A salt marsh savanna
The vast salt marshes of the Low Country gave a name to the city of Savannah. Seemingly endless expanses of salt grass stretch from horizon to horizon, dotted with distant hummocks – small islets of pine, live oak and palmetto. These spartina marshes range all along the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Florida, but there are more here than anywhere else – covering 600 square miles in South Carolina alone.
And they’re fecund, too. A single acre of Carolina salt marsh can produce over 10 tons of grass in a single season.
Which brings us to Pluff Mud.
Pluff Mud is what all this grass grows in, and what all this grass becomes. Unlike the plains of Africa, these savannas are rooted in something not quite land, and not quite water. Most of the time the marsh looks like dry grass prairies, but the roots and stalks are actually submerged at every high tide. During Spring flood tides, I’ve seen the entire marsh completely disappear beneath a flat mirror of water for as far as you can see, only to reemerge a couple of hours later.
In winter, most of the spartina dies back, and the stalks begin a rapid process of returning all those nutrients to the water. And to the mud. But it doesn’t stop there. A good land breeze with a high tide will blow great rafts of it out to sea, washing up on beaches in thick tangled drifts at the rack line. Like an organic sand fence, it sifts out windblown sand to start dunes, then breaks down into a base layer of mud, here too, providing nutrients for sea oats that will take over the dune building process in earnest.
Spartina becoming mud
Deer bones in the marsh
Pluff Mud is a black ooze the consistency of pudding. Or warm axle grease. Or butter. Or runny cow pies. All depends on subtle changes in moisture content. It’s a decomposing stew of everything that gets trapped there, from dead animals and marine life to plants, plus all the sediment and floaty bits filtered out by the stalks and roots. Mostly Pluff Mud is made of centuries of dead decomposing grass. All of which means it stinks, at least in the early winter, when it dies back to the roots.
On those evitable warm winter days here, the composting really gets cranking. We’re struck by the first unmistakable breath of it the moment we exit the interstate for Beaufort, when the coast, the actual coast, is still over 30 miles away. The rest of the year it just smells rich and rank and gaseous, but for a week or two it’s almost overwhelming. People who grow up here, or just spend a lot of time here, become quite fond of the aroma. It’s so distinctive the smell instantly summons visions of home. For us, it’s how we always know, day or night, that we’ve arrived.
It’s also deep. My first experience with Pluff Mud as a boy involved sinking in it, much to my surprise, right up to my armpits. It took three people and a rope to pull me out. It didn’t let go of my shoes, however. Might as well have kept my clothes, too, because I had to get undressed out in the yard, and they still had to be thrown away after multiple washings, when it was clear they’d never come clean again. It’s called Pluff Mud because that’s the sound it makes when you throw something into it, or pull something out of it. Or try to.
Even if you manage to stay out of the actual mud, it’s easy to get trapped in the marsh. I love to paddle back into the creeks, and I’ve sailed deep into them in the Melonseeds. Starting out at high tide, you can follow the winding maze of water across the surface of the grass. But as the tide drops – as much as 6 feet in this area – you quickly sink below grass-top level and can’t see over it. It truly becomes a maze. The creeks wind and loop around so sinuously you get disoriented, then lost. If you’re near the mouth of a creek, you can watch the current to find your way out. But deep in the marsh the current is marginal or nonexistent – the water just sinks steadily lower. If you stay lost, you find yourself and your boat sitting on the mud with no hope of walking out. In the middle of summer that can be a bad thing, as the surface temperature of the black mud on a calm day can reach 140 degrees. I’ve learned to be careful.
You can wind through the creeks for hours at a time here, and never see a single other person. That’s one of the things I find so intriguing. But all the things that make it so inhospitable to people make it very inviting to birds and other wildlife. The marsh is full of life, and against the visual monotony is beautiful in ways that are almost surreal. In the summer, armies of fiddler crabs clatter across the mud through the reeds, making a sound like rain. Oysters, clams, and worms snap shut with a squirt, making little fountains as you pass. Dolphins explore up the creeks in small pods. Working together, they drive schools of fish up onto the mud in an explosive rush. They charge up the banks after them, sliding back down on the mud, eating fish as they go. Shrimp and blue crabs, catfish, dogfish and stingrays. Mullet jump sometimes completely over the boat. Or into it.
In the winter, though, it’s mostly the birds you find here.
Great White Egret
In the late afternoon I went out to the marsh with a camera. There’s a boardwalk on Hunting Island, and it doglegs just above the grass for about a third of a mile across a couple of small hummocks. This time of year I have it all to myself. A Great Blue Heron and a Great White Egret stalked along the edge. With the wind so still I could hear different ducks calling out from great distances, hidden in the grass. A small flock of Hooded Mergansers finally swam into an opening where the creek forks. There was another type, too, but I couldn’t get close enough to tell which.