Marsh musings – Author’s tales transport children to fascinating place

Disco-dancing fiddler crabs. Stay-at-home periwinkle snails. Steely-eyed great blue herons. Who would have thought a salt marsh could be filled with so many intriguing creatures?

Environmental author Kevin Kurtz, for one.

The writer took third-graders at Pontiac Elementary on a virtual tour of a South Carolina salt marsh Tuesday, reading his book “A Day in the Salt Marsh” and ruminating about the strange and exotic life that exists in pluff mud.

Kurtz has enough of a low-key mischievous nature to keep the attention of the 8- and 9-year-old set with tales of scavenging blue crabs who eat “stinky fish” and give us humans a break from the prospect of wading through tons of decaying matter.

“It would be really smelly” if the crabs were not so eager to vacuum up the ocean’s leftovers, said Kurtz, a former Charleston resident who helped develop the K-8 educational curriculum for the S.C. Aquarium in Charleston. “They are actually keeping things cleaned up.”

Most of the children told Kurtz they had been to the ocean but couldn’t remember tramping through a salt marsh. But Amber Hawkins said she had, going with her mother to pick sweetgrass, the flat reeds at the edge of salt marshes that are used to make baskets.

“I made two baskets by myself,” said Hawkins, 9, who also eagerly explained that she enjoyed crab cakes and other ocean delicacies.

In “A Day in the Salt Marsh,” Kurtz travels through daylight hours in a rhyming look at the lives of the salt marsh inhabitants, including the male fiddler crab, with its distinctive big claw and little claw.

It turns out males swing that big claw in a mating ritual “to get the girl,” Kurtz told the giggling children.

“I am not making this up,” he said. Often, “you can see hundreds of crabs waving their claws” in a kind of “disco-dancing” frenzy.

The periwinkle snails are more sedate, he noted. “Some of these guys spend all their lives on one blade of grass,” climbing upward during high tide and slowly moving downward as the tide ebbs. He reckoned their slow pace of life was linked to their tiny brains.

Kurtz’s lesson complements the third-grade curriculum and its focus on South Carolina habitats and history, said Kristie Haltiwanger, Pontiac Elementary’s media specialist.

It was also grand to have a flesh-and-blood author for her young readers, she said. “It helps them to see that real people do write these books.”

Kurtz, now the director of the Science Factory Children’s Museum and Planetarium in Eugene, Ore., said he became enamored of salt marshes when he worked as an assistant at the Department of Natural Resources on James Island’s Fort Johnson.

On his first day, he got stuck in pluff mud up to his waist and had to be pulled out by rope, but that adventure has not deterred his fascination with salt marshes. These days, he still explores by kayak or canoe. He assured the children that the creatures are fairly benign, although he cautioned, “I wouldn’t pick up a dolphin.”

Kurtz, who also made an appearance at Polo Road Elementary Tuesday, will continue his readings at Richland 2 schools today at Forest Lake Elementary and at Sandlapper and Round Top elementaries Thursday. He’ll be at two Kershaw County schools, Doby’s Mill and Blaney elementaries, Sept. 8.

September 3, 2008  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 5
September 3, 2008  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 10

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