You might be wrong about wetlands. To you, wetlands might be pits of stagnant water covered in a pea-green film. You imagine the sulfurous smell of old meat and clouds of black flies ready to bite any fragment of skin not already pierced by a mosquito proboscis. You might think of wetlands as the treacherous swamps transversed by countless heroes in literature and film.
You might be wrong about wetlands, but that is okay. Humans learn from past experiences, but we sometimes let history fog our judgement about the present. There is a reason "swamps" have become synonymous with disease and danger, but much of it is cultural rather than scientific. For centuries, diseases were thought to originate from "bad air" radiating from stagnant water. This was not woefully inaccurate--some disease-carrying arthropods require water to reproduce ("bad air" is the etymology of malaria, which is transmitted from mosquitos). But the permeating ideology of the miasma (another word for "bad air") likely originated from odors that came from flooded soils. To put it briefly, when soil is saturated with water, oxygen is limited. The resulting microbes have to metabolize anaerobically, and switch to using sulfur as an electron acceptor. When those soils are disturbed, the sulfur gases are released. This gas does not cause cholera (drinking from standing water filled with human waste can, but that is another story...).
I know at one point I was also wrong about wetlands. Over the years, my perception must have shifted--I now find myself espousing the benefits of wetlands to unfortunate subjects with unrequited enthusiasm. Rather than producing toxic chemicals, wetlands clean our water. Rather than being wasted land, wetlands are places to spend time with nature and other humans. Wetlands beg to be experienced. One of my fondest memories of my grandmother (who passed away this year) involves her taking a wrong turn and plunging waist-deep into wetland peat. Holding her fishing pole in the air, she shouted for me. We laughed as our boots sloshed on the way back to stream on the last fishing trip we would take together.
Every visit I take to a wetland leaves me musing about the experience. This mid-December visit was no different. The Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge is a 12 square mile section of upland prairie combined with expansive wetlands. It is positioned just off I-29 between Omaha and Kansas City, but the cacophony of geese and trumpeter swans put the sound of the traffic far into the distance. In fact, if not for the caravan of visitors trailing my car, I might have imagined I was marooned in the Canadian wilderness.
Multitudes of ducks cycloned into the air and landed back on the open water like autumn leaves after a gust. Geese sailed between them, undeterred. But the most notable visitor to these wetlands, and likely the reason why dozens of cars were parked along this road, were the bald eagles.
I watched for hours as eagles leaped from their perch on the dead branches, circled over the anxious ducks, and then returned. They tussled in the air over flight paths, they quarreled in the shallow water over some remains of a goose. Curiously, I never saw one take a living bird. The ducks seemed so helpless and plentiful underneath them. Surely they could plunge and take one or two with little effort. Maybe it was an off afternoon for such dramatic action, or perhaps the cold nights and exhaustion from migration take enough birds to spare the predators the effort of a chase.
As the line of cars worked its way through the 10 mile auto tour and the sun lowered in the sky, I found myself compelled to pull off to the side of the road and sit on the cold ground next to my car. I did this not simply to get a better photography angle, but to immerse myself in the sights and the sounds of this wetland.
It is in this stillness that the power of the wetland appears, when you give yourself a moment to see the individual species from the masses. I noted more species than I was able to photograph--greater white-footed geese (Anser albifrons), Canada geese (Branta canadensis), snow geese (Anser caerulescens), mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), American wigeons (Mareca americana), trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator), and many others if my bird identification could match my enthusiasm.
If you are still wrong about wetlands, it is likely you haven't visited one recently. Thankfully, wetlands are now acknowledged for their value and are one of the most protected habitat spaces in the United States. There is very likely a wetland near you (although if you live in the driest of desserts, that wetland might be seasonal or ephemeral). Go alone or take the family. If you are like me, you will leave with with a reinvigorated appreciation for these maligned habitats.