The Marshes of My Mind

Emergent vegetation in Night-Heron Shallows - 2

I’ve been working on an article on Layamon’s Brut for a while, and I keep hitting figurative walls. Some of my difficulty is due, no doubt, to the numerous demands on my time—I’m teaching two online classes, I’m packing my house, and I have a young child. At some point, I need to start thinking about the upcoming semester. But having started this blog, I’ve come to an important realization: I really don’t like academic writing.

In my experience, academic writing requires a firm hand and lots of structure, and I can do it. I just would prefer not to. My mind is constantly meandering despite my best efforts, and I keep discovering interesting threads in a text that threaten to draw me off course.

Like this morning: I was suddenly struck by the use of marshes in Layamon’s Brut, particularly in the Arthurian section. There are two notable instances. First, when Arthur is fighting against the invading Saxons, he drives his enemies to a deep river and manages to deny them the ford. As the Saxons drown by the thousands, the narrator interrupts the battle scene with this lovely simile:

Summe heo gunnen wondrien swa doð þe wilde cron
i þan mor-uenne þenne his floc is awemmed
and him haldeð after hauekes swifte,
hundes in þan reode mid reouðe hine imeteð.
þenne nis him neouðer god, no þat lond no þat flod:
hauekes hine smiteð, hundes hine biteð.
þenne bið þe kinewurðe foȝel fæie on his siðe. (10061-67)

Here’s the translation by W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg:

Some went wandering as does the wild crane in the moorland fen when his flock is scattered and swift hawks pursue him, hounds ruthlessly attack him in the reeds. Neither the land nor the water is safe for him then: hawks strike him, hounds bite him. Then the royal bird is doomed in his tracks. (43-45)

Here, the fens are presented as a threatening place, one devoid of sanctuary of any sort and filled with predators. Consisting of neither land nor water, it is not a place to enter on one’s own.

Later in the Brut, Arthur hosts a feast and invites the nobles from the various countries he has conquered. Not surprisingly, a fight breaks out. Arthur’s response? Kill the instigators and mutilate their female kin. I’m going to ignore the second part of Arthur’s command here (my article addresses it to some extent) and focus just on the first part. Arthur is quite specific in how the instigators shall be put to death:

[D]oð wiððe an his sweore; and draȝeð hine to ane more,
and doð hine in an ley uen þer he scal liggen. (11394-95)

And Barron and Weinberg’s translation:

[P]ut a cord about his neck and drag him to a marsh, and thrust him into the bog where he shall lie. (111)

I’m intrigued by Arthur’s choice of wetlands as an instrument of death. What does it mean to be bound and thrown into a bog? Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” immediately comes to mind. Heaney addresses one of the “bog people” (bodies preserved in Danish marshes from 2-3 thousand years ago; you can learn more about them here), imagining a backstory for how she came to be entombed in that marsh (and the link above offers a new understanding of that particular bog body, one which contradicts much of what Heaney imagined).

Why a marsh? Why not death by fire or beheading? Why not death by dismemberment? These men have violated Arthur’s court, and their actions could be seen as treasonous, and dismemberment was the usual punishment for such crimes.

I imagine death by bog to be a slow process. Whereas decapitation offers a fast release, a marshy death might allow more time for reflection. Dismemberment and death by fire would be painful experiences (I’m guessing–absolutely no firsthand experience with any of this), which might prevent any kind of meditation while conscious.

Many people in Layamon’s Brut are drowned, especially women and children, but Arthur’s enemies as well, but perhaps the type of drowning that takes place in a marsh would be worse. The weight of the water-sodden mud pressing down upon one’s chest. The mouth open to scream, only to be silenced by an influx of sludge. And bodies that drown ultimately float back up, don’t they? Entombment in a marsh might have struck those living in the Middle Ages as a more permanent location. After all, the bog people were only discovered thousands of years later, often by people in search of other things (like peat, for example). Long before death, though, those doomed to die might endure a worse suffering–the mental anguish of isolation from human society, or the verbal assaults of demonic creatures believed to dwell in such spaces (Guthlac’s demons, for example, in Guthlac A).

My personal experiences with marshes have been, on the whole, fairly positive (I hedge only because, you guessed it, I’ve come across a lot of snakes in these venues). My undergraduate university owned several hundred acres of wetlands, and we would often spend a few hours each week, weather permitting, exploring or managing them in my science courses. I still vividly recall watching what seemed like thousands of swallows swooping through the air to feast on insects. We found a young owl in one of the duck houses one time, its feathers incredibly soft. We waded through shallow ponds to catch minnows in our nets to  determine the diversity and quantity of the fish in the spring.

A few years back, I taught a course on J. R. R. Tolkien, and so when it came time to talk about the Dead Marshes, I was excited. We started out talking about World War I and the experience of trench warfare. I showed them photographs of the trenches, of the injuries, of the massive scarring upon the landscape and the eternal mud. It was easy for the students to find connections with Tolkien’s marshes, especially given the dreary depiction brought so vividly to life by Peter Jackson.

The Dead Marshes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, from

Then I asked my students to look at the marshes in a different way. We talked about the terminology used to describe these particular habitats, and we learned that there is a lot of diversity between words such as “bog” or “marsh.” “Wetlands” seems to the the umbrella term for what is in reality several different landscapes. Here are a few examples, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Slide12We talked about the ecological functions of wetlands. Here’s a handy chart that we looked at:

urlWetlands are such a vital part of our world. Some people view them as “wastelands”–that is, “waste” in the sense that they are not useful to humans, and therefore should be drained and turned into something more productive, such as arable land (and this is a long-held perspective, going back at least to the tenth-century Benedictine Reform in England, if not further). During my time as an undergraduate, my university’s wetlands were threatened by the city’s desire to build a highway right through the middle (yeah, it happened). Wetlands are easily dismissed, and they shouldn’t be.

We then turned back to Tolkien’s The Two Towers to re-examine Chapter II, “The Passage of the Marshes.” Tolkien did not settle on one term, but rather uses a variety: “bog,” “fens,” “mires,” “marshes.” Such a place is, I think, difficult to describe, and this is reflected in Tolkien’s language. What seems to be a uniform landscape (particularly in the cinematic depictions) is really quite diverse. Of course, there is little color (the “only green was the scum of livid weed on the dark greasy surfaces of the sullen waters”), and the sun fails to give any hint of warmth. There is an absence of birds (often a marker of ecological problems), but there is the movement of air, movement in the water. There is life.

So must we read the passage through the Dead Marshes as a funereal experience? The presence of dead grasses and rotting reeds might lead us to answer, “yes,” but it’s winter. Might the fact that the plants are “rotting” suggest that new life can be restored? That this remains a place of change? There is so much activity in these pages. The present participle of “rotting” reveals ongoing activity and change; the water becomes personified–it is “sullen”; and the weeds are “livid.” After all, the name “The Dead Marshes” is merely a mortal interpretation of natural landscape.

To return to Layamon and his marshes–in a sense, death by marsh may have been seen as a sort of obliteration in the literal sense–an erasure of one’s identity. Given that by mutilating the men’s female kin, Arthur intends to prevent future generations from being created (“‘swa ich wulle al for-don; þat cun þat he of com'” (11400)), so it may be that by condemning the men to a burial in the marshes–a place of constant change–he removes them from the pages of history, their tombs never to be found (at least, not until centuries later). Marshes were seen by some during the medieval period as places that either had never felt the touch of civilization or had overcome it to return to a purer state, so they seem an appropriate place for those who threatened Arthur’s rule to be swallowed up by them.

But at the same time, as threatening as these wetlands may have been to some during the medieval period, their presence in Layamon’s Brut shows that not all viewed marshes as places to avoid. For Arthur, these places were merely an extension of his power, his ability to dominate all that he looks upon. And from an ecological viewpoint, the use of the marshes as a repository for the dead would ultimately benefit the land–not only by removing obstacles from Arthur’s power (and thus potentially avoiding or shortening conflicts), but by capturing nutrients from decaying bodies and recycling them though uptake by plants and insects.


Bring the Dinosaurs Back!

No, not really.

Although I’ve not seen the most recent Jurassic World film, I still find the idea intriguing. Years ago, my husband and I became instant fans of the short-lived TV show Terra Nova (2011) in which humans from the polluted future travel to the distant past to establish new communities side-by-side with the dinosaurs. It was a cool concept, and the dinosaurs looked pretty awesome. Yet to co-exist alongside dinosaurs proved incredibly difficult for the colonists despite their technology, and as a result, they constructed large walls to separate themselves from large predators. Some things never change.

Last year, I taught Alan Weisman’s The World without Us for a section of my university’s introductory Life of the Mind class, and we had a lot of great conversations about ecological issues and humanity’s relationship with the rest of the world. We analyzed arguments for and against deforestation and learned about the Bialowieza Puszcza in Poland. We spent a few class periods talking about Chernobyl and watching clips on its present inhabitants. We watched Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982), directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass, and then we talked about how technology impacts our lives and how technology has the potential to benefit the environment.

A side note on Chernobyl: I found it especially intriguing that several of the documentaries on the disaster emphasized the idea that “life is much more resilient than we thought,” and only a few really got into the emerging aberrations on the local animal populations. Several documentaries (and Weisman’s book) opened by focusing on the return of song birds to the area, and I initially was surprised by this emphasis across sources. But the more that I think about it, it makes sense. Why did early miners bring canaries? To test the air down in the shafts. If birds, with their much more fragile bodies and faster metabolism, can survive and even flourish in an area such as Chernobyl, so too can humans in the perhaps-not-so-distant future. Why do Snow White and Cinderella talk with birds? Because they resemble us in a variety of ways. As Claude Lévi-Strauss notes, birds:

form a community which is independent of our own but, precisely because of this independence, appears to us like another society, homologous to that in which we live: birds love freedom; they build themselves homes in which they live a family life and nurture their young; they often engage in social relations with other members of their species; and they communicate with them by acoustic means recalling articulated language. (qtd. in Dorothy Yamamoto, The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature 34)

In other words, the birds are a microcosm of human society. Perhaps we seek assurance that the disaster at Chernobyl was not as horrific as we first thought (and several documentaries attest to the initial opinion that life would never return to the area), that we as human caretakers are not complete failures. While I understand the benefits of positive thinking, I worry that too much focus on the fact that animals and plants are returning to the area will cause too many to turn a blind eye to the reality of the nuclear aftermath. For example, the Washington Post offered the headline “Chernobyl Area Becomes Wildlife Haven” in 2007 (see here) and in 2013, the Wildlife News reported that “Chernobyl nuclear disaster site becomes a wildlife area, including over a hundred wolves” (see here)–although they did acknowledge the presence of mutations (and elsewhere I’ve read about shortened lifespans among birds, the lack of biodiversity, etc.). I doubt that our nuclear footprint will ever disappear from that Chernobyl.

But back to dinosaurs. Weisman introduced our class to the idea of “re-wilding,” a practice which would re-introduce large predators and other animals to areas where their relatives had become extinct. For example, Paul Martin discusses whether  African or Asian elephants could thrive in the American Southwest (Weisman 100-101), and Dave Foreman, the director of The Rewilding Institute, works to establish “megalinkages” that would reconnect habitats for wide-ranging species such as wolves (Weisman 348; see more here).

There are some who advocate for Pleistocene re-wilding, which allows for the restoration of “animals that disappeared 13,000 years ago from Pleistocene North America” (see here). I readily admit that I was absolutely ecstatic to learn that “dire wolves” were once real, existing outside of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice on the North American continent. I was also intrigued by the arguments surrounding the decimation of these species. Some argue that natural phenomena such as ice sheets stranded wildlife populations, causing species to either evolve or die out. How is this different from the impact of human expansion on wildlife populations today? Does it matter who or what (that is, humans or ice sheets) is creating the new, challenging environments?

Another intriguing idea comes from Paul Martin, who argues that the extinction of Pleistocene creatures was caused when humans arrived on new continents such as North America (Weisman 72). Humans had the necessary technology to hunt large native animals. As these animals had not developed fear of humans or survival strategies, unlike those animals in Africa who evolved alongside humans, they were easily hunted to oblivion (there are many counterarguments to Martin’s theories, but I won’t go into them here).

Of course, some see this as part of a larger divine plan. According to Thomas Jefferson,

Such is the economy of nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct.” (Weisman 67)

To what extent might our current—and popular—perception of extinction be influenced by this Deist / Christian concept? That we are the sole cause of extinction, and thus violating the laws of Nature (or of God, et cetera)? Or that we have been empowered to do so (“Might makes right”), that Nature has given us her blessing (that Nature would not allow us to cause a species to go extinct unless it were part of a larger plan)? As Weisman notes, “Charles Darwin would describe how these extinctions were part of nature itself” (67). Does this mean we should sit idly by as animals die out as a result of our expansion and excessive consumption of natural resources?

What prompted this post was a segment on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS that aired this morning. Normally, Fareed is background noise for me, but this morning, he asked this intriguing question:

Could we bring back the woolly mammoth? And if so, should we?

His guest was Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary (paleo)biologist at UC Santa Cruz and author of the book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (you can follow her on Twitter here).

Shapiro started out by debunking the idea of extracting viable dinosaur DNA from amber (sorry, Jurassic Park!). DNA deteriorates quickly, and amber is too porous, allowing bacteria to enter and consume the genetic matter. But bringing back mammoths? That’s an entirely different matter. Their DNA, much younger than that of dinosaurs, has been preserved in ice, and even better, they have close relatives–the Asian elephant–still existing today. We could bring back mammoths.

But I think what I appreciated most about her commentary was her response to Fareed‘s second question: “And if so, should we?” “If we do this,” she explained, “we couldn’t create just one mammoth.” Elephants are social creatures, as were mammoths, and to create just one would be cruel (just think about the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and his drive to find–or create–another like him). In addition, elephants do not do well in captivity, Shapiro pointed out, and they are cruel to their offspring in such environments. We don’t know enough about how to take care of them; how, then, can we expect to be able to accommodate herds of mammoths?

Fareed and Shapiro also discussed bringing back other animals–such as the Tasmanian tiger or the Passenger pigeon. This would be different from bringing back the mammoth largely because these more recent extinctions resulted from direct human action. For example, Tasmanian tigers were hunted to extinction because they were thought to prey on farmers’ livestock; the Tasmanian government offered bounties for the carcasses of these creatures. As Shapiro pointed out, an ecological vacuum is created. These animals existed in a biosphere that had evolved alongside them. When we remove this one species, what happens? How many animals can we eliminate from our world before we initiate a massive ecological collapse?

In the case of wolves in the US, we know what happens when an animal is driven from its natural environment by humans:

I was blown away the first time that I saw this video. I knew that wolves were important in nature, but it was fascinating to see the diverse and widespread impact that they had on the ecology of Yellowstone–the “trophic cascade” that they created.

And so, I agree with Shapiro that although we can bring back the mammoth, we shouldn’t. Not yet, anyway. If research can ever conclusively show that humans were the primary cause of their extinction and we learn more about the social needs of mammoths and elephants, then I’d be okay with resurrecting this particular species. I have no need to see dinosaurs tromping down the street in my neighborhood, though.

In the meanwhile, I hope scientists (and the politicians who fund them) continue to find ways to bring back species that have been made extinct more recently through the actions of humanity. While I recognize that change is a constant–in language as well as in ecology–I’m not sure that I agree with Jefferson or Darwin that extinction is a part of nature or the implication that we should accept the loss of such creatures. If we are “above” nature, as some argue, then we have an obligation to protect nature. Augustine and others constantly sought ways to rise above the mortal, fleshy world, to find, in Augustine’s words, a “City of God,” but I don’t believe we can (or should) seek to separate the mind and the body, so to speak.

And if we are just another facet of nature, we are attacking ourselves through our predations on other species. We are the Ouroboros, the snake eternally devouring its own tail.

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius (