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The Root of it All

By Angela Andersen, Sustainability Coordinator, Long Beach Township

Like a meticulous chef that composes a dish with layers of flavors, textures, and colors, so too does Mother Nature when organically constructing a dune system.

Indeed, a dune is a system, not merely a sand pile with plant plugs. (Consider making lasagna with a single layer of pasta, all sauce, and no cheese—it just doesn’t work that way!) The system contains layers of sand, grasses, roots, woody vegetation, gravel, microbes, more roots, and nutrients deep below the surface. At the core of it all are the roots that anchor the system. These roots inject thin hair-like webs with the power and determination of the next “Top Chef.” The roots of the dune system drive into layers of sugar sand and coarse gravel, and ultimately tunnel through the fine tightly packed clay lenses to shore up the mound that becomes a habitat for thousands of species.

The oceanfront can be harsh and powerful and so it must also be resilient and anchored. We need to nurture our natural dunes so they can innately fight at the front line of defense for not only our human community but the coastal ecosystem that supports us all. Dune systems have been rebuilding and migrating along the Jersey Shore since the dawn of time; history is told in the layers of vintage root systems—the matted mess of intertwined old growth bayberry, beach plum, beach grass, and seaside goldenrod, to name a few.

Plants break up wind speeds and accumulate sand, letting sand settle at the base so the roots reach deeper and make it all grow with a faint seepage of nutrients. Native plants have roots that are sometimes at least four times as big as the plant or shrub we see peeking out of the ground. Non-native plants do not invest themselves as readily and so either die sooner or don’t anchor the earth or allow for water seepage in the capacity necessary.

Along the coast, our collective community garden is our dune system. When a plant is happy in its native space, the roots reach deep and wide, and the plant flourishes—an ecosystem is born! The roots carve the way for rainwater to permeate the sub-surface blank spaces, allowing water to infiltrate the earth and replenish our drinking water supplies underground.

The dune system does not exist in isolation; like the aforementioned lasagna, there are pieces of the recipe that are required to support the others and make it all thrive. From the off-shore sandbar which gives and takes sand seasonally to the beach and the dunes to the back bay wetlands and maritime forests, the system works as a system—and we are part of that system. Roots are the anchors of the lush array of green hues and textures of leaves, grasses, and flowers that comprise nature’s palette as we meander through the ivory sand path to poke our toes in the ocean and feel thankful we are here.

Just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it is not one of the most important things! We can learn a lot from and need to embrace the dunes to get connected to what is grounding us all.

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