Swan Lake, a Nutcracker and Sleeping Wetlands Poem

With the holidays upon us, I think back to childhood experiences of visiting the theater to see ballets. I played the part of “floating garbage” in an environmental ballet called “A Blue Whale.” Three of my favorites are among the most popular of classic ballets, all orchestrated by Peter Tchaikovsky —the Nutcracker (1892),Sleeping Beauty (1889) and Swan Lake (1876).

Tchaikovsky lived in Russia and died of cholera, most likely from drinking contaminated water. Several of his most cherished operas and ballets interpreted stories that took place in wetlands or around water, like the story of the riverine/lake-dwelling mermaidsUndine. In Swan Lake, the dancers crawl through a small river. The Sleeping Beauty has a love scene that takes place beside a stream in a forest. Many of his ballets premiered in St. Petersburg (Russia), a nature-lover’s paradise known for its forested shores; often new productions echo those origins.

The musical group, Voice of the Wetlands Allstars, have performed in concert with ballet productions of “The Nutcracker” throughout the U.S. in recent years. In the original story of the Nutcracker and the King of Mice by E.T.A. Hoffman, Clara dreams that her toy Nutcracker turns into a prince, who takes her into an enchanted pine forest wonderland, the “Land of Snow.”

But there is another type of nutcracker: the Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) a jay-sized corvid that lives in alpine wet meadows, rocky mountain fens and shrublands, rocky mountain forests and savannas. The little bird likes ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and white-bark pine. It’s found year-round in Montana and throughout the west. It, too, retreats to a dreamy pine forest.

Sleeping Beauty is the longest of the ballets. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan stretches along 35 miles of shoreline (Lake Michigan) and covering 3000 acres of park rich with bogs, marshes and swamps.http://www.nps.gov/slbe/naturescience/wetlands.htm I have visited “the Dunes” and explored the trails running through this national park. It is a beautiful, peaceful area. Visitors may agree it’s a true “sleeping beauty.” For those traveling to British Columbia, the Sleeping Beauty Mountain Provincial Park provides day hiking trails and opportunities to see wildlife, such as grizzly and black bears, moose, mountain goats and blue grouse. One major trail takes hikers 6 kilometers (about 3.75 miles) through hemlock/fir forest and sub-alpine meadow. The Sleeping Beauty Valley boasts the “quintessential Terrace experience” with overnight camping allowed and views of the alpine lakes and meadows. http://www.vancouverisland.com/regions/towns/?townID=3677 (This is not to be confused with Sleeping Beauty Valley in the Mojave Desert. Broadwell Lake is a dry playa at the center of this desert valley, home to 350 rare plants, including the crucifixion thorn.)http://theguzzler.blogspot.com/2009/09/sleeping-beauty-valley-heart-of-mojave.html

Swan Lake has been so popular for 200 years that women have had their wedding dresses made to resemble the costume of Odette, the enchanted swan princess, who turns into a swan by day and into her human form only at night. Throughout the ballet, Odette flees to the lake, where she is under influence of the “bad swan.” If the eternal vow of faithful love is broken, Odette will remain a swan forever. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Lake (This has become a trendy theme for weddings now thanks in part by a recent film production called “The Black Swan.”)

The “good swan” / “bad swan” dynamic also plays out in wetlands. In some states, the dredging of wetland habitat has stressed the population of the native North American trumpeter swan. Iowa DNR developed a plan to restore its population of trumpeter swans in 1993, successfully reintroducing 50 pairs of swans to wetland sites.http://www.iowadnr.gov/wildlife/files/swanrestor.html A collaborative group between the Blackfoot Challenge, Wyoming Wetlands Society, FWS, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have worked to restore the trumpeter swan from 2005-2010. http://www.wetlandslegacy.org/swan.html By contrast, a number of states have been regulating the invasive species, mute swans, which were introduced to states like Minnesota in the mid-1800s and early 1900s from Eurasia. Mute swans are aggressive, known to chase people or other waterfowl out of wetland habitat. Their wingspan rivals that of the majestic trumpeter swan.http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/
terrestrialanimals/muteswan/index.html

While there have been many reinterpretations of the ballet and new references to Swan Lake, so have many places shared the same name. For instance, the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri contains over 7,000 acres of wetlands.http://www.fws.gov/Midwest/planning/swanlake/ Swan Lake Nature Study Area in Lemmon Valley, Nevada has mudflats, marshes and high desert.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Lake_Nature_Study_Area As snow falls and winter creeps over fens and marshes, freezes creek beds and streams to skate upon, the wetlands become sleeping beauties waiting for spring’s kiss.

For a poem by the same name that I wrote for my grandmother, see: http://aswm.org/wordpress/110-2/swan_lake_leah_stetson/

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