Watching Great Meadow

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This is an unusual book, deceptive in its apparent simplicity. Gordon Russell chronicles his observations of Great Meadow, a marshland in New Hampshire, from 2000 through 2014. The power of the book is in the clarity and immediacy of each journal entry. Russell is an extraordinary observer and possesses the ability to transmit what he sees through vivid and lyrical language. His descriptions uncover the wonder embodied in the smallest creature or plant; even the intricate work of leaf-mining insects on lily pads is a phenomenon to behold.

There is no “plot” to bind this narrative together, nor is one needed. The entries carry the reader from one enticing observation to the next, month by month, season by season, from one year to the next. The great power to this cumulative approach is the revelation that we can find, in just one wetland, complexity and beauty beyond comprehension, an ever-shifting drama of interacting life. Many of the species – birds particularly – make repeat appearances, but there is no repetition in the entries. The author always finds new and fascinating behavior to report.

The richness of the Great Meadow ecosystem is staggering, as is the interdependence of all the life within it. Russell is not exaggerating when he comments that the wetland “feeds all.” Piece by piece, he shows us a web of life, from beavers whose engineering skill keeps the wetland flooded, to watery swarms of hatching insects, to swooping birds, fish, tadpoles, diving grebes, and the majestic top predators, osprey and eagles. Plants, too – even tiny bladderworts – enjoy recognition. There is comedy, as when crows harass a pair of ospreys dining on their catch, and tragedy – a goose trapped by ice is left behind and perishes despite a heroic struggle.

Russell’s keen observations frequently highlight mysteries in nature and the great gaps in our understanding of the behavior of birds and animals. There are many authentic portrayals of astonishingly complex actions and interactions. His entries provoke many questions about the intelligence of animals, and challenge our too-often preconceived notions about the minds and awareness of animals. Through his acute observations, it is apparent they are not just going through the motions of their lives and breeding cycles. A lot of decision-making, cognition, processing of information – even emotions – are in play. Though we frequently assume these only exist in our human realm, it would seem we have a lot more in common with animals and birds than we realize.

The entries are not limited to wildlife. Russell brings to life the beauty of the place – the play of light and sky, rain and snow, on water and on land in different seasons and throughout the day. Colors spring to life, from muted winter grays and whites to glorious spring and summer greens to the fiery tones of fall.

Russell’s writing communicates what he sees, but his profound love of this place is palpable throughout.

Li Shen