CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter 2010

Review Book


A Natural History of Quiet Waters: Swamps and Wetlands of the Mid-Atlantic Coast

By Curtis J. Badger. University of Virginia Press, 2007; 160 pages, cloth, $22.95.

Curtis Badger conveys his passionate infatuation with swamps and wetlands in A Natural History of Quiet Waters. The book reminds both those new to environmentalism and professionals of the delicate balance of natural architecture with wetlands serving as a “keystone.” The loss of wetlands can severely hamper ecosystems as well as the plant and animal life that depend on them.

Badger’s treatment of the subject is delicate much like introducing a new friend to an old acquaintance. In this instance, Badger’s goal is to help readers to acquire a new appreciation for wetlands and perhaps acquire his enthusiasm for these natural gems. The book is a reminder of the delicate balance between the built environment and the natural environment. As humans have attempted to subdue the land through unbridled patterns of development, we’ve chipped away at the natural heritage fabric of the nation, including swamps and wetlands.

Although swamps and wetlands may register below the radar screen of the American public, the author considers them to be just as important as California’s majestic redwood forests, the geysers and hot water springs of Yosemite, the roaring Niagara and Horseshoe Falls of New York, or the ancient and seamless slopes along the Appalachian Trail. Badger is outspoken for the “quiet waters” of America’s swamps and wetlands that are along the Mid-Atlantic Coast.

Swamps and wetlands are living systems, and they are replete with animal, insect, and plant life. As Badger pulls back the layers, he uncovers the terrestrial and aquatic wonders that populate this space. He reacquaints readers with the fundamentals of 10th-grade biology by detailing the relationships and synergies between plants and animals, fish and birds, amphibians and mammals. Swamps and wetlands are a cathedral to the harmony of diversity and the beauty of heterogeneity. This book reminds readers of the richness of natural systems that are often undervalued or taken for granted.

The book offers a sobering reminder of the staggering loss of wetlands in the United States. According to Badger, about half of the nation’s wetlands have been destroyed since the arrival of European colonists. This statistic is as shocking as the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest (17 percent since 1970) or the accelerated loss of natural forests in New Zealand following colonization (33 percent since 1840). Curtis’s book reveals how wetlands loss in the United States, particularly in the last 200 years, reflects limited understanding of their function as these indispensable landscapes were converted to conform to manmade plans rather than prepare plans that work constructively with nature.

To Badger’s credit, he does an effective job introducing and explaining the iterative forms of public policy created to address wetlands, which fall under the jurisdiction of numerous federal agencies. As a result, his research is a useful reference for the novice conservationist or the seasoned environmental proponent who needs a refresher.

Like Marty Stouffer in the 1980s, Badger takes readers into his “Wild America” of swamps, wetlands, and marshes. Just like a good narrator of a documentary, Badger weaves a story that captures the imagination. His chapters are rich in “historic context” as he helps modern readers to envision the awesome spectacle of natural landscapes that appeared unblemished when they were surveyed in the early 18th Century. Like a survey, Badger’s findings are a benchmark which could be used as a point of reference for this generation or our progeny. Further, his findings are a reminder that we have a responsibility to be custodians and treasure the delicate assets that are within our domain. Such as the birds that are the focus of Chapter 7.

While Badger confesses his passion for swamps in Chapter 1, it seems he has an unspoken fascination with ornithology. It is evident throughout the book and reaches its climax in Chapter 7 as Curtis details the seasonal migration patterns of birds. The discussion about bird migration is important because birds, like people, make pit stops during long trips. In this instance, the resting stops may be coastal areas and inland spaces along the coasts of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. In some ways, Badger considers migratory birds to be an indicator species for the condition of the habitat. Land conversion can lead to habitat loss, habitat loss affects birds populations that are foraging for food. When ornithologists see lower numbers for birds commonly associated with the migration routes, it is a clear signal to them that something is amiss.

Badger’s book ends where it begins in Chapter 1, with the author, “in the pursuit of his own happiness,” finalizing a purchase of three acres of land, part of which is moist Earth. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, he assumes his responsibility as a “steward”—thinning a wooded area of dying or dead trees; making a mental inventory of birds, amphibians, and mammals; and contemplating his place in the universe as he enjoys Nirvana.

A Natural History of Quiet Waters is an amalgamation of science, conservation, history, short story, and avocation. It is easy reading for lovers of nature young and old. The book can stir up old and passive memories such as catching tadpoles in the summer, taking a winter walk through the woods, or watching black birds darken the autumn sky. Read the book and reanimate curiosity in your surroundings and the natural world.

Carlton Eley
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency