Written by Bill Hodgens
Photography by Donna Huffman
hen Donna asked me what I was writing the Bluffton Breeze environmental article about, I looked at her, very reassuringly and said, “mud.” This brought a half smile from Donna, she seemed to think I was kidding. I wasn’t, so here goes.
For those of you who spent your childhood, like me, in the frost belt, you may be able to relate to these images. It’s early spring, say March, and the frost is just starting to come out of the ground. (For those of you who weren’t raised up north, it gets cold up there. So cold that the ground freezes up to eight feet deep. In the winter you can’t dig much dirt up and if you need to repair a water line, it takes jackhammers to break up the ground.) When the frost comes up and the ground begins to thaw, the soil starts to heave or swell. The bare spots in the yard or the plowed up garden turn into really soft mud. The mud is irresistible to kids with or without galoshes; slogging around in that mud is a great challenge. One event in our springtime ventures was to try to walk all the way across the garden without losing a boot. If a boot came off, that was the end, because when that happened you had to somehow keep your balance on one foot and pull the other boot out of the muck which was nearly impossible to accomplish without getting other parts of your body muddy.
I relate that experience from forty years ago because that springtime mud is similar to plough mud. What’s “plough mud”? you ask. I never knew what it was until one day when I was driving down Calhoun Street in Bluffton. I was confronted with a new art gallery that had cleverly adopted the phonetic spelling “Pluff Mud” as the name of its shop. Imagine that. Ten years in Bluffton and I didn’t know what plough mud was! When Lowcountry natives write of the fragrance of the marsh, they are describing the experience of plough mud. Todd Ballantine describes the fragrance as “essence d’estuary.” The mud is the build up of soil washed off the land, detritus from marsh creatures, decayed marsh grass, and sand transported in by the tides. Anyone that has stepped into the marsh knows that plough mud in the Lowcountry is just as soft as the mud up north in the spring thaw.
The mud remembers the past. Long time residents and visitors to the Bluffton area may remember tomato fields that were prevalent in this area. Possibly these crops were alternated with cotton and soybeans before the land was developed or planted in pines. It is likely that a portion of the chemicals which were used to control pests in these fields are now trapped in the mud of the May and Okatie River marsh. In 1998 Scientists found these, as well as the chemicals used to control dock timber termites in the Okatie River mud.
The mud also hosts some significant biochemical processes. The odor is an indication of anaerobic bacterial action. Bacteria in the mud live in the absence of oxygen and give off sulfur, which contributes to the fragrance of the marsh. They perform an important function environmentally. They denitrify, that is, they turn nitrogen from a form that causes algae blooms to nitrogen gas. In this way the marsh buffers the impact of nutrients from storm water runoff. Plough mud is also home to oysters, clams, fiddler crabs, snails, worms and insects. Scientists, like those studying the May River the last few summers, count the number of each of these critters in sample areas of the marsh. Each square foot of healthy mud will be home to an array of grazing marsh animals. Their number and variety is an indicator of the health of the marsh. Another indicator of the marsh health is mud composition. Does the mud contain higher levels of sand and scoured sediments that are associated with watershed development? Some of the marsh critters can thrive only in the soft deposits of plough mud. Other species will not be able to live through the changes in salinity and mud composition.
Mud is the substrate that holds the marsh grass in place. It is a rich environment for the spartina grass and cordgrass that grow abundantly in the marshes of Beaufort County. Toward the end of the year the growth of the marsh grass has peaked. Plants are starting to break off to be recycled through the decaying process. These plants are a food source for ocean plankton and bacteria, which are food for filter feeders, which are prey for larger animals.With the growth and change in the landscape of the May and Okatie Rivers from pine plantations and hardwood bottoms to golf courses, housing developments, roads, parking lots, constructed wetlands and storm water ponds, many in this area are concerned that the changes will disrupt the ecological systems of the marsh. If they do, the mud will reveal it. My hope is that even though our understanding of land development’s impact on the marsh systems is somewhat in its infancy, measures required by Beaufort County and the Town of Bluffton to control storm water runoff will protect these systems. How effective these controls are will be revealed by regular study of plough mud.What’s the point to all this, you might say. It’s just mud. Well, mud, my friend, is essential to the marsh. In fact, it’s essential to the oysters, oyster roasts and fall get-togethers that involve the people of our community. Mud holds secrets to the past with its rich history of life along the May River. Its health indicates the environmental health of our tidal river. Mud is a synonym for our future --Bluffton’s future.