Saturday, 5 May 2018
Stop Calling Washington a Swamp. It’s Offensive to Swamps
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/05/opinion/sunday/stop-calling-washington-a-swamp-its-offensive-to-swamps.html By Martha Serpas Dr. Serpas is a poet. May 5, 2018 Image CreditTim Lahan Houston — Washington is not a swamp and never was. Would that it were. (The tale that the Capitol was built on a drained swamp is apocryphal, I’m told.) The political expression “drain the swamp” has been traced back to Socialists in the early 1900s, during a time when swamps were drained to reduce the populations of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. For over a century, politicians have used the phrase to go after the perceived bloodsuckers of their day — lobbyists, corrupt officials, wasteful spenders. But after having killed half the wetlands in our country, we should not want to drain any more swamps. Granted, the swamp is not well suited for human habitation, but humans depend on it all the same. It filters water, removing the excess nitrogen created by agricultural runoff. It supports hundreds of species, which in turn support hundreds of others. It absorbs floodwaters. The loss of wetlands — driven by development and rising sea levels — played a major role in recent flooding on the East and Gulf Coasts. The swamp is also the perfection of paradox. A marsh with trees. Water. Land. Both and neither. The use of “swamp” as a pejorative ignores all of this, while reflecting an ecological ignorance and a general disparagement of the swampier regions of the country, particularly in the South. Denigration of the South often gets a pass in our society, indulged in even by those dependent on the South’s political good will. That is to say, some of my best friends live near swamps. In popular culture, swamp folk are depicted as not only illiterate but also nearly unintelligible. They are outlaws and bootleggers and, in our older mythologies, witches, ghosts and runaway slaves. Everyone knows alligators frequent swamps, and what good follows that primeval foe? Swamps are reminders of an unconscious past before subdivisions and municipalities, a threatening wilderness of spontaneous fires smelling of decay. To drain them seems almost a mercy. Wes Craven’s creature feature “Swamp Thing” countered this oversimplification in 1982. The film is based on the comic book character of the same name, a slimy mutant with a moral compass. The hero, Alex Garland, is working in a secret compound in the Louisiana swamps to create a formula to aid plant growth — both to speed production and to allow for cultivation in inhospitable climates. The swamp “is where the life is,” he says; “half the world could eat off the swamps.” What you think of the literal swamp depends on your perspective, your species, your elevation. Alex says, “There’s so much beauty in the swamps if you only look.” Not retweet, look: the wild stature of bald cypresses and their reflected knees, the grace of moss and water birds, an almost limitless variation of greens, the stringed music of insects and so on. You have 4 free articles remaining. Subscribe to The Times In other words, a cult film allows for more complexity and more serious ecological reflection than many a contemporary discussion — whether among politicians, journalists or the general public. The etymology of swamp is German, from sponge or fungus. A sponge in this context is presumably a bad thing, soaking up life-giving resources for itself. If one looks closely, however, other connotations are possible, such as abundance, efficiency or receptivity. What is thought as a stagnant hindrance might be a model of dynamic stasis. If Washington really were more like a swamp, we’d be well served. Swamps are fecund and productive because of, not in spite of, their diversity. Swamps are adaptive, constantly reacting to the changing environment, while our legislators are paralyzed by the smallest challenges. The flexibility and interdependence of swamps are conducive to the mutual well-being of thousands of different species (including, but not only, Homo sapiens). In short, if Washington were more like a swamp, it would be rich, responsive, efficient and ecologically minded — interested in balance, not domination. EDITORS’ PICKS See What’s Left of Benghazi, 6 Years After the Consulate Siege ‘There Were Really No Other Women at All’ The Baby-Formula Crime Ring “Drain the swamp” is a harmful cliché, a stereotype, used both by those who have never set foot in soggy wetlands and by those who depend on them. Its origin is ignored, and its connotations slur whole swaths of our country. It sounds like a taunt to environmentalists. Let’s leave “drain the swamp” for future lexicographers and historians to ponder. We know better. As I drive through the Chacahoula Swamp on my way to Galliano, La., where I grew up, I think of my cousin who used to catch crawfish in the Atchafalaya Spillway, slogging through the swamp, machete in hand, pulling his boat filled with 20 sacks to get to market. He cursed not the alligators or the heat but the parish pumps for emptying out so much water. From my car, among the abundant greens, I feel peace and loss. This is the swamp’s true lesson: We must learn to wade through the complexities of our world with a receptive mind, rather than pave over what we don’t understand. Martha Serpas teaches creative writing at the University of Houston and is the author, most recently, of “The Diener,” a poetry collection.