Posted on July 24, 2017 by Jim MacDougall


If you want to become an expert on something, allow me to suggest the salt marsh. The place where freshwater rivers meet the ocean and the mixing of nutrient rich runoff feeds a host of immigrants, but very few fulltime residents.

This place is a nice place to visit, but not a good place to live. That should be apparent when only 5 out of 1,100 species of grass can cut it. It is no different with crustaceans, fish, birds, algae, bacteria or mammals.

The tremendous fluctuations of water temperature, salt content, air temperature, ice and lack of oxygen in the soil will accommodate those few with special adaptations to cope. The millions of birds, fish and invertebrates which stop in to eat, soon leave.

It's easy to understand an Essex County salt marsh.

Everything exists with relation to the tide's elevation. If the area is low enough to be inundated twice a day (on average that's the most you can have) smooth cord grass will grow. Those in the know call it Spartina alterniflora.

Its kin, Spartina patens, grows where the tide covers the area only twice a month. This is called the flood tide and happens during full and new moons. It's in this area you'll find another grass, Distichlis.

Associated with these grasses on the high marsh are two wildflowers: sea lavender and salt marsh aster. If this section of the marsh is even slightly raised as with the spoils of cleaning out mosquito ditches, marsh elder will take over.

In open slight depressions, you see three types of succulent plants, the Salicornias, and orach which has leaves like little arrowheads.

Once you master the plants, the animals are easy: The ribbed mussel, the saltmarsh snail, greenhead flies and saltmarsh mosquitoes, striped killifish and the silversides.

The first time you see them, the knowledge is yours for life.

If you prefer not to clutter your mind's space with the expertise of estuarine ecology, here is another reason why I like salt marshes: the big sky.

No picture can do it justice. No words can, either. Even if I try to explain to you that engulfing sensation one feels as the sun rises out of the ocean and literally paints the marsh at your feet with tones of gold and red. You must see it for yourself.

I strongly suggest a trip out to Stackyard Road in Rowley on a cool Sunday morning in October. The orach and salicornia will have turned red and the harvest golds will have washed the cowlicks of grass. And of course, a Sunday morning will assure you some solitude from the duck hunters.

If you're planning to walk around out on the marsh, knee-high rubber boots are usually sufficient but for some of us even chest-high waders cannot keep us dry. The marshes are carved up by mosquito ditches, pans and small creeks.

I have developed a special knack of falling into one on any given expedition. On real special occasions, sometimes two or three. Please believe me that sitting on a frost-covered marsh with both hip boots full of mud slurry and waiting for the sun to rise can dampen the emotional impact of it all

This knack of mine, now becoming a deep-rooted tradition, began when I was younger and growing up in Saugus. Expansive salt marshes existed at the end of our street, part of the Saugus/Pine River estuary. Every once in a great while we would set off to explore their margins. Inevitably, one of us would fall in a ditch. That part of the fun wanes with advancing age.

Another thing I learned about out on those marshes was the concept of tide. At 9 years old, my cousin and I walked out to a clam flat for no apparent reason other than "it was there," but we immediately found that our footsteps made the clams squirt water like mini-geysers. It wasn’t long before we were stomping around that flat like a couple of flat-footed dancers trying to see how many clams we could get to squirt at once. The dance floor got smaIIer and smaller until we realized that it was all under water and our dancing shoes were getting wet.

Our path of egress was about three feet deep and the current was moving. Our reluctance to get wet was short-lived, and a valuable lesson soaked in: we both learned to read a tide chart.

The salt marsh is valuable. To appreciate that fact, one must set aside conventional dogmas of good and bad.

The salt marsh smells "bad" is the source of "bad" insects, and only becomes "good" when it is filled in.

In reality the salt marsh is the most important single habitat in New England for the production and maintenance of life.

To justify that statement in its simplest form: a good hay field can produce 4 tons of food per acre, a saltmarsh will produce 10 tons, and that’s without cultivation, fertilization and an 80 hp farm tractor.

Although this type of productivity rarely reaches our table, many of the marine fish we eat are supported by this resource. To destroy it would be for us self-defeating.  I hope you do find time to walk the salt marshes. If they capture your appreciation, that will be one more step to their protection and your well-being.

(This article was originally published by Greenbelt in 1985.)

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