NEA Literature Fellowships

Barbara Hurd

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(2002 - Prose)

from "The Country Below"

It is impossible to spend any time bellydown on the boardwalk; face to face with that wobbly cover, and not eventually reach over and push your fingers in. We are drawn to what's below. From the safety of whatever boardwalks we have chosen, we linger at the edges, testing the mire with the tips of galoshes, a long stick, a hand. Do we dare? Do we dare? When I was ten, I loved the scabs on my legs. I scratched mosquito bites until they bled and walked around all summer, lifting the hard crusty edges of scabs, the way I might have lifted manhole covers in a city street. I loved the moistness underneath. I loved imagining my shins dotted with shallow ponds the size of lentils, complete with sedgy fringes and the chorus of spring peepers, the possibility of lowering myself into a labyrinth. I lived, at that time, in a neighborhood whose northern edge abutted a small swamp. I remember that swamp only in winter. I remember the icy hummocks we used as hassocks, half-sitting, half-leaning against them when we bent over to tie our skates on, the still, shallow water solidly frozen and skimmed with white, the swamp edges solid as playground benches. A swamp that to my child's mind had no depth, only white flatness, a slick surface to glide across. But when geese flew north and the ice thinned until blackwater showed through again, the swamp dropped out of my psyche. In my mind, I must have pleated the land there, drawn one side of the neighborhood up against the field on the other side and left the swamp dangling in the fold underneath

Thoreau would have us unpleat that fabric, draw the swamp up to our front doors, enter it as sanctum sanctorum. Those were my days of being a religious scavenger I checked out churches the way a person does flea markets, browsing the tables of old toasters and chess sets. Or the way potential home buyers scan the real estate section and spend a Sunday afternoon raising eyebrows at yellow vinyl flooring, clucking at sun-bleached drapes, admiring the view from a kitchen window. I entered churches fingering the oak pews, scanning hymnals, waiting to see if it was here that some grace would waft down on me. I was sure that Catholic girls wore mantillas on their heads when they went to mass for just that reason - to protect their page-boys from the disarraying blast of holy light. The fact that I sometimes joined them, bare-headed, and emerged with hairdo intact did nothing to dissuade me from that notion. I was, after all, an outsider in their church and figured my hair stayed put because I knew nothing of their concepts of sin or of their rising and kneeling on the swells and storms of Catholic seas. What I did know, even then, was the ardor with which they knelt and closed their eyes as something silent and robed-winged brushed by and touched their tongues. I knew it first, not in a church, but in a swamp somewhere in the south. The canopy of cypress and gum trees arched overhead; altar cloth of moss draped over cypress knees. On the few higher spots grew green-fly orchids, resurrection ferns and crimson cardinal flowers. Everywhere the cathedral was flooded with the wine of the sacrament, tannin-stained and clean and home to cottonmouths and water moccasins. An honest church where the spirit might just as easily sink its fangs into your leg as stream down through glass-stained windows, where what is holy only increases the appetite. It is a clever trick. You are going along living what you think is your life. Something drifts by and enters your body, gets in through the holes it bores in your skin or through your eyes, or maybe it tracks a hair shaft down to the pale softness of skull-flesh, follows the root on in. And you know, even as you open your mouth, as you open whatever you can to feed, that this is a hunger that will never be filled.

Barbara Hurd is the author of Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination (essays) and Objects in this Mirror (poems). Her essays and poems have appeared in numerous journals including Best American Essays 1999, Best American Essays 2001, The Yale Review, The Georgia Review, Orion, Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, Audubon, Painted Bride Quarterly, Heliotrope, and others. The recipient of a 2002 NEA Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction, four Maryland Individual Artist Awards for Poetry, winner of the Sierra Club's National Nature Writing Award, and finalist for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and the PEN/Jerard Award, she teaches creative writing at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, MD and co-edits Nightsun. Stirring the Mud was recently named to the Los Angeles Times' list of "Best Books of 2001." Photo by Jeannine.

Author's Statement

I'm interested in landscapes, both the physical--swamps and caves--and the psychological, that are marked by multiplicities and contradictions, pocked with secrets, laced with what can't be immediately seen, but, which properly pressed by imagination and language, have the power to transform experience into something sculpted and meaningful. I'm particularly interested in the essay form which for me best permits this exploration of ambiguity, paradox, and the hollowed-out or drenched subterranean, and in its components -- the paragraph that goes down deep and fingers the palpable, the sentence that balances and dangles, points and retracts. I'm after a form, in other words, which leaves the reader and me at least knee-deep in this world, aware of and almost weaker than the wish to resist.

The NEA grant will make possible more time to immerse myself in such landscapes, an opportunity for which I'm grateful.