Sydney M. Williams
May 24, 2017
Essays from Essex
“Mud River Swamp”
“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields,
not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
“Walking,” a lecture, 1851
In “The Sound of Music,” Julie Andrews sings, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” Just as truthfully, but less poetically, one could say that from Mud River Swamp, comes the cacophony of an untutored symphony – “In all swamps, the hum of mosquitoes drowns this modern hum of society,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his Journal. Like all swamps, the Mud River Swamp abounds with nature in its roughly twenty acres. The evensong of peepers is a harbinger of spring. Every so often, during late winter nights, come the howl of coyotes and the hoots of the Eastern Screech Owl. On spring mornings, we wake to the song of the Catbird. But it is during spring, summer and early fall days when the swamp comes audibly alive. (It is at night when beavers build, skunks hunt and predators prey, but they do so discreetly.) With daylight comes the voices of birds, insects and frogs, comprising an undisciplined, but intoxicating, orchestra. Flutes and Clarinets compete with Violins and Cellos, only to be interrupted by French Horns and the clash of Cymbals. Combined, they produce a sound that would make Beethoven wince; but, to one who is musically challenged, there is magic in the variety of sounds.
The word “swamp” is often spoken with a sneer. We think of the one in Washington that needs draining, or the demeaning term “swamp Yankees,” which refers to tight-fisted New Englanders. For others, the word conjures thoughts of slime, unpleasant smells, places difficult to penetrate and land that has no commercial value. But it was from swamps that life sprang. Water represents life’s genesis. From the Old Testament, we learn of the importance of the Tigris-Euphrates wetlands, and of the Fertile Crescent, which curves north and west from the Persian Gulf, through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, to the Nile Valley. It was from this part of the world that human history was first recorded.
Thoreau, an admirer of swamps, wrote: “I derive more of my subsistence from the swamps which surround my native town than from the cultivated gardens in the village.” He added, “…hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” In his most famous work, Walden, he acknowledges swamps’ critical role in nature mankind’s dependence: “Without the wetland, the world would fall apart. The wetland feeds and holds together the skeleton of the body of nature.”
“A swamp,” noted David Carroll in his 1999 book, Swampwalker’s Journal, “is a wetland forest of tall trees, living or dead, standing in still-water pools or in drifting floods of water, or rising from seasonally saturated earth.” All swamps, whether coastal or inland, have in common sufficient water and poor drainage. We see many dead trees in swamps – a boon for woodpeckers whose homes bedeck their trunks. They are fit for insects, like ants, that feed on the tissues that connect roots to the crown. It is the oxygen-depleted water of swamps that causes the roots of most trees to die. An exception is the Alder. In his book, The Secret Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben noted this phenomenon: “Their secret [Alders] is a system of air ducts inside their roots. These [ducts] transport oxygen to the tiniest tips, a bit like divers who are connected to the surface via a breathing tube.” Swamps are transition areas that provide natural and valuable ecological services, like flood control, water purification and carbon storage; they serve as wildlife habitats. Coastal swamps are spawning areas for fish. The largest swamp in the world is the Pantanal floodplain of the Amazon River, which lies mostly in Brazil, but also reaches into Bolivia and Paraguay. It encompasses 70,000 square miles, roughly the size of North Dakota. In the United States, the Atchafalaya Swamp, at the lower end of the Mississippi, is the U.S.’s largest swamp. Most famous of our swamps is the Everglades, a six thousand square mile system that comprises the slow-flowing “River of Grass,” which has its origin in the Kissimmee River near Orlando and empties into the Straits of Florida, which connect the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.
My swamp, to inaccurately use the possessive, is the Mud River Swamp. It consists of about twenty acres, located within Essex Meadows’ one hundred acres. The Mud River is no more than a trickle when it descends from the Preserve, a thousand-acre property of protected forest that abuts Essex Meadows. The twenty-foot drop over a hundred-feet is grandiloquently called a cascade. The stream then relaxes, as it gently meanders and widens out, among Willows and Alders, Skunk Cabbage and mosses that comprise the Mud River Swamp.
The Mud River heads east and then north where it intersects with the Fall River, about two miles away. The Fall River wends east another mile or so, until it enters the Connecticut at North Cove in Essex. At its headwaters, I watch the brook slip over the rocks in the cascade, knowing that its waters will mix with those of the Connecticut, a river that runs four-hundred miles from the Canadian border. I think of the beavers that build their dams, to give themselves a home, and I wonder at the fish that swim in it. I rejoice in the birds whose songs mingle with the sound of trickling waters and the deer that drink from them, and I am thankful for the otters and muskrats that play along their banks.
Water is where life began. Bill Nye, the science guy, says that in our search for alien life, “the presence of water is key.” In his Journal quoted above, David Carroll writes: “Although I know of the oceanic origins of life on earth, it is in swamps and marshes that I feel my keenest sense of life’s past, my sharpest intimations of life’s journey in time, and my own moment within the ongoing.” Swamps are ancient, something P.G. Wodehouse knew. He had Bertie Wooster muse in The Inimitable Jeeves, “…on the occasions when Aunt is calling to Aunt, like mastodons bellowing across medieval swamps…”
There is death in swamps. There has to be. Life is symbiotic. Many living creatures live off the flesh of another. And, unlike one or two of my grandchildren, others happily dine on vegetables, like grasses, plants and berries. The coyote, the largest predator that has been known to feed in our swamp, eats muskrats, otters, ducks, snakes, frogs, turtles and even a beaver. His victims, in turn, eat smaller creatures, like minnows, worms and insects. There is a symbiosis to nature. Even the smallest creature deserves our attention and concern, as Shakespeare reminded us in Measure for Measure:
“The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great,
As when a giant dies.”
My swamp is a way-place for migrating birds, as well as home for dozens of avian species who build nests within its trees and bulrushes. On a recent bird walk, on a chilly day in May, we identified thirty species, either by sight or sound. And that did not include a Mallard Drake that I often watch protecting his nesting hen. We did not see the Red-tailed hawk I often see searching for mice or chipmunks, nor did we sight the owl we sometimes hear at night. We did, though, see or hear Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow Warblers, Downey Woodpeckers and Cedar Waxwings, among others.
Swamps are like our cities. Thousands of species and millions of individuals live within their borders. Most of the sounds we hear are either mating calls or warnings to intruders. Violence and murder are common in swamps, perhaps more so than in cities. But greed, hatred, jealousy or revenge are never the motives. The death of one means sustenance to another. Thoreau saw that, and he inverted Christian orthodoxy, claiming that in the midst of death we are in life.
We are fortunate to live on the edge of this swamp. Man has used nature for his own purposes. We have fished its waters, cultivated its fields, mined its minerals, chopped down its trees, diverted its wetlands, built dams along rivers to generate power, harnessed its tides and winds and captured its sunlight. In doing so, we have become wealthy; and that wealth now allows us to give back. We need to be conscious that, while most resources are renewable, there is a limit to what we can do, and that “renewable” can mean millions of years. The world is in constant motion, so we cannot ask it to stand still, but we can conserve what we have – let nature takes its course, with us leaving minimal footprints. We must be mindful that it is the ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, regardless of their cause, that allows species to evolve. In a quote that is applicable to extremists on both ends of the environmental spectrum, E.B. White once wrote: “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”
I am neither a scientist nor a naturalist; I am a person who loves the world we live in. I walk around the Mud River swamp, ignorant of the names of most of the creatures and trees that I see, but that neither reduces my appreciation, nor diminish my respect. We don’t have to travel far to see marvels of nature. With eyes and ears open, there are millions of stories for us to witness and to hear, right here, in the Mud River Swamp.