Today, I watched a Marsh Wren collect soft fibers from the head of a cattail — and dive into the abyss of cattail leaves to build up a hidden nest. These same cattails help clean the marsh, removing some of heavy metals and contaminants. Muskrats, ducks, coots, blackbirds, rails and Sora find sanctuary in the thick and tall stands. Fish feed and brood in the submerged root systems.
In other words, the cattail multitasks in hyper-drive. But the most thought-provoking thing I’ve read on cattails recently comes from Margit Roos-Collins in The Flavors of Home: A guide to wild edible plants of the San Francisco Bay Area. She talks about the various edible parts of the cattail plant, but also feels a melancholy and reluctance over the plant’s use as such:
“I have become a fan only of the pollen. A cattail plant is a strong, deep green, vital thing. Whenever I have pulled up or dug one up, and stood there, holding a plant as tall as myself for the sake of a walnut-sized potato and an equal amount of cucumber/cabbage, I have wanted to cry. It’s not that the cattail population is particularly hurt by such foraging: in some marshes, such as at Coyote Hills, the cattails must be periodically thinned. . . .
But in most cases, harvesting a cattail makes me feel like I have lost a round in the foraging game. The food value gained seems too small and ordinary compared to the handsome vigor of the plant that is traded for it.”
I betray my sentimental nature by saying that I feel this way about most things – and now, about cattails. Last autumn, when Hugh and I watched Goldfinches in the Berkeley Hills harvest seed from thistle, I thought how awesome a natural system that pushes Goldfinch nesting season back to coincide with thistle production. Goldfinches get their own birdie timetable to more efficiently live in balance — a timetable which provides them with a precious, not wasteful, source of sustenance. They take what they need and the plant survives.
When we got ahead of the dawn and waited for sunrise on a Mendocino Beach last year . . . then witnessed the California Beach Fleas scramble for their burrows like nervous little vampires . . . I couldn’t help but marvel at the precise niche these beach hoppers fill. They burrow at water’s edge to dine on detritus and decaying seaweed left in a sweep of the tide. They take only the waste products that would otherwise bake and fester in the afternoon sun.
Of course, these are specialized animals and ecological niches. Most of us are generalists. But that doesn’t mean humans can’t be more careful in assessing the value of the taking versus the inherent majesty of the leaving. Just as Roos-Collins does with her cattails.
I saw No Impact Man over the weekend, and realized how out of the loop I’d been on morning talk.** I missed most of the mainstream media coverage of this upper-middle-class-consumerist couple turned veggie-minimalist couple.
** I go into self-imposed, mainstream media blackouts from time to time, just to retain my sanity. When I return to the modern world, I just can’t seem to handle the treacle of morning talk. Too early, not enough food in the stomach, I guess. (My late dad loved “The Today Show” as a pre-office ritual. It was a slightly different animal back in the day, though.)
Anyway, if you haven’t read or seen the rampant morning-show coverage, in this film, Colin Beavan and his wife Michelle commit to year of living with no net impact on the environment. The journey takes them from the simple steps of buying local, organic food — to more extreme measures like turning off the electricity for six months (e.g. no refrigeration) in their New York apartment.
The film puts a mainstream twist on a sustainable and holistic lifestyle many have embraced over the years — one that eschews taking more than than we need and discarding more than the planet can realistically handle. The couple gets some criticism in the process, for the self-promotional nature of their endeavor and for some of the hypocrisy involved with the jobs that finance their project.
I hate the corporate jargon “takeaway.” But just this once I’ll use it and say, my “takeaway,” in spite of whatever cynicism I could level, was realizing how much more frugal I could be from an environmental standpoint, even as Hugh and I have cut so much chaff from our lifestyles over the years. I think Beavan would be happy to know that even a jaded old soul like me had that revelation.
I realize this post was supposed to be about cattails. The mind will meander — well, I should say my mind will meander — when left to contemplate something even as simple and common as a cattail. I spent a lot of time with the cattails today. I had a few hours free to wander through the marsh, and to relish the wetlands soaked in recent rains. It won’t be long before those same ponds are desert flats, riddled with mud cracks.
I listened to the life bursting out from those majestic stalks — rail calls and the raspy chirps of Marsh Wrens. And I thought how perfect it was that the cattails shed their down . . . just in time for Song Sparrows and Marsh Wrens to line their nests with furry softness. I watched terns dive behind the cattails and come up with tern-sized fish. Smelt, maybe . . . and remembered the sea monster swirls of carp wading in these same shallows, as summer heat evaporated the ponds.
I met a cyclist who just passed his 75th milestone. He photographs the goslings, terns, gray foxes and fawns who feed and hunker down around the cattail marsh. He introduced me to a territorial Snowy Egret that he named Bossy — an egret who fishes at a pipe where the water flows into the ponds. He pointed out the three-year old Red-tailed Hawk who fledged at this very marsh.
There may be a time when knowing that a cattail stalk tastes like cucumber and potato will, in fact, be a big help when I’m stuck with just Hemlock, Oleander and Buckeye for dinner. Fortunately, I’m not in that spot today. Until then, I’ll trust Roos-Collins’s assessment about value-per-pound — and leave the cattails to the animals who manage to use them without stripping them entirely of their handsome vigor.
The Photos: Shot with my Olympus E-3 and Zuiko 70-300mm lens. Except for the green panorama which I snapped with my Panasonic pocket FX500. It was a lively day for song sparrows, heralding their presence from the tips of cattails. Males are more vocal during mating season but in general, song sparrows are prolific song-writers, belting out hundreds of variations on multiple songs.