SUNSET BEACH, North Carolina — Back to the barrier island where my wife and I spend two weeks of every summer, I think of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that dealt with the disposition of wetlands. The justices’ opinions — in what was called the most significant environmental case under new Chief Justice John Roberts — were so splintered that one commentator described the decision as a 4-1-4, rather than a 5-4, split.

Rapanos v. U.S. was about two Michigan property owners who the government decided had violated the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, popularly known as the Clean Water Act. The CWA was enacted in 1972 to reduce or prevent the discharge of pollutants into rivers, lakes and coastal waters of the United States. But it was later expanded to play a more active role in protecting wetlands. In 1988, Congress instituted the “no net loss” policy, which requires developers to restore or create wetlands of size comparable to the wetlands they build on. The actions of Rapanos and Carabell, the property owners involved in the case, did not go as far as considering the compensatory steps. The two simply destroyed wetlands for commercial buildings, the government said.

The Supreme Court tried to side with the developers. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia derisively cited dictionary definitions of “waters,” “streams” and such to trash the definitions carefully worked out by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, which are principally responsible for wetland protection under the CWA. These two agencies expanded their jurisdiction, Scalia wrote in mock disbelief, to “cover 270-300 million acres (one acre equals 0.4 hectares) of swampy lands in the United States — including half of Alaska and an area the size of California in the lower 48 states. And that was just the beginning.”

With conservatives in the clear majority now, the Supreme Court is expected to try to emasculate environmental laws. Rapanos v. U.S. is sure to be just the beginning.

But even without the court’s efforts, I can well imagine how difficult it will be to prevent wetlands destruction. For the last quarter century, my wife and I have vacationed on barrier islands along the Atlantic Coast, first on Pawleys Island, South Carolina, then on the one in Sunset Beach, North Carolina. We have witnessed rapid overbuilding on this stretch of the East Coast. Barrier islands are familiar to those who have visited the ocean side of the eastern half of the U.S.; these are long strips of dunes that rim the coasts from Maine to Florida, then from Florida to Texas. They are separated from the mainland by lagoons covered with cordgrass and other plants, the vital habitats for birds and fish.

Ducks Unlimited, an organization set up to protect wetlands so its members may continue to hunt waterfowl, reports that the U.S. continues to lose 32,000 hectares of marshes and such every year. That’s more than six times the size of Manhattan, an island of 5,200 hectares. There’s little mystery in the continuing magnitude of the loss: 97 percent of applications for building on wetlands are granted. When it comes to the no-net-loss policy, it is an admirable idea, but restoring, let alone creating, wetlands is not easy, as many attempts since have shown.

Is wetlands protection a losing proposition? Is land drainage and reclamation an inescapable part of human progress? The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that since Europeans began to settle, the conterminous part of what has become the U.S. has lost more than half its wetlands. Here I think of Japan.

Japan was once replete with wetlands. One of the ancient names for the country, after all, was Ashihara no kuni (“land of reed plains”) or, more descriptively, O-yashima toyo-ashihara no mizuho no kuni (“land of many large islands with abundant reed plains of sparkling flowering tufts”). Deities were naturally involved. The land creator O-kuni nushi no mikoto was also called Ashihara shiko-o no mikoto (“muddy male deity out of the reed plains”).

One poetic name of the reed, for that matter, is Naniwa-grass. Naniwa is an old name of Osaka, suggesting that the whole region was once synonymous with reeds. “You couldn’t tell whether it was land or sea” in most of the region, as one source puts it by way of explaining an 8th-century poem. The standard set of Chinese characters applied to Naniwa (“wave-flower”) and the etymology of the name “fish garden” both point to the same thing.

Something similar may be said of much of the plain that makes up Tokyo today. I think of a haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) simply because it captures so vividly the spectacle of a large flock of shorebirds suddenly flying up:

Shiohama o
hogo ni shite tobu
chidori kana

(“Crumpling the briny shore into waste paper plovers rise.”)

The first word of this haiku may not be a common noun but rather the name of a place in Chiba famous for its salt field. Contemporary writings report, in any event, that flocks of plovers were becoming rare in some of the villages and towns on Edo Bay by the early 19th century. Issa wrote the haiku in 1790.

Issa’s avian image, in turn, reminds me of another one I’ve remembered since my high school days. At the outset of the war between the Minamotos and Tairas (1180-1185), the large Taira army that left Kyoto and went east to confront the Minamotos in the latter’s stronghold, Kanto, is said to have panicked and collapsed into frantic retreat without a fight. Why?

On the night it bivouacked near the Fuji River, huge flocks of waterfowl, alarmed by something, suddenly flew up from the Fuji Marsh. The 70,000 Taira soldiers thought the enemy had mounted a night attack. The din of the birds’ wing-beat “sounded like a gale and thunder,” says “The Tale of the Heike.”

Everyone knows what has happened to Osaka and Tokyo, but only those locally concerned may know what has happened to Fuji Swamp. The Ukishima Numa, as it has been called in more recent centuries, was, until modern reclamation began, what the name says: “floating island marsh.” Now virtually all of the sizable area — albeit less than a quarter of Manhattan — has been turned to human use, including a dumping ground for junked cars and other human debris. No longer a haven for a large congregation of waterfowl, it reverberates with a thunderous wing-beat only in a distant tale.

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