Shallow sinuous channels lace the marsh on their way to the sea. Somewhere in the evening gloom, my brother ferries his cargo of contraband swiftly along the reed-fringed waterways, his nimble flat-bottomed boat evading the excise men with ease. Further inland, the salt marsh gives way reluctantly to fresh water. Here among painstakingly crafted dikes and drainage channels, my father pulls catch crops from the perpetually sodden silt. Spring floods are his biggest enemy, threatening to submerge the emerging crops. Without the beans and potatoes he grows, our diet of fish and eels would be monotonous indeed.
In the heart of the marsh, magnificent trees reach skywards blocking all but a little sunlight and hindering our puny human efforts to scrape a living. Ah, but when they fall, we use this fallen bounty to build our homes, boats and walkways. Smaller trees grow here too; willows, alders and hazel provide roofs, fences, baskets, firewood and even nuts for flour.
As wise woman to this small community I keep people healthy, healing the injured and sick. I give thanks daily that I was born here; my people may be taciturn and thin-boned but they step lightly along our secret causeways, going where no dry-lander dares. The marsh holds all manner of useful plants for those that have the skill to read the land and to know when and where to harvest. From the bark of that same willow that pens our few sheep, I brew a tea that cures all but the most stubborn of headaches and fevers. Potions, ointments and tinctures; all have their origins in this land’s variety. I do my best to draw the plants and show their uses in my Herbal in the hope that the wise woman who comes after me will be guided by my experience.
Sometimes I need other things for my cures. Then I must brave the market and trade for them. Being called swamp-wife or bog-dweller is not a great hardship; the villagers want my wares as much as I need the ingredients they provide. But once there was a priest visiting. He spotted my webbed fingers and toes, saw my basket of plants and called me “Witch!” I clutched my basket close and ran.
Escaping from a bruising encounter with French bureaucracy, I wandered the cobbled streets in the early evening light to restore my sanity. I had returned to my home town after university, determined to make a difference. To me, that meant protecting the best of the local landscape before it disappeared under concrete. Even in my childhood, the wild marsh was shrinking as farmers extracted groundwater to irrigate their fields. Other areas of the marsh were drained to accommodate the growth of the nearby town. Nowadays the wild marsh was confined to a few small pockets and the rich variety of vegetation had given way to fewer species, dominated by non-native invaders. Working for a small NGO, I was charged with restoring as much of the marshland as possible. As I required cooperation from the locals, I had to make them see that bringing back the marsh would be to their benefit.
The flood management aspect was easy to sell. Presently, the water flow was barely controlled by sluices. The tangled skein of shallow channels had given way to fewer, deeper canals. The local river burst its banks in most Springs, flooding nearby dwellings. In times past, the marsh’s labyrinthine waterways would have stored this excess and slowed the flow enough for it to be absorbed.
The marsh was once an overwintering place for many species of waterfowl. The townsfolk regretted the absence of the birds even as they welcomed the flow of holidaymakers in their place. If I could persuade the locals to farm with less artificial fertiliser so that the marsh didn’t receive all the nitrate run-off, cleaner water would follow. If some of the water could be rerouted to bring life back to the currently dried out stream beds, fish and freshwater mussels would return. Otters and other small mammals as well as the birds would follow the food supply. All of these would be good for tourism. Sport fishermen, hikers and nature enthusiasts alike would find renewed interest here, as well as the ubiquitous boaters.
But some vital spark was missing. The search for this missing piece drew me to a market stall where, on a whim, I picked up the small battered book. Plants of all sorts were lovingly drawn and annotated by various different hands. Carefully pressed between pages were a few crumbling specimens. The Herbal described the flora of the marsh as it was perhaps as recently as 200 years ago. This would be my inspiration!