Posted on August 17, 2017 by Site Admin

Salt marsh

(Photo:  Jerry Monkman/EcoPhotography)

Greenbelt protects many, many acres of salt marsh situated along the coast in Essex County. This entire plain of salt grasses is nursed and washed by multiple river systems visibly lost in the depth of the marshes for at least twelve hours a day.

Tide is the vast and powerful rhythmic leveling agent and creates this great expanse of lush flatness that teems with life systems and beauty. Complex simplicity crowned with so much sky!

The earliest settlers here, many of them from similar terrain in the marshlands of England known as fens, found an area which they understood and could manage successfully. As early as 1635, a group of settlers came to the Parker River from Ipswich to make it their homeland.

The salt hay was there for their cattle, swine, goats, and horses. The rivers became their highways, the vast upland forests provided fuel and building materials. They even found peat beds left by the decay of ancient vegetation. This area, in spite of the harshness of the winters, was a friendly land to them in which to settle.

Herring, clams and oysters were there for the taking -- foods which gave them security from want. To this day, the marshes and rivers have for the most part remained practically unchanged. The salt hay, cut and piled on staddles (a circular ring of stakes with their tops above high water), can still be seen on the marshes in winter. Modern methods of cutting and baling eliminate the need for staddles, but salt hay, free from weed seeds (since only Spartina grass grows profusely in marshes) is prized as a garden mulch today.

It was not until the study of ecology that the marshes' true worth began to be clear. If there were no marshes we would have no shrimp, no clams, no mussels and many species of fish would be lost. Two-thirds of the value of our commercial fisheries depends on the marshes.

Life in the salt marsh is complex and very different from life on dry land.  When the tide is down, the sun warms the soil and promotes the growth of grasses and algae.

The tide, on its return, brings a new supply of salt and organisms and flushes and redistributes the silts and organic matters eaten by the myriad tiny creatures living on the grass stalks, on the surface of the mud and silt, and below the surface.

Blue crabs, green crabs, shrimp and other mobile life bide their time at low tide -- hidden and waiting for the return of the tide to forage for food. Mussels, clams, and oysters open their shells and filter out tiny food particles on which they live, as the tide returns.

While we never see it in our markets, one of the most important fish in our food chain is the menhaden, a bony member of the herring family. It is used in fertilizer to grow grain and vegetables, in high-calcium feed for poultry and cattle.  This fish, as well as the shrimp, depends on the food produced in the marshes for its very existence.

Our modern society can be ruthless and unthinking. Destruction of our heritage goes on with landfill, pollution by industrial waste, and garbage dumps. It is up to us, as concerned citizens, to help educate ourselves and our neighbors to the value of preserving at least part of our lands, free from the abuses of our society. It behooves us to be sure that some of the marshes are protected forever.

(This article was written by Dan Edgerton and originally published by Greenbelt in 1984.)


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