering the visiting pale nothing but a series of wary, misfired interactions with the townsfolk going about their favorite pastime of fishing for bowfin and bullhead, without revealing anything.

The only clue as to what might lie behind this lingering sense of Dismal’s menace is the fact that Confederate flags can be seen in home front yards alongside the usual stars and stripes. It’s 2016, and as Blass skirts the edge of the swamp, the US presidential election is just weeks away. Everywhere he sees posters with the slogans “Lock Her Up” and “Make America Great Again”. Most frightening, however, is the “Drain the Swamp” prompt. Blass discovers that historically the Dismal was the last redoubt of blacks running from the plantations, fugitive Native Americans, English and Irish indentured laborers. In this context, “draining the swamp” means transforming a group of oppressed and vulnerable people into bogeys.

Before the Brits feel too complacent, Blass finds this dynamic alive and much closer to home. Back in the Romney Marshes, near where he lives, he explores the local smuggling romance that has endured for centuries thanks to the watery bays that allow small boats to drift quietly ashore and offload far from the sight of customs officers. But Blass turns his binoculars around sharply, and before we know it we’re confronted with the fact that refugees are being smuggled across the Channel every month to land at nearby Dover. They are greeted, if not exactly as swamp monsters, then as creatures from below that need to be dealt with and taken care of quickly.

Swamp Songs: Journeys Through Marsh, Meadow and Other Wetlands by Tom Blass is available from Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.

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