Draining the Marshes
Behind my childhood home lay a vacant wasteland, crossed by a creek. Too low to build on, at least part stayed dry enough for pickup softball. It was a children’s paradise. Last time I went back, tidy backyards extended deep into our one-time paradise to meet the equally deep backyards of houses the next street over. Had any of our lowland been marshy? Was it drained to increase property values? I’ll never know.
Watching lectures on ancient Mesopotamia this winter, I’m learning how marshes around the lower Tigris and Euphrates supported a culture of fishing, water buffalo, and reed structures. That got me pondering marshes and former marshes in my life. Chicago was built on a marsh. My research in the Indiana Dunes began with the historical effects of agricultural drainage ditches.
Drainage by humans reduced Earth’s marshland over centuries. Six U.S. states lost 85 percent of their original wetlands. That’s both good and bad. Drainage saves lives by eliminating breeding grounds of the mosquitoes that carry malaria, and by reducing cholera and schistosomiasis. Opening new farmland increases the food supply. But recent efforts to preserve marshes reflect rising awareness of their benefits, such as protecting wildlife and buffering hurricane storm surges.
Marshes have long sheltered rebels and outlaws, from the Seminole in Florida to a fictional escaped convict in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Saddam Hussein in the 1990s diverted water from the Mesopotamian marshes, allegedly for farming and disease control, but more to force out Shi’ite guerrillas and the “Marsh Arabs” who supported them. Despite some recovery since Hussein’s ouster in 2003, Iraq’s marshes—like wetlands around the world—appear destined for the losing side of history.
Image: Horicon Marsh, largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States, near my Wisconsin home. Photo by Allen C. of Prairie du Sac, 2008.
2/7/2022 08:31:56 am
I grew up in Northwest Ohio where the Great Black Swamp (1500 square miles) once provided fertile hunting ground for Indigenous peoples. By order of the Ohio legislature, counties dug drainage ditches and by 1900 the swamp had been drained. It was the last area settled in Ohio. Now, Lake Erie suffers algae blooms from the impact of runoff. If the Great Black Swamp remained, it would be an enormous natural filter that could protect one of the Great Lakes.
2/7/2022 02:12:07 pm
Northwestern Ohio was one of the areas featured in the articles I looked at for this post. Apparently Ohio lost 90% of its wetland between 1790 and 1990, most of it (until recently) for agriculture. Of the contiguous 48 states, only California lost a larger percentage. Apart from perhaps duck hunters, I don't think many Americans before 1960 or so realized the significance of marshes for the health of lakes and rivers, whereas farming and disease were pretty obvious.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.