Worthless Swamp Land?

Posted on April 1st, 2010 by Michelle A. | Posted in Newsletter Articles, Notes & News

We’ve all heard the jokes about  selling swamp land and most of us have been conditioned to view a swamp as something undesirable and of no value. It’s scary, it’s smelly, there are all kinds of creepy-crawly, venomous creatures lurking about. You can’t grow or build anything on it. Swamps have unclear and ever changing boundaries and are hard to enclose and exploit. They just sit there – unless we drain them, tame them, plant on them or pave over them. Who on earth would want swamp land?

Well, it turns out we should all want it, because we all need it for our very survival, as a human community and as an interconnected part of a living planet. Swamps and other wetlands, such as marshes, bogs, fens, peatland, bayous and river deltas are critically important for providing fresh water and oxygen, as well as being a habitat for thousands of species of plants, animals, birds and insects. As a matter of fact, wetlands are the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems on earth, all the while helping to combat climate change by keeping CO2 that’s released from decaying matter under water where it is converted by the plants into oxygen.
We have a lot of wetlands here in the Willamette Valley and many of us are coming to recognize their value and their beauty. Oregon has one of the nation’s most aggressive and progressive wetlands protection and restoration programs.
I’m from Louisiana,  where wetlands play a critically important role by acting as giant buffering sponges, soaking up and diffusing flood waters from hurricanes, river floods and other natural disasters. This protects the dry land and our valuable real estate: homes,  businesses, schools, neighborhoods and historical landmarks. It’s difficult to put a price tag on such a service. Should we even try? On paper, filling in swamp land in order to build a Wal-Mart or some new condos or even a school, park or community center can make some sort of sense in the short run. But what about the next generation? What, exactly, are they inheriting?

As a kid from New Orleans, I’ve spent my whole life hearing about The Big One we all knew was bound to happen one of these hurricane seasons. My parents talked about it. My grandparents talked about it. For forty years we heard stories of flooding and saw black and white photos of canoes floating down the street in front of Grandma’s house in 1965. We all knew what was coming. What we didn’t know was how different the impact of the storm would be now that huge “unnecessary” sections of swamps, bayous and other wetlands had been drained and paved over so we could build more profitable stuff, like malls, gas stations and fast food joints.

In 1965, before the city made such “improvements,” my grandmother ended up with 2 feet of water in her living room when Hurricane Betsy hit. It took a couple of months to get the floors refinished and good as new. Forty years of progress later, she ended up with 2 feet of water in her attic in the aftermath of Katrina. The house is now nothing more than a moldy shell hopelessly beyond redemption, but she refuses to let it be torn down. She had lived in that house for over 60 years, raised two children, housed adult grandchildren and their children. Now, she’s in a spiffy new condo on drier land. But all she wants is for her little house out near the lakefront and City Park to be rebuilt just so she can die in it.

So, what is our swamp land really worth? It’s worth all the combined dreams, hopes and histories of families and communities who live and thrive near these fragile ecosystems about whose value we so easily joke. It’s worth the future health and continued prosperity of succeeding generations and the larger planetary system that cannot survive without its humble and miraculous presence.

For me, it’s worth all that and more. There’s an alligator in a swamp back home who likes to eat marshmallows. He’s a favorite on the local Swamp Tours. I’d like my grandchildren to meet him one day, just like my parents and I and my kids did. He’s been around for about 60 years. They haven’t filled in his part of the swamp. Yet.