Finding my place in the swamp

Finding my place in the swamp

Barry Forbes and his grandson hunting in the Cornwall Swamp. (Photos by Oscar Psychas/Middlebury College)

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The story of many a river begins in a swamp. My story, too, began amidst the towering cypresses and sweet-tea colored waters of the swamps of Prairie Creek in Northern Florida. On Jan. 25, 1998, my father and mother (pregnant and 2 weeks overdue) wound their way by canoe into its watery reaches. Perhaps it was the brisk air of a clear blue Florida winter morning, when the incessant buzz of humidity and insects gives way to an electric stillness that makes the world itself feel born again. Perhaps it was the grin of a gator as it dove into the muck and the lilies, or the perplexed gaze of an anhinga as it spread its wings over the boughs of an old cypress, but something then in the swamp motivated me to decide to enter the world after all of those weeks delaying it. My mom entered labor in a flurry of paddles and a hop into the car, and I was born a few hours later in nearby Gainesville. Several years later, my family bought our home on the cypress swamp-lined shores of Newnans Lake, only a mile or two from Prairie Creek. Growing up, time was measured by the bloom of cypress leaves in the spring, the grunts of gator-mating season in the early summer, the slow fall of the waterline in the winter. My fate was set. I was a child of the swamp.

But this story’s strand ends and begins 20 years later and 1,100 miles away, on the last legs of a sun-filled melty kind of January day along Otter Creek. Driving down from Middlebury, Vermont, Swamp Road carries you downhill with the orange orb of the sun in your rearview mirror as you descend into the kingdom of the swamp. The thin ribbon of road suddenly seems tenuous among an endless ice that maroons even the mighty bare trees, consuming the land and leaving behind bubbles and pools that reflect the pink of puffy clouds sailing overhead. From the vast cedar forests in the heart of the swamp to the north comes a gloomy wind that rattles along a lone leaf, interrupted only by a moo from a far-off pasture. For my first sojourn into the swamp, I had joined along with a swamp landowner and a bobcat hunter and had made sense of the swamp through their eyes, through the animal tracks they followed and beloved trees they owned. But on my own, the swamp spoke a language I couldn’t speak, a world that was tantalizing and eerily beautiful but locked beyond my reach. But I reminded myself that swamps are messy places, lacking the clear lines of a beach or of a mountain peak. Thus the answers they give are never simple, weaving back on themselves like their winding waterways, creating far more questions than answers, and yet always drawing you deeper in. Though a part of me whispered that my quest to find an understanding for or connection with the swamp in this strange new home of mine was futile, I couldn’t help but feel that with time, whether once the spring floods created a world of water, or summer created a buzz of greenery, the swamp might slowly peel back its secrets.

If thou canst not journey thither,
Canst not find the Lapland-highway,
Hasten on a little distance,
In the bear-path leading northward…
Swamps there are in which to wander,
Heaths in which to roam at pleasure.”
— From The Kalevala, Epic of the Finnish people, compiled by Elias Lönrot from traditional Finnish singers

These questions and answers of the swamp weave their way back in my bloodline for the 700 years my mother’s family has farmed along the banks of the Kemijoki River in Finnish Lapland. Every summer our family returns for weeks or months at a time to the farm where she grew up. Drawing one’s finger eastwards along a map, our small farm, clinging on to the river, soon gives way to mighty spruce and birch forests broken up by endless swamps indicated by broken blue lines. After all, the Finnish word for Finland is Suomi, which literally translates to… swamp. It was in these swamps as a toddler that I first learned a kind of negotiation with the natural world, discovering its bounty of golden and violet berries, conditioning myself to its hordes of mosquitos, and learning a respect for its shape-shifting reaches where a careless wanderer could become hopelessly lost. I followed the footsteps of my grandmother and my mom, picking up scattered pieces and weaving stories of their swamp wisdom before I took my first steps on my own.

But in my first semester at Middlebury College, the lack of any swamps in sight summed up how I felt in a new distant place—rootless without the people and landscapes of Florida and Finland that had created who I was and what I valued. Even scenic sunsets over the Adirondacks, or the very name of the college’s outdoors club, the Middlebury Mountain Club, seemed to sneer at me with images of heartless granite peaks waiting to drop rocks or avalanches on me.

Yet it was a weekend job pushing a brush mower in the dizzying heat of early fall amongst the woods and fields of orchards of professor Marc Lapin’s farm that I first considered that there may be more to Vermont than I had given it credit for. Lapin spent his weekdays as an environmental science professor at Middlebury. But his weekend passion was working his land in nearby Cornwall, Vermont. His description of my project for the day soon turned into soft-spoken recollections and reflections on place, on the history and ecology of the Champlain Valley, on the Abenaki Indian word for Otter Creek, Onegilwizbo.

Biking my way back from his place one day, I was inspired to open a map of the Champlain Valley, and found highlighted in swaths of green and zig zags of blue — a vast swamp south of Middlebury. It was the Cornwall Swamp, described as the most biodiverse wetland in all of New England. The more I learned about the swamp the more it presented a contradiction, or at least a question mark, to the image I had of Vermont as a place devoid of the life I had found in Florida.

As the first snows of winter fell, I learned that now deer and other wildlife would be finding a winter refuge in the swamp’s cedar forests. In the spring and fall, the swamp was a crucial stop-off for migratory birds, and in the summer a home to bear, moose, and bobcats. Lapin sent me a report he had co-authored on the swamp, which offered that “those who have visited the swamp will concur that a combination of hydrology, periglacial geomorphology, vegetation development and forest history that includes both natural and human forces has shaped an incredible natural area. From aesthetic, emotional and spiritual perspectives, one need not know much about these things, but rather, only visit the swamp.”

In my new life that didn’t yet feel like a home, learning that there was a place that could be as mucky (apparently as deep as 26 feet) and buggy and wet as the swamps of Florida and Finland sounded like a call back home, my chance to find a watery way into Vermont’s wild soul.

Fitz and the swamp

Somewhere deep in the northern reaches of the Cornwall Swamp, Thomas “Fitz” Fitzpatrick — a swamp aficionado, historian, and a landowner — is on the wheel as we turn off the main road and bump along an icy dirt track, passing abandoned farm fields and an icy cattail swamp dammed up by beavers. As we ascend into a swamp island, a prominent “NO TRESPASSING” sign announces that we’ve arrived; we soon enter a parklike stretch of woods and walk our way down to a shoreline of cattails. As we enter, there’s a palpable change in Fitz, as he laces every observation – from that patch of woods he hopes to turn into a meadow to this road lined with logs that he placed one by one – with a palpable sense of pride and ownership. This is Fitz’s place.

I had found Fitz on a quest to find a local who was well-acquainted with the swamp for my project, the kind of person of the swamp who looked away from the mountains and who had found amongst the muck and the bugs the song and wisdom of the swamp. It seemed a daunting task, and I procrastinated accordingly. But another Middlebury professor, Peter Lourie, suggested contacting a friend of his, who in turn suggested contacting my new friend and local character, best known as Fitz. I overcame my fear of driving in the ice for the first time to visit his home in East Middlebury for an interview.

A spry 65, Fitz came out to greet me and soon ushered me in to turn on a TV screen revealing a satellite view map of the swamp. It was an impressive expanse of green, bordered by the blue ribbon of Otter Creek to the East and sprawling into farms, woods, and roads. He calls it “the only real wilderness in the Champlain Valley,” just one piece of what really is a vast swamp that runs along Otter Creek for 15 miles, even though farms and drainage ditches fragmented it into smaller pieces. He asks me to take a closer look at what seems to be just a green monolith on the map, outlining a swamp “island” with drier land and mature hardwood trees, surrounded by a sea of wet, grassy swamp with dead trees. The 115 acres of swampland he owns and loves center around one of these swamp islands, places full of rich organic matter and life.

Two days later, Fitz and are finally on his beloved property, after a chance encounter on the road while bobcat hunting with Barry Forbes and his grandson Cameron. We sit in plastic chairs on the waterfront, humbled by the view of a wide-open cattail marsh framed by Breadloaf Mountain and a sky of blue and swirly white clouds. The only sign of humanity is Fitz’s hand-built plank dock that winds deeper into the marsh. Waving his hand over the view, Fitz narrates the poetry of the seasons of the swamp. In the springtime, mountain snowmelt creates a flooded landscape often 3-4 feet deep with water. The swamp becomes a haven for migratory birds that fill its canopy with birdsong. Fitz invites me to join him this spring when “you can drive out to the islands with a boat,” for a swamp motorboat ride and an island barbeque — a tough offer to refuse.

Then, says Fitz, “the world just starts to grow.” As a profusion of plant life explodes in the summertime, it sucks up that water and the swamp slowly recedes. The peeling eaves of bark in shagbark hickory trees come alive with vast colonies of bats, including the endangered little brown bat. Fitz shows me a photo of what I assume are hundreds of geese. But on closer look, I realize that they are deerflies that arrive “by the hundreds and thousands, and they scratch for blood.”

The legendary swarms of the swamps of Finland have inspired mosquito killing championships. When a champion of the event was asked what he would do with the $350 in winnings from the competition, he said, “go someplace where there are no mosquitoes.”

The swamp takes a toll in other ways as well; because swamp trees live in more stressful conditions, fall comes early to the swamp, where peak foliage is already happening at the end of September. Today the marsh is a brown slush, but when the swamp freezes over properly, Fitz experiences the magic of what could never be a sport in Florida’s swamps: ice skating.

“I’ve skated so much around and across that swamp that the only way I can get back is by following my tracks,” he said.

Before the advent of electric or gas heating, a freeze in the swamp would prompt local families to bring in teams of horses and log and pull out trees from the rich cedar forests in the heart of the swamp for firewood. As we contemplate winter’s kingdom over the swamp, Fitz rises and takes me on a walking tour around the edge of his swamp island. The dry park-like woods he actively manicures to our right become a flooded world of ice and pools our water to our left. We walk around what he calls “the mother tree,” a towering tree at the edge of the island almost 5 feet in diameter that seems to command the energy of everything around it.

Fitz’ story in the swamp today began when he met and married his wife Constance while living in Alaska during the 1980s. He owned a salmon boat while she was a rehabilitation therapist. Constance suffered from multiple sclerosis, a debilitative and progressive disease that leaves its victims bedridden and robs them of basic functions. They moved back to Vermont in 1997 to seek treatment for Constance. Over the next 13 years, during the brief periods of respite from round-the-clock care for her Fitz would find solace in visits to the Cornwall swamp, returning to the place where he had hunted in his youth. As his fascination with the swamp grew with each visit, Fitz searched local archives to track down old land titles and property maps of the swamp. Piece by piece, he purchased what is now a 115-acre plot from sellers who sometimes didn’t even know they owned a piece of the swamp.

Fitz’s trail camera captured this deer in his property in the swamp. Behind are maps he has unearthed of ownership plots in the swamp- one from the 1910s and another from the late 1700s.
After his wife passed away in 2010, Fitz devoted himself to working his land, felling trees, clearing trails, and constructing a dock as he prepares to build a cabin that will overlook the open woods and open marsh in the place he loves. As we return to his shoreline by the dock after a looping hike, Fitz shows me a small series of gorgeous marble stones, incongruous in the dark earth. Fitz plans to create a memorial for her out of a particularly smooth and beautiful marble slab. He will inscribe in stone the words from her obituary: “She lived so honestly, she gave so generously, she took so gracefully, and she loved so perfectly.” Fitz usually bring forth a stream of eloquent observances and recollections. But now he is at a loss for words in a silence from a loss that words can’t capture. It hits home how much the swamp must mean to Fitz. The Zulu word ubuntu literally means “I am because of you,” and is often described as the community of life to which we belong, where each of us is a unique part that supports the whole. It’s a word that reminds of why Fitz and I and all of us find such connection and meaning in our relations with family, with our community, with the natural world. In the wake of his loss, far more than just recreation, Fitz found that participating in the constant renewal of life in the swamp has been a way to still go on living, immersed in creation’s healing and joys large and small while still celebrating her memory.

Fitz’s home in the swamp – he recently constructed this dock overlooking the main marsh of the swamp and Breadloaf Mountain further in the background. 

Tracking and seeing in the swamp With Barry

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment I love them — I destroy them.”
— Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

There’s a feeling that you get, yeah you’re happy you got the animal. But at the same time there’s the feeling in your mind: what do I do? I don’t have that particular animal to chase anymore. Without a doubt, hunting is killing. Some people it bothers. And I think it should bother you to a point. You’re taking another life. Just got to look things over and give thanks.”
— Barry Forbes, lifelong hunter and trapper in Middlebury (radio interview)

As a blue pickup truck rolls up, I’m instructed to hop in the back, where I’m promptly smothered by kisses from a hound dog by the name of Harriet. I shake hands with Barry and his grandson Cameron, while trying not to set off the gun my legs are awkwardly wrapped around. I reflect that life can take you in funny places; this is certainly not the Thoreauvian saunter of contemplation and Robert Frost poetry I had originally envisioned for my journey into the swamp. For starters, I am following Barry, legendary lifelong trapper, tracker, and hunter. Furthermore, we’re headed to the Cornwall swamp to hunt bobcats, relying upon Harriet’s tracking nose and chasing skills and Barry’s generations of tracking and hunting knowledge. Barry needs snow to track properly, and his dogs can’t walk on a crust of ice. A string of poor winters related to climate change have made bobcat hunting harder, but this year the conditions are finally holding up.

The truck halts without warning, and Cameron hops out to peer at a promising track – bobcat. A back and forth begins. What did the cat weigh? How “hot” (fresh) are the tracks? As he hops back in, Harriet’s occasional whines turn into a constant drone. Barry coos “I know you’re anxious, huh girl?” Barry owns 20 hounds that are crucial for tracking down bobcats, but the comforting noogie he gives her reveals his soft spot for them. Barry explains “this is a dog we have a chance to own, she’s showing a lot of potential. She did a real good job for her first time out” yesterday, when she chased and treed a bobcat that eventually got away, as often happens. After all, Barry only has a 10% success rate while hunting for cats. Considering that their pelts may sell for only $40, it’s clear that the hunt has a meaning for him far more than any kind of business sense. A pick-up comes our way with a father and son out rabbit hunting. They pull up for a chat with the easy camaraderie of fellow hunters. Barry quips, “I found with age I’ve slowed down a step with age. Not two! Just one.” Although he is in his mid-60s, Barry’s relentless quiet energy that allows him to spend all day tromping the swamps on the trail of bobcats.

We come upon a particularly promising track.

“There’s that 30-pounder.”

“Not a bit of snow on those tracks.”

The tracks must be fresh. The hunt begins. They devise a plan: Cameron and I are to follow a narrow, cleared alley of snow between two stretches of woods while Barry and Harriet pursue the main track. As we begin, my anticipation is dampened in my first step by a thorn that’s inflamed my right foot for the past two weeks, despite my excellent prescription of ignoring it and doing nothing. On the next step, I’m ruminating on all the possibilities through which my clumsiness and general inexperience will manifest itself dramatically and ruin everything for them. Suddenly I spot a small brown ball running up a slope.

“What’s that?” I whisper to Cameron while I wildly wave my finger. He looks up and his eyes light up.

“Possum! Hey, you’ve got a good eye.” Cameron smiles. Perhaps I might have a chance in the swamp after all.

When we come across cat tracks again, Cameron lays down his middle finger into a toe mark. If it’s this size, the bobcat is big enough to hunt. But if it’s the size of his pinky finger, “we need to give them a few more years.” Behind a split second of shooting action is endless periods of walking, analyzing, and understanding. Barry and Cameron know the swamp like the back of their hands, predicting how to trap a cat in a thicket surrounded by more open areas. The whole day I’ll continue to be quietly awed by the intimate knowledge and the stories Barry and Cameron find in tracks, the way they can put themselves in the place of a bobcat and in the wider landscape and imagine where it would rest, where it would hide, and where it would run.

As we cross a particularly icy part of the swamp, our feet sometimes plunging through the crackling ice into the muck below, a growing crescendo of high-pitched barks pierces our ears. Harriet is in active pursuit, and we snap to a level of alertness I never knew I had. As we crash through the swamp after Harriet, my pulse speeds at full tilt, every atom of my being is on the hunt, dodging branches and following the direction of her cries. I suddenly realize that exactly this, this thrill of the pursuit, this complete immersion, is what we were born to do from our days as hunter gatherers that ran animals down through our endurance. Suddenly Barry informs us on the radio that Harriet is not after any kind of bobcat—she is astray on the trail of a coyote. We find Harriet unchained and on the run and panically coax her to come to our side, lest misfortune befall a coyote or Harriet or both. All of us huffing and puffing, Barry arrives crestfallen. We’re at a loss as to what to do next; all the excitement has likely scared off the bobcat. I sense Barry regrets that he may have let Harriet go too easily; in a vocation where you only successfully get a kill 10% of the time, one is always learning.

Yet in the aftermath of the excitement, I also feel an inappropriate sense of…. relief? It’s clear after spending any amount of time with Barry that he does every action with a sense of deep morality and respect for the woods and for wildlife. But Lord, what would I do if we shot a bobcat? A scenario plays on repeat in my head: after an epic chase, a graceful bobcat is fatally struck; I run over and cradle its head in my arms as I witness, in the words of Aldo Leopold, “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Oh, my feline comrade, oh worthy adversary, farewell to thee!

Yet I remember that Barry must confronts the truth of killing face to face, while I purchase it in neat plastic wrap at the supermarket that obscures the far worse cruelty within. In today’s Florida, we turn our backs away from the swamps that surround us but kill them and their inhabitants with our hunger for new space for subdivisions and more water for our lawns. Barry said “there aren’t many of us [traditional bobcat hunters] left… we’re a dying breed.” Every year, fewer and fewer hunters are getting out into the woods in Vermont and across the US—the number of hunters in Vermont has declined by 2% every year since the 1960s. Barry expresses regret that so many of us spend much of our time behind a computer, and hopes more people can “just get out into the woods.”

Perhaps the world needs Barrys and Camerons, those who can return to live in the hunter’s landscape that we once all called home, of living in tracks and signs and reading hummocks and clusters of trees where the swamp comes alive. During my first semester at Middlebury, I mostly explored the woods of Vermont in the tunnel of well-worn trails, breezing past the unfamiliar woods on the way to a scenic vista, feeling like a stranger in these woods. It’s missed something, missed something the strand of something I felt on summer days in Finland my sisters and I would race rusty bikes to Lassinjänga swamp, named after my great-uncle Lassi Eilitta. There we would drop our bikes to hop over a ditch and step into the swamp, hopping between carpets of moss to scan for orange hilla, berries that only grow in these swamps of the Far North. Each July, their emergence sparks a national obsession called “hilla fever,” as families like ours return to the same swamps that we have for centuries, bringing a thermos of coffee to spend the whole day hunting for hilla. Like any bobcat hunter knows, a real hilla picker can’t just show up in the swamp and find one’s quarry patiently prostrate. It entails suffering, trudging miles through the bog and sometimes plunging into the water and muck, losing what feels like pints of blood to hellacious mosquitoes. It requires listening to the swamp, reading patches of grass and clusters of pines that may hint where the next island of golden berries may be amongst a mossy sea.

Barry says that despite the thrill of a successful kill, “it’s not whether we get something or not, it’s about being out there with the dogs”. For him, hunting’s meaning is ultimately in something like the spirit of ubuntu, being out in the woods, depending upon his dogs and his hunting partner, learning from the animals he hunts. Sometimes after hours of moving from one hilla berry to the next deep in the swamp, you realize that you have suddenly forgotten any sense of self amongst the sphagnum and the sun. You follow the same rhythm as the 30 generations of your family who have picked the same berries in the same swamp for 700 years.

Back at Middlebury, I collapse exhausted into my bed for a deep afternoon sleep. In confused dreams, I see a vivid image of a bobcat track, blue in the melting snow. I imagine the swamp crisscrossed with tracks of possums, coyotes, deer, and cats, their stories weaving in and out of each other and bringing the swamp to life with the hidden mysteries of their lives. Tomorrow, Barry, Cameron, and Harriet will again be on the pursuit deep in the swamp. Fitz will be out in his piece of paradise, taking in his view of the cattails and Bread Loaf Mountain. And my gut tells me that though I may be hemmed in within four walls and fluorescent walls for the next few days or weeks, soon the swamp will call again, and I’ll be there again, somehow finding my place in the swamp.

This piece originally published in winter term 2018:

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