Posted by: floridanature | August 17, 2010

Where the Marsh Really Begins and Ends

The road from Tybee Island to the Georgia mainland once carried me for one summer and two winters, transporting me for ten miles through a board salt marsh stretching to the horizon like a flat,  midwestern wheat field. Spartina was the “wheat”,  a thin, reedy salt-loving  plant that tapers into a spikey tip, colored fresh green in the spring, darker by summer and then golden with the first frost. It is a vision that, during my brief time on the Georgia coast, comforted me, seamlessly aligning itself with my Florida soul.  

That field of marsh grass was interrupted only once,  but it was profound:  To the north, a thin, narrow mound of sabal palm and scrub oak shadow the roadway as it leaves the island, until finally, it trails off  like a giant mole burrow towards the city of Savannah in the distance. The ridge is fill dug from the marsh to underpin a rail line that once shuttled beachgoers between Savannah and Tybee, a single-destination spur with a fire-spitting, steam-blowing locomotive pulling a string of passenger cars from the staid mainland to the fresh exuberance of the ocean.

The rail lost its utility long ago, to be replaced by a more efficient  oyster-shell roadway for autos,  the forerunner to the firm pavement now under me.  Nearby,  the old train bed—bereft of rails—was homesteaded for decades by seeds of the trees,  creating a runic message of  foliage to remind  the terrain of a history it might otherwise forget.

The coast of Georgia sloughs inward here, leaving Tybee and its marsh near the narrow bottom of a giant topographical funnel. With a grand lunar momentum, the Atlantic pushes in as far as the flat land will let it each day, washing around the island, spilling over the tidal creeks, and sweeping across the spartina pastures for miles with its oceanic scent. As it does, it nourishes oysters, fish, sea birds, tiny organisms patiently chewing dead grass in the black mud.

By its existence, the salt marsh also shelters hundreds of rare diamondback terrapins, giving them silent refuge during most of the year, right up until when their siren’s call  of replenishment summons them from their stunted grassy jungle. Like the massive arrabadas  of the Caribbean coast, where sea turtles flop ashore all at once to nest, the terrapins in these Georgia lowlands move through the marsh to the biding of some internal clock. In doing so, they crawl slowly across  this asphalt cusp,  pulling back into their shell at the rumbling approach of a car or truck as if it might try to eat them, rather than simply mash them to smithereens.  

Southerners don’t have a great reputation for appreciating  animals—unless they want to  hunt them, or hunt with them. But this seems to be  yankee bias, and we all stop, swerve, slow down to keep from crushing the little terrapins whenever possible. I have twice seen stocky men in pickup trucks—one with a gun rack—come to a screeching halt  to rescue a slow-moving shell in distress.

Along the shoulder, an official yellow sign warns that on rare occasions a high tide may cover the roadway. When I first moved out to Tybee, I  waited for months for this to happen, and when the fall equinox and the full moon and a strong northeast wind arrived at nearly the same time, it finally did. As I returned home from Savannah that night on the lonely road, I watched anxiously as the pale moonlight reflected on the flooded fields of spartina, making these grassy pastures glow as if lit from deep inside instead of high above.  

On that night, the water rose up in front of me, covering the roadway completely, erasing the distinction between it and the deep, muddy marsh only feet away. With no black strip of asphalt to guide them, other motorists— understandably— pulled over to the side and turned back.

Yet,  I sloshed stubbornly on through, night tide lapping at my truck’s rocker panels,  relying on the gut knowledge the road would continue to be down there, somewhere. The revelation, if there was one, was simple:   I had crossed this marsh alone for months and its path connected to something vital in me.

As I continued alone towards my island, I left a gentle wake behind me in the flooded moonlit-water. I sloshed along slowly like some great cetacean, half in the ocean, half out, following a trail home no one else can see. It all gave me a primal comfort far greater than I can express.

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Responses

  1. Very nicely crafted piece, Bill. We just don’t hear the word smithereeens quite enough for my liking.

  2. Thanks much, David. Always fun to relive those particular & rare experiences that don’t fit neatly into one theme or the other…

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story! We love our little island and are always glad to hear that others do too!

  4. Thanks for the generous words on my story about the road to Tybee. You live in a special place, and it sounds like you enjoy it !


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