“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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“Time Irresolute, Tummond’s Bog ”

Posted on Feb, Mon, 2023 in Landscapes, Musings from Still Point

“Others will see the islands large and small; … A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them …” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman

“Time Irresolute, Tummond’s Bog ”

167 years after Walt Whitman published these prophetic lines, technology, capitalism and exigent political and religious ideologies now conspire to change at least one dimension of time’s long held notion; that some things are immutable, that some things transcend the temporal, that some things will endure. How can the simple beauty of a wetland that has survived for 11,000 years fall to the whim of man in the course of a few years? Entropy comes to the natural world with surrealistic speed disguised in many colors but almost always motivated by profit and power.

This scene of mallards flushing over a beaver lodge is at once iconic and timeless but imminently precarious. Imagine a world devoid of these creatures and the everyday quotidian beauty of the landscape.

Sunday (Feb. 19), Kate and I were visiting Tummond’s bog, a little known wetland in Mantua, Ohio, when mallards exploded over a beaver lodge at the west end of the marsh. It was the same location and scene we might have experienced 11,000 years ago with the end of the Pleistocene era as Ohio’s last glacier receded leaving eskers and kames behind to delineate the wetland, effectively arresting it in time. Pin oaks, white oaks, beech and shagbark hickory trace the slopes to the water where rush and sedge frame nesting areas for waterfowl and supply material and food for beaver lodges – a remarkable ecosystem, symbiotic, self-sustaining yet fragile.

One can walk, as we did, along the top of the serpentine eskers that still shelter the bog. As this scene existed in the past, it remains today. Tomorrow is less sanguine.

Oscar Bruggman Sand & Gravel, a privately owned, local company, is strip mining the wetland’s contiguous boundaries first removing surface vegetation (trees and brush), then topsoil and eventually the gravel to be sold. The mining impact to the hydrology, water chemistry, soil acidity, the underground aquifer, wildlife and myriad other critical components of this natural system presents an imminent existential crisis.

Perhaps it’s not of any real consequence. There are millions of bogs of course and when they disappear few will be aware of the loss and few will care. My personal hope is we come to see this obscure little bog as a microcosm, a metaphor that somehow helps, ever so minutely, to affect public opinion and, perhaps as a long shot, to galvanize action to preserve beauty and silent wonder.
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“Art, Context and Connection”

Posted on Jan, Fri, 2023 in Landscapes, Musings from Still Point

“White Oak’s, Between Snows, January”

Last month I released a limited edition art book (“Still Point, … there the Dance Is”) featuring 60 landscape images of northeast Ohio and northern Michigan, each accompanied by an essay of mine. My intention was not for these short narratives to prejudice or preempt the individual response of others to the landscapes, rather I hoped the essays might provide a contextual bridge for the viewer/reader to find their own connections. My interest was in determining the benefit or detriment, if any, in providing the additional written stories or commentary as context.

With that as background, last week I posted the image (see below) on Facebook, “White Oaks, Between Snows, January”, as an “experiment”, promising to explain more about it this week. It hadn’t been my intent to raise expectations for something revelatory, only to glean some small, additional insight into the evocative nature of a scene known intimately to me but not the audience. In this instance, unlike the recent book, there was no essay, not even a short descriptive narrative to inform the image.

So, what does one see and what generates a response or creates a connection? And how similar or distinct is that connection between the artist and the observer? The title here provides only a small bit of context, identifying the species of tree, the season and month of the year. The only other information is visual; that which may be observed directly or inferred from the various elements in the image itself. Whether or not a viewer connects in some way would seem to depend upon experiences and associations held in his or her personal inventory. Beyond that, there is the instinctive or intuitive response to the aesthetic -also dependent on experience and association. Since the posting I’ve had only a few responses; a few on FB and a few others in offline conversations.

George Bilgere, one of this country’s acclaimed poets, found connection through the visual elements, “I like that burn and sparkle of energy, the glitter of the winter-resistant leaves in the middle. … but I do sense the image’s forthright power.” And Michigan artist, Chris Hammack saw the trees as “silent observers”, much as I have personified them in my own mind. Another artist and friend, Laurel Hecht, commented, “The deep dark woods in the back..fun to think about.” This sense of mystery represents much of my own attraction to the image and locale as I visit here every week or two and experience a similar reaction each time, one I had hoped to communicate through the photograph.

This issue has far broader implications with respect to art and has been deliberated for centuries no doubt. The question which remains unclear here is, to what extent context or disclosure informs or detracts from a painting, a book, a photograph, a musical composition, etc.? There is no correct answer really, only the artist’s “intent” and ultimate judgement as to what information if any should be included to fulfill that intent. Some artists prefer that the observer draw on personal experience and associations to arrive at an interpretation; others write long disquisitions describing their work and process in minute detail to ensure it will be interpreted as intended. Providing clues or subtle detail through the title may be the most direct way but it remains unsatisfying to me personally. I hope to explore this universal question as time passes and welcome the thoughts of any who had the patience to read this post or the inclination to read the essays that I’ve drawn upon to illustrate the images in my new book.
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“Sycamores, First Flakes”

Posted on Jan, Mon, 2023 in Landscapes, Musings from Still Point

“Sycamores, First Flakes “

John Ruskin, many western scholars would assert, was the 19th century’s most famous art critic, though his reputation at that time as a polymath and contemporary Renaissance man elevated him into even higher spheres of ideas and endeavors. An extraordinary draftsman, watercolorist and philosopher, he championed the interrelationship of nature, art and society, positing:

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.” J. Ruskin

In the spirit of his observation and my own obsession with American Sycamores, I post this image taken yesterday (November 30) late in the day after a light snow collected in the crevices and shadows of the forest floor just above the banks of the Chagrin River. This image, I think, is eerily reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s slightly abstract portrayal of trees, especially the beech and birch forests that attracted him.

I would note there is no saturation or Photoshop compensation here, simply “nature painting for us … pictures of infinite beauty.”
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