Marshes

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

Are small marshy areas in fields, along roads, around edges of ponds, or along streams of any value? Places where cattails grow and redwing blackbirds sing? Whether you said yes or no, you answered another question: Does wildlife have value?

We often think of wildlife as game animals we hunt and fish. There is a broader definition. Any non-domesticated (that is native) plant or animal may be considered wildlife. Many wildlife species use marshes, inundated wetlands with herbaceous plants adapted to constantly wet soils. We tend to think that marshes are large, like the north end of Klamath Lake, with an abundance of fish and waterfowl. Marshes can be small, just a few feet in diameter, and though small, play host to many plants and animals that prefer this habitat. In our area, typical marsh plants include cattails, rushes and sedges. Occasionally willows may appear along the margin. If trees and shrubs dominate the wet area, we have a swamp.

Do humans value the small marshy areas in their fields and along their roads? Generally not. We usually consider them a nuisance. We like to plow all our land, or groom it with more familiar vegetation. We drain it, dry it up, make it suitable for human needs and desires. Another nesting pair of waterbirds, a food-seeking shorebird, or a water-seeking, nest-building bird won’t make much difference in our lives. We won’t miss them, or the insects produced by the marsh, consumed by insect-eating birds. The birds will miss them though, and as the insects become less abundant so will the birds. We wouldn’t miss the occasional small mammal whose hearth and home is in the marsh. Would we miss the creepy-crawlies, seen and unseen, heard and unheard? We probably would miss the frogs. What about the plants? Most don’t know what they are, so what? Roadside ditches are great for carrying away runoff. About the time they become interesting biologically, along comes the machine and strips them back to mineral soil. Who needs a flash of black and red wing to remind us that spring has sprung?

I do!

A marsh, no matter how tiny, gives us a slightly different aspect of nature to enjoy. It gives us a spot of green in the yellow parch of summer. It gives us a little moisture in the hot dry air. For curious, adventurous youngsters, a marsh is fascinating place to visit and explore, to discover nature.

Does nature in all its varied ways have a right to exist on its own merits? Must we reclaim all wild lands and convert them for our purposes? Why does a piece of land we can’t use for our own purposes, fulfilling its rightful destiny, irritate us so? Ignorance, or worse? Maybe we need to cultivate an individual appreciation for nature to be expressed as a marsh. Take time to understand and enjoy these vignettes of our natural heritage, unique survivors of one of our earthly origins.

Unfortunately, marshes don’t even count by modern day values, unless we wisely decide that nature, as a marsh, deserves to exist. To learn to appreciate marshes and their unique beauty, read Sally Carrighar’s One Day at Teton Marsh and join a small, but serious band of marsh-watchers. Huge marshes and small damp places are disappearing from the earth and with their disappearance, a sense of well-being disappears as well.

— Dr. Frank Lang

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