What a tidal salt marsh can teach about interdependence, resilience and healing

The marshes have their own unique way of commiserating with the human condition. Along half a mile of floating boardwalk through a marsh in Saw Mill Creek, a tributary of the Hackensack river, I encounter parallels to my own life. The Kingsland marsh discovery trail on an impoundment in the Richard DeKorte Park, southern part of Lyndhurst1, runs through a tidal salt marsh and alongside the marsh reeds and the wooden railings, above the mudflats, in the esteemed company of foraging Sandpipers and semipalmated Plovers2, I observe recurrent themes of interdependence, resilience, healing and encounter the lyrical poetry of Ayub Ogada.

I hadn’t noted the tide timings that day; the marshes being a pleasant experience when the tide rolls in, water glistening and shimmering in the sun, but they are as awe inspiring when the water ebbs and the mud flats get exposed, during which resonates the distinctive trait of these marshlands, their resilience.

~ Resilience

In the wetlands, it is natural and essential that the water ebb and flow, that the marsh plants be partially wet and not permanently inundated. The fact that these marshes thrive in conditions of aquatic salinity is in itself a wonder. Uniquely, a marsh can actually drown, for instance, during a hurricane storm surge. And yet, such climatic adversity can also stimulate the marsh to thrive.

A destroyed marsh cannot help protect against the vagaries of a storm, or help enhance the water quality which in turn deteriorates the conditions for the brackish water lifeforms like the invertebrates, birds and fish that make it their home. The slightest change in elevation of the salt grass can destroy it and yet the resilience of the salt grass is not an exclusive feature of the grass alone but how it synergistically responds to the effects of climate in addition to various anthropogenic factors like human industry in such sensitive ecosystems.

Hurricanes for example, can destroy marsh biomass in the wetlands and yet, they can also stimulate marsh root growth in the aftermath. Storm surges induced by hurricanes can increase marsh elevation by removing and eroding marsh substrates, thus causing exposure to dehydration, but on the contrary may also decrease it by pulling in more sediment3. Marshlands help protect the riverine and coastal cities against the effects of storm surges and have the potential as far more sustainable and ecologically sound defenses compared to conventional coastal engineering structures. The Hackensack marshes were well able to resist the onslaught of hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The philosopher Alan Watts once succinctly explained4, in the Western model of the universe as political, engineered or architectural, the analysis of the parts yielded the understanding of mechanical operations, and this involved a ‘bitting’ of the parts, ‘bitting’ of information that would be useful in learning to control everything. And yet, here they are, the marshes of Saw Mill Creek, an example of how difficult this exertion of control would be in an unpredictable event like a hurricane affecting a natural defense like a marshland. So a fine dance it is always, between perfectly natural phenomena and the natural plant world that seem to balance each other out in trying to achieve this amazing synergistic perfection, in fomenting an organic resilience of the humble marsh reed. I find this greatly applicable to how I navigate the vagaries and vicissitudes that spring up in my own life and why this lesson is best learned from the humble Marsh grass.

Marsh grass

~ Interdependence

Now the antithesis of rain is drought. Intense drought results in massive marsh die-offs and yet they endure. New research has shown that a mutual symbiotic relationship was found between marsh grass and ribbed mussels that inhabit marshlands. Mussels piled high around the stem of salt grass helps water storage around the roots and also reduces the soil salinity and thus protects the grasses. Spartina alterniflora, is native to the Hackensack Meadowlands. Phragmites australis, arrived in the Hackensack Meadowlands more recently and has become rather invasive. A study was undertaken at Saw Mill Creek, to compare how the mussel, Geukensia demissa, fared with regard to both species of marsh grass. It appears that this mussel has weathered the introduction of P. australis quite well5.

Mussels help salt grass bounce back from extremities of weather like severe droughts in a short span of time, climatically speaking, in less than a decade, which otherwise would take over a century. I am humbled by the far reaching outcomes of this mutualism, this slow moving, patient interdependence. The symbiosis between flora and fauna, the enduring nature of their relationship and what it means to the longevity of the marsh grass is something truly remarkable. There is truly nothing more to say except that a mutualism of such a nature are what make our own relationships thrive and help alleviate what Hannah Arendt once surmised as the Human Condition. She held that, “The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation”, perhaps that is what the simple acts of mussels and grasses do, they are the lowest denominator and yet the ability to withstand the power of hurricanes and the stressors of saline aquatic substrate is what helps regenerate ones trust in the mundane but necessary acts of daily labour.

Every walk is a poetry walk

~ Healing

Marine biologists have also found that wherever there were clusters of mussels embedded in the mud around the base of the grass stems, the grass survived and had a 64 percent probability of surviving, compared to a one percent probability in areas without mussels. The researchers suspected that mussels paved the marsh surface with their ribbed shells, and attracted burrowing crabs that excavate underground water storage compartments. And when the rains return and conditions normalize, the grass grows and flourishes from these areas of mussel clustered grasses6. Thus the mutualism of the mussels and marsh grasses actually help heal marshlands after a drought or just help the marshes adapt better to the salinity.

Speaking of healing marsh grasses; I find myself embedded in this marshscape, trying to find succour in the experiential. But for the ‘bitting’ of this walk, the breakdown of the excursion into its various disparate parts, which ran the gamut of planning the trip, walking the trails, identifying the birds and the flora; yet, why then does the voice of Ayub Ogada accompanied by the nyatiti, (music that I listen to at the time), seem to synchronise with the undulating of the marsh grass in the afternoon breeze? Is this just a metaphor for heightened emotion? Are these just feelings that are to be rationalized away as psychosomatic manifestations of inner neurological pathways? I wonder…

I do not leave a walk without having tried to express such emotional metaphors through poetry and that day, my words wove themselves with Ayub Ogada’s traditional Dholuo (the language of the Luo people of Western Kenya)7 composition, ‘Kothbiro’, which speaks about the coming rain. Strangely prescient of what was to come, would there be a need to analyse this I wonder, except that it just simply, is.

Ambling along a marshy path ~ davina e. solomon

Is it the trembling of reeds
Or my tremulous thoughts
That ebb and flow with the incoming tide?

The sun glides behind the clouds
And I forge a trail ahead,
Or perhaps leave a path behind

Ethereal emanations of the nyatiti
Ayub Ogada on a willing lyre
His voice soft with vulnerability

They predicted thunderstorms today
"kothbiro, kothbiro" he says
Speaking of the coming rain…

"Auma, do you hear what I say
The rain is on it’s way
Return our cattle home"

And then again,
Ricocheting voices
From cattail to cattail in vain hope
the wayward wind would stop to listen.

Walking along the Marsh discovery trail, Richard DeKorte Park, NJ, listening to Ayub Ogada on the Nyatiti Lyre, singing a traditional Dholuo (the language of the Luo people of Western Kenya. ) composition, ‘Kothbiro’, which speaks about the coming rain.

Saw Mill Creek, Richard DeKorte Park NJ


[1] NJ Meadowlands Commission. Retrieved from-https://meadowblog.typepad.com/files/onlinetrail-guidemap-only.pdf

[2] NJ Audubon. Retrieved from-https://njaudubon.org/wp-content/wildlife/MeadowlandsTrails/Sites/tabid/443/Scope/site/Guide/MEADOWLNDS/Site/90/Default.html

[3] Yu Mo, Michael S. Kearney, R. Eugene Turner. (2020). The resilience of coastal marshes to hurricanes: The potential impact of excess nutrients. Retrieved from-https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019312814

[4] Alan Watts. (2019). Essential Lectures, Searchable, Tao of Philosophy, The Works, Transcript. Retrieved from-https://www.alanwatts.org/1-1-6-seeing-through-the-net-pt-2/

[5] Joseph Dunsay. (2011). Marsh Plants and Mussels in the Hackensack Meadowlands. Retrieved from-https://patch.com/new-jersey/riverdell/marsh-plants-and-mussels-in-the-hackensack-meadowlands

[6] Cheryl Dybas & Steve Orlando . (2016). Biodiversity in salt marshes builds climate resilience. Retrieved from-https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=189416

[7] Oran Mullan. (2018).Track of the Day: ‘Kothbiro’ by Ayub Ogada. Retrieved from-https://realworldrecords.com/features/blogs/track-of-the-day-kothbiro-by-ayub-ogada/

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