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The Shining Marsh

By Rick Bass

First there’s the mechanical genius of the airboat.

I knew such things existed, and I knew vaguely what their purpose was and how they functioned — to skim across the top of water so ludicrously shallow that it would appear you could just as easily navigate it in your boots, and never take on water above those boot tops — but I had no idea they could go across dry land as well.

Here at sea’s edge, Ibises come as if drawn by a magnet or directed by some divine force.

I feel like a country rube as Todd Merendino, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist, trailers us out into the middle of what looks like a cow pasture. Indeed, there are cow pies sprinkling the pasture, and the perpetrators themselves come shuffling toward us, after we have shoved the flat-bottomed boat off its trailer. The cattle edge in even closer, surrounding us, and I’m thinking, Man, that water, that shining marsh, sure looks a long way off, it’s going to be a tough slog to push this heavy thing all the way from here to there.

But Todd gestures to me to climb up into his strange carriage, and he starts the incredibly loud motor, and suddenly the breeze is in our face and then the early April brown prairie, with its first few tiny flecks of blue-eyed grass, is hurtling beneath us in a dizzying mosaic, like the old film clips of the pages of a calendar shuttling by uncontrollably fast.

The tiny castles of crawfish stipple the landscape, and it’s like some kind of Star Wars phenomenon, as if we’re weaving our way through civilizations and palaces, and then suddenly we’re into the clear, living water of the marsh — two inches of fresh water, maybe three or four. It’s more like some kind of fairy tale as we hurtle through and between and amidst what I think of as the three elements of time — earth and sky and water — and as a dyed-in-the-wool treehugger — the fact that it is the fuel of the fourth element, fire, in the form of recently ignited fossil hydrocarbons, which is propelling us on this privileged, astonishing voyage, makes me blanch a little.

Just this once, I tell myself, just one more time. I’m back in Texas, at the Peach Point Wildlife Management Area, only an hour and a half south and east from where I grew up in Houston, back in the state where as a geologist I learned how to probe the ancient earth below, searching for the very products, oil and gas, which have allowed us to be on this merry journey. In our species’ curious, endearing and maddening way, I find myself trying to rationalize this discrepancy, this problem: to resolve the paradox, to search almost wildly for a way to make amends; to mitigate, seeking balance in an imbalanced world.

We have not yet traveled very far at all, skittering across the shining, shallow water, before there rises suddenly before us a howl of birds, a cyclone of birds — big magnificent birds with long legs, long bills, long wings — the sky before us filling with them, ibises, so many of them that it seems we have blundered into the place where all of the world’s ibises are congregating, this blue-sky, early spring day, or perhaps even into the place where ibises come from — erupting as if from some volcanic neck, an outpouring of ibises, a Spindletop of ibises.

Todd cuts the engine and we drift, watching the sky-borne wave of them: white-faced ibises, which are not white at all but dark, blackish-appearing in profile, but then iridescent in movement, and white ibises, which are the color of snow. Together, the two species roll across the sky like the notes of visible but inaudible music. And once they’re a little farther away from us, they quickly settle down and begin feeding once more, striding purposefully through that clear, shallow water with glittering splashes spraying diamond-like around their legs as the wind gusts past them in sheets. They stir and probe the mud, dowser-like, with their incredible bills, plowing and furrowing this vast and near-final flooded prairie of rot and ultimate organicity. A long time ago — 3,000 years? — this was an inland bay, but centuries and then millennia of deposition from the great Brazos River have changed all that.

This is the place, now, where the rich, fine-grained, organic sediments finally settled out, filtered by landscape: the confluence of the San Bernard and Brazos rivers, the latter one of the most amazing transporters of sediment in this country — in the company of the Mississippi and the Amazon, in that regard — head-watering up in the Panhandle and then winding and curving its way through Texas, until the river finally lies down to rest here on this phenomenally planar delta, bestowing its final gift.

And to that final gift, here at sea’s edge, the ibises come as if drawn by a magnet, or directed by some divine force; and from the richness of all that sediment, as well as the high-tide yields of the ocean — bounty coming from the north as well as the south — the magnificent beauty of the ibises is born, each bird as fantastic and phenomenal as a lotus from the mire.

Even a non-birder such as myself knows enough, in that first instant of ibis-sighting, to gape in slack-jawed, awe-bound reverence — the word transfixed comes to mind — and it does not surprise me to discover later, in reading up on these amazing birds, that they’ve been revered by human cultures for centuries. In The Birds of Texas, John L. Tveten writes of the family Threskiornithidae, “The sacred ibis was deified as the god Toth by the ancient Egyptians, and the very rare Japanese ibis was declared a national treasure by that government. Ibises have been popular subjects of Japanese and Chinese artists through the ages.” And then, with a familiar blush of shame, I read on: “In the United States, on the other hand, hundreds of thousands of white ibises and roseate spoonbills were slaughtered in the late nineteenth century because the feathers were prized for ladies’ hats.”

Well. Here they are, so many that if Todd, ballast to my ignorance, were to tell me that it is in this last 15,500-acre garden that every last ibis in the world is holed up, stirring the rich muck of delta soup, this writhing rich broth, in search of crabs, snails, crayfish, insects and all the other explosive proteins it can excavate with its long bill — each bird searching for its own desired, not-yet-fossil fuel, probing and drilling — then I would believe him, that it is behind this one last magic curtain on this one last special marsh, where all remaining ibises gather in graceful, ancient ceremony.

We stop out on the flats and stare out at them through binoculars. The bright light is distorted into shimmering vertical waves similar to the wind-whipped, horizontal water-waves through which the ibises are wading, further accentuating the impression that we have stepped behind a curtain, and into another, older world. How long has it taken to make an ibis, I wonder — ten million years? A hundred million? Rarely have I ever seen one species so wedded to its landscape, so fitted, the sculpted relationship between landscape and species so easily witnessed. It’s like looking out at a field of ten thousand grizzly bears, or ten thousand buffalo. It is profound, and we sit there, lulled by the slap of shallow waves against the hull of the boat.

The Freeport Christmas Bird Count, started near here many years ago by birdwatching legend Victor Emanuel when he was a teenager, for a long time held the national record for most sightings in a day — more than 300 species, all due to the confluence of the two essential habitats — marine and riparian.

How close it all came to the void, however. This area was one of the initial Spanish land grants deeded to Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred,” back in 1821. Austin knew a good thing, and deeded himself land between Jones Creek and the Brazos in 1830; a portion of Peach Point lies within those old boundaries.

It’s big country, but because it’s so flat, we can see to the horizon in any direction: and back toward the mainland, the shimmering white shapes of refineries and massive storage tanks blur and waver, magnified by that shimmering light, marking the management area’s boundaries. Phillips Petroleum and Dow Chemical once owned thousands of acres in these parts (and still do), but due to various industrial activities elsewhere, the corporations needed to come up with some mitigation to proceed — blood-money, environmentalists sometimes call it — and so this amazing spot was protected, though not without a near-miss, like a tiny chip in the teeth of fate’s gearings.

For a while, during the oil boom of the early 1980s, the Seadock Corporation was planning to turn this area from an inland marsh into a port with an offshore terminal for the world’s super-tankers. The boom ended, though, or else they’d probably still be digging and dredging here, hauling the marsh away, just like that fellow over in Iraq did to his country’s native wetlands. The Texas Nature Conservancy bought the property and then sold it to TPWD in 1987. The refuge now exists as a “sister refuge” with another protected area up in Alberta, in prairie pothole country, and thinking of my own fragmented, vital valley in northwest Montana, I’m envious of Alberta’s good fortune. There’s so little left to save, really, and our appetites are so immense.

Do the ibises know this? I hope not. Driven by their own fierce hungers, they come to this perfect place, as intent, perhaps, on the universe of crustaceans just a few inches beneath them — the milieu of the sacred past — as they are upon the world above, the world through which they stride. They come soaring in, highly social, in flocks of a hundred, two hundred, gliding on bent wings with their bills bent like dippers, identifying them to us from a great distance, and identifying their needs clearly, unambiguously — to probe and stir, to drill. They fly right over the tops of the sprawling refinery complexes, the seemingly endless phalanx of smokestack and giant storage tanks, as if flying into the heart of the beast itself; nothing can turn back their desire, their need.

Writes Tveten: “They move in unison, as if following a choreographed routine, beaks probing the mud ahead. Stride, probe, stride, probe. Occasionally an ibis raises its head to swallow a tasty morsel, then, as if afraid of losing ground, hurries to regain its place in the advancing line. It is one of nature’s great ballets.”

It is like a ballet, and like a march, too: like an army. During the mating season, as their bare facial skin and legs convert springtime’s hormones to turn bright scarlet and shiny — as bright as if painted with fingernail polish — they consume even more shellfish, seeking ever more protein for the rigors of the breeding cycle.

The destruction and fragmentation of wetlands is a huge continuing pressure against their survival, as is our heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, particularly in the rice fields. The democratic Brazos does not differentiate between good and bad, but brings it all south, and deposits it here, poison and bounty alike. Tveten reports that analyses of the nest failures of ibises along the Texas Coast have revealed “lethal concentrations of dieldrin and other persistent insecticides in the bodies of the nestlings.”

We scoot on, pushing up more birds from behind the veil — calories, units of heat, energy expended with each flock’s fluttering wave, then energy gained from a new feeding ground. It’s all an equation, a swirl, and the slow sultry death of the Brazos feeds and feeds and feeds these amazing birds, as does the ocean, and its tides.

Of the white-faced ibises, Tveten reports: “At close range and in good light, they are unexpectedly beautiful birds,” with “the rainbow iridescence of bronze and green and violet” that seems to shimmer across them as they pass through different angles of sunlight; and sometimes, in the flocks that leap up before us and veer away, there are other vast congregations: a battalion of night herons, from behind one curtain of reeds, and in another open stretch, a great assemblage of willets is mixed in with the ubiquitous ibises, each willet less than half the size of the ibises that tower around them, and yet they are all feeding together.

We can never pick it all apart, can never know all of the why’s — though even if we could, we would then surely be unable to know all of the whys of the whys — and amidst such bounty, it is clear that the mysteries of life extend all the way down, like rich layers of sediment, traveling all the way to the world’s core. Such realization, while bathed in such beauty and bounty, produces in us not just awe, but a kind of wonderment, almost like shock: almost like the shock of being loved, and deeply.

Back and forth we skitter, to the perimeters and then to the center, finding birds everywhere. Of course the world needs its many vital, scattered places, each to accept the dispersal of this bounty, but how fiercely it needsalso its core places, these late-winter staging grounds that can provide such a rich and continuous feast for all who gather. All are invited, none are turned away. In nature’s democracy, the journey north to their various breeding grounds will begin to select them, choosing winners and losers, and sharpening or breaking each one to this strange and shifting world but here and now, at Peach Point, there is only feasting, only bounty.

We motor on, wind-buffeted in our roaring chariot, across the shining, glittering marsh. We can see distant little mottes of oaks, smudges of forest-green painted in etchings between the blue sky and the winter-browned marsh. Todd refers to these groves or islands of oaks as “migrant traps,” which draw the eye of the tiny little songbirds, the azure and vermilion and emerald and lemon and lazuli and crimson travelers, the flecks of eye-candy that nearly stun us with their beauty. Such tiny travelers drop down into these increasingly rare forests to take a break from their migration, to rest and feed on the insects found there, and to take refuge against inclement weather. Earlier this morning I had stopped and looked around in a motte of live oaks but had seen nothing, and had presumed that the little migrants were still a bit farther south, unwilling to push on just yet into the teeth of the cold north wind that had swept and scrubbed these blue skies so clean.

Perhaps they are only a day, or even half a day, farther south, hunkered down beneath the canopies of coastal thickets, waiting and listening impatiently; the wind is supposed to die down by evening. Perhaps as soon as I leave the WMA this afternoon, they will come surging north — strategic, determined, relentless. Surely they are still out there, bright in the world. We know that their numbers, as well as their habitats, are dwindling, but surely this is not the year, yet, when they no longer come.

Nor are we disappointed by this day’s or two days’, delay. What we are seeing already is more than enough, is like some spectacle from Africa, or the Everglades or Saskatchewan.

Again, I feel a blush of shame, to be perched out here on the bow of a boat this lovely cold day, while others of my kind are out in the sands of the Middle East, lost and burning, shooting and bombing and killing and being killed.

What a wake-up call, what a moral challenge, for environmentalists: what a crucible for our bedrock faith that the natural world still matters, has always mattered, through thick and thin; that as long as there are still patches or gardens of beauty in the world, uncompromised and existing for a purpose beyond our own immediate needs or desires, then almost any kind of redemption or recovery can be dreamed and imagined, even accomplished.

This is what it looked like before we began to make mistakes. This is what it looked like before things started to go bad.

This is how our hearts used to feel, as children.

When I was a geologist — a fifth of a century ago — I used to explore long-buried landscapes not all that distant from this one, probing and pecking little eight-and-five-eighths-inch holes into Paleozoic deltas and offshore bars. With my pencil and eraser, I used to wander across old bays and estuaries, wading through the wave-tossed detritus of dissolved mountains, looking for buried treasure — what we called “production,” a euphemism little different from that of either a farmer or a biologist — and when we succeeded in discovering what we were looking for, we would turn our maps over to our engineers, who would perform all sorts of complicated equations designed to tell us how many acre-feet of oil we had discovered.

Looking out at this vast sheet of shining water, I’m reminded again of that phrase, acre-feet, for although the volume of this marsh might not possess as much water as even a medium-sized impoundment of oil, it is the distribution and reliability that matters most of all — the fact that it is even here at all — and that it has come so far to get here, and that the open space is here to receive and hold that water, as well as all those tons, all those acre-feet, of sediment, shellfish and history.

It has been a long time since I have felt in Texas that in ecological terms we are rich with anything; but here, perched atop a civilization far more ancient than that of Babylon, in this little 15,500-acre garden — a sanctuary, a little park — I feel that way once more, feel it again even more wondrously than I did in childhood, before I became aware of the diminishment of things, and the erosion of boundaries.

And forgive my gluttony, but I want more. Like some crazed imperialist, even in the midst of such concentrated, focused bounty, I find myself wondering, Where will they all go from here, and will the way be safe for them? And I want more.

We move oceanward, out into more shining space, and I’m forced again to consider the hair’s-breadth changes, the near-misses that lead to the Big Events that can and do change history. If the oil-boom of the early eighties had crested a few months earlier — not eons or millennia, but months — we might be motoring across sixty feet of water, instead of six inches. There might be only a few laughing gulls circling overhead, or maybe nothing at all. Perhaps we would be surrounded by looming tankers, shining in the sun, their decks towering sixty feet above us.

Instead, we come into a shallow salt-water bay where crab traps bob in gunmetal-gray waves, and where the calceus labia of oyster shells are exposed to the wind-whipped low tides of late winter. We pause near a sandbar and study a congregation of willets, gulls and black-necked stilts, each bird distinct, the gulls hopping up into the wind and catching air, then flaring, and the stilts accelerating their soldierly march somewhat, but still hunting and searching, striding as if in synchrony to the beat of some inaudible rap music and the brown little willets, with their shorter legs, seeming more furtive, even anxious.

Various flocks settle down, too, after their initial skittishness, and return to the exact place they were feeding and gathering before our approach, as if there exists, after all, a plan, a pattern, and although we tend to see the world as random, it is all woven together like one of those maddening five-thousand-piece puzzles that sits assembled in some lakeside summer cottage, pieced together during a week of rainy weather by some unknown visitors maybe fifty years ago; and that despite the momentary disruption caused by our sudden and noisome arrival, all the puzzle pieces must, sooner or later, settle back down into their slots and niches and crevices.

This is a dangerous conceit, and yet out here in the middle of Peach Point, that is how it appears, this one day; and if on this one day, then why not also on all others, now and forever more, no matter what?

Perhaps if this spit was here fifty and sixty years ago, red wolves might have stood on its shores, waiting for bounty to come rolling in. Perhaps, fifty and sixty years from now, whooping cranes — if they can recover sufficiently to expand back into their historical territory — will stand in this mud once again, leaving splayed tracks as large as a man’s hand.

Does it seem that there are fewer and fewer nations of the living, and more and more nations of the gone-away, laid down in the layers of the past like fine-grained Brazos sediment? Does it seem sometimes that the unraveling might not just stop or cease with the unbraiding of cranes and songbirds, wetlands, marshes and red wolves, but instead might keep on going, falling apart twist by twist?

And if it does, what force — what loving force — cares or desires to reassemble those braids, and in what manner?

I ask Todd what the most challenging part of his job is. I expect him to say that it’s managing water flows in an era of diminished availability of that most vital of resources. I try to imagine what a gauntlet it is for a gallon of water that begins somewhere up in North Texas, in the Brazos headwaters, or around Glen Rose, up behind the dam at Possum Kingdom Lake — how difficult it is for that gallon to make it all the way to the coast, and in so doing, carry with it the nutrients that are as critical to this ecosystem as is the dissolved oxygen in your or my red blood.

I would have thought that would be the hardest part: juggling the water, shuttling the puzzle pieces of habitat need and water levels for each individual species each season — like some biological bed-and-breakfast host trying to remember the precise and various needs of an ever-changing assemblage of rushing-through guests.

But Todd tells me that’s the easy part — that as far as the water goes, “Either you have it or you don’t.” If it’s not there in certain years, there’s nothing you can do but just wait, and wait.

The prescribed burns, designed to improve prairie habitat, are hard to coordinate, he says, because they make so much smoke for “the city,” by which I presume he means Houston, just to the north (which in 2000 bypassed Los Angeles as possessor of the most polluted air in the nation) — and the mosquitoes can make his job pretty rough, too. “You can’t imagine,” he says, “it’s unbearable” — and yet, he bears it — and when I ask him what his favorite time of year is, he says it’s right now, mid-February through mid-April, during the peak of bird activity, before the mosquitoes get bad, and before the heat returns.

The hardest thing, he says, is the vegetative manipulation: trying to keep out the encroachment of woody debris, trying to knock back the invasive, non-native species such as Chinese tallow, while promoting the recovery of the natives that are so wedded to this marsh: bushy bluegrass, eastern baccharis, seashore paspalum, jointed flatsedge (which the ever-expanding numbers of snow geese devastate).

It’s like novel writing, I think, with draft after draft, revision after revision: adding one scene, smoothing out another. Dreaming about it, day and night, and with the dream growing slowly, through the years.

Back at the shop, Todd shows me around his office, talks a little more about the mechanics of airboats, including some horror stories about getting stranded far, far out in the marsh. He tells me about the bacopa, a creeping vine that the airboat can skitter over when it’s wet, but when it’s dried out, it becomes like a gripping net of splayed fingers that snares the boat and will not allow its passage. And then it’s time to leave, and for Todd to get back to the little remnant of his weekend. We say our good-byes — and because I still have a few hours left to kill, I take some old back roads, or what I remember from thirty years ago as being back roads.

And for a little while — in the first faint buffer beyond the refuge — things are somewhat as I remember them. I stop outside one large cotton field and park beneath a giant oak and lean my seat back and nap for a while, sleeping the deep sleep of one whose senses have been over-stimulated, and for whom catatonia is now almost an antidote, a recompense for the rigors of having been so charged earlier, so wired. For a little while I dream that the ibises are still soaring above me in waves, but then I sink even deeper, and just sleep.

When I awaken, about an hour later, the north wind has stilled somewhat, and the ibises are still dancing in my head.

Sometimes I think that scientists like Todd might come as close to fulfilling the role of distant observer as anyone here among the living is able. They can look at a delta landscape and rather than fretting about why the wing tips of snow geese are black, can instead evaluate this entire buried, once-upon-a-time bay in terms of tons-of-protein-per-acre as if all of life in this one landscape is but an evolving recipe, a great cauldron slowly simmering through the seasons, as if over the course of only a single day: a great stewing broth of shellfish, sunlight, vegetation, feldspar, potassium.

Whose recipe, then? Who dreamed, and continues to dream, the things that have arisen from this broth? How many infinite ways are there to distribute, then redistribute, these rations, these elements, these nutrients? Pause in the stirring at any one point in the recipe and one story or species might leap up from the creation; toss in another pinch, and something else. No one will ever know or understand or even dream it all; in the end, we can only witness.

What does it take to support an ibis — or ten thousand ibises —when those same tons-per-acre could support instead another story, an equal biomass of sparrows and starlings?

All life is spectacular, and in its brief flash, sacred. But all things being equal, I will choose ibises.

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