The Life & Death of the Salt Marsh

Written before a time when the term “Ecosystem Services” existed (MEA 2005), John and Mildred Teal’s “Life and Death of the Salt Marsh” (1976), shed a preemptive light on it from one of nature’s greatest gifts to humanity – salt marshes. This is an intertidal zone (wetland), situated between the land and ocean, which is regularly flooded and drained by the tides of the coast. Like other wetlands, it is characterized by its peaty composition (decomposing plant material) and root-filled muddy substrate, extending up to a few meters deep and expanding hundreds of meters wide.

As meandering green ribbons of plant growth, it is unique for its random pockets of land and scurrying strips of water – that vitally connects our nation’s seaboards. From the Canadian coast of Newfoundland to the Florida Everglades to the Gulf of Mexico, salt marshes do not ask for much in return; except, protection to survive. Contributing immensely to the survival of humankind, the Teals tell the story of the salt marsh – beginning to end.

From the beginning, these wetlands have protected us by protecting our quality of water (via runoff filtration and metabolization of excess nutrients), buffering huge wave action from flooding, and trapping sediment to protect us from storm surges, landslides, and shoreline erosion. In addition, it even provides a safe refuge for countless marine denizens, serving as saltwater nurseries for young fish (before moving to open water), and being grassy sanctuaries for birds (i.e., hiding their young from predators). By the end, however, we find that many salt marshes have been/or are currently being drained, destroyed and replaced by human infrastructure – with little to no knowledge of what they actually do or what great purpose they actually serve.

For these reasons, the Teals try to inform us about these “kidneys of our environment;” and the trouble wrought by our neglect and lack of protection of them. Ultimately, these under-appreciated environs need our support and attention; they’re an integral part of our nation’s economy and culture (i.e., by providing habitats for fish, shrimp, and crab) as well as giving us myriad resources (i.e., healthy fisheries and coastline support) that eventually affects all of our communities.

In spite of their unattractive smell (and sometimes appearance), it’s worth much more, than the things that we’re replacing them with (i.e., marinas, golf courses, housing developments, etc.). As a result, we must continue educating ourselves and thinking of ways to protect this irreplaceable and necessary gift from nature. Remember, finally, the resplendent and treasured melody that you may have also heard as a child – “when the ocean tide rolled in and the gentle music of the moving water was carefully added to the comforting noise of the prairie rustling alongside it, as the wind whispered messages, courtesy of the salt marsh” –  but what happens to this duet, if we continue ignoring it? I fear, a song like it will cease to be heard again.


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