Voices of the Marsh

Voices of the Great Marsh: An Educational Video (3/01)

March 2001: 8T&B has produced a short videotape about the Great Marsh, a highly productive ecosystem that provides habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals including migratory birds and anadromous fish. Students and Teacher on the Great MarshRuth Alexander of Rowley, who is responsible for first calling this unique landscape “The Great Marsh” was the inspiration for this video and is one of its subjects.

Our primary goal in making this videotape is to capture, before it’s too late, the stories of the Great Marsh, its significance to our natural and cultural heritage, and the need for us to protect it for future generations. We will promote the value of this resource and place it in the context of the historical landscape, by illustrating uses of the marsh over time, its economic benefits, its value for recreation, and its importance as habitat for countless plant and animal species.

The marsh and coastal water resources tell us a story about how the cultural landscape was developed. In early settlement times, people were drawn to the abundant natural resources and these resources influenced early development patterns. Since early settlement times, people have relied on the marsh for economic benefits, including the shellfish and finfish industries, traditional recreational activities such as hunting and boating, and birding and other naturalist activities.

Farmers in the region also relied on the resources of the marsh. Nearly all of the farms in the region had patches of salt marsh, which were harvested for marsh hay as valuable fodder for cattle. The early settlers also used salt hay grass, or thatch, as insulation for houses, barns, and for roofing. The marsh has also served, primarily in this century, as an inspiration for artists and a prime scenic attraction for visitors and residents.

Scientists have documented the critical importance of wetlands for clean water, flood control, fish and wildlife habitat, and groundwater supply. Yet, marshlands have always been among the most vulnerable of ecosystems. They have been viewed and treated historically as mosquito-breeding wastelands, and transformed into subdivisions, parking lots, landfills, and industrial areas. Massachusetts has lost more than 28% of its wetlands since colonial times. Much of the remaining wetland sites have become degraded by stormwater runoff, road and rail lines cutting off tidal flow, and other impacts. Fortunately, a fairly strong wetlands permit program has nearly eliminated new wetland losses; however, this does not address historic loss and ongoing degradation.

To promote this video, we plan to work with all of our partners in the Great Marsh Coalition, an effort that is coordinated by Massachusetts Audubon Society's North Shore Conservation Advocacy office. This coalition is made up of state agencies, nonprofit groups, educators, and local officials. The coalition will be an ideal avenue for promoting our video and reaching a large and diverse community.

This educational documentary will be distributed widely to local schools and universities, town libraries, historical sites within the Essex National Heritage Area, on local cable access stations, and other venues.

Voices of the Great Marsh: A Sampler

Below are some excerpts of interviews conducted for the video, and some photographs. We also have an article, Painting a Great Marsh Picture, about the history of the marsh.

"As we look at the marsh, It’s very beautiful, very beautiful. If you live on it, you know how beautiful it is. And it has great value. It has great resources. And yet we do not appreciate that yet. And it is my feeling that we would add great wealth in many directions to restore the marsh, enjoy the marsh, and ...study the marsh. It’s there, and even in the past, it has produced for us in many ways. And now we must not, it seems to me, let it slip, which it can...” —Ruth Alexander, marsh advocate, Rowley

"You've seen pictures with the haystacks all over the marsh. Each one of those haystacks has 2 or 3 tons of hay on it ... Every spear of that grass was used. And people needed it. They banked their houses with it. They used it with bedding for their cattle.

"In them days, ” st all houses had very shallow cellars in them. They were built out of granite ... And they'd build a crib around the house, and out of either wood or tar paper, and they'd put this marsh grass in there, around the foundation (it was called “banking the house"), and keep the frost and cold weather out.” —Robert “Stubby” Knowles, Shellfish Commissioner, Gloucester

“I coordinate the Salt Marsh Science project, which is a Massachusetts Audubon Society program that's incorporating currently nine different schools in the North Shore region ... And middle and high school students are out in the marshes collecting data, helping us learn more about the invasive reed Phragmites (Phragmites australis) and the conditions that It’s growing in, as well as monitoring the fish populations out in the marshes, and the information that they're collecting is helping us gain a better understanding of the conditions of the marshes.” —Elizabeth Duff, Massachusetts Audubon Society

"The most interesting thing I've probably learned so far is how the Phragmites can take over everything and it just goes and takes over salt marshes one by one and the other plants don't have a chance.” —Johnny, Rupert Nock Middle School student

"It’s really exciting to get kids out in their own backyard. Each school is studying a site in their own town, so they're learning about their own world and surroundings, and it sort of establishes a sense of place ...Students and Teacher on the Great Marsh and it helps foster stewardship in these kids who will be, you know, our future caretakers here. So that's really important. And I think in today's world, where kids spend more time inside, watching TV or on the computers, It’s great to get them out and into these ecosystems.” —Elizabeth Duff

"The marsh is very important because it provides food and shelter for many animals and plants and fish as well. Smaller fish provide food for larger fish and birds that come in...” —Johnny

"You've got to look at the whole picture as a marsh being a part in the whole scheme of things. Everything relies on each other. The fish rely on the marsh. The health of the human being relies on the marsh ...” —Stubby Knowles