“I spent half my childhood trying to get off an island,” environmental writer Charles Seabrook admits in the opening pages of his new book, The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast (University of Georgia Press). “I have spent half my adulthood trying to get back.”
He grew up on John’s Island, “one of the sleepy, semitropical sea islands nuzzling the South Carolina coast that are surrounded by vast salt marshes, broad sounds, and winding tidal rivers.”
In 1962, after graduating from high school, Seabrook left home, eager for “far-flung places” and exotic adventures—much of which he encountered during his 33 years as a science reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
By the time he returns to “the most wondrous, magical place of all,” his childhood home, the paradise of his memories is almost unrecognizable.
Its maritime forests—“canopies of oak, palmetto and sweetgum,” and “thickets of wax myrtle, holly and saw palmetto”—have been replaced by “subdivisions and shopping centers and horse farms.” The shrimping industry is dying and pollution has contaminated the oyster beds.
The “lilting dialect and unique arts, crafts, and traditions” of the island’s historic African-American Gullah community are disappearing as these descendents of freed slaves lose their inherited land to greedy builders.
But it isn’t just John’s Island that’s in jeopardy. Because of the “feverish demand for developable land along the Southeast coast,” salt marshes from Cape Hatteras to Cape Canaveral are being eyed as just so many vacant lots waiting to be drained, diked, or otherwise made ready for golf courses, hotels, condos and malls.
Fulfilling the inherent promise of the book’s subtitle, Seabrook fondly describes every inch of this endangered coastline in an irresistible mashup of history, nature walks, personal anecdotes, folklore, biology, literary references and environmentalism—in short, a little bit of everything needed to turn you into a permanent salt marsh disciple.
You can read The World of the Salt Marsh cover to cover, or dip into it at random, but be prepared to get hooked at any point. The Wild Georgia columnist is a most entertaining and knowledgeable tour guide, whether nibbling asaltwort leaf that resembles a “moist potato chip” and tastes “great in stuffed crab”; teaching an impromptu lesson on how to wriggle out ofquicksandlike “pluff mud” by “belly-crawling” across it; or in his description of the imperiled diamondback terrapin: “Imagine a reptile with the dreamy eyes of a golden retriever and the unassuming face of a manatee. Add the docile temperament of a lamb and the beauty of a seashell.”
He eschews the general for the up-close-and-personal: Not just the collapsing shrimping industry, but Charlie Phillips’ family shrimping business and their Pelican Point Restaurant in Crescent, Georgia—and Phillips’ more recent move to clam farming, now at risk from a housing boom.
Putting a face on the Geechees of the Georgia coast, Seabrook introduces Georgia storyteller Cornelia Walker Bailey, resident of Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island. Her community, the last of its kind on Georgia’s sea islands, is fighting to preserve a wealth of traditions, many of them a reflection of West African roots: basket weaving, music, dialect—even the cemeteries filled with graves facing “east so that the spirits could fly home to Africa.”
If the Gullah-Geechee culture dies, Seabrook says, “the very soul of Coastal Georgia and South Carolina will die with it. African Americans,” he adds, “will lose their purest link to their past.”
Workhorses that protect the environment, salt marshes in turn deserve our protection: “A single acre of marsh produces ten tons or more of dry organic matter,” explains Seabrook, “while the most fertile farm acre produces less than half as much … The marshes help filter and purify water. They dissipate the fury of howling storms blowing in from the sea. They shelter enormous numbers of creatures from predators.”
The tidal marshes, as well as the estuaries, islands, rivers and creeks connected with them, face a host of other threats, all of them noted here: the stress on rivers from power plants and big cities hungry for more water; the irreversible pollution of Brunswick, Georgia, by no less than 18 hazardous waste sites, four of them deemed Superfunds; unfettered real estate development, a plan to build a giant chemical plant near Hilton Head, overfishing… the list goes on and on.
Seabrook warns that “the Southeast coast is under siege,” in some form or another on almost every page. But he strikes nearly as many hopeful notes with references to individuals and organizations working and fighting for its protection. For example, a chapter devoted to the ACE Basin Project—which successfully preserved 208,000 acres of pristine watershed in South Carolina—breaks down one of the “most remarkable conservation feats ever seen in America,” and why it has become a model for all grassroots efforts since.
Like another nostalgic Southerner who claimed he couldn’t go home again, Seabrook has brought an entire region to life in this extraordinary study of the South’s tidal marshes. In the process, he offers an infinite number of reasons for us all to join the growing chorus of voices fighting to save them.
Charles Seabrook is the author of “Cumberland Island: Strong Women, Wild Horses” and, with Marcy Louza, “Red Clay, Pink Cadillacs and White Gold: The Kaolin Chalk Wars.”