You never know who you’ll meet in a salt marsh. Tim Traver’s encounters range from the great grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to McMansion developers, to himself as a 12-year-old boy in a penetrating memoir, Sippewissett, or, Life on a Salt Marsh. To Travers, a tidal wetland has many meanings, and he carries readers along on a meandering kayak ride through the history of Wood Hole Biological Laboratory, failed efforts to preserve an original Cape Cod farm, the intimate lives of quahog clams, and much more. Here’s one paragraph that reflects the breadth of Traver’s approach:
“The marsh is a microcosm of the world. With its peat meadows, meandering tidal creeks, microbes and mud, at the living breathing edge of continent and ocean, it seems that life must have started here. Every microcomponent contributes to the whole. Discovering how this system works was a biogeocheical pursuit that took years and is ongoing. Hundreds of studies resulted in as many journal papers. Out of the research came a picture of energy and nutrient inputs, chemical transformations and outputs from the marsh. The human factor reduce to chemistry is in these equations—what is flushed down the toilet, pumped into the atmosphere, spread on lawns, and put into drinking water all goes into marsh, and all is measured. Where, though, is the factor of a famiy? A sacred community? The human spirit capable of sustaining the world? Where figures consciousness?”
The only time I willingly put Sippewissett down yesterday was to watch a new PBS documentary, Where Do the Children Play? The film examines how suburban sprawl, stranger anxiety, and technology have led to the decline in unstructured outdoor play among, especially and perhaps surprisingly, affluent children. Richard Louv, author of the best-selling Last Child in the Woods, appears often to elucidate what a lack of experience with nature does to the human psyche, and children themselves talk about why nature does (or in some troubling cases, doesn’t) matter to them. The goal of the film and its companion book, edited by play researcher Elizabeth Goodenough, is to stimulate the growing conversation about children’s access to natural space—and the time to enjoy it.
I think that books such as Sippewissett should be part of that conversation, reminding and exciting people about the innumerable values of ordinary places. By exploring a sometimes luminous, sometimes sulfurous local wetland with children, friends, mentors, and even adversaries, Travers demonstrates how each of us can become guerilla fighters on behalf of reconnecting each other with the natural world. As Travers asserts, a cadre of scientists, activists, artists, and philosophers have devoted their passionate lives to saving his marsh because they shared his love for it. But ordinary people can’t stand idly by others’ passionate flames if our favorite places are to be protected. “Emerson burned,” says Travers, “and made all of nature transcendent again. Science, infused with poetic insight, was his transformative agent. The scientists working to unlock the secrets of a salt marsh burned in their own way, too, and deep down hoped to save it all. But the few can’t save us. We all need to catch on fire.”
P.S. For a fine review of Sippewissett, see bookslut. She calls the book "truly lovely," and I concur.