Swamp Thing

Exploring wetlands

There’s a wetland near where I live, a small part of a reserve bequeathed to conservation by a local farmer. I say wetland, but I have to admit a fondness for the word swamp. It’s always struck me as onomatopoeic, the sound of a misstep into the mud. Still, as Catherine Knight writes, it’s a term that has done damage here, part of a belief in those places as foul smelling and useless. Unable to farm swamp land, European settlers got stuck in draining and drying out around 90 percent of it.

I imagine those settlers thought they were putting things in order. Wetlands can seem an in-between place, neither land nor lake. Draining them put certainty into things, gave humans some control. But we know now they were already helping to keep control. Wetlands can soak up water during floods, and release it slowly when things get dry. They’re also described as ‘kidneys of the earth’ for their cleansing quality, because despite that idea of rotten bogs and stagnant swamps, they actually filter contaminants from water.

New Zealanders weren’t alone in undervaluing swamps. American Academic William Cronon writes that the 18th Century notion of the sublime, the belief in landscape evoking something akin to a religious experience, didn’t leave much room for wetland. Instead, the focus was on mountain views, great chasms and waterfalls. As a result, when the Americans began creating their National Parks they draw the boundaries around these scenic places. It wasn’t until the 1940s, writes Cronon, that the first swamp would have this status in Everglades National Park.

That wetland near me, is also not far from the Tararua Ranges, a mountain range with views that come close to sublime. Yet this little area can be more surprising somehow. A pleasant mess of raupo, flax and watery mud. Birds are everywhere. The usual crowd of tui and woodpigeons but also kingfishers. DoC signs hint at rarer beasts like mudfish. It doesn’t matter whether we call it a swamp, bog, or wetland, for so many things it is home.