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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.