In late autumn, before the trees shed their leaves, I set off to the North of Lithuania to photograph the Plinkšiai swamp adjoining the picturesque Plinkšiai Lake. Having covered about 350 kilometers from Vilnius, I found myself amidst deep winter, traveling snow-covered and barely passable village roads. I was lured to this place by the history of Plinkšiai.
There is a peat bog in the vicinity of Plinkšiai Lake that was exploited for fuel during the Soviet period and is heading for a renewal of economic activity. The territory of the peat bog is situated at a distance of approximately one kilometer from the popular tourist spot. The peat extraction is planned for a recreational zone within a signiﬁcant state forest, which is a habitat for a range of ﬂora and fauna included on the Protected Species List of Lithuania. If the swampland is drained for peat extraction, the lake will lose its source of nutrition.
According to a biologist and activist in the Lithuanian green movement, “the swamp is an inexhaustible library, a source of information that has conserved the entire history of Lithuania since the last ice age.” Following his assertion, if the last swamp in the region is destroyed, the history of the region will be destroyed as well, and irreparable ecological damage will occur. Furthermore, the destruction of swamps will bring the risk of ﬂoods to Lithuania: a problem already besetting Western Europe—huge ﬂoods in the Czech Republic and Germany have occurred for the sole reason that wetlands have been exploited to extract peat. Wetlands are natural catchments of rainwater and river overﬂow that also balance groundwater levels.
While the struggle between local residents and executives continued, I tried to memorize this beautiful spot, the future of which remains uncertain. After several hours of searching, I ﬁnally found the swamp in the heart of a white forest. I was surrounded by stunned silence and struck with a feeling that nature was concentrating on abiding the challenges prepared for it by man. There was no wind there; the earth with all its treasures was sleeping peacefully. Before long, however, I heard the sound of a somewhat hoarse, plaintive, and slightly angry voice emanating from underground. I started running. The voice reminded me of a bear’s roaring. But then I hesitated—a bear in Plinkšiai swamp? It must be some other creature.
When I returned home, I found out on the Internet that this swamp is home to rare creatures, the Maumai. Most likely, they strayed into Lithuanian swamps from the Far North in prehistoric times, because they look very similar to sea lions (they could be called “swamp lions”). They most often have short, glossy, black or dark brown fur, big eyes, and sharp teeth. They are excellent swimmers and divers but rather awkward on land. These slimy creatures have a strong voice but are very cautious. They are omnivores and live in pairs. They hibernate in winter. An interesting detail is their fondness for beer, which they occasionally steal from humans. I decided that I had encountered a distressed rather than angry Maumas, concerned about its future. Most likely, it intuitively senses that plans to destroy the swamp are under way.
The Maumas avoids people, thus it was impossible to ﬁlm. In the video Swamp (2006—2007) I try to show this curious animal by means of animation, but the Maumas remains in hiding under moss and has no idea how important it is. Since I was not able to reveal the Maumas in the video, I depict one-liter beer mugs because, as I mentioned, the Maumas is a great fan of beer. Images of Plinkšiai swamp imprinted on beer mugs with the inscription Maumas’ friend indicate that your beer drinking supports the Maumas and its ﬁght for survival in the swamp. The saving of the Maumas, this sluggish swamp dweller, is well worth the effort!
Sad as it may be, the Maumas does not ex-ist. It is a character from a popular Lithuanian children’s book. The Maumas was created by my contemporary, the writer Justinas Žilinskas, in his book Gugis: A Forest Sprite and a Friend to Humans, published in 2006. Although it is a contemporary imaginary character, the Maumas is occasionally encountered in Lithuanian mythology. The older Maumas is far from attractive and is an evil spirit dwelling in homes and country houses. It is depicted as an ugly creature that scares and harms women and particularly children.
Today the remnants of archetypical (mythological) models of world perception are still lurking in our consciousness and come out to play when perceiving nature in all its glory. Alongside the central concept of God, there are a great many creatures that occupy an elevated place in our consciousness and daily life. Quite often such legends become the basis of “creative industries”—market driven, commercially oriented creative work in various ﬁelds. Could the Maumas become this attractive character of creative industries? If so, its legend would bring a considerably higher proﬁt to Plinkšiai than the one that is forecast for peat extraction. Starting with the mass production of beer mugs and ending with excursions to the swamp territory and neighboring hotels, the Maumas could become a national symbol of Lithuania, like trolls in Scandinavia. Imagine the Maumas as the hero of the struggle against the devastation of nature’s resources. Creative industries as vehicle for solving ecological problems: culture nurturing nature! For now, however, Plinkšiai swamp remains a beautiful but godforsaken spot in nature.
Born in 1974 in Šiauliai, Lithuania, lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania