By Richard Gambino
Not that long ago, the word “swamp” had very negative connotations. It meant a waste area, useless, even outright harmful. Primitive, disease laden, the home of mosquitoes and revolting creatures — places to be avoided, changed and, better yet, to be wiped out altogether.
Swamps were used as land fills and garbage dumps. Ditches were dug in them to drain them, like an old one whose remnant I recently photographed from Fresh Pond Road in North Haven, overlooking Sag’s harbor. Some were even paved over altogether. Indeed, the practice of deliberate swamp elimination gave rise to the phrase “drain the swamp,” still used to mean eliminating corruption and filth in references having nothing to do with nature, e.g., in government. And many natural swamps are still being degraded and destroyed, now much less conspicuously, in slow motion rather than in overt deliberate campaigns aimed to destroy them.
Today, the term “swamp” has been replaced with “wetland” and “marsh,” reflecting something very significant. We have come to understand that these areas are extremely important to life in general, and to humans in particular. And as in all ecological matters, the specifically human concerns and the larger concerns regarding nature are inextricably enmeshed.
Tidal saltwater marshes and fresh water marshes, such as those around Sag’s harbor and the rest of the Peconic Estuary, help purify the waters off our coasts by filtering pollutants that run off from our shores, in particular filtering out nitrogens (nitrogen compounds), excessive amounts of which kill the life sustaining capacity of natural waters. No trivial function today — on April 26, 2012 the N.Y.S. Department of Environmental Conservation banned folks from taking shellfish from no less than 490 acres of the Coves of Sag Harbor and Upper Sag Harbor because of a dangerous neurotoxin found in our area. As the Express put it on May 17, the poison is “found in environments with high nitrogen levels … occurring in our waters as residential development increases and, as such, the use of in-ground septic systems, fertilizers and pesticides [increases].”
A tall non-native very invasive plant, phragmites, now complicates the picture. On the one hand, the extreme density of its roots enhances wetlands’ filtering capacity, but also makes shorelines uninhabitable for living creatures.
Our marshes are critical as habitats of shellfish and finfish, and so are essential to what remains of the once great fishing business here, and to attempts restore the industry and bring many millions of dollars to the East End economy as it did a few decades ago. (The NYS DEC says, “As recently as 1984, the Peconic Estuary supplied 25% of bay scallops consumed in the U.S. — an annual harvest of 350,000 pounds.” And today the annual harvest is down to “3,000 to 6,000 lbs.”) The health of our waters in the 1970s was such that a friend of mine and I, with residents’ permits from Southampton Township, used to go clamming on a frequent basis, and with no more than a half-hour’s easy effort, would have enough clams for a great dinner for both our families. But as one who has lived on three East End locations since 1969, I am greatly saddened by the environmental degradation I’ve witnessed here. (East End wetlands are also “riparian,” i.e., fed by a river. The Peconic River, which has brought additional pollution to us from land up west.)
I’ve witnessed a critical deadly effect of nitrogens in snorkeling in various locations in our estuary. Over decades I’ve seen a steady disappearance of eelgrass, which is vital for marine life and water birds, and so is an indicator of the health of waters. The good news is that eelgrass is returning to some areas of the estuary, partially by humans planting seeds. We need to aid it’s coming back, by further cleaning our waters, including by protecting our wetlands.
To round out the benefits of wetlands, they also act as buffers protecting our land from coastal flooding during storms and hurricanes — and a glance at historical photographs shows how vulnerable our area is to such flooding.
All this gives new meaning to what Henry David Thoreau said exactly 150 years ago in an essay titled, Walking: “A town is saved not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.”
RICHARD GAMBINO, as time goes by, more and more feels awe in understanding the relationships of humans to all forms of life and their environments, essential to the health of each of them and us.