Spartina

by Catherine Schmitt



Gray’s Beach, 1995 I was supposed to be watching the birds but all I wanted to do was stare at the grass, waves of silvery green rippling in the breeze. The birds were beyond, at the true sandy edge of the sea, and as I walked toward them through the grass, I longed to linger in the marsh, to study the pools with their bacterial blooms of purple and yellow, to name the rushes and sedges that grew among the grass. At night, after a day watching piping plovers on the beach and a shift at the bookstore in town, I sat outside next to the river and listened to the sailboats clink and the tall grasses whisper in the dark.


Plum Island Sound, 1998 By then I knew that the tall form of saltmarsh cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, grows along the immediate creek banks, and the shorter form fills the rest of the low marsh, flooded twice each day by the tide. The tall form makes a good handhold when climbing in and out of boats, and the short form crunches underfoot. The mud is soft and slippery, the ground uneven.


Away from the water and slightly higher, cowlicked swirls of salt marsh hay, Spartina patens, mixed with black rush and sea lavender, mark the monthly high tides. The ground is level, firmer.



Spartina creates land by filtering sediment from the flood tide, binding it with roots and stems into peat, thin layer by thin layer, tide by tide, year by year, the marsh grows. By reading the marsh, shadows and contours of alterniflora and patens, I could know the pull of the moon on the sea. I was the plant person in a scientific crew of fish, rock, soil, and water persons, all of us living by the tide, in a birdwatcher’s cottage surrounded by Spartina. I weighed each layer of silt as it washed in with the flood, counted and measured blades of grass, analyzed the carbon in clumps of grass, named all that grew among the grass. The laboratory reeked with rotting samples of Spartina. I smelled Spartina, I smelled of Spartina. I read the grass like a map or a clock, but I still didn’t know where I was going, or when. I only knew the tide, and the shadows of the grass.


Chesapeake Bay, 2000 Another cottage on another tidal river surrounded by marsh, but within a slow, strange, southern landscape of cornfields and pine plantations—unfamiliar, except for the grass, which was everywhere. Spartina encroached upon the raised garden beds, and tried to take back the lawn. It lined the roadside ditches and separated field and forest from bay. Above the marsh, eagle and osprey tangled over fish. There were kestrels on the telephone wires and turtles in the road, quail in the driveway and rabbits in the yard, crabs and oysters in the water. Sunsets stretched across the sky in radiant streaks. There were a few fig trees, overgrown honeysuckle and rosemary, but mostly there was grass, glittering with salt, and the bay, rising fast. I thought I had found a home, but it was time to leave.


Maine, 2001 Downeast Maine is a rocky place. I sought out Spartina when and where I could, in pockets along the hardened shore and in a few creek-drained marshes, in stories about polluted estuaries and restored rivers, eroding beaches and damaging storms. Squeezed between rough seas and steep forests, the marshes turn to gold each fall and are scraped by ice each winter. The frozen tufts are slow to green up in the spring, but by summer the grass has grown tall and glossy. Sometimes, when I’m walking along the rocky shore, Spartina far from my mind, I encounter a handful of shoots in a scrap of sand, familiar blades of grass taken root in a place I’d never expected. And those are the moments I know I am home.

Catherine is a science writer based in Bangor, Maine

Photo credits: Catherine Schmitt

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