On the Alarming Disappearance and Destruction of America’s Great Wetlands

Patricia Hanlon Names a Subject of Critical Environmental Concern

There is no place on Earth where human presence does not cast a shadow. Not even at Ebben Creek. Route 133 bisects it and compromises somewhat the free flow of the incoming and outgoing tides. Phragmites australis, an invasive reed, grows in the disturbed strips of land where the road was excavated and where houses have been built. The reed outcompetes native cordgrasses and provides few ecosystem services in return.

Parallel grid-ditching scores the marsh throughout the Essex River Basin, along with nearly all of the coastal marshlands from Maine to Virginia. Most of these 562,000 miles of trenches were dug during the New Deal era by Civilian Conservation Corps workers, with the goal of controlling mosquitoes by draining salt pools, where the larvae tend to develop. The ditching has not, in fact, been effective in reducing the mosquito population.

During the year we swam this creek frequently, we began to notice small erosions in the salt-marsh lawn where we’d taken shortcuts. We swam over stubs of footings that used to hold up docks. We noticed salt pools too rectangular to be natural—maybe they’d been used as impoundments for fish.

Then there are the diminishments, the gradual attritions of species. The piping plover and salt marsh sparrow, for example, are both threatened here. I know from my neighbor Deborah Cramer that horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) were once abundant in Walker Creek. “Each spring at the highest high tides, they used to come out of the mud to mate and lay their eggs,” she writes. “The creek nursed the young crabs, and they stayed in its embrace all summer. With each molt, they left an unblemished shell on the shore. This year I found just one shell.”

Old-timers have told us that oysters used to be so plentiful that the local creek beds were thick with them. We can still find them, but it’s a long trek across marsh lawn to a few rocky channels we know about. We don’t take many; they are a special treat.

There is no place on Earth where human presence does not cast a shadow.

Some losses are so long past that you have to be told about them. Take the luxuriant beds of eelgrass that once blanketed these wetlands below the Spartina alterniflora zone—underwater, in other words. Eelgrass, which disappeared from the Great Marsh back in the 1950s, curbs the erosion of bottom sediments and provides protective habitat for shellfish and juvenile fish. Any loss of habitat will reduce the diversity of species found in these waters.

And then there are the losses that blindside you. For example, when you go to Conomo Point to gather mussels after a few years of falling out of the habit, and you discover they are greatly diminished. It makes no sense; they have always clustered in blue abundance on rocks and pilings. But the green crabs—Carcinus maenas, a European invasive—have devoured them.

And yet these are relatively small problems compared to what has happened to wetlands elsewhere along the New England coast, not to mention the fate that has befallen coastal wetlands nationwide. Since Colonial times, approximately half of the nation’s salt marshes have been dredged, filled, and built upon. My home state of California has lost between 75 and 85 percent of its original coastal wetlands. Los Angeles, my birthplace, has lost over 95 percent. (This is why, though I was a Californian from 1954 to 1976, I never knew what a salt marsh was until I moved east.)

The Great Marsh has many advocates, however. In the wake of coastal storm damage caused by Hurricanes Sandy (2011), Harvey, and Maria (both 2017), six Massachusetts cities and towns—Salisbury, Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, Ipswich, and Essex—drafted the Great Marsh Coastal Adaptation Plan. Spearheaded by the National Wildlife Foundation in partnership with the Ipswich River Watershed Association, the plan “assesses regional and town-specific vulnerabilities to current and future coastal threats and identifies near and long-term ecosystem-oriented strategies that reduce risk and increase target resilience.”

The Great Marsh is still considered a jewel; we who live here are privileged to have this unusually intact marsh to enjoy, to study, to restore where needed, and to plan on behalf of. When you’re out in the middle of the Essex River Basin, standing on a spit and taking in a full-circle view of largely undisturbed beaches, marshes, and islands, it can be hard to grasp that it all could have turned out quite differently here.

And yet these are relatively small problems compared to what has happened to wetlands elsewhere along the New England coast, not to mention the fate that has befallen coastal wetlands nationwide.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, perhaps, places become real when they are loved. I do not mean to say that the marshlands north and south of us are less loved by the people who live in them, just that “our” Great Marsh has been loved by a range of entities—national, state, local, and nongovernmental—that have had the vision, the power, and the funding to protect it. The Massachusetts portion—from Gloucester to Salisbury—was designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in 1979. The ACEC declaration, in turn, had grown out of a long-standing ethos of environmental protection in Massachusetts. It was the first state, in fact, that adopted regulations protecting wetlands—seven years before President Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act.

Until fairly recently, I did not know this: that in 1970, MEPP Inc., an organization of twenty-nine Massachusetts Municipal Electric Departments, presented the town of Ipswich with a proposal for a nuclear power plant at the end of Town Farm Road, which runs about two miles northeast from Route 1A into uplands that look out onto an expansive view of Plum Island Sound, just north of us. Because nuclear generators need vast amounts of water for cooling, they are nearly always sited by rivers and coastlines. The proposed site was one estuary north of the Essex River Basin, near the beach colony of Jeffreys Neck, in Ipswich.

I stumbled on this information on the blog Historic Ipswich, written by Gordon Harris, town historian. “The Board of Selectmen,” Harris writes, “‘realizing the need for information as to the safety of such an operation, financial arrangements with the Town, rise in water temperature at the outlet of the cooling system, and the ecological performances of the plant,’ appointed a nine member Nuclear Power Plant Advisory Committee to conduct a study, submit a report to the Board and gather information in order to bring the issue to a vote.” (MEPP had, in fact, been scoping out the town of Ipswich as a potential power plant location since 1964).

For the next year, the town engaged in a mostly civil debate. One of the materials advanced by the pronuclear side was a diagram showing the huge pipes that would pass beneath Plum Island and discharge into the Atlantic. It was “intended to assure Ipswich residents that Plum Island Sound would be unaffected by thermal discharge,” Harris writes.

In the end, the proposal was soundly defeated at an Ipswich town meeting in 1971. Harris’s blog post includes a contemporary photo of Seabrook Station as seen from across Brown’s River. “[T]his would have been the view from Jeffreys Neck Road,” he writes.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, perhaps, places become real when they are loved.

Seabrook, New Hampshire, got that view instead. And the New Hampshire portion of the Great Marsh became an asterisk.

*

If you didn’t already know what it was, Seabrook Station today could easily be taken for a university campus with an observatory, or the back side of a cluster of big-box stores. At any rate, it is now indelibly part of the landscape, visible from both Seabrook Beach, just over the line in New Hampshire, and Hampton Beach. These are both barrier beaches, and, like Crane and Wingaersheek, are separated by a channel of several hundred feet, where the Atlantic Ocean flows in and out of Hampton Harbor and its several thousand acres of marshes.

Robert and I have just hauled our kayaks down a gravelly bit of shoreline across the bridge from Hampton Beach State Park. We push off into Hampton Harbor, paddling past moored fishing boats, headed toward a verdant swath of marsh where John Fogg and his family harvested marsh hay to feed their livestock up until the middle of the twentieth century. Hay was a valuable commodity back then, and so was this marsh acreage.

I have read Fogg’s little book, Recollections of a Salt Marsh Farmer, which he began writing at the age of eighty-seven. In it, he recounts the history and practices of salt haying that had been passed on to him from his father and grandfather. I have pored over his map of the Hampton Falls and Seabrook marshes, which shows the paths and landmarks of that long-gone way of life. I have compared it with Google Earth aerials of the place. All of the curves and bow bends of the creek are pretty much as they were a century ago.

From kayak level, it looks like any tidal estuary. Brown’s River zigzags toward the mainland, as tidal creeks habitually do. All around us are marsh islands, hardly distinguishable from Corn, Cross, and Dilly Islands in the Essex River Basin. “I think that might be Hunt’s Island,” I call out to Robert.

The twin nineteen-foot-diameter rock tunnels—one bringing seawater from the ocean to cool the reactor, and the other returning the used water about a mile offshore—are invisible, because they are sixty-some feet underground.

If you didn’t already know what it was, Seabrook Station today could easily be taken for a university campus with an observatory, or the back side of a cluster of big-box stores.

We paddle farther up Brown’s River, passing abandoned pilings that were once boat docks.

“Maybe that’s where ‘Nate’s Stake’ was,” I muse, half to myself, squinting into the sun at an oxbow bend in the creek. The stake had been as big as a telephone pole, and it had served as a gathering place for the haying teams, which usually started out at a landing at the end of Rocks Road—the Rocks, for short.

We will not reach the Rocks today, or any day. The plant is built on the uplands that terminate there. We round another creek bend and paddle up close enough to read the exact wording in which we will be told we cannot go farther:

SECURITY ZONE
IN ACCORDANCE WITH 33 CODE OF FEDERAL
REGULATIONS PART 165.33, ENTRY OR
MOVEMENT WITHIN THIS ZONE IS PROHIBITED
UNLESS AUTHORIZED BY THE CAPTAIN OF THE
PORT, PORTLAND, ME. NO PERSON MAY ENTER
THE WATERS WITHIN THE BOUNDARIES OF THE
SECURITY ZONE UNLESS PREVIOUSLY AUTHORIZED
BY THE CAPTAIN OF THE PORT OR HIS
AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVE.

Robert paddles in a wide loop about forty feet into the forbidden zone, because he can. I shoot him a wifely eye roll.

*

In the late 1960s, Public Service New Hampshire had begun its purchase of upland in Seabrook, along with adjoining marshland. John Fogg sold his marshland to PSNH in the early 1970s, after the town of Ipswich had NIMBY’d the nuke. “With the clearing of the plant life and excavating of the land there,” Eric Small writes in his introduction to Fogg’s book, “he was struck by the reality that this area, of which he had such fond memories, was being destroyed before his eyes. He wanted to preserve for posterity the life he had known there during his early years.”

In June 1978, Robert, James, and I had played an extraordinarily minor part in a protest at the future site of the Seabrook Station, twenty-six miles and two watershed addresses north of us.

In February 1972, PSNH applied to the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee for approval of the Seabrook site for a nuclear generating station.

In June 1978, Robert, James, and I had played an extraordinarily minor part in a protest at the future site of the Seabrook Station, twenty-six miles and two watershed addresses north of us. We were worried, of course, about what a reactor meltdown could do to this place we were beginning to call home. We went to the Alternative Energy Fair, a precursor to the actual protest the following day, and wandered the dusty construction site along with throngs of other mostly young adults, checking out the exhibits and picking up flyers (think Renaissance Faire, minus the costumes). Pete Seeger sang an adaptation of the old folk song “Acres of Clams” (“I expect to live here till I’m ninety/It’s the nukes that must go and not me”).

What followed was a protracted struggle between pro- and anti-Seabrook factions that dragged on until one of the original two reactors finally went online in 1990. It was a time line that included, on the one hand, two nuclear disasters elsewhere in the world—Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. But because apocalypse in our backyard did not happen, we sort of forgot about it. It was overshadowed by the overwhelming immediacy of day-to-day life with small children.

Seabrook Station is about a half mile away from us now, and I am struck by how much it looks like the modernist architecture that had been pervasive in Southern California during the postwar years. That aesthetic is in my blood, right up there with eucalyptus trees and the Pacific Ocean and the wide-open spaces of the Mojave Desert. Along with the reactor itself and its surrounding complex of concrete squares and rectangles, there’s a silver structure that looks like a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. I am finding the whole thing weirdly beautiful, and the surprise of it all makes it easier to consider this estuary, also, as my own.

Because every place, really, should be an area of critical environmental concern.

__________________________________

Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet

Excerpted from Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet. Copyright © 2021 by Patricia Hanlon. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Patricia Hanlon
Patricia Hanlon
Patricia Hanlon is a visual artist who paints the beautiful ecosystem of New England’s Great Marsh and is involved in the watershed organizations of Greater Boston. Swimming to the Top of the Tide is her first book. For more information, visit www.patriciahanlon.com.





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