When high tide is attained this afternoon, it will be feeding time for the miles-wide expanse of flowing green grasses that are the signature of the marshes of Glynn County.
“Incoming tides bring nutrients from estuaries connected by tidal creeks to the marshes,” writes Charles Seabrook in the online New Georgia Encyclopedia. “The nutrients nourish and feed the grasses of the marsh.”
Then, when the waters begin ebbing toward tonight’s inexorable low tide, going out with it are boundless tiny tidbits that comprise the foundation of a beautifully complex food chain. That cycle supports everything from the shellfish at our oyster roasts to the shrimp in our grits and the trout on our hooks.
“Outgoing tides carry nutritious marsh products — including detritus produced by decaying Spartina (marsh grass) — back into the estuaries,” Seabrook writes. “There, the products help sustain large numbers of other marine organisms.”
This ecological collaboration extends all the way to the gators lurking in seclusion, the blue heron stalking shorelines and even those adorable marsh bunnies that hop out of the tall grasses to graze beside our roadsides at evening time. And it is all connected. Each component plays a vital role that contributes to the whole of what is our most recognizable geographic feature.
Let us remind ourselves: This place is special. Fully a third of the entire Atlantic seaboard’s salt marsh thrives along the Georgia coast. That expanse of marsh grasses and inland waterways that separates the mainland from barrier islands is one of nature’s most prolific incubators, teeming with life. The state Department of Natural Resources estimates salt marsh occupies nearly 400,000 acres along the Georgia coast’s 100 miles.
“Georgia’s salt marshes are some of the most biologically productive natural systems on earth,” Seabrook writes. “The enormous productivity helps make the salt marshes primary nursery areas for blue crabs, oysters, shrimp, and other economically important fish and shellfish.”
Many of you know this already. But with a behemoth ocean freighter foundering in the St. Simons Sound and leaking pollutants into local waters, it is a good time to remind ourselves what a biological treasure we share. Thankfully, there have been no reports of significant damage to marine life or habitat.
Folks have known the salt marsh’s bounty for thousands of years, from the Guale natives who first put down roots here to the Gullah Geechee who flourished amid its surroundings as freedmen after the Civil War.
But it was Eugene Odum who finally figured the salt marsh out and put down on paper. The University of Georgia professor is known as “the father of modern ecology.” Odum (1913-2002) is regarded as the first academic to consider the interconnected relationship of the widespread parts within an ecosystem. In fact, Odum pretty much invented that word. Ecosystem.
Much of his understanding of the concept came from studying the salt marshes on Sapelo Island in McIntosh County. The remote island — still unbridged to this day — proved to be an ideal setting to test his theory that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
And we have a tobacco tycoon to thank for Odum’s access to Sapelo Island. R.J. Reynolds was then the owner of the old Spalding plantation spread on Sapelo, having purchased it for a bargain from automobile magnate Howard Coffin in 1934. A naval commander who served with distinction during World War II, Reynolds held an abiding interest in sea and saltwater.
Odum first visited Sapelo at Reynold’s invitation in the late 1940s. On land donated by Reynolds, Odum established an ecological research center on the island in 1953. That was the same year he published this new field of study’s first textbook, The Fundamentals of Ecology.
The island’s pristine marsh proved to be fertile territory for the birth of the modern ecology movement.
“Sapelo was pristine and isolated and they could really get into the understanding of how the marsh and the tides and the marine life and shore birds and all of the rest of it interacted together,” said coastal Georgia historian and author Buddy Sullivan, a native of McIntosh County. “Nobody knew that before — that marshes, in essence, make that happen.”
Beginning in the 1950s, Odum, his small academic staff at the institute and a band of dedicated students were ecologists before ecology was cool. They may very well have been the conservation movement’s vanguard. Thanks in no small part to their research, Georgia legislators approved the Coastal Marshland Protection Act in 1970. The first Earth Day observance also was held that year.
“They were spurred on by scientific studies showing the immense value of marshes for storm protection, for pollution filtering, and as a nursery area for more than 70 percent of Georgia’s economically important crustaceans, fish and shellfish,” Seabrook writes.
Odum remained active in the field of ecology throughout his life, researching and writing prodigiously on his findings. He published Ecological Vignettes: Ecological Approaches to Dealing with Human Predicaments in 1998, four years before his death at age 88. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and prospered greatly from his books and prizes. Odum was able to donate more than $1 million to UGA.
To this day, the UGA Marine Institute on Sapelo Island continues to carry on the vital work that Odum began. “The remote location of the institute provides researchers unparalleled access to largely undisturbed salt marshes, which offer an ideal laboratory for studying how natural systems function as a whole,” Seabrook writes.
One thing we now know is that salt marshes can be resilient. The salt-resistant Spartina alterniflora grasses work in unison with the tides to filter impurities from the marsh. “The outgoing tides also remove wastes from the marsh,” Seabrook writes.
Let us hope so.