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IN THE PONKAPOAG
I DO not find in all my wanderings, afield or afloat, a more quaintly delightful plant than the floating-heart. In my pasture world it grows in one place only, -- along the shallow edges of the bogs of Ponkapoag Pond. I think no other pond or stream in this immediate region has it, and so sweetly shy is it that you may pass it year after year without noting its existence. It waits until the summer has marked its meridian before it ventures to send up its dainty little crÍpe de chine petals, each fairy-like bloom appearing for one day only in the very throb of the mottled olive and bronze heart, which is a leaf. The leaf itself is barely an inch across, the exquisite bloom less than half that; yet once you know it you love it beyond all other bog plants as being the most fairylike of water-lilies, though it is not a water-lily at all when it comes to botanical classification, being of the gentian family.
However, not to be a water-lily is not so bad if one may be classed with the fringed and closed gentians which are to bloom later on the landward edges of the bog. As the little blossom fades at nightfall, its short stalk curls back beneath the water to ripen the seeds there, hung just beneath the leaf from a peculiar bulb-like nodule just an inch or so down on the petiole. The next morning another wee white bud shoots up in the heart angle of the leaf and opens fragile petals in the sun.
I recall no other plant that sends up blooms from the leaf stalk in this way. When the seeds have ripened I suspect the plant of setting this bulb-like nodule free to float away to another shore, take root as a real corm or tuber might, and produce more floating-hearts.
This bog on the westerly shore of Ponkapoag Pond was not long ago made a part of Boston's park system, which thus moves ever sedately toward the Berkshire hills, yet it is a bit of nature as wild and untrammeled as it was in the days when Myles Standish may have looked down upon it from the top of great Blue Hill, as it had stood unchanged in his day for many and many a long century. So I fancy it will remain for centuries to come, for Nature holds her own here well. Indeed, she encroaches, for a bog grows wherever it has free water to grow into. So, after many centuries, frequenters of the Blue Hill Reservation will note a broad expanse of swamp land where once sparkled the waters of this hundred-acre pond. For the way of the bog is this.
All along its under-water front the obscure under-water weeds grow up and die year after year, generation after generation, forming fertile banks of beautiful soft mud, into whose lower depths the great thick rootstocks of the pond-lilies push, and in which the fibrous roots of the tape grass, the fresh-water eel grass, find a hold: The growth and decay of these, with the water shield, with its jelly-protected foliage, the yellow dog-lily, and in lesser depths the bulrush, add to the growing bank as coral insects grow and die in tropic seas, until it is near enough to the surface for the pickerel weed to find roothold.
Then indeed the bog steps forward with vigor, for the pickerel weed is its firing line. All summer you shall see its blue banners flaunting gayly in the southern breezes, tempting the land-loving bumblebee to sea, calling the honey-bee from the mile-distant hive, and offering rest and luncheon to a myriad lesser insects, all with genial hospitality. Its serried millions in close ranks breast the waves in a broad blue line from one end of the bog to the other, a half-mile or so.
Behind these are shallow pools, where again you find the white water-lilies. Here they bloom in enormous profusion from late June until early September, reaching their grand climax during late July. On such a day, standing in the boat at the southerly end of the bog, counting those within a given space and multiplying, I estimated that there were ten thousand of the fragrant white blooms in sight. Twice as many more were hidden by bulrush and pickerel weed. On Sundays and holidays boatloads of trolley trippers paddle and push among them and carry them off by the hundred, yet they make no mark on the visible supply. The decay of the leaves and stems of these add to the under-water foothold of the bog, but after all it must be the reedy stems, sagittate leaves, and interwoven roots of the pickerel weed that are its main foundation.
Steadily seaward over the foundation thus laid progresses the long, definite front of the saw-edged marsh grass. Once it interlocks its roots along the mud surface formed for it, it leaves no room for the freer-growing denizens of the shallows. In among the marsh grass grows no flaunting flag of pickerel weed, no pure white nymphaea sends forth its rich odor.
Only the bog cranberry may hold its own in any quantity against the throttling squeeze of those grass roots. Where these grow is the high sea of the bog, its waves rising and falling in the free winds. Yet, just as pickerel weed and water-lily give way before the advance of the marsh grass, so it in turn falls on the landward side before the advancing hosts of the swamp.
A steady phalanx of swamp cedars pushes its foothold farther and farther out upon it, year by year, scouting with button bush and black alder and holding every inch that they obtain for it. Now and then something happens to a brief area of marsh grass and cranberries so that their dense packed minions faint and release their root grip on the quaking mud. Every such opening is seized by the alder or the button bush, and the cedars follow them; indeed, sometimes the cedars, favored by the right wind or the right bird carriers at seeding time, slip in first, and little island clumps of their dark bronze green stand here and there over against the cadet blue of Blue Hill which hangs like a beautiful drop-curtain always on the westerly sky.
Once, a half century ago or more, a farmer and his men came down from the pastures, and for purposes of their own cut a ditch straight through the middle of the bog to the open water. The hundreds of scrawny night herons, sitting on pale blue eggs in scraggly nests in the cedar swamp must have heard the cedars laugh as this went on. It was the swamp's opportunity. Where the farmer and his men with incredible labor cut and tore away the marsh grass roots the cedars planted their seeds, and called upon the alders and the swamp maples and the thoroughwort, the Joe Pye weed, and a host of other good citizens of the swamp, to help them.
So vigorous was the sortie and so well did they hold their ground that you may trace the farmer's wide ditch today only as a causeway down which the swamp has come to build a great wooded area in the midst of the bog, accomplishing in half a century what it might not have done in five times that had it not been for human aid. Thus, slowly as you and I count time, only an inch or two a year perhaps, yet all too rapidly for the joy of future generations, the bog encroaches upon the pond and the swamp follows towards complete possession, which as the centuries go by will make the quaking sphagnum firm meadow land.
For all you and I know, the Metropolitan Park Commission of the year 3908 will be fixing up a second Franklin Field here for the camping ground of visiting Pythians. Meanwhile let us hasten to enjoy our bog and its reedy borders.
It is the home and the occasional resting place of many a wild free creature. Of a clear midsummer evening you may hear the muskrat grubbing roots there, see, perhaps, the moonlight glint on the long V-shaped ripple which he makes as he swims, and hear his snort and splash when he dives at sudden sight of you. You may chance upon a disconsolate bittern sitting clumsily in dumpy patience as he waits for food to splash up to him, and you may even hear him work his wheezy, dislocated wooden pump, a cry as awkward and disconsolate as the bird.
The muskrats breed in the bog, the bittern has his grassy nest there, and a myriad blackbirds have made the low bushes vocal with their cheery whistles all summer. They are flocking now, getting the young birds in training for the long flight south, but they still hang about the bog and they still whistle merrily. Surely it is not environment that makes temperament. Bittern and blackbird both frequent bogs, yet the bittern is a lonely misanthrope, whom I more than half suspect of being melancholy mad, while the blackbird is as cheery and as fond of his fellows as a candidate. When you hear his whistle you half expect him to light on a thwart, hand you a cigar, and ask after the baby. But the blackbird's election is sure anyway.
Another loved and lovely denizen of these bogs is the wood duck. These breed in the swamp, the mother bird building a grassy nest in a hollow tree, where she lays from eight to fourteen buff-white eggs, and leads her yellow fluffy ducklings to a nearby secluded pool for their first swim. Later they come out into the bog, and ultimately make the pond, where they learn to forage for themselves. By the first of August the mother bird has sent them adrift, in the main, to paddle and flap their way about as best they may. They are “flappers,” as the boys call them. That is, they can make good speed along the surface by half running and flapping vigorously, but they cannot yet fly enough to rise into the air.
One of these young wood ducks came out of the bog the other morning, just at the gray of dawn, and swam over toward the boat landing. He was quite near the shore when I took ship and rowed to seaward of him, thus shutting him off from the open pond and from the bog. Then for an hour or two followed what was to me the most interesting duck hunting I have done for a long time. I could row as fast as he could swim, and I continually edged him along the south shore, getting nearer every minute. I have read much of the marvelous intelligence of wild creatures. Yet I saw little of it in this chase. The duck knew me for an enemy, on general principles, for I was a man, and I was evidently coming after him. Even rudimentary intelligence should have told him to flap for the bog as fast as he could. He did nothing of the sort. He just edged along down the shore, evidently hoping that I was light-minded, and would forget all about him in a minute or two if let alone. But I kept at it until I was so near I could see every one of his already handsome feathers and note the coloring of those parts which had not yet reached the beauty of maturity. I could see the yellow rim of his eye, and still he swam east and swam west but made no real move to escape.
Two things I wished to learn from my wood duck. One was how much general intelligence and real quickness of wit he would show in escaping. The other was how he carried his wings under water if, by any fortunate chance, I should be able to see him swim after he went down to escape me. But at first he was so irresolute that he neither dived nor made any vigorous attempt to escape. I got so near, that to avoid driving him up the bank into the woods I had to ease away a bit. Finally, at my second approach, he did try to flap by the end of the boat, but I spurted and headed him off.
It was a long time, and it took much manoeuvring to make him dive, but it finally entered his head that he might avoid being cornered and badgered by going under water. This he did, going on a slant just a very little below the surface, probably because he was in too shallow water to go much deeper, and coming up well to seaward. There he preened his feathers, took a sip or two of water and, seemingly, waited to be surrounded a second time.
I rowed out, got on the off-shore side of him, and again began boating him in toward the shore. He showed less uneasiness this time, but dived and swam out again after considerable more pressing. Again and again I repeated this, sometimes getting no sight of him under water, again seeing him move along very plainly. At no time did I notice any motion of the wings under water. I have been told that wild ducks when swimming beneath the surface make most of their progress with their wings, quite literally flying under water. This may be, but I have no evidence of it in the under-water action of this one.
Again, it has been sagely impressed upon me by old duck hunters that you could tell in what direction from your boat a bird would rise by noting the way in which his bill pointed when he went under. I think it was Adirondack Murray in that famous loon-hunting chapter who first made the point, and it has been insisted upon by many another successor. But, bless you, my half-grown wood duck made no difficulty of going down with his head toward the morning and coming up in the sunset portion of the view. He took slants under water and cut semicircles at will. But I couldn't see him use his wings while beneath the wave.
Little by little he got over being excited by my presence. He began to eat bugs off the lily pads as he went by, and now and then tip up for an under-water search. Thus we coquetted with one another all along the southern shore of the pond, and when I finally cornered him for a last time in behind Loon Island he dove without embarrassment and began his feeding as soon as he had again reached the surface. The chase was no longer exciting, and I turned my attention to something else. Then he swam out quite a little further into the pond, preened his feathers carefully, tucked his head under his wing and went to sleep!
Evidently he had decided that I was eccentric, but harmless, and the best way to escape my attentions would be to leave me severely alone.
And there you have it. I think the wood duck is beautiful, but not very bright. Yet it occurs to me that some Sherlock Holmes of the woods may prove, to the satisfaction of Dr. Watson anyway, that he is preternaturally clever, in that this one, though still young, was keen enough to see that from the first I had no evil intentions toward him.