Hymn to wetlands from David Carroll

August 08, 1999|By John R. Alden | By John R. Alden,Special to the Sun

"Swampwalker's Journal: A Wetlands Year," by David M. Carroll. Houghton Mifflin. 292 pages with 150 black and white drawings. $27.

David Carroll loves wetlands the way Rachel Carson loved tide pools and John Muir loved forests. He loves "the ructious cacaphony of wood frogs" and "the clamorous twangs" of their green cousins, the seasonal metamorphoses of animals and plants, the annual ebb and flow of water and the longer-term fluctuations between wet years and dry.

He loves any fresh water he can explore without a boat -- temporary wetlands like vernal pools and floodplains, squishy bogs and fens, shallow marshes, shaded swamps, and deeper open ponds. Riverbanks and streams are acceptable, but stagnant water is better, and deep muck and tangled vegetation are best of all.

It's tempting to call Carroll an odd duck, but ducks like those kinds of places too. So do frogs and toads, warblers and rails, and all kinds of salamanders, snakes and turtles. Mosquitoes, gnats and horseflies love such fecund spots as well, but Carroll doesn't complain about having to share his space with such pests. He's happy to sit for hours on a sedge tussock or squat haunch-deep in a weedy pool, watching life of every sort go about the process of living and writing about the things he has seen.

Carroll carries a hand lens, tape measure and thermometer the way the rest of us carry car keys and credit cards. He'll don a neoprene suit and wade hip deep through icy water to follow mating salamanders and will stick his hand through a layer of pondweed to grab a snapping turtle by its tail. He knows almost every plant by name, can recognize individual turtles by the patterns of their carapace and admits that "It is hard for me to refer to any animal as 'it.' "

There is nothing promiscuous about Carroll's affections. Saying "I seldom stray far from familiar places," he devotes most of his attention to a scatter of "wetland islands in a sea of land" near his home in southern New Hampshire. But he knows those places exceedingly well.

He has visited them in every season, in good years and bad, and can find what he is looking for as easily as other people gather groceries from their local supermarket.

He is, in short, a marvelous guide to some fascinating habitats. His drawings, which appear every few pages, are as meticulous as his observations. His sentences are as filled with modifiers as the marshland is with species, but even the overwriting is passionate. Most of his audience, nearly as happy reading about nature as they are observing it, will revel in the author's enthusiasm.

In many of Carroll's haunts, "Some earnest hours with a shovel or pickaxe, or a few minutes with a backhoe, would end an ecology that has been thousands of years in the making." His book is a powerful, persuasive argument that these habitats are more important than any potential human development. They are treasures that must be preserved.

John R. Alden, an anthropologist and writer, has a long-standing interest in the relationship between human society and the natural world. He is a life member of both the Nature Conservancy and the Wilderness Society. He is also the author of a bimonthly column on new science fiction and fantasy. He has also written two travel articles, on Chile's Atacoma Desert and the Florida Everglades, for the New York Times.

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