kiss a frog

Earth Day (2)Have you kissed a frog lately and thanked it? If not, this is your chance because May is National Wetlands Month.

“Wait…what?”you say. “What the heck is National Wetlands Month?”

Funny you should ask. You see, the federal government recognizes the beauty, the raw power, and the undeniable necessity of wetlands, not because of the commercial development value, but because of their intrinsic and strategic value in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Wetlands have three distinct parameters that earn them the title. First, they are water-saturated and can always be wet, like swamps, marshes, bogs and coastal wetlands, or seasonally wet, resulting from winter snow melt, and occurring in forested or wooded or open areas that collect standing water, and sometimes dry like ephemeral pools or streams which reemerge after a rain event and dry out with the sun until the next rain event. Second, their soils are hydric meaning that at least for some part of the year the soils will be immersed in water. Thirdly, they have more than less hydrophytic vegetation which simply means that this type of plant thrives in a water environment. Unless it’s an obvious wetland like a marsh or bog or coastal plain, a bit of scientific investigation is necessary to make a wetlands determination as it’s not always apparent to the naked eye. Permits are required to build in wetlands as well as avoidance and minimization of the planned disturbance and mitigation for whatever amount of wetlands are converted to uplands. It’s a bit of a complicated process, but with the federal government’s “no net loss”of wetlands policy, a crucial one.

Why, gosh darn it, are these mosquito-infested swamps so important? Well, wetlands act like a sponge. They control flooding, filter pollutants, and buffer storm surges like nobody’s business. The Mississippi Delta which is practically one huge wetland has over 40% of the wetlands in the lower 48 states and has lost over 1,900 square miles since the 1930’s. About two football fields worth of wetlands are lost every hour. It used to be that 50 miles of wetlands separated New Orleans from the next hurricane, but no more. Now storm surges and big winds have their way with her.

Philadelphia, was also a big wetland when the colonists first settled, but they ditched and drained their way to what is now known as Center City Philadelphia. The problem is not necessarily the conversion of wetlands. Many port towns around the coasts of our country were once inundated with wetlands and are now bustling metropolises rather than said mosquito-filled swamps, but overdevelopment, such as in the Florida Keyes and surrounding environs, has resulted in life out of balance. As coastal cities continue to build out, or develop their barrier islands beyond holding capacity, the 100-year storm which now seems to happen every five or ten years will continue to pound what used to be only shoreline, but is now littered with million dollar homes.

How many wetlands do we need to control flooding, keep pollutants out of our rivers and streams, and help blunt the surge of rising winds and tides? It’s a fact specific, case-by-case analysis, but as climate change forces sea levels to rise, I’d hazard a guess that we’re reaching critical mass in some of the more densely populated coastal areas, for example, the Jersey Shore. Maybe a few more acres of wetlands wouldn’t have stopped Hurricane Sandy, but they would have cut down way down on the property damage. As the sea levels rise, wetlands have become more important than ever. Insurance companies are keenly aware of this —pun intended —sea change, and have started charging more for policies on climate-threatened properties. Some are even suing municipalities to pay for the cost of global warming such as Farmers Insurance Co. did with some Chicago-area governments in a landmark class action suit filed on May 2, 2014 (Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. v. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago District, et al., Case No. 14CH06608, in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois).

By the way, about the frog: they are extremely important to the balance of the ecosystem since they eat bugs, filter our drinking water (tadpoles), and are themselves a source of food for other species, as well as the source of many medical advances for humans. Plus they make the most rockin’music! Unfortunately, they’ve been on the decline for the last 50 years with fewer numbers and more mutations because of a variety of things, but degrading water quality, habitat loss and overuse of pesticides are a few of the major ones. Frogs are to the ecosystem like the canary is to the coal mine. Their death is the first indication that there’s a problem and where frogs go, humans will follow.

We can’t all have beach front property, not at great public and personal cost, but we can all enjoy the beach. What is it the Buddha said? Everything in moderation? So for National Wetlands Month, go ahead and build that dream vacation home, but build it on a upland so tomorrow our kids will still have a frog or two left to kiss.


safety of the marshes



Pam Lazos

Chapter Sixty-Nine

After a breakfast of rice with buttermilk, chicken soup, flat bread and strong, bitter coffee, Robbie and Amara boarded Sayyid’s flat boat and with Sayyid at the helm, set out on a journey to look at the recently refreshed marsh towns. Sayyid poled the boat through the water, skimming past huge clumps of papyrus and cattails.

Robbie watched the scenery change, enchanted by his surroundings. The fear that had sat in the pit of his stomach during their midnight exodus from Baghdad and which caused the bile to rise to his throat with every human encounter had hung an “out to lunch” sign on his esophagus, but given that the sun had barely crept above the giant forests of reeds, an “out to breakfast” sign would have been more apropos.

Robbie had cloaked himself in the customary robe and turban of the Iraqis and upon Amara’s urging, had remained silent the entire trip. Amara told the various drivers that she was taking her mute brother to Al Huwayr, a boat building town near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where they intended to buy a mashuf and return to Zayad, their recently reflooded ancestral home. Already, Amara said, their uncle and aunt and three children had returned. The ruse had worked and here among the bulrushes and papyrus, Robbie rubbed elbows with the ghosts of the last five millennium along with a way of life he hoped wasn’t dead, but merely on life support, and like the reflooded marsh town of Zayad, could be resurrected and helped to thrive again.

“These are the biggest reeds I’ve ever seen,” Robbie said.

“It is called qasab. It is a phragmites, like you see at your American bays. But these plants have been allowed to grow undisturbed, and without pollution,” Amara said. “They can grow as large as twenty-five feet. We use them for many things, our mashufs, our huts. Too, we build our mudhifs from them. These are large building where many people can gather. Like your community center.”

“This portion of the Al Hawizeh marsh is all that’s really left of twenty thousand square kilometers of fresh water marshes,” Sayyid said. “You know this measurement? It is the maybe seven hundred miles. My people lived here for centuries,” Sayyid said. “We believed we were comfortable. We believed we were safe.”

“Here they raise cow and oxen and water buffalo and spend much time in prayer,” Amara said.

“Water buffalo?” Robbie said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real one.”

“The water buffalo are very important to our way of life,” said Sayyid. “Early each morning the young boys take them to the feeding grounds. They do not return until the evening. All day they spend with the water buffalo.”

Amara laughed. “My grandfather told me a story that once he was up all night with a sick buffalo. He covered it with a blanket and nursed it back to health with a bottle and songs.”

“He sang to a buffalo?” Robbie asked.

“Yes. It is not uncommon. The Ma’adan depend greatly on the buffalo for their existence. He gives milk, among a great many other things and they thank God for this by treating the animals like family. It is not like America.”

“How do Americans treat their buffalo?” Sayyid asked

“I won’t tell you what happened to our buffalo,” Robbie said. “But I guess the modern-day equivalent would be the cow. We have two kinds, dairy and meat. The dairy cows have a cushy life compared to the meat cows, but nobody sings to them. At least not that I know of. Although I did hear once about a farmer who played music to his watermelons.”

Sayyid laughed, then grew quiet as he poled the boat through the water. “These marshes are all that is left. The Al Hammar and Central marshes are gone. Vanished. Like my people who inhabited them.”

“They will come back, Uncle. When the water returns, they will come back.”

“If God shall be willing,” Sayyid said. “You know this group? Assisting Marsh Arab Refugees? The AMAR Foundation they call themselves.”

“Yes. And I have read about another group,” Amara said, “called Eden Again. The head of this group is an American, born in Iraq. They seek to return the water, to bring back the fish to the marshes. It is this group we come to work with. To offer our assistance,” Amara turned to Robbie and squeezed his hand, “at great personal risk.”

“How do you plan to help?” Sayyid asked. “No doubt you will use your schooling that was so important to my brother.”

“Yes, uncle. I am sure they will need another biologist. And Robbie knows something about…” she turned to him for assistance.

“Environmental science. Back home I’m working on a degree,” Robbie said. “For the first time I have a good reason for it.”

“Uncle, may I?” Amara reached for the pole and Sayyid relinquished it with a smile, exchanging places with Amara in the boat.

“I know who you wish to find. Tomorrow I will take you to them. But today, we tour Al Hawizeh. It will be something for you to see,” Sayyid said, turning to Robbie. “This place is like nowhere else in the world. What Saddam has done is a crime against God and nature. He seeks to destroy the Ma’adan by destroying their way of life. But my people have inhabited these waters since the beginning. This is the Cradle of Civilization where the world began. Saddam thought to make history. And what has he done?” Sayyid spread his hands wide to emphasis his point.

“Not just genocide, but ecocide, uncle,” Amara said.

“Yes.” Sayyid turned to Robbie. “History will not be kind to him. But you have caught him. Now there is hope.” Sayyid returned his hands to his lap and gazed out over the water. “I am not a naive man. I do not dream that it all will be returned.” Sayyid gazed after the reeds and bulrushes as the boat glided past. Robbie noted the comely, proud profile.

“Do you find it strange that they should take your name?” Sayyid asked Amara.

“Who, Uncle?”

The AMAR Foundation. Do you find it strange?” The marsh narrowed and Amara directed the boat toward a dense forest of reeds. “They say a man’s name predicts his future.” Sayyid raised his eyebrows in speculation. “Perhaps this is your destiny, Amara. To save your ancestors. To restore their lands.” Sayyid stood and took the pole.

“I can do it,” Amara said, but he motioned for her to sit down so she did.

“So much like my brother,” he mused. Amara smiled, trailing her fingers in the water.

The flap of wings, the sounds of fish surfacing and retreating, the smell of dense, wet vegetation, and a million hues of green, fanning out across the landscape all formed a backdrop to the peace rising up in Robbie’s soul. He felt the adrenaline and terror ebbing away with each rhythmic pull of Sayyid’s pole and that, coupled with a full belly, conspired to put him in a state of calm, the likes of which he had not experienced since he came to Iraq. A turtle jumped off the marsh and into the water. Amara pointed and turned to see if Robbie had noticed it, but like the baby Moses adrift in a bed of papyrus, Robbie now lay hidden and in the safety of the marshes, he slept.

to be continued. . .

read what came before here

copyright 2013