All days are open over the salt marsh. Like a treeless plain, it is a place for the sky to enter. Its wide, seaward stretches with fiddler crabs, ribbed mussels, and snails, with gulls stalking, pools flicking with saltwater minnows, creeks with fingerling fish, are tidally oriented, ground that is neither beach nor dry land, but something in between -- a moist region forever in wait for the next return or withdrawal of the sea. It is a refuge for migrants of the air, the ducks and geese. Rains slant over it unobstructed. Winter winds sweep stiffly across it. The sunset fires go out over long horizons. Light shafts penetrate enormous clouds overhead. And in the early autumn the winds blow full and loose over the land and sea.
The life of the swamps is one of cycles, of growth and recession, advance and retreat. This is not only daily, tide urged, and controlled, a sort of natural breathing, so to speak, an oft-reiterated systole and diastole of movement, a falling and rising of the waters; it is also the alternation of day and night, the waking and sleeping of the creatures of the swamp, and the evidence of their activities. It is the swing of the seasons, the turn of spring to summer – fall to winter – the coming of the heat and of the cold, the burgeoning of the seemingly dead seeds and roots, and their return to brown lifeless substance again. It is the coming and going of the ducks and geese, the sandpipers, and the marsh wrens; it is the hum of insects and their later silence; the difference between the shimmer of heat waves above the green reeds and the crackling of ice between the broken brown fronds.
It is not possible to describe a Chesapeake swamp in one un-halting paragraph, nor in two or in two times two. My personal recollections are made of a host of separate and isolated remembrances, like the numerous pictures in an old-fashioned art gallery or the facets of a many-sided crystal. A Chesapeake marsh is a multitude of mind portraits done in a host of colors, but always with delicacy.
It is the sight of a white egret posed on one leg against a background of green weeds, waiting motionless and patient for a fish to pass; it is the opened chalice of a great white and purple, yellow-stamened mallow, or the equally beautiful vision of a water lily in full bloom beside oval lilypads floating on dark water. It is the somber green of overhanging pine trees reflected in the still pools; the widening and often repeated circles of raindrops falling on the winding channels, making a soft hissing sound as they touch. It is the splash of a fish and the liquid burble of a marsh wren rising in a burst of energy above all other sounds. It is sunshine and blue sky and sparkling waters; it is also grayness and dull brown; ice and a piercing wind; it is the noise of dried reeds clattering one against another, millions of minute rubbings and bumpings blending into one multitude of sound; it is the noise of ducks and geese gabbling to one another in the early morning; the sporadic clutter of rails; and the rustle of some unseen being creeping between the cattails. It is the gleam of moonlight upon a layer of mist lying close to the water, and the reflection of starlight; conversely, it is the glare and heat of quivering hot air. It is the smell of dried mud and of decaying vegetation inextricably mixed with the aromatic scent of pine and the odor of long-dead fish and dried mussels. It is an expanse of waving grass turning golden and swaying and bending like wheat in the breeze, and the faint clicking of bats in the long shadows; it is the dancing of swarms of hovering gnats and the drone and whine of mosquitoes in the gloom. It is the red, black, and yellow bodies of painted turtles sunning themselves on half-submerged logs; the V-shaped ripples that denote the heads of serpents gliding across a channel to seek frogs on the other side; frogs themselves calling in the dark, the shrill of toads, the deeper, solitary tone of the larger batrachians, and the massed chorus of thousands of spring peepers. It is the clustering of a glistening mass of dewdrops on a strand of marsh grass, and the patterned cracks of mud dried in the sun. All these things and many more, visual, sensory and aural, are a part of the mosaic that comprises the total picture of a Chesapeake swamp.
And so the portrait of a marsh is not an assemblage of water and soil and vegetation which may be coldly defined and cataloged. Like music, which is conceived of notes and scales, of chords and arpeggios, it is a never-ending series of compositions; of Bach and Beethoven, Strauss and Debussy, of Chopin and even Wagner. It is a processional of portraits, a series of dramas, some small, some large, a sequence of intransient masterpieces on a variety of scales; some are grandiose and majestic like the mural of Michelangelo; others are delicately limned like the threads of a Chinese silk or the tracery of a Dresden porcelain.
From Life and Death of the Salt Marsh by John and Mildred Teal. Introduction written in 1969.
Along the eastern coast of North America, from the north where ice packs grate upon the shore to the tropical mangrove swamps tenaciously holding the land together with a tangle of roots, lies a green ribbon of soft, salt, wet, low-lying land, the salt marshes.
The ribbon of green marshes, part solid land, part mobile water, has a definite but elusive border, now hidden, now exposed, as the tides of the Atlantic fluctuate. At one place and tide there is a line at which you can say, “Here begins the marsh.” At another tide, the line, the “beginning of the marsh,” is completely inundated and looks as though it had become part of the sea. The marsh reaches as far inland as the tides can creep and as far into the sea as marsh plants can find a roothold and live in saline waters.
The undisturbed salt marshes offer the inland visitor a series of unusual perceptions. At low tide, the wind blowing across Spartina grass sounds like wind on the prairie. When the tide is in, the gentle music of moving water is added to the prairie rustle. There are sounds of birds living in the marshes. The marsh wren advertises his presence with a reedy call, even at night, when most birds are still. The marsh hen, or clapper rail, calls in a loud, carrying cackle. You can hear the tiny, high-pitched rustling thunder of the herds of crabs moving through the grass as they flee before advancing feet or the more leisurely sound of movement they make on their daily migrations in search of food. At night, when the air is still and other sounds are quieted, an attentive listener can hear the bubbling of air from the sandy soil as a high tide floods the marsh.
The wetlands are filled with smells. They smell of the sea and salt water and of the edge of the sea, the sea with a little iodine and trace of dead life. The marshes smell of Spartina, a fairly strong odor mixed from the elements of sea and the smells of grasses. These are clean, fresh smells, smells that are pleasing to one who lives by the sea but strange and not altogether pleasant to one who has always lived inland.
Unfortunately, in marshes which have been disturbed, dug up, suffocated with loads of trash and fill, poisoned and eroded with the wastes from large cities, there is another smell. Sick marshes smell of hydrogen sulfide, a rotten egg odor. This odor is very faint in a healthy marsh.
As the sound and smell of the salt marsh are its own, so is its feel. Some of the marshes can be walked on, especially the landward parts. In the north, the Spartina patens marsh is covered with dense grass that may be cut for salt hay. Its roots bind the wet mud into a firm surface. But the footing is spongy on an unused hay marsh as the mat of other years’ grass, hidden under the green growth, resists the walker’s weight and springs back as he moves along.
In the southern marshes, only one grass covers the entire marsh area, Spartina alterniflora. On the highest parts of the marsh, near the land, the roots have developed into a mass that provides firm footing although the plants are much more separated than in the northern hay marshes and you squish gently on mud rather than grass. It is like walking on a huge trampoline. The ground is stiff. It is squishy and wet, to be sure, but still solid as you walk about. However, jump and you can feel the ground give under the impact and waves spread out in all directions. The ground is a mat of plant roots and mud on top of a more liquid layer underneath which gives slightly by flowing to all sides when you jump down on it.
As you walk toward the edge of the marsh, the seaward edge, each step closer to open water brings a change in footing. The mud has less root material in it and is less firmly bound together. It begins to ooze around your shoes. On the edges of the creeks, especially the larger ones, there may be natural levees where the ground is higher. Here the rising tide meets its first real resistance as it spills over the creek banks and has to flow between the close-set plants. Here it is slowed and drops the mud it may be carrying. Here too, especially after a series of tides, lower than usual, the ground is firm and even dry and hard.
Down toward the creek, where the mud is watered at each tide, the soil is as muddy as you can find anywhere. When you try to walk across to the water at low tide, across the exposed mud where the marsh grass does not yet grow, hip boots are not high enough to keep you from getting muddy. The boots are pulled off on the first or second step when they have sunk deep into the clutching zone. There are no roots to give solidarity, nothing but the mud and water fighting a shifting battle to hold the area.
At low tide the salt marsh is a vast field of grasses with slightly higher grasses sticking up along the creeks and uniformly tall grass elsewhere. The effect is like that of a great flat meadow. At high tide, the look is the same, a wide flat sea of grass but with a great deal of water showing. The marsh is still marsh, but spears of grass are sticking up through water, a world of water where land was before, each blade of grass a little island, each island a refuge for the marsh animals which do not like or cannot stand submersions in salt water.
This book is about the marshes of the East Coast of North America: how they were formed; why they continue to exist; the interplay of plants and animals; and the effect of that influential animal, man.