Into the Wild

The Land of Swamp Lanterns


On a slanting boardwalk over a forested swamp, I pause. It’s not just Pacific wrens singing these days. Song sparrows and towhees fire off their songs. Salmonberry thickets stand with their bare brown stalks in black muck, yet they are somehow already spangled with magenta blossoms.

It’s “Just-spring,” like E. E. Cummings said, “when the world is mud-luscious.”

We call this boardwalk the Troll Bridge. On either side, a wild scaffold of downed trees and ferns and brush sits upon mud of a depth no one I know has ever dared to test. And straight through it, as if mud were a spotless workshop for the preparation of brilliant colors, come the swamp lanterns, their massive tropical leaves surrounding a neon inflorescence that just about glows in the shade.

These swamp plants boast the largest leaves of any native plant on the Key Peninsula. They are also the Pacific Northwest’s only member of the arum family, which includes calla lilies and peace lilies. An arum can often be recognized by its upright flowering spike, called a spadix, surrounded by a brightly colored leaf called a spathe.

Yet you might know swamp lanterns as skunk cabbage. Not only do they shine — they stink. It’s another common trait of arums. Ours exude certain foul hydrocarbons along with a compound called indole also found in feces and dead bodies.

The blooms around me are flecked with small black insects like shavings of iron on magnets. They are Pelecomalium testaceum, a rove beetle with no common name. These half-centimeter earwig-shaped beetles are skunk cabbage’s primary and perhaps only pollinator. I watch them dig into the tiny flowers. Specks of pollen cling to their dark bodies.

Many beetles respond to stenches. They are right at home in dirt and dung and decay. Yet others are attracted to flowers. In a relatively simple experiment, researchers at the University of Washington set out to determine what sensory cue brings Pelecomalium testaceum to our arum — if it is the brilliant swamp lantern or the redolent skunk cabbage that attracts them.

The first trial presented the beetles with two clear, sealed dishes, one with a green leaf and the other with a yellow spathe. The beetles ignored both.

Color alone did not attract the beetles. The second trial presented the beetles with a green leaf and a yellow spathe hidden in a green leaf. This time, some of the beetles landed on the leaf holding the hidden spathe.

Odor did attract the beetles. But in a third trial, in which a spathe in a vase was added as an option, many more beetles landed on the undisguised spathe than had landed on the hidden spathe, suggesting that it’s not just scent that attracts the beetles but a combination of scent and color.

This reminds me of some beautiful research described by Niko Tinbergen in his book “Curious Naturalists,” in which dozens of butterflies were released into a gauze enclosure festooned with small paper squares of many colors. His team wanted to know which colors were most attractive. But in an entire day of observation, the butterflies visited none. One of the team members suggested they try scent instead. They cleared out the paper squares and brought in rags soaked in flower perfumes. The butterflies grew agitated, walked in circles, drummed their antennae — but they did not go to the rags. One landed on a researcher’s blue shirt.

A eureka moment was had. The scent activated the butterflies to go looking for color. As Tinbergen puts it, their “internal mood” was altered from one state to another — their eyes were always capable of seeing colorful flowers, but it took scent to unlock their meaning. I wonder if it’s a similar story with the rove beetles.

If it is, we as people sure could identify with them. Ever step into a marsh, feel the water coming into your shoe — and feel everything in your head go out your ears in favor of an “internal mood” begging you not to fall, to find safe ground?

Safe ground: another word for “untouched by mud”?

Spring isn’t just a profusion of beautiful perfumes, and all this mud has me thinking of the end of Gary Snyder’s poem about a river, “The Flowing,” where he ends up drifting through “a thick vomiting outward sighing” — through the river’s mouth. That’s the swamp all right. It’s where all the rain and debris and sludge gathers and mixes, rife with earwig-like beetles and gorgeous flowers that smell like death.

Yet if I stand for a moment and let that mud seep into my shoe, open every one of my senses to the swamp, maybe do a simple experiment or two, I see that even here transformations are occurring, pollinations, shifts in animal moods that create the conditions for life as we know it.

Snyder writes of sparkling headwaters of mountain streams that leap between temples “making Rocks of water, Water out of rocks.” It’s no different here. Everything has the capacity to change according to circumstance, just as water changes when confronted with obstacles, just as our own reactions to water change according to how it flows. Which came first: flower or pollinator, scent or vision, earth or water –– or mud? The more you watch the grand dance, the harder it is to tell who has the lead.