On swamps, deserts, and sites of old selves

by Tara Sharma

Illustration by Natasha Brennan

published April 4, 2019

In Southern Appalachia, the forests have been burying themselves for millennia. The trees collapse where the forest floor puddles: thick floods trap the air between them, rainwater pressing down slowly on what once was high above. With time, the whole forest will slip beneath itself, its once-canopy secured with a topcoat of acidic mud. Underground, saturated, nothing can grow or fully decompose.

Coal is made of plant matter drawn of all of its oxygen, pressurized at the base of a bog for millions of years. The plant never fully decays here. Instead, waterlogged, it fossilizes. Geological processes push coal through different forms. First peat, then lignite, then bituminous coal, then anthracite—the messy black matter used for heating commercial buildings. The final and most compressed form of coal is the graphite we put in pencils.

I spend a day in June wading through an Appalachian bog. Beneath me plant matter decays in a process slowed by too much water. All the time in the world is pressing into the bog, an accordion of geologic eras culminating in the quiet weight of this late-day humidity. But the water holds the old life in place. I make my way through it, barefoot, the last person in a line of fifteen. Our path draws to the surface a thin glaze of cold mud. Carnivorous plants fringe the floor around our feet. I peer into the bowl of a pitcher plant and find inside of it the silky molt of a dragonfly.

I want to know what it feels like to unclip the things inside of me and let them live in a swamp. Dislodge what a body has learned and leave it there for a few months. In the swamp the insides will neither grow nor die. There, they will not need to learn. For the rest of the summer I live in the Southern Appalachian forest alongside the fifteen other swamp-goers. Each evening of the summer we sit in a circle to figure out how to live in a community. In the circle we are steeping in each other’s mannerisms, inflections, gestures. They move fluidly about the space, inhabiting each of us for some time. The three-sided shelters we sleep in at night are neither fully inside nor fully out. At night, when darkness mimics a wall, it’s almost as though the space is sealed—but when we wake in half-dream state to a thunderstorm pressed against the tin roof, there's no stopping the deafening white noise.

The mold had been growing on everything since the very first day. There were some items that, upon arriving in the forest, I quickly realized I would not need: a wool hat, a cloth bag. In the beginning I tried folding the things up and securing them deep inside the shelter, hoping that the interior space would keep them dry. But the mold reaches the insides, too. One day at the end of the summer, I am struck by the disorienting feeling that this forest is my entire world. The feeling lasts just a few hours before I am reminded of the rest of my world, silently seeping in. When we leave the forest, we see that everything we brought from home is speckled with green—even the things we thought were safe inside. I thought these spots couldn’t be reached, but the rain seems to find home in the center of everything.




I want to know what happens when a self stops outgrowing itself. I have a hunch that maybe it becomes something like coal.

Every March for the last six years my sister has given me a birthday letter, looped in black pen on the back of a postcard. My sister is ten years older than me and she has picked her postcards carefully. She will give the card with an object. Sometimes, a book, inscribed on the inside with my name and a phrase: I’ve been waiting to give you this book. Or, I come back to this book again and again. Other times, a box of caramels, tea, tamarind candy. When I was sixteen, a ring, along with a square note: My friend wears a ring for each life milestone. Here is one for right now. When I was thirteen, my sister gave me a small willow tree to take the place of the old one that had uprooted in the storm the August before. Hurricane Irene left behind matted branches and a misshapen trunk, which we chopped into ottoman-stoops and watched as its knots slowly came undone.

At the end of the letter Meara gives me an adjective for the next year of my life. It’s an adjective she recalls from when she was my age. Fifteen: green. Nineteen: subtle. Seventeen: sexy. I spend birthdays slipping into the new membrane. It always takes some time to get used to it. A year later, the word begins to makes sense. I keep the letters and the adjectives in a box on my bedroom shelf. I hang the most recent one on the wall in front of my desk. When I was younger I thought about the adjectives constantly. I believed the word offered me a self to become. I wove them into my sentences; I wove them into my speech. I thought about them when over the phone I told Meara stories from my week. Each adjective is different from the last, and larger. Each new adjective holds inside of it all of the old ones. The adjectives are growing older. On March 2nd the adjective is a word in the bottom right corner of a piece of cardstock, and one year later it has grown into a body.

If a body were a swamp, what would it look like? Would it leave behind old membranes, or would it hold them all in, where they will compact? For a year I keep the adjective in my spine and my feet, hoping that it will take. So far, it always has. Somewhere in the body there is always space to hold a new word.




I learn about bog bodies in a high school science class. The photographs of the bog bodies show clenched human faces turned to sooty rubber. Chapped lips sealed in decades and anoxic water. The skin has been pulled of all of its breath, suspended indefinitely in half-preservation, half-ossification. Pressure so gradual that it seems for centuries as though everything is still. The bog pays attention to the bodies’ organs and shapes, preserving the parts exactly as they were. The bog plugs the passageways: even the fingernails have no need to grow.

In the middle of a lake is an eighty-meter drop, circled by a fraying rope. I want to know what it feels like to float over it. Knee-deep swimmers cluster where the water is light. Some of them reach down to the bottom of the lake and scoop pillows of white sand to spread on their arms and faces. The silky calcium smells vaguely like sulfur. When pressed onto skin, I read online, the bottom of this lake exfoliates and soothes.

Also online are satellite photographs of the lake overlaid with a grid that frames the blueblack hole in the center, a puncture in a soft and translucent oval. At some point the ground gave way and the center fell through. In the middle of a lake is a mountain inverted, its insides gutted, the hollow filled with water.

The center is where the whole lake expands. Lake upon lake upon lake, until it darkens to black. A piece of outer space the earth sucked back in. Sand-covered bodies loom over the dark bowl, treading the perimeter where the water is pale and shallow. They are seeing something raw, it seems. A whole lake under the pressure of itself. Dense and fleshy lake, accidentally exposed to the sun, unsure of how to take it in.

But something is steeping in the center of the lake. There is matter where the light won’t reach. The water in the middle glints no tint of green; what is here does not grow or die but instead just rests. Around the cavity the lake is pushing out thin strands of light that catch at the surface of the water, glittering. For hours I float in the thinnest parts, watching the line where blue mixes with dark. I wait for the colors to blend, maybe when the currents shift or the light winds itself back in, but everything stays in place.

Place a self in a swamp, and watch as it unlearns the lines by which it has always lived. In swamps, matter slows, tangles, decays, and grows. If you look carefully, you will find that they are everywhere: the floor of the forest, the knots in the body, the residues of memory. I am learning how to inhabit the swamps, and I am taking my time. When I finally find myself inside of one, I remind myself to hold still. The matter, though slow, is buoyant. There is life here, too.




The swamps in sentences are difficult to find. I search for the sentences that hold themselves still despite being surrounded by motion, but it seems there are very few of them. Some linger for two or three words before collapsing forwards. Most sentences are bursting with breath.

During the 37th year of her life, Lyn Hejinian wrote an autobiographical prose poem composed of 37 paragraphs, each of them 37 sentences long. Read the swirling sentences and watch as they remain unsettled, a suspension of particles looking to combine or to curdle. The paragraphs make themselves into tanks; I start in the middle of the page and follow what I can, floating outward.

It is impossible to return to the state of mind in which these sentences originated. Reflections don’t make shade, but shadows are, and do. We have come a long way from what we actually felt. The refrigerator makes a sound I can’t spell. It is hard to turn away from moving water. Listen to the drips. Enormous boulders perpetually gliding upward. The dog was lying in the sunlight not the sun.

Lately the days have been clotting when I have least expected it. I do not know what to make of time that does not move forward, but I would like to learn what grows there. When I was young I imagined that all of the days were shoddily sewn together in one long, thin quilt. The quilt was the length of my lifetime. Each night as I fell asleep the seams of that day came loose, and a piece of the quilt would fall away. I never knew where the old days went: if the fallen pieces of cloth collected someplace in a pile, if the cloth grew moldy. I wonder at what point the old days became threadbare.

But before they did, maybe they clung to their stitches, refusing to decompose. Something must’ve been growing inside of them, even when they seemed to be gone. Most sentences insist upon on birthing the next. The days will not stop producing more. I wonder what it would take to let them steep in a swamp. I have learned to live my life in line-form, but there are some things I will always keep encircling.

I’m watching a film from the perspective of a nearly-dead fish on the floor of an Atlantic fishing boat. At the beginning I have no idea where I am, and I quickly learn that the film doesn’t care to orient me. Soon I come to understand that I have been given a prosthetic for the eyes of something very small, an entity spattering some kind of life, a piece of matter easily subsumed by the bodies around it. For two hours Leviathan heaves and slides. Water swells through the boat, pulling the world into coherence. Wet salt freckles the lens and every few moments a black wall of ocean holds the whole image in a thundery pulp. Sometimes the pulp takes longer to settle, and when this happens I look to the carpeted floor of the classroom and feel something like gravity inside of me as my visual plane lingers in a suspension of particles. Time is passing in the middle of the Atlantic and I am left with little to follow. Something tilts and there is light, and in the corner of the screen a wet fin of a nearby fish sputters. The plane bends again and a thin ridge of water slicks the lens. I am pressed up against the floor of a fishing boat, waiting for the muffled world to crystallize. I watch as it takes its time, and I watch as it really never does.




The Dead Animal Dump bowls beside a desert road and fills with sunlight like a bucket in the rain. Here is where the Death Valley flesh takes its time to unfix: the dead dairy cows, the pigs, the horses, the dogs. Lard from the kitchen congealing inch-think in the spaces between them. The circle of animals sinks into the side of a mountain and at sunset the light is pooling neon. It soaks inside of creases of rotting fur and gathers in the bends of old bones.

We park a chipping blue truck by the edge of the pit and unload from the trunk a bucket of dead chickens. They fall along the side of a sun-baked cow, the tiny bodies settling facedown in the buckles of skin along the crest of the ribcage. Where the cow’s neck ends and the head begins is where the skin has been carved, dry and curling along the edges, slumping in a pile where the animal is still soft. I learn the cow has been there for the last four months: too much alfalfa makes the body bloat to death.

Nothing surrounds the contents of the Dead Animal Dump except sunlight. The body of a goat is coming apart at the belly. The skin breaks in layers. From the thinnest and pinkest layer a translucent oval organ is pushing out, looking for sunlight to coat it. The dead goat’s eyes are open—two flattened stones fixed to the rest of the dried landscape, as though two long pieces of string tie the eyes to the desert valley. The dead animals have nothing to float inside of but sunlight.

The animals smell like nothing. The June sun and the green beetles have sucked the rot away. The greying fur glints shiny, churned by the sun, turned to resin. The desert leaves the spilling organs suspended, the bodies sanitized, the upturned eyes opaque and clean. I wonder when the bodies decompose. If it happens at night, in the dark. If the dead animals sit in stillness until the heat slips away for a few hours and the light releases the bodies, lets the flesh spread.




Each time I see you something has gone wrong with the weather. The pattern is insistent. Last January an ice storm came to the valley for two days and to get around it we drove in a circle for fifteen hours. When we reached Las Vegas we became suddenly sleepy but walked up and down the strip because we were not convinced it had been a full day. The next morning we ate pale eggs in a blue diner and wondered when the ice storm would drink the clear sky. Last March we met at the bus station and walked through downtown Providence as jagged wind bent inside of our clothes and kept us frozen and wordless for two days. In June Death Valley held in the heat like a headache. We soaked naked in the reservoir and dried in the sun until we ran out of water to drink. We walked through barley fields steeped in fishy water and I could not remember from where we came. The pattern will not let go. In August we curled beneath a granite cave as a rainstorm swallowed the pond beside us. That day we lost feeling in our limbs and let them lay together all afternoon, sleeping on soft stone. Late-year humidity muffled every Providence sunset for two weeks in October and in January we snowshoed to the pond when it was negative twenty-five degrees, pressed our feet to the top of the solid body of water, held each other’s bodies with our whole bodies so we could keep our hands in our pockets. We think sometimes that the pattern is pulling us together. The outsides reaching for the insides. At this point we are not sure what we would do without it. For some time here we are still because we need to be still. We meet in the center each time, where everything else, for a few days, seems to be meeting too.




Fifteen days down the Colorado River we camp beside Two Hundred and Twenty-Two Mile Creek, an outwash of sun-worn clay pebbles splaying from a side canyon, running dry for ten of the twelve months of the year. We spend the final afternoon napping on the riverbank. When I cannot fall asleep because of the heat I push chapped heels into sand until I reach cool weight, and for a moment I am near the core of the earth.

We wake in the afternoon to hot walls of wind and a single cloud taking shape along the sandstone ridge. For the first time in two weeks the light is dilute. We are disoriented. The wind slips into us and all we can think to do is go to sleep. To escape the wind I sink to my shoulders in the river water and count to ten.

There are dead things floating at the surface: a raven, a bat, a ringtail cat. Insects clustering on rotting wood. This eddy is the Lost and Found of the Grand Canyon, where all of the life and possessions of the first two hundred and twenty-two miles find their rest, offering themselves once more in a slow and steady whirlpool.

Pangs of hot wind bring sand pinpricks and dead animal smell to the alcove where we search for sleep at night. When we cannot find it after hours of waiting, we slip our shoulders and scalp into the cold, moving water once more. Our bodies are slack, our bodies are wide awake. The river is sifting us in circles.

At night we cannot see the insides of these rotting currents. We know only that the water is thick, the water is fast, and the water has travelled two hundred and twenty miles from the Glen Canyon Dam, gushing from the bottom of snowmelt into billion-year-old black rock. The water does not forget anything, I learn as I scrub away the thin film of sand that formed to my skin when the hot night wind blew the ground away. I would like to have a memory like this water, to toss back and forth the things I know to be true, let them swim around in circles night after night, until maybe someday they will decompose, or maybe they never will.




At the edge of the desert valley the lake is not really a lake but a hardened salt pan through which we tread barefoot with your dog, his paws and our heels puncturing its crisp surface step-by-step. From time to time we rest knee-deep in the mud made cold and harsh by shards of salt. Later in your room we peel the mud from our legs and and find in its impressions soft cuts where the minerals tightened around skin. You examine the rawness of my knees, the spots where salt stripped something away, and all of a sudden the room is full of our limbs.

There must be a way to love from the knees. Most people learn to love from the head, often the eyes, sometimes the hands. Track the growth that has taken place behind the face. There is easy evidence for this type of change: old versions collect in every space you inhabit. But it is harder to reach the swamps in the knees, the elbows, forearms, thighs, feet.

There are parts of my body that I recognize from when I was small. Here, maybe, is where the body, for twenty-one years, has stilled. Strawberry bruises, my brother would call the bloodblooms on our knees after scraping them on the sidewalk. We found them in the summertime. The welts would always heal within the week. Lately I have been searching my knees for the outlines of old strawberry bruises. They have to be somewhere here: not much has changed. There is so much to learn here—where the kneecap skin gathers, where growth has slowed. My brother and I examined our knees in awe when the strawberry bruises arrived each summer, sockless and soft-limbed on the driveway. And when silently, they mended themselves, we began to forget they were ever there.


TARA SHARMA ’20.5 wants to send you to the Dead Animal Dump.