Review of ‘Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year’

Swampwalker's Journal: A Wetlands Year
David Carroll
Houghton Mifflin Company

At first glance, this book did not inspire me to run and get my reading glasses and plop down in the nearest chair, eager to get started. A year of slogging through swamps? More than 200 pages given over to caddis fly larvae, salamanders and newts? I didn't think so.

Within a few pages, however, I was captivated by David M. Carroll's graceful, lyric style, his almost superhuman powers of observation, and his obvious passion and respect for life in all its forms.

Carroll began his love affair with wetlands and all that lives and grows there (this book is the third in what he calls his "wet sneaker trilogy," preceded by The Year of the Turtle and Trout Reflections) when he was 8 years old, a recent transplant from an urban environment who suddenly "entered the turtle's world."

Carroll is as much writer as naturalist, describing the wetland world he has followed, since that childhood encounter, with such brilliant clarity that the reader often feels he's wading alongside him. There are "well-heated snakes...lightning-quick in their movements," painted turtles "at once newborn and half as old as time," a bear "blacker than any shadow, and shadow-silent," and pine trees that "hold hands with the wind."

Though it would be easy to do, Carroll never anthropomorphizes the myriad creatures he observes. "I do not look for human meanings out here; one who looks for human meanings in nature will never see nature," he explains. Though he admits that so many creatures benefit from the backup water created by dam-building beavers that he could be "tempted to think of them as being purposeful," he knows they are not. "Anything in nature that might resemble altruism comes not from intent but from the broad existential design of coevolution," he writes. "In the web of life that spins through the black universe on this blue planet, the water planet, the duty of each species is only to its own species."

In the epilogue Carroll notes, "I did not want to overwhelm readers of this book with laments and tirades," but so deep is his love of a world he sees endangered that he cannot help but gently slap the reader's wrist now and then. "We line the wetland with houses," he writes, "then ask what we can do to help the turtles." The term "wildlife management," he claims, "is an oxymoron. We should have learned long ago to simply leave the proper natural space, to respectfully withdraw and let wildlife manage wildlife." Man, he observes, is "the only species to adapt the earth to its own ends, rather than adapting itself to the terms of existence on the planet."

One spring afternoon, while marveling at creatures in various stages of metamorphosis in and around a vernal pool, Carroll wonders how he must appear to them: an ungainly two-legged creature, returning season after season, the same wader in the same pool in the same form. "What, this is what you are, for your duration on earth?" he thinks they might ask him incredulously, if they could. "There will be no new form and life within your form and life, no new limbs or set of wings to take you to another world?"

But David Carroll does traverse another beckoning world — their world, the wetland world — and he takes his readers with him on a journey they will not soon forget.

Reviewer Emily d'Aulaire is a freelancer who contributes frequently to Smithsonian.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.