Met dad at the Monsen Road unit of Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. We brought binoculars and spent some time looking for birds, but we spent far more time talking.

The Refuge staff continue to tweak their management practices in Great Meadows. This year again, both the upper and the lower impoundments have almost no water in them.

The lower impoundment (northerly, or downstream relative to the Concord River) is substantially drier right now, with the only water visible being in the ditch that leads north from the central dike. Many of the familiar plants remain despite the lack of water. The surface of the water in the ditch is covered with duckweed; cattails continue to flourish along the central dike and the east and west sides of the lower impoundment; and some purple loosestrife continues to flourish even though the water levels have been managed at least in part to try to do away with this invasive exotic. More remarkable to me was what appeared to be quite a fair amount of wild rice plants. I am not secure enough in my identification abilities to be sure it is wild rice without actually tasting the grains when they are mature. Nevertheless, I don’t remember seeing this plant before at all in the lower impoundment, and it covers a good proportion of what used to be open water in the lower impoundment. Presumably when the impoundment is flooded again, the seeds of this plant will provide another food source for migratory waterfowl. In the mean time, the growth of the wild rice (or whatever it is) makes the area look far more like a meadow than a drained pool.

The upper impoundment still looks like a drained pool. The cattails fringing the central dike and the east and west borders, and the mass of cattails in the southern half (or upstream half relative to the Concord River) retain their familiar boundaries. A few scraggly loosestrife have sprung up in the middle of the open area, the now-dry pool. We could see the leaves of pond lilies far out in the middle of the open area, where there was still a sheen of water on the mudflats — along with scores of shorebirds and a flock of Cedar Waxwings just visible in the binoculars. I saw some water chestnut floating in the central ditch — an invasive pest on which the current water management practices seem to have made substantial impact. A Great Blue Heron stalked the margins of the central ditch, thus provingsome small fish still haunted its waters.

We walked up the dike between the river and the upper impoundment, towards Borden’s Ponds, and saw pond lilies in beautiful butter-yellow bloom in the mud flats of the impoundment. Along the river, we saw lots of cardinal flowers, now in their glory. Dad took a number of photographs of cardinal flowers, and of the Great Blue Heron when we were returning. To be honest, though, we didn’t spend much time looking at either plants or birds; mostly we had a good long talk.

On August 22, 1854, Henry Thoreau took a walk in Great Meadows. This was 3 days after Ticknor and Fields published his book Walden. He wrote in his journal:

Pm. to Great Meadows on foot along bank….

This was a prairial walk. I went along the river & meadows from the first–crossing the red bridge road to the Battle Ground…. There are 3 or 4 haymakers still at work in the great meadows–though but very few acres are left uncut. Was suprised to hear a phoebe’s pewet-pewee & see it. I perceive a dead mole in the path halfway down the meadow. At the lower end of these meadows–between the river & the firm land are a number of shallow muddy pools or pond holes where the yellow lily and pontederia–Lysimachia stricta–Ludwigia spaerocarpa &c. &c. grow where apparently the surface of the meadow was floated off some srping–& so a permanent pond hole was formed in which even in this dry season [there was a serious drought in the summer of 1854] there is considerable water left…. In one little muddy basin where there was hardly a quart of water caught hald a dozen little breams and pickerel only an inch long as perfectly distinct as full grown….

Saw a blue heron–(apparently a young bird–of a brownish blue) fly up from one of these pools–and a stake driver [bittern?] from another–& also saw their great tracks on the mud & the feathers they had shed. Some of the long narrow white neck feathers of the heron. The tracks of the heron were about six inches long.

Here was a rare chance for the herons to transfix the imprisoned fish. It is a wonder that any have escaped. I was surprised that any dead were left on the mud but I judge from what the book says that they do not touch dead fish. To these remote shallow & muddy pools–usually surrounded by reeds & sedge–far amid the wet meadows–to these then the blue heron resorts for its food.

This is a description of the results of landscape management in 1854, a century and a half ago. There were no dikes in Great Meadows then, and no attempt to provide open water as resting places for migratory waterfowl in spring and fall; instead the land was managed to produce hay for livestock. In 1854, there was no need to manage the landscape in order to minimize the incursions of invasive exotic plants such as purple loosestrife and water chestnut — those plants have only come to the Great Meadows in destructive numbers within the past thirty or forty years. The Great Blue Heron and the yellow pond lilies and the shallow pools filled with small fish remain constant.

And human beings continue to spend time in the Great Meadows. Dad and I didn’t see any hay makers, of course, but we passed four young people, summer employees of the Refuge, and their pickup truck on the central dike. One of them scanned the upper impoundment with binoculars while the other three talked, and today I found myself more in sympathy with the conversation than the observation.