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Winter/Spring 2016

The Marshes of Glynn

 

by Georgia Knapp

 

Vanishing, swerving, evermore curving again into sight,
Softly the sand-beach wavers away to a dim gray looping of light.
And what if behind me to westward the wall of the woods stands high?
The world lies east: how ample, the marsh and the sea and the sky!

Sidney Lanier, “The Marshes of Glynn”

*

Crawl out of your hole and greet the new day. Shield your eyes with your massive claw; wait to adjust to the brilliant sunshine whose rays complement the tall yellow and green needlerush that towers over your home. Sift through the salty mud. Pick up only the best sediments and bring them to your mouth like a violinist with his bow. When you are finished, roll the unwanted mud between your claws. Place the tightly packed balls over your home to prevent flooding while you are away. It is now time to go.

*

I am not an ecologist. If I were to stand up in front of the Glynn County Board of Commissioners I would not be able to use fact-based knowledge to back up my arguments and make insightful, awe-inspiring points. Instead, English major that I am, I would stand in front of the rich white men who own beach “McMansions” along Georgia’s Atlantic coast, and compare Sidney Lanier’s poem “The Marshes of Glynn” to T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland”. When my tirade was finished the commissioners would smile and nod, thank me, and move on. By the next morning my points, disputes, and witticisms would be all but forgotten.

I am an islander; a native to St. Simons Island, Georgia. My skin feels most natural when it is pink from too much sun and encrusted with a dried layer of sea salt. My hair looks its best with bits of sand crystal strewn within it and slightly curled from the sea air. My feet feel best either in flip-flops or bare with sand underneath them. While attending college in Michigan my suitemates would often find me talking on the phone, sitting in the middle of the sand-filled volleyball court outside our residence hall, feet dug ankle-deep.

I am not the type of islander who slathers herself in baby oil and lies out on the beach for hours with a fruity umbrella drink that is getting more shade than myself. I am the type of islander that stops traffic on Frederica Road to help a turtle cross; the type of islander who does not romp on what little dunes we have left; the type of islander who walks barefoot along the edge of the shore where the waves lap, looking for discarded sand dollars and whelk shells that have been carelessly dug up by tourists and left to bake in the sweltering sun. I am the type of islander who sees her island as more than just a place to tan, relax, and stock up on a seashell collection.

*

Scurry between the skyscraper stalks. Your hard shell, dark for now, protects you from their razor edges. Head East. Don’t worry, you’ll know the way. Watch out for herons, egrets, and raccoons and the curious hands of tourists. Stop suddenly if you see any of these and cautiously sidle behind the looming grass. When you get to a road – and you will come across many nowadays – stop and wait for cars and bicycles to go by. When the coast is clear, scuttle swiftly until you reach dirt again. If a car comes before you can reach the other side, freeze. Try to stay in the middle of the road. If others are with you, do not wait for them.

*

Like many of the animals that live within the marshes, the wetlands themselves are endangered, too. Under the Clean Water Act enacted in the early 1980s, the United States government restricted commercial and independent companies from dumping hazardous amounts of toxic waste (not all toxic waste, just “hazardous” amounts) into waters with a “significant nexus” to “navigable waters.” These “navigable waters” include rivers, oceans, streams, and lakes, most of which are found in or around marshlands. Therefore, the waterways of wetlands are protected, but only minimally. The grounds, unfortunately, are left to other devices.

I live in a neighborhood that borders one of the many marshes on St. Simons Island. During my junior year of high school my parents wanted to add two new rooms to our home: an art studio for my mother and an art gallery for both of my parents. When contractors came out to look at our property they said we could either build up or into our backyard, not to the side of the house as my parents had hoped. The contractor’s reasoning was that directly to the side of our house was where the marshy ground began, even if it was not marked by the meadow grass. Knowing this, the decision was made and my parents decided to sacrifice more than half of our backyard in order to build their new additions on non-wetland ground.

My parents are an anomaly on St. Simons Island. When most island homeowners are faced with the conundrum of wanting to build directly on wetland grounds, instead of changing their design plans they hire people akin to poachers who will mow down and fill in the marsh until contractors deem it passable. The new house will be built and the inhabitants will feel privileged not just in having marsh front property, but in being completely submerged in the wetland. Ironically, submerged is exactly what these expensive homes will be when a hurricane finally makes landfall on the coast of Georgia.

Islanders such as myself do not want to protect the wetlands just because they are a gorgeous natural resource of our Barrier Island home, but because they are our one hope to keep our homes. Marshes are natural sponges. Unless there has been a severe drought, if you were to walk into a marsh you would immediately sink up to your ankles or worse (I have gone thigh-high once while trying to pull a kayak ashore). Marshland protects low-lying areas from severe flooding during rainstorms and hurricanes.

*

A league and a league of marsh-grass, waist-high, broad in the blade,
Green, and all of a height, and unflecked with a light or a shade,
Stretch leisurely off, in a pleasant plain,
To the terminal blue of the main.
Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?

 

*

Continue scampering in the direction that feels instinctive. If the terrain has changed or there are things in your way, keep going. Walk over, through, and around anything that you need to. Look for cracks under doors that you can crawl under. Remember to keep your big claw always up and ready, poised for attack. You don’t know what could be behind these doors and you’ll move slower on carpet. Watch out for anything that may try to catch you. If you do find yourself scooped up in something with no bottom: fight. Run around, kick, claw, pinch, and make as much raucous as possible until the offender puts you down. If you are lucky you may find yourself among grass, dirt, and pebbles once more. If you are unlucky you may find yourself among colorful rocks, plastic trees, and a round Tupperware of salt-sprinkled water.

*

Meteorologists say that hurricanes have a pattern. They will be light and barely make landfall for a few years and then all of a sudden it will be one category four or five after another making landfall in the same places as a century before. Rumor has it that the coast of Georgia was hit hard in the late 1800s and our time is coming up once again.

Due to this apparent predestination, every summer since my sixth grade year islanders have experienced an all-too-familiar pattern: a hurricane forms in the Atlantic, rapidly gains strength, and heads towards the East Coast of the United States. News Channels display red ticker tapes with constant status updates of Hurricane Whoever. Locals use the hurricane’s first name as if it were an old friend. “How’s Ike doin’?”, “Do you think Charlie’s gonna get here?”, “Maybe they’ll cancel school for Fay.” Local businesses and newcomers board up their windows with sheets of wood and place all uninsured items at least two feet off the floor. Those who haven’t learned any better place giant X’s of Duct tape on their windows so that the glass will not shatter when it breaks (those of us who have learned know it’s better to just let the damn things shatter rather than spend months scraping the tape off your windows). And then, when even the most apathetic of islanders have decided to finally pack a few things because evacuation seems imminent, Hurricane Whoever catches the Gulf Stream right off of Georgia’s coast and rides it straight into the Carolinas. What amazes me the most is that every year without fail, North and South Carolina are surprised and unprepared.

Instead it is us, the islanders, who prepare for a possible catastrophe because we know it will come and we know our island will no longer save us. With each square foot of marshland that disappears another half inch of water can be added to the flood that will eventually consume St. Simons Island. My eighth grade science teacher once showed our class a chart that illustrated what sections of St. Simons would be destroyed by the floodwaters of each hurricane category. My section of the island (the middle) was shaded gray-blue for a category three. The only thing keeping us from a category two was the marsh – the marsh that a family recently filled in to build an extravagant cookie-cutter home.

*

If you have found yourself outside once more: good for you! Continue trailing eastward. You may see a few more like you now. Remember to always remain observant for cars, people, and raccoons. Do not let your guard down when you reach the woods. It’s getting dark now and your shell will begin to lighten. Camouflage will be harder. Tear quickly across strips of asphalt and the driveways of large homes that look alike. Keep going until you reach soft ground again. You will know you’re there when even your tiny legs leave tracks of pinpricks in the mud. Wait until you are once more surrounded by lofty blades of stiff grass. Watch for signs from the others. When they stop, you stop. Begin digging. Scoop as much and as hard as you can into the mud. It should give way easily. Once you have finished and your second home is complete, fold your torso into your legs so that you can easily slide down your front tunnel. Now you are safe. Now you can rest.

*

But who will reveal to our waking ken
The forms that swim and the shapes that creep
Under the waters of sleep?
And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in
On the length and the breadth of the marvellous marshes of Glynn.

*

When I think of my island I think of it as it once was: an island covered with long stretches of cream-colored beaches, thick maritime forests, and luscious chartreuse marshes. I see the horseshoe crabs that used to line the shore in herds, living fossils that lumbered into the brackish ocean as the waves washed over their armored shells. I see the massive live oak trees that blanketed St. Simons, their limbs spread like a loving embrace and laden with coarse Spanish moss. I see a golden marshland glowing in the sun, its water rife with life, and its mud ready to absorb the rising tide.

When I look at St. Simons, however, I see an environment that has given up the will to survive. The beach is swiftly eroding into the Atlantic Ocean, the forests have largely been flattened for condominiums and shopping squares, and the marshes are being filled in to make room for more homes. Sand dollars and whelks are scarce, and those that appear on our shores are long dead. The commissioners and wealthy people in charge of zoning do not care about the wetlands they are destroying and the once thriving environment they are suffocating. They don’t care that the alligators have nowhere to go except golf course ponds, or that the fiddler crabs must migrate through the Outback Steakhouse. They don’t care that all they are striving to build will one day be violently washed away, destroyed by the hurricane that will come and left unprotected by the environment that was taken away.