Wonderful Life


December 26, 1990|By Barbara Mallonee

The brackish water soaks through my shoe. A bird, long-legged, long-necked, has risen from the bushes and arched across the sky, disappearing into a grove of trees that edge a marshy field. I stand, up to my knees in a patch of brambles, next to the overgrown tracks of a road going nowhere I know to go. The pungent air makes me want to sneeze, but I stifle the urge and wait, hoping the bird will fly again.

In this place called Black Marsh, many things are dark. Mounds of trees against the scraggly grasses. The pilings of a long-gone pier rotting in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. A cavernous car barn black with fungus. In the murky silence, I watch land, once developed, sinking back to wilderness again.

These 1,310 acres at the edge of Edgemere, facing the Chesapeake Bay, are coastal wetlands, not the wet lands of my youth. Back home, rivers flowed, creeks trickled, waves lapped the shores of Lake Michigan; at dawn, most rose from fresh-water lakes scooped by glaciers that left them ringed with rocks. There, prairies and meadowland drained the melting snow and rain to reservoirs far beneath the earth, tapped by natural springs and deep artesian wells. Along the eastern seaboard, land and sea are oddly merged, salt water endlessly soaking a spongy shore, silt forever stirring in water webbed with branches, seaweed, roots and floating leaves.

There is no overt welcome from this marshy land. On a cold gray day, its gravel parking lot looks stark against a stubbled field. A short cedar walkway leads to an information case warning visitors not to drive into the preserve, to walk into the woods and out to a clearing, into the woods and down to the bay, into the woods and out to this spot where, against leaden clouds, a bird has flown. The bird is not an eagle or a tern; it could be a crane or a blue heron. All else is undifferentiated: water, grasses, bushes, trees.

''This land is your land,'' sang Woody Guthrie, hopping trains across a country we all believed was made for us. Now, mere miles from train tracks and beltway, from Bethlehem Steel, from the hue and cry of urban life, I stare at land that seems impassive, inhospitable, land perhaps not made for you and me.

In the solitude of Black Marsh on a fall morning, I sense our sojourn on the earth as uncertain and brief. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard wrote recently a sobering retrospective of life on our planet. ''My specific topic,'' he says, ''is the most precious and important of all fossil localities -- the Burgess Shale of British Columbia.'' Discovered in 1909, this quarry high in the Canadian Rockies holds ''exquisitely preserved'' soft-bodied animals that floated in an ancient Cambrian sea.

Restudied, the organisms force revision of the theory of evolution that placed man at its apex. Life has grown not more, but less complex, Mr. Gould writes. The shale records ''a range of disparity in anatomical design never again equaled, and not matched today by all the creatures in the world's oceans.'' Only after a time of severe decimation was there proliferation within a very few body plans. And that small chordate, Pikaia, that led to man survived not as a triumph of teleology, but by sheer chance.

We are not charged with taking charge of sky and land and sea. It is not inevitable that woodlands and wetlands be destroyed in this century; that species upon species of plants and animals vanish from the face of the earth.

Mr. Gould, however, calls his book ''Wonderful Life,'' and he is neither bitter nor bleak as he asks us to search for ''the larger encompassing themes of our universe through small curiosities that rivet our attention -- all those pretty pebbles on the shoreline of knowledge. For the ocean of truth,'' he reminds us, ''washes over the pebbles with every wave, and they rattle and clink with the most wondrous din.''

Wonderful. Wondrous. Children wonder why and how and when and what and if, but the real wonder years come when one knows, as does Stephen Jay Gould, to wonder that. On a sodden road going nowhere I know to go, I wonder that land so open can hold so much, that minutes from a mall at White Marsh, Black Marsh has been given leave by Baltimore County to reawaken and persist.

The site of a former amusement park, this land was once remade for you and me, but now the marsh is as it was in the beginning, silent save for the rustle of wind through waving grasses and the rattle of leaves as a bird takes wing through the autumn air, an old, old plainsong, its overtone a wild exuberance, its undercurrent reverence and restraint.

Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.

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