Steamboating through an american wetland in the mid-1800s, a traveler reported being "greatly annoyed, by the almost deafening, tumultuous and confused noises, of the innumerable flocks, of geese and ducks, which were continually flying to and fro, and at times blackening the very heavens. . . ."
No fear of such a "tumultuous" croaking today--Americans have eradicated 53 percent of our wetlands; we are destroying the rest at 80,000 acres per year. In Discovering the Unknown Landscape, Ann Vileisis details 373 years of draining and filling the mucky places that support one-third of our threatened and endangered species, and that sponge up floods, maintain oceanic fish populations and absorb pollutants. She also details why.the devastation has occurred. Blame Boston's founding Puritans, who equated swamps with sin, Sloughs of Despond where--as the Pilgrim William Bradford noted--Indian medicine men gathered "in a horrid and devilish manner." Or blame beaver-hat mania, which nearly wiped out the species and their dam-created swamps. Blame railroads. They made farming more lucrative, encouraging the draining of Midwestern quagmires into cornfields. Blame wrongheaded notions about flood control. Or fear of malaria. Or debris-spewing California gold mines.
Or blame a legal muddle. The law regarded land as private, water as public. But is a marsh soupy earth? Or earthy soup? Many enactments and congressional orations later, it comes down to a core American argument: What is the proper role of the federal government?
Ann Vileisis gives us the cultural history of America's wetlands in intricate detail, from Henry David Tho-reau, neck-deep in a cranberry bog, gaining "a sense of the richness of life," to senators jockeying over the Swamp Land Act in 1849. But her book is so detailed it can be slow slogging for readers who are not environmental historians.
In the end, she offers hope that the "restoration" movement of the 1990s will re-create lost wetlands. Knowing history, and understanding our loss, she concludes, we may be ready to refute our mistakes "of a time when we knew no better." And possibly, she muses, "when Americans better know the story of their wetlands, they will understand why remaining swamps and marshes at the edges of their fields, their subdivisions, their shopping malls, and their industrial parks need protection. They may even walk into such places with curiosity and wonder. . . ."
Richard and Joyce Wolkomir are writers based in Vermont.