Watching hurricane updates over the weekend, thankful to have our evacuated daughter back home and praying for loved ones who were riding out Irma huddled in a closet, it was weird to be simultaneously absorbed in writing about a hike through what was once known as the Great Black Swamp.
Like Florida, this 1,500-square-mile monster that once stretched from northeast Indiana well into Ohio was once nearly impenetrable to would-be settlers. Like Florida, the land was eventually drained and revised into something its human inhabitants found more suitable. And in both cases, few of the current residents give much thought to how dramatically different their surroundings would be if it weren’t for these major makeovers.
I read an interesting piece over the weekend arguing that Florida should never have been settled in the first place. That’s not an argument I’m going to get into, having spent some fun times in Florida as recently as a few weeks ago — in the very house where close friends/cousins Dan and Toni are maybe just now emerging from that closet. Nor would I suggest that residents of the former Great Black Swamp abandon their homes and let nature take over. But reading Ryan Schnurr’s account of hiking along the Maumee River – the former Great Black Swamp’s drainpipe into Lake Erie – was fascinating as well as eye-opening.
Growing up here on the edge of Limberlost territory, not too far from Hoosier naturalist and author Gene Stratton-Porter’s home, I figured the Great Black Swamp was just another name for the same place – the term used on the other side of the Indiana-Ohio border. But it turns out they’re in two different watersheds. Flush your toilet in Limberlost territory, and that water’s headed for the Gulf of Mexico, via the Wabash and then the Mississippi rivers.
A watershed isn’t something most of us think about. But in his meditations on the history, geology and biology of the current land he was exploring all over again along the Maumee, he found himself dwelling on all the ways these layers of meaning intersect. I find myself looking at not only the land, but at parts of my own life, in new ways, using lenses I wasn’t previously equipped with.
Talking to Schnurr last week, I kept thinking about how in my family there are two schools of thought when it comes to hiking: Those who like to conquer a trail, and those who like to experience it. I’m probably more philosophically suited to the latter, but since losing weight seven years ago I’m more often in the group that’s zipping on ahead, trying to get to the finish line.
Thank goodness for people like Schnurr, who take their time and try to understand what they’re seeing when they go for a walk – casting light the rest of us can use to better perceive our surroundings as well.