Drain the Swamp

Drain the Swamp! It’s the refrain of a U.S. President who prefers time on the barren grass of golf courses to life’s abundance in natural wetland. Calling somewhere a swamp is never a compliment, and it’s not a pretty phrase as a  metaphor. It brings to mind a miasma, a malarious bog, a wasteland. That’s how George, the first president, regarded the Great Dismal Swamp when he surveyed it in the 1760s, and William Byrd II before him described it as a “miserable morass.” George was a land speculator who hoped that draining the swamp would create arable land to sell at a handsome profit as prime farmland in the growing colonies. He wasted his investment.

Lake Drummond

I was thinking about the Dismal as I prepared to return this week for a kayaking trip to the vast area straddling the Virginia-North Carolina border. It’s a swamp, not a marsh, because, while both are wetlands, the first is forested while marshes are vegetated with reeds, sedges or saltmarsh grasses. Both are very productive biologically, and plants put down roots into moist, deep humus to provide habitat for countless wildlife species. In George’s day, the Dismal Swamp provided food and shelter for over two hundred species of resident birds or migrants on the Atlantic flyway, and there were plenty of snakes, alligators, panthers, otters, and bears. Many of those species still thrive there today in a reduced but still vast area of over 100,000 acres centered around Lake Drummond in what is now protected as a National Wildlife Refuge. Birders and naturalists are swamp-huggers.

This is neither the first nor the last time this blogger will be a contrarian. I love swamps, not just for the animals and plants they harbor, but for their hydrology, resistance to erosion, and pure freshwater. I admit they are forbidding places in the summer when clouds of insects circle you hungrily for a bite, ticks crawl over your socks for a longer meal, and water moccasins with lily mouths slither around your waders in tea-colored water. But as tormentors’ tormentors they have been friends and allies to people who lived in the swamp.

After the Dismal was occupied by Native Americans, refugee slaves moved in after escaping from plantations. They were called maroons, from the Spanish and French word marron meaning chestnut (brown), and lived on higher patches of land called hummocks deep in the swamp where they hid from bounty hunters who dreaded leaving the main tracks. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a story about the former slave Dred in the Dismal Swamp who preached revolution and ventured outside to rescue enslaved African-Americans. Life as free men and women was a happier existence in the bog than what they were used to.

Anyone who visits the Dismal goes knowingly with a definite purpose in mind. A young white man headed there in 1894 because of its dreary reputation and intent on never returning. Instead, he found a salvation and came out alive.

That was Robert Frost down on his luck and still unpublished. According to the latest biography by William & Mary Professor Henry Hart, he had presented a few days earlier a leather-bound collection of his poems to his sweetheart, Elinor White, but she shut the book and the door on him (there was a happy ending because they later married). Frost, like Tennyson, had a family history of mental illness and when he was jilted fell into a deep melancholy and left Boston in the dead of winter. He took a steamer from New York to Norfolk from where he plodded through the country for ten miles to the swamp only clad in light clothes and not even carrying a knapsack. He was rescued from throwing his life away by a chance meeting with a group of jolly boatmen carrying a jug of grog. It made all the difference. He hints at this dark episode in his life in Kitty Hawk, a long poem composed at the end of life.

Washington DC was never a swamp like the Dismal, and only had a tidal river coursing nearby. Trump’s metaphor doesn’t ring true, although we understand his meaning. His slogan to drain the swamp is also likely to ring hollow because there is more to love and cherish in those rich habitats that to loathe and cull. Like George, he will probably find swamps have allies and advocates, and are more resilient than he imagined.

Next Post: Tap water

Tillage, Cover Crops and Soil

Every episode of an old TV series opened with people staring at an object streaking across the sky. One man called it a bird, another a plane, and finally a smart-ass proclaimed, “It’s Superman!” No one said it’s Clark Kent!

I was musing how differently we perceive the same thing. I imagine folk gazing at the uncultivated strip on our land saying it is an eyesore, others a haven for wildlife, and gardeners thinking it is a wasted opportunity to grow food. To my mind it was a chance to sow wildflowers, and I imagined the following summer a mosaic of blue cornflowers and yellow Rudbeckia with bees hovering overhead. So I asked a neighbor to plow the strip before I scattered seeds on the freshly turned dirt. I worked to create a nursery of beauty but an ugly bed of cudweed was born that blanketed the ground so no “virtuous” plant could penetrate. I now realize the compacted soil we turned exposed buried weed seeds to light and oxygen so they could germinate.

Dust storm in NM 1935 by Dorothy Lange. U.S. Farm Security Admin. Public domain

In the way that broken dreams can be instructive, I started to think afresh about plowed farm fields, how the neat rows of mounds and furrows from the hedgerow to the horizon appeal to my sympathy for geometry. Perhaps the Ohio farm agent Edward H. Faulkner loved the tidy appearance of fields left brown and vacant from winter to spring, but at some moment in his life the image jarred. Perhaps it was the memory of farms in the Mid-West and in Grapes of Wrath country further south where the topsoil was blown away in the Dustbowl that stirred him as a younger man. Maybe he pondered the benefits of leaving the land idle for which FDR’s New Deal compensated farmers with $2 an acre. I wonder if he cast back in his imagination to the lush native grasses of the original prairies that used to anchor the soil against storms and floods until they were plowed by settlers hungry for land who brought farm practices that had served their ancestors well in past centuries in Europe but were not such a good fit to prairieland.

Faulkner suspected soil erosion wasn’t so much caused by relentless forces of nature like climate hostility and grasshopper plagues as by deep plowing. Perhaps gentler tillage with a new tool or no turning of the soil would protect the land without diminishing the harvest. When he published the Plowman’s Folly in 1943 he was ridiculed, and like a good many other pioneers had to wait for his prescience to be honored.

Topsoil is a thin, fragile crust on the earth. Without soil and the fertility it harbors this would be a barren planet, so its care is a supreme responsibility. But as human populations shift from rural living to cities we seldom, if ever, think about it.

The USDA estimates we lose three tons of topsoil per acre annually, and at that rate we only have enough to support present agricultural practices for another sixty years (Scientific American, Dec 4, 2014). The public and environmental health costs of soil erosion are amounting to $45B every year. Of course, soil is regenerated naturally, but very slowly depending on the landscape and climate and at the oft-quoted average rate of one inch every 500-1,000 years. We can’t wait for nature to correct our errors and must work with her.

There were always reasons (if little scientific evidence) for deep plowing, but gradually no-till practices have caught on and swept into the organic farming movement. What Faulkner didn’t know is that soil has a much deeper structure than is visible in its “horizon.” Every handful contains immense tangles of almost microscopic fungal hyphae that build pipelines around and even inside crop roots for a relationship that benefit both (The Progressive Farmer Feb 2017). By disrupting and burying the network, plowing delays its regeneration.

Sowing a cover crop to clothe the land between harvest-time and spring also helps to reduce erosion, but offers other important benefits. Annual clover and rye grass sown among stubble residues provide soil anchorage, extra nitrogen from root nodules, conservation of moisture, and even affects the microclimate. In the south of France researchers found that by increasing infra-red radiation cover crops keep local temperatures cooler by up to 2° C. on hot days, despite the countervailing effect of reduced evaporation (PNAS 2014).

All-in-all, the farm revolution is helping to reduce soil loss, chemical fertilizers, weeds, and tractor pollution. This started me thinking about my garden, for aren’t gardeners little farmers mimicking agriculture, and isn’t the garden fork a substitute for a plow? My experiment with plowing had been a failure, but it jolted me into letting land be. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and I didn’t need more convincing to retire from digging.

My cover crop, February 2017

The experiment is still underway. Last fall the raised beds were given a shower of compost over crop residues, and without breaking soil structure I poked drainage holes with a rebar before sowing a cover crop. In previous years after leaving the soil naked all winter it quickly hosted a bed of weeds, but this year the clover and rye grew so thickly they blocked weedlings completely. I mean completely! By February I was ready to kill them off under a black tarp and dig the green manure lightly into the soil after it turned yellow before planting vegetables. The proof will be weighed in June and July, and in pounds of tomatoes and beans instead of tons of corn and soybean. An experiment is like a day at the races, because you can’t count on winning. Gardeners are hardy types like farmers because they live hopefully and consign the history of bad harvests and outdoor labor to some dark cave of the mind.

Next Post: Is the Dismal Swamp still Great?