“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 on the Run”

Posted on Jan, Wed, 2023 in Uncategorized

“Starlings on the Run”

This image, a companion to my previous post of starlings, perched and pensive in the weeping birch, illustrates a sense of unity, even in their urgent departure pictured here. Seemingly unperturbed at first by my conspicuous approach and maladroit struggle in the freezing snow with camera and tripod, they struck me more as amused than frightened. For a brief moment I had deluded myself into believing I might be a “bird whisperer”; otherwise why had they remained affixed so calmly to the branches? Looking at this second image, however, I am disabused of any such notion.

That day’s brief encounter and these images have occasioned further reflection on these beautiful yet pernicious birds. Property destruction by starlings is legendary, replete with stories of farmers losing entire crops in an afternoon as birds would descend in locust-like waves. And, our own experience in Cleveland Hts. underscores those stories as we’ve watched small flocks drop into the yard this week, emptying the feeder in less than an hour. Moreover, we’ve seen them in the spring raiding robin’s nests, devouring newly hatched chicks – a practical though disturbing means of ethnic cleansing and sating hunger.

So, while antipathy towards starlings abounds, there is an undeniable, extraordinary beauty to these birds, not only their physical form but in their flight, ascending, swarming, swirling and coalescing into an undulating flow of amorphous murmuration. Perhaps, if there is a message, a moral or an enigma to these recent images, it lies in the dichotomy between beauty and its antithesis, dependent both upon context and the elusive definition of beauty itself. Although philosophers since Plato, and poets and artists through millennia have grappled with defining and expanding the concept of beauty (including its relationship to the arts and its influence on aesthetics), one also might look to the lowly starling when considering the many aspects of beauty; their physical perfection, their art as observed in the skies, and even their moral turpitude as they coalesce in flight, casting a shadow across creation.

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“Willow in the Window”

Posted on Nov, Mon, 2022 in Uncategorized

“Willow in the Window”

Scene out our window last week (Nov. 2) in Hinesburg, Vermont., a small New England village outside Burlington. The restored barn where we stayed provided ideal quarters for the first half of our trip, not only for its beautiful landscape but for its interior views that evoked memories ranging from Kertész to Wyeth.
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“Requiem for Nature”

Posted on Jul, Wed, 2022 in Uncategorized

“Requiem ”

“Tuft of Flowers”
“ …
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim. … ”
Robert Frost

Written in 1915, Frost’s poem reflects nostalgic values of an earlier era, ones I fear we’ve lost through the century that’s followed. The speaker here, tossing just cut grass to dry in the morning sun is led by a butterfly to a tuft of flowers spared by one who had mowed earlier that morning. A small expression of humanity had left the flowers intact, presumably for their sheer joy and by the simple grace of the mower. Considered today in the context of the political divide roiling our Republic and the unprecedented normalizing of lies and conspiracies, Frost’s poem, quaint even in its time, is nonetheless an aspirational metaphor for the present era. “Return to Nature!”, the familiar rallying cry for many of us disaffected by contemporary society, has become a routine anodyne to our predicament, its healing qualities now foundering in cynicism and despair. Although I too have invoked the ameliorative power of nature, an experience this past week has shaken my confidence even in the natural world to salve and bridge the divide. To that point, posted below is a series of photographs accompanied by further context and a brief story to document the event.

I can’t recall precisely but I believe I was nine or ten, some 65 years ago, when I first walked these rural northbound tracks of the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway running from Canton and Brewster, through Aurora and on to Cleveland. Even then many of the trees were interlaced high above the tracks that cross Old Mill Road in Aurora continuing on north to feed Lake Erie’s freighters.

The trees, forming a short tunnel beneath their canopy, became my “gateway” to the marsh, to its inner woodlands and to a small cloistered meadow at the east end. I always had the feeling something mysterious lay beyond their long shadows, something numinous yet benign and familiar waiting to be explored. And it was through exploring this “other” world I learned lessons of the woods and wetlands and, over a lifetime, discovery of myself as well. Identifying trees, for instance, how leaf lobes distinguish oaks (white, red and pin); how to recognize the smooth bark of immature beech thriving beneath the canopy as they hold their translucent, parchment leaves through winter; remembering elm and ash now lost; spotting scattered sugar and rock maple here and there, and finding the increasingly rare wild black cherry trees.

The cherry (arched in the first three images below), content with time’s slow passage, etched its shape through space over decades. Years earlier the tree underwent a slow transformative process known as inosculation, its trunk grafting naturally with another cherry that resided in a small copse. One trunk grew vertically, the other cantilevered over the track its bough arched high above passing trains. Here the story begins.

Last week I returned to the marsh, walking the rails as I do every week, savoring the flashes of wildlife and the sounds and earthy fragrances that have marked generations of this undisturbed land. As Frost’s tuft of flowers was metaphoric, so too would become the sight that lay ahead.

Lying before me a startling assault on the landscape; indescribable, indiscriminate and likely an unceremonious destruction of trees that had lined the tracks. A rail crew assisted by modern technology had butchered trees on either side of the rails, and along with these living creatures, the beauty and innocence of place – a sacred aesthetic element of the landscape as well as a home and food source for wildlife. The 4th, 5th and 6th images below depict the slaughter. The history of this land, silent through the slow passage of time, transmuted in a moment. The ancient cherry reaching over the tracks was chewed to a shell, its branches only stubs, the ultimate indignity a remnant of its eviscerated trunk. I would also note, the carnage had extended twice as far as the prescribed 15’ clearance for freight trains.

By happenstance several days later I witnessed the probable instrument of destruction near a rail crossing in Solon. A brush cutter known as a Kershaw Klearway 500 ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvAGPDtl_qg) mounted on rails, its rotary cutter-head mangling trees and brush, sating the hunger of its operators. This giant brush cutter projecting outward on a boom about 25 feet, was shredding vegetation along the railway. Masticating large trees and boughs within its ravenous maw, reminding me of an AK 47’s capacity to gratify the exigent machismo of some men.  Humanity’s hubris will never be lost so long as the pernicious combination of technology and man’s desire for dominion over nature continues. And so, short of eye-witnessing the destruction at the marsh, I deduced it was probably the same or a similar machine that had ravaged the old cherry and untold other trees along the edge of the marsh.

As I began to inspect the area, the keening cry of a red-tail hawk (Image No. 7), followed me, circling for the next 10 or 15 minutes until I returned to my car, its plaintiff, high-pitched cry a requiem; its own lament, casting grief upon the wind, over the woods where it fell upon the marsh – history and pathos buried beneath grass and sedge. His nest, at the top of a mature beech, also had been destroyed by the rail crew. I wondered if he recognized me as I’m probably the only one he regularly encounters. I took his declarations as a coda in the aftermath.

What significance can we ascribe to a relatively trivial event when the world is on fire, almost literally as it appears in this moment? The recent and accelerating divisions that afflict our society, the geopolitical struggles and the existential exigencies that threaten the planet have another origin it would seem to me. Jung would point to the shadows.

Out of the cradle, through instinct and observation, one begins the journey of humanity. Robert Frost’s, “Tuft of Flowers” is a voice from another time. Pray today’s child may hear man’s grace through the strains of nature.

No. 1 Summer Rails


No. 2 Autumn Rails


No. 3 November Rails


No. 4 First View


No. 5 Laid to Waste


No. 6 Death of an Ancient Wild Cherry


No. 7: Red Tail’s Requiem

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Black Willow, Spring Rain

Posted on May, Fri, 2022 in Uncategorized

“Black Willow, Spring Rain”  Squire Valleevue Farm

Standing beneath these trees when the wind blows one hears the squeak and groan of trunks and boughs and the sibilant rustling of leaves. This particular stand of black willows has mesmerized me for five decades, like a giant metronome dancing through space, its crowns moving in unison to a light breeze; its black bark, interlaced and deeply furrowed providing contrast to the delicate yellow-green leaves of early spring. But also, I’ve admired the restive side of their personality, when the trees beat and flail against strong winds sweeping down the farm’s western slope and, for all their frailty, holding, indefatigable, resolute, never breaking.  Above the waterline, the massive root system, now fully integrated into sand and loam, provides ballast to secure the trees and bank. And, completing the aesthetic, an inner ring of cattails frames this frequently overlooked landscape.

Consider a visit to Squire Valleevue Farm one day this spring or summer to walk the meadows and trails and experience the motion in the willows.
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“Turner Skies”

Posted on Mar, Fri, 2022 in Landscapes, Musings from Still Point, Uncategorized

“Turner Skies” Schweitzer Marsh, 7/8/13, 6:12 a.m.”

What does this image possibly have to do with today’s cold, wet, typical March day ? Not much really, but I retrieved it after coming across a random article on J.M.W. Turner’s “The Burning of the House of Lords”, a personal favorite and one owned by CMA. I’ve not posted this photograph before but recalled the sunrise that early July morning and how it brought to mind Turner’s color palette in his later years.

There will always be discussion about the father of impressionism, some scholars tipping towards Manet and others toward Turner. For me, the significance and attraction of Turner’s work will always be in his evocative and ephemeral use of light – the shimmering, transparent colors.

This image of Schweitzer Marsh is, to me, a very modest, tranquil counterpoint to the exquisite excitement, chaos and urgency of Turner’s genius.

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