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Telling the tale of the mysterious and moody marshes
As for the text, Mr. Burt reiterates the hideous facts of our wanton destruction of wetlands. He writes that in seven states “more than 80 percent of all original wetlands have been destroyed … and in two, Iowa and California, losses have reached more than 95 percent. Iowa by one authority has lost 99 percent to agriculture.”
He vents his spleen at the usual suspects — at the corporate interests that capitalize on “marginal” land and make it “profitable” through development, at agencies that “reclaim” it for farming, at gazillionaires who buy pristine sites to enjoy their beauty and then despoil it with McMansions. His statistics are no more alarming than other harbingers of environmental catastrophe these days: “Despite their acknowledged value, our marshes have been ditched, drained, dumped in, and bulldozed with such efficiency in recent decades than more than half of all [their] original acreage has been lost.”
He reiterates the ecological importance of marshes, as nurseries of commercially important fish and breeding grounds for waterfowl (though he skips their importance as natural defenses against natural events like Katrina). We’ve read such stuff before — arguments that define the legitimacy of wild things in terms of their importance to us. Rubbish again. Genesis 1:28 notwithstanding: The planet’s other species have as much right to be here as we do. Look at how many antedated our kind, from ginkos and cockroaches to songbirds, and many will doubtless survive us.
This is a book to cherish, though not for its information, not even for the surprising news (to me) that New England marshes are being taken over and their diversity threatened by an exotic variety of Phragmites, a close cousin of the native common reed. Mr. Burt’s most moving message is not found there or in the descriptions of his grist-gathering treks from sea to sea and from Manitoba to Louisiana with stops in the landlocked plains along the way.
Rather, “Marshes” is worth its days on the coffee table and decades on your shelf for its evocation of nature and the wetlands primeval, for its images in moody bogscapes and miraculous glimpses of the living birds in their secret places. Like Everest and seashores, grasslands and dawns, marshes elicit our curiosity, affection and awe just because they are there. So does this lovely book.
Philip Kopper, author of “The Wild Edge: Life and Lore of the Great Atlantic Beaches,” is publisher of a small independent house, Posterity Press, in Bethesda, Md.
By David Keene
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