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Thoughts on an Aesthetics of Mud

  Tom Baugh

Because of my work as a wetlands ecologist, I am an intimate of mud. Mud is my ‘familiar.’ I have even had training in how to determine various types of mud. I have also developed a special vocabulary of pejoratives (not in the technical language) to apply to mud as it attempts to pull my boots from my feet or causes me to stumble and fall. My long-suffering wife has special looks for me as I return from one of my field-trips covered in mud.

As I take the road less traveled, into flooded forests, I’m most often sinking into a substance called (believe it or not) ‘Muck.’ Muck is technically described as a hydric soil.  Among other things, hydric soils are…well what can I say ‘specially wet mud.’ I could wax prolific on the beauty of mud, after all beauty is what we are about here… the swirling patters inscribed on the mud by slow-moving water; the different tones that mud presents, and the rich, thick smell of life and yes, even the smell of death that is always present with mud. The visual sharps and flats of light reflecting from the mud projects a sometimes crystal reality intertwined with an often other dimensional and disturbing darkness.

But it is more the beauty of what mud allows or enables that appeals to the senses. For mud is an enabler…it might even be the original enabler, the primordial ooze in which the beauty of life evolved and from which it spread out across Earth. Here in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina we have places that are referred to as  ‘bogs.’ They are remnants of a habitat type that once covered extensive areas but have been drained and plowed-under by our species in it’s rapacious journey across Earth.  Bogs have mud and, as we’ve said, mud enables life and bogs have a lot of life. At almost any time of year life abounds in the bogs. Even in the cold winter months the stark black and gray trunks of leafless trees arise from the mounds and hummocks that sit only centimeters above the viscous mud that wanders throughout the tolerant and gnarled roots of the red maple, black gum, and ash among dozens of other species. But it is during the warmer months of spring and summer and even into early fall that we see the true abundance of these mud-enriched places. Green sedges and fountain grasses are joined by ferns so large and thick they are difficult to walk through. As the seasons progress, the multihued green is dotted by exclamation points of bright color from Swamp Pink and Canada lily, and later yet, the strange, blood red flower of sweet shrub. Even on the muddy floor we find violets with flowers no bigger than a quarter coin and in the fall the red berries of Jack in the Pulpit stand-out among the strange shapes of pitcher plants and mats of mosses, all greens and browns painted on a canvas of mud.

I could go on and often have about these muddy, fecund places that play such a role in my life as an ecologist. Bogs, however, have become adopted by many of us who enjoy the beauty of gardens and bog plants are often a specialized sale item in nurseries and garden shops. In an attempt to bring the beauty of mud and all it enables into our daily lives, we try to recreate mucky bogs in our gardens. I am aware that beauty is indeed, often in the eye of the beholder and that there are those who might not find mud and muddy places that beautiful. I am sorry for them. As late winter gives way to early spring put your boots on and take a walk on the muddy wild side and explore natural beauty from my perspective…from the mud up.

Tom Baugh

Chair, Environmental Aesthetics Study Group

Published on February 28, 2017.