by J. Mitchell Brown
here was an old story told to me by my grandfather years ago that went something like this:
A shrimp boat and his captain pulled up to the docks at low tide one afternoon to unload the catches of the day. The old captain saw a group of people gathering near the dock to watch him work, sort of like how people might watch a giraffe or a hippo in a zoo. It was a regular occurrence for the captain, so he paid it no mind.
As he finished his work and walked up the dock, one of those spectators said, “’Scuse me, cap’n. I notice you have a mighty big boat there.”
The captain answered, “I reckon.”
“How much water does she draw?”
“Enough to keep her afloat, I s’pose,” the captain said, not rudely.
“Well, to get that thing around in these waters, I bet you have to know the location of every sandbar is in these parts, don’t you?”
“Nope,” said the captain. “I have to know where they aren’t.”
Recently, a friend of mine and I made a last minute decision to grab the boat and take it out for a late afternoon spin. Nothing fancy, just a jaunt down the river more to stretch out a boat that’s been sitting on the hill for a while than to accomplish anything meaningful. It was full tide and the sun was bright. As we pulled away from the dock, we pointed the bow towards the middle sandbar to run the locals cut and knock down the time and wake it takes to get out of the May River.
I’d been noticing over the past couple of years that some spartina grass had taken root in the middle of the southern end of the sandbar. The patch had experienced quite a growth spurt this spring and was bigger than ever, but still fairly nondescript. In fact, during spring tides, that whole patch is underwater.
It was while I was thinking about the relationship between the appearance of new spartina grass and the natural change and shift of the sandbars that we first bumped ground. I looked at Jamie with genuine surprise in my eyes. In a split second, we went from a “bump” to a full-on churning of sand in the prop. I took a quick look around me to make sure that I was where I thought I was, and confirmed it with my GPS. It was true. The cut that for years had been the difference between a 12 minute ride out of the May and a 4 minute ride out of the May, was closing in. A few years ago in this exact spot, I would have still been afloat. It was not a detrimental thing, per se. These sandbars shift and move naturally. But we had to wonder how all the changes that are occurring around Bluffton are accelerating such shifts in the river.
For example, Bluffton’s matriarch, Naomi McCracken, lived for nearly 95 years on the banks of the May. In her life, she saw over 100,000 tides change on our river. It was not until the last several years that she saw spartina grass pop its head up in the middle sandbar.
That marsh grass will continue to expand. And while it will eventually grow and expand and cut off one of my favorite shortcuts in the river, its presence is critically necessary.
The thousands upon thousands of acres of saltmarsh that line the South Carolina coast between the mainland and the barrier islands is the heartbeat of our diverse wildlife. I’ve heard some ignorant people complain that it smells and makes the water dirty.
I submit to those such folks that they can keep on truckin’ down to Florida if they want crystal clear water that you can see 8 feet into. (It’s clear because it’s dead, you know.) And as far as the smell goes, well...that’s the smell of a man’s memory of his youth. It’s the odor of days spent crabbing in the creeks, with the promise of a bounty for dinner. It’s the smell of lazy nights spent floating with your honey looking up at the stars from the bottom of a boat. It’s the smell of the Lowcountry, part and parcel to it. You can’t smell the marsh without hearing the cicadas, and you can’t smell it without tasting the salt.
But enough of the waxing poetic on the olfactory benefits of living in the Lowcountry. Here’s something that needs to be considered: Todd Ballantine wrote in his book Tideland Treasures that “Biologists estimate that salt marshes and their estuary watersheds produce five to ten tons of organic matter per acre annually, compared to one and a half to five tons per acre in the most fertile agricultural soil.” It is because of this nutrient rich environment that our waters and immediate highlands are teeming with wildlife, some of which cannot be found anywhere else on the planet!
Marsh is formed, slowly, but easily enough, as the soils from inland are carried down stream by rainwater and runoff. As these creeks drain into our rivers and bays, like they do in the coves along Bridge Street, the silt settles out along the banks as the current slows down. As you get closer to the rivers and bays, the tidewater saturates the silt, which is called “muck” (the same as our pluff mud), and then marsh plants like cordgrass begin to colonize. As the plants spread from their roots and the life cycle begins, dead material decomposes in the muck, thus building it up with rich nutrients and beginning the cycle again. Snails, fiddlers, oysters, etc., begin growing in the muck, and they, too, contribute to the life cycle. These animals are food for birds, raccoons, possum, and fish, and before you know it...you’ve got yourself a regular ecosystem going.
But if we’re not careful, we’re going to destroy this delicate balance. Those fifty gallons of diesel fuel that spilled in the river recently near Devil’s Elbow Island, while not catastrophic, is a scary sign of the times. (And to be honest, I think it’s probably equally detrimental, if not more so, to have that 20 tons of steel landing craft (where the fuel leak originated) still sitting up in the marsh, killing the grass underneath it.) We have the power to protect these marshes and the power to kill them. The old saying goes, “With power comes great responsibility.” I reckon that’s so. And while we’ll be able to enjoy the rivers and the sandbars for the rest of our life, how we act today is going to affect the rivers and sandbars for our children and our children’s children.
So the middle sandbar is moving, and my little shortcut may not be there much longer. And how in the world did that spartina plant hold on in those currents to grow into a small (but growing) colony right there in the middle of the creek? But as it continues to grow and choke off the west side of that sandbar, what new treasures will it bring?
We’re usually surrounded with stories of erosion and pollution and decay of our wetlands. This story is about how we’re witnessing the birth of new marshes.
I hope it smells to high-heaven.