The Marsh

 

I ready the boat for another cruise down Village Creek to the Hampton River and return. It’s a short cruise, less than two hours, and the wine and beer are complimentary. We only have nine aboard tonight, it will be a quiet, introspective trip. I spin the big boat off the dock to face up the creek and settle into my captain’s chair in the wheelhouse.

Golden spartina cord-grass marsh blazes against a deep blue river reflecting a hard autumn sky. Tidal currents swash through the channels and creeks, pulled to and fro by the fiery sun and gentle moon. Big Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin surface ahead, come swim with the boat inches ahead of the bow, surfacing to blow and breathe. A few of the passengers line the rail in the cool breeze pointing and laughing. Dolphins never fail to elicit wonder in humans. Once, I saw them herd mullet and poagy into a shoal, then knife through the trapped school for a fish buffet. They drove so fast and hard, they slid half out of the water almost stranding on the muddy bank. At first, I thought it was unintentional – a miscalculation. But when they did it over and over again, I knew they were playing more than hunting or feeding.

An osprey soars past the wheelhouse windows, wriggling fish caught in his talons. He lights atop an old post, looks over the marsh to be sure no eagles are in ambush, and leans forward to pull his prize apart. Below him, a Great Snowy Egret slowly stalks the shallows patiently looking for frogs, lizards or snakes. We cruise slowly around a bend in the river – hugging the outside bank to avoid the mud-bank on the inner radius – and disturb a flock of twenty brown and white ibis. They lift from their roost and fly up and away, deeper into the marsh to avoid the tubby, noisy, clanking infernal boat. I watch them go and see a Northern Harrier stoop on an unlucky marsh hare.

Coastal Georgia is one hundred miles of pristine marsh transected by gigantic rivers. The Altamaha, the Satilla, the Saint Marys, the Turtle, Ogeechee, and Savannah drain the upland fields and hills, dump their muddy sediment in deltas capped by flat, sandy barrier islands. Tybee, St. Catherines, Ossabaw, Sapelo, St Simons, Jekyll, and Cumberland are the big ones, but hundreds more islands and hammocks (small dry-land islets) dot the marsh, creating a wonderland of creeks, canals, rivers, and rivulets. A luscious maritime forest of palmetto, oak, cypress, and pine grows wild on these islands, most of them undeveloped. Spider lily, aster, azalea, and iris are here too.

It is a wild, beautiful place hiding an atrocious past. Along the creek are vestiges of old rice plantations. Ditches and low ridges extend into the marsh from the shores of the islands in a distinct geometric pattern. Early settlers used slave labor to build systems of levees and dikes to channel fresh water into the marsh and cultivate the grain. Intensive use of slaves was required to clear and level the fields, build the waterworks, grow and care for the plants, harvest the crop. By the early 19th century, rice was golden, and fortunes were made cultivating it with enslaved people. Eventually, the civil war, competition from abroad, and the inherent difficulty of taming the marsh led to the collapse of the industry. Old Toby, Psyche, Venus, Jack and thousands more lived, loved, toiled and died enslaved here; the crime expunged by years of vines, flowers, cypress, ducks, snakes, turtles, and alligators. Today, no rice is grown commercially in Georgia.

I turn the boat around at the Hampton and retrace our course down Village Creek – between St Simons and Sea Island – bathed in the soft glorious light of the setting sun. There is little wind, and we are coming in on the last of a flood tide, the current almost slack, the marsh full to the brim with salty ocean water. The sun touches the western horizon, and a half-moon gleams overhead. The boat casts her wake – a series of curving wavelets reflecting the sun, the sky, and the moon. They trail the boat in smooth multicolored curls solid as rolled metal. Purple, orange, pink, green, black, and glittery silver waves extend fan-like behind the boat to break and splash on the river bank covered with oysters.

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