The Marsh and the Heat

All around us, life arises and decays in complicated, in-between spaces. The human challenge, says Rick Bass, author of The Diezmo, is to make a similar confident, quiet passage through the middle ground.

Photo by Molly Nudell

Even as the world seems to become beaten down by heat—browning, wilting, entering dormancy, even dying and preparing to burn, or to be tested by the burning—the marsh itself remains, as ever, a thing of beauty, as astounding in its senescence as in its spring and summer vibrance or its winter serenity. Neither words nor paint can capture the sepia tone of the marsh grasses as they dry out, for their color, or vanishing-of-color, is compensated for by the mysterious rustling and clattering sound the grasses and sedges make, in any rare bit of breeze, and by the increasingly metallic reflectivity of the August sun glinting across those bronzed blades, like ten thousand or ten hundred thousand drawn swords.

Dragonflies rise from those dying tangles of swords, seemingly as infinite as the grass blades and sedges themselves, and they are the only movement out over the great plain of the marsh, swirling around in no ordered migration but merely each to his or her whirling, clattering own, stirred as if by the heat, and filling the air with the sunlit prism-glitter of their lace wings, each dragonfly illuminated in this manner as if from within, as if burning, and as if fueled by that beautiful jewel-fire. Even from a distance of four or five hundred yards, clear across to the other side of the marsh, your eye can fall upon the flight of any one individual dragonfly, filled as it is with its own corona, and with the cool, dark blue-green of the old spruce forest standing as backdrop.

The sight of all those dragonflies is calming, as the marsh always is, and it occurs to me that often it is the two poles of the extreme that becalm us: we can be led or encouraged to serenity by the austerity of the desert—like the simplicity of a cabin, or a loft bedroom furnished with only one bed, one chair, one desk, one window—and yet we can also be comforted by extreme bounty: the fruit stand, with its bushels full of vibrant color and rich odor and supple textures; the full smokehouse, with its hanging array of meats; the full woodpile; the giant and diverse green-leafed garden.

As if we are trying to find a way—a confidence—to live in the more complicated space between these two larger, more visible, morenameable primary poles or places, the black and the white. As if—still so relatively new to the world—we are not fully accustomed to the middle ground, and its mosaics of subtlety and paradox.

How can we love a kind of animal such as a deer or an elk, and yet love to eat it too—and worse yet, or so its seems, love to hunt it, even to kill it? How can we love the deep wilderness, the places where there will never be roads, and yet love the museums and concert halls, the fine and elegant restaurants?

These vast distances, these extraordinary poles—these dramas of boom-and-bust, of rank wilderness solitude and exploration, and of seething humanity—are the easy things to love, the things that clamor for our attentions. I suspect that one of our more unobserved challenges as humans, as a species, lies not so much in the noisy explorations of those occasional and highly visible dramas, but in how well we pass through the middle ground, the quiet days: the drift-between-the-rapids, and the immense and lovely distances between flood and forest fire and blizzard.

This is the last place there will be water. Even when the creeks and rivers themselves are but dry racks of bones, shining cobbly-white beneath the eye of the drought, and beneath the prolonged accumulating weight of climatic change, the peaty depths of the marsh, the fen, the bog, will almost always retain some moisture, deep in its earthen breast of the centuries.

Yet even the marsh will not be here forever. As it slowly dries, the trees standing at its edges, nurtured by its moderate center, will fall into the center; rotting at first, sinking and rotting, and feeding the marsh grasses; feeding, in their decomposition, the sun-struck waterlogged soup that helps support all those beautiful clattering dragonflies, and so much more—geese and moose and wolves and deer, warblers and vireos.

Eventually, if the drying spell continues for a long enough time, the rate of rot will slow, and the tree carcasses will begin forming soil. Seedlings will take root in the nurse-log carcasses of the fallen, and will rise, living long enough to provide some shade, which will be the beginning of the end for the marsh. The process is called eutrophication, and is one of the slowest nongeologic organic processes I can think of—it might take thousands of years—until one day (was it really only the blink of an eye?) the marsh will be a buried lens of coal, a lake of brittle carbon, buried beneath ten thousand feet of time.