Bringing Back A Swamp

by Tim Matson

There’s a spring ritual in my farm that I save for a sunny day in late April when the frost is coming out of the ground. I grab a bucket and a spade and hike off into the woods to a swamp glowing  with marsh marigolds. I dig a dozen of them and carry them home to transplant into a mushy stretch of shore by my pond.

Marsh marigolds are not an endangered species, but nevertheless I’m pleased to be doing what I can to protect the local population. I follow the wildcrafter’s rule of thumb: One-third for me, and leave a third for future foragers, and a third for the land. The jade green plants make for a cheery sight, and I hear the greens are good eating, but I get my fill simply by watching the golden flowers bloom beside the water in May. They glow bright as giant buttercups, heralding spring and something more. The pond is gaining a new dimension. It is becoming a wetland.

That might sound redundant. What could be wetter than a pond? However, a quarter-acre pond eight feet deep is not the same as a marsh. You don’t find marsh marigolds in a pond, at least not commonly around the man-made ponds in this territory. A wetland is a swampy plot of earth, the haunt of birds and bugs and snakes. Shallow inland wetlands operate like sponges, holding back floods during a storm, reserving water during a drought, and purifying contaminated water by natural filtering action. Wetlands provide refuge for all sorts of animals.

They also attract humans. Over the past two centuries, roughly half of the nation’s wetlands have been diked, drained, and filled in, and we’re still losing about 400,000 acres of wetland every year. Not long ago our local newspaper urged readers to “Guard the Swamps,” but that is a formidable task, even in environmentally conscious Vermont, where laws specifically protect wetlands. Where such laws have been enacted, enforcement is generally lax, due to weak conservation boards and determined developers.
We aren’t likely to see the condominiums on Cape Cod melt back into cranberry bogs. But if we can’t bring back the original wetlands, why not create new ones? That’s where the marsh marigolds come in. When I decided to turn a wet spot in my meadow into a pond, I found myself faced with a dilemma. In the act of collecting water, I knew I’d be erasing a small piece of wetland. Goodbye woodcock, hello trout. I decided to go ahead and excavate the marsh, promising myself that somehow I’d restore that wetland. Since than I’ve donated one quarter of the pond’s shoreline to wetland preservation.

Naturally, I chose the soggy uphill side of the pond where the spring-flows soak the hill. Instead of cross-hatching the bank with curtain drains or covering it with a plank pier, I left it alone. I seeded the ground with a light carpet of grass to prevent erosion, and began to bring in the marsh marigolds. My wife added a spread of day lilies. With the exception of cattails, which I fear would colonize the shallows, we intend to go on transplanting other native wetland flowers and shrubs, and thus invite wetland wildlife to share our pond. For example, alders may attract a family of woodcock or red-winged blackbirds.

I find the appearance of marsh marigolds on the banks of my pond an encouraging sight in the spring. It tells me that TV preachers aren’t the only things that can be born again.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the book A Country Planet: Smart Ways to Rural Success and Survival by Tim Matson. The book is now out of print. However, watch our blog for several more reprints of Tim’s great articles from this book!

Tim is also the author of three books offered at Lehmans.com: Earth Ponds A to Z, Earth Ponds Sourcebook and The Book of Non-Electric Lighting.

One thought on “Bringing Back A Swamp

  1. Sounds great… looking forward to seeing some pics when they bloom. There used to be a wetland area north of the property I grew up on. The town took it into their heads to drain it… now the springs that were feeding it have dried up and the beauty that was once there is long gone to crop land. I spent many an hour there as a child playing in the wild that is no more…