Thursday, March 11, 2010

Salt Tide!

Our book today is Curtis Badger’s 1993 Salt Tide, a quiet little masterpiece fit to share shelf-space with The House on Nauset Marsh (and yes, to those of you who’ve written – privately, of course – asking: John and Mildred Teal’s The Life and Death of a Salt Marsh would most certainly also be on that shelf). Badger is exactly the kind of guide and explicator we most want in such a book: a passionate amateur who’s been besotted with salt marshes his entire life.

The particular salt marshes in question here are the innumerable and incredibly picturesque barrier beaches and islands that stretch south in a narrow sprit from the Virginia/Maryland border and separate the Atlantic Ocean from Chesapeake Bay. Badger explored these marshes and studied their wildlife for years before writing Salt Tide, and the book shows it: this is a rich, conversational, quietly passionate hymn of praise not just to a fragile, endangered ecosystem but, like The House on Nauset Marsh, an entire way of life that seems doomed to vanish, crowded out of existence by louder, faster, cruder ways.

Badger’s book is the best kind of natural history: it’s totally sincere, casually informative, and positively bursting with little epiphanies. Anybody who’s ever spent time on out on marshes will recognize most of these epiphanies and greet them like old friends, as with Badger’s little description of the joy of going by canoe:
I like most of all the first few moments of a canoe trip, when you leave land and glide through water, testing the balance of the boat, getting the feel of things. It’s like being weightless. You look up and see the sky and you look down and see the sky reflected in the water. You’re floating, and only a gentle wake defines the margin of air and water. It’s a pleasure to leave land and its firmness; to glide through water seems so effortless – one pull on the paddle and away you go. The transformation is sudden, and it is a delight.

Or the peculiar joy at the return of a homely harbinger:
The flounder’s great value is that it gives us our first excuse of the year to leave the warmth of home and hearth and get out there, to be buffeted by spring northeasters, to endure the wet and cold and fishless days sane people avoid. The first flounder of spring is cause for celebration, because it is a tangible reminder that the cycle of seasons grinds on, ensuring us that the gray days of winter are retreating and that better times lie ahead.

Salt Tide is full of carefully-learned animal lore disseminated always in a tone of wonder and, often, a reserved tone of humor. There are long digressions on cordgrass, piping plovers, salting fish, and of course, considering the proximity of the once-mighty Chesapeake, clams:
The remarkable thing about the clam’s odyssey is that it reproduces, grows, avoids predators, selects a healthy home environment, and develops a discriminatory palate without conscious thought. The clam has no brain. It is a digestive and reproductive system unhobbled by fear, conscience, greed, envy, ambition. All it knows is food and sex. Hence, perhaps, the saying “Happy as a clam.”

And all of this learning and passion and humor is here harnessed into a pointed plea, although Badger is never strident or doctrinaire about it. He doesn’t just love these marshes and barrier islands, he believes in them – their conservation, their uniqueness, the dynamic purposes they serve:
It is a wonderfully productive system. Not only do the islands protect the mainland from storms, but also the marshes and shallow bays provide homes for many species of fish, shellfish, mollusks, migrating waterfowl, and shorebirds. Acre for acre, the salt marsh is one of the most productive natural systems on earth; it is a giant protein factory that supports a wide variety of life, ranging from microscopic zooplankton to those of us at the top of the food chain.

That passion fills the book and helps even the most sedentary, landlocked reader to love the salt marshes too. For those of us who’ve spent a good deal of time slogging and hiking and especially canoeing along such quiet, aromatic waterways, Salt Tide is even better, serving, as does The House on Nauset Marsh, as a never-changing repository for cherished memories in the face of relentless change.

Badger is so fervently caught up in the life and death of his own salt marshes that he can easily envision himself as part of that cycle:
… I think that when I die I would like to become part of the salt marsh estuary. Scatter my ashes over the marsh and the creek water, and put my old body back in circulation. Don’t put me in an expensive satin-lined box and drop the box into a concrete vault six feet under. No, I’d rather be returned to these waters, to the grasses and the phytoplankton, where there is no such thing as death, only the cycles of life. Make my marker a lush stand of cordwood grass. Watch it wave in the breeze, observe how it catches the light of the fall, and think of me.

It’s a pretty picture, and like the rest of this gentle, wonderstruck book, it’ll leave you smiling and happy and just a bit wistful. If you happen to find it in your used book travels, snap it up. And if you happen to find yourself anywhere near a well-channeled salt marsh, rent a canoe and go see for yourself.

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