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Koda Sokol

I am a swamp monster, raised by and living in swamps for most of my life—twelve years of childhood in south Florida, and most of my young adulthood in New Orleans. I grew up wading in reedy shores with my toes squished into silt and canoeing through mangrove forests during PE class. These days, I walk my dog each morning around the shores of Bayou St. John, and sometimes swim in its mouth, Lake Pontchartrain, or float down its neighboring red-brown Bogue Chitto river. I have made a life in the swamps of the southeastern US, communing with all the other swamp monsters that haunt the habitable, creeping toward elsewhere worlds.

The swamp is an ecosystem heavy with symbology, loaded with a history of projected meanings extrapolated from perceptions of the landscape’s qualities and habitability. Specifically, swamps are often considered within the racial-colonial imaginary to be an uncivilized, uninhabitable wasteland of spectral dangers, threatening the sanctity of whiteness and the project of the settler nation. Suspicious of swamps’ ecological foreignness in relation to Europe’s temperate environments, Anglo-European settlers defined whiteness and civility against the ability of Native Americans to make viable lives in these ostensibly uninhabitable, dark ecologies. A late seventeenth century merchant in Boston, for example, described the Pocassit Swamp, and swamps in general, as “so soft Ground that an Englishman can neither go nor stand thereone, and yet these bloody Savages will run along over it,” illustrating the use of perceived Anglo-European incompatibility with swamps to reinforce their supremacy over and distinction from Native Americans. [1] Settlers used swamps to position whiteness against fugitive blackness, too, given critical the role of swampland in providing refuge to maroons. Settler efforts to drain swamps in order to convert the land into something more habitable and profitable for Anglo-Europeans were not just economic projects, but also critical investments in racial formation. [2] The invocation of the phrase “drain the swamp” over the last several decades (and most recently by Trump) catapults into contemporary parlance these racial-colonial associations of the swamp as dangerous wasteland in need of civilizing improvement. 

In the way they slip through binaristic categories like land/water and habitable/uninhabitable, swamps have an affinity with transness, which of course cannot be separated from racialization. After all, whiteness and its binary gender norms have been constructed in opposition to the settler-perceived gender ambiguity of Africans and African Americans, [3] lending blackness and transness a kind of coeval fugitivity. [4] Like the swamp, transness is characterized by the crossing over of one category into another – land/water, men/women – such that the coherence and mutual exclusivity of these categories gets called unsettlingly into question. Swamps are in fact characterized as “transition zones” between land and water, and their vulnerability to constant flooding events makes their topography ever-changing, soggy, and stubbornly resistant to clear boundaries and definition. Swamps are alive, fluctuating, moving, and murky, demonstrating the very porosity and dynamism of what was heretofore thought to be separate and stable. Just as the swampy off-shoots of Bayou St. John create seamless transitions from splash to gallop on my dog’s run in Wisner Tract Park, my own gender flickers hologrammatically between masculine and feminine with the constant modulation of light or dress. When I see my dog lapping up swamp water where I could have sworn there was dry land, I am joyfully reminded of the unreliability of categorical boundaries and the constancy of change. Honoring the transness of swamps uncovers the dangerous potential of contaminating the apparent purity of separate categories – clouding the water, so to speak, such that imagination becomes just as viable a heuristic as any for apprehending what may lie beneath.

Trying to define where a swamp begins and ends, distinguish between its mud and water, or determine its habitability teaches us about the shortcomings of positivist calculations and scientific taxonomies for adequately capturing the complexity of worldly phenomena. Swamps humble us to the inevitable failures of domesticating methods of objectivity and categorization, never able to define and organize as neatly as they purport to. Surely, this is a lesson we’ve learned before. [5] Rather than cause for lament, however, swamps uniquely demonstrate the need for other, more poetic modes of apprehending the world. Host to the anti-colonial worldmaking of indigenous and maroon societies, as well as to the imagined universes of diverse monstrosity, swamps demand and enable epistemologies attuned to the slippery, the fugitive, and the possible.

The tethering of swamps to the threat of racial otherness and the mystery of perceived uninhabitability makes it no wonder that they are commonly mythologized as homes or birthplaces of dangerous monsters that haunt these murky ecosystems and their passersby. Creatures like Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp Monster or Florida’s skunk ape, for example, are both ‘cousins’ of a Big Foot-type monster described as large, bipedal humanoids covered in hair and marked by a putrid stench. Even at my South Florida high school, which abutted Biscayne Bay with a swampy grove of mangrove trees, students constantly spread whispered rumors about what monstrous mysteries might be lurking amidst the muddy trees, warning and daring each other to venture into the thick. Folklore makes a monster out of what is feared, often for lack of understanding, or unwillingness to try. The demonization of transness and gender non-normativity can be understood in this way, too, and a rich genealogy of reclaiming trans monstrosity illustrates the powerful potential of choosing to haunt as the monster you are deemed to be. [6] Transness is often feared and misunderstood for the way it destabilizes taken-for-granted ideas about what a body is and can do. In their haunting, trans monsters can uproot the very foundation of cisheteronormativity upon which so much of dominant ideology and normative social life rests. By haunting the world of the taken-for-granted present, monsters portend an elsewhere world, a world wherein there are no violence structures left to haunt, only monsters making lives with and for each other. But in the interregnum between such worlds, the swamp seems to offer a mighty apt home for such monstrosity. Fluid and transitional, the swamp can support the monsters whose abjection from normativity pulls them toward somewhere not-yet-here. 

Perhaps we can glimpse this not-yet-here by following the light of the will-o’-the-wisp (also known as the fifollet in the swamps of Louisiana). The will-o’-the-wisp is a swamp monster characterized as an atmospheric, spectral luminescence that hovers over swamps and bogs, luring people into sinister, treacherous, or impossible places or situations. Typically, this swamp monster is storied to be the soul of a human who led an ‘immoral’ earthly life and was consequently shut out of heaven and hell, doomed to wander the earth in this ethereal form and, as such, lures in passersby for vengeance and/or devious fun. Whereas monsters like the skunk ape reveal more directly our fears about perversions of masculinity and femininity via forms whose proximity to the human body help draw the very boundaries of normative humanity, the alluring light of the will-o’-the-wisp reveals something potentially even more insidious: an anticipatory illumination of otherworldly possibility. In Cruising Utopia, Muñoz writes, “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.…Queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past to imagine a future.” [7] Understood through Muñoz’s queer utopianism, the will-o’-the-wisp is an incorporeal force drawing people toward and through hope for an elsewhere, luring travelers off their presumed path and into the unknown. The will-o’-the-wisp folds linear temporality in on itself, crafting from an ‘immoral’ earthly past a future-dawning specter that haunts the stilted present. The will-o’-the-wisp threatens to wrench the present into somewhere else, a not-yet-here imbued with otherworldly potential. Haunting teleology, the will-o’-the-wisp makes known that other times and places are possible, sinister though they may seem in contrast to the morality of normalcy and the solidity of dry land.

Concluding Cruising Utopia, Muñoz links the elsewhere time-places of queerness, those “crashing wave[s] of potentiality,” to the affect of ecstasy; ecstasy as rapture, moving outside/beside one’s self, knowing the motion of time, enacting something dawning. [8] Ecstatic experiences force confrontation with our own nonsovereignty, our constant vulnerability to being shaped and moved by contact with others, being lured elsewhere by the will-o’-the-wisp. In ecstasy, we turn to face the present from out of time, from a not-yet-here that we can momentarily feel: a crowded dance party, a shared orgasm, the intensity of grief, a kaleidoscope acid trip, a stranger’s sparkling recognition. As a trans swamp monster hoping for elsewhere worlds, I willingly follow the light of the will-o’-the-wisp. I want to be dislodged by this light from a trail I was never fit to follow. I hope to be luminescently led off-course with the promise of an impossible time or place I may never reach myself but perhaps, in pursuing it, can help make possible. I believe that only by stretching ecstatically toward this dangerous, swampy horizon can we ultimately build the monster’s elsewhere we deserve.

[1] Quoted in Vileisis, A. (1997). Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America’s Wetlands. Island Press. Page 5.

[2] Dillon, L. (2022). "Civilizing Swamps in California: Formations of Race, Nature, and Property in the Nineteenth Century U.S. West." Society and Space 40(2): 258-275.

[3] Magubane, Z. (2014). "Spectacles and Scholarship: Caster Semenya, Intersex Studies, and the Problem of Race in Feminist Theory." Signs 39(3).

[4] Bey, M. (2017). "The Trans*-Ness of Blackness, the Blackness of Trans*-Ness." TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 4(2): 275–295.

[5] Haraway, D. (1988). "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives." Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-599.

[6] Stryker, S. (1994). "My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage." GLQ 1(3): 237–254.

[7] Muñoz, J. E. (2009). Crusing Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NYU Press.

[8] Ibid, Page 185.

Koda Sokol is a PhD Candidate at UC Santa Cruz who writes about gender and feelings. Catch them gabbing about the enneagram or singing country pop karaoke.

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