Unfolding the Map
Going through North Carolina, we pass through Swanquarter (Swan Quarter) with William Least Heat-Moon. This time, I look at the mythology and symbolism of swans, which is pretty surprisingly extensive, and come to the conclusion that I would like to be considered a swan. Where is Swanquarter? Click the map to see, and leave a comment if you are inclined!
"...then down along Lake Mattamuskeet (drained in the thirties for farming but once again full of water and wildlife), to Swanquarter ..."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 13
Swanquarter (Swan Quarter), North Carolina
Given the name of the place, I thought I'd look around to see what I could learn about swans and their place in our collective human history. The town of Swan Quarter was probably named so because swans stopped in the wetlands area about the town (though there is some sentiment that a man named Swann lived in the area long ago, thus giving the town its name). However, the images that swans evoke in our conscience makes it an intriguing name to explore.
Swans are most associated with beauty and love. Stories like The Ugly Duckling and the reputation for mating for life that swans are associated with are images indelibly etched in our conscience. I remember watching the Disney movie The Ugly Duckling and being incredibly moved by the story (damn you Disney!). Partially this is because I identified with the poor little ugly duckling (being given up for adoption, having a terrible self-image, craving love and affection - the usual stuff that gets dealt with in therapy for 40 or so years). But it's a fantasy that transcends all of us - who doesn't want to be the swan? These fantasies can be as little as wishing we would find out that we are really the heirs to a great fortune, to getting our hair cut or made over, to dressing up for proms and weddings and quinceneras and trying to look really fine. I think that in many ways we all want to be the swan. Watch this video and just see if it doesn't move you, if it doesn't touch some part of you.
Swans are also associated with more erotic and salacious parts of our nature. Leda and the Swan recounts the tale of the conception of Helen of Troy. Leda, Queen of Sparta, captured the attentions of Zeus, King of the Gods, and he seduced her in the form of a swan.
Because of their graceful nature, swans are also associated with holiness and purity. Norse legend has it that two swans drank from a well whose waters were so pure that the swans and all their descendants are white. The guise of swans also, in Irish legend, served to keep people safe. In The Wooing of Etain, an underworld king turns himself and the most beautiful woman in Ireland into swans to escape the armies of the Irish king, and in The Children of Lir, a woman transforms her children into swans for 900 years.
But lest we associate all good with swans, they are also symbols of death. In Finnish mythology, a swan swims in the river of the underworld, and Finnish legend says that anyone who kills a swan will die themselves.
But the most interesting view of the swan to me is in Hinduism. Hindus see the swan as a symbol of being a part of the world but not attached to it. In other words, the person who is most like the swan, whose feathers are in the water but not wet, is a saint. This appeals to me on some levels, and yet doesn't on others. In my view, which has been shaped by my family, friends and even my religious beliefs, one should be engaged in the world, especially if one wants to make it better. To me, this means being attached to things in the world in some way. So in this way, I have trouble being like the swan, because I want to be attached to the world. Not necessarily to things, but I want to be attached to people and to outcomes I want to see happen. But I will say those people that have a certain air of detachment about them, that do not let minor troubles and the issues of others make them crazy and still manage to do good for friends, neighbors and the world in general, those are people I respect and try to emulate.
William Least Heat-Moon passes through Swan Quarter on a trip of discovery and reflection. In that sense, he is trying to engage and attach with things and people that he encounters. Perhaps his journey was an attempt to put things in perspective after a difficult period, and in that way recapture the engaged detachment that Hindus attribute to swans - to be a part of the world and not get too attached to it.
On a more base and purely vain level, though, I still want to be a graceful, handsome swan. I try to aspire to the Hindu, but as one who for many years considered himself akin to the Ugly Duckling...give me the swan any day.
If you want to know more about Swanquarter (Swan Quarter)
A History of Swan Quarter, North Carolina
Coastal North Carolina Cruising Guide: SwanQuarter
Nature Conservancy: Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge and Gull Rock
Town of Swan Quarter
US Fish and Wildlife Services: Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Swan Quarter
Wikipedia: Swan Quarter
Next up: Bath, North Carolina