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Why'd You Call it "Swamp Lights"?

Swamp Lights are a paranormal occurrence known by many names around the world. Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Will-O-The-Wisp”. Basically, it can be described as a small ball of flame, or glowing orb mysteriously appearing in marshlands.

Scientists are pretty confident that they know what’s going on. When denizens of these squishy places decease, they quickly become one with the muck. Plants, animals, and trees sink into the watery bottom, and the warm/wet environment accelerates decomposition which releases gasses. When some of these gasses combine, they can *poof* real quick burst into little spontaneous flames.

Point-blank my buddy said to me one day,

“You might sell more of those if you gave it a more appealing name.”

She’s not wrong. I guess swamps can be pretty gross.

The truth is, I just couldn’t help myself. I liked the name, and by the time my friend had registered her suggestion, the patterns had already been sent to print.

Besides, Swamp Lights are fascinating!

You really don’t have to know much about science to hear the scientific explanation and think “yeah, that makes sense”. But our ancestors tell us a different story. They tell us a whole bunch of stories. Swamp Lights occur all over the world, and for every region there is a different narrative - trickster spirits, fairies, dragons, and ghosts. Although I am tempted to jump in and recount the stories I’ve encountered in my research, I am not qualified to provide authentic retellings, or to offer an accurate reflection of the cultures from whence they came. (Besides, I’d be robbing you of some really delightful googling.)

There is, however, a common sentiment that underlies many of these folktales.

It’s a warning: don’t go wandering into the swamp alone at night.

I’m often irritated by the conflation of “to explain” something and “to explain it away”. Why do we think of an explanation as a reason to dismiss? Does a scientific description of something actually diminish it’s magic? Doesn’t everything become more interesting when we think of magic and science as complimentary wisdoms rather than mutually exclusive dogmas?

After all, it’s really good advice: to be cautious around the swamp! A bad step could send you into the jaws of a crocodile! There’s snakes, and bugs, and poisonous plants! Who can really say for sure that the spirits of those who came before aren’t sending up little poofs of gassy flares to say “lookout!”

I didn’t grow up in a culture with any particular folklore about marshland spirits. The primary folklore I grew up with is Star Trek. (I might’ve mentioned it.) There is no Will-O-The-Wisp in Star Trek, and there really isn’t much mention of swamps at all, but there is a character named Q that comes to mind. He is an impish, omnipotent being that drops by periodically to cause havoc. He is a trickster spirit.

Although he shows up mostly to make chaos and generally torment the series regulars, he’s usually there to educate as well.

One particularly memorable episode begins with our heroes being a little complacent

and a lot overconfident. Space-travel has become hum-drum, and everyone feels like they’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s up in the universe.

By the end of the episode, Q has thoroughly disabused them of this attitude.

He issues a warning:

“It’s not safe out here” he says.

“It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross.

But it's not for the timid.”

It's a groovy pairing to meditate on: danger and wonder. Don’t we, after all, find the most beauty in things that scare us the most? Isn’t a tiger most breathtaking when we remember that it could take our heads off with one swipe? Aren’t the stars most beautiful when they remind us of our tininess in the vast expanse of space?

And couldn’t we view all the scary things through this lens to find all the biggest beauties?

Yep, swamps are scary. And gross. But they are also humming with iridescent dragonflies. Plants produce life-giving medicines. Frogs discourse in more dialects that science has catalogued. Triumphant trees weave their finger-roots through the squish, drinking up the nutrients and the ghosts of fallen critters, channeling them upwards into the bright hot sunlight of day.

“It’s not safe out here, it’s wondrous.”

Thanks for reading! -Reyna


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