Wading Right In by Catherine Owen Koning & Sharon M. Ashworth

Wading Right In: Discovering the Nature of Wetlands
By Catherine Owen Koning & Sharon M. Ashworth
University of Chicago Press, 2019

Wading Right In: Discovering the Nature of Wetlands     By Catherine Owen Koning & Sharon M. Ashworth University of Chicago Press, 2019

As environmental studies professor Catherine Owen Koning and ecologist Sharon Ashworth point out in their captivating new book Wading Right In: Discovering the Nature of Wetlands, exploring wetlands “takes patience, keen observation skills, good hand-to-eye coordination, and a wicked good sense of adventure.” In these pages, they present the ample fruits of such explorations, taking readers deep into bogs, fens, forest ponds, and salt marshes and describing in clear and rigorous detail the infinite variety of plants and animals and mud they find there.

Wetlands, they remind their readers, are ecologically precious regions. They store up to 35% of the world’s carbon and 75% of its non-anthropogenic methane; they are “the unsung heroes of carbon sequestration.” They catch and store floodwaters, a function that’s never been more valuable than in our current climate-wracked moment, and they help to ‘bank’ groundwater. And as anyone who’s ever trudged or paddled through them can attest, they are home to an incredible profusion of wildlife, from mosses and ferns to snakes and frogs to beavers and bears. 

All of this is worth learning about, and Koning and Ashworth are first-rate teachers, but the added charm of their book comes from its warmly human elements; this is very much an account of people encountering wetlands. They share with their readers not just the wonders of wetland exploration but the sheer unlikely fun that can be shared between explorers, fun snatched between “equipment failures, muck-stuck boots, or vanished trails.” Such conditions (let’s not even get started about the bugs) can be trying, but they can also be unifying: “A long, hot day pondering the differences among innumerable strikingly similar-as-the-day-goes-on plants might not provoke wonder in the moment or inspire poetry, but the ensuing stories are well worth the camaraderie formed in their telling.”

“We wish to convey the fascination and passion for wetlands that those who study and protect them feel when they pause between soil samples, plant surveys, and monitoring wells,” our authors write, and thanks to a companionable tone and Koning’s own black-and-white illustrations throughout, they succeed. In 2019 it’s almost needless to add that wetlands are currently threatened everywhere they occur; Wading Right In couldn’t be better timed to stress the miracles we’ll be losing if wetlands disappear. 

Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.