In a time of flint tools and real wildness, there used to be bear and beaver at Roydon Fen. Even now, when this fragment of marsh is framed by a cul-de-sac that echoes its name, it’s easy to imagine them, toothy and paddle-tailed. Gnawing through the alders.
I leave my car by the entrance sign and tick-tack along a narrow boardwalk that hovers over where it is too wet to walk. The path is bordered and lapped by water. Some clear, some dark, some orange-topped and rainbow swirled by the breakdown of vegetation.
Where the water has retreated there are patches of rich mud. Tree roots like thick eels squirm their way downwards and animals have rushed to make their mark. Among the slots of muntjac and roe deer are the mixed pads of dog and badger. It’s hard to be sure, but among the squidge and squelch I think I find the non-symmetrical prints of an otter.
I step off the path to get a close up picture of a marsh marigold and my boot is sucked down, the ground farting noisily as I pull my foot away. I watch as the hole I made refills with the slow-slurping spring of sphagnum moss and dark water.
I know this is a rare and fragile habitat, but there is something defiant about this fragment of marsh. A sense that it is somehow resistant to change or submission; capable of consuming or shedding anything thrown at it. Even the chicken-wired pathways that brace its back are at risk of being floated off.
I guess it is the wildness of the place that is so affecting. I find it is always the case in marshes and bogs, where life just seems to bubble up from the earth. There is an expectation that it always has and it always will.
Flaneur, naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau sensed the same wild magic in wetland. Writing in his seminal essay Walking, he describes the “impermeable and unfathomable bog” as “the jewel which dazzled me”.
Adding: “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him….Hope and future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, nor in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”
I pick up some willow catkins and half expect them to wriggle off across my palm.