In the Dreaming Marsh

Every November I seem to find myself mired in swamps.  I had thought that my move to the arid climate of New Mexico would finally break this annual tradition, but circumstance, as always, contrived to place me in a situation where my life choices were constrained to hillocks, mud, or icy water.  There is an art to crossing an unexpected wetland, hopping from reed-clump to reed-clump, occasionally making a daredevil leap into the arms of an unhelpfully-positioned willow, inevitably ending in a grand mis-step, and a squishing trudge back to dry land.  November, in addition to being the month of ex-girlfriends and Christmas shopping, is the month of falling into marshes.

This particular marsh presented itself in all its cattailed, snipe-bursting abundance at the mouth of Nutria Canyon.  I spent all of this afternoon, and as much evening as the setting sun and crescent moon would allow, nosing around in those woods.  As I descended into the canyon, following the morning tracks of a coyote, I noticed a number of notable things.  First of all, there was a greater abundance of cottonwood than in any other place I’d yet seen around here.  The nigh-on perennial water supply from the narrow, pool-studded talking creek must help.  The volume of that water supply seems to vary considerably from season to season, as the bent grasses, wide willow-belt, and stacks of debris tossed high up the red rock walls attest.  Other moisture loving plants like Equisetum, wild raspberries, Berberis, and tremendous mullein spires carpeted the canyon floor, while more typical open-desert species like agaves and rabbit-brush clung to the ledges rising above the high-water mark.  Gambel oak, growing taller than their non-riparian sisters, twisted up the canyon sides, flaming red sandstone, piñon green, and lazuli sky framed by their bare black branches.

The smell, though, by Francis the smell of that place nearly brought me to tears.  I haven’t been in a late-fall riparian ecosystem surmounted by deciduous trees for years.  That unique blend of salicilic acid in drying willow leaves, cyanobacteria in oxygenated fresh water, actinomycetes in the cottonwood mulch, a hint of cat-tails and the dried stalks of sweet aquatic grasses, with stubtle undertones of fox shit takes me back to my youth.  The added dimensions of juniper duff, sagebrush, chamisa, and some different species of fungi doing their thing made it that much more poignant.  Some smells- stale cigarette smoke and sandalwood, my grandmother’s turkey-barley soup warming up, tempera paint and graham crackers- call me back to a certain place and a certain time.  The fragrance of a riparian woodland in the fall is one of the most evocative scents in my memory, even more so now that I’m beginning to get a sense of who it is emitting all of those delicious odors.

If I were one of those naturalists who keeps a little book in which he notes the name, Latin and English always and only, of every species of animal he sees, and how many of them there were- sort of a more modern, more politically conscionable version of the collection of heads on the walls of the brandy room, though with a similar demonstrated effect on the landscape thus enumerated- I would have a role-call of beasts with which to impress.  I saw and heard some creatures, many more saw and heard me.  I did see something really neat though- the trail of a raccoon who trundled through a thick patch of mud and then left a line of crimson handprints across a flat shelf of grey sandstone until the dirt was worn from her feet and the trail petered out to scratches on the rock.  I followed a  fox trail of footprints so small that at first I thought they might belong to a ringtail (the prints were clear, though, and there were only four toes visible) over ledges, through puddles, and under overhangs until the footprints terminated at a slim ladder chipped into the canyon wall.  I wrestled with the undergrowth, hollered at an echoing wall, spooked a flock of ravens and was spooked in turn by a sudden coyote, and had a good long conversation with a curious canyon wren; I played.

Before all of this, when the smell of a childhood spent getting lost and falling into swamps first pricked in my nose, I noticed another funny nostalgia.  The ruddy, agave-crowned cliffs and cottonwood-lined avenue of the canyon were oddly familiar.  Ever since I was a kid, I’ve dreamed in one contiguous, consistent world. One place that I’ve returned to again and again is a city of red stone, gilded columns, and flowing water, with narrow alleys rich in plant life and abundant with fountains and canals.  Every once in a while I experience some bleed-over into my wide-awake life, but it’s usually little things.  There’s an alley in Seattle that’s half-way there, and a department of education building in Burlingame, California that I knew as a museum of rare and dangerous eggs, and sometimes, late on summer nights in Washington D.C., cymbals and flutes sound from just around the block, and the scent of jasmine and ferns wafts under the shine of golden streetlamps.  The paths along parts of this canyon, though, I could walk blindfolded despite never having been there before.  The echoing hollows, opal pools, and musty patina on the rocks were all so very familiar.  I’ll not draw any conclusions about this, though I’ll definitely return to this place.  When I do, I would not be the least surprised to find it changed.

I trudged back to the road through a sodden cow-pasture, into the embers of the tilting horizon.  Under the moon’s sharp edge, I strained to see a beaver paddling circles around his larder and jumped when he clapped his tail against the water, sending a muffled boom echoing across the sandstone hills.  Grebes scattered, mumbling quietly to each other, the sedges on the shore shook fragrantly in a sudden, selective breeze.  I squelched up the road, as the beavers boomed, and the grasses whispered, and nighttime rode in on the blanket of the evening star.

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4 Responses to “In the Dreaming Marsh”

  1. Thanks for posting this. It helps me to know what you are up to and what you are doing. I agree that smell is the most evocative of senses…there are several that I associate with the Montana house.

  2. Beautiful. Great work, Ben.

  3. Ben, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “In The Dreaming Marsh”. I have had an affinity for wetlands and wooded riparian areas for as long as I can remember. My strongest urge to visit the sights, smells, sounds of the Pac NW fens and bogs is in the spring. But actually, stumbling across a wild wetland at anytime brings joy!

  4. You’re a wonderful writer, Ben. This is almost as good as being there to fall into a marsh with you. Almost.

    Expect an overdue letter from me soon.

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