The watery labyrinths where earth, water and sky meld are a fecund haven for spiritual healing and wild creatures alike.
By Michael Furtman
And God said,
Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may ﬂy above the earth in the open ﬁrmament of heaven.
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
— Book of Genesis
The book of Genesis is wonderful reading, but you have to admit it skimps a bit on the details of creation. I have a feeling that, even for God, there must have been a lot more involved than what the Bible tells us. It is, after all, a book of inspiration, not natural history.
But if it did delve into detail, I’d like to think that there would be a whole section on wetlands, even though the good book mentions only waters, earth and firmament. Wetlands, of course, are none of these alone, yet they are all of these together.
And so if God had asked a naturalist to flesh out this section, it might read much like this:
And God with infinite wisdom created the places where land and water meet, sprinkled the northern prairies with potholes of magnificent variety, so that to the waterfowl that flew above the earth the ponds glistened as jewels scattered in a sea of grass.
And God buttressed great rivers with stands of rushes, and in them birds of many kinds perched and in the dawn sang to His glory, and the rushes’ roots drew up the waters and mixed it with sunlight and breathed it into the firmament, so that they were one with liquid and air. Against these marshes the great rivers fruitlessly spent their strength, for God placed the roots of these plants deep, and bound them to each other, and amongst these roots great fish wriggled to place in their protection the wealth that is their eggs, so they might bring forth abundantly more of their kind. And on mats of sedge birds nested.
Then, near where great rivers greet the sea, God created swamps of ceaseless mystery, with giant trees bulwarked against the flood, standing amid the waters. Around them swam great reptiles and fish, and in them lived multitudes of birds, and even the mire about the trees’ roots burst forth with wiggling life, the beginning of the chain of food for all creatures.
And God saw that even against the might of the ocean there should be marshes and sloughs, and there He blessed the earth with places where waters of salt met sweet, and in them mingled fishes of both realms, meeting as if across a void, and there the waterfowl that are His voices of spring and autumn pause for food and rest after their long journeys that give glory to His scheme.
And God saw the wetlands, and they were good.
I’ve long thought that it is a pity that such language didn’t make it into the good book. Because the importance of wetlands wasn’t so clearly spelled out, somewhere along the line we decided we knew better. In our writings, wetlands were dismal; swamps were places of foulness and disease. In our actions, we sneered at the marshes, and in them dumped our waste, or we simply drained or filled them. We knifed through them with the Intracoastal Waterway, bleeding the fresh water from the coastal marshes, and flooded them with salt. Inland, we converted them to farmland, or buried them beneath manmade lakes. And the creatures that were there and were called upon to be abundant after their kind could no longer do so. And we looked upon it, and said it was good.
At least some of us thought so.
I learned that there was something wrong with society’s view of wetlands the first time my father took me duck hunting.
On a dark morning, I hugged our big black Labrador as I sat in the bottom of the boat, as much for consolation as for warmth. Dad’s old boat, pushed by what was then considered a massively powerful six-horse Mercury outboard, knifed through the pre-dawn darkness. I shivered both from awe and cold. This was exciting, and a bit frightening, to be forging through the darkness with my father, my dog, in a mysterious place I’d never been.
I could hear, even over the putting of the engine, great flocks of ducks squawk into the air as we disturbed them. From under the hood of my parka, I watched the horizon glow blue-black, then purple. By the time we reached the point where we would hunt, the eastern sky bathed with pink the underbellies of flat, gray clouds scuttling across the sky. My father quickly and methodically tossed the old wooden decoys into the marsh. A muskrat, perhaps defending its territory, swam past to investigate, and the dog nearly flew from the boat in an effort to catch it. Only my father’s powerful sheet-metal worker grip saved us from capsizing as he yelped the escaping dog into the boat.
That morning I first smelled methane gas ooze from the marsh, an odor I now associate with beauty and joy. I startled to attention as waves of shorebirds peented past us, the dog coiled hard under my restraining grip. I felt, as much as heard, the ducks as they sailed in; first the whistling of wind through their pinions, then the sound of tearing silk as they plummeted to our decoys, leather legs down.
On that day, I became a believer in the marsh, a convert to its catechism.
It was clear, even to this child, that the marsh was a place where life sprung forth. I couldn’t voice it then, but I knew that swamps were not evil, dark things as society claimed. Though we were after ducks, we saw so many other species of wildlife that we soon began a naming game to see who could identify the most. Here, there were ducks. Here we saw beavers, heard bobcats yowl, and listened to loons. This could not be a bad place, I thought.
As good as it was for wildlife, I knew it was good for people, too, because I saw its impact on my father, saw his worry lines ease. This, believe me, was not a common thing. A hardworking, sometimes hard-drinking and frequently hard-brawling man saddled with five kids and all the responsibilities that brings, my father was not a man prone to smiling or poetic license. I always sensed, even in my earliest memories, a tenseness in him, and perhaps a wistfulness that life could, or should, have been different.
But when in the marsh, his tension evaporated. It was not the shooting that really brought him to these places. I know now that assuming the slow, sensual and ancient rhythms of the marsh sucks the tension from one as surely as its muck can suck a hip boot from your foot. And so we would sit side by side, and he would smile, and would share with me what he knew of the wonders of the marsh in as eloquent of language as I would ever hear him speak. Perhaps the good Lord didn’t make marshes so that parents and children could learn and love… but then, you never know.
It takes about two pounds of shrimp to make a good jambalaya. And an equal amount of mud. Not just any mud, but the mud of a coastal marsh, sediment carried by sweet water down through Texas’ Pineywoods, nutrients filtered by acres of flooded cypress forests — trees with their skirts hiked like women wading. Flavored by starbursts of spider lilies, this sediment, this builder of life, is finally laid smooth like a damp blanket beneath a coastal bay’s tossed waters.
Here in the mud is where jambalaya’s most important ingredient grows — shrimp. Spawned beneath the swelling Gulf, embryonic shrimp are swept shoreward by coastal currents. Once inside the protection of the once-vast estuaries of the Texas coastal marshes, they become bottom dwellers, and if the rivers that feed these marshes are clean, if the bay bottoms are rich in nature’s nutrients and not man’s putrid chemicals, the shrimp flourish for several months. Once they grow to 3 to 5 inches, they scuttle back out to sea, and the whole marvelous cycle repeats itself, with some being eaten by fish and, fortunately, some ending up in jambalaya.
You might say a similar recipe is necessary for a good crawfish étouffee. As important as cayenne pepper is to this Cajun staple, free-flowing rivers and healthy wetlands are really the base.
In the 1960s, a good friend of mine would, with his brothers, mother and father, venture into the marsh. Like my dad and me on duck hunts, these outings near Old and Trinity rivers were as much about family as they were about gathering food. Rattling together in the old Chevy pickup, the group would trek through the marsh to open water where, with seines, they would gather nature’s wealth. Washtubs full of crawfish were hauled back to the truck and then to home, where the real work of cleaning and boiling took place.
The crawfish runs of this area ended when the Trinity River was dammed to create Lake Livingston. No longer would water flood the marshes for weeks on end, in a cycle ages old. No longer would the marsh-building silt reach the estuaries. And so no wonder that the crawfish and shrimp and other creatures dependent on that cycle and its nutrients ceased to flourish. Now bureaucrats regulate rivers, when once only God did this job.
They cannot match His skill.
To the west an orange moon was setting. It sank slowly, as if reluctant to give up its reign of the night and, as it lowered, it burned a swath across the prairie pothole’s waters, painted a path of liquid amber right to the transom of our duck boat. It felt as if we were being pushed by the moon. To our left, the broad, black North Dakota sky shimmered with the northern lights’ eerie green glow, sheets of it rippling like the robes of acolytes scurrying to morning prayers.
I eased up on the throttle and pointed out to my duck hunting partner from Houston both the moon and the northern lights. I needn’t have. He was already immersed in both, and simply shook his head at the glory of it all. Reluctant to hurry, we motored the rest of the way at half throttle, unwilling to give up the magic of this moment.
As glorious as that journey was, it was matched by the duck hunting, and when fat greenheads came to our decoys, we took turns in collecting our birds, the large slough’s surface carved on each occasion by the wake of my swimming Labrador, only to close up unmarked as she returned.
By eight o’clock a farmer was at work. On a distant hillside I could see his big, green John Deere tractor going to and fro, tilling the soil, leaving it bare and ready for seed. As I watched him, I thought of a nearly identical machine also tilling prairie, but this was the coastal prairie near Texas’ Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
Though these two farmers and the two prairies are far removed from each other, having seen one, you’d have a fair idea of the other. The prairie potholes of the north spawn the ducks; the wetlands on Texas’ prairie give them winter respite. Both are, today, greatly diminished in number.
As we sat in the North Dakota marsh, watching flocks of bluebills, redheads, canvasbacks and mallards, it occurred to us that these same birds would soon enough find their way to Texas, pressed by a northern winter that sweeps down like wolves on their prey.
Down the long rivers, over a broad continent, they gradually wend their way south, some to the playa lakes region of Texas’ own north, but more still to flooded bottomlands in the east. Diving ducks will forgo even these and, at the blinding lights of Houston, turn to the coastal marshes, fresh or salt, there to spend the winter restoring themselves for the migration back north.
Though most ducklings are not born in Texas, they get here as soon as they can.
They have no choice.
They are as bound to Texas as they are to the wetlands of their birth. At the bottom of the migratory funnel, Texas holds as its responsibility the health of much of the continent’s waterfowl population.
Despite the good work of many Texans to honor that responsibility, it is one that sometimes has been failed.
My father’s marsh, like many others, is gone now. Today, his ashes lie beneath a mound behind the marsh where I hunt, a marsh whose future is threatened by development. He watches me, I feel, and I’m sure that if he has made any connections in the afterlife my marsh now has a powerful advocate.
But what of the others? It is a fair question to ask. Though the destruction of wetlands has slowed, it has not ceased. In just the past 50 years, as much as 400,000 acres of Texas coastal wetlands have vanished; much that remains is sorely compromised by saltwater intrusion from shipping canals, or starved of fresh water and needed silt by upstream dams. Dams and reservoirs on Texas rivers also have either buried or stopped the necessary seasonal flooding of more than a half-million acres of bottomland hardwood forests.
To be sure, the needs of people are legitimate, and it would be foolish to think that we could have preserved all the wetlands as we developed our farms and met the needs of cities. Still, it is also legitimate to question any further loss.
Whether one believes, as my father did, that the world was created by God to honor His great plan, or instead that the complexity of nature is the result of aeons of evolutionary refinement dependent upon sometimes fragile connections, it is clear that wetlands rank high in either scheme.
Ask the millions of the continent’s ducks that depend upon Texas marshes to complete their life cycle whether wetlands should be saved or restored. Ask the godwits and rails, the ibis and the egrets. Ask the colorful spring procession of orioles, tanagers and myriad warblers strung through bayous like
God’s own Christmas lights. Ask the child of a duck hunter, or the family that gathered crawfish.
Science can tell us of a wetland’s worth. But it is the soul that yields the truer measure.
The Bible tells us that God looked down upon the results of his creation efforts — including wetlands — and pronounced that it was good.
My father believed it so. I’m his son. I believe, too.
What I’m still struggling with is how so many of us have had the nerve to tell Him otherwise.