Wetland Treasury

The U.S. once held a wealth of wetness, but the country’s treasury has shrivelled. Illustration by Carson Ellis

The word swamp does not have a pleasant ring to it. The thing itself, though, is something much more than pleasant. Essential to our future, Annie Proulx clarifies in a lovely manner, swamps should be treated with greater care:

Swamps Can Protect Against Climate Change,

If We Only Let Them
Wetlands absorb carbon dioxide and buffer the excesses of drought and flood, yet we’ve drained much of this land. Can we learn to love our swamps?

It can be hell finding one’s way across an extensive boggy moor—the partially dry, rough ground and the absence of any landmarks let the eye rove helplessly into the monotype distance. Everything undulates, the rise and fall share the same muted palette, and the senses dull. But a swamp is different: in it, in addition to water, there are trees and shrubs, just as reeds and rushes are the hallmarks of a marsh. Although water and squelch are everywhere in a swamp, there are landmarks—downed trees or jagged stumps, a tenanted heron nest, occasional islands of high-ground hardwood stands, called “hammocks” in the South. Yet the swamp traveller goes not in a straight line but slouches from quaking island to thick tussock to slippery, half-submerged log. Even with G.P.S. technology, big swamps are places to get lost, and in the past many people with a reason to melt out of sight—Native Americans threatened out of their territory, runaway slaves, Civil War army deserters, moonshiners, and bloody-handed murderers—have hidden in them. For a few seconds, I once considered hiding in a swamp myself.

When I was ten years old, my family lived in a rented house in Rhode Island. Saturdays were free time, and I sometimes went to a nearby swamp. A fishermen’s path circled the swamp. Far out in the water stood the unreachable hulk of a dead tree—branchless, tall, white, and with a large hole near the top. I had somewhere read that great blue herons nested in such snags, and that in one swamp a man had brought a ladder, placed it against a tree, and climbed up to look into a heron nest. The heron stabbed him in the eye as he came level with the nest, and the man, his eye and brain pierced, fell dead from the ladder. I wanted to see if there was a heron nest in this local swamp’s dead tree—perhaps even a live heron, perhaps even the remains of a ladder, perhaps even a sun-bleached skull nearby. When I got to the swamp, I saw a small raft and a pole lying on the bank. There was no one around. I pushed the raft out into the tawny water, got on board, and began poling toward the snag. I was halfway there when I heard furious shouts and screams. Looking back, I saw the two worst boys at my school jumping up and down on the bank and hurling futile clods of mud. I had stolen their raft. After a quick look for a hiding place, I changed direction and took an oblique route to the farthest shore, where I pole-vaulted onto firm land, found the path, and rushed away from the scene of the crime. It was some time before I noticed that I was still carrying the raft pole, and I leaned it helpfully against a tree before continuing home.

Many modern Americans do not like swamps, herons or no herons, and experience discomfort, irritation, bewilderment, and frustration when coaxed or forced into one, except for a few, like my mother, for whom entering a swamp was like plunging into a complex world of rare novelties. My mother’s hero was Henry David Thoreau, the enigmatic New England surveyor-naturalist-essayist. Thoreau has been called the patron saint of swamps, because in them he found the deepest kind of beauty and interest. He wrote of his fondness for swamps throughout his life, most feelingly in his essay “Walking”: “Yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.” He went so far as to describe his dream house as one with windows fronting on a swamp where he could see “the high blueberry, panicled andromeda, lambkill, azalea, and rhodora—all standing in the quaking sphagnum.”

Many people vaguely understand that wetlands cleanse the earth. In fact, they are carbon sinks that absorb CO2, and they are unparalleled in filtering out human waste, material from rotten carcasses, chemicals, and other pollutants. They recharge underground aquifers and sustain regional water resources, buffering the excesses of drought and flood. In aggregate, the watery parts of the earth stabilize its climate…

Read the whole essay here.

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