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Vital wetlands are drying up from our indifference

Billions of words have been written to persuade readers that wetlands have an immediate and direct relevance to human lives and are worthy of protection and preservation. But who cares enough to read beyond the word "wetlands" printed in bold type? I believe most people who do are already positively disposed to the conservation of wetlands, particularly glamorous wetlands such as the Everglades. Other readers simply resume their hunt through the pages for more interesting fare, something that justifies the expenditure of their time.

You are probably asking, why have these words been printed today, if virtually no one will read them? The words are printed because wetland ecologists, like me, will struggle until the last wetland plant is crushed beneath a lugged tire to convey the profound attraction for these precious wet places.

The words are written because wetlands mean everything to many other beings. It is for the wet places themselves _ impassive under the heel of human destruction, resplendent in the deepest green cloak of leaves and needles, surging with life, while appearing inactive _ that the words appear here today.

Readers who have come this far are invited to join me on a brief visit to the home of wood storks, great blue herons, chorus frogs and alligators. It is a place of sentinel-like cypress, black gum, water tupelo and Carolina ash. It is a place in which water presides over all of these and many others. It is a cypress pond.

As we approach the cypress pond, listen for sounds of activity. Listen for the trilling of a nervous flock of palm warblers, trying first one tree, then another. Hear the unmistakable trumpet of a bullfrog. The wing beats and the loud croak of a heron vacating its perch in a large cypress as we draw near. These and other species make sounds we can hear, if we are not talking and choose a quiet path to the pond. Other species sense our approach but give practically no evidence of their own presence, at least until we arrive in their territory. A black racer on the edge of the pond moves away swiftly with a slight rustle of grass. Southern leopard frogs, silent as we pass, leap away and seek safety in the water. Other species know that we are here, but they stay hidden from our eyes and ears.

Now we are in the open interior of the cypress pond. Water envelops us up to our knees. It penetrates our boots, socks and jeans. It cools us from our hike through tangled vegetation. The water is dark and its surface roiled from our movement. We wait for it to settle to brown smoothness. The surface reflects cypress gray and green. Where sunlight reaches our vision, darkness is washed to a clear ocher. No bright colors appear, except the striking red-orange of bromeliads blooming on the cypress.

This is where understanding comes. When the water is still and reflective, when we are engulfed by it, when frogs and birds resume their calls behind us. It is then that we perceive the grand and ancient wholeness of the life system, which we call cypress pond.

In Florida, cypress ponds and the beings they shelter are our neighbors. They are all around us. They have been a part of our state's landscape for many thousands of years, although there are only half as many as there were 250 years ago.

How long will cypress ponds remain? Will Florida always have them? Or will they disappear as quickly as cypress reflections fade from roiled waters? Like anything of value, we must not lose them. They provide flood control and recharge water quality enhancement. Ruled by water, they are places in which life has thrived for millions of human lifetimes.

Nevertheless, despite state and federal wetlands protection regulations, their dynamic beauty is threatened by bulldozers and man-induced dryness. The most insidious and deadly threat, however, comes from our indifference, our disregard for the importance of a life system that is unfamiliar yet necessary.

Things that we do not value frequently pass from existence. We should remember that a loss of remaining wetlands would not just diminish human life but extinguish life for many other species.

Patricia M. Dooris, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of biology at Saint Leo College who is chairwoman of the school's environmental science program, and is a resident of Pasco County.