I was walking Sawyer, our daughter’s sweet spaniel mix, on this blustery, cold Sunday morning. As is our wont, we ended up at our community boat ramp where we both like to sit awhile at the end of the dock to watch the river’s life go by. We’re usually rewarded with jumping mullet, diving terns and, at certain times of the year, the occasional pod of porpoises breaking the surface with the gentle whoosh of expelling air.
This morning, though, an adjoining property owner was busily and noisily at work in the marsh behind his house, hacking away at the grasses with his weed eater, cutting them down to the ground to conform with his manicured lawn.
Feeling charitable on this day of rest, I told Sawyer, there, my boy, is a man who truly knows not what he does.
Back during my time with N.C. Coastal Federation, I would field calls this time of year from waterfront property owners who wanted to know if they could cut down the marsh grasses bordering the water. My first question was always the same: Why? I’ve yet to hear a reasonable answer.
A variety of plants fringe the borders of our saltwater estuaries: Cordgrasses, black needle rush, sea lavender, spike grass. There, where the tide ebbs and flows each day, hundreds of kinds of invertebrates crawl through the muck. Fiddler crabs, hermit crabs, stone crabs and blue crabs join snails, mussels and worms looking for food and shelter. Fish and shrimp are there as well in search of food and a place to lay their eggs.
Egrets and herons stalk the high grasses to spear a meal. Willets nest in there, and a variety of songbirds flit through cordgrass and needlerush, filling the marsh with their melodious symphony.
Because of their importance to the health of our estuaries, these saltwater marsh grasses are protected by state law. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to prevent a guy from going out there on a Sunday morning on foot with a weed wacker or scythe to mow them down. Had he been using a lawn mower or tractor, he would have gotten a visit tomorrow from an enforcement official. Cutting ruts through the marsh is illegal.
I used to tell the people who called me that even if they don’t care about the birds and the fish and such, they should be worried about their waterfront homes. Numerous studies have confirmed the effectiveness of a healthy saltmarsh in preventing flood damage. In the largest laboratory experiment ever constructed to investigate this phenomenon, researchers at Cambridge University have shown that over 120 feet, the salt marsh reduced the height of large waves in deep water by 18 percent, making them an effective tool for reducing the risk of coastal erosion and flooding. The marsh plants alone accounted for 60 percent of that reduction, the study found.
Those people who called usually said they wanted to cut down the marsh grasses so that they could see water better, as if something that rarely grows taller than three feet obscures the view.
My advice was also always the same: Consider yourself fortunate to be able to live by the sea. You have a front-row seat to the majestic beauties of creation. Learn to appreciate it, instead of wrestling with it unendingly to make it conform to your world. The birds will thank you and so will the fish. You’ll look like a genius when the next hurricane comes roaring by. I intend to tell my neighbor the same thing the next time I see him.