Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Wetland Wanderer: The Every Day Wetland

by Brenda Zollitsch

When I was growing up on Marsh Island in Orono, Maine, my mother and I would walk around a field up behind the University of Maine campus every evening.  It was a little exercise, a chance to get out and about, and a wonderful time to talk − just mother and daughter.  What I didn’t realize until much later was that the field was really a wetland.

At the bottom of the field, a tiny stream meandered through a wide expanse of tall grasses and cattails.  Far away, when it had enough water, this little stream emptied into the Penobscot River.  Every Redwingday, it seemed, there were new things to see.  In the spring there were frogs’ eggs to admire and a chance to view the newest members of the amphibian world.  Red-winged blackbirds would wrap their black toes around the cattails and call out. In the summer, deer hovered around the edge of the woods, coming onto the fields to chew on the corn stalks that had begun to grow there.  We would see mallard ducks, great blue herons, and bobolinks. There were owls and marsh hawks. Cicada’s would sing wildly to each other across the sun soaked field. In the fall, we would see raccoon prints and the signs of foxes feeding on little rodents.  Once we even saw a black bear slowly walking through the field.  In winter, we would see the many animal tracks and trails and peer through the ice to catch a glimpse of what was happening below.

But what always drew me in was the chance to sit in the marshy grasses, sometimes even lie quietly next to the water and wait to see what would happen.  Inevitably, as my eyes focused more closely on this delightful microcosm and my ears opened to the fullness of the sounds around me – the small world of the wetland would emerge − perhaps a turtle poking its head up from beneath the watery vegetation, a small snake slipping through the grasses nearby, or a stonefly leaving its exoskeleton behind.  It was all right there.

It is about a mile walk around that field, but honestly I could always have spent the whole day there with my mother.  My mom is really the one who instilled in me my intimate appreciation of the natural world.  I still remember the day she found a garter snake in our backyard and rather than screaming and rushing us into the house, she picked it up carefully with her bare hands and then got us to fill a large plastic bin with grass.  She put the snake in the grass-filled bin so that my older brother and I could watch it and gently touch its soft and dry green-brown skin.  In that moment, my mother shared and shaped how I thought about snakes.  I learned that just because everyone else acts one way, it doesn’t mean you have to follow their lead.  We released the snake just a short while later, but the memory of that moment has lasted a lifetime.

Then and now, time with my mother is always precious.  In those early years, I had no idea how much of an influence she would have on me with these simple walks.  But in those walks she taught me to have a reverence for nature, to rejoice in the intricate and to open myself to senses and the sounds.  She taught me a sense of place and the importance of place-based activities and learning.  And through all of this, she taught me to love wetlands.

These days, I try to subtly share these messages with my children as well: Yes, travel far and near, learn about great big exciting things, but also learn to love what is near you, what is small and simply complex and wonderful.  I have read both of my children a great book about being present with nature, learning how to be part of it.  It is called, “Play with Me,” and is written by Marie Hall Ets.  The short, simple paperback storybook tells of a little girl who goes to the meadow to play, but each animal she tries to catch runs away from her − until she sits still by the pond, and they all come back.  The book teaches an important lesson to children in today’s on-demand world − that nature is not at your beck and call.  If you show patience, restraint, care…the natural world unfolds.  Just because it doesn’t “perform” for you, doesn’t mean it is not there.  We could all learn this lesson better and apply it to more than just wanders in wetlands.

University of Maine Recreation Trails MapThere were so many small lessons taught or simply experienced in my childhood.  Only in retrospect do I realize how many of them were actually revealed, internalized, in a wetland. This one little place − where the waters fed the reeds − this is where I learned in my heart to protect and cherish streams and wetlands.  It is my true hope that you find your “place.” − and when you do, that you find the strength to share with others why it is so important and work to protect it.

For more information about the University of Maine trail system, click here.  The book, “Play with Me” is available here.    To learn more about ways to protect wetlands in your area, click here.

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