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There is something exotic about the swamps and savannah of the South. Maybe it’s because I live in the northeast and don’t often wade through wetlands thick with gators.  Instead, I wade through the pages of swampy southern fiction.  Some of the wetland fiction I have enjoyed includes these authors and titles:

  • Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
  • The Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris
  • The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk KiddMermaidChairBookCov
  • Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen (and several of his books)

Now I am reading the first of the Beautiful Creatures series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. On my birthday, I went to see the “Beautiful Creatures” movie with a friend. The story is a dark fairy-tale that takes place in the swamps and savannahs of a small South Carolina town. It’s been compared to the “True Blood” series, though I think those looking for a vampire/werewolf tale will be surprised to learn that this is not a vampire story. It’s a story about a family of casters, another name for witches.  In the movie, Jeremy Irons is terrific as the protective, eccentric and magical uncle–dressed in white suits, a startling contrast against the backdrop of a vine-covered dark mansion set in a dismal swamp.

Beautiful CreaturesWhile the book paints a more intricate composite of complex characters–more characters are named and active in the book than in the film adaptation–the movie conjures a swirl of supernatural effects, plot twists and action, albeit too many make-out scenes. The movie is clearly targeted toward teens. Nonetheless, it appeals to adults as well thanks to Emma Thompson’s and Jeremy Irons’ onscreen electricity– a mismash of many strong performances, even if in short bursts.  The most entertaining make-out scene took place on a floating raft in a creek (Emmy Rossum as the villainous Ridley). Alligators cruised through the dark water, swishing serpentine tails. Jeremy Irons Macon

One detail that bugged me – a reference to cards and card reading, also known as cartomancy. In the book, the character Amma is a “seer” and a card-reader. She’s inherited this gift from her ancestors.  In one conversation (book version, not movie), someone asks her if she uses Tarot cards and Amma replies, “What other kinds of cards are there?”  The protagonist, a teen-aged boy, Ethan, suggests playing cards, greeting cards, etc.  A real card-reader, whatever her traditions or beliefs, knows that everyday playing cards were invented 600+ years ago for the purposes of divination. They came hundreds of years before the creation of Tarot cards, which are certainly used in entertainment circles (psychic fairs, tourist shops, movies, etc.) When King Henry VIII was on the throne in England, his court had a cartomancer and an astrologer on the payroll, and occasionally, his Queens read playing cards.  If you’ve seen “The Tudors” on Showtime, there are a few scenes when his Queens are playing what looks like Solitaire, but are indeed reading a spread of cards. (Anne Boleyn learns of a prophecy of her death during one such card reading.)  I wish that the authors of the Beautiful Creatures series had Amma refer to playing cards, rather than Tarot, for authenticity. As I understand it, seers in South Carolina have been using cartomancy, tasseography (tea leaf reading), scrying or hydromancy (use of water to divine) and other fortune-telling methods for centuries. Some use Tarot cards, but Tarot is not as old as cartomancy, and the Seer in the Beautiful Creatures series refers to a very long, even ancient tradition of keeping the archives of the casters, implying a time that came long before Tarot. Still, I love the “librarian of the spellcaster library” twist. LindaBeastThe library of the casters in the movie reminded me of Linda Hamilton and the Beast in the 1980s’ “Beauty and the Beast” TV series, which placed several characters in an underground library of sorts, complete with spiral staircases and sewers.

Poetry fans will delight in the many poetry references, especially to Charles Bukowski, whose words tip-toe into the dialogue between the two teens. It’s a nice touch–and perhaps English teachers will rejoice.  (But poets/readers might roll their eyes at some of the forced references.) Ethan Wate, who narrates the book and the movie, takes on a wannabe Bukowskiesque persona, if only to impress the girl, Lena. The boy wears what I can only imagine are called “personality glasses,” a trend among hipster teens (fake glasses, frame too big for the face to resemble the style of great writers/thinkers.) The character idolizes his favorite writers, including Kerouac, so he wears these glasses to emulate him, or at least that’s the wink of it.  I liked the magical poetry abilities that Lena possessed. Every teen-aged girl should be able to draw her favorite lines of poetry onto the bedroom ceiling–in telekinetic-electric magic marker.

Sweet fern

Sweet fern, not a true fern

Last week in the midst of meetings and deadlines, I slowed down long enough to learn how to identify northeastern wetland ferns. I participated in a Swamp School webinar and after the training, I earned a certificate. Since I’ve written about ferns a few times for my Strange Wetlands series, I thought I better check myself, before I made a fern faux pas. And as it happens, I was wrong about one plant: sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina)  is a member of the heath family, not a true fern.

The “Swamp Seminar” on wetland ferns started with the parts of a fern. Prior to this class, I knew to refer to the fern frond, which is the whole fern leaf, and I knew that rhizomes are the roots, but the rest of a fern’s morphology–well, that was new to me. It was fascinating to learn that a fern might be identified based on whether it is once, twice or thrice pinnate–meaning, the number of cuts on the pinna, or leaflet. Lady Fern, a common fern that grows in my “Fern Gully” at Nixie’s Vale, is three-times pinnate with a rough-edged leaflet, making it look lacy – the Victoria’s Secret brand of ferns. Other ferns have similarly feminine names like Venus Hair Fern (Adiantum capillus‐veneris) and Northern Maiden-Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum), or Maiden-Hair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes), which grows near waterfalls.  How lovely.

North Maid Hair Fern

Northern Maiden-Hair Fern

For wetland professionals, the training also addressed whether each fern is an Obligate Wetland species, meaning that it always occurs in a wetland, also known as a hydrophyte (loves water); a Facultative Wetland species, which means that the fern usually shows up in a wetland, but can also be found in upland areas; or, thirdly, it may be a Facultative species, commonly occuring in both wetland and upland areas. Ferns that fit this last category–facultative, are still important to know because they may help someone identify the edge of a wetland. Identifying wetland plants is fairly complex. See this USDA page on wetland indicator information, if you are curious. If by any chance, you’re a real wetland plant enthusiast, I encourage you to check out this presentation on the newly revised national wetland plant list, which is run by the Army Corps of Engineers. 



National Wetland Plant List

Among the many types covered in the training, I learned how to identify Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Fragile fern (Cystopteris fragilis) and Interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), which I’m pretty sure I’ve spotted in Fern Gully. I have my notes to take into the field this spring when the fronds unfurl like fiddleheads and I can go on a fern ID scavenger hunt. The Swamp School webinar included access to an online tool kit, which allows me to reference handouts–and to get my certificate. I found the website and webinar training well-organized and jam-packed with knowledge and inspiration. I really enjoyed this class.

For those who are interested, Swamp School also offers classes on wetland delineation–in both classroom, field and webinar formats with live, interactive training. Marc Seelinger is the founder–and he’s a terrific instructor, too.  Right now he’s got a series of wetland delineation classes posted on the website, but there are also webinars and workshops on occasion. After all, inspiring minds want to know.


Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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