Monday, July 14, 2008
A Wetland on Its Knees
"I readily believe that there are more invisible than visible Natures in the universe. But who will explain for us the family of these beings, and the ranks and relations and distinguishing features and functions of each? What do they do? What places do they inhabit? The human mind has always sought the knowledge of these things but never attained it. Meanwhile I do not deny that it is helpful sometimes to contemplate in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a greater and better world, lest the intellect, habituated to the petty things of daily life, narrow itself and sink wholly into trivial thoughts. But at the same time we must be watchful for the truth and keep a sense of proportion, so that we may distinguish the certain from the uncertain, day from night."
(Epigraph to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Adapted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge from Thomas Burnet's Archaeologiae Philosophicae (1692).
A visit to the Cache River yesterday with hubby left some deep impressions on me. I was struck not only by the beauty of the place (a swamp?) but also by its fragile existence, its importance in keeping the environment healthy, and its unfathomable mysteries.
Though this national treasure was in danger of disappearing forever, various government entities and nature enthusiasts have worked together to purchase farmland and let it return to its natural state. The Cache River was once a meandering waterway that provided a home for countless species of plants and animals and acted as a natural sponge, sopping up flood water in the floodplain of the Ohio River. When people began to settle in this area, they found the soil rich with promise for crops and forage for their livestock. The huge oaks and cypress trees which once covered much of the area were chopped down and hauled away for building towns and cities near and far. To make it easier for the wood to be shipped down the Ohio River, a channel was cut from the Cache to the Ohio. Draining the swamp seemed like a sensible idea to the farmers and lumber companies, and "progress" was the mantra of the day.
We took to the trails at Heron Pond to view the swamp firsthand but not before stopping at the impressive Wetlands Center for a little background information. The park ranger in charge of the operation showed us a short film about the area's history and plans for the future. After the film, I asked her something that I've been curious about for quite some time: What purpose do cypress knees serve, other than calling to mind those mythical creatures known as gnomes? She responded that "no one really knows for sure" and that various theories have been devised but none have been proven conclusive. One theory is that the knees provide stability in the trees' somewhat unstable watery environment. Another theory is that they allow the trees' underwater roots to access more oxygen. A little investigation by me online turned up an interesting but still inconclusive article by Christopher H. Briand, "Cypress Knees: An Enduring Enigma." Briand admits that "after nearly 200 years of speculation and research, the function or functions of the knees of cypresses remain unclear. Darwin referred to the origin of the flowering plants as an 'abominable mystery'; it appears that the function of cypress knees is another. The truth may be that cypress knees evolved in response to past environmental pressures that no longer exist, in which case their function may be lost in the depth of time."
In other words, the discovery of their purpose is still around the bend, submerged in the curious mind of some unknown child. It's just waiting to be picked up and put to good use for solving some problem like cancer or maybe providing some insight into the real causes of global climate change.
As hubby and I strolled along the trail to Heron Pond, we encountered a young couple with an energetic child in tow. We observed him hacking away mercilessly at the trunk of a small tree growing next to the trail. His father was recording the "cute" behavior on a DVR and laughing as the tyke imitated the actions of a lumberjack from the past or maybe those of a modern firefighter in California cutting a fireline (something he had obviously seen in a movie or on an evening news broadcast). I held my tongue until we were out of earshot and then railed loudly to hubby against the lax attitudes of parents today. Instead of recording his son's antics, that young father should have been gently dissuading him and using the moment to teach him a valuable lesson about taking care of nature. Don't get me wrong. I applaud the parents' attempt to immerse the youngster in the midst of an environment in peril. I think this kind of parental effort is sorely lacking today. Most parents would rather recline in air-conditioned comfort while their youngsters sit enthralled in front of the movie screen, getting their life-lessons from Hollywood. Still, I wish that young father had told his son that striking the tree bark could damage the tree's "skin" and perhaps make it sick and unable to grow big and tall like the trees all around it. If parents today don't act as a bridge to the next generation, leading them to love the world they live in, our world is indeed "doomed to destruction," as the media are so fond of insisting.