Celebrating the Great Swamp Through Art

Descriptions of the exotic wildlife of places like the Everglades and Okefenokee swamp and thrilling stories of brave, freedom-seeking slaves sheltered by the evocatively named Great Dismal Swamp in the Carolinas, fascinated me as a child growing up in California.

Living in Manhattan as an adult, I had no idea a vast network of swampy wetlands existed just north of me in the counties of Putnam and Dutchess. It wasn’t until my family and I moved to Pawling that I became aware of this natural treasure. As I commuted to the city on the MetroNorth train, early morning glimpses of the mysterious, fog-shrouded swamp intrigued me and reawakened childhood memories.

Talk of draining the swamp in Washington, DC, notwithstanding, swamps have been enjoying an enhanced reputation in recent years. Not so long ago they were regarded as a public nuisance and health risk – an obstacle to development and farming. But thanks to the work of ecologists and environmental scientists, in addition to providing a habitat for myriad animal and plant species, swamps are now appreciated for their practical role in air quality, flood control, and water purification. If you’ve been watching the news about Hurricane Harvey in Texas, you’ve probably heard the destruction of wetlands worsened flooding in places like Houston. In Pawling and Patterson we’ve seen the positive effect, as our own Great Swamp absorbed the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene and other recent storms, protecting local homes and businesses from flooding. Neighboring communities are not always as lucky.

To some, the word swamp may still conjure up notions of icky, mosquito-infested, stagnant waters. Maybe I was a weird kid who was attracted to places that many people view as creepy, but the truth is that swamps are vibrant ecosystems full of beautiful birds, butterflies, wild flowers and a host of other animals and plants. The reward of catching a glimpse of one its more secretive denizens, like the green heron, can be addictive. So what happens when people venture into the swamp and see all its wonders? Instead of steering clear of them, they develop a stronger desire to protect this habitat for future generations of hikers, paddlers, and other nature enthusiasts.

Organizations like Friends of the Great Swamp (FrOGS) in Patterson are working hard to strengthen that change in perception. The FrOGS mission is to “preserve and protect the Great Swamp through research, education, and conservation action.” All of these aspects are demonstrated in the upcoming 21st Great Swamp Celebration.

The annual show was the brainchild of several Pawling citizens and The Nature Conservancy. It began as a fundraiser, bringing into view the beauty of the swamp through paintings. Over the years, the focus of the show enlarged to include photography and other media, an expanded children’s art section from local schools, and a more direct educational aspect featuring such hands-on exhibits as watershed tables equipped with microscopes, and up-close looks at birds of prey and other swamp wildlife. Children can now participate in onsite crafts, such as making clay forms of the animals of the swamp, and there are slide shows and even a film about the swamp narrated by James Earl Jones.

What makes the Great Swamp Celebration so special is that it remains true to its origin, keeping art central to the event and showcasing the work to both inspire and educate all ages. As Board Member and Secretary-Treasurer, Laurie Wallace says, “Children learn by seeing.” Of course even for adults, the integration of art and science has a long history. Before the era of photography naturalists could only record their observations by drawing or painting. But the benefits of setting pen or brush to paper still persist today. Wallace quoted retired science teacher Judy Kelley-Moberg (also a board member): “To draw something, you have to look very closely at it, and that can help you ask better questions about it.”

Local photographer Justin Goodhart first became aware of the swamp through a photo taken by Norman McGrath exhibited at Front Street Gallery in Patterson: “I was instantly taken by it,” he says, “and as a paddler and photographer I knew I had find this place and explore. After my first paddle in the swamp I was hooked.” Justin now serves as the chairman of the Digital Media and Communications committee and helps organize the Great Swamp Celebration show.

FrOGS and other local nature organizations often host plein air painting or photography sessions in and near the swamp. Participants are encouraged to submit their favorite pieces for a chance to be included in the Great Swamp Celebration, but anyone can enter a work of art. Goodhart says judges look for compositions that capture the beauty of the swamp and its 60,000-acre watershed. “With such a large and encompassing area,” he says,” it offers so many opportunities for artists to find inspiration. We look for that diversity in the work submitted.”

Visit the FrOGS website at www.frogs-ny.org for more information about the show and to download a “Call for Artists” form if you’d like to submit something to the juried show. The deadline for submissions is midnight October 1. If you’re not sure where to head with your camera or paint set, the form includes a helpful list of good viewing spots along with directions.

The show will be up October 21 and 22 and takes place in Lankler Hall at Christ Church on Quaker Hill, 17 Church Road, Pawling.