Friday, May 11, 2018

Dreaming the Waters: Regenerative Ecology on the Banks of the Choptank

Waters of Rosemary's Spring on the Choptank
Nick and Margaret Carter have dreamt of many things under the sun in the fifty years since they settled along the upper reaches of the Choptank River.  But arguably at the bottom of those dreams, if there is ever a bottom to a dream, are the very waters of the river itself.   They are, it turns out, worthy of the devotion of entire lives.  Nick and Margaret have offered theirs in an ambitious project of regenerating  a forest dominated by native species on farmland that had been plowed under early on in colonial settlement and planted in corn and other monocultural crops for centuries.  Regenerating a forest inevitably requires regenerating the waters by which it grows, although Nick Carter might see this in its inverse relationship as well.  For him, the project is as much about restoring good water to the Choptank as it is about restoring ecosystem diversity to the watershed.

Nick would be quick to note that one's notion of a river's waters needs to be expansive.  The very land on which the couple lives, for example, is underlain by an aquifer, the Columbia, whose slow-moving lateral drift, inching along underneath one's feet, is as much a part of the Choptank's flow as the waters explicitly meandering between its banks.  The rain then that falls on the Carters' land, percolating in the soil and infiltrating into that aquifer is also part of the river's flow, indeed so are the weather fronts that have brought precipitation here in the first place.  To make things particularly complicated in this version of the hydrological cycle, if one dawdles a few hours along the edge of the river, one discovers that it has the disconcerting habit of flowing both down and upstream, as it interacts with the incoming and outgoing tides of the Chesapeake Bay, of which it is a tributary.  The river's source then is at times downstream as much as upstream, briny as much as fresh, the fate of all estuaries.
Nut Sedge found in a Swale
A river turns out not to be a piece of plumbing, a conduit for efficient delivery of a liquid, but rather a great and multifarious metabolism.  Complexity is its life, and a rough circularity is its function.  This is not to say that things don't get moved around, but they do so, at least when the river is working properly, in a manner that fits with the intricate and interwoven gestures of a master practicing Daijijuan.  Paradoxically, in a healthy ecosystem, the more abundantly its waters flow, the more complex their movement becomes: the very meandering of the river, in which it rhythmically undulates from right to left and then left to right, even as it moves downstream, is perhaps the best illustration of this point. The Choptank, then, is not a jet train powering ahead to its oceanic paradise, but rather a contemplative act focused on remaining precisely where it is, keeping itself in tune with how its manifold waters pause, even as they pass, eddy even as they stream.  Indeed the very notion that a river is not a singular but rather plural element, a gathering of the waters, hints at this.

Ground Cedar (Lycopodium complantum) showing up in a former Cornfield
A failure to attend to that complexity and its related aptitude for circularity has shaped all too much of the landscape surrounding where Nick and Margaret live.  For instance, if one were to look for the proverbial source of the Choptank, its starting point, one is likely to find it these days in a series of ditches draining fields of corn and soybeans.  This at least is the result that occurred when local writer Curtis Badger, in his A Natural History of Quiet Waters, attempted to trace the headwaters of the nearby Pokomoke.  From the 1700s onward, he notes, the ditch, as much as the plow and the ax, were the tools by which European settlement transformed the extensive swamps formerly characterizing this area into what locals like to say is "working" farmland.  A lot of work, indeed, does go into dewatering the land in this area.  Unlike a river, a ditch is a piece of plumbing, in which not the waters but only the water, as a singular, homogenous and troublesome element, is siphoned off and then unceremoniously disposed of.  For the digger of ditches excess water is not a precious element to be conserved but instead unwanted refuse, trash.  And "industrial-strength ditches," as Badger puts it, crisscross this landscape.  Indeed many of them have names suggesting a certain rural charm: "Bald Cypress Branch," "Coon's Foot," "Cowhouse Branch," "Gum Branch," "Gray's Prong," "Tilgham Race" are just some of these.   But Nick would remind any visitor to his property such fetching words are wasted on a form of interaction with the land that only ends up in leveling and ultimately impoverishing it.
Fern along a Brook flowing into
the Choptank
And so we return to the dream mentioned above.  Nick and Margaret have been busy for over fifty years on a project of regenerative ecology that for the most part has involved doing precisely nothing, of letting an extensive plot of farmland literally go to seed.  This has been accomplished with attentiveness and love, rather than indifference and neglect.  And along the way, at least some explicit interventions were indeed called for.

As Nick guides me down a path running along the edge of the property, he points out the remains of a ditch, in shambles but still waterlogged, that was dug early on in the history of European settlement.   In those times, he notes, ditches were often excavated after a winter thaw.  Farmers would determine where the snowmelt was flowing, charting out the lowest contours on the land, in order to place the ditch's course along these.  Ditches constructed in this manner, at least on the Eastern Shore, have a laudable tendency to tap into the aquifer, which often is only a few feet below the surface of even the more elevated areas.  Not unsurprisingly ponds and seeps abound on this particular ditch as it caves in and dissipates from Nick's studied inattention and particularly so after he dammed up a few decades ago one section of it.  As the land in that area reverted to a bog, interesting things began to grow there of their own accord, including ground cedar, really a clubmoss, sphagnum moss, and even the occasional stand of orchids.  When all these appeared, Nick and Margaret knew their project was working as they had hoped it might.

Sphagnum Moss reappearing on the Land
Beech Trees in the
Lowlands
along the Chop-tank
The earlier part of our walk had angled down from the farmhouse through former cornfields toward the river.  On these uplands, where crops once grew poorly on dry, sandy soil, an entire forest has sprung up over the last fifty years with loblolly and Virginia pine, black walnut and pignut hickory, southern red and willow oaks now predominating.   Under the loblollies, pink lady slippers, which are dependent on a particular fungus associated with this tree, have appeared as if by magic.  The magic unfortunately has not kept  deer with discriminating taste buds from eagerly chowing down upon the blossoms.  To Margaret's consternation, the number of lady slippers in that area is in decline. But still, all in all, things are going reasonably well.  Amazingly, not very much management for feral trees and exotics, including Norwegian maple, crape myrtle and all the rest of their ilk, has been necessary.  Nick attributes this to the fact that land along the river, too wet for crops, was planted in trees in 1927 and then managed as a woodlot. Today, a healthy, mature beech forest sustaining a wide variety of native plants and shrubs now flourishes there. This older, mature forest in turn has served as a dependable source of seeds and spores taking root in the former cornfields upland from it.


Lady Slipper under a Loblolly Pine

Jack in the Pulpit: A Green Bloom
in A Green Shade
There is no end to Nick's meditations on the intertwining of this land and its waters.  As our walk nears its goal on the banks of the Choptank, Nick points out three consecutive swales marking the course of the river in times past.  The first one we reach, he fancies, is the river a thousand years back. These depressions, meandering across the forest floor, make for difficult crossing.  Their boggy muck, glistening in the sunlight, threatens to swallow one's foot with every step.  Surrounding us are literally thousands of jack in the pulpits, a species of skunk cabbage with a fetching bloom, not to mention a scattering of spring beauties, Indian cucumber, May apples and other spring ephemerals that love moist feet.  Here and there a wood frog or bull toad hops out of the way of our passage.  Reaching the dryer area lying between two swales, Nick comments on how berms of sand built up here, as well as in tandem with the current banks of the Choptank, are the residue of yearly flooding, as the waters overrunning the river's banks are interrupted by the trees and shrubs of the forest.  This allows time for sediment captured upstream to drop out of the water and be deposited anew.

Nick takes me to the final berm near the Choptank and asks me to consider how its sands engage in ionic capture of nutrients and pollutants, leaving the waters of the river to pass downstream cleansed of excess phosphorous, as well as a host of unseemly chemicals. Listening to him, I finally begin to get a hint of the complexity and breadth of his vision.  He is asking that those who visit here join him in the contemplation of the journey and fate of each and every drop of the waters finding themselves, however temporarily, at home here.  When Tom Horton wrote that the unexamined place is not worth living in, he surely had Nick and Margaret in mind.  There is no walking this landscape in their company without every step becoming an interrogation in how the waters are making their way through it.

Crane Fly on a Sedge Leaf

Wood Frog

Complicating the
Topography
I ask Nick if he ever dreams of the land in his sleep, and his answer is disconcerting.  In his dream, it turns out, a phalanx of bulldozers are poised at the edge of his and Margaret's property.  The foreman of the crew shows Nick a legal document ordering the uprooting of the newly-regenerated forest to make way for a suburban development.  This nightmare lies literally in plain site during Nick's waking hours in every direction from where we stand.  "The leveling of the land," as Nick puts it, involved in suburbanization and farming, continues unabated.  Imagine, Nick asks me, to think of what a single branch fallen from a tree does to the waters encountering it on the forest floor.  The branch interrupts the waters' progress, complicates their flow.  The irregular topography of land is what makes it amenable to the diversity of life.  Farms and suburbs tend to smooth out the land and channel its waters quickly away into ditches and storm drains.  Nick's goal, on the contrary, is to keep the waters around and active as long as possible.  This is accomplished by intensifying the roughness of the terrain, by letting duff accumulate and fallen branches, not to mention entire trees uprooted, lie.  Nick intones, "When you walk down the land in spring and puddles are all around, the land is doing what it ought to do."

At least for the time being, Nick and Margaret's land is indeed doing exactly what it ought to do.


Nick and Margaret Carter

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Last Good Water

Rosemary's Spring in April
 Springs are magic, and we humans can't keep away from them.  If one is nearby, we go and look, and, if we are just a bit foolhardy, we even go and drink.  For several years I have been dreaming of a spring on the headwaters of the Choptank that is likely without a name on any map but is called Rosemary's Spring by those who know it up close and personal.  Recently I had the chance to visit it again, to spend time in its company, and to take photographs of it in the early light of the day.

Names, of course, matter.  The Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan reminds her readers that determining the appropriate name for a living kind or earthly element is a crucial part of our human vocation.  We need, she argues, to be very careful about how we name things and how we use those names once they have been found.  In English, for instance, we have come to name our home the Earth.  That's a pretty important name and, as names go, this one has its charms.   But it also gives the impression that our planet's surface is mainly composed of soil and stone.  It's all about the land.  But between puddles and bogs and springs and streams and ponds and lakes and seas and oceans, not to mention the innumerable aquifers underlying even deserts, we could just as well have named our planet the Waters.  Indeed our bodies are more water than anything else, a feature we share with most earthly living kinds. We humans then are precisely the proverbial fish out of water, except that we've also learned the trick of bringing the waters along with us in our only semi-solid flesh.

Rosemary's Spring and the marshy bottom land it feeds into is a fiesta of salamanders and frogs and toads, of sphagnum moss and skunk cabbage, of spring beauties and unpleasant nettles.  The poet Catherine Carter, who grew up with the spring, has written a poem about it that I cannot get off my mind.

The Last Good Water.

By this spring you cannot stand
to drink like a man.  If you would drink,
crouch on your muddy knees,
four-legged, or lie
flat on the ground braced on wet hands
in the swale. Set your lips to clear
water, but shallow, not even
an inch.  Move your dry
tongue to swallow, and taste oak leaves
and darkness.  The spring
is a puddle that seeps
from the ground; dip it up
and you get mud.  You must
be an animal here,
prostrate yourself.  This spring will bear
no hand, no cup.

I love this poem because it insists that one should not just stand there and take in what one sees.  Instead one is to get off one's own hind limbs and ether crouch or prostrate one's body upon the earth.   The activity involves a lowering of one's regard, a bending down of one's skeletal frame, a nearing of one's lips to the face, literally the surface of an earthly element.  In this act, one is cautioned against becoming so consumed with the swollen tongue, its perpetual obsession for quenching its thirst, that the waters become muddied, and one's drinking is spoiled.

Simply put, Carter's poem is liturgical.  It asks its reader to engage in an action that is solemnly heedful of another.  In doing so one is reminded that drinking water from a spring is a form of prayer.

The specificity of Carter's liturgy is also instructive.  Other waters call for other rubrics.  For instance, in Linda Hogan's essay, "What Holds the Water, What Holds the Light," the dappling of desert sandstone with ephemeral pools of water after a heavy rain is celebrated.  "Along the way," she writes, "my friend and I stopped at a cluster of large boulders to drink fresh rain collected in a hollow bowl that had been worn into stone over slow centuries.  Bending over the stone, smelling earth up close, we drank sky off the surface of water."  Here the genius of the waters of a particular country, of a certain place under the sun, to shape one's all-too-human doings is as filled with light as the seep of water in Carter's poem is troubled by darkness.  The heteroglossia of water, tis many registers of instruction, call for liturgical improvisation and renewed interventions.

Birch, Holly and Oak Leaves in the Waters
Intimations of the biblical story of creation suffuse Carter's poem, although with a difference: one is called upon here to hover over the shallows, instead of the depths, as in the case of the Most High, in order to confront an elemental darkness.  A muddied one, to be precise.  The depths, tehom in Hebrew, of the account in Genesis, are offered a surprising counterpoint here. The shallows, it turns out, are demanding in their own way.  Another surprise is that the poem brings the upright human down to the level of the crouching animal in order that the former might be instructed in humility in regard to its creatureliness.  One is called then to the poverty of a drinking that bears neither human hand nor any cup fashioned by a human hand.  Human preeminence is questioned, as the drinker is deprived of her or his usual props.  But a grace remains.  Darkness is permeated with the taste of oak leaves.  That is a darkness one might be able to bear.  That is the gift of Rosemary's Spring.




Friday, February 9, 2018

Marsh Grasses and Corn Cobs: Tundra Swans Wintering on the Chesapeake

Tundra Swans Arriving at Nightfall
Winter evenings set in early, so Tom Horton, spokesperson for all things Chesapeake, makes sure we reach the headwaters of the Chicamacomico River before the buglers begin to arrive.  After leaving the vans parked a discrete distance from our final destination, Tom and his students walk down a gravel road to the edge of a network of marshes interlaced with open water, an old mill pond now mostly filled in and located to one side of Highway 50.  In the distance, a steady stream of cars obliviously pass by, their headlamps flickering through the trees surrounding our site. In the chilling air, we quickly settle down on blankets, or lean against tree trunks, staring out into the deepening evening with notebook and pen in hand, ready to write down our thoughts, should any arrive, at a moment's notice.  But the real wait is for the Tundra Swans themselves.

Waiting for the Swans to Arrive
Our vigilance is soon rewarded.  Each flight arrives, a few birds at a time, fast-moving, ghostly blurs nearly swallowed up in the growing darkness.  Even in the dim light, the grace and strength of their movement is undeniable.  As each successive flight plows into the Chicamacomico's waters, it is enthusiastically greeted by a growing cacophony of fellow travelers.  "A four foot windpipe can make a lot of noise," Horton notes later.  At the time, I wonder at how it might be to be a swan in the midst of swans, to be settling into cold waters for a night's sleep while bugling out my lungs, my feathered skull filled with the din of voices from kith and kin.  I ask Tom if the commotion goes on for very long.  "Off and on all night," is his reply.  "They might quiet down a bit before dawn but mostly you're in for a noisy sleep if your tent is pitched nearby."

A Ruckus of Feeding Swans
Tom's love for these great birds is infectious.  For the previous two hours he has been leading us literally on a wild swan chase, as the vans sped down backroads in the fading afternoon light to locate where the birds have been feeding for the day.  At first we have no luck.  The site Tom scouted the day before, fields that were planted with watermelon during the long, humid summers typical of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, are now deserted.  Finally we turn down Ravenswood off of Middletown Branch Road to find a good number of swans out in an expanse of stubble.  The birds are strung out along an elevated irrigation pipeline, clustering into familial pods of mating adults accompanied by their maturing offspring.  "If you listen," Tom points out, "you can hear the young ones making a sound that's not yet a bugle. More like a 'chirrup.' They're still learning to sound like a swan."  The students, following Tom's lead, half walk and half wade across a wet field to the edge of a wide drainage ditch.  On the other side a few hundred feet away the swans perk up, a sea of heads pivoting in unison to gaze in our direction and suss out what's afoot.  A good number take to the air and then settle down again a bit farther out.  The rest remain on the ground, not yet convinced we are a force to be reckoned with.
Taking Notes in the Company of Tom and Tundra Swans
As the students watch and listen, Tom shares Tundra Swan lore.  These birds, he explains, have been arriving from the arctic reaches of Alaska and Canada to winter in the Chesapeake for nigh on 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age.  Before that it's anyone's guess exactly where summer and winter ranges were located.  But now the birds before us have flown across a continent, their newest generation in tow, to be here.  Before the last hundred years or so, the swan's winter range was focused on the bay itself, where an abundance of grasses - redhead, widgeon, and sage pondweed, among others - provided rich opportunities for feeding.  But increasingly these sources are disappearing from the waters of the Chesapeake, as the bay succumbs to depredation by humans and, ironically. also by the Mute Swan, a European import and cousin of the Tundra Swan.  Nevertheless, Tundra Swans are resourceful omnivores, so they have switched to handy food sources nearby in the plowed fields bordering on the bay and its network of marshes.  Walking out into the stubble of this particular field, one sees everywhere discarded cobs, stripped of corn and left by the combines to rot back into the soil.   The harvest, it turns out, misses enough kernels to feed a host of swans.  One has to admire an agricultural process that keeps a fellow living kind well fed, even as it nourishes us humans and our livestock too.

Tom Horton in Thoughtful Mode

But Tom cautions against being too satisfied with this state of affairs.  In an era of mass species extinction, when the populations of a wide range of living kinds are plummeting across the face of the earth, the survival of the Tundra Swan is not at all assured.  Tom notes that the fate of this swan is tied up even more with the fate of the arctic tundra than it is with its feeding grounds in the Chesapeake.  As the former undergoes climate change, the permafrost is melting and with this the marshy pools of water stretching across the reaches of the arctic north, crucial to the swans' thriving, will diminish, if not out and out disappear. By 2080 the Audubon Society estimates 61% of the northern range of the Tundra Swan, which is the place where they mate, bear their young and regain body mass lost during the hard travel and less fruitful feeding of the winter months, is going to be gone. The tundra will have ceased to be tundra, at least as we have heretofore understood this term to mean something.

Perhaps the most crucial bit of information Tom offers about the swans is that there are, in the entire world, only 140,000 of them.  That number is not at all a lot of one kind of a living kind.  Just in the United States there are around 180 towns and cities with more human beings, big boisterous primates, than there are Tundra Swans, feathered and aloft, on the entire planet.  Joliet, Illinois or Mesquite Texas alone has as many people as there are Tundra Swans altogether.  Even if we see these great and graceful birds in noisy congregations of hundreds and even thousands, it's important to keep in mind that each mating pair needs a minimum of two square miles of fruitful tundra if they are going to successfully produce offspring and then raise them.  The adults put in a lot of work doing so, and if their efforts over the long haul prove unsuccessful, their kind disappears.  We humans need to keep in mind that the fauna of a more-than-human living world are not merely mindless automatons effortlessly reproducing themselves down through the ages.  Mom and dad, at least in the case of swans and cranes, of robins and nuthatches, of eagles and osprey, as well as many other similar living kinds, have to show up and put in significant time.  And this effort on the part of individual birds and other fauna to sustain their own living kind calls for our respect.

Thom Van Dooren, in his brilliant study of endangered birds titled Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, reminds his reader that the disappearance of a living kind from the face of the earth does not occur in a single moment with the cutting of a single thread, but rather is the outcome of a massive unraveling over generations of a particular species' entanglement with its habitat and a host of other living kinds   In the last century or so, a lot of unraveling has been occurring in the Chesapeake region, but the swans have been busy re-entangling themselves in the land and waterscapes of their winter home.  If bay grasses disappear, the swans possess the genius to reengineer their residency, to seek out kernels of corn and fallen soy beans amidst the stubble. And they are not so shy that they can't spend the long winter nights on open waters in the vicinity of highways busy with traffic.  The question Tom and his students, as well as the writer of this blog, are left with, is whether the swans possess enough genius to resist our massive altering of both their summer and winter habitats, or whether we humans might even find a way to temper our activities and make more room on the planet for a lot more of more-than-human living kinds.  A world without tundra swans would be a poorer world indeed.