Habits and Habitations

By Patricia Hanlon

Twelve years ago, my husband, Robert, and I began swimming the creeks and channels of the Great Marsh, the largest continuous stretch of salt marsh in New England. Its 25,000 acres of cordgrass marshes, barrier beaches, and mudflats extend from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to Seabrook, New Hampshire. We have lived near its southeastern corner since 1978, and over the years explored these waterways with our three children: first in an eighteen-foot sailboat, then a fourteen-foot motorboat, and, later, ocean kayaks. But it wasn’t until the children were grown and had become visitors in our lives that we started regularly swimming the estuary’s creeks and channels. Over the years, our boats had become smaller and smaller, until finally our own bodies were our most frequently used watercraft.

We made a pact with each other to swim every time we possibly could. After a summer idyll of blue skies and marsh lawns as lush as Kansas cornfields, we swam later and later into the fall, matching the dropped temperatures with thicker and thicker layers of neoprene. We took it for granted that we’d eventually hit a wall that would stop the swimming until the ocean warmed up again the following year. But as we swam in rain, darkness, and slushy water just above freezing, we discovered that walls are relative. “Walls have doors,” Robert said one evening after a December swim, peeling off his “6/5” wetsuit (six millimeters of neoprene at the core, five at the extremities). Even the coldest and stormiest conditions were navigable with the right gear and the mutual desire to be there

Swimming to the top of the tide, Walker Creek, Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Humans are story-telling creatures. Early on I began jotting down notes about where and how long we swam, along with tidal and weather conditions. It was pretty basic stuff at first, largely concerned with “suiting up” for cold-weather swimming. But over time, the journal entries evolved into a series of essays exploring what happens when you immerse yourself in the same ecosystem over and over, through the daily changing of the tides and the yearly rotation of the seasons.

You get to know the non-human inhabitants of a tidal estuary, along with their routines. Great blue herons, white egrets, and banded kingfishers hunted for minnows in the same channels where we gathered mussels for our own dinner. Turkey vultures circled above us in Eben Creek (named for a 19th century boatbuilder, Ebenezer Burnham), looking for carrion. Once, floating downstream on a perfect July day, I was surrounded – for a minute or so that seemed much longer – by a school of silvery minnows. Perhaps they thought I’d be good camouflage.

At low tide, the Essex River Basin empties like a bathtub, revealing its muddy foundations.

You also look more closely at the salt-marsh environment itself. Because marsh cordgrasses (Spartina alterniflora and Spartina patens) have adapted to handle immersion in salt water, they dominate the coastal marshes, converting enormous amounts of solar energy into grass. Though few creatures directly eat the grass, as it decomposes it becomes a vast, nutrient-rich environment for bacteria, algae, and fungi. These organisms, in turn, are food for snails, shrimp, oysters, clams, and hermit crabs – and so on up the food chain to muskrats and foxes and humans.

Even aside from their roles as feeders and protectors of species, salt marshes are also shock-absorbing barriers to storm surge. Break open a hunk of marsh wall and you’ll see dark, peaty stuff bound together with the pale-yellow gnarls and filaments of cordgrass roots, a structure that answers the question of how marsh walls can be so relatively lightweight and yet hold their shape so well, how spongy and soft can also be strong. You can see exactly how it traps and binds together plant remains, silts, and clays, forming spaces and interstices – habitats – for life-forms ranging up and down the size spectrum.

At high tide, the watery boundaries of three Massachusetts towns– Ipswich, Essex, and Gloucester – converge in the Essex River Basin.

It’s interesting to me that the word “habit” is derived from the Latin habitare: to live, dwell, stay, remain. By the time we’d swum full circle into the following summer, our practice had become what Wendell Berry has called a “journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

Over time, the series of essays was slowly becoming a book. I would eventually title it Swimming to the Top of the Tide. (My publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, would add the subtitle: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet.) More and more I understood – not just with my mind but with my body – that the daily tides and routines of a salt marsh are embedded within much longer tides, much more consequential narrative arcs. The turkey vulture is shadowed by the 747. The Jet Skis that disturb the peace of perfect summer beach days are just noisier versions of our own daily commutes. When you swim a saltwater creek as the tide nears high, you have a visceral sense of what could happen if the tide just kept on rising.

Increasingly I saw myself as part of a much larger wave of anthropogenic alterations to the Earth. I was, in fact, born in 1954, during the post-World War II “Great Acceleration,” when fossil-fuel consumption increased exponentially and wartime technologies were reengineered to produce consumer products. Increasingly, the Earth’s carbon reserves were not just being burned as fuel but spun into a stunning array of new materials, structures, and containers. These innovations both extended the natural reach of the human body and narrowed the gap between human desire and its fulfillment.

The book, and those that may follow it, is my small contribution to what will surely be an ongoing conversation and reckoning.

Adapted from Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet. Copyright © 2021 by Patricia Hanlon. Published by Bellevue Literary Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

(Top image: Aerial view of the Great Marsh in Massachusetts. Photo by Doc Searls.)

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Patricia Hanlon lives with her husband, Robert, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the edge of New England’s Great Marsh. As a visual artist, she has painted this beautiful ecosystem. In Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet (Bellevue Literary Press, 2021), she has switched to narrative mode, focusing on the story of the marsh – its past, present and possible futures. She is now working on another book, Watershed.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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