Revisiting Sidney Lanier’s ‘Hymns of the Marshes’ in Mill Creek Marsh

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Before Spring at Mill Creek Marsh, Atlantic Cedar Stumps Graveyard

      It was a sunny Sunday and a walk through an emerald green oasis in the middle of suburban concrete made for  poetic respite. Parking was so very easy, for not many people visit this area on any given day, but it has around 1.5 miles of walking trails looping through an intertidal brackish marsh, fed by Mill Creek, a tributary of the Hackensack River, winding through an array of islands created out of fill, a few upland habitats, mudflats and shallow subtidal areas. 

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      The New Jersey Meadowlands Commission began the enhancement of the over 200 acre Secaucus Mill Creek Marsh in 1998 to create these ecosystems by re-establishing tidal flow and inundation. While removal of the fill was underway, old stumps of Atlantic White Cedar were exposed. A graveyard of Cedar stumps it is now, with the Manhattan skyline in the background. A third and a half of the Meadowlands was covered in Atlantic Cedars, but by the 1750’s they were long since lumbered for roads and houses, swathes of forest also possibly burned down to reduce hiding places for pirates. How quaint! If there were such a thing as ecological apostasy then this would be it. Further that with the damming of the Hackensack River and saltwater soon moved inland to create the brackish water marshes. 

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      I forgot my earphones so I was subject to Avian cantata accompanied by the consistent drone of the I-95 motorway. Home these marshes are to over 280 species of birds including those that overwinter here. Apparently, some of the first white settlers of the Meadowlands were British merchants from Barbados, so for a long time during the 1700s, the Meadowlands were known as New Barbados.

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A feel of New Barbados? Lone deck

      On one of the loops is a viewing deck. This is the closest I feel to Barbados in these cloistered times.  I assume my place there, it’s beautiful, peaceful and I am reminded of one of Sidney Lanier’s lyrical Nature poems, ‘Hymns of the Marshes’ in one of which he wrote about the vast open salt marshes of Glynn County on the coast of his native Georgia. These too here are Salt Marshes; farmers used to cut the salt hay twice a year in the 1800’s and earlier. Now, the marshes are quite choked and make for a visual spectacle on NJ transit trains bound across the Meadowlands. 

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! 

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? 

  Somehow my soul seems suddenly free 

From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin, 

By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn. 

Ye marshes, how candid and simple and nothing-withholding and free 

Ye publish yourselves to the sky and offer yourselves to the sea! 

Tolerant plains, that suffer the sea and the rains and the sun, 

Ye spread and span like the catholic man who hath mightily won 

God out of knowledge and good out of infinite pain 

And sight out of blindness and purity out of a stain.

~ The Marshes of Glynn by Sidney Lanier (1878)


      This American poet wrote in archaic American English; he appears in the Marshes of Glynn’, to be at peace and  content with what Nature awards him, with no desire for more than what is at hand, except to be awestruck, grateful and in praise of a natural bountiful spectacle wrought out of salt hardiness and the persistent glare of the Sun. In fact, at the Mill Creek Marsh, efforts have been made to plant salt tolerant flora such as Spartina ( Salt Marsh Cordgrass) that tolerates salt water by excreting excess salt. The resilience of grass in the wake of stressful aquatic conditions is what the poem is about, the ability to thrive and produce for the pure joy of existence.

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      Unfortunately, the common reed (Phragmites) which is an invasive species of grass, perennial and aggressive, has taken over a lot of the Marshes that occur in the lower tidal area of the Hackensack Watershed that are primarily Wetlands (approximately 3400 hectares/8500 acres) in the  83 square kilometer (32 Sq Miles) Hackensack Meadowlands District. It makes for an arresting photo backdrop but it chokes the marsh, limits the space for fish, robs the water of nutrients, competes with all the native plants and displaces the native animals. The water too is still recovering from pollutants of decades past. Coliform bacteria is at elevated levels given the presence of a nearby Sewage Treatment Plant perhaps. 

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Morus alba

      Later, as I walk the path, I observe that the Whilte Mulberry are already in fruit. I have a knack of first picking and eating and thinking in the aftermath; have I unwittingly poisoned myself. All the pollutants including Mercury, of the preceding decades, have they found a way to traverse the xylem and phloem of these fecund trees to finally express themselves through foliage and fruit? Never mind, there is hope still; If the cedar forests could give way to the marshes and man could dam the rivers and allow the inflow of salt water into the estuary, then the future is filled with myriad possibilities, I am still alive and the mulberries taste tart and some sweet.

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      Along the way are signs educating me about the various birds that visit this Marsh along with the telescopic lens toting humans that come to photograph and celebrate them. The lesser known fauna, all the more noteworthy for being confined to the brackish water habitat and their enabling physiological adaptations,  include Atlantic silversides (like the Plankton in the Sea, these are like the popcorn of the Marshes), Killifish (these lay eggs that can survive partial dehydration) and the ghostly translucent Grass shrimp, these have all made this Marsh their home. So also has the diamondback Terrapin, the only one among 270 species that has adapted itself to brackish water. Here I found one, lounging on a log of lumber, crying salty tears for having made quite the distance across the gravel path.

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Diamondback Terrapin?

    The Northbound and Southbound loops, replete with fruiting Mulberries, inquisitive groundhogs, shimmering grasses, wooden bridges, silver lined clouds floating in the heavens, signalling birds and I find that it is time to go home.

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   O braided dusks of the oak and woven shades of the vine,

    While the riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long did shine

    Ye held me fast in your heart and I held you fast in mine;

    But now when the noon is no more, and riot is rest,

    And the sun is a-wait at the ponderous gate of the West,

    And the slant yellow beam down the wood-aisle doth seem

    Like a lane into heaven that leads from a dream, -

~ The Marshes of Glynn by Sidney Lanier (1878)

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