Swamps seem to have been always at the margins of Barbara Hurd's life. She lived near swamps in the Boston and Philadelphia neighborhoods where she grew up. These days she lives near Finzel Swamp in Garrett County, Md.
The swamps and bogs and murky places have moved closer to the center of attention, now that the Frostburg State University English professor has published a book of essays on the topic -- Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination (Beacon) -- that is receiving high advance acclaim.
Just like the watery land she writes about, Hurd's subject matter has remained fluid. Hurd said her original intent was to write a collection of scholarly analyses of swamp imagery in Western literature. But the swamps sucked her in, and her essays took on a more introspective tone.
"These essays are more lyrical, poetic, first person," she said.
Hurd's fascination with boggy land started early with the swamp near her childhood home in Boston. She said there was a certain sense of mystery, enhanced by a story about a girl who got lost in the swamp, that has stayed with her.
"They're eerie, wonderful, mysterious. There's a sense of both 'don't go there' and 'can't wait to go there,' " Hurd said.
Later, when her family moved to the Philadelphia area, a swamp was nearby, handy for exploration through Hurd's teenage years. But it is Western Maryland swamplands, primarily Finzel and Cranesville swamps, that capture her imagination today.
The imagery of a place that is neither land nor water, that contains so much mystery and ambiguity, is explored in many different ways in her collection.
"The sense of wanting to stick your hand down under to see what's under there has strong pull for me," she said.
Positive advance reviews of the collection have appeared in "Library Journal," "Publisher's Weekly," and "Utne Reader," which said, "Hurd's poetic inquiry into the life and margins of marshy terrain takes us on a magic-filled metaphorical mystery tour of human desire."
Essays from the book have already been excerpted in a variety of journals, ranging from straight literary journals to nature publications to those that emphasize personal introspection. An early version of one chapter was chosen for The Best American Essays 1999 (Houghton Mifflin Co.).
Hurd will kick off the book with a reading and book signing at Main Street Books in Frostburg on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m. Readings are already scheduled in Baltimore, Maine and Morgantown, W.Va., and more are in the works. She had also taped an interview that will appear on the Barnes & Noble TV Web site after the book is released.
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