As a longtime visitor to Provincetown, I have been nourished in many ways by its natural and cultural beauty, but nothing here has touched me as deeply as the salt marsh that extends from the west end of Bradford Street across to the dunes at Wood End. It is always heart-stopping when that glistening sea of grass, “The Moors,” first comes into view, catching the wind and changing light, enduring through the seasons.
To enter the marsh is to be introduced to the delicate world of lives that make their way in and out of tidal waters. The footprints of birds, crabs, foxes, raccoons, and sometimes even an otter, like hieroglyphs in the morning sand, tell tales of the marsh night. The kingfisher calls and flies from perch to perch. The heron lifts off to fish in a farther place. The tide comes in bearing small fish, and flocks of swifts descend to feed on insects escaping from the grass. Just a few steps away from the bustle of Provincetown, one can enter this timelessness, a richly functioning ecosystem full of beauty and wonder.
But the marsh is not enduring. As Tessera Knowles-Thompson reported in the Independent in December 2020, the marsh is dying — and dying quickly. This is plainly visible from the roadside: one can see the sad mud and chewed-up mounds of ancient peat where lovely Spartina grass recently flourished. What is not visible from the road are the vast bald patches further out in the marsh that have been entirely denuded. Try to imagine, the next time you pass, a day perhaps not long off when there is nothing before you but mud and sand reaching to the dunes.
The apparent culprit is the purple marsh crab, Sesarma reticulatum, which feeds on the roots of Spartina grass, leaving centuries-old compost bare and vulnerable to dissolution by the tides. Look and see how the chunks of irreplaceable peat are crumbling from what has long been a raised garden of marsh grass. Through its cycle of growth and decay it normally manages to increase its own ground and keep up with rising sea levels.
But the number of purple crabs has grown out of control all over the Cape’s marshes, and they are laying waste to many wetlands. It is assumed that a lack of predators has caused this destructive overpopulation. Here in Provincetown, a plan to create an opening in the West End breakwater to allow predatory fish into the marsh has been thwarted for years. Further plans have been allowed to sit on the shelf. There is no sense of urgency about saving the marsh, which is disappearing by the day.
Maybe not enough people are aware of the loss and its meaning. The crucial role of wetlands has been well established. A healthy marsh would provide a vast nursery for commercial marine species and increased habitat for shorebirds and mammals. It would also restore our best and much-needed protection from storm surges and flooding.
Please fall in love with your marsh. And then let’s learn all we can about creative solutions, experiments, and possibilities for restoring the balance. No doubt we have disrupted it by building sea barriers, overfishing, and polluting. Let’s make it easier to get information from our public bodies about what research is going on and what political efforts are being undertaken, or should be. And please turn out to vote when measures to save the marsh are being decided. You will thank yourselves. And so will the kingfishers, hawks, otters, herons, fishes, shellfish, and many smaller lives that still depend on and dwell in the marsh.
Carey Morning is an American living in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she is a psychotherapist, writer, and painter.