Through the grass I slowly slide
to a great big stone.
The sun is shining, I am warm,
and I hope I’m left alone.
He’s flying. His mouth makes a happy triangle, widening over toothy blips. One dimple stretches into a line. Two eyes glisten, bugging just a tad. One eyebrow is tilted up and his hair, dark with pastel highlights, feathers out. Pink and blue squiggles offset his leaping bod, like he has finally gotten the angel wings he wanted for so long. And there, in the foreground, his left hand folds onto an acoustic gui-tar blazoned with faded mahogany lettering.
Yeah, very trippy – and that was without the amicable singing alligator. But it’s not quite what you’d expect. This is Billy B., kiddie-bard of the Great Outdoors, just about to splash into the friendly swamp of his ’83 LP cover to that classic album, “Romp in the Swamp.” In my elementary school days, I used to dance barefoot on the half-shag living-room carpet as my parents’ turntable twisted out tunes like ‘Do the Dragonfly’ and the very-reggae and above-excerpted ‘Snake Song.’ Tonight, reclining afore listening station 4a in Mendel, I’m invoking Billy as my temporary Muse in attempts to recount something that happened a little while past. Sing in me, Billy.
On a recent Friday, my parents made the Virginia-Princeton drive, ostensibly to visit me; the backdrop for the occasion was indeed not much P-ton-related. We went to a swamp. It was a nice swamp, I suppose. Certainly an evocative swamp, and with the right theoretical bent, a thematically-rich one too. You see, I was once told that there are only three themes in life: love, death and flies. I can’t give you justification as to why we should take that theory seriously (it was culled from the mind of a certain Sr. Monterroso, but that’s just a dimly cloaked appeal to authorial authority), or in reverse, why we should term the statement more than a quip. But I do like it. And the swamp, the Great Swamp of New Jersey, located at about an hour’s drive north of Princeton, had all three – love, death, and flies – in abundance.
When later queried on my excursion, my standard reply was that the swamp was fun if a bit random, and that I liked the rookery. The rookery? The giraffe-necked great blue herons set up colonies of nests, or ‘rookeries’ in wetland trees. (And yes, the OED assures that rookery needn’t apply to rooks only.) The Great Swamp boasts a nice such housing conglomerate and at a particular observation deck, you can spy into the love-nests of perhaps thirty birds.
True, falling victim to my own qualms with the penguin flick, I may be over- anthropomorphizing the birds when I suggest love. Even if the birds aren’t quite ‘loving’ in the human-sense, I do suggest that the heron abodes may and should provoke meditation on the nature of human love.
And perhaps you will fall in love with the Swamp. Or, you could just go visit the Swamp with people you love. I was there with my parents. I love them loads.
Alternatively, you could go visit the Swamp with people you hate.
As we turned into the gravel parking lot at the entrance to a set of trails, my dad, noting the ‘Dawn to Dusk’ hours of permitted visitation, remarked something like, “You know, there’s a movie called From Dusk till Dawn.” Being unacquainted with that particular Clooney special, Dad explained the premise to me: lots of ex-cons and vampires get together and have a big fight, and I would conjecture it involves plenty of weaponry and close-up shots of oversized eyeteeth. The Swamp would be a perfect milieu for such a little tea-party.
The walking route we took ran along a boardwalk, and on both sides, vegetation came up through alternations of wet-ground and water. The water is jet black, opaque from an inch or two down, but a nice mirror to the trees and shrubbery – among others: sinewy, tough-wood hornbeams (etymologists, forgive my tautology), birches (black, yellow and grey), leafless oaks and leafy pepperbush. Peering into the water is like staring uncomfortably into the ebony coffee-table veneer of a neighbor you don’t quite know well enough. I kept expecting that a billowy body of a Lord of the Rings sprite would surface in that water, wan face afloat, tresses streaming about a velvety something or other. The place doesn’t shout “Death!” – it is far too still for exclamations – rather, it whispers a sweet memento mori in near-silence. So perhaps I’m wrong: the vampires and ex-cons might find better locations to stage their violence. Decay settles at base of the Swamp and feeds it, but it is the tranquil kind of death. Another point for meditation.
Flies and Flyers
Beyond my own and the parental commentary and trudgings, I can distinctly remember only two sounds of the Swamp: the bobbly taps of a woodpecker and the crowd cry of a gnatty swarm. The gnats coagulated about a section of the boardwalk leading up to an observation deck but didn’t overwhelm. I think, in other seasons they are joined by more of their insecty compatriots, but April, if not July, is fine.
I should mention more on the woodpecker. He (or she?) was rather sweet, rather small, and may have been multiple. That is to say, there were a few woodpeckers and woodpeckers are fond of the Swamp. And you should be fond of woodpeckers. Campus is not the best spot for woodie sightings, though yes, last spring one was – probably philosophically, and certainly architectonically – tapping through a tree betwixt Marx and the School of Architecture. The Swamp is a nice place to check out peckers. You’re also supposed to be able to see the lustrously colored wood ducks – I will admit to having spotted them only on the glossy publications produced by Great Swamp authorities. Perhaps you’ll have better luck than me if and when you go swamp-romping.
Which begs the question: really, should one go swamp-romping? It certainly breaks with the normalcy of Princeton-life and with Jersey-burbia. It’s unexpected. You can tell skeptical acquaintances that they’re sillies to not appreciate trips to nature-trek. You can learn about the differences between swamps, marshes and, if you kidnap my Louisianan-Matheyite pal Ms. Jevon Harding, bayous. Or, importantly: during the after-trip, over café-con-leche rehash, you can pretend that literary themes apply to the location. I don’t know. I’m ambivalent. I liked it, the herons especially. Billy B. would tell you to go, and it’s not every day you’ll get to muck around in a swamp. But that might not be your thing. Bah. Make up your own mind. But do let me know, if you go – and especially if your stares into the black water are met and are returned, and not in mere reflection.