“When, formerly, I have analysed my partiality for some farm which I had contemplated purchasing, I have frequently found that I was attracted solely by a few square rods of impermeable and unfathomable bog — a natural sink in one corner of it. That was the jewel which dazzled me. I derive more of my subsistence from the swamps which surround my native town than from the cultivated gardens in the village. There are no richer parterres to my eyes than the dense beds of dwarf andromeda (Cassandra calyculata) which cover these tender places on the earth’s surface.”
– Walking, Henry David Thoreau
Since arriving at the Center for the Environment, these words of Henry David Thoreau have been on my mind. To me, there seemed to be some continuity between Thoreau’s interest in buying a farm– solely because of its bog– and the preserve’s conversion of some farm into a swamp with some minor hydrological engineering. A continuity for me because of where I trace my early influences.
The lofty, at times idyllic, prose of Thoreau inspired my interest in nature writing and scientific inquiry seasoned with reflection on meaning, ethics, and values. While it has been a long while since I have read any transcendentalist literature, I am reminded specifically of the above passage while walking to the Center for the Environment.
The land of the preserve was farmed as late as 1995, according to the background of a former Catawba student’s species inventory of the preserve (see the inventory online here). Since this time the preserve has been managed as a wetland. The preserve remains wet during the winter, but dries – with the exception of the impoundments – during the summer. This seasonal wetness is why I am calling it a swamp. With the recent heavy rains, the preserve became inundated with standing water. In this condition the trees seemed to wade in the cloudy water. Running through the trails on a post-rain Saturday morning I really understood the beauty of the place.
Besides their overlooked esthetic value, wetlands have been the casualties of unabashed commercial development with the loss of over half of wetlands from levels in the 1600’s (here). More of an inconvenience than asset, they were drained, or otherwise spoiled, to pave the way primarily for urban space or farmland.
Many are still baffled by Thoreau’s primary valuation of these places. They wonder what it is that makes a small bog the “jewel” of “some farm”? It seems to confound modern logic, and indeed overturning modern domesticity with wildness seems to be Thoreau’s larger intent in the above passage. The idea that wildness contains the stuff of life comes to the fore.
The Center’s physical location reinforces and echos the fact that its work is to offer sustainability education and outreach in the community, with particular emphasis on its campaign for clean air, with practiced solutions in the building and preserve.
The Center’s location in Salisbury places it off the map for some, since Salisbury doesn’t land on the top-10 highest population-by-city list, or the top-20 for that matter (city pop. ranking). It’s not in the Triangle or Mountains, nor is it on the Coast. But, tellingly, its right against the edge of a swamp.
While on a trip to Asheville I overheard a discussion regarding the Center’s Salisbury location and someone jokingly made a remark akin to saying it’s in the middle of nowhere. Not knowing much about it, this thought even came into my head when I first learned of the Center as a host organization for Stanback Interns.
The obvious point here is that its easy to not know much about things you have not experienced. The fortunate thing is we all have much to explore and much to learn in doing so. This is one lesson I learned from the transcendental work of Thoreau. While today’s frontiers have been pushed inward by the ever-expansive reach of that double-edged sword of science and technology, perhaps we don’t have to go so far as Walden Pond. There may be more positive potential in bringing a swamp into town to live by.
I see this physical orientation of the Center being an anchor to its external relations. The swamp as Thoreau concludes is “a sacred place— a sanctum sanctorum” because it seems to contain the source of life, a petri-dish like center of nutrient cycling and growth (Walking, 26). Swamps can reorient one to the sacred, undermining cultural hubris, and can renew centrality to one’s psychological understanding of place and home. The Center is a transformative place because of its work in sustainability education and outreach, and I don’t think it’s accident or insignificant that it has a swampy backyard. In fact, the Fred Stanback Jr. Ecological Preserve is a resource in the highest sense of the word. We could all benefit from reclaiming wetlands in our communities.
As I depart from this internship, I will fondly remember the people and places that I became acquainted with during my stay. It was a great experience from which I have gained much, and I hoped to return at least a portion of what I received. Before finishing this last post, I am including a short video which hopefully conveys my enjoyment (see one-minute video here)
Perhaps next time you are driving through NC along I-40 you will want to stop and visit.