A hundred years ago, Gene Stratton-Porter
By Scott Russell
With a startled scrawk and a fluster of wings, a great blue heron lurches into the air and goes flapping away, legs trailing behind like the tail of a kite. The bird's hasty exit roils the muddy broth of the pond where it was feeding. Ignoring the commotion, a pair of coots and a clutch of mallards cruise on among the cattails and rushes.
The man who has led me to the lip of this pond grins broadly, for Ken Brunswick delights in the company of birds and gathered water.
For more than a century, this glacial pothole and the surrounding lowlands were drained by a network of ditches and buried pipes known as tiles. Water gathers here now because some tiles have been plugged and some ditches filled, thanks to the efforts of Brunswick and a few hundred other dedicated people, all of them inspired, directly or indirectly, by the books of Gene Stratton-Porter, a best-selling author who flourished here on the eastern border of Indiana 100 years ago. Her photographs and words lured me to Loblolly Marsh--a 428-acre restoration project in Jay County, Indiana--to see a remnant of the vast, magnificent, vanished wetland that Stratton-Porter made known to millions of readers around the world: the Limberlost Swamp. As a writer, I have also come here to see how words on a page can move citizens to reclaim a portion of their neighborhood for water and wildness.
"I always used to say I wanted to be an ornithologist when I grew up," Brunswick tells me as the heron sails away. "Folks raised their eyebrows, wondering how I'd ever feed a family."
What he grew up to be was a farmer, and he has fed many families. For 15 years, morning and evening, he and his wife milked a herd of Holsteins. That long labor shows in the muscles of his forearms, which are bare on this windy, sultry, voluptuous day in May. Brunswick is midway through his 50s now, husky, with sun creases about the eyes, thick white hair, a gray mustache, and a ready smile.
A decade ago he gave up milking cows to restore wetlands, first on his own farm, which we can see on a rise to the south of us, and now here along Loblolly Creek. He still wears a farmer's scuffed leather boots and weathered jeans, but his khaki shirt and matching ball cap bear the logo of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which hired him in 1997 to oversee the recovery of this marsh.
"Loblolly comes from a Miami word meaning 'stinking river,'" Brunswick explains. "From the sulfur smell of marsh gas." Today the air is sweet with the fever of new growth. Four years ago this land was in corn and soybeans, but now the black soil bristles with native plants. The first step in turning farmland back into wetland was to plug the drain tiles and build levees (see "The Care and Feeding of Wetlands," below). Embraced by those levees, water soon covered the low ground, but the high ground was invaded by Canada thistle and other aggressive exotics. So the next step--one that Brunswick took reluctantly but that is standard practice in prairie restoration--was to control the invaders with a onetime spraying of herbicide. Then perennial native grasses were sowed.
All around us now, the dry stems of last year's switchgrass, Indian grass, big bluestem, and little bluestem wave on uplands, while bright green shoots rise from the roots. Along with the grasses, a number of wildflowers were planted here--blue flag iris, purple coneflower, wild bergamot, indigo--and other plants have come back, such as bur reed and water plantain. Brunswick speculates that the seeds of some of these volunteer species may have lain dormant in the muck for the past 100 years, waiting for the corn to go away and the water to return.
Even before the drain tiles were plugged, the land bordering Loblolly Creek flooded nearly every year. Brunswick wondered why farmers kept on planting acreage where they so often lost their crops. "After every hard rain, this place was covered in a sheet of water," he says. "You could see it just wanted to be a marsh."
Now the marsh is rousing, as if waking from a long sleep. Wherever we turn, pools of water glint with the colors of sky, yielding in the distance to meadows and shaggy woods. Broad-leafed and narrow-leafed cattails have found their way here, and so have rushes, sedges, smartweed, cottonwood, and willow. The shallows teem with snails, crayfish, tadpoles, midges, and other small fry.
"You see why the birds are here," Brunswick remarks.
Thoughts of birds lead him to speak of Gene Stratton-Porter, who comes up so often in our conversation that I feel there might be a third person walking with us. I imagine her striding along, a strapping, tireless woman who gazes about with intense gray eyes, a ruff of dark hair showing around the edges of a broad-brimmed hat, her legs clad in the high boots and breeches that scandalized her neighbors. Between 1895 and 1913, Stratton-Porter lived in the town of Geneva, a few miles north. Soon after arriving there as a young bride, she became fascinated by the Limberlost, a 13,000-acre wooded swamp that began not far from her doorstep. To the dismay of her husband, she set about wading through the murky waters, climbing trees, and hacking trails through tangled undergrowth, often lugging a box camera and tripod and glass plates to photograph birds and moths--and sometimes carrying a revolver as a precaution against vagabonds and rattlesnakes.
Brunswick tells me about her with the fervor of a fan. He has read the novels she wrote while living in Geneva, including Freckles (1904), A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), and The Harvester (1911), all of which were set in and around the swamp. But his favorites are the nature books that drew on her observations in the Limberlost, especially What I Have Done With Birds (1907). Back in the 1980s, when he was still running a dairy, that title caught his eye from the shelf of a local library. Within the first few pages he realized that he had read the book as a boy, sitting entranced under a walnut tree on his childhood farm in Ohio. He soon made the same discovery about other Stratton-Porter books, for in his youth he had read everything he could find about birds, and birds figured in almost everything she wrote.
"I just hadn't remembered her name," Brunswick says. "And all this time she was the reason I got excited whenever I thought about the Limberlost."
Brunswick is an odd character in a region where farmers have been struggling to drain the land for more than a century: He has an affection for the sight of still water. "When I was a boy," he recalls, "after a rain I'd beg my father to take me out driving so I could look at water standing in the fields. It seemed so bright and full of life."
Here in this healing fragment of the original swamp, life trickles and sprouts and sings all around us. New grass brushes at our knees. Wind strokes our faces with pollen. On logs in the creek, turtles catch the sun. In the mud beside a pool, we study the tracks of raccoon, fox, possum, and deer. Overhead, crows hustle about on raucous errands, and turkey vultures tilt round and round in lazy loops.
We halt on the bank next to a beaver dam, an intricate weaving of sticks. The pool behind the dam rises three feet higher than the one below, and both are laced with silt from farms upstream. "The county drainage board will come through here pretty soon with a backhoe to dig out the dam," Brunswick says, "but the beavers will rebuild it within a couple of weeks."
I can't help feeling that Gene Stratton-Porter would have rooted for the beavers. The Limberlost she relished was untamed: "[I]t was steaming, fetid, treacherous swamp and quagmire, filled with every danger common to the central states. . . . The muck was so spongy we sank ankle-deep, branches scratched or tore at us while logs we thought were solid let us down knee-deep."
To show me what that muck might have been like, Brunswick chooses a spot near the creek and uses a posthole auger, twisting the long handles, to drill down through three feet of black soil until he strikes a layer of shells. "Reach down in there," he urges. And I do, thrusting my arm into the hole and feeling at the bottom the ooze of water and the sharp edges of shells, like shards of thin crockery. "I figure all those clams and snails mark the old lake floor," Brunswick says.
A lake named Engle glimmered here in the midst of Loblolly Marsh when Stratton-Porter began her expeditions. She braved mud, thickets, and mosquitoes while tramping along the shore of that lake, which dried up when the marsh was drained. In spite of the hazards, she celebrated the fecundity and beauty of the Limberlost, which appears in her books as a kind of Eden. In her literary wilderness, virtue triumphs, broken hearts heal, romance flourishes, and everywhere the waters glisten, overshadowed by trees, fringed by flowers, teeming with marvelous creatures.
During the 18 years Stratton-Porter lived beside the Limberlost, however, Eden was under assault. Loggers cleared the timber, selling it to furniture factories and shipbuilders and barrel-makers. Roustabouts drilled wells for oil and gas. Farmers laid clay tiles and straightened creeks to drain the land. The great swamp vanished, and with it nearly all the plants and animals that once thrived there.
"I was horrified," Stratton-Porter recalled near the end of her life. "Drying up the springs, drying up the streams, and lowering the lake meant to exterminate the growth by running water, meant to kill the great trees which had flourished since the beginning of time around the borders of the lakes, meant to kill the vines and shrubs and bushes, the ferns and the iris and the water hyacinths, the arrowhead lilies and the rosemary and the orchids, and it meant, too, that men were madly and recklessly doing an insane thing without really understanding what they were doing."
Appalled by the loss, Stratton-Porter bought property on a northern Indiana lake, built herself a grand house with the proceeds from her novels, transplanted thousands of wildflowers onto the land, and moved there in 1913. In her writing she left behind the image of a magnificent, luxuriant, and watery paradise.
This tantalizing image was the power Ken Brunswick discovered upon reading her books again as a grown man. It was the power that drove him out into thunderstorms to watch how the water moved, up into airplanes to photograph the flooded land, into courthouses in search of maps. Armed with those maps and photographs, he began traveling about the countryside, speaking in churches, schools, and living rooms, trying to persuade others to join him in restoring a piece of the old swamp. Although he met with some early resistance among farmers enamored of well-drained soils, he also found support, especially among neighbors who tingled at the word Limberlost.
One of his first allies was Marla Freeman. At the time of their meeting in 1991, she was a tour guide at the Limberlost State Historic Site in Geneva, leading visitors around the 14-room "cabin" built of white cedar logs and redwood by Stratton-Porter and her husband nearly a century earlier. "People who visited the cabin kept asking where the swamp was," Freeman says. "They came there expecting to see the Limberlost."
Freeman herself longed for a glimpse of those vast wetlands, for she, too, had fallen under the spell of Stratton-Porter. "I've spent nearly all my life here in Jay County, where everything seems so squared-off and cultivated," she explains, "and I never heard about the Limberlost until I read her books. It's been exciting for me to realize that right here was once this great wild area, where people could get lost, even die. Her books give me a sense of the land before it was tamed." So when Brunswick showed up with his vision of the swamp reborn, Freeman was eager to help. She was serving as president of the newly formed Friends of the Limberlost, and that group welcomed Brunswick's ideas. Together, they founded Limberlost Swamp Remembered and set about raising money to buy land from farmers weary of flooded fields.
In the spring of 1997, Brunswick and Freeman and their colleagues joined officials from the county, the state, and national wildlife organizations in dedicating this low ground as the Loblolly Marsh Wetland Preserve. To mark the occasion, they planted a sycamore tree--in memory of the giant sycamore featured in Gene Stratton-Porter's first book, Song of the Cardinal.
Brunswick concedes that some local people still fear that the marsh will slow down the movement of water off their land, that it will harbor mosquitoes, that it will bring in government controls. He answers every question patiently. He points out that ditches draining water from nearby land have been kept open. He explains that the marsh breeds not only mosquitoes but also predators, from dragonflies to frogs, that keep the mosquitoes in check. The people who ask these questions see him wearing a government shirt, but they also know him as a neighbor. He answers their concerns all the more persuasively because he is a farmer himself, one who has lost crops to floods, who knows how hard it is to make a living from the land. Each year there are fewer skeptics, as the marsh recovers and as Brunswick keeps spreading the gospel of gathered water. In the spring of 2001, his work was recognized with a National Wetland Award, given every year by the Environmental Law Institute.
Stratton-Porter would have been pleased. "If men do not take active conservation measures soon," she warned, "I shall be forced to enter politics to plead for the conservation of the forests, wildflowers, the birds, and over and above everything else, the precious water on which our comfort, fertility, and life itself depend."
Ken Brunswick is too modest to emphasize his own role in bringing back a portion of the great swamp. But when I ask him if this preserve would have been established without inspiration from Gene Stratton-Porter, he answers, "Absolutely not. She's the reason the Limberlost has survived in the minds and hearts of so many people. She's the reason there's water here now at Loblolly Marsh."
As we return to the small parking lot, a crunching of gravel signals the arrival of more visitors. Out of a rusty van climb eight kids and a teacher from a local school, here for a tour of the marsh with the man in the khaki shirt. After introductions, Brunswick draws a lanky boy apart from the others and says, "You're big bluestem. And you two," he adds, guiding a pair of boys next to the first, "you're phosphorus and nitrogen, so you stand here beside big bluestem. Now the rest of you," he says to the remaining clump of kids, "are raindrops, way up in the clouds, and it's just about time for you to fall."
And so he begins demonstrating the water and nutrient cycles, ancient rhythms that are slowly returning to this long-used, much-loved, and richly imagined ground.
Scott Russell Sanders won the John Burroughs Association's award for the outstanding natural history essay of 1999. The essay, "Through the Eyes of a Hawk," was published in the July-August 1999 issue of Audubon.