Sippewissett, or Life on a Salt Marsh by Tim Traver
As a reader, one of the reasons I have always found Gerald Durrell’s books so very appealing is that even though he wrote about nature and conservation, he always inserted himself (and famously his family) directly into the narrative. Some nonfiction readers might find this off-putting, but I like to know why a writer feels compelled to write about a certain place and its ecology or geology. With author Tim Traver, the connection to Sippewissett, a salt marsh on Cape Cod, is quite clear -- he spent his childhood summers there and his family continues to maintain a seasonal home. He takes his memories of the neighborhood and region and intermixes them with the history of the research institutions at nearby Woods Hole and the many scientists who have studied and surveyed the marsh over the years. The end result is Sippeiwissett, or Life on a Salt Marsh, both natural history and memoir, hard science and personal reflection. Ultimately, it is an elegantly written look at an easily overlooked place and a significant contribution to the nature writing genre.
Woods Hole is the oldest center of marine science in the U.S. and as Traver puts it, “the Rome of ocean studies.” Sippewisset has been an unofficial part of Woods Hole since 1863 when Spencer Baird, who later became Secretary of the Smithsonian, first spent a summer there collecting and observing area fisheries. Traver writes about Baird’s discoveries, and also what other naturalists and biologists like Louis Agassiz and Rachel Carson found in the region. More importantly, though, he considers the significance of wild places like Sippewissett and how observing nature firsthand has affected the discoveries of not only scientists but poets and writers as well. When considering birds on the salt marsh, he remarks that “all birds are like Darwin’s finches, creatures of biological necessity shaped into behaviors, form and patters of color by environment and the need to avoid competition to survive.” This is an interesting enough thought for the reader, but he follows it up by wondering just what birds mean to the many different types of people who see them, and this is where his prose really escalates to a higher level.
An interest in birds seems to foretell things, among them a man’s career in science. E.O. Wilson before, thanks to poor eyesight, focusing on ants, spent portions of his childhood tracking down birds. James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, was a boyhood bird-watcher. Charles Otis Whitman, first director of the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole in 1888, spent his youth looking for bird’s nests in Woodstock, Maine. He was a staunch Darwinian but also an admirer of Agassiz’s. Behind most scientists is a bird. The modern environmental movement was carried aloft in large measure on the feathery wings of birds. Consider that the formation of the Audubon Society near the turn of the century rested on the feathery plumes of egrets used to decorate women’s hats. Consider the work of Rachel Carson, which led eventually to the flowering of environmentalism in the 1970s. Her ghost is here on the marsh: she came during her summers at the MBL in Woods Hole to watch birds in the evening. Hope is carried forth by feathery wings according to Emily Dickenson, and a death in wartime is heard in the forlorn voice of a thrush by Robert Frost. And so is Walt Whitman the "curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, cautiously peering, absorbing, translating… the two feather’d guests from Alabama… and their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown.’ For Whitman an ‘uncaught bird is hovering, hovering," holding that unrealized ‘plan of thee enclosed in Time and Space/Health, peace, salvation universal."
Traver gives us his thoughts on birds and meditations on fishing and hiking and long lazy childhood days with no television. There were roads and beaches, small boats and games. “We had friends’ houses, charades and playing cards: crazy eights, hearts, spades, I doubt it, go fish, card houses, oh hell, and spit were games of choice. The grownups played bridge late into the night.” It is properly bucolic and achingly American and also happens to take place in a place that has played center stage for more than one environmental moment; we just didn’t know it then, and neither did he.
By surveying the fish and birds and even mud of his salt marsh, Traver gives readers an idea of how intense the very meaning of life can be in a place like Sippewissett. He looks at the bacterial communities at work in the marsh and the scientists who study the food chain from this most basic component. He considers the very smallest parts of what is truly an ecologic masterpiece and then steps back to consider its large and nearly universal impact. He devotes an entire chapter to the 1969 grounding of the oil barge Florida and its affect on nearby Wild Marsh (only a short bike ride from Sippewissett). New York Times Magazine said this dumping of 175,000 gallons of heating oil rendered the marsh “a waste land, a massive graveyard.” But to Woods Hole scientists, it was also a chance to study long term the effects of such a tragedy on the physical environment. What they found is that while oil spills have short-term “devastating effects on coastal ecosystems,” independent ecosystem science could be “an indispensable partner to environmental policy making.” The Florida spill study was significant to this development and its ramifications remained relevant for decades afterward. But as Traver relates, Dr. John Teal, Woods Hole ecologist and biologist, continued to return to Wild Marsh and test the soil and through one change in national environmental policy after another, he continued to find oil.
It doesn’t go away, is what Teal found, not really. The birds may be cleaned and the fish may return, but the oil doesn’t go away. “Salt marshes have a very long memory,” Traver concludes and sadly, “the microbes that live around the oozing ground have long since adapted to life with oil, modified through random mutations to endure the stuff -- maybe even live off it. Like us, they may now need it to survive.” How depressing is that; of all the aspects of modern society to pass on to the environment, it has to be our damning dependence on oil that we give to the world.
Clearly, Traver has an environmental message with his book, but Sippewissett or, Life on a Salt Marsh is no tirade or diatribe. It is so much more than a political attack on big business, or government or anything else that all too often furious conservationists find themselves railing against. Traver has written something truly lovely here; it combines the best sort of science writing, and aspects of Leopold, Dillard, and Carson are certainly echoed within its pages. But beyond that, it also calls to mind family memoirs like George Howe Colt’s luminous Big House and makes readers yearn for a place on the shore, a place like Sippewissett. If nothing else, it certainly makes you realize the significance of these places to who we are and what we deem important. Traver writes with great eloquence about relationships with the land, old friendships, and family and the special significance of one small stretch of land in Massachusetts. Sippewissett is a lovely book, and reading it is truly a wonder.
Sippewissett, or Life on a Salt Marsh by Tim Traver