Thursday, April 24, 2008

At the Edge

HENRY DAVID THOREAU: "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: Every serious swamp is a no man's land. One city-bound correspondent replied to yesterday's TODAY'S with amazement at the abundance of life to be found in a swamp. Those of us drawn to the strange beauty of swamplands usually can do little more than creep around its edges. Occasionally we may find a swamp with a waterway that we can paddle, but we're still just edgefarers by a land of thick vegetation and mucky bottoms. The waters are usually too shallow and choked with vegetation for paddling and just downright unfriendly. Such are the swamps of home.

Although a no-man's land, the swamp is not a wasteland. We walk through pleasant forests and marvel at nature's abundance, but in truth it is the swamps that support the diversity on which we thrive. That's what brings me to these lively edges; when healthy, they buzz and sing and refresh more than spirit. What lives and breeds in the swamp supports life well beyond the swamp. When the swamp dies, lives change in places far distant.

Some argue the swamps around here were once rich farmland. A farmer who once worked the land that is now Meeker Swamp told me about pulling trout from Bee Brook where the swanp now lies. It was farmers who kept the streams clear in order to harvest crops in the rich soils of these bottom lands. In a spot near Meeker Swamp there were once not only fields and livestock but also a brick work. There are probably many chimneys still in use made of clay from near this swamp. The old road to the brick works led through the center of the current swamp. As farming has vanished the beavers, always eager for new territory, have returned. The brick works is long gone and only one field near the swamp is still used to harvest hay.

And so it was that I watched as the beavers of Meeker Swamp ferried tree limbs from the upstream portion of the swamp downstream through a maze of narrow passageways to reinforce the long dam they had built. In winter when the swamp was frozen I walked the line of the dam and marveled at its incredible length. It was built by just one family of beavers, their lodge in the middle about fifteen feet from where I stood. Behind the dam they had created, insects breed and feed a rich fishery which the beavers happily share with birds and other creatures too numerous to list. In another era we could afford to lose wetlands to farming. Today the nibble of subdivisions leaves little place for abundant nature. We are only just now beginning to appreciate the ways our own survival may rest on the health of the swamps of home.