I cleared six-inch-high piles of papers off my desk. Some of the morass should have been tossed a year ago. One note was dated 2020. Admiring the nearly bare surface called to mind the phrase, “Draining the swamp.” For centuries people have drained marshes and swamps, sometimes to create solid ground for road construction or farming, sometimes to eliminate breeding places for disease-bearing insects.
In 1912 the socialist Victor Berger wrote, “We should have to drain the swamp—change the capitalist system—if we want to get rid of those mosquitos.” The next year, labor leader Mother Jones said of the bosses-vs-labor industrial system, “Let’s kill the virulent mosquito and then find and drain the swamp in which he breeds.” Politicians of both parties since the 1980s have used the metaphor variously to mean bureaucracy, lobbyists, corruption, terrorism, regulation, or government waste.
Nothing noxious was breeding in the piles on my desk; that better describes a basement or refrigerator full of mold. My mess was, however, an impediment to fresh projects, the way literal swamps are impediments to agriculture or roads. And if the paper piles build up again, I could rework the metaphor to play on how swamps promote wildlife and safe weather.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.