I don't drive, and as a result, although I can get to most of the places I want to go via public transportation, there are still a few things I can't do. There's one fantasy in particular I've held for years, which I've been unable to fulfill due to lack of wheels.
I would really like to visit a swamp. A good, old-fashioned, marshy swamp.
There's something tantalizing and mysterious about them whenever I see them through the window of a NJ Transit commuter train. There's one in Secaucus, a wide expanse of ponds and marsh grass, where, during the spring and summer, a lone white egret holds sway. Another one, in Mount Tabor (a semi-rural area of Morris County), creeps rebelliously all the way up to a paint shop, its water flooding the back of the shop's parking lot.
But my favorite swamp by far is the one that I spy when the train passes through Morris Plains. It's a small area directly behind a condo development, made up of shallow brown ponds; dead long grass that looks like straw; and one majestic, overturned dead tree that forms a kind of lacey proscenium.
Unlike the wetlands with the egret, the Morris Plains swamp doesn't look like a thriving ecosystem. It looks dead and muddy. Which is why I find it fascinating.
Don't imagine that I have any love of dead things. What I like is the sense of balance. Here's this condo development with its ticky-tacky little boxes on the hillside, and below it this gothic monstrosity created by nature. And that work of nature, even dead, looks more mysterious and poetic than the gray clapboard domiciles that turn their backs to it.
It's not only in contrast with civilization that swamps hold fascination. The thought of a gloriously ugly, marshy swamp appeals to me even when contrasted with a beautiful, healthy field or forest. To be sure, in general, I'd rather look at the field or forest. But the vision of the swamp outside the train window is a rare treat, because it defies conventional rules. The wetlands are the aquatic version of Moses' vision of the burning bush: They're always watery, but they never flow anywhere.
But my favorite thing about swamps is that, for all intents and purposes, they're useless.
Oh, I know they may have rare species living in their murky depths, and they feed the frogs with their mosquitos. And I'm glad the Secaucus egret has a marsh to call home. But practically speaking, compared to other nature spots, swamps are difficult to enjoy. You can't walk through them without getting up to your knees in mud, you can't fish comfortably in them, you certainly can't swim in them, and you can't plant things in them. You can only trudge heavily around them, or just gaze at them through the window of a passing train.
You could say that swamps hold such interest for me because I used to live in one—figuratively speaking, of course. I was awash in depression for my entire adult life until four and a half years ago, when I accepted Jesus and received a dramatic healing.
I now see that my depression was, like the swamp, useless. Yet, when I look at people who suffer from depression or have overcome it, and I look at shiny happy people in their ticky-tacky little boxes who seem unable to relate to deep emotional pain, you know what? I identify more with those in the swamp, and my heart goes out to them.
But I do find that. just as the ugly marsh adds a sense of balance to the more beautiful side of nature, an understanding of depression helps me to better appreciate life. And I don't just mean that in the manner of the man who, when asked why he banged his head against the way, said, "Because it feels so good when I stop."
To be depressed—really sad, not just angry, bored, or jaded—is to acknowledge a sense of lack in one's life. It makes one feel empty, vulnerable, and far from salvation. Yet, it's just that emptiness and vulnerability, the proverbial God-shaped vacuum, that the Lord seeks to fill, as David writes in Psalm 34: "The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit."
There are many routes to salvation, and I certainly don't recommend the swamps of depression as the way to go. But if you can survive them, they can give you a valuable sense of brokenness and humility—one that's hard to gain if your eyes are turned only on beautiful fields and forests.
Today, I'm seeing more verdant horizons in my life than ever before. I thank God every day that I no longer live in a swamp. Yet, I still look out the train window to see the dead grass and muddy marshes. And I'm thankful that, even though I no longer live in those swamps, God lets me view them from a safe distance.