Here to return to
A RECENT writer on the geology of salt marshes says: “As scenic features they are monotonous and uninteresting in the extreme because of their lack of relief and uniformity of appearance.” To such one can but reply in the words of Lowell quoted at the head of this chapter.
While there is a peculiar charm of the sand dunes, so also is there a charm of the salt marshes — a salty flavor all their own. At all seasons there is a pleasure in their contemplation, and a joy in their exploration, whether it be in canoe or sail boat along their winding water-ways, or on foot over their treacherous surface.
A CREEK IN THE MARSHES
Whether one looks from the elevation of a marsh island on these great level floors, extending for miles into the land, framed by the white sand dunes on the one side, by the dark hills on the other, or loses oneself in their midst, one feels with Sidney Lanier that
I can heartily agree with Coventry Patmore, who, in writing of the Sussex marshes, says: “The beauty of these marsh views is beyond all description, and has never been expressed even in painting.... I have looked upon these marshes year after year and always with new delight.”
There is a restful and satisfying character in marsh views which grows with acquaintance. One never tires of them, perhaps because they are never the same, and because they are even more changeful than the restless sea. Looking out on the broad bosom of the marshes one cannot be lonely, if the sense of their beauty is in the heart.
As in the sand dunes, so here in the marshes one’s enjoyment of the beauty of the surroundings is not impaired but rather enhanced by an intimate knowledge of the life there. It is well worth while to study first the vegetation which plainly groups itself into four zones. Fortunately for the unbotanical, the hostile power of salt is such that it makes friends with but few plants, and these are easily learned. Lanier doubtless did not refer to botanical simplicity when he said:
but they are good lines and will do here.
The lowest zone of all from the point of view of sea level is the zone of eel grass, a plant which belies its name and station, for it is not a grass nor even a seaweed, as is often supposed, and is not lowly, but is a member, albeit a humble one, of the lofty group of flowering plants, where it is placed above the pines but below the grasses. The flowers are small and are hidden in the sheath-like base of the leaves, which, in narrow ribbons but a quarter of an inch wide, wave in long thickly matted streamers in the channel beds, and shelter in their shady forest groves snails and worms, crabs and eels. While living, the eel grass is a good friend to these creatures, and dead and cast up on the marshes or beaches it serves many a useful purpose. Under its sheltering windrows the sharp-tailed and Savannah sparrows build their homes, while the oriole, red-wing and robin weave it into their nests; the gunner stacks it up into a blind, in front of which he places his decoys to beguile the wandering shore-birds, and the clammer, fisherman and farmer pack it about the foundations of their houses to keep out the frost and the winter winds.
The next plant zone is equally simple and also limited to one species, the thatch grass, that grows from within two or three feet of low-tide level to the level of the ordinary high tide. Where the marsh is built up so high that it ceases to be washed by every tide, then the thatch ceases to grow, for it needs daily contact with old ocean. It is replaced by the vegetation of the third zone. The thatch is a sturdy grass, a wonderfully strong but pliant fringer of the creeks. It grows from two to five or even six feet high, and bears great waving plumes of simple straw-colored flowers and seeds. One always sinks into soft mud when struggling through it, for it is a great builder-up of the marshes and holds the fine detritus among its stalks and roots. The thatch is prized for bedding and for mulch, but most of that which is cut is carried off by the tides before it is harvested, and that which escapes the scythe is broken off by the ice and lines the edges of the marsh in great windrows, — not a spear is left standing after the winter. As a mulch for trees or shrubs it has no equal, for it is of course entirely free from weed seeds, and with the spring it disintegrates and loosens and enriches the soil.
The third zone is that of the salt-grass or marsh hay proper. This constitutes the firmer part of the marsh, reached only once or twice a month by the tides, where one may walk fairly dry shod if he instinctively and from long practice knows how to avoid embryo creeks, concealed ditches and treacherous sloughs, — the good old name used by Bunyan is still common parlance in these old New England regions. The tenderfoot may suddenly sink to his hips in a draining ditch, overgrown at the surface, while the experienced may walk about safely.
CUTTING THE MARSH HAY
The flora of this region is more varied, although most of the ground is covered with but three grasses: — a short slender relation of the thatch, sometimes called fox grass, a sea-spear grass and a spike grass. None of these grows much beyond a foot in height. These three are the chief components of the marsh hay, which in this era of the gasoline engine is not so assiduously and thoroughly harvested as in the days gone by.
In cutting the grass, which is done in August at periods of a low run of tides, mowing machines are used, except in the lower, softer places, where the scythes are swung. The horses wear broad, wooden marsh shoes, and a novice horse is practised in the security of the barn-yard with the awkward, clanking things before he is ventured on the unstable marsh. It is no trifle for a pair of horses to become mired in the salt marsh, and only those men born and bred to the work can manage them in that treacherous region. The hay is piled in small cocks, under which are thrust two long poles. These serve like the handles of a Sedan chair for the removal of the hay to the higher land beyond the reach of the tides.
Hay boats, or canoes as they are inappropriately called, are also used to harvest the hay. These are long, narrow, flat-bottomed, square-ended scows that work in pairs covered with a broad platform, on which the hay is piled. With great sweeps, long unwieldy oars, the haymakers slowly urge them along the winding creeks, while the steersman, with a huge oar resting on a supporting oar-lock in the stern, directs their course. In many places the hay is piled in huge stacks, that are elevated above the highest tides on small piles or “staddles,” as they are called, and the stacks dot the marsh for miles like clustered tents. When the marsh is fast bound by winter frost the farmer goes his rounds and carries off the savory, salty hay on sledges, his horses’ iron shoes now well sharpened. No need of wooden marsh shoes; all is hard and solid as the rocky ledges.
Nearly all the farms of this region, even those several miles from the marshes, have their patches of salt marsh, each reached by an ancient right of way. Most of the marsh hay is fit only for bedding, but when cut at the proper season and carefully harvested it makes valuable fodder for cattle.
BRINGING IN THE MARSH HAY
Besides the fox, sea-spear, and spike grasses of the broad marshes, one comes on patches of a salt marsh sedge, which, with its sturdy brown bunches of fruit, grows in protected regions, while the seaside plantain with its narrow grass-like leaves is common everywhere. Another plant with narrow leaves, and therefore mistaken for a grass and called arrow grass, is common in this zone.
Perhaps the most striking plant, when it emerges from its inconspicuous green of summer, and changes in the fall to a modest red and later to a flaming scarlet, is the glasswort or samphire, a plant of universal distribution in salt marshes, both in this country and in Europe and Asia.
The sea milkwort, a humble saline member of the primrose family, surnamed glaux from its sea-green color, bears tiny flowers of pink and lavender, and grows prostrate or erect among the grasses.
Another marine plant of the salt marshes — four in this small company rejoice in the specific name maritima — is the seaside gerardia, which has little rose-purple fox-gloves on its slender stalks. But the most prominent flowering plant of this region, and one that forms great nosegays of tiny lavender flowers in delicate interlaced sprays, is the marsh rosemary or sea lavender. This is a sturdy perennial with a clump of oblong leaves rising from the root, and it is one that blossoms from July to September.
The fourth and highest zone, — the fringing edge where it joins the upland, — a region that is visited only by the unusual spring and autumn tides, or when easterly storms reinforce the moon, is the black-grass zone. This zone averages from half a dozen feet to as many yards in width, but may extend over many acres that are shut out except from the highest tides. The black-grass also occurs as islands elevated slightly above the level of the general marsh. This black-grass, the main component of the zone, is so called because of its dark color, which looks almost black when the plant is in fruit. It is a rush, however, and not a grass.
Extending down into the black-grass grow clumps of the handsomest of all the goldenrods, the seaside golden-rod, while the silver weed abounds in places, and the delicious sweet-grass can occasionally be found on its borders. I have attempted to measure the vertical range of the last three of these four zones, and have found that the thatch ranges through approximately six feet, extending from within about three feet of low-water mark to the lowest high-water mark; that the zone of marsh hay ranges vertically about two feet, while the zone of black-grass has a vertical range of only about a foot.
HARVESTING THE MARSH HAY
All the marsh vegetation is at its height of luxuriance in mid-August. Then the marsh lies brilliant in the sunlight, a broad expanse, flat as a floor and glowing in yellow-greens, touched here and there with washes of buff and of chestnut.
Fringing its upper edge is the broad band of the mourning black-grass, while the rich dark green of the thatch threads invisible serpentine creeks, and borders the ribbons of water that wander hither and thither like tortuous veins through the marshes, reflecting the brilliant blue of the skies. There are wonderful plays of light and shade as cloud shadows chase each other over the surface of the marshes, or as the lengthening shadows of the hills extend their range with the declining sun. On windy days the tall thatch bends before the blasts, and shimmering waves like those on the surface of the water pass over it.
On such days, with the wind in the northwest quarter, the air is exceedingly clear, and every wooded island and distant hill stands out with great distinctness, while the creeks take on an intense blue which contrasts strongly with the light green of the marshes.
The tides creeping over the sand flats, swelling the creeks, obliterating the brown banks and drowning the tall thatch, bursting out in unexpected veins and pools throughout the marshes, — all this, notwithstanding its twice daily repetition, is never other than a miracle.
And when at the full of the moon in the night, the sea spreads silently over the broad marsh, reflecting the silvery light in the sky, the miracle is at its height!
HAYSTACKS IN THE BROAD MARSH
Sidney Lanier was a true lover of the marshes, and saw and appreciated their every detail. And again:
The ebbing tide is as wonderful as the flood: and the sunrise is as wonderful as the sunset.
To float down in a canoe with the ebb tide, to explore the narrow channels now sunk deep below the marsh level, to surprise the marsh birds on the broad sand and mud flats, to push over the waving forests of eel grass with their varied inhabitants, affords much enjoyment, and opens up an entirely different world from that of the same water courses when they are brimming over on to the marsh. Partly from prejudice, partly from ignorance, dead low tide is not appreciated as it deserves. The clean sand of the estuaries and the fine mud of the smaller creeks and inlets, and the clear Water of the sea, are all very different from the foulness to be found at low tide in the neighborhood of sewer-discharging cities.
HIGH TIDE. — TAKEN BY THE LIGHT OF THE FULL MOON
A STADDLE IN THE MARSH
In the fall of the year the marshes take on a yellowish brown color, varying in different lights from silvery yellow to russet-brown, threaded in places with bands of light pea-green, in places with dingy red, while the samphire, hitherto invisible in its common green, blazes out in broad crimson patches. Still later in the year before the ice and snow cover it all, the marshes wear a uniform russet-brown livery, a restful, neutral brown shade, a shade that hair and skin and clothing alike of all marsh dwellers assume in time. Yet one finds places where the grass is a pale, almost silvery gray, varying to straw color, and again to a rich chestnut, while rarely a patch of brilliant orange appears under certain conditions of light and moisture.
Early in the morning in the wonderful days of Indian summer, when the whole east is aglow, the marsh is often white with hoar frost, and each grass blade that crunches under the foot sparkles as if beset with innumerable diamonds. As the sun rises from the sea, the white veil dissolves and tiny drops of water hang from every blade-tip.
Later in the year, with the creeks lined and for the most part coated with ice, with ice in all the pools and sloughs, the marshes in their patchwork dress of white and brown resemble ptarmigans that are moulting from summer to winter plumage.
Again the scene shifts, and winter with its white pall covers the marsh. The creeks are fast bound, but expand and contract their groaning bosoms with the flood and ebb. At times all is smooth and white except on the borders of the creeks, which mark their tortuous courses by eruptive blocks of ice, so dark in the shadows that they stand out black and distinct. The smaller creeks are arched with ice, and the water comes and goes in concealed channels, but the main creeks and large estuaries are generally partly open and show patches of dark blue in contrast with the universal whiteness. In the times of the month when the moon and the sun pull together, or when the normal level of the tide is disturbed by fierce northeasters, the waterways burst their bonds with force irresistible, carrying all before them, and great ice cakes are tossed and piled about on the broad marshes. Between the stranded floes the poured-out tide freezes fast to the stubble, and each returning tide adds to the icy coating. The water flowing over the ice and collecting in pools assumes a pale green color that contrasts strongly with the surrounding whiteness.
In the sunlight the white salt ice sparkles and glitters with dazzling splendor, but the full arctic glory of the scene is brought out to best advantage in the still cold nights when the moonlight permeates everything. Many such scenes have I enjoyed in times gone by when I hunted the black duck by moonlight, and I think I may be forgiven when I confess that I never succeeded at Ipswich in shooting a single duck at this unholy time. The wonderful beauty of these nights well repaid the long cold vigils. Everything seemed as bright as day, and one felt sure that an object as large and dark as a black duck would easily be visible. Yet many a time ducks have flown by so closely that their wing strokes whistled loud in my ears, but peer as I might, they remained invisible, unless perchance they flew across the moon or its beams reflected from the ice or water.
All things come to an end in time, and the last ice cake, honeycombed and darkened with sand and mud gathered on its journeyings to and fro, vanishes, and the marsh is left brown and prostrate from its winter’s battle. All the graceful thatch is broken off and lines the edges of the uplands in great mats, and the mud where it grew is open to the sky. Spring has long visited the uplands, soaked in fresh water from melting snow and spring rains, before it awakens the salt marshes. These emerge from their winter mantle a uniform drab or yellowish-gray, lighter in the sunlight and darker in the shadow.
THE MARSH IN WINTER
When the tender leaves of the willow are first showing, early in May, and the dog’s-tooth violets are spreading their yellow carpets on the islands, the marsh shows its first sign of returning life by patches of dark green in the black-grass zone. A little later and a tinge of pale green appears on the borders of the creeks, where the thatch is sending up a few sparse sprouts. By the middle of May the creeks, large and small, are edged with the pale green of the young thatch, a green with much yellow in it, while the black-grass is now even darker than before and has taken on a bluish tint. Only here and there in the great middle zone is there a suspicion of pale green in the universal drab, but by the first of June this pale greenness has spread in bands and patches over the marsh, and has become dark green interspersed and tinged with the drab of the old rowan. And so the seasons come and go and the marsh is always beautiful.