January 17, 2008

Let It Be

by Calvin B. DeWitt

Calvin DeWitt reflects with his marsh lands as a backdrop. Photo: Trent Gilliss
Calvin DeWitt reflects with his marsh lands as a backdrop.
(Photo: Trent Gilliss)

One gains perspective from living on a marsh that is not obtainable from scientific study. Each morning at the bathroom sink, I stand in view of a great wetland, observing the sometimes rising mists, the othertimes ice-glazed osiers. My marsh-watching began in 1972 when my wife and I selected our home in Wisconsin, not for its quality, but for the drama of a marsh. Since then the Waubesa Wetlands, at the foot of one of the four Madison lakes, have been for us not merely the subject of observation, but our habitat! And now as I stand here each morning shaving, I see the marsh in every conceivable mood and condition. As I walk across the green fabric that blankets the peat of ages past — to depths of 29 meters in some places! — I see things that my scientific studies would never have allowed me to see. True, if I would have known what was going to happen on this dynamic expanse of green-and-wet, I would have "conducted a study." In fact, I have conducted studies here — many of them. But many things have happened on the marsh that I could not have anticipated. Many of these I now see offered opportunities for fascinating research that I recognized too late. But then, my hindsight would have been no sight at all if this place were not also my habitat! What have I learned as a denizen of the marsh? Many things... but perhaps none more important than to respect the "wisdom" of the marsh. A dramatic disturbance or change may call for restoration — but then again it may not, and it may be better at times just to leave the marsh alone. It may seem necessary to exercise my own "wisdom" to set things right. Yet, accompanying such an urge, is an increasingly prevalent refrain: "Let it be... wait and see!" Some years ago, for example, following an old deer trail, I came upon a familiar piece of my wetland home that I remembered from previous visits as a vast meadow of asters inter-laced with turtlehead (Chelone) and widely-spaced cattails. But familiar it was no more! Devastation was everywhere, with bare peat instead of the green cover of vegetation I remembered from a few years earlier. My first impression was that the area had been plowed. As I walked across this barren histosol, however, I found the "plowing" had been done by woodcocks and other animals probing the soil for food. And here and there, in deadly embrace, were the tell-tale orange strings of dodder (Cuscuta) still clinging to the limp, brown remains of asters that rapidly were being converted to soil. An area of one to two hectares of peatland, with its green cover was being destroyed by that parasitic native! My impulse was to move quickly to restore this area. Resisting the urge, I left it alone, only to return the following summer to find the once bare peat completely covered with a remarkably fine monoculture of touch-me-not (Impatiens). But soon all of these watery plants were horizontal, downed by dodder so abundant that the soil appeared covered with an orange stringy dew. Now, returning to this spot, I find it much as it was when I first knew it. If the dodder is still there, it is rare. The touch-me-not is gone too, and the asters are back. When I told this to my friend who is a restoration ecologist, he said: "Let it be." I asked "What?" And he said, "you said... 'Let it be.'" Then there is reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea). When I first became a denizen of this marsh, I soon learned from my colleagues that this plant was an invader, a disturbance indicator, a bad actor. I was worried. It was all over the peat mound outside my shaving window, snuffing out — or so it seemed — an extremely sparse, fen-like vegetation. Talking one day to my farmer friend, who owned this elevated wetland. I learned that he himself had planted the reed canary there in the drought years of 1935 and 1936. "Was about the only hay we could get in them dry times," he had told me. "But Russ," I replied, "reed canary is a bad actor." "Don't make good hay either," he replied. Overcome with fear that I would lose the sparsely distributed fen plants to the engulfing reed canary, but stymied by the 2-plus hectare expanse of it all, I simply watched my peat mound, "letting the reed canary take its course." And indeed as the years passed it seemed to me that the reed canary was thinning a bit and that my "enemy" was losing its grip on the mound. After about seven years (and 45 years after the planting of the reed canary), I was sure the fen plants were gaining on the Eurasian grass. And now, 54 years after planting, the reed canary seems to be "on the way out." The lesser fringed gentian (Gentiana procera) is blooming on the mound now. There is an abundance of marsh fern (Dryopteris thelypteris). Mountain mint (Pycnanthemeum), turtlehead, and bluejoint grass (Calamagrostis canadensis) are increasing. On the drier spots provided by the ant mounds I am finding big blue stem grass (Andropogon gerardi). And the aerial photos now show more than reed canary: fen vegetation is clearly visible. Now I am wondering what might happen here after another 50 years? Or a hundred? When I told all this to my friend who is a restoration ecologist, he said: "Let it be." I asked "What?" And he said, "you said... 'Let it be.'" If I had known — and if I had been around in 1936 — I could have done some quadrats when Russ was planting his reed canary. Then when I moved in in 1972, I could have followed these developments through the years. And so too for the Dodder. Hindsight! But perhaps hindsight is better than no sight at all. The big willow clone — now that is a concern! Just a speck on aerial photographs of a couple decades back, it now is a big blotch. On the ground it covers about a hectare. As I visited this clone year by year I saw the trees at its center develop from willow whips to thick trunks — trunks that supported barred owls and lifted a canopy some five to seven meters high. And while it grew higher and added mass to its trunks, it also grew outward, not stopped by anything except the creek. I suppose if my habitat were a 2-hectare wetland instead of the 140 hectare that it is, I would have panicked at such a take-over. But instead I waited. And then, after watching for more than a decade, I noticed that the core of the clone was beginning to break down. Perhaps it was the increasing weight of the enlarging trunks, perhaps it was simply the fact that the trees were enescing and their roots were beginning to decay. In any case, the trees at the center were beginning to sink gradually into the 12-m thick layer of underlying peat. Now the clone is clearly weakening and has a definite depression in its center. Perhaps the once sturdy trunks, now supporting a garden of shelf fungi, will soon provide fuel for the next marsh fire. At least the clone is being transformed into a kind of "doughnut." Perhaps the doughnut may even disappear altogether. When I told this to my friend who is a restoration ecologist, he said: "Let it be." I asked "What?" And he said, "you said... 'Let it be.'" Most of the things I have really studied — I mean quantitatively studied — on this great marsh are things that I more or less knew would happen, or questions to which I more or less knew the answers. But the most interesting things, I now realize, I was not prepared to study. I simply was not ready for the things I did not expect to happen. And on reflection, I know that if I had not had the marsh as my habitat for the last 17 years, I would not even know that I had missed out on studying the things I did not expect to happen. Because I wouldn't have been here to know. It makes me wonder — this, and the comments of my restoration ecologist friend. It makes me wonder about the "corrective actions" we might take when limited in our time horizon by the granting period, or the length of a graduate student's program, or by our own patience, or even a lifetime. Can we take the time to "let it be"? This article was first printed in Ecological Restoration, Vol. 7 as "Let It Be: A Wetland Scientist and Restorationist Reflects on the Value of Waiting" and reprinted with permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.

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is founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx. She was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 2005.

is a professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His books include Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues.