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Book Data

ISBN: 9781933392783
Year Added to Catalog: 2007
Book Format: Paperback
Book Art: Black and White Illustrations
Dimensions: 5 1/5 x 8 1/5
Number of Pages: 260
Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Old ISBN: 1933392789
Release Date: March 15, 2008
Web Product ID: 376

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Or, Life on a Salt Marsh

by Tim Traver


Today, our eelgrass is reduced to a few beds inside the breakwater at the mouth of our harbor. At low tide, a sandbar forms just behind the jetty on the sheltered side, and it gives us a sailing destination that’s both close and exotic—exotic because it’s hard to get there by land. We can more easily beach a boat than drive, and once there, we can explore water-filled crevices between rocks, or snorkle out into the beds of eelgrass to see what we can see. We often combine a trip to the jetty with scup fishing. We brought with us a fishing rod and two boxes of sea worms for that purpose. Sea worms are three- to six-inch-long annelid worms, cousin to our old friends, the smaller benthic clam worm that striped bass devour in May. Their two rows of flagella and the tiny pair of black pincers protruding from the head give them a fearsome appearance. The pincers run in and out in a threatening manner, and who could blame them for trying to reverse their fishhook fates? Fish do love to eat sea worms, and we like to try to catch them at it.

It’s half an hour sail to the jetty if the wind is right. We had to drop the mast to get under the green bridge, where tradition dictates a hearty shout is given. In the second basin, we passed a dozen sailing dingys rounding a mark in competition. These boats had names like Redwall and Aslan and are commanded by ten-year-old salts—tanned, blond-headed boys and girls who can splice lines, tie bowlines, and know a jibe from a coming-about.

Beyond the inner harbor around the little pier and into the outer harbor we went. The boys sailed, and I dangled my feet. An outgoing tide and a southwest wind carried us to the breakwater separating harbor and bay where we beached the boat. It was very hot. The boys jumped ship and set off to climb the big glacial boulders on the shore, collect mussels around the jetty rocks, and play at pirating. Hauled up on the parched sand, with the boom swinging and the brass ring that attaches the boom to the mast making a cricket song against the aluminum mast, I lay myself down like a marooned sailor under the blazing sun and, cap over my face, dozed and dreamed a fishing dream. In a typical fishing dream, you either catch or don’t. In this one, I did catch fish and in a different place so familiar that when the boys woke me up with offerings of a dried sand eel, a dozen blue mussels, and the real prize—a blue-eyed scallop—at first I thought I was there on that other point and that the dream was true. But then I found their offerings arranged on my stomach. The scallop slowly opened up, little blue eyes sparkling. Huh! I said, still remembering the dream. But all they wanted was for me to eat the dried minnow. So I did.

At the age of fifty, there’s nothing to eating a sun-dried sand eel—we’ve all eaten plenty worse at McDonald’s—and I still find scallops fascinating. They live under eelgrass. When eelgrass beds disappear the scallops disappear. They don’t burrow into benthic sediments like clams, but rest on the floor under an eelgrass canopy. They’re far more mobile than clams—which move significant distances only as larvae. Scallops swim by using their shells like butterfly wings. Once I heard a taped recording of the sounds they make with their shells underwater—a weird muffled form of clapping. What were they saying to each other? The voice of eelgrass is the drumming of scallop shells at night.

I don’t think I appreciated eelgrass very much as a kid. We plumbed the depths of deeper water beyond the breakwater, spending hours snorkeling, spear fishing, exploring on the other side of the rock jetty in water too deep for eelgrass. But the eelgrass world is one not to be overlooked. Finning through eelgrass is like what I imagine floating down the Zambezi is like. It feels exotic, tropical somehow, more lush than the rocky bottom of deeper bay water, and richer, more full of living surprises. Eelgrass is a different sort of marine plant than those seaweeds we know that float in and out with the tides, that coat rocks and clog props. It’s different too than the microalgae we don’t notice unless it’s blooming into a red tide. It also reacts differently and at different times to inputs of nitrate and to the streaming sunlight hitting the water. Eelgrass is rooted in benthic sediments, having solved the problem of low nutrient availability in the saltwater column by taking up nutrients, the way terrestrial grasses do, largely through their roots. They then store substantial amounts of nutrients in their thick leaves, stems, and rhizomes to parse out as needed. Eelgrass isn’t nitrate-limited like the marine algae in the bay. It’s light that it craves, and eelgrass growth is limited by the sun. It doesn’t grow in deep water, but only in the bright shallows of harbors, bays, and coves, whereas floating algae have all the sunlight they need, and not able to get the nitrates they need from inorganic salt water, they are nitrogen limited. N-loading, or nutrient enrichment, of harbor waters causes floating seaweed populations to explode. Blooming microalgae murk up the water. Large macroalgae also reduce the amount of light available to eelgrass. In nutrient-enriched seawater, tiny green branching epiphytic algae also attach in profusion to the stems of anchored eelgrass, and these further rob light from eelgrass fronds. Soon the lights go out for eelgrass. When eelgrass goes, so goes the neighborhood. An entire complex community disappears. Scallop beds vanish; fin fish, color fish, flounder, and juvenile striped bass have no place to hide, the diversity of the invertebrate benthic community plummets, and so do populations of lobster, blue crab, hermit crabs, shrimp, and mussels. It takes very small elevations of nitrate—several parts per million—above ambient levels to bring about these changes.

The boys went up onto the jetty to fish, and I put on mask, snorkel, and fins for a float out over the eelgrass bed. Just off the sandbar in deeper water, a thick crop of green vertical stems waved back and forth in the current. The water was shallow and bathtub warm by the sandbar. A few kicks from the fins, and I was suspended over eelgrass and let the tide take me slowly into the center of the large bed. All under a blue sky. Weightless, peaceful. Sun on my back. Eelgrass gazing is the ultimate in passive observation. The lens of the mask bends reality ever so slightly so that you see a slight curvature to things, as if you float at the top of a round light-penetrated globe. A fish swims by occasionally. You get a glimpse of shells on the sandy bottom, but generally the bottom is hidden by that swatch of thick green grass, light fed. I have to come out here at least once in a summer to be reminded that the created world isn’t a busy one. Not busy like ours. Sure, lots of things happen, but the excitement—a marauding school of snapper blues, a small flock of terns diving on bait—quickly dies down, and life returns to the center of its being—restful, snooping, looking, growing. Above in the blue sky, a contrail bends and breaks up and drifts slowly north— the jet so high it can’t be heard. But here is where we live. Down here. Suspended between what’s above and below—the silence of the eelgrass beds, broken only by the occasional whirr of an outboard engine spinning through the channel. Sometimes I find the silence great enough that all I hear, given the slight changes in pressure a shallow dive down to the sand for a scallop shell can bring about, is the pulse of blood in my veins and the beating of my heart.

Healthy eelgrass is bright green, but here the color seemed a little greenish-gray. And there was plenty of that epiphytic algal fastened to eelgrass fronds. This last island of green fronds seemed precarious, too small to survive. I suppose there are serious economic implications, but what concerns me more is the loss of this light-craving thing we call home.

When I came ashore, the boys shouted down from the jetty that they had caught some big scups. Scup are beautiful pumpkin seed–like fish, showing bright lines of aquamarine along their sides. The bigger ones sport wider dark bands over the silver. Scup are very good at getting bait off hooks. My son can catch them, but he has no interest in hurting them, and he’d rather not eat them because, as he says, he’s a vegetarian who eats chicken and hamburgers. So he let most of them go. My nephew, on the other hand, kept his and wanted me to clean them, cook them, and eat them for him.

We were ready to push our boat back in just as a small dingy came up, piloted by an old woman with a slightly off-kilter look in her eye. I did not recognize her, and she came up to us with some suspicion, it seemed. Her eyebrows were raised, and her mouth hung down a bit.

Who are you? she asked. I told her who I was. She remembered my grandfather, she thought. We shared some common acquaintances. We can be so provincial here, and without such a check-in, we’re just other people.

Everyone has a community. The island people have their community—this woman’s father or uncle built the watchtower we liked to sneak into on those roving summer nights. Our community, down its dirt road and less than two miles from her house, is different altogether from hers, or I like to think—lacking the same pretensions of wealth and history. Was there some overlap between our perceived communities? Certainly. She pointed to the Aleria—a sleek black yacht sitting on the mooring where it has sat for forty years. Hers. She turned and looked back at the island and began telling me a brief family history in houses. Her hand swept through the air, stopping here and there to point out what was hers, to take in, eventually, the entire gentle rise of the island’s spreading oaks and beech trees; the long green lawns that run to the harbor edge; and the enormous gray shingled houses with their curving dormers and winglike cantilevers, their gleaming roof peaks and their clipper-ship weather vanes. The whole island, I was sure, she’d come to know as her property, including what surrounded it—the sound of the bell buoy and the boom of Cleveland’s Ledge in the fog on an August night. Even the white birds that hovered over the fish were hers. Don’t we all come to feel equally possessive about the places that set the contexts of our lives? And isn’t that a good starting place? What about our problems? Do we own those collectively, too? The loss of our eelgrass worlds, our salt marshes. Isn’t that home, too? What if we just go with that? Expand that sense of place ownership outward. Own what’s beautiful and what’s ugly both, until the island that our community is drops away, and we stand on the still blue-green globe?

The tide had long since turned, and it was time to go. The boys had staked their own claim to the strand, old claims be damned. They trailed their legs in the water, and as we sailed away, we looked back to the ephemeral world we had inhabited. It would soon be gone, under water again. We could see our new acquaintances, an old woman settler and a middle-aged man I took to be her son. They were standing fifty feet apart on the bar. She had put her arms out from her sides like a cross, and he was tossing plastic rings so that she might catch them on her outstretched arms.

Is there something wrong with her? my son asked. No, I said, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s as sane as any of us. What’s Alzheimer’s disease? he asked me. It’s when old people lose their memories and other abilities, I said. They begin growing younger again. Like Tom Thumb? he asked. Exactly, I said. Like Tom Thumb. And Merlin. People generally grow younger on vacation, too, I said. See her son? Yeah, said Sam, starring down into the bucket of his expired fish and then back at the woman with her arms outstretched. She’s old all right, he said. Then he was quiet for a long time, looking back at the sandbar and the woman and her son. But those rings, he said. Throwing those rings at people, that looks like fun.

Now the tide was running hard with us, and the afternoon breeze had freshened to fill our sails.

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