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Hidden Treasures
A photographer explores the beauty and mystery of marshes.  

Marshes: The Disappearing Edens
By William Burt
Yale University Press, 192 pages, $35

An excerpt from William Burt’s introduction:
"It’s true, the marshes are invaluable resources, as the biologists remind us: they filter and clean water, contain floods, provide a nursery for fish and shellfish, waterfowl, and countless other kinds of wildlife, including nearly one-third of all threatened and endangered plants and animals. So yes, the marshes are invaluable: to us, never mind the creatures that actually live in them.

But for me, the appeal has never had much to do with such utilitarian adult concerns. I’ve always been drawn to marshes because they are such mysterious concealing places with this lure of the forbidden and the out-of-bounds, like the prohibited frontier beyond a little boy’s backyard. And I’ve been drawn to them because they are so full of birds: they were the hidden treasures that first lured me, and after many years still do. No other acreage I know so artfully conceals so many different birds—and strange, elusive, tantalizing birds, such as the prowling rails and bitterns, gallinules, furtive wrens and sparrows, dashing blackbirds, and a whole circus of aquatic kinds that honk and hoot and quack and splash and dabble, dive, and sink like submarines. But again, it’s not just the birds that pose the lure. It’s atmosphere; it’s that pervading secrecy, and hiding. You can hear the voices easily enough—the songs and chorus, the jibber-jabber and the blurts and cheeps and squawks—but you cannot see the characters, except by shady glimpses and chance meetings, and you can only wonder at what goes on among the chinks and shadows . . .

. . . Alas, despite their acknowledged value our marshes have been ditched, drained, dumped in, and bulldozed over with such efficiency in recent decades that more than half of all original acreage has been lost—and the loss continues, at a rate of three hundred thousand acres per year. It’s happened everywhere in North America, in degrees ranging from decimation to complete annihilation. In some states—Ohio, Iowa, and California, to recognize the most industrious examples—more than 90 percent of all original wetlands have been erased, in deference to the seeming need for more marinas, shopping malls and racetracks, and every last possible arable acre for agriculture. And marshes face another peril now, as if any more were needed: invasive plants. In the Northeast, two scourges in particular are snuffing out vast tracts of our remaining marsh: purple loosestrife, the pretty femme fatale of inland fresh marshes; and phragmites, the tall plumed reed now overtaking much of our last tidal river marshland.

But so much for elegy and doom. Some wild marshes still remain, and they hold many riches, still. . . ”

Burt’s original marsh photographs can be seen in his traveling exhibition,  "Marshes: The Disappearing Edens." For more information and the exhibition schedule, click here. To order the book, click here.

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Burt’s photographs feature not “the managed marshes of the refuges, but the neglected ones: the uncut gems, and the relics of real marsh wilderness, so far as we still have them.” Click on the images below for your majestic marsh tour.

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