Naturally speaking: Sloshing through a cattail wetland
I’ve often wanted to experience what the European settlers did when they arrived in Lake County in the 1830s. Certainly they were overwhelmed with miles and miles of cattail marshes, oak openings, pristine meadows and river valleys – exploring those ecosystems might have had posed some dangers. Imagine sinking into a mucky marsh waist deep with blackbirds screaming above and not knowing when you might reach higher ground.
To get a feeling of what the settlers encountered, I recently sloshed through a cattail marsh in Lake County. Like the county’s forefathers, I encountered huge stands of plants with leaves taller than I, with big brown cigars at the top and a yellow powdery substance getting into my eyes and on my clothes. These are cattails, the hallmark of a marsh, and walking through them is not easy. Take one step and you might sink, or another and your foot might find an unstable tuft of sedges – you could fall into the marsh, get wet and cold and lost.
I was able to see a stand of oak trees beyond the marsh – but back then the distance between marshes and terra firma would have been much greater. The marshes, in some ways, however, held the keys to the settlers’ survival. Cattails provided food nearly year-round. Even in winter, if you could get into the icy marsh and dig below the surface, you could secure bulbs that could be ground up into an edible powder. The leaves of early spring were also edible raw. When dried, the leaves could also be used as insulation. The downy material that forms in autumn atop cattail heads made soft material to add to pillows.
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