Do Not Play Dead

Image of The Great Swamp by Matthew Jensen 

Writing by Dana Hemes, Visual Artist

[Neither my path nor my thoughts through the Great Swamp walk were linear, so this writing will take a nonlinear, fermenting, stagnant yet vibrant, bubbling form (or, more accurately, lack of form).]

Like many explorers before me, I entered the walk map-less. I read through Matthew Jensen’s detailed description, printed the page, made a few snacks, tied my water-susceptible shoes and walked out of the door, leaving the map in the printer. I remembered how to reach the swamp from the train station… and I remembered the text saying something about not being able to get lost… so I decided to keep moving forward.

I think I chose the Great Swamp walk because of some deep, nostalgia-driven force. I grew up in South Louisiana. While my hometown looked like any other good-sized city with paved roads, shopping centers and (tons of) restaurants, swamp-culture still shaped the place (and vice-versa). Swamp murals can be found downtown… local artists are very well practiced in painting Spanish moss and reflections on watery landscapes… nutria rats are a common site in neighborhood parks… and swamp critters often show up, deep fried, on menus. While I didn’t expect the Great Swamp of NJ to look like the swamps of my childhood, I was surprised by how my walk through this small patch of protected land triggered vivid and specific memories. As I meandered through the soggy land, I thought about waterskiing as a young teenager… avoiding swimsuit mishaps, cypress tree knees, and alligators. As I crossed a wooden bridge, I remembered midnight canoe trips down the Vermillion River to the neighbor’s house when we ran out of beer. Swarming gnats reminded me of sitting (with a net in hand) and staring at a submerged turkey neck, tied to a piece of fluorescent twine, waiting for blue crabs to nibble…

When I arrived to the train station, I was a bit skeptical that I had recalled the directions correctly, as there was very little indication of a swamp being nearby. It was a warm day, the streets were quiet, the houses were big, and the lawns were manicured. After a few blocks, and growing suspicions, the monoculture grass lawns slowly gave way to lots spotted with dandelions. The diversity of the lawns continued to increase… eventually I came to houses with wild gardens growing edibles, vines taking over shutters, chickens (I purchased a dozen fresh eggs from a roadside stand) and a donkey… until I reached a “boundary” sign. The sign seemed insignificant, as the end of the paved road and the large “Great Swamp” kiosk littered with faded wildlife warnings made the boundary clear. At the kiosk, I learned that the swamp is protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act, that it is 3,660 acres, and that if you meet a bear in the swamp, you should not play dead. As it turns out, the same goes for if you meet an alligator.

My 12 eggs and I entered. I almost immediately sank through ankle deep mud. My poor choice in footwear welcomed the bog in, however it felt appropriate to have mud against my skin. So I trudged forward, meandering along various colors of paths, trusting Matt Jensen’s confidence in the inability to get lost.

The scales of my focus shifted. I looked at a micro ecosystem on a single patch of moss. I thought about the small-ness (and distinction) of the entire Great Swamp in comparison to the surrounding suburb and then the whole state of NJ. If New Jersey is 5,586,560 acres, then the swamp is approximately 1/1,526 of the state. I thought about relationships or organisms in ecosystems. And I noticed that the beaten path itself often divided types of landscapes…

Airplanes occasionally flew overhead, drowning out the sounds of swamp birds and bugs, reminding me that I was never very far from industrialization. I wondered if the swamp was visible to the passengers.

The human-path was clear, despite not seeing any other humans. It was well marked with colored trail blazes posted at average human-height, and through the extra swampy areas there were well-maintained wooden bridges. I thought about the definition of “wilderness” and what “protected” land means, and the difference between man-made structures that qualify as “not-touching” a landscape versus man-made structures that “touch” a landscape… Clearly, these bridges were not constructed by beavers or other woodworking swamp critters… but I suppose they didn’t prevent the swamp from existing… or maybe they do in some ways? Maybe my feet should have been soggier. Or maybe I should have only been able to access the swamp if I had a portable kayak or a pirogue or amphibious skin or feathers.

The swamp was surprisingly vertical. The bogginess somehow supported tall, towering trees that brought by sight upward. Invisible spider webs collected on my arm hair, bringing my sight back downward. I wondered what bits of the swamp I was carrying with me… what would hitch a free ride on the NJ transit and MTA? Also what bits of NYC did I carry into and deposit in the swamp unknowingly? Can we really ever “leave no trace”?

The honking of Canadian Geese (similar to me in the regard that we both rarely, if ever, fly “home”), so the honking of New Jersey Geese interrupted my thoughts.

Then the sounds of traffic grew louder.

Then the swamp ended.

As I sat on the train home with 12 eggs on my lap, I thought about how I had changed the swamp and how it had changed me. I thought about how it influenced my thoughts and prompted memories that had been dormant for years. I thought about leaving or not leaving traces. I feel like I spend a lot of my time in life trying to leave a positive trace… and how hiking is one of the only exercises in which humans promote invisibility, traceless-ness, legacy-free. Although I suppose hiking selfies are popular now… I never lost phone service in the Great Swamp. I brought mud and pollen and spider webs and eggs and knowledge and grass seeds and bacteria and experience home from the swamp. I also brought 8 ticks home.

If you meet a tick in a swamp, do not play dead.

Sarah Walko