Discovering An Ecosystem

By Jill Sisson Quinn | April 16, 2015


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Lately, I have been on the trail of a muskrat.  Before winter, his muddy mound of a home appeared through the leafless trees in a pond I have largely ignored.  In spring, I encountered his tail-dragging tracks near a low bridge and now, in summer, he seems to have vanished.  Morning, evening, and afternoon stakeouts by what seems to be a feeding platform—a mat of mud and reeds in a cluster of cattails—has not revealed him. 

But since I have begun looking for one thing, I begin to see everything else.  While I wait for the muskrat, wood ducklings paddle through the algaed pond as they once did their own yolks.  Irregular rows of scented pond lily pads flap like the ruffles of a summer dress in unseasonable winds, showing their red undersides.  Blue flag buds, not yet open, purse their petaled lips at my long intrusion.  High up in a smooth stag completely shorn of bark a family of pileated woodpeckers ducks angular red heads in and out, square pegs in a dark, round hole.  Under three logs nestle clutches of tiny freshwater-pearl-like eggs, either red-backed salamander or land snail, I can’t tell.  One night, I hopscotch to the pond through a pleasant plague of microtoads.  In one spot, on successive evenings, I rouse a small owl, twin fawns, and a gray tree frog; next to him under a small downed branch hides a blue-spotted salamander. I was looking for a muskrat, but I’ve found a whole ecosystem.

Ecosystem:  a term coined less than a century ago when the English botanist A.G. Tansley  wrote:   “[We] cannot separate [organisms] from their special environment, with which they form one physical system.”  A term illustrated further by our own Aldo Leopold.  When I worked as a naturalist I hiked the children deep into the woods for a scavenger hunt and asked them to find, in addition to plants and animals, the environment’s abiotic factors:  water, minerals, sunlight.  We are in the sun, actually:  the heliosphere, the sun’s outermost layer, extends beyond the orbit of Pluto, not hard to believe when you venture to the pond in the evening—working specifically around a muskrat’s perceived schedule—and find you can see absolutely nothing due to the glare of the setting sun.

After my long vigils on the weedy shore of the pond I worry about the scavengers on me, ask my husband to take my book light and examine the places I can’t see.  We once spent three days, procured a magnifying glass even, trying to assure ourselves that a tiny spot on my left shoulder was not an embedded deer tick, but a freckle.  When I return from my bushwacking walks sometimes I shake tiny beetles from my hair, cute speckled ones that wouldn’t make anybody scream.  But this is the least of it, really.  Like the forest, like the pond, I am an ecosystem, hosting all kinds of microscopic life (mostly beneficial) on and inside me—10,000 species, according to the Human Microbiome Project.  So when I seek out the muskrat, regardless of whether I spot his slick-furred foraging, if I see the pond he swims in I see him.  For what we consider to be our selves may be a strange invention, a fragile construct between two truer things:  the world we harbor and the world we anchor in.

Jill Sisson Quinn

Jill Sisson Quinn

Jill Sisson Quinn is the author of “Sign Here if You Exist and Other Essays.” Her work has appeared in Ecotone, OnEarth, Orion, and many other magazines. She teaches writing at Mid-State Technical College and lives in Scandinavia.
2018-01-19T17:52:28-06:00Tags: , , , |

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