Getting your sneakers dirty

THE HERO is set in Stone, a fictional coastal town based on my hometown of Stonington, Connecticut. The protagonist, Junior, joins a mysterious sport known only as “the Game,” which practices in the marsh behind the old church. Anyone who went to Stonington High School would recognize this marsh.

Stonington High School–the ugliest building on the East Coast–was built on a marsh. Now, you probably hated high school too, even if your school was constructed on dry land. And like me, you probably considered gym class the epitome of everything that is wrong with high school. But your gym class had nothing on mine.

Setting aside all the normal gym class woes (changing in the locker room, flailing on the basketball court, jazzersizing to Richard Simmons videos…), gym class at SHS was singularly awful because we had to exercise in the swamp.

The track flooded in the spring and froze in the winter. We ran the mile in soaked sneakers. The field was always muddy, and swarms of mosquitoes hunted you with more ferocity than a horde of bloodthirsty jocks.

I hated gym.

Now back to writing. Despite my familiarity with the wetlands of Stonington High School, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the types of birds that nested in our field hockey nets or the plant life that thrived along the boundary of the sodden track.

Setting is in the details. And I didn’t have any details.

Google searches for “salt marsh flora” and “Stonington marsh grass” yielded unhelpful articles like “Salt marsh geomorphology: Physical and geological effects on landform” and “Composition and seasonality of micro-algal mats on a salt marsh in New Brunswick, Canada.”

Just as I was about to give up and change the setting of THE HERO to a desert, I remembered Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird: “There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone. They love it when you do, just as you love it when people ask if they can pick your brain about something you happen to know a great deal about.”

Hm. Surely there were people in Stonington, Connecticut, who actually LIKED the marsh. And surely these strange people would jump at the chance to share their wealth of knowledge with an aspiring novelist.

Who might these people be? My first thought was the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, where at the age of ten I attended a nature summer camp. The first afternoon of “bug collecting” confirmed that ecology is not for me. But the nature center staff sure seemed to enjoy themselves. And so:

Good morning,

I grew up down the street from the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center and have fond memories of participating in the summer camp when I was little. For that reason, I thought of your nature center first when looking for the answer to what might be a strange question.

I’m writing a novel that is set in a marsh. The marsh is based on the marshes around Stonington, and I’m having trouble finding information about the specific birds, plants, and fish one would find in the marsh. I now live in Chicago, or I would come visit the DPNC in person.

Could you point me to a great resource for this information? Or might you be able to answer the following questions:

* Is there a small fish that swims in schools in a salt water marsh?
* Is there a bird that might fly down (without too much fear of people) to scavenge dead fish?
* What is the tallest grass/bush/weeds you might find in a salt water marsh?

Thank you in advance for any suggestions you might offer!

All the best,

Lara Ehrlich

Within the hour, I received this enthusiastic–and thorough!–response:

Hi Lara,

Fortunately your questions are easy to answer. One small fish often found swimming around in shallow tidal areas are Silversides (Atlantic silversides – see Wikipedia). Others could be mummichogs, blueback herring (gets larger) or many kinds of juvenile flounder, striper or bluefish.

The bird I think first as being the first arrival on anything to eat along the shore is the Herring Gull which is a large gull in the New England area only exceeded by the Great Black Backed Gull in size. The Herring Gull is fearless and will follow charter fishing boats back to the dock, flying within feet of the vessel. I am sure the writers of “Finding Nemo” were thinking of these guys when all the gulls were on the dock, watching Nemo and calling “Mine, mine, mine”. They are the sound of the shoreline of any fishy place (or French fries).

As for tall members of the coastal grass community, there are none mightier than the mighty Phragmites. (They rhyme). The phrags are considered a pest in many areas and although it is called the Common Reed, the local variety may be local to some other part of the world because of how they have overgrown the back edges of so many marshes. They do not like full salt water but they thrive in the area between the real salt marsh and the coastal red oak and red cedar.

The next major grass community seaward would be the Salt-meadow cordgrass. It can stand full salt water occasionally. This is the one that the colonists harvest for cattle fodder. It is great mulch for gardens if you can get it. It has no weed seeds.

Good luck with your writing.


Anne Lamott was right: there’s always an expert you can call for invaluable information, such which birds scavenge dead fish. Thanks to Al, my marsh has come alive with phragmites and silversides. And I didn’t even have to get my sneakers dirty.


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