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Ohio Native Works to Save Indiana's Limberlost Swamp

Growing up in Mercer County, Ohio native Ken Brunswick wanted to be an ornithologist; he wanted to study birds. He became a farmer instead. But about ten years ago he was inspired to begin working to resurrect a long lost habitat once teeming with a wide variety of birds.

Ken Brunswick grew up near the western Ohio town of St. Henry in the 1950s. He says it didn't take long to read all the books about birds in the local library.

"I knew exactly where all the bird books were because at that time that's what I had my heart set on, being an ornithologist," Brunswick says.

One of the books was written by Gene Stratton-Porter, a popular novelist in the early 1900s. Best known for her fictional accounts set in and around an Indiana swamp called the Limberlost, she was also an amateur naturalist who wrote several books about birds.

"I was in the eighth grade in that little two-room schoolhouse reading What I Have Done With Birds by Gene Stratton-Porter, and the teacher walked up to see what book I was reading, and looked at it and the teacher said, 'You know that place isn't very far from here.' And I didn't know what she was talking about."

The Limberlost was only a few miles west across the state line near Geneva, Ind. Once thriving with giant hardwoods and wild terrain it was a tremendous attraction to Stratton-Porter who moved to Geneva in 1888.

When I arrived there were miles of unbroken forest; streams of running water. Then the winter swamp had all the lacy, exquisite beauty of such locations, when snow and frost draped. While, from May until October, it was practically tropical jungle.

But commerce, Stratton-Porter wrote, attacked the swamp and began, she said, its usual process of devastation. She saw the giant trees cut down and the water drained away. By 1910, two decades of destruction were complete - the Limberlost and a place in it known as Loblolly Marsh were gone.

"This Loblolly Marsh was what I consider the heart of the Limberlost area and this marsh was actually the last thing that was drained in this area so the farmers could start farming it," says Brunswick.

As a young man Brunswick became a farmer himself starting a dairy only a mile from the old Loblolly Marsh. Through the years he learned more about the swamp. Later he formed the Limberlost Swamp Remembered project. The group's mission: to bring Loblolly Marsh back to life. Today that mission is well underway.

"The water is what brings in the birds," Brunswick says. "And even the animals, they like that water source. So when you drain the wetlands, you lose the water, you lose the birds. You put water back on, you start getting those birds back."

Brunswick is 63 now and an ecologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources where he oversees the Limberlost restoration. He maneuvers his ATV along a path near the edge of the marsh through prairie cord grass, switch grass, Canada wild rye and blue stem. Some of the grasses have been planted here; others are reclaiming the ground on their own.

"Got a few oak trees coming up over here. They're just naturally filling in some of the areas."

Out in the marsh the water is a gentle sea of green and wildflowers abound around the edges. But Brunswick is proudest of the birds that call the marsh home.

"This is the area where we see American Bittern once in a while. There's been Virginia Rail, we hear Sora Rail in here also. Sora is just a real little bird that has just the dandiest sound when it makes its call," Brunswick says.

Brunswick's dream of being an ornithologist never happened. But his vision to save the Limberlost has helped him express his love of birds.

"Actually when I think about this work I'm doing it takes me back to that dream I had when I was a kid in that two room schoolhouse," Brunswick says. "That dream of being an ornithologist was taken away and here about 30 years later, seeing this land flooding, I'm seeing birds that, some of them, I never saw before."

"Here you've got a big mosaic of wetlands; the native grasses, forested areas; and that mosaic that we've built here those birds can see it when they're in the sky and they come right in. They see it and they know right away, there's a good place."