Following in the tradition of John Teal's classic Life and Death of a Salt Marsh is the new Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History, by estuarine ecologist Judith Weis and her writer colleague Carol Butler. In telling the natural history of salt marshes and their unnatural history of centuries of human abuse and mismanagement, Weis and Butler turn Teal's classic story of the life and death of the salt marsh into a story of rebirth, with a compelling narrative about salt marsh restoration.
In the first section of the book, Weis and Butler take the reader on a short tour of the natural history of salt marsh ecosystems. The first chapter covers salt marsh basics, including the primary physical and biogeochemical processes common to salt marsh ecosystems. In the next two chapters, the authors provide a primer of common and ecologically important plants and animals found in eastern salt marshes, with some examples from salt marshes in other regions. Here the authors do a good job of embellishing ordinary species descriptions with additional information about the organisms' ecology and behavior, bringing life to what might otherwise be a fairly dry section.
The book's second section focuses on human impacts and includes scholarly chapters on habitat alteration, pollution, and invasive species that show how these stressors affect salt marsh systems. The book closes with two chapters that explore the successes and failures of the restoration and management of salt marshes. Here the book's tone is very upbeat, and the authors present a positive outlook for the future of salt marsh restoration, rather than a litany of doom and gloom.
Overall, I found Salt Marshes to be a good resource and a pleasure to read. The authors balance an attention to detail with engaging stories about fiddler crabs, tidal regimes, and other subjects. They also weave important research results into the conceptual storyline, an approach that fosters a broader understanding of what controls these dynamic systems. But Weis and Butler really hit their stride in the final two chapters, on marsh restoration and management; the last chapter, “Death and Rebirth of an Urban Wetland,” makes clear to the reader that this topic is a central interest of the authors. The pace and intensity of the prose pick up markedly here, as does the level of detail and documentation. The authors explore the history of the Hackensack Meadowlands as it rose like a phoenix from centuries of neglect and decades of assault, including dumping, filling, polluting, and invading. From the ashes of human abuse and mismanagement came rebirth in the form of salt marsh restoration. The book documents impressive growth in biodiversity and ecosystem function in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats of the Meadowlands, and makes a very compelling case for the future of salt marsh restoration. It's hard to imagine an estuarine landscape as heavily altered as this one—an area better known for the New Jersey Turnpike, toxic waste dumps, and sports stadiums—recovering so dramatically. However, as the authors repeatedly affirm in the final section: “Miracles do happen.”
Salt Marshes does have some obvious limitations and omissions; for example, the natural history section of the book is somewhat light compared with the unnatural history portion. In addition, the discussion of the biology and ecology of salt marshes in regions other than in the eastern United States is woefully inadequate. It is in this section that the authors argue everyone should care about salt marshes, so they perhaps should have included a deeper discussion of salt marshes elsewhere. Throughout the book, salt marshes in other regions are given a general treatment, but only eastern US salt marshes are covered adequately. For example, Weis and Butler state correctly that there are fewer salt marshes on the West Coast, but they conclude that the only western marshes of consequence are in California and Washington; they seem to ignore the extensive salt marshes of Oregon. The authors would have been well advised to focus simply on Atlantic salt marshes. The most unsatisfying idiosyncrasy of this book is the uneven and highly selective use of authors' names when discussing interesting research. In many cases, study results are presented in detail, but the authors provide no citations— nor are the names of researchers even mentioned. Weis and Butler do give other examples, however, in which they mention their colleagues or other researchers by name.
Overall, Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History is a well-written and compelling narrative of the past, present, and future states of salt marshes. The book is both scholarly and timely, and it outlines what is at stake if we do not tend to these threatened and ecologically important habitats. It is true that we are losing salt marshes at a less dramatic rate than in years past. However, the remaining salt marshes are diked, drained, fragmented, isolated, polluted, and invaded; we are still losing the battle for their survival. This book makes a strong case for salt marsh restoration as a means to reverse the destructive legacy of this “unnatural history.”