The drama of woodland pools

Swampwalker's journal: a wetlands year by David Carroll Houghton Mifflin 277 pp., $27

The mystery that governs nature and that expresses itself in every reedy puddle or handful of dirt is the province of that peculiarly American brand of mystics known as naturalists. Since the days of Bartram and Audubon, they have believed that an intimate awareness of the natural world is the path that the spirit takes to wisdom.

This faith is allied to science in its devotion to close and searching observation, but it includes the controversial assumption that value inheres in all earthly beings, regardless of human need or desire.

You can find this faith in its purest contemporary form in the work of David Carroll. The New England artist, teacher, writer, and activist has become a legend among biologists for what he has learned about turtles simply by watching them, Jane Goodall-style, in their remaining haunts.

In his "Swampwalker's Journal: A Wetlands Year," he turns to a broader theme: wetlands ecology and "the wordless but infinitely evocative dialogue of living and nonliving elements." He discovers "water has its own way of mapping the earth."

Though he presents his findings as an illustrated daybook, this is no simple record of facts, but a thorough account of the distinguishing features of swamps, marshes, floodplains, bogs, and vernal pools, indexed to aid reference. You'll learn, for instance, which of these habitats are likely to be passable on foot, even if only for part of the year, and which are potentially bottomless. You'll see them in all their moods and seasons, and participate in their surprising dramas.

Vernal pools, for instance, are an object lesson in the cruelty and vitality of natural rhythms. These isolated depressions, which typically hold a yard or so of clear, icebound water in late winter, attract hundreds of frogs and salamanders from surrounding uplands in early spring, who deposit their eggs and depart.

The eggs hatch into thousands of wriggling tadpoles, which fatten on blooms of algae and zooplankton stimulated by the climbing sun, and in turn become feasts for snakes, turtles, and predatory insects drawn from elsewhere.

In the meantime the pool shrinks as the woods leaf out around it, and its once-still waters become a rich soup of struggling life. The tadpoles must complete their transformation to air-breathing adults before the pool dries up in midsummer - oftentimes they do not, if no timely rain intervenes. In such years, the pool is never more lively than on the eve of its doom, when its teeming suspension of flesh is baked, within hours, into a sort of hard-luck jerky. And yet such disasters have little effect on the pool's long-term importance to the species dependent on it. They will reappear in the spring.

Carroll's quiet manner and effortless sensitivity to detail suffuse his wet-bottomed landscapes with a dreamlike quality shaded by knowledge of how quickly such places can disappear. His scenes, glowing with revelation, are steeped in deep feeling matured over a lifetime outdoors.

*Thomas Palmer is the author of 'Landscape With Reptile' (Ticknor & Fields).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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