SciTech

Author and photographer holds exhibition on marshes and wildlife

Where does nature hide its treasures? The answer to this question is at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The museum is currently hosting Marshes: The Disappearing Edens, an exhibition of William Burt’s 30-year exploration of North American marshes.

According to Burt’s exhibit, marshes are abundant and unexpected treasures.

Burt is a photographer and writer for magazines such as Smithsonian and Audubon. He has also written three books, two about birds — Shadowbirds and Rare and Elusive Birds of North America — and his latest, Marshes: The Disappearing Edens, which tells of his exploration of marshes.

In his exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Burt has constructed a portal into the world of marshes. This exhibit currently takes up half of the museum gift shop.

The exhibit contains 40 photographs of the various marshes Burt has traveled to, and various quotes from his book are placed near the photographs.

According to his website, Burt enjoys searching for wild places and birds found in marshes. He has explored marshes in a variety of places, including Connecticut, Manitoba, and the Northern Plains. His photographs present different aspects of the marsh but highlight hidden birds, like rails and gallinules.

Marshes are defined to be areas of land filled with water. The water exists on the surface, meaning that it is groundwater.

Randall J. Hunt, adjunct professor of hydrology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote in his article “Do Created Wetlands Replace the Wetlands that are Destroyed?” “[Marshes are the] ‘kidneys of the landscape’ because of their role in filtering the effects of surrounding land use, and have widely recognized functions that include storm/flood water retention, shoreline protection, water-quality improvement, and wildlife habitat.”

Marshes can also keep waters on the surface clean. Consequently, some people build their own marshes to take care of wastewater from various sources, including farms, parking lots, and small sewage plants.

According to the New York State Office for Technology, “Highly organic, mineral–rich soils of sand, silt, and clay underlie these wetlands, while lily pads, cattails, reeds, and bulrushes provide excellent habitat for waterfowl and small mammals, such as red-winged blackbirds, great blue herons, otters, and muskrats.”

Special kinds of marshes, called tidal marshes, prevent nutrients from forming in high concentrations. If these concentrations do occur, they could threaten organisms by leading to low oxygen levels. Such is the case in the “Dead Zone” of the Gulf of Mexico.

Non-tidal marshes, on the other hand, usually form from streams that enter lower regions of land that are not adequately drained. They also form in shallow waters, such as the waters along the periphery of lakes or ponds. These types of marshes are often found in North America and are freshwater.

Not only do tidal marshes create environments that are suitable for wildlife, they also help protect the environment around them by slowing and storing the floodwater, thus alleviating flood damage.

In the exhibit, Burt’s quotes that accompany his photographs give the viewer an even better understanding of the marshes on display.

Describing his impression of these hidden worlds, Burt wrote, “Beauty, yes, it’s everywhere in the marshes. It’s in the unity of stems and blades, the randomness of tufts and tousles, and the slickness of wet pads and leaves, it’s in the flow of distance, the long reach to the sky.”

Marshes are completely natural. They are self-sufficient because everything that exists in the marsh exists because it is able to help maintain the environment. Thus, outside factors, such as pollution caused by human settlements, can be a great threat to marshes and cause what some environmentalists refer to as “ecocides,” or threats to the ecosystem.

According to Hunt’s article on wetlands, about one-third of endangered species live in wetlands, but these wetlands make up only five percent of the landscape.

Many environmental and political groups recognize this threat and are making efforts to mediate it.

“There is proof of environmental damage,” said Greg Karris, from Communities for a Better Environment, in a past issue of Metro. “The city agrees. If this is not the situation to put a cap in place, what is?”

“In much of our manhandled world, the marshes are the last pockets of the frontier, the last uncharted Edens,” Burt said. The exhibition guides the viewer through this frontier with images of the life cycle of the marsh.

According to a Carnegie Mellon press release, “It’s a beautiful exhibition, packed full of treasure and surprise.... It gives a glimpse of the world we seldom wander, and elusive creatures most of us will never see.”

Marshes: the Disappearing Edens will be on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History until June 17 before traveling to Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.