Charles Seabrook has lived in Atlanta for most of his life, but at his core, he's a Lowcountry boy. His surname, of course, is a dead giveaway — Seabrook Island is named for his ancestors, who settled the barrier island centuries ago. With his new book, The World of the Salt Marsh, Seabrook returns to the land of his childhood to explore the delicate, unique ecosystems of the Southeastern coastline.
Seabrook worked as an environmental writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for decades before retiring in 2005 to focus on writing books, though he still contributes a popular weekly column to the paper called "Wild Georgia." A friend at the University of Georgia Press pitched the idea of Salt Marsh to Seabrook, but he was initially hesitant. "I thought a lot of the writing on salt marsh had already been done," he says. "I didn't think there was even enough material to write a book. And then I realized that was not true. You can write volumes about it, as far as I'm concerned."
Over the next five years, he researched the marshes, focusing on the area within the South Atlantic Bight, an indentation in the coastline stretching from Cape Hatteras, N.C. to Cape Canaveral, Fla. He read scientific papers and interviewed ecologists and island residents and discovered that the quiet coast he grew up on is one of the world's most remarkable natural systems. Like a biological factory, the marshes serve as a water purifier, a storm dissipater, and a shelter for thousands of creatures.
Nearly overwhelmed by the amount of information he discovered, Seabrook decided to write something that was accessible to the layperson. "When I agreed to do the book, even though the UGA Press is an academic press, I told them I'm not going to write a scholarly book. The masses of people don't read scholarly and scholarly doesn't sell," he says.
"You try to keep it simple, but at the same time you're trying to give them a science lesson without them actually knowing they've had a science lesson," he adds. "You've got to make it entertaining, but you don't want to lose any of the accuracy or scientific importance of it."
Seabrook succeeds by alternating scientific details about the marshes — such as ecologist Eugene Odum's early research on Sapelo Island — with more accessible anecdotes about island residents like Gullah basket-weaver Vera Manigault. The end result is a well-rounded portrait of the salt marsh written by someone who knows it intimately — and who fears for its future.
Seabrook cites population growth as the biggest danger facing the coast, and though he admits he doesn't have the solution, he hopes his book will spread awareness of the threats and make more people aware of their actions. "I try to show the connections between the barrier islands, salt marshes, estuaries, and the rivers that flow into them," he says. "They're all vitally connected, and I try to show that even as far away as Atlanta and Columbia, even what we do up there, sooner or later it can affect what goes on along the coast. To protect the coast we should be going far inland ... When you mess up one part, you might be messing up the whole part."