Levin: The Swamp Next Door

Jul 30, 2018

From the porch, on a clear August day, I can see Mount Ascutney, forty miles distant, more an afterthought than a keynote, far beyond the more imposing Gove Hill.

The slightest atmospheric moisture screens Ascutney, which vanishes into blue-gray haze. But the natural feature that dominates both my view and my imagination is a nearby wetland, cradled in a narrow valley.

Although labeled as Gillette Swamp on the USGS Lyme Quadrangle my boys claimed naming rights years ago, calling our home-ground Coyote Hollow because of the serenades that echo from the western escarpment.

Waterlogged shrubs on the east and north and evergreens along the higher western and southern perimeter border sixty acres. Technically, Coyote Hollow is an intermediate fen, marshy, peat building, alkaline. An unnamed brook drains the fen into the East Branch of the Ompompanoosuc.

When we moved here twenty-one years ago, the water level was much higher. I could snorkel the main channel, which was four-feet deep, with my older son, who would tow his younger brother in a kayak. Beaver cut passages through the reeds and maintained a dam at the outlet, backing water up to the edge of our lower pasture.

In those high water days, marsh wrens nested in the cattails; hooded mergansers moved into a box tacked to a hemlock. Muskrat houses were common. Otters visited regularly and a mother mink gave birth in an old beaver lodge. On spring nights, windows open, I’d fall asleep to the calls of snipe and American bittern. My windows didn’t need to be open to hear six different species of frogs.

Moose and bear passed through. Itinerant bald eagles and osprey stopped by to study the water, anticipating fish, which were scarce and small. Loons often trailed their voices across the valley. And one cold December morning, I saw an immature golden eagle, high in the sky, circling.

Unfortunately, when the beaver’s food supply dwindled, they left the valley and the water level dropped. No more kayaking. No more snorkeling. The wrens and snipe and muskrat moved on. And I haven’t seen a moose in years.

But bitterns, frogs, and red-shouldered hawks remain. And when the sun goes down, the calls of barred owls and coyotes still punctuate the quiet, still mark the eternal spiral of the seasons.