By William Burt
Yale University Press, $35,
REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER
This beautiful and angry book describes our essential wetlands with such diverse adjectives as mysterious, aboriginal, easygoing, unsettling, fearsome, blighted, teeming, precious, alluring and scores more. T.S. Eliot promised to show us “fear in a handful of dust.” Through words and photographs, William Burt tackles the world in acres of mud.
This labor of love is the product of a lifetime’s affair with marshes that began in his personal Neverland/Xanadu of boyhood summers, a marshy island owned by his grandfather in coastal Connecticut. Thereafter Mr. Burt became a naturalist who would haunt these fertile and photogenic places from coast to coast, in our latitudes visiting Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Virginia’s barrier islands, “where I found not only some of the finest salt marsh I’d ever seen, but one of the finest of the world’s wild places.” And amen to that.
Like most writer-photographers, he wears one hat better than the other. In his case, the pictures eclipse the words. Most commendable is the book itself, which is stunningly handsome, a unity of parts in its content, design, printing and binding. It seems daringly heterodox for a university press: An unacademic narrative richly illustrated and exquisitely produced.
The most obvious contributor to this success is the designer, Sonia L. Shannon, whose integrating work — credited only on the copyright page in small print — is so deft that it doesn’t draw attention to itself. The text, set in a little-used classic typeface called Bulmer, lies gently on the page. The portfolios of color photographs positively glow, in part thanks to the generous margins and well-chosen paper stock, in part because the pictures are enhanced with “spot varnish” which gives them a gloss on the matte page. These elements, neither arcane nor new, are usually absent because of their costs in time and money.
One reason Yale University Press went to these lengths — or could go so far — is implied in another small-print credit, the unadorned statement: “Published with assistance” in this case, from a foundation established in memory of a Yale grad, class of 1894. According to some trade publishing rubrics (and rules of reviewing) this private, third-party funding would taint the book as a kind of “vanity” title and thus place it below the salt, beyond the pale, beneath the attention of reviewers. What rubbish.
“Marshes” deserves to be in print — to exist as a book, i.e., the most enduring and accessible vessel of human knowledge and experience the world has ever known. (A book can be read anywhere, in sun, moon or candle light, without wall sockets, electronic adapters or hardware that’ll go obsolete. Kept out the rain and beyond the reach of vermin, a book lasts for millennia.)
But only a subsidy of some sort enables a volume like this, as it will probably not sell widely or earn back its nut. Truth to tell, the vast majority of individual titles lose money, as trade publishers rely on their very few hot sellers to stay afloat. So praise be to the angel who supports a special book such as this.
“Marshes” features photographs taken over the course of 30 years: An aviary of elusive birds in their native habitats, some of them at night, remarkably. Mr. Burt modestly acknowledges the great lengths he went to capture these images — the days and nights spent lugging a large-format camera and other gear through wild places.
And he admits to the chilling shock he felt on a day he’d been so intent on slogging through waist-deep marsh water inside a floating metal-framed blind that he didn’t see the lightning until the thunderstorm was upon him. (Usefully, the back matter includes practical notes “About Photography.”)
As for the text, Mr. Burt reiterates the hideous facts of our wanton destruction of wetlands. He writes that in seven states “more than 80 percent of all original wetlands have been destroyed … and in two, Iowa and California, losses have reached more than 95 percent. Iowa by one authority has lost 99 percent to agriculture.”
He vents his spleen at the usual suspects — at the corporate interests that capitalize on “marginal” land and make it “profitable” through development, at agencies that “reclaim” it for farming, at gazillionaires who buy pristine sites to enjoy their beauty and then despoil it with McMansions. His statistics are no more alarming than other harbingers of environmental catastrophe these days: “Despite their acknowledged value, our marshes have been ditched, drained, dumped in, and bulldozed with such efficiency in recent decades than more than half of all [their] original acreage has been lost.”
He reiterates the ecological importance of marshes, as nurseries of commercially important fish and breeding grounds for waterfowl (though he skips their importance as natural defenses against natural events like Katrina). We’ve read such stuff before — arguments that define the legitimacy of wild things in terms of their importance to us. Rubbish again. Genesis 1:28 notwithstanding: The planet’s other species have as much right to be here as we do. Look at how many antedated our kind, from ginkos and cockroaches to songbirds, and many will doubtless survive us.
This is a book to cherish, though not for its information, not even for the surprising news (to me) that New England marshes are being taken over and their diversity threatened by an exotic variety of Phragmites, a close cousin of the native common reed. Mr. Burt’s most moving message is not found there or in the descriptions of his grist-gathering treks from sea to sea and from Manitoba to Louisiana with stops in the landlocked plains along the way.
Rather, “Marshes” is worth its days on the coffee table and decades on your shelf for its evocation of nature and the wetlands primeval, for its images in moody bogscapes and miraculous glimpses of the living birds in their secret places. Like Everest and seashores, grasslands and dawns, marshes elicit our curiosity, affection and awe just because they are there. So does this lovely book.
Philip Kopper, author of “The Wild Edge: Life and Lore of the Great Atlantic Beaches,” is publisher of a small independent house, Posterity Press, in Bethesda, Md.