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I am “Lady of the Lake”

One of the few helpful aspects of social distancing and self-isolation during this horrible time of the COVID-19 has been taking the time, in solitude, to read, write, organize, create, sketch, and to revisit old favorite hobbies, and passions, like art. Back in March, when my university transitioned to online courses, and my state governor issued a Stay-at-Home order, I felt reasonably “ok” with that, since I felt it was a good time to focus on my graduate study, which requires a lot of reading and writing. Last fall, two of my faculty advisors asked me a difficult philosophical question about why researching the topics I’d proposed was important to me–personally--and my answers then seemed flaky, e.g. “I am Lady of the Lake!” So, I have been thinking about how to answer those questions. It seems like I should be prepared to answer thoughtfully.

In May, I received Honorable Mention for my poem, “My Glacial Erratic,” in the 2020 Fish Poetry Prize, judged and selected by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. My poem will appear in the 2020 Fish Anthology, coming out later this summer. (That’s with Fish Publishing, which holds a number of writing contests each year, based in Ireland.) Since then, I’ve written new poetry, and started drawing images that go with my poetry, and some of it is inspired by recent coursework. Selkies, mermaids, the Irish merrow, bog-women, the Lady of the Lake, and other supernatural female figures in literature (Romanticism as well as other periods, particularly Gothic literature and Arthurian lit) have captured my imagination.

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“Irish Merrow” – one of my watercolors

Enter art journaling. To work through some of my ideas, I’ve started art journaling. It’s now summer, and I’m still self-isolating, and spending a great deal of time at home, on my own, creating. I’ve started working in a blank canvas art journal (Jane Davenport’s supplies).

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Painting on my deck. This piece is one of my mermaid characters from my “Blue Dog and the Sea Fan” series.

It never occurred to me to use my art (and poetry) to think critically about my proposed research, or to answer philosophical questions about my interdisciplinary research. I’d been approaching it methodically, seriously–with critical annotations, a working bibliography, term papers as building blocks, outlines. Now I’m approaching it differently, and I’ve got images of mermaids, selkies, bog-women, and memories of Ireland in my head.

Painting in my art journal– a scene from my trip to Co. Cork, Ireland in 2019

Part of that’s influenced by the research I did on Traditional Ecological Knowledge of seaweed harvesting in Ireland for a term paper. Part of it’s inspired by a Celtic Studies class I’m taking led by Dr. Sharon Blackie. I read her book, Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women (September Publishing, 2019) which I loved.

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I loved this book by Sharon Blackie!

There’s something very liberating about making art. And it’s a good exercise to pick up a different tool–any tool–whether it’s a paint brush or fountain pen–but a physical tool, one that can be held in the hand to transmit ideas from the mind to the page. I love color. I’ve always responded emotionally to color. As a kid, the gift of a set of colored pens delighted me more than dolls or toys. I still love art supplies and colored pens. Recently, I’ve become quite smitten with art supplies by Jane Davenport, an Australian artist and designer, known as an “Artomologist,” a play on her nature photography, and particularly her love for ladybugs, and other insects. I’ve also really enjoyed her books, such as Marvelous Mermaids. Jane Davenport has a series of art tutorials on Youtube, and I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering my love for making art, partly inspired by her wonderful books, tutorials, and using some of her supplies. The “Mermaid Markers” are some of my favorite supplies, a water-reactive brush pen, like a watercolor alternative, that’s been fun to use. But my absolute favorite thing of hers is the fountain pen, an INKredible pen.

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Inkredible ink fountain pen by Jane Davenport and one of my journals

Twenty years ago, I took a watercolor painting class at College of the Atlantic. Prior to that, I was a writing-art double major (or English major, art minor) at St. Lawrence University. For at least ten years, from high school through college, at four different schools, I loved making art. I incorporated art visuals into my poetry projects and liked making books. Then, in 2004, while in grad school at COA, I was living in a small cottage with a 15-year-old water heater, which leaked badly, flooding my little home, and saturating all of my possessions. My draft master’s thesis, which I’d meticulously organized into piles and chapters, along with my notes and data on my living room floor, floated in ankle-deep water on a soggy shag carpet. Even my old Dell laptop was submerged. One of the fatal losses that really crushed me at the time, three full art portfolios containing all of my art from more than four years in studio art classes–drawings, paintings, photography, self-portraits, watercolors, some of which I’d planned to frame someday (when not working on my master’s thesis). All of my art disintegrated. It was so shocking and sad, I focused on other things, like completing my master’s degree, and moved forward with other projects, and left my ruined art and love for making art, in the past.

In recent years, I’ve rediscovered my love for Kettle Cove State Park (southern Maine), and I have been lucky enough to swim in that small cove over an eelgrass meadow, where I swam and toddled around as a baby more than thirty-five years ago.  Recently, I swam at high tide, in the wake of the New Moon Solar Eclipse in Cancer this June.

Kettle Cove State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Stetson photo

Every time I swim there, I am flooded with sensations, poems, ideas, and epiphanies. I’m rediscovering myself. I’m reinventing myself. Below is a weird “inner self-” portrait I painted, using watercolors and real Maine eelgrass, which coiled and wrapped around my neck and arms as I swam at Kettle Cove in June.

I collected a few blades of eelgrass, which was floating in the water, and coiled around my wrists as I swam to shore. It also washes ashore along with rockweed, so it’s easy to find there. I incorporated the eelgrass into my art journal.

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“Inner self-” portrait,  multimedia,  “Lass in the Eelgrass” LCS  June 2020

Now, twenty years after my watercolor class in spring 2000 at COA, I’ve picked up my paint brushes again. I’ve started making art again, almost on a daily basis, for the past month. At some point, during the process of social distancing, self-isolating at my home in the Lakes Region of Maine, I felt inspired to start sketching some drawings of symbols and seaweed as part of projects, like the one I did for Folklore and Environmental Policy class. Then, I started sketching ideas for other aspects (inspired by literary works by Romanticism-era writers like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft) while I organized a strategy for doing my graduate research. That led to the idea of starting an art journal that’s connected to the research I’ve been doing as a student in the Interdisciplinary PhD program. I’m a poet and “ecoheroine,” researching the Eco-Gothic and Arthurian lit in a tenacious pursuit of deep Romantic ecology of wetlands.

All of these images and photos are mine. Please don’t share my images. My art is work-in-progress. Thank you!

In 2011, my family lost my step-dad, Michael, on this day, July 10. I thought of him the other day when I passed a vintage Volvo, a man driving it through South Portland with a very long piece of lumber tied on top to the roof rack. Orange flags trailed in the wind. It reminded me of my step-dad, who drove a vintage Volvo when he first came into our lives (and I later adopted one 1986 Volvo, which had belonged to his grandparents). Michael, a Scorpio, and a self-taught Buddhist, who shared my love of swimming in the lakes and ocean, loved to paint and draw, play guitar and piano, and sing in his band. While he was a respected regulatory lawyer, his first love was probably the ocean and boats. I wrote this poem in memory of him, just after he passed away July 2011.

Sallow, Sailing

Michael Julian at lake

Michael and my brother at the lake

The Buddhist believed, as Michael read,
The willow extended compassion. And
Shakespeare spared the sallow
To symbolize loved ones parted.

Leaning, a big umbrella over our little beach,
A weeping willow’s silky leaves tickled us
As it hovered and hugged when we ducked
Beneath soft slender branches, air mattresses
Tucked under our arms as kids at the lake.

Willows wear watery bark, tolerant swimming trunks;
Ancient Greeks believed the tree remedied aches—
A precursor to aspirin, but more likely, ours stabilized
The ground, holding us together with tough tenacious
Roots unseen while we looked upon a dreamy canopy
Of green all summer: our windbreaker, shade-maker,
Father to our shores, a crown of butterflies.

Long after someone felled the willow,
Michael backed the Volvo into the grove
Trailing a sunfish he launched at Little Sebago.
He loved the ceremony of boat maintenance: standing
On principle waist-deep, wrapping rope, tacking
And teaching his son to sail at sunset,
The art of swerving tall torsos
Tango straight-backed
Timed to the boom.

Hot pink blooms on the breeze
Danced chaotically into pines,
Maples and oak trees, their
Backward leaves flipped
By a sudden change
Held like hands
To a face.

Two brothers sailed in bright
Sun & Michael’s windy voice;
We talked while treading water,
Pausing for the faded
Break on the beach,
a wave’s echo.

                 In loving memory of Michael

Late May at Nixie’s Vale is lovely. I lucked out in the fly-catcher department: phoebes swoop, dragonflies buzz around (by June) and nocturnal toads set up camp beneath my deck. It has been a few summers since I’ve spotted a bat, sadly, but my woods are a sanctuary for birds. It was sunny today, and I went to the seamstress to pick up a few items that she transformed for me: It’s like getting a whole new wardrobe of clothes that I already love. I’ve gone from a size 16 to an 8-10, down to 162lbs., with a 29 and a half inch waist, having lost forty pounds over the past year. I’m just getting back to my natural shape and feel like myself again. Hurrah! My best friend from high school said I look “high school skinny.” Well, I’m wearing the old blue jeans I got in Wyoming with my cousin, Tara, in summer 2002 when I was 26! (I’m now 38, so this feels like a magic trick.) Besides feeling fit again, I feel inspired.

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Almost every day, I walk my dog through a wetland or along the road by the pond and back, swim in the lake (it’s warming up!) and do a little housework. Today I cleaned the kitchen, made a delicious lunch, which I ate while sitting on a bed of moss in my yard, overlooking the grove in my woods. I love the woods. But my new indulgence, thanks due in part to Matt’s handy work, is my hammock. It hangs between two trees at the base of a mossy slope at the far end of the yard. It’s the quilted kind of hammock designed for two people but I fit perfectly along with a notebook, water bottle–and sometimes the dog will join me and sprawl across my legs. A lush breeze sneaks through the trees from Raymond Pond and I look up at the silhouettes of tree branches, patches of blue sky beyond. Rays of sunlight pour through and fill me with optimism, hope and appreciation. 20150802_152908I feel so blessed to live here, to call this little piece of land my home. I call it “Nixie’s Vale,” but in truth, I’m just a temporary steward of the land. This spring I planted a garden with my father and I will tend it this summer, hopefully producing some vegetables. In between swims, gardening and hammock naps, I barely have time to write. Admittedly, I keep thinking of lines of poetry; I might sketch them in my notebook, but then feel more motivated to swim-walk-hike-weed-swim-cook-walk and make iced tea.

The trees at Nixie's Vale

The trees at Nixie’s Vale

As kids, we skated across
Iridescent, frozen ponds
And pretty Sherman Lake,
All 200 acres, two miles long.
We’d pack a canvas tote bag,
Bring hot thermoses of cocoa,
Join other families, play tag,
Crack-the-whip, or skate solo.

My dad pulled my little brother, Tad,
In a sled, while I attempted figure eights,
Even though I was only seven, I felt agile
And athletic in my ice skates. I’d graduate
To wearing Velcro pond-skates by thirteen.
One year an older boy fell through the ice
(It wasn’t deep) After his family saved him,
Everyone else kept skating, just avoid the hole
And warnings of thin ice near the dam.

I glided over deep, vertical cracks;
Didn’t linger long to peer down and react,
But dared myself to push into the unknown,
My cheeks flamed magenta from frostbite.
I’d picture the Olympic figure skaters glittery gowns
When they jumped into a spin and danced around,
As I made “Ls” to pivot and propel my purple parka
Into loose, wobbly turns, tilting my curly head back
To see the cold, boundless winter sky, ‘til I got dizzy,
Dug my toe-pick in a nick to regain my balance,
But tripped anyway, then got back up again,
Mitten-to-elbow-to-knee, bruised but not broken.

Twenty years later, a rogue tidal surge
Took the dam out by force; then a team
Of civil engineers, and road crews, merged
The river with the marsh, so the lake emptied
Into the ocean for the first time in 71 years.
The sudden shift in the landscape ricocheted,
Shocking locals, whose lake they knew,
Where they’d put in canoes, and fished—
For decades, had been restored
To a saltmarsh, naturally; it just
Reverted to that system eventually.

If you’d been a fly on the wall,
Heard the talk at the town hall,
You’d have believed it was a disaster.
But it’s the destiny of waters to change,
To transform over time from one
Body to the next, from wetland to pond
To lake, then to marsh again,
Shape the wet soils,
Crackle the saltgrass
Along shallow creeks,
Flow through channels
Fifteen feet deep,
Smallmouth bass, splake
And minnow
Play hide and seek, flash
Rays of sunlight
Calling the eagles
Back to the pines
To build their nest
And raise their chicks.

LCS

My Woods In Winter

When I settled at Nixie’s Vale, a nod to Tennyson,
A small cape at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain,
Rare blue butterflies flit from a black ash seep,
An ecosystem valued by the Wabanaki people
For the basket-grade texture of the trees’ bark;
I studied economic botany in college, but then
Distracted myself with conservation plans,
Policies and “best management practices,”
And the accompanying fact sheets, which
I posted online (to save paper).

In winter, without leaves, most of my trees
Lean in white arches, doors to other worlds,
Witches’ brooms at an imaginary threshold,
Or so I liked to believe, as a child of whimsy.
Since living here beside a freshwater pond,
I’ve learned about the vortex, a crossway
For the spirits of warriors and healers.
A perennial stream carries rainwater down
Off the mountain, through underground
Tributaries intersecting in a fern-filled gully
Spilling into what was once known
As “Little Rattlesnake Lake.”

Like my trees, I am a pioneer, and thrive
Even in disturbed areas, and I somehow
Hold the sunken soils together and live
Protected from storms, my curly crown
Golden-rust-colored and silky, hairy tips
And tapered branchlets like fingers run
Over pale conspicuous scars, ripened cups
Whorled and heart-shaped shields, sun
Dried, revealing the broken-off ends
That once supplied water to downy buds.

I am broad and thornless, a windbreaker
My father raised me to nibble wintergreen
And build lean-tos; I cool the temperature
Dangle catkins, a snowy, pine-needled scene;
Write a ragged understory, which needs cutting:
It’s taking seed—overgrown, too pendulous,
In the pithy soft inner core of me, all foreseen,
Long foretold in pages I once loved to read—this
Sturdy soul’s rooted in Hawthorne’s hometown.

-Leah C. Stetson

Poet’s note: This poem is part of a 30/30 Poetry Challenge in support of the Tupelo Press. Please consider making a donation or subscribing to one of their fine publications. TP Subscribe

FeetWetLake

At the lake I love

After years of telling myself I would “never teach,” I began teaching college students in 2008.  A community college hired me to teach English Composition to college freshman. At the same time, a local Adult Education Program, in concert with the college, asked me to create a new curriculum for a college transitions class called “Success in College.” Through teaching both classes for a few years, I mentored fire science technicians and education majors, marine biology students and nurses, as well as nontraditional students, who wanted to change careers. They gained confidence in their writing and their ability to communicate–two skills in high demand for any job, no matter the field. A trend I’ve noticed among recent college graduates is a lack of patience in approaching the job market. In our fast-paced social networking-driven society, it’s easy to get impatient.  Searching for a job is more like casting a line over the water.  You try different bait. You move around to different spots. You get your feet wet.  You relax. You have to be patient.

My cousin, Owen, a Pisces like me, loves to fish at Little Sebago Lake, where we all grew up swimming.  About six months ago, I encouraged my cousin, a civil engineering student at University of Maine, to create a LinkedIn profile for himself. At first, he wasn’t sure if that sounded like something he needed to do, but he mentioned a friend of his who had gotten a job, or learned of a job, through LinkedIn. My cousin created a profile on LinkedIn, added his work experience (a local hardware store) and his skills, including transportation, geotechnical engineering, groundwater modeling, surface water hydrology and hydrology, flood control and civil engineering. I’m super proud of my cousin, Owen, for receiving an offer for a job at a widely known engineering firm, and for all of his accomplishments. While in college, he joined the American Society of Civil Engineering.  I’m sure that helped broaden his network, too. He attains his Bachelor’s of Science in Civil Engineering this spring.

When I graduated from College of the Atlantic with my Bachelor’s in Human Ecology in 2001, I researched organizations where I wanted to work, then approached them. I didn’t take a wait-and-see approach. I took a pro-active approach.  My first post-college job was a year-long position as a Lands Protection and Administrative Assistant at Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a state-wide land trust. Part internship, part professional position, the job allowed me to get my feet wet in conservation. Several of the conservation and lands protection directors at MCHT mentored me; one served on my graduate thesis committee, while I researched land trust collaboration as part of my master’s degree work in conservation and sustainable business at College of the Atlantic. My job at MCHT had not been advertised–it wasn’t a position they were looking to fill. I expressed interest during an informational interview and they created a position for me. The position blossomed into a full-time professional responsibility (May 2001-July/August 2002).

Squaretop Mtn WY

Squaretop Mtn., Green River Valley, WY

In July 2002, I traveled west to Wyoming, to meet my cousins. I also interviewed ranchers and land trust professionals about western approaches to land conservation. It opened my eyes. Wide. That trip–including an experience riding two rodeo horses at a ropin’ event in Big Piney, WY, broadened my horizons. It also helped me conquer fears of failing.  Or, at least, it quelled my fears of falling off a horse that dives and darts, charging toward the corriente steer at the end of an arena.

Energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to step into a role with a high learning curve are all “must-have” qualities in a green–or “entry level”–college graduate today. The next two jobs I held while a graduate student, in similarly unconventional ways, were not positions that my employers had advertised. One opportunity led to a two-year contract as a park ranger and multi-faceted position at Acadia National Park, where the position was unique to me. No one had held the position prior to me; no one replaced me, since it was a special project. I loved working at Acadia NP and gained valuable experience in conservation, communications & marketing, management and graphic design. And I earned an award for it, a nice little feather in my cap. The program I started in 2003 is ongoing.  That’s my idea of success.

Today’s college graduates seem unsure of the job market.  I belong to several listservs, such as Ecolog-L, and I’ve noticed the countless emails that college graduates have submitted to listservs in the hope that someone will bite. They want a job. They want advice. They have an opportunity to approach the job market in new and different ways than that of previous generations. For one thing, LinkedIn did not exist when I graduated from college. I had to use old fashioned networking–knocking on doors, asking for informational interviews or meetings. There is nothing wrong with asking for an informational interview at a company/firm/organization, where a college graduate would like to work. Ask someone who works in your dream profession–“what projects are you working on now?” Find out if those projects are collaborative in nature–do they involve partner organizations? Do any of those partners have volunteer or internship opportunities? Is there a way you can volunteer on a short-term project to get experience?

Northeast Creek pic by French Hill Pond

Northeast Creek Watershed. French Hill Pond photo

Look locally.  Serving on a local planning board or conservation commission may help to gain a foothold in a network that leads to an environmental job in a field that excites you. Even local government boards, such as conservation commissions, sometimes tap into regional, state-wide or national networks. When I was in graduate school, I volunteered on a groundwater study conducted by USGS hydrologists. My GIS class offered me a way to contribute mapping work to the larger study, commissioned by the Town of Bar Harbor. Sure, it wasn’t paid.  And it took me a year to create the maps analyzing wetlands and development patterns in the Northeast Creek watershed. And I embarrassed myself by storing two maps in the trunk of my ’86 Volvo, which filled up with freezing rain during a nor’easter–effectively turning my trunk into an ice block with the maps inside. When the ice melted, the maps disintegrated. And I had to redo them. A lesson learned!

Many years later, I wrote articles about wetland mapping as part of a project for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. I wasn’t new to wetland mapping since I’d had the experience of digitizing maps, plotting out wetlands and surveying land conservation areas in a watershed for various internships and volunteer projects after college. For those recent college graduates looking for work, I encourage them to CREATE positions for themselves, when they haven’t found a more traditional position immediately. It takes time. In the meantime, have fun exploring projects at the local, state-wide and national level. You don’t have to be a human ecologist to be multi-disciplinary. (My cousin, a civil engineering student, is multi-disciplinary in his approach. As a water-loving Pisces, it’s no surprise he was drawn to hydrology.)

Be open to unusual and unforeseen opportunities.  Step into a role that you (and a future employer) create just for you and your multi-disciplinary skills, talents and abilities. Offer a fresh perspective on a project that no one else wants to do and find that you can make a name for yourself, even while entering the job market. Create a sense of serendipity.

Raymond PondIs it a lake or a pond or a wetland?

My mother recently asked me about the difference between a lake and pond. She had just watched a neat presentation on Maine PBS about the Belgrade Lakes (See “Saving Our Lakes” on MPBN) – a program about the Belgrade Lakes Watershed Sustainability Project. Prior to that conversation, friends have asked me about the body of water beyond my backyard—if it was a lake or a pond and what’s the difference? My first answer was that it is a pond by name. A pond or lake may be named as such the way “street,” “lane,” or “road” are often interchangeable. Secondly, a lake and a pond have differences at the ecological level—in terms of aquatic life, and in terms of limnology.  I also explained that the differences had to do with acreage and depth of the water body. Sometimes a “pond” can be bigger and deeper by comparison to a nearby lake, as in the case of Long Pond (113’ deep) and Echo Lake (66’ deep) in Acadia National Park. In that case, Echo Lake is technically considered a “great pond” under Maine state law because it’s a natural pond greater than 10 acres.  But usually lakes are bigger and deeper than ponds. By state definitions, both lakes and ponds fall under similar regulations for “waters of the state” and related water quality and other environmental protection laws in Maine, and in many other states. Under the Cowardin classification system, ponds are wetlands.

What I did not explain very well was the natural grade of lakes into ponds into wetlands, and their evolution as waters.  What made sense to me as an ecologist, that one type would naturally grade into another water type, was harder to explain to my friend. What’s even harder to illustrate is the concept of an ecotone—the transition area between two ecological communities adjacent to one another. As usual, I thought of movies.

The phenomenon of distinct communities existing side by side can be observed in film.  For example, the liminal space between cultures—a cultural transition area—can be viewed as bordercrossings, illustrated effectively in films like “Night on Earth” (1991). Jim Jarmusch’s film took place entirely in taxi cabs in five different time zones throughout the world. The concept is that no matter where you go, at one point in time, there are eerily similar transactions and interactions taking place in taxi cabs—a kind of cultural habitat, if you will—for humans migrating from one place to another. Some water bodies, like taxi cabs, are mobile; some are stationary, like an ‘off-duty’ cab.  And that’s where the changes from lake to pond to wetland, or the line between adjacent ecological communities, can get a little fuzzy to someone standing on the curb, er, the edge of the water.

Over what period of time do lakes become ponds? How long does it take for ponds to become wetlands? For wetlands to become meadows? The short answer is several thousand years, if nothing has interrupted (or accelerated) the natural evolution of these waters. This is called succession. Biology students learning about wetland succession in a classroom can experiment with an aquarium—starting with a mini pond or wetland habitat. For a biology teaching guide written by BioMedia (Russell) that outlines the key ingredients to such an experiment for a year-long study, click here.  Limnologists say, “lakes are destined to die,” whereas ponds are the “death of a lake” and the “birth of a marsh.” For an explanation on pond succession, click here.

So how does a pond become a wetland? The first stage, called the ‘pioneer’ stage of wetland succession, starts with the pond without plant life at the bottom. Plankton, which inhabit the pond, and carry miniscule plant and animal life, arrive on the winds or wings of insects.  Over time, plankton die on the pond bottom and create a mucky layer, which is rich enough for water emergent plants to grow, such as water lilies, ancient wetland plants. As water lilies form a blanket over the surface of the water, they cut off the sunlight to the bottom, killing off the submergent plants. These processes can take a variety of timeframes from a matter of years to a matter of millennia. Trees, shrubs and grasses move into the space that was once the pond and a wetland takes shape. This is a dynamic process with many variables. Some wetland ecologists have argued against the idea of wetland succession because of these variables.

Succession is not a sure thing. It does not occur with all lakes in the U.S.. (For instance, there is no scientific concern that the Great Lakes will eventually turn into ponds, or meadows.) There are many factors that can interrupt a “natural” succession process such as a changing climate, soils, drainage, land development, introduction of invasive plants or other aquatic species, phosphorus run-off (causing dissolved oxygen) or other factors.

In addition to the possible succession pattern of pond to wetland, some wetlands can be turned into ponds. In the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Status & Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States 2004-2009, ponds are recognized as a type of freshwater wetland. The report indicates a net increase of 207,200 acres of freshwater ponds between 2004-2009, an increase of 3.2% in freshwater ponds nationally (FWS). The trouble with ponds, for example, farm ponds, being created in place of another type of freshwater wetland, is that there is a difference between constructed ponds and freshwater (or natural) ponds in their ecological functions. According to the Status & Trends Report, the majority of ponds in the U.S. are constructed farm ponds with only 31% being natural ponds.

In a way, it’s an uncertain destiny for our lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and wetlands. For those working to protect wetlands, and to harness the power of wetlands to sequester carbon and provide unique and solvent ways to fight climate change’s impact on our planet, that may be part of wetlands’ destiny, too. Save wetlands? Save ourselves.  That’s next in line.

Pondcloseup

In preparing for local conservation commission meetings over the past year, I have been learning more about tar sands, also known as heavy oil sands, the pipelines that transport oil sands, and the potential impacts they have on water resources. Previously, I had heard about the tar sands and oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 and the crude oil spill in Yellowstone in 2011 (MT), but I did not know much about tar sands extraction and transportation into North America. A year ago, media reported a revised or reinvented New England proposal for an Enbridge pipeline project. I’ve read a number of useful background documents on state, regional and national issues related to tar sands crude oil pipelines on the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s website, as well as annual reports from pipeline companies and studies commissioned by TransCanada, Canada’s National Energy Board and other interest groups, not all pro-environment.  In April 2012, the National Wildlife Federation published a report, “After the Marshall Spill: Oil Pipelines in the Great Lakes Region,” which assesses the regulatory issues involved in protecting wetlands and waters in the Great Lakes from similar disasters in the future. The Town of Raymond has posted a number of useful background documents, media reports, studies and assessments here.

From local issues to national concerns:  The topic of tar sands crude oil pipeline proposals in my community of Maine is echoed throughout the New England region, and throughout the U.S. all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. In southern Maine, Sebago Lake, the source of drinking water for the city of Portland, Maine and surrounding towns, plays a prominent role in a number of environmental advocacy groups’ efforts to halt proposals for pumping tar sands through the state. The pipeline currently runs from South Portland, Maine through the Lakes Region towns, crossing Panther Run and the Crooked River, two tributaries that feed Sebago Lake. This is just one small area of the longer pipeline, which would cross through many other watersheds throughout New England.

After I presented information at my town’s conservation commission meetings, where I volunteer, I ran into a few neighbors and residents who commented on the issue of a tar sands pipeline proposal that could have an impact on Maine’s watersheds and natural resources.  One business owner said, “They’re still cleaning up the spill in Michigan! If that happened here, we’d be done.” Similar views have been expressed at town meetings, on PBS presentations (winter 2012) and at university informational sessions in southern Maine. The Natural Resources Council of Maine has an ongoing project informing citizens about the proposal and its potential impacts to Maine, as well as the Enbridge proposals for tar sands pipelines elsewhere in the country. For a fact sheet on Tar Sands, Keystone Pipeline Project in Maine (2012), click here.

What are tar sands and where do they come from? Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil.  The process extracts the bitumen from the other materials and requires other treatment before it can be refined.  It is so thick it requires dilution with additional hydrocarbons before it can be transported through pipelines when it can be later turned into conventional heating oil. This process of transporting it in pipelines has many potentially hazardous impacts to water and other natural resources in the event of a spill.  Once the tar sands crude oil is transported, the process of turning it into conventional oil is not cost-effective or ecologically sensible.  The process releases more than double the harmful greenhouse gasses than conventional heating oil does during production. (See Scientific American.) Currently, the bulk of the tar sands originate in Alberta, Canada—where large pools called tar pits have replaced wetlands. These tar pits are big enough to be seen from space. The most threatened habitat are Canada’s boreal forests, which is 1.3 billion acres of wetlands—among the largest in-tact wetland ecosystems on Earth. Unfortunately, most of the wastewater involved with the tar sands production ends up in streams and rivers throughout the boreal forest, contaminating the wetlands and threatening bird and wildlife habitat. For Alberta’s Government webpage on oil sands, click here.

According to mining company reports, 64% of the mining landscape is made up of peatlands. (See related study, “Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon.”)  There’s some effort underway to restore the wetlands that have been affected by tar sands in Alberta. Oil Sands Wetlands Reclamation: Syncrude, Suncor Plan To Reconstruct Fens  It’s unconventional wetland restoration on a large scale. Essentially they’re hoping to recreate a 50-hectare watershed, not just a wetland, for one project. That’s about 125 acres of wetlands and waters. The University of Waterloo’s department of geography and environmental management is involved with the watershed restoration planning. It’s been called a Tar Sands Wetlands Reclamation.  However, some Canadian wetland scientists are doubtful that this will work to restore the wetlands.  They say, “Instead of bogs and fens, the industry will build hills topped by plantation forests and fill large man-made lakes with toxic waste bordered by shrubs and salty marshes.” (Rooney, et.al., 2011)

“It’s a completely different landscape,” says study co-author Suzanne Bayley, one of Canada’s top wetland ecologists and a University of Alberta professor. See Scientists Doubt Fix to Wetlands Damaged by Oil Sands Furthermore, fewer wetlands means drier conditions and more fire hazards. See a related presentation on The State of Oil Sands Wetlands Reclamation and Slow Down Oil Sands to Save Wetlands, Scientist Says –with details from a related study of Canadian wetlands. For an Alberta wetlands fact sheet by Water Matters, click here. Also check out some of the information from NRDC, et.al.  linked below, if you’re interested.

Tar Sands Invasion: How Dirty and Expensive Oil from Canada Threatens America’s New Energy Economy By NRDC, Earth Works, Sierra Club, et. al. – May 2010.  The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said this week that Enbridge paid a $3.7 million penalty for the 2010 incident. U.S. investigators suggested the company knew of line defects five years before the accident. EPA’s webpage on the Kalamazoo River spill can be found here. 



Playing Swamp Maiden by the Sheepscot. Margaret Stewart photo.

My love for the water spawned at the mouth of the Sheepscot River in midcoast Maine. But like the eels and salmon, I swam upstream and came of age in not one, but two watersheds. One, an estuary in Wiscasset Harbor, nourished by the Sheepscot, swallowed incoming tides from the Gulf of Maine. My family owned a half-acre island, White’s Island, at the center of this estuary, where I waded and swam through eel grass, sharp as steak knives turned on their edges. I wore petticoats of rockweed and floated in hot black inner tubes. The current raced beneath the first footbridge to the island threatening to take a swimmer under the trestle bridge of the railroad, where young swimmers weren’t supposed to go. The undertow was strong and there was always a risk of drowning. My paternal grandmother taught me how to save someone from drowning in that fast-moving current. She pretended to drown herself, sinking heavily to the muddy bottom. I dove down deep to rescue her. When I had done this successfully a few times, we crawled to the riverbank and she cackled with delight. Treading against that current took all my energy in frigid saltwater, even in summer. It required a combination of kicking and letting go—as I floated backward in fast-forward motion—then paddled again.

At White’s Island, 1987

Further inland, I learned to swim out deep in Little Sebago Lake. As a young girl, I swam with the eels at night and seduced them with my flashlight. My brother and I perched at the end of the dock, shining our lights down into the water, luring the eels to our beams. Their sinuous profiles cast shadows on the rippled sandy bottom like slithering heads of Medusa. Our maternal grandmother, whom we called Nana, let us swim at night. Sometimes we asked our grandfather to splash around and make the eels go away, but they came back. These American freshwater eels, which live in the ocean at the beginning and end—their silver stage of development—migrate to lakes, where they live for much of their lives. For my Strange Wetlands post about eels, see this post, in which I review James Prosek’s book, Eels–An Exploration from New Zealand to the Sargasso, the World’s Most Amazing & Mysterious Fish. 

Several towns surround this three-basin freshwater lake, including Windham, Gray and Raymond, Maine. The “Lakes Region” here refers to the Sebago Lake watershed, consisting of 360 square miles of lakes, ponds, rivers and wetlands. Streams and tributaries, like the Crooked River, flow into Sebago Lake, an inflow of 450 million gallons per day. Sebago Lake is twelve miles long and over 300 feet deep, holding 995 billion gallons of water, providing the #1 source of clean drinking water for much of southern Maine, including the city of Portland.  Sebago is the deepest lake in New England—and glacially speaking, the bottom of the 14,000-year-old lake basin is 450 feet below the lake’s surface. The Portland Water District chronicled the origins of Sebago Lake in their summer 2012 newsletter. According to geological analysis of sediment samples, Sebago Lake has been a “clean and healthy lake for the past 400 years.” It’s one of the few water bodies in the U.S. that does not require filtration. It’s also home to salmon and trout fisheries.

I live in the land of “landlocked salmon,” or so says the welcome sign on Route 302, the main road through the Lakes Region. This land is a water world. Before you start picturing a post-apocalyptic movie with pirate ships, hold your breath: this is a freshwater-focused community. The economy, culture, traditions and values lay anchor in this watershed. Recently I started coordinating a new coalition of town conservation planners and those interested in the common goal of protecting the waters of the Lakes Region with special interest on the Sebago Lake watershed. I named it the Healthy Waters Coalition well aware of the dozens of other collaborative groups throughout the country engaged in water resources protection and outreach education by the same name. With so many land trusts, conservation groups and town conservation commissions and local nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations active in southern and western Maine, and throughout the Lakes Region, I wanted a name that was authentic to the common interest and shared goals, without alienating any one type of group. It’s a grassroots effort to inform and educate citizens in the region on issues pertinent to water resources protection and management in the Sebago Lake watershed. So far there are 30 members and a general consensus of our goals and mission going ahead. I’m happy to be involved in the spirit of collaboration ~ and will be sure to bring the role of wetlands into the conversation quite often.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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