The Man of the Marsh Chapter 1: “He Wanders”
Lyell Buttermore, a second year MCRS student, seeks to gain experience using his skills in environmental mitigation strategies and environmental assessment. Lyell’s pull to nature started at a young age while surrounded by dense forest in the Appalachians, and it has grown into a need to protect that source of life that he has always appreciated.
With a weighted exhaustion, I dragged my feet on the cold cement. I had been travelling for many months, and my body grew tired of the unforgiving pavement. Everything that I passed blurred into the same grey cement, the same grey parking garage, the same grey strip mall. The air was thick with car exhaust and the smog of industry. My body slumped against an old recycling bin, filled with trash. There was a familiar ache in my bones, and I needed rest.
Yet the heavier burden to carry was not my physical fatigue, but this paralyzing apathy that had infected my mind. This lethargic virus had slowly worked its way into my being. After all, nothing really mattered. I was one lone speck in an endless grey city. A single ant that wandered from the colony of millions. Everything was inconsequential, so why take another step?
But to my surprise, as I mustered up the last of my strength, the next step that I took was green. And not just any green, but the lively, vibrant green that you see in the budding leaves at the onset of spring. I looked up and saw a gate that read: “San Joaquin Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary.”
“I could use some sanctuary” I thought to myself.
And so, I walked into the misty marsh, passing through an arboretum full of colorful fruiting trees. A common yellowthroat darted from tree to tree, flashing his distinctive black and yellow markings underneath the layers of green leaves. Overhead, a red-tailed hawk soared low across a field, eyes vigilant for ground squirrels. And in reaction, a cottontail sprinted for shelter in the underbrush of the sturdy old willows.
I was intrigued. Already, this place seemed to sooth my sorry soul. I hiked down deeper into the center of the marsh and I noticed something hidden behind the trees. The morning fog had not yet lifted, but an emerald pond caught my eye as it sparkled through the willows. The mesmerizing pool pulled me in as if it had something to tell me. And so, I walked to it and looked out at its shimmering ripples and lively pools. A heron took off from the edge. A pond turtle, equally startled, darted back into the water. I sat by the water’s edge for a long time. Everything was so warm and inviting that I laid my head down against the tree and closed my eyes.
When my heavy eyelids reopened, I noticed a dock that I had not seen before. So, I walked out and looked down into the pond and decided to pull off my old worn boots. They were stuck. But after wrestling the last boot off my heel, I was barefoot, and I dipped my toes into the ice-cold water. I felt instantly rejuvenated, as if I had tapped into some magical elixir. Suddenly, every bit of my energy started to rise back up from my toes. And then the strangest thing happened.
I know no one will believe me, but this is truly what I saw. The pond began to bubble out near the center, and the bubbles started to move towards me. The water rose like something was underneath the surface. A fish perhaps? But no.
Suddenly a shape formed around the water and in front of my very eyes the pond started to twist and morph into a humanoid figure. I rubbed my eyes, assuming this was sleep deprivation. When my eyes opened again, I saw him more clearly, rising out of the marsh like every atom of his being was molded by the marsh itself. The green algae peeled off like a chrysalis and the figure began to rise from the muck like an ancient lotus flower. The water dripped off of him until he stood before me: a man, an older man, with a kind face and white beard. He wore big framed glasses and had on a tucked-in short sleeve flannel and cargo shorts. Curiously, he looked at me, as if I was the anomaly of our situation.
“Welcome to the marsh!” he said warmly. “I don’t believe we’ve met. Do you have a name?”
I just stared back at him, in total confusion.
“So, we’re just going to ignore the fact that you just materialized out of what looks like…swamp water? Who are you?”
“Well yes” he chuckled. “I used to have a name, like I imagine you do. They can be useful. I suppose you could call me Peat, but nowadays I spend less time feeling like Peat and more time feeling like the marsh itself.” He calmly explained to me. “You see, I speak for the marsh, as the marsh has no-”
“-No tongue?” I interjected. “So, are you a Lorax? Are those real now?” I thought back to all the Dr. Seuss knowledge I could access given my current situation.
“Well, no, not exactly” he laughed. “You see I speak for the marsh, because otherwise nobody listens. But I see you seem to appreciate our sanctuary here.” His tone became increasingly sincere. “You seem troubled, young man. What’s got you so down?”
“It’s not this place. It’s everywhere else.” I began. “I look out and just see grey. Grey skyscrapers and grey cars and grey factories. But there’s nothing that I can do about it. I feel civilization encroaching and destroying beautiful places like this, as if we are the virus. Species are in peril and we consume at a completely unsustainable rate. But there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I suppose I’m just lost and in need of some rest right now. I guess I’ve just… well I’ve come to terms with the understanding that one small speck can’t possibly influence its surrounding universe.”
“But that’s where you’re wrong!” He interjected. “Blur those lines” His hands waved around in the air in circles like some crazy old sage about to preach. I swear it looked as if the trees waved with him.
“YOU,” he pointed directly at me, “you are important so long as that speck is connected! You and every other being in this marsh are all infinitely interconnected into a larger, more beautiful system! Just like this one.” His hands waved around, and the trees followed. “The question is, what is your role in the system?” He dipped his hands into the water and effortlessly plucked out a young, brightly speckled western pond turtle.
“Look at this little guy, for example.” He placed the surprisingly calm turtle into the palm of my hand. “He may be just a little speck, but without him, this marsh would not be the same! We need him to keep the fish populations from overeating, and the predator populations snacking, and the nitrogen cycles spinning!”
“You have a role in this system, but as humans we have retreated into our own minds. What is your role for the system?” he asked. “That’s all you need to know.”
“But there must be something wrong with us as a species.” I rebutted. “Look at all we’ve done. We’ve thrown all of those systems and cycles so far out of whack that we can’t possibly change the perpetuating cycles.”
“Ahhh eco-guilt.” Peat again chuckled. “I understand your apprehension young man, but I again disagree. Any given person has the choice to take action, but we have become paralyzed. The only way to change our environment is to change ourselves. We need to change how we think about our environment.”
“And how do you have all the answers?” I was growing tired of being lectured by a strange swamp-thing. “What do you know of all this outside terror? You’re a mere hermit in the marsh. And this marsh has always been pristine. Have you ever been outside of this preserved land?”
“Oh, not preserved my young friend, restored.” He put a special emphasis on that last word.
“Restored?” I was unfamiliar with the term.
“It’s true this marsh has ancient roots,” he explained. “But this land was corrupted by humans just as all the rest was. The only difference was that the humans stepped up to perform their role in the system.”
“Humans restored this sanctuary?” I was surprised.
“You see, in restoration, we assist the recovery of an ecosystem that has been damaged. In ecological restoration, we simply act as the practicing physicians to better the health of our own ecosystems. We see what can be healed, and we let nature take care of the rest.”
“I don’t understand. Then is this marsh natural or is it man-made?”
Peat laughed. “Everything is natural so long as you see it as a part of the natural system!” He looked at me inquisitively. “Let me tell you a story.” He smiled. His hands splashed around in the water and the light began to reflect and display magical images like an old fortune teller’s crystal ball.
Was this man a wizard? I asked myself, but instead I looked down, entranced by these images created in the water’s reflections. The light and the ripples coalesced into a blurry image of a young man from an ancient time.