Sap is flowing through ice and snow
When nature awakens in late March or early April, sap starts flowing in the trees and ice changes to water marking the end of hibernation. This is the grand opening of the wetlands and the pilgrimage to the vernal pools as David M. Carroll writes in his “Swampwalker’s Journal: a Wetlands Year.” A vernal pool is a body of water which fills up in autumn and winter and is swollen in the spring but often dries up completely by the end of the summer. Carroll describes vernal pools so beautifully: “It is at snowmelt and ice-out, the last sleets, first rains, and the earliest warming breaths of spring that they beckon wood frogs, salamanders, and spring peepers from surrounding upland woods, where they have passed the winter in rotted-out trees roots [a reason not to ‘clean up’ the woods], under layers of bark and litter, in small mammal tunnels and other hibernacula in the earth.” The melting snow heralds the march of the amphibians. “Vernal pool habitats hold a galaxy of small things that come to life the instant ice and snow turn back into water.”
Carroll walks the swamps, as the title of his book suggests, in search of mating salamanders and spotted turtles, bogs, fens and all wetland flora and fauna. He tells us that there must be a certain collusion of events– several warm days in a row followed by a darkest of nights with temperatures ideally in the mid-50s with rain preferably two nights in a row. And then the magical migration begins. The salamanders begin their “annual pilgrimage” to the vernal pond to mate.
My husband and I are lucky enough to have a vernal pond on the property next door to us and when Spring comes the sound at night from that pond makes us feel as if we are camping out next to a vast wetland. The music of the spring peepers plays through the night throughout the house, often starting overeagerly in the late afternoon. This manic symphony thrills us every year. It is the first sign of Spring for us. The quality of joyousness and the affirmation of life gladdens our souls. Going to sleep with that sound makes us remember what we so often forget, to give thanks to our Creator for His magnificent creatures.
Inspired by Carroll, one year we awaited the first dark, rainy warm night after a succession of warm days. In our rain gear, armed with flashlights we set out around 11PM to look for the march of the salamanders. We walked to the nearby pond. Nothing. We walked quite aways down a nearby dirt road that has run off but is not quite a vernal pond. We shone the flashlight this way and that. Nothing. We finally headed home disappointed and dejected and my husband started towards the front door when I let out a yelp. There in the doorway was a 6 inch spotted salamander in all its glory! We never found the march of the salamanders but we were greeted by one of these fantastic amphibians right at our front door!
This story, however, does not have a happy ending. In his epilogue to the “Swampwalker’s Journal,” David Carroll explains why it took him more than 7 years to complete this book. He writes that he became involved in saving some of the wetlands in his book and says sadly nearly all of his interventions have or will become “losing battles.” He describes the plight of the wetlands, bogs and fens as a “landscape of loss.” And he scorns our human selfishness as he writes how it “reveals explicitly the extent to which we think of ourselves as owning all living things, along with the very earth, air, and water in which they live, as if we possessed some divinely mandated dominion over all creation.” He warns: “As we will learn in time none of this belongs to us.” I read these words, knowing them to be true and I think of the soon-to-be-extinct bog turtle and other creatures with the same possible fate. I think of the spotted salamander who came to our door, as did Shelley, the snapping turtle who used to return to our drive way every year to lay her eggs. I think of the spring peepers whose joyous song heralds spring next door every year, and I fear for the future of them all.