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Massachusetts

Journey to the Heart of Hockomock Swamp

Part 1: See how the adventure begins

A Place Where Dinosaurs Might Roam

In the cedar swamp, the landscape changes dramatically. Atlantic white cedars tower above, and tattered funnel spider webs hang in the undergrowth. Alison carefully unrolls a leaf that contains the dark brown eggs of a moth or butterfly.

Though the brush thins out here, the canopy cover is thick. The cedar swamp is darker and misty, almost primeval. Minor differences in elevation cause big changes in vegetation here. High spots have stately hemlocks and white pines, while the lowest areas are covered with tussock sedge.

David is busy studying the GPS unit. "No signal," he says. Together, the canopy cover and the clouds form a dense barrier between us and the satellite. Luckily, Richard’s compass is on track.

When we come to a fuzzy bed of sphagnum moss under mature cedars, Brianna is the first to plop down in it. The mossy clearings are her favorite spots.

"I could imagine fairies here," she says. Even the scientists of the group admit that they wouldn’t be surprised to see a dinosaur walk by.

As Far Away As We Can Possibly Be

When we reach the remote spot, sunshine is flickering on the trees and the wind is blowing water droplets through the wet leaves. I strain to hear the road, but cannot. We are as far away as we can possibly be.

As we devour our packed lunches, Alison asks Brianna if she’s ever seen her grandfather tired (he’s been leaving us in the dust all day). "Just once," she says, "when he got back from a hike to a remote spot in the Appalachians."

Richard is fascinated by what he calls the ‘far away nearby.’ He has sought out remote spots in places from the American West, to Australia's Big Desert to the City of Chicago.

"What keeps you going?" Alison asks Richard. He smiles, looking at Brianna. "It’s the possibility — the excitement of not knowing what you could discover in the next footstep. Some people wonder why I care about a big mucky place like this, or why it should be a priority for The Nature Conservancy. Well, there’s a lot of habitat between roads. Hockomock's cedar swamps are some of the few remaining in the state, and they're part of a 17,000-acre wetland complex that is the largest in Massachusetts. I want places like this to be here for future curious minds to explore.”

Swamp Monsters Reemerging from the Interior

As we journey out, climbing through the dense shrubs becomes second nature, almost meditative. David tries to tempt a funnel web weaver to its web, but it stays hidden. So much has stayed hidden from us here. We didn’t see the four-toed salamander or the king rail or the spotted turtle. Like the swamp itself, they remain unknown.

But we did see seedlings spearing up from fallen trees, dragonfly wings, wild azaleas and a plant with a golden root. I am reminded of what Richard said about possibility. And the fact that there are places like this, where you can walk for hours discovering wild things, gives me tremendous hope.

When we reach the road, the noise of rush hour is deafening. I wonder what a turtle feels as it climbs up that bank and looks across to more swamp on the other side.

Cars honk their horns. Muddy and disheveled, we must look like swamp monsters to the passing motorists. The rain grows steady as we drive away, and we reflect on our newfound appreciation of this mysterious place. We take comfort in knowing that Hockomock will take care of the water as it has for centuries — as long as we continue to take care of it.

Part 1: See how the adventure begins

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