Absolutely everything has gone topsy turvy, so why not this? So I sit on a rough wooden bench, staring at the matted roots of cattails that stand seven feet tall around me like a living cage, and I ponder the changes that have come in all sorts of ways.
The Black River Marsh is a magical place. I know of several hiking paths that run beside it, some of which take me through hushed forests where tall hardwoods spread their branches like cathedral arches, and green and gold reflections glitter on still waters like bits of stained glass.
These places leave me hushed and grateful when I visit. As the seasons change, the woods and fields are changeable tapestries. White trilliums and purple wood violets give way to blossoming trees, and then to fields of white daisies and yellow coneflowers and Black-Eyed Susans and bright orange Devil’s Paintbrush. Mid-summer, fields of Milkweed in full bloom are covered with clouds of Monarch Butterflies as they flit and court and lay their pearl-shaped eggs on the fuzzy underside of the leaves that the caterpillars will begin to eat as soon as they hatch, starting the dance all over again.
But there is a panorama to be savored right here as well, and my favorite seat at this feast is at the far end of a boardwalk into the watery heart of the marsh.
The boardwalk runs in a loop from a parking lot that’s open just a few months a year. When the lot is closed, it’s a least a quarter mile to hike in. Hence, I had never visited the boardwalk in, say, late March, before this year. But I have more stamina than I used to, and so walking the extra distance doesn’t dissuade me like it once did.
In Spring, from this spot, the contours of the Black River as it bends and flows are clear and wide. The skies are endless. I am surrounded by water on three sides, and the highest things to be seen, rising above the collapsed cattails and marsh grasses, are the mounded homes of muskrats. These are crowned by nesting geese who regard visitors with suspicious glares.
In Spring, I can see ducks and geese swim, and take off, and land in the river. I’ve watched a Green Heron perch on a branch just above the water line, poised like an arrow, moving only by tiny degrees, until there was a sudden, spear-like motion and his beak broke the water, withdrawing with a wriggling silver fish.
The marsh is alive with Red-Winged Blackbirds, brashly claiming the high ground of the few cattails from last year not flattened by wind and rain and snow. As warmer weather sets in, the chittering of Marsh Wrens sounds like a symphony of rusty oil cans. The wrens flit from reed to reed, perching sideways. They are tiny things with upturned tails and inquisitive eyes and an industriousness that makes me feel like a slacker.
And there is the primordial clacking of Sandhill Cranes, elegant, tall birds in colors of smoke and ash and rust. They glide overhead on graceful wings and legs that trail like long, twigs. In flight, they resemble prehistoric cave paintings brought to life. At sunset, the sky can seem like a furnace in shades of crimson and pink and silver. It is breathtaking.
But as they days get longer and hotter, little by little the marsh plants stake their claim. Cattails and grasses and plants with leaves shaped like arrowheads surge upwards. And it becomes harder and harder to see the river itself.
By mid-August I have long since quit visiting the boardwalk and gone to other hiking trails with better views. Until this year. So much is different!
And so I find myself returning again and again, binoculars in hand, smelling like bug spray from head to toe, a hat on my head to protect the newest color experiment of my “pandemic hair” from the sun.
This time I strolled along the boardwalk and viewed a landscape that was tall and green as far as the eye could see. A small inlet where I had once watched a mother Wood Duck and her clutch of ducklings paddle from open water into the reeds was now covered with a solid coat of chartreuse green—duckweed--from end to end. The Red-Winged Blackbirds with their red epaulets no longer stood out like sentinels amid the jungle of profusion.
The wrens were quite muted, the oil can symphony dimmed. And yet…
A big part of my approach to watching nature is pretty much that if you just sit still for a few minutes, something will show up. And so I took my usual seat in the heart of the marsh, closest to the river, and sat down.
If there was a breeze, I couldn’t feel it since the cattails formed a wall around me. If there was a river, I couldn’t see it, even if I stood on my tiptoes. Heat from the sun soaked into my shoulders and the back of my neck.
But there were small rustlings around me in the tall, shadowy stalks. Dark shapes moved in darker shadows, the contours of small birds appearing only in fragments as they moved among the greenery.
There was the splash of a tiny footfall, and then another, in the shallow water nearby. Seen up close, the individual tiny green leaves of duckweed floated and moved on the water’s surface like confetti. It was mesmerizing.
After a few minutes, I finally started back for the car. I stopped here and there to admire the white arrowhead flowers, already past their prime and battered by the previous night’s rain but still lovely.
A quartet of half-grown Marsh Wrens flitted and hopped from the bent grasses on one side of the boardwalk to the other, as funny a set of siblings with their chirps and lurches as the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup.” They stuck together and called to each other with single notes. After they had all crossed, I could not see them in the tangle of plants, but I could chart their progress by the quivers in the grasses and their tweets to each other.
Then I heard munching sounds below my left ankle, and looked down. There were ripples in the water, as though something had just ducked for cover. A muskrat perhaps? I had seen them in river during the spring.
Now if I was somehow “keeping score,” well I hadn’t seen a single person during my entire visit, and I had actually SEEN very little in the way of birds or animals while I was there.
But I still felt not alone at all. And in this strange pandemic time, that was much more than enough.