how lonely, to be a marsh
Salt is in our blood. Fundamental to human life, for millennia we have sought out salt. One of the most endangered ecosystems on the Great Plains are 1,000 acres of inland saline wetland made from Mesozoic-era salt deposits in southeastern Nebraska. The water there is nearly as salty as the ocean. The wetlands once numbered between 16,000 and 60,000 acres (it seems to be debated) – but now they have almost completely been erased.
As the city of Lincoln expands, the threats to wildlife and wetlands multiply. Much of this habitat has been degraded or destroyed by drainage from surrounding farms, and the growth of the city. Many of the acres of marsh have been turned into landfills and car lots, and housing developments - houses that are sitting seemingly empty and unsold. Few people among the local population seem to be aware of the wetlands, and even fewer have visited them, despite existing a just few miles from downtown Lincoln. Their biological importance is often overlooked and ignored by the historically agricultural community.
The abundant mud flats of the saline wetlands are rich with a variety of wildlife. It’s common to see a pair of nesting bald eagles, a coyote or red foxes. It is more difficult to spot the Salt Creek tiger beetle - a critically endangered subspecies that is endemic to the wetlands. The beetle is considered a bio-indicator species, its presence signaling the existence of a healthy saline wetland.
This body of work is a personification of place, an emotional reverie on a salt marsh near Lincoln, Nebraska. It is an attempt to engender an elusive place not readily known – at once both heartfelt and heartbroken. how lonely to be a marsh consists of original poetry and photography, including botanical and zoological specimens, and early 1900s glass plate photographs and journal excerpts by pioneering prairie ecologist Frank Shoemaker (1875–1948). He is the namesake for the main section of the saline wetlands in Lancaster County – Frank Shoemaker Marsh.
This ecological story, like so many others, is one of destruction, exploitation, and misunderstanding. Cass’ work calls to mind an issue that is not just about the salt marshes or wildlife but how people in the Midwest and the rest of America view the role of protecting irreplaceable land. Protections for endangered species as a whole are being weakened by the Trump administration. Additionally, a recently proposed development nearby would almost certainly spell disaster for the tiger beetle and many other species. If we are to save critical habitat, it must be placed in a new context, one in which our awareness of it and relationship to it is based on the personal and poetic rather than the profitable & recreational.