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The Value of Wetlands
Out on the east edge of our farm there’s some ground that’s been classified as a permanent wetland. As such, this part of our farm has no value from a production agriculture point of view. But it’s far from lifeless.
Mallards and teal, coots and canvasbacks make their homes in the marshland. Pheasants and partridge, blackbirds and killdeer nest along the slough’s margins. Coyotes and fox, possums and raccoons take advantage of the bird buffet.
The water itself teems with life. An astonishing array of water bugs can be seen squiggling beneath the surface. I can’t even imagine the number of microbes living in each cubic centimeter of swamp water. Jurassic dragonflies skim the surface in their tireless zig-zag hunt for mosquitoes.
Sadly, none of these creatures has ever paid us so much as a dime for rent.
It’s always been a riddle regarding what to do with the slough. It’s too small for waterskiing and too shallow for a high diving board. It’s been suggested that we stock it with fish, but I’ve seen scorching summers when the slough was as dry as a stovetop. Any fish who took up residence would need to have the ability to live out of water for long periods of time.
During drought years I might gaze at the slough and think, “I bet there’s some prime farm ground down in that bottomland!” I might imagine burning off the overburden of weeds and cattails and using a moldboard plow to turn over slabs of lush, ebony humus.
But the slough will inevitably fill with meltwater come springtime, and I will congratulate myself for exercising restraint. Procrastination can have its benefits.
This year’s excessive rains have filled the marsh past the brim. As a kid, I’d heard that the folks who had homesteaded our farm put a canoe in the slough one spring at the peak of the snowmelt. It was said that they were able to reach the Big Sioux River without ever touching dry land.
The Big Sioux empties into the Missouri, which, in turn, empties into the Mississippi. Looking at our slough, it’s hard to imagine that it might be the starting point of a journey that could, theoretically, take you to Portugal.
Our two sons were bitten by the slough sailing bug when they were preteens. They constructed a crude watercraft from empty plastic barrels but when they put it in the water it proved as tipsy as a drunkard on New Year’s Eve. They begged their mother to buy them something floatable. She finally relented and purchased a cheap inflatable raft for them.
The boys filled the raft with air (“huffing” meant something different back then) and carried it out to our slough. It wasn’t long before they returned, dragging a flaccid chunk of yellow plastic behind them. It seems that inflatable dinghies and barbed wire fences don’t get along very well with each other.
Back when I was a teenager and our slough belonged to my Grandpa Nelson, my buddy Steve and I would spend autumn afternoons hiding in the shoreline reeds, waiting for foolhardy ducks. I recall a lot of shooting but very few downed birds. Blasting away at the ducks and missing them by a mile didn’t subtract one iota of pleasure from the experience.
During the past few summers some extremely vocal immigrants have been squatting in our slough. A pair of giant Canada geese have made a habit of arriving shortly after the ice goes out and staying until the first major snowfall pushes them south.
We can hear them honking their greetings to one another each morning like a pair of feather-covered Model T horns. They often fly low over our farmstead, their wingspans as wide as that of a 747.
The geese will nest atop one of last year’s muskrat huts. They will assume possession of the mound of muck and reeds as if it were a prefab goose condo that had been built just for them. By early June their clutch of a dozen eggs will have hatched. Make a surprise visit to the slough and you might see a bevy of gray fuzz balls paddling furiously away from the shore.
By autumn the fuzz balls will have grown to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable from their parents. They are also every bit as vociferous. Mornings bring a cacophony of honks from the slough, as if it were the site of the world’s largest squeeze horn convention.
Alas, none of these things generate even the slightest bit of income for us. Even so, I wouldn’t say that the slough is worthless.