By Lauri deGaris
The fall equinox is fast approaching, it arrives Sept. 23, 2023. Days are growing shorter. Signs of fall can be observed all around. On the island, the salt marsh is my favorite place to witness the seasonal color wheel turn. Each evening as I make my way to witness the sunset, I stop at Egans Creek and gaze across the vast sea of grass.
Fall brings forth a mosaic of color scattered throughout the marsh grass. Islands of soft yellow are graduating into a rich gold palette enveloping the fading green of summer’s end. Passing clouds create a choreographed dance on the tips of the grass. The marsh color changes quickly as the clouds float by. It is a mesmerizing experience, especially during the “golden hour,” which is about 30 minutes before the sun dips below the horizon. The sky will be warm with gold tones of light mixed with red and orange, ideal for landscape photography.
Sidney Lanier’s poem “The Marshes of Glynn” captures the beauty and abundance of the salt marsh like no one else. It was written in 1878. This spiritual journey into the “length and breadth and sweep” of the marshes of Glynn refers to the marshes surrounding Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island and Brunswick, Georgia. Few poems match the rhythmic cadence and divine radiance of The Marshes of Glynn. My favorite verse in this poem is as follows:
“Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.
Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free
Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea!”
Longfellow recognized the genius of “The Marshes of Glynn.” He included it in his “Poems of Places” published in 1879. Read the poem in its entirety.
Sidney Lanier was a master with multiple talents. In addition to writing poetry, he was a naturalist, lecturer, novelist and musician par excellence. Sidney was born in Macon, Georgia. He traveled through Florida writing travelogues for magazines. He lectured often at Johns Hopkins University. And, he played the flute in the Peabody Orchestra in Baltimore.
When he longed for a place to sojourn, he came to the marshes of Glynn County, Georgia. He said, “I am convinced that God meant this land for people to rest in – not work in. If we were so constituted that life could be idyll, then this were the place of places for it.”
Coastal salt marshes are a network of vital veins carrying water from land to sea and vice versa. The mixing of salty sea water and fresh river water creates the “estuary.” The estuary is full of nutrients and minerals which will fortify the marsh creating a bouillabaisse of salt life.
Alligators slither through the marsh, searching in silence with predatory force. Oysters and mussels share their home in the reeds and rushes with the marsh hens whose call is heard but rarely seen. Fishes and crustaceans ride the tide in and out as snails climb up and down marsh grass blades. All kinds of upland animals make their way to the marsh for food including raccoons. Raccoons love oysters and mussels and are often found shucking them on the mud bank at low tide.
The soil that cradles the roots of the marsh grass is soft, very soft. This is no place to walk. You will sink up to your knees if you are not careful. Many people in the “low country” (coastal north Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) refer to this muck as “pluff mud.” Pluff mud is created when decaying marsh grass mixes with sand from the sea along with other ingredients left behind by the tide. Pluff mud is a favorite exfoliant found in many health spas. Rich, thick mud is spread over the body and allowed to fully dry. Then, it is gently washed away leaving behind silky soft skin.
The most common salt marsh plants in our region are several species of Spartina, which include S. alternaflora, S. bakeri, and S. patens. The name spartina is akin to Latin spartum, a grass used for cordage, nets, and mats. Scipus sp. is another type of grass found in the marsh commonly known as bullrush and black needlerush.
Unlike other marsh grasses, bullrush does not display spectacular color changes each fall. It maintains a dark grey hue throughout the year. Collectively, these marsh inhabitants are called “cordgrasses.” There are many varieties of cordgrass throughout North America. All have been used as thatching in earth lodges and as fodder for livestock. Cordgrasses have also been used for centuries by Indigenous cultures in North America for medicine, food and fiber.
Threats to the ecologically crucial salt marsh system include impaired water quality, loss of marshes by filling them in for development and increased erosion. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 70% of Florida’s recreational and commercial fishes, shellfish and crustaceans depend on the salt marsh for at least one part of their life cycle. And, the salt marsh stores an enormous amount of floodwater, acting as a buffer between land and sea during storm events.
Truly, the salt marsh is a diverse place always in a state of becoming, full of promise yet slippery, and unpredictable, ever-changing from one day to the next. It is imperative that we protect these ecologically fragile and spiritually significant systems for the well-being of all living species who call the low country home.
Check out this detailed list of North Florida salt marsh inhabitants and functions.