Swamp Songs by Tom Blass review – a wetlands odyssey

A bracingly original tour of the world’s boggy places reveals as much about human behaviour as it does about geography

You never know what horrors may be lurking at the bottom of a swamp. Bogs, meanwhile, sound comical. Marshes are pleasanter, although bring malaria to mind, while wetlands emanate wholesomeness but are also wet in the “meh” sense of take it or leave it. Yet, as Tom Blass explains, these words all refer to the same thing: a place where land and water have got into a tussle and can’t decide which has won. The result is not so much an equilibrium, although these states of semi-submersion can hold their nerve for millennia, more a temporary detente where both sides are too exhausted to declare an outcome. It is in search of these in-between places that Blass travels from Cyprus to Lapland, Romania to Virginia, eyes peeled and treading gingerly lest he fall into the murk that lies beneath.

Early on, Blass reveals himself to be more ethnologist than naturalist. While he pays respectful attention to the fauna that he encounters as he tacks from the Romney Marshes to Louisiana’s bayous by way of the Danube delta, it is the people he is after. The Lipovans, Cajuns and Seminole are all ethnic groups that have moulded a culture from the sludge squelching between their toes and this is the true subject of Blass’s bracingly original work. Above all, he is scrupulous about avoiding cliches. There are, for instance, very few glorious sunsets in Swamp Songs or encounters with gnarly old locals acting as aquifers for ancient wisdom, small mercies for which the reader should be grateful.

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