“Death of a Wetland”

Posted on Mar, Wed, 2023 in Landscapes, Musings from Still Point, Uncategorized


“The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.” John Keats

FOREWARNING: The following is an unconventional Facebook post, both for its length and its presumptuous solicitation of support to remedy an ecological tragedy underway. It will, no doubt, try the patience of those who don’t share a deep interest in wildlife and its habitat, in the beauty of our local landscape, or for those who simply don’t have the stamina to read a long-winded story. I’m hoping the following description of the situation and the “before and after” images will bring into focus the relevance and urgency to respond in numbers. For those uninterested in these themes, I understand completely and thank you for getting this far, however, now may be the best time to scroll on.

This is the story of a railroad company pitted against a wetland in Aurora, Ohio, a marsh that has been a migration destination and sanctuary for some of the most diverse waterfowl and songbirds in Northeast Ohio. Three months ago, I began a tortuous journey that started with the single heedless act of the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Company. The company’s senior management, including its President, its COO, and its Chief Legal Officer have chosen to ignore my entreaties in the apparent hope/expectation the issue will disappear.

The seemingly insignificant action that occasioned this rapidly evolving ecological disaster began when the company replaced a small culvert with a much larger one running eight to ten feet below the rail bed. The original pipe had served as an overflow channel for the marsh in years past, emptying into an upstream tributary of the Cuyahoga river. Through the course of three months, the marsh has effectively emptied. Compounding the problem, the rail company excavated a catch- basin immediately below the new culvert to entrain an even larger volume of water. I would note that at no time in my frequent visits to the area over 70 years and through all seasons, has the water level presented a threat to the tracks. Even in an especially rainy year, the marsh rarely rises more than a foot above its normal level. The effect of the new culvert and catch basin has been the decimation of the wetland that lies north of Old Mill Road and east of the railroad tracks. Tragically, it has already had a catastrophic impact on the marsh and the wildlife it has supported for centuries.

In efforts to remedy what, by all accounts, is a fairly simple problem with a relatively inexpensive solution, I have contacted the senior management of the W&LE (see my letter of 3/3/23 link: https://stillpoint-gallery.com/blog/) and five other organizations (Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Tinker’s Creek Watershed Partners, Ohio EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, Summit County Metroparks) and almost a dozen senior executives within those organizations. Without exception, each of these state agencies or nonprofit organizations, while sympathetic and solicitous, have been unsuccessful crafting a resolution. Lifting the tent, one discovers a morass of bureaucratic obstacles that thwart all their good intentions. The ambiguity of jurisdiction and the lack of enforcement authority between these parties render them almost impotent. To date, with the exception of my own two letters, none of the individuals, agencies or organizations has contacted the W&LE. The only suggestion is one from the Summit County Metroparks, who contract with the state of Ohio to manage the property, have suggested we wait until beavers dam the culvert and we have more rain. With respect to the suggestion, beavers were relocated from the marsh several years ago and my inspection of the shoreline and old lodges over the last four years shows no evidence of their return.

While the destruction of the wetland pictured below in the “after” photos might simply be attributed to corporate insouciance, I suspect the Wheeling & Lake Erie’s passive indifference belies its corporate arrogance and a calculated decision to ignore the problem. As the state’s largest railway company, W&LE is a privately held, Ohio based company, acquired in 1990 by an investor group from assets divested by the Norfolk Southern. As a private corporation it releases neither an annual report nor a 10k with financial disclosures that might provide further insight into the company’s culture and its priority, if any, for the environment. Their only public face appears to be a website which notably makes no mention of environmental or corporate stewardship for the vast lands they transit throughout Ohio. Ironically, the timing of the wetland’s destruction coincides with the recent spate of derailments and the attendant catastrophic impact on local populations and the environment. However unintentional their initial act, their failure to address or even acknowledge the problem, and their abject disregard for the wetland that has provided habitat for a highly diverse population of waterfowl and wildlife for centuries is irresponsible and callous. And as heartbreaking as the destruction is, its implications have a longer geographic reach and relevance.
The area referenced spans several hundred acres of wetland that includes natural, spring-fed ponds and a broad expanse of prime waterfowl and animal habitat, including one of the most successful eagle nests begun over three decades ago, yielding one to three offspring each year. As of this date in late March, the marsh has been reduced to sand bars of peat, silt and flattened sedge with shallow puddles 6”-10” deep as illustrated in the “before and after” images below.

Last Saturday was my most recent visit to gauge the continuing impact and the first time I can recall not hearing a sound. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” came to mind as I encountered only silence for two and a half hours as I walked the marsh and adjacent woodlands. By this time of year, decibels are usually peaking as geese arrive in evening flocks of a hundred or more, red winged black birds are filling space with melodious chimes, even tree frogs are in a full-throated mating chorus. Old nests have been re-inhabited or new ones built, and breeding is underway. This year, with the drainage virtually complete, nests from previous years have been flattened and the water level, normally 4’-6’, is nonexistent or can be measured with a ruler. Wood ducks, pintails, blue-winged teal, even the ubiquitous mallards are missing. This was one of the few inland areas in the state that attracted a wide range of diver ducks; rafts of bluebills, the occasional canvasback and redheads as well as the early to migrate buffleheads. And perhaps the most iconic of birds, the great blue heron that normally returns by late February has not been seen. Missing even are the rafts of coots, that for all their uncomely features, bring their own form of beauty to the spring migration. Trumpeter Swans and the first sandhill cranes, spotted here in December, have also departed and one wonders how this will affect the eagles that have been sustained through the abundance of the marsh for so many years.

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.” John Ruskin

And with the destruction of habitat and wildlife, there will be an end to the iconic aesthetic of this wetland. Bullhead lilies that gave form to the water, ripening buttonbush that scattered the shoreline in yellow and crimson late each fall and sedge that textured the marsh in a cycle of colors, now lie dead in a tangle upon one another.

I will mourn the loss of this wild home I explored as a child, as a “place” where I could observe nature and sort out life as years passed, and as a place that has provided the inspiration and aesthetic for my art. Without intervention, the disappearance of the wetland is inevitable – the only sounds to rise will be heard in a lament of deafening silence.

What appears most needed in this moment is the collective voice of the public to stir the conscience of a railroad company to fix the problem, a solution that is inexpensive and would demonstrate the earnest goodwill of the railroad. As with so many small environmental disasters, the crisis too often falls through the cracks or is diluted by larger events. The destruction of a small marsh is, however, one not to be measured by its comparative geographic scale or economic impact, but rather by its fundamental morality. And its relevance is not to be found in quantitative measures of scale so much as qualitative measures of humanity and the symbolism found in seemingly insignificant quotidian deeds.

For almost 70 years my relationship with this unique wetland has been intimate, my investment in its preservation, personal. I’m embarrassed to admit, at this point in my life, I’ve never taken on a project to help the environment. It was always overwhelming, and without some connection, I was content to leave it in the hands of others or I couldn’t imagine my small voice would be heard or of any value. So often, in soliciting the assistance of others, there is the usual invocation of bromides, generally distilled to reflect the words of the great cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, whose famous quote adds perspective still,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In the spirit of Dr. Mead’s enduring adjuration, and with the humility of my own past lassitude , I would ask those with concern, even symbolically for this small piece of nature, to take up the pen and write a letter of concern to the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Co. demanding they return the wetland to its natural state and to the public domain.

Letters or emails can be addressed as follows:
Mr. Alec Jarvis
Executive Vice President & Chief Legal Officer Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway Company
100 First Street

Brewster, OH 44613

Alternatively: emails can be sent to senior management:
ajarvis@wlerwy.com Executive Vice President & Chief Legal Officer
lparsons@wlerwy.com President

jchastek@wlerwy.com Chief Operating Officer rrottman@wlerwy.com Chief Financial Officer

I cannot fully express my appreciation for those of you who have waded through this post and those who will consider sending a short note to the company. My own efforts continue unabated and a possible story in a national publication is under exploration at this moment. There is more to the story but I’ve attempted to consolidate as much as possible. Thank you all!

“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,” Dylan Thomas

BEFORE: Pastel Spring, looking east 20 minutes before sunrise.









BEFORE: Rafting Canada Geese, autumn migration

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“Starlings, Murmurations and Memories”

Posted on Mar, Fri, 2023 in Musings from Still Point

“Starlings: Murmurations and Memories”
Chattering the daily dirge, starlings, brown black, in kirie-cut coats perch in a weeping birch, iridescent breasts ticked green and blue, shirttails tucked beneath dark wings await the hawk, invisible before the sun, the swift descent, death’s shadow before the keening cry, before the pierced heart, before the requiem.

Memories beat in a thousand breasts, black souls exploding merge in manic union, coalesce in form and murmuration. And as quickly dissolve, peeling off to ordered roosts where memories never fade.
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