Marsh Light

Thoughts on the pleasures of a lake versus the seething complexity of a living landscape.

By Rick Bass


The weaving continues, accelerating according to the secret tilt of this one specific valley, the Yaak, so unique in the world. All the spilled sprawl and disorder from the beginning of May lines up now into firming braids of strength—several creeks and brooks conjoining at the base of the mountains to hurtle us toward June. June's warm breath is already looking back at us, blowing its breezes back across green living May, stirring across the wild green garden of this valley here in northwestern Montana.

Staring out my window one rainy morning, mesmerized by nothing and thinking nothing—simply entranced by the world—I notice that pulses of green are emanating from various places in the marsh. Stripes and bands of the fast-growing marsh grass are illuminated as if slashes of sunlight are falling across them, and yet there is no sunlight coming down through that steady rain.

Gradually, and with astonishment, I come to understand that the glow, the green light, is coming up in waves from out of the marsh, up from out of the earth itself—subtle variations in soil or peat richness perhaps, imbuing one stretch of marsh with extraordinary nutrition. The shifting, wavering beams of green light I'm witnessing, rising and moving across the marsh like some immense yet dimly visible creature walking, are nothing less than the sight of life being created, the marsh grass sucking in the rain and warmth and blossoming, leaping into life. Gray-coated deer, fur drenched and matted from the steady comforting rain, are emerging from the curtain of the alders on the far side of the marsh and passing now through those waves of pulsing green light.

The deer are wading knee-deep in the marsh, veering from one green place to the next, chewing almost savagely at those living, glowing places of green life—the marsh grass surely so vibrant and alive to the deer, this one day, and so rich in protein, that the deer might as well be grazing upon living fish, or frogs. Now the rain is roaring against the tin roof of my writing cabin, and beating the deer's already flattened fur tighter against their bony haunches and ribs and shoulders, winter's signature still written sharp upon them, even the swollen-bellied pregnant does. But they don't seem to care at all.

They seem, in fact, to be luxuriating in the rain and the warmth and the richness—and across the far distance of the marsh, they seem to be swimming in the marsh, the grass up to their chests already, so they might well be swimming in the waves of that green light itself, riding its waves.

I do not need to know or understand the workings of this one small landscape. I instead need only sit quietly beside it and watch, and listen, and smell, and sometimes touch.

How the simple sight of this severe marsh heals my winter sadness, and hones my euphoria! It's fine to observe and learn from as many of the infinite patterns and rhythms and cycles as possible, almost all of which are visible out this one small window, beside which I sit butt-anchored for several hours each day. But more than that, it's the great and calm and simple sight of the marsh's beauty, and of the forest's beyond, that soothes my heart the most: the witnessing more than the understanding.

It's true that any understanding I'm able to glean from the comings and goings of the marsh serves also to deepen and enrich my love for this place. But as far as the great calm hand that touches my heart each time I look out at the marsh, I do not need to know or understand the workings of the bones and muscles and internal organs of this one small landscape. I instead need only sit quietly beside it and watch, and listen, and smell, and sometimes touch.

When my family and I first moved into this old homestead, some of my neighbors, fretting about the mosquito problem, strongly encouraged me to carve out the gut of the marsh, and to dike the western end of the marsh, forming a great blue lake. A lake in which trout and turtles could swim, and upon which swans would paddle; a wide blue lake, several acres in size, across which my family could swim in the evenings; a wide blue lake with a dock and a sailboat. A lake upon which to skate in winter, and a lake which would abate the horrific mosquito masses; a flat blue lens of a lake upon which loons would float and dive, wailing wildly into the night. A lake, the serene sight of which would calm the frazzled mind, speaking of beauty in another, perhaps more familiar, dialect.

I told them no thank you, politely, and then marveled at my own timidity. I could never imagine being so brazen as to willfully, single-handedly, turn a landscape or an ecosystem upside down, for either profit or pleasure. Nor could I imagine choosing willfully the relative simplicity or sameness of a lake over the incredible seething complexity of a living marsh. Even if I had had the inner gall to so alter the world's work, a crafting that was millennia in the making, I wouldn't have done it. For I know that I would have been lonely, in the absence or the reduction, of so much of the marsh's shouting, stirring, leaping life.

I like seeing the swirls and braids of bird flight all around my cabin, and all across the marsh, the comings and goings of the different birds and their ancient insect prey, a morning's activity that is in May just as busy as the cross-walking customers in New York's Grand Central Terminal. I like knowing that in their flight and song these birds and insects are but expressions, manifestations, of the green marsh itself, their light bones and feathers constructed of some inexplicable combination of bug meat, desire, and miracle. Who would willingly erase from the world's palette such movement, such music?


"Vast amphitheater” is often a cliché when used in writing about landscape, but it's true nonetheless. In May that's what this marsh is, as the chaos of disorder continues to swell into shimmering order. Around and around the sounds go, out in the perfect circle of the marsh, rising and falling at all their different scales and notes and levels, and stirring tired hearts back up into joy, and joyful hearts up into euphoria. The tag-team baton-relay music of sora rails: one rail calling to the next, which calls to the next, which calls to the next. The near-silent winging of a raven, high above, followed by a shouted cawing that fairly alarms the listener, even though the listener knows the raven is there.

The earnest, joyful, workmanlike trill of blackbirds. The flutes of Townsend's warblers and wood thrushes, and the wet-tennis-shoe-squeaking-on-linoleum cries of the spring peepers. And in the midst of it all, the dull hum of sun-glinting, armored dragonflies, and the silent music of moths, rising by the thousands from the tallgrass of the marsh, like marionettes pulled jerkily by the strings of the sun's warmth.

Deeply felt, too, with the return of life and movement and sound, are the odors of decomposition and growth—the exhalation of the heated mats of last autumn's dead reeds and sedges and grasses, being broken down hard and fast now. Surely the sunlight has no odor, no more than does the color green; but in spring, with the world alive once more, it seems almost that they do.

Sometimes I wonder, with the natural world changing so quickly and the wild world vanishing—in this country at least—if my observations from the edge of this marsh will stand in the long future as some naive treatise of nearly overwhelming innocence, as older texts from the last century appear to us now. And I wonder whether these notes will possess a tone someday like that of the sweetly halcyon chronicles of the ancient travelers who encountered the landscapes and cultures of this country for the first time, not so long ago.

There is a part of me that wants to believe that at least the marsh, so receptive to the brute energy of May's returning sunlight, will always be this forceful and intact, always this exuberant, no matter how many years pass, and that, as if in some fairy tale, all its inhabitants will always be here, as immortal as sunlight itself.


Rick Bass is the author of 18 books, including The Roadless Yaak, about his home in northwestern Montana.



© 2004 National Audubon Society

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