The environmental values of wetlands are well-documented. They purify and store stormwater, prevent flood damage, and function as nurseries for shellfish and sport fish. These qualities are concrete, tangible and translate into cold, hard cash. But wetlands have other values that are more difficult to measure.
Today, I wandered a wetland to witness crystals of frost hugging swaths of last year’s cattails. Delicate windowpanes of ice outline the water’s surface where it meets the shore. Cotton candy tufts of snow dot the rocks and plumes of plants. Pausing the crisp crunching of snow and ice under my feet, I stop to hear what silence truly sounds like: an airy stillness as spacious as the sky. The bulky quiet is bigger than I, and far greater than my worries.
Spring will bring silver swirls of texture to the water’s surface. Morning illuminates the whipped cream fog blanket that concealed the sleeping swamp. With the sun and its thaw comes a burst of business, now bubbling, gurgling, rushing along on a course that’s always around the next bend. The clatter of a kingfisher rattles the air, annoying a heron patiently awaiting his first meal. Red-winged blackbirds noisily defend their harems and home sites against other suitors and intruders--threats of any form. Like a battalion of soldiers, fiddleheads of ostrich fern guard awakening marsh marigolds, for their golden rays will exalt the sun. But when the sun gives up its throne for the evening, the common yellowthroat stops questioning, “Which is it?”. In the dark a chorus of spring peepers will stridently belt out their cheerful but urgent message to the moon.
A prodigious production of life explodes around a pond in summer. A pod of tadpoles roils the water, escaping the plunge of a heron’s proboscis. Flotillas of ducklings paddle in formation while dragonflies patrol the pickerelweed. Painted turtles luxuriate on a log, celebrating the long length of day. Walking the margin, green frogs scream away from my footsteps, splashing into the spatterdock. A young muskrat contemplates my form, then suddenly seems to hear mother calling. Water striders glide in fits and starts on a cove’s still surface, while overhead cottonwoods applaud the warm wind. Just up ahead, a surprise of cardinal flowers, their brilliance foretelling the color of the season to come.
Now the days quicken. As if to alarm the others, leaves first of sourgum, then of red maple, flash colors of fire, danger, caution. Dragonflies furtively plant their eggs in the water; their young will know only a cold, dark, liquid world. Wood ducks greedily harvest the first crop of acorns to fuel their southward flight. Thin, pale arms of sycamore beseech the still warm sky. Canada geese call down to them, knowing the sycamore branches only as open arms, welcoming them to the refuge of water.
Wetland, marsh, swamp, pond. Their intrinsic values are priceless.