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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Swampwalker

Air Date: Week of September 24, 1999

Author David Carroll talks with host Steve Curwood about the cycles of wetlands which he chronicles in his new book Swampwalker's Journal. He discusses the revitalization brought to wetlands of the northeast by the recent spate of storms.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Prior to the recent East Coast storms, many of the region's wetlands were suffering from a severe drought. Water had dropped below critical levels, stressing and sometimes killing the animals and plants which live in them. David Carroll has spent years observing the cycles and events which make wetlands so unique, and he writes about what he's seen and heard in a new book, Swampwalker's Journal. According to David Carroll, the recent onslaught of rain may have dislocated people, but for much of nature it was a gift from the heavens.

CARROLL: Primarily, the water has expanded its realm, and it has occupied more of the habitat. And as the water floods deeper in some areas and backs into backwaters, it suddenly enables a lot of the animals who have been really holed up, and these species, the frogs, the turtles, and so forth, and even the birds, the birds that wing in and out now, suddenly have had this wetland world given back to them. It's like they've been taken back to the spring flood levels, and the world is brim full again.

CURWOOD: What kind of difference have you seen in people's perceptions since these storms?

CARROLL: Well, I think they're certainly much more aware of the extent of the wetlands, and I think they're more, well hopefully more, aware of the dynamic interchange, really, between wetland and dry land or wetlands and the uplands. And I think it's a very, very potent point right now, because so much of the wetland delineation arguments and so forth continually try to draw a very specific line: here is where the wetland ends, here is where the upland begins. But it's such an inter-grade, really, between wetland and riparian zones, which are between wetlands and uplands, and then the uplands. And of course, the dynamic of the water moving back and forth among these, and then all the plants and animals that move with the water, is much more a continuum, I think, than some people realize or that some people who do not want to give wetlands proper space are willing to acknowledge.

CURWOOD: So this is fascinating. There are actually some creatures whose ecological niche is land that is sometimes wet, sometimes dry. They can't live in a place that's all wet and they can't live in a place that's all dry. Do I have that right?

CARROLL: That's right. And in particular, the amphibians and reptiles, certainly the turtles that I follow, require this kind of continuum of wet to dry. For example, the turtles must have dry land that doesn't flood at all in order to lay their eggs and to keep their species going.

CURWOOD: In your book you talk a lot about the cyclical changes in the various types of wetlands. What defines each season, say, for a swamp? Is there one event?

CARROLL: The water, really, and the temperature. The coming and going of the water and the coming and going of the warmer seasons shape the seasons and the cycles, really, of the wetlands. And it's these that the frogs -- the frogs are keyed in, they know just when to start to move and get into those vernal pools as quickly as they can to lay their eggs. Because evolutionarily speaking, they know, however that knowing works, that those pools are temporary. And in a year like this year, they're going to lose their young, and they just try to get everything going as fast as they can and take advantage of that seasonal water.

CURWOOD: You really like swamps (laughs).

CARROLL: I love them. I must say, I just do.

CURWOOD: You have a wonderful passage in your book about the swamp in autumn. I'm wondering if you could read to us from that right now.

CARROLL: Yes, I will. "At last light, the day-long heavy cloud cover suddenly disperses, and an afterglow imparts a faint, rosy light to the sienna, umber, and ochre of brush and sedges in the shrub swamp. Cold air drains down the hillsides like water. My fingertips grow numb as the air temperature drops ten degrees in half an hour to a single degree above freezing. Daylight is quickly fading. Some plants with persistent white-haired seed heads, purple-leaved willow herb, swamp aster, swamp goldenrod, and a few tufts of tawny grass, catch a silver light. Plants are hibernating in their buds, roots, and rhizomes. Future generations abide in seeds. The stunning silence here at twilight is as sharp as the cold air and the white moon just now rising."

CURWOOD: Well, tell me an experience, out walking in the wetlands, where just being by yourself and being quiet got some important results.

CARROLL: That's the wonderful thing about it. So many instances. I remember one time approaching a vernal pool in the spring, and I could just hear this cacophony, as I call it, of the wood frogs. Anyone who hears them is quite moved by them. Sometimes you think it's a bunch of ducks rucking and rucking away. But it's this frog chorus. And it suddenly went dead still; they can go silent in a heartbeat. All of them; it's like they have one mind or one eye and suddenly sense something is wrong. But I knew I was too far away, yet, to have been the cause of that. That would happen if any of them saw me. If one saw me, it seems like the whole gang shuts up. So I knew something had happened.

I approached the vernal pool, and as I got, sort of shrugged my way through the shrub margins of it and got near the edge of the open part of the pool, I saw this broad-winged hawk take off. I don't often -- at that time I wasn't familiar with the broad-winged hawk as a vernal pool creature; it's certainly not in most of the guidebooks. And I thought, what was a hawk doing down in this pool? And I waded to the site where I had seen the hawk lift from, and there was a wood frog who had just been killed by the hawk, who had dropped down. The scene was really quite evocative. The frog had been skinned; his skin was peeled away from him. And as I say in the book, it looked disturbingly like a flayed person.

So here I saw, wow, here's a hawk that's undressing a kill, almost as a human hunter might. And it just seemed that story upon story was happening, and I couldn't help but think, you know, here's a frog who got into the pool and was singing away and getting ready for the mating and all, but unfortunately he wasn't quite wary enough, and that's how the cycle goes. And he's picked off by a broad-winged hawk who's probably recently come back from over- wintering, maybe as far away as the mountains of Peru. And I make the point in my book that it's not that big a stretch, by virtue of this interaction between the frog of the vernal pool here in southern New Hampshire, and that broad-winged hawk, that that pool is linked with the high mountains of the Andes and Peru. Those things just continually excite me and just make me want to see more of what's going on and see what I can interpret from it.

CURWOOD: Turtles come out in autumn.

CARROLL: Yes.

CURWOOD: And in fact, I think if there is a single species that is identified with you, it's probably turtles.

CARROLL: Yes.

CURWOOD: You love to talk about turtles. How are the turtles doing? I was driving down a highway, in southern New Hampshire as a matter of fact, one morning, and there was a snapper with a carapace that had to have been, oh, two and a half feet long. And maybe a foot and a half wide, right in the middle of the road. In fact I thought it was a piece of luggage.

CARROLL: (Laughs) Oh, yeah, they do look like luggage. That is unfortunately one of the toughest, toughest things that turtles face. It is very difficult.

CURWOOD: So I stopped the car, and I tried to herd this turtle. They don't herd. They sort of herd like cats. (Carroll laughs) So then, the traffic is starting to pile up, because actually it's a major road. I mean, cars are doing, you know, 60 miles an hour on this thing.

CARROLL: Oh, yes.

CURWOOD: So I decided, I suppose quite foolishly, to pick this thing up, to carry her over to a place. And I figured that she couldn't get those jaws around. I got away with it; I actually was able to pick this turtle up. Quite heavy; it must have been, I don't know, 50 pounds of turtle or more.

CARROLL: Could well be. Could well be.

CURWOOD: And sort of fling the poor thing into what looked like the wetter side. I just didn't want to meet those jaws. So what did I risk? Was I going to lose a finger or more to this terrified --

CARROLL: No, no. You might have risked roadkill. That is the thing I always tell people who do stop. Bless you for stopping and helping the turtle, but we must be careful about not getting run over ourselves. It's a thankless job to help them across the road, but I thank you.

CURWOOD: It is indeed. I mean, she was not very happy to see me.

CARROLL: No.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, what is it that draws you to visit them again and again? In fact, there's a turtle that you've known over, what? The last 15 or 20 years? You even gave her a name, right?

CARROLL: Yes. Well, I did, and often when I give talks in schools and so forth, people ask me, well, do you name the turtles? And I always say no, and then I relent and say well, there are one or two that I've just known for a long time, and I just couldn't resist. There's one turtle, Ariadne, who actually I've now mentioned in all three of my books, whom I've known for 15 years now. I saw her again this year, a spotted turtle, which is my key species within that group, the turtles, that are my main focus. When I saw her and I got to see her year after year, I just thought this is such a particularly beautiful spotted turtle, I just gave her a name I thought was beautiful. I didn't have any particular significance other than that. So, I sort of have a theme of looking for Ariadne when I go out now at thaw each year. It'll be interesting to see, you know, who keeps swampwalking the longest, Ariadne or me, but I just hope I keep finding her when I can get out there.

CURWOOD: Well thank you very much, David Carroll.

CARROLL: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: David Carroll's new book is titled Swampwalker's Journal. He joined us today from New Hampshire, home of his beloved wetlands.

 

 

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