Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year by David M. Carroll

1999. 292 pages. Hardcover. Houghton Mifflin.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Biodiversity Challenge

In a nutshell:

David M. Carroll is a naturalist and artist who resides in New Hampshire.  Since childhood, he has had a love for the wetlands.  I did not know this until after I’d finished the book, but Swampwalker’s Journal is the third of what Carroll calls his “wet-sneaker” trilogy.  The first two books are The Year of the Turtle and Trout Reflections.  In Swampwalker’s Journal, he records field observations of the creatures and plants in the wetland ecosystems near where he lives.  He uses these observations to underscore how much would be lost and has been lost by human destruction of the wetlands.  The book is divided according to wetland type: vernal pools, marshes, swamps, ponds, floodplains, bogs and fens.


I love reading non-fiction, but I can’t deny that it is often a slower reading experience than reading fiction, especially when it is so dense with detailed observations and facts as Swampwalker’s Journal.  The reward of such a reading experience is the deepened understanding of wetlands and the creatures that live in them.  Also, I feel smarter.

I am not one who is driven to cross oceans or continents . . . “Here and now” is a ruling concept for me, and I seldom stray from familiar places. p. 173

Carroll’s years among the wetlands are clearly evident in the book.  He makes a point of seeing the first salamander migrations of spring.  He treks to ponds hoping to see the first of the turtle hatchlings.  He knows where to find animal burrows and nests.  And yet, it is a pleasure to see how nature continues to puzzle and surprise him.  As he says at another point in the book:

I do not look for human meanings out here; one who looks for human meanings in nature will never see nature. p. 44

When I first started the book, I was a bit daunted by Carroll’s paragraphs about plant life.  Though his writing is not dry, I found it hard to picture what he was describing sometimes and lists of plant types and names meant little to me.  Where the book shines is in Carroll’s ability to show wetland creatures as individuals.  He’s not anthropomorphizing them, but his encounters do imbue them with personality.

The moment I was hooked was when I read Carroll’s description of a wood frog in distress.  This happens on about page 10.  The account begins when Carroll hears a pathetic cry in the night and he is surprised to see that it is coming from this little wood frog which is being laboriously dragged away by a small snake.  In this instance, Carroll frees the frog because he judges from experience that this snake cannot possibly eat a frog of that size.  And Carroll muses on the fact that wood frogs are generally a silent species, but this one was compelled to cry out.  What could it gain by crying out?  Frogs do not come to each other’s rescue.  Carroll concludes: “And yet, in the face of unfathomable unhearing, life cries out at times.”

The book is threaded with these kinds of up-close interactions from turtle hatchlings, to beavers, to even a bear.  Carroll rarely intercedes as he does with that wood frog, but it’s interesting to see when he does decide to break the role of observer.

This is not a book I would recommend to someone who has never read nature writing before, but if wetlands and/or frogs, turtles and salamanders interest you, then it is definitely a worthwhile read. And don’t just take my word for it.  The book’s cover listed praise from such authors as Bill McKibben, Annie Dillard and Sue Hubbell.  It also won the John Burroughs Medal for Best Natural History in 2001.

For another review, see:

Willow House Chronicles (includes nice photos of the variety of wetlands)


Filed under Non-Fiction

7 responses to “Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year by David M. Carroll

  1. Pingback: 2010 Biodiversity Challenge « A Good Stopping Point

  2. tarynwanderer

    Great review! I’d never heard of this author, but I definitely want to check him out now. Your description reminds me a bit of Bernd Heinrich, who lives in Maine and has published a ton of nature writing about the woods near his home.

    And I agree, non-fiction like this is often a slower experience–but that’s nice sometimes! 🙂

    • I’ve read The Geese of Beaver Bog by Bernd Heinrich and liked it, though it’s been a few years. I had checked out A Year in the Maine Woods earlier this year, but unfortunately I reached my renewal limit before I got around to reading it. What have you read by Heinrich?

  3. Eva

    This sounds fascinating!

  4. This sounds like the absolute perfect book for me. Did you know I spent a summer at Messiah studying Vernal pools in the surrounding area? Thank you so much for the review and introducing me to this entire series!

    • No, I didn’t know that! Wow. I didn’t even know the term vernal pools until I read this book. Well this book definitely will be perfect for you. The first section is entirely about vernal pools and is one of the longer sections of the book.

  5. I was particularly impressed with David’s many informative entries that help illuminate the value of beaver to wetlands and the general ecology!

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