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Dawn over the Maurice River. A manuses a pole to push a skiff through flat water on the river
Railbirding on the Maurice River, New Jersey. Dennis McDonald, photographer. October 2, 1984. Pinelands Folklife Project (AFC 1991/023)

Finding balance in the bogs and bayous

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“The acoustics in the swamp are lovely – dampened by the moss underfoot, and backed by the creaking of cedar trees – called ‘cedar music’ by Jack Cervetto – in the wind.”

That line, written by folklorist Mary Hufford, leapt out of me from the pages of her field notes. I’ve been in cedar swamps, like the one that Hufford was writing about. The daughter of a former state park ranger and avid birder, I had spent many years in woods and wetlands listening to the music of trees, accompanied by spring peeper percussion and bird song descants. It is a music I did not expect to find hidden away in the American Folklife Center, but when I went in search of AFC collections featuring wetlands, in celebration of American Wetlands Month, I came across a treasure trove of items which detail the rich intersection of history, science and folklife that exists in and around so many wetlands the world over.

The Hufford quote can be found in the Center’s Pinelands Folklife Project collection. Over the course of three years, the Center documented communities and landscapes in and around the Pinelands National Reserve in southern New Jersey, resulting in a massive collection of photographs, audio recordings and field notes written by a team that included folklorists, photographers, an ethnobiologist and an environmental psychologist. Taken together, these photographs, audio recordings and field notes created an immersive sense of marshes, bogs, and peat-filled pine and cedar forests, the people who live and work there, and the fieldworkers engaged in the project.

Marsh plants emerge from the mirrored surface of swamps in Presidential Lakes, New Jersey.
Marsh plants emerge from the mirrored surface of swamps in Presidential Lakes, New Jersey. Joseph P. Czarnecki, photographer. November 9, 1983. Pinelands Folklife Project (AFC 1991/023).

Hufford had this to say about Clifford Frazee, who took several members of the field team on a tour of his land:

“Several aspects of Cliff’s conceptualization of his work struck me. He speaks of competition between cedars and swamp maples and gums and this provides an organizing principle for his nurturing of cedar saplings beneath the cedar tops. This practice also inhibits browsing deer. There is competition as well among members of the same species, and for every cedar tree that lives to be harvested when it is a hundred years old, there are dozens that die along the way – shaded or crowded away. He is into the business of shaping cedar swamps and pine forests, according to deliberate canons of taste. And he shapes what he can’t possibly harvest, since the lead time is a hundred years.

His work is very dangerous, and he discusses balance as a critical factor – nothing is securely anchored – cedar trees practically float, standing in what amounts to water and sphagnum moss. Consequently they sway in the wind, and cause each other to lean over. Paradoxically these competitive trees support each other in this manner, and this in itself represents a kind of balance. I had a funny sense that Cliff is not a tree farmer when he is in the cedar swamp, but rather a tree shepherd.”

Balance is important in any given environment, but it is another kind of balance altogether that Hufford refers to later, as she describes Cliff walking along tree trunks, chainsaw in hand.

The Pinelands Folklife Project includes a recording of an interview with Jim Stasz taken out at Martha’s Bog.
Stasz – who ran the Batsto nature center –describes Martha’s Bog as “the archetypical bog” and Eugene Hunn, the research team member who made the recording, refers to the squelchy noises that he and Stasz make as they move around, as “bog trotting.” A handful of photographs accompany this recording as well, including one of Stasz looking quite at home while standing in the middle of the bog, surrounded by tiny wildflowers, his white athletic socks dyed black by bog muck that reaches up to mid-shin. Two things struck me about this combination of photograph and recording. The first has to do with those bog-stained athletic socks. In the photograph, we can see Stasz is wearing regular athletic tennis shoes. There is not a rubber rainboot or pair of waders in sight, which explains how his socks came to be covered in muck. The second is the sound of Stasz’s splashing, captured on the recording. There is no hint of hesitation as he squelches through the bog, pointing out different wetland plants. This is a man who loves where he lives and works, and what he does, and has – at least as far as his socks are concerned – become one with his surroundings.

A man in a green park ranger shirt and blue shorts stands in the water of a bog, his white socks stained black by the water. He is surrounded by tiny white and pink wildflowers.
Jim Stasz wading in Martha’s Bog. Batso, New Jersey. Eugene S. Hunn, photographer. June 24, 1984. Pinelands Folklife Project (AFC 1991/023).

The Pinelands Folklife Project includes two recordings taken outside of the field survey area. Gerry Parsons, who had documented railbirding in the New Jersey Pine Barrens area set up a similar outing to the rice-marshes of Jug Bay on the Patuxent River, in Anne Arundel County Maryland. Over the course of the day, James P. Owings and Frank Astemborski led the team in search of the migratory sora population that has historically called Jug Bay home every autumn, when the wild rice is mature and ripe for eating.

A man sits in a shallow skiff, being poled through arrow-arum and spatterdock in a rice marsh.
Frank Astemborski pushpoling sneakbox out of spatterdocks, into wild rice. James P. Owings, seated. Carl Fleischhauer, photographer. September 7, 1984. Pinelands Folklife Project (AFC 1991/023).

In the recordings, you can hear the ripples of the pole as it moves out of the water, the whisper of the wild rice as it brushes past the boats and – at the 10:36 time stamp on the first reel – the distinct thud-thud-SPLASH! of Carl Fleischhauer (the photographer) losing his balance and falling out of the boat, followed by one of the men asking “How’s your equipment?” Later in the reel we learn that at least two of Carl’s cameras got waterlogged. The moment corresponds with a number of the pictures I found in the digital collection, accompanied by the note “Water damaged, Photographer fell in.”

A water-damaged image of the wild rice marsh in Jug Bay, Maryland. Two men are barely visible in the lower right hand quadrant, wading through shallow water. An overlay of water damage across most of the image resembles areal maps of marshes and waterways.
Water damaged photograph: Railbirding on the Patuxent River, Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Carl Fleischhauer, photographer. September 7, 1984. Pinelands Folklife Project (AFC 1991/023).

The water damage on the film is evident, forming unusual shadows and highlights across a number of images. As I stared at one image I was reminded of the aerial photographs I’ve seen of other tidal marshes throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed – as if the image was a contemporary version of spirit photography, capturing the soul of the wild rice marsh instead of a person. At the very least, it serves as a reminder of the watery perils of doing fieldwork in marshland. As with everything else that takes place in wetlands, railbirding (and the photographing thereof) is all about balance and timing.

I reached out to Carl about the photographs, and he shared that “the railbirds migrate through when wild rice is mature. In the sections of the marsh with rice plants, the hunters (and the men who push the skiffs) must time the hunt at high tide when there is enough water to float the skiffs.” The skiffs, he told me, are specialized to be light with a shallow draft in order to navigate the rice-marsh terrain. “That also made them easy to capsize,” he pointed out.

Continuing south on our little jaunt, we find ourselves in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana. The impact of human interactions on the wetland’s complex life cycle is highlighted in each of the interviews included in the Jean Lafitte collection. There is a certain level of stress that any given habitat can absorb and still recover from, and the locals interviewed have a clear understanding that areas like Barataria Marsh and Plaquimines Parish were already reaching that point in 1985. In one of the recordings, we find ourselves on a boat tour of Barataria Marsh with NPS park rangers George Neusanger and Mike Strock as our guides.
This time, the drip-drip-drip of a pole pushing a skiff through patches of arrow-arum is replaced by the steady chug of a motor and the occasional bang of the boat against submerged obstacles. As the boat motors along, George points out:

“There’s various things under that bridge like refrigerators, freezers…like that we just hit.”

NPS park ranger George Neusanger pilots a boat through Barataria Marsh
George Neusanger, park ranger, giving a boat tour through Barataria Marsh, Louisiana. Tom Tankersley, photographer. December 18, 1985. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Collection (AFC 1985/022).

Throughout the tour, George stops the boat in order to take water samples and measure water depths, to help monitor the health of the intercoastal waterway.

“What we’re trying to do is reestablish the vegetation by holding the water level – in other words, what we want to do is manipulate the water levels. What’s become evident to us is that in – our problem here is that we get such tremendous fluctuation in the water levels that the plants that require a certain period of dry and a certain period of wet have been excluded and we’ve got a lot more of the bull-tongue and things like that which are not a good productive grass. […] What’s happening to us is changes that ought to take fifty, seventy-five, a hundred years are happening in five or six years. […] The question I have is ‘When is the day the marsh can no longer accept?’ And it will just die. And it will happen, I think. But I don’t know when.”

A flock of ibis roost in a lone tree in the middle of Barataria Marsh.
Ibis in tree on Barataria Marsh, Louisiana. Tom Tankersley, photographer. December 18, 1985. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve collection (AFC 1985/022).

Habitat management is an important part of wetland conservation, but the question remains…what kind of habitat are you trying to manage? As Danny Horton points out in another interview in the Jean Lafitte collection, the many groups that have a stake in Barataria Marsh have different ideas about what management of the bayou should look like:

“You know, people trapped and managed trapping areas, did what they had to do to keep the habitat right to trap muskrat or whatever, for as long as man’s been trappin’, and settled in one place, but people don’t always necessarily do what’s the best thing for the marsh – and some people do it out of ignorance, or some people just don’t care – they’ll just take a piece of land, rape it, and get what they can off it and move on and forget about it, so you gotta have some guidelines, some kind of rules. Now if a man owns a piece of land or has a lease or whatever, with no restrictions, then he can do what he wants, it’s up to him whether he wants to maintain that and keep a population that’s worth trapping. Well I know people that have trapped every last animal – they’ll take all that they can get, and then they go back and trap the next year and they don’t catch nothin and they’re cryin’ cause they have a bad year – and you tell ‘em ‘Hey, its cause you take everything and you don’t leave nothin’, you can’t do that.”

boats and small camp buildings along Tarpaper Canal; photo taken from the water
Camps on Tarpaper Canal in Barataria Marsh, Louisiana. Tom Tankersley, photographer. December 18, 1985. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve collection (AFC 1985/022).

On a separate tour of Plaquemenes Parish, David Cvitanovich shared insights about the impact of environmental factors on the health and survival of the bayou and its various industries:

David: You’ve got where the elements are against you. This place is washin away, more and more, Plaquemines Parish is not going to be on the face of the map, in fifty or sixty years, with the subsidence, and the constant erosion, encroachment of the sea, and I’d hate to say Plaquemines Parish won’t be here in 50 years, Plaquemines Parish as we know it will be drastically changed, and it’s not inviting for someone to spend big dollars and stay in this business [oystering].
Tom Tankersley: Do the oil industry’s canals affect it?
David: Everything’s doing it – first thing – the settlement along the river. Okay, you laid levees, and building levees stopped the siltation of the river, so you don’t have any more siltation of the marsh. You have where oil companies did cut canals, another thing too, years back you didn’t have all the boats you have now in these bayous and marshes – this canal here, twenty years ago there was only 25 oyster boats tied up here – now this is home for a hundred and fifty, two hundred boats, and there’s numerous other harbors – so fifty years ago if they only had 200 boats workin’, now there’s 3000 boats workin’. Back then it was all small boats, and it’s big boats, and you know, big equipment goin’ back and forth, and that all adds up to the erosion problem. It can’t just be pinpointed on to the oil industry, it’s a host of things – pollution and various other factors.

After a quick stop to point out the different kinds of boats moored in a canal and provide insight into the different methods for oystering and shrimping, David remarked, “The oystermen are waking up to the litter in the water. You throw a dredge now and they’re always pulling up a couple beer bottles and cellophane, and you’re seeing more of that and a lot less oysters.”

Aerial photograph of Barataria Marsh
Barataria Lafitte, Louisiana. Tom Tankersley, photographer. December 14, 1985. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve collection (AFC 1985/022).

In the final report on the survey of Jean Lafitte Historical Park and Preserve, Hufford writes:

“At any rate, on a number of levels, the established order seems to be of the most precarious sort. The levees that hold back the waters also keep the river from depositing the annual layer of silt required to keep the parish above sea level. The levees also periodically turn the place into a giant bath tub. This situation has an unnerving side effect: the dead will not stay put. The airtight caskets, many of them held down by large concrete tombstones, are all numbered so that if they pop out of the ground during a flood they can later be properly repositioned. I was told that in some instances the floating caskets have saved people from drowning – an odd gift of the dead to the living.”

Cemetery in Barataria, Louisiana. Tom Tankersley, photographer. December 19, 1985. Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve collection (AFC 1985/022).

An odd gift, indeed, but one that I think is indicative of the life cycle of wetlands like Barataria Marsh in Louisiana, Martha’s Bog in New Jersey, Jug Bay along the Patuxent River in Maryland, and so many other locations. Life begets death, begets life…if only we can help maintain the balance.

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Comments (2)

  1. Thank you, Meg, for letting me relive that enjoyable albeit wet day in the Jug Bay marshes! I am certain that other veterans of the American Folklife Center during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, will be happy to be reminded of the contributions made by the late Gerry Parsons. He was a superb reference librarian and true devotee of waterfowling. Thinking of Gerry reminded me that he referred to the watercraft in the Jug Bay photos as a railbird skiff, rather different from the sneakbox used by duckhunters on open water in New Jersey and (I think) on the Chesapeake. Meanwhile, thanks again for this evocative blog, a wonderful celebration of folklife in the wetlands.

  2. This is so fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

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