Cypress tree

A cypress tree in the watershed of Maryland’s Pocomoke River spreads its “knees” through the water. The Great Cypress Swamp covered about 100 square miles of the Delmarva Peninsula.

Water’s way: slow and swampy, spread out and oozy, soaking in, life affirming, purifying, beautifying.

Our way: water away, as fast as possible, pave and ditch, drain and channel, banish meanders, linearize.

Creatures of the wet meet creatures of the dry, a clash of Earth’s two seminal terra-formers, the fate of the Chesapeake Bay and planet hangs on the outcome. Guess who’s winning? (For now, at least … nature bats last, they say).

Oh! Hey there. I forgot that all of you faithful Bay Journal readers were tuning in. Bicycling country roads does that to me, inducing a meditative state where I zone out amid cosmic truths.

Today’s ride is sunshine-y, temps in the 40s, a February breeze making wool underwear feel ever so snug.

I’ve chosen the little-trafficked Willards-to-Whaleyville route, looping through Maryland’s Worcester County. It’s a county everyone thinks they know because of Ocean City and Assateague National Seashore, though most only know its surfy fringes. Those are attractive slivers, to be sure, but then there’s the whole interior — now oceans of corn and soybean fields cruised by chicken houses as long as seagoing ships, but once something as naturally spectacular as any Atlantic beach.

The Great Cypress Swamp — headwaters of the Pocomoke River — for millenia covered about 100 square miles of the Delmarva Peninsula’s interior across Worcester County and Delaware’s Sussex County immediately north.

Early European accounts described it as impassable, a place of near impenetrable gloom harboring wolves and bears and deafening arrays of birdsong. The din of frogs and other amphibians and insects must have charged the nights.

It would have been, too, the happiest of homes for beavers, which numbered in the millions in the pristine Chesapeake watershed, damming and ponding and retaining water, creating a landscape we moderns can scarcely comprehend, much less see, not even in places that now pass for “natural” and “untouched.”

We ditched and drained and developed all that over a couple centuries — timbered it and paved it and bled it dry, causing vast, months-long fires that cooked the moisture out of the organic peat, several feet down, destroying what had been the literal foundation of the cypress swamp. Only remnants survive, and nothing like the original. Its guardian beavers were pretty much trapped out everywhere in the Chesapeake watershed by 1750.

Water’s way would never be the same.

And yet, as I bicycle the site of ancient swamplands, stubbled with the stalks of last fall’s corn and soybean harvests, it is clear that this is land still badly wanting to be that wet, beautiful swamp again.

The underlying hydrology didn’t go away. It is just held in check by drainage ditches that on many fields must be so closely spaced there is barely room to turn around between them with today’s large farm machinery (let alone space to plant ditch-side buffer strips of natural vegetation that protect water quality).

Across Delmarva, this ditching — ranging from narrow, shallow field ditches to 80-foot-wide canals deep enough to accommodate boats — keep the Bay watershed shedding water with hyper-efficiency that allows a highly productive agriculture. But it also pipes polluted runoff Bayward and is the major cause of stream degradation across much of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. If we stop ditching, nature will reassert. But don’t hold your breath.

My spirits rise as I come to a dirt road. Such “unimproved” byways always suit me. Better yet, this one is on my GPS named Swamp Road. Onward!

Bumping and splashing along, I recall an insightful essay called Speed, by the pioneer environmental educator David Orr. He begins with how we ditch and pave to unnaturally speed the flow of water away from our farms and cities — water from rain, from sewage, from industries — to the detriment of everything downstream.

Orr doesn’t stop there. He proceeds to explain how we’ve unnaturally sped up the flow of money with an economy that pulls local dollars rapidly out of communities via WalMarts and Targets and Starbucks. Like water, money no longer sticks around to circulate, recycle and enrich locally.

Finally, he writes, we’ve sped the flow of information, to where a grade school student can Google up more citations than a team of scholars could a few decades ago — though this leap in quantity does little or nothing to improve actual wisdom.

So it’s not just ditches we’re talking about. It’s whether humans can slow down, think ecologically, move back toward being a part of nature, instead of apart from it.

It’s why I’m working on a new Bay Journal film called Think Like A Watershed, using beavers to focus on how water once moved through the landscape, how we changed it, how we might go back — in part by coexisting with the Bay’s original terra-formers, gravity and the creatures of the wet.

And wet it has been traversing Swamp Road, but it has brought me to something hopeful. Heavy machinery I spotted along the ditched channel of the upper Pocomoke turns out to be part of an impressive restoration project by The Nature Conservancy and Maryland and federal environmental agencies.

They are leveling enough of the dikes thrown up when the river was channelized in the 1930s to reconnect its flows with about 4,000 acres of degraded floodplain wetlands. They are acting like beavers, spreading the water out, cleansing it, letting it take its time on its way to the Bay, nourishing a diversity of life as it goes.

Water’s way. It’s the way home. 

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay  Journal.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University.

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