Dr. Zepeda is a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, a lifelong desert dweller, a linguist, and cultural preservationist. In 1999 she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for her work creating a Tohono O’odham book of grammar. However, Dr. Zepeda’s poetry is what I wish to focus on and how the chance encounter with her performance in the first week of my residency in Tucson led to my deep feeling for a place and community as culturally rich as any I’ve known.
The poetry reading took place in the circular auditorium (kiva) in the American Indian Studies Department at U.A. In the large room with rows pitched down toward the lectern in its center, a soft voice rose and fell. Dr. Zepeda’s was reading from her book, Ocean Power. She spoke in O’odham and English, alternating between each as she read. I closed my eyes to listen to the language of desert communities at Tucson’s origin.
She explained the relationship of her family and community to rain in the desert, its precious nature, and how, after the long hot, dry foresummer, the first monsoon clouds gather, and people point and wait for the first cold dollops of rain.
After her lecture, I walked to my hot, dusty car to drive home. Not long after I was on the road, a massive monsoon cloud, as black as coal, threw lightening strikes like explosions on the ground, and rain burst from the sky, falling n buckets, cleansing the car and blinding my sight. I had to pull over. Flood waters gushed around drains, cars stalled as the water rose, but all the people smiled behind their windshields or stood outside their vehicles with open arms, letting the storm soak them to the bone. It was a celebration, first delivered through Dr. Zepeda’s poetry and, then, by the monsoon itself. I believe to this day that hearing about rain on the desert in O’odham made the impact of the storm much deeper for me. It was a true rite of passage. Listen to a short video about Dr. Zepeda.
The Forgotten Coast of Florida near Port St. Joe, on the St. Joseph’s Bay, is one of the remaining intact ecosystems in the state and well worth a visit. This photo is near an Indian midden where you can view layer upon layer of broken shells left behind by Indian communities that shelled and fished on the productive bay.
Near the Old Salt Works Cabins on highway 30E, the bay is accessible down long weathered boardwalks. Visitors walk out into the muddy recesses or shallow waters where they can see urchins, tunicates, fiddler crabs, and juvenile fish that use the area as a nursery. Peppered through the sea grass beds we found the casts of horseshoe crabs from molting seasons before. My friend, Barbara, is an ecologist who spent the four days of our trip collecting casts and abandoned urchin shells. She described the sea grass beds along the bay as a treasure of Florida’s natural environments because they function as a nursery for numerous species of crustaceans and fish that are important economic species for the Gulf region and primary filters of pollutants that keep the water quality high.
We met a young family from the Atlanta area who were putting together a small catamaran to sail around an enclosed area of the bay on the St. Joe’s Peninsula that arcs like a curved arm protecting the shoreline from storms. Their young sons were busy seining for fish and other sea life. My friend joined them to teach a little ecology in the best environment in the world where children can see the ecosystem at work.
Later we visited the St. Andrews Marina which is a working marina where you can observe a variety of fishing vessels. The one pictured here has turtle-excluder devices (TEDs) that allow fast escape of turtles when they are caught up in the netting. Before this apparatus was invented, sea turtle deaths were much more numerous.
St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park is a wonderful place to snorkel, kayak, fish, camp, and bike. Carl, Barbara’s partner in life and biking enthusiast, enjoyed the 27-mile round trip on a newly completed bike path from the Old Salt Works Cabins to the entrance of the wildlife refuge. The refuge on the last seven miles of the peninsula is a terrific walk where you can observe thirty foot dunes – how much of Florida’s coastline once looked before massive storms and human activities have diminished their size and capacity to shelter the coastline.
Pensacola News Journal featured the opening of Red Snapper season. The joys of living on the Gulf include the punctuated celebrations with each new seasonal harvest of ocean and bayou species (from shrimp to crawfish, pompano to king mackerel to red snapper – my favorite. Below I’ve provided a couple of links to how to prepare Red Snapper. Done right, the flesh is so flavorful and creamy, it melts in your mouth. The You Tube below will show you how to prepare the snapper from fishing line to table.
Besides local fare and recreational fishing, Red Snapper harvests are a commercial industry. In the 1930’s the Louisiana Department of Conservation reported nearly 10M pounds of red snapper were harvested in Florida. An ironic and fortuitous outcome, the 4,000 oil rigs in the Western Gulf of Mexico built since 1946 have increased reef habitat for snapper resulting in a huge gain in potential maximum harvest, according to Dr. Bob Shipp, Chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama.
While this new maximum harvest potential is hopeful, the fact is that the majority of red snapper catches are young. This means they will not be reproducing for the normal lifespan of up to 50 years of age. Ocean Conservancy:
“Most red snapper caught in the Gulf today are between three and six years old, which means they miss out on decades of reproductive opportunity. Bigger, older red snappers produce many more eggs than young ones.”
Sport fishermen and commercial fishing operations harvest young snapper by the millions of pounds each season. So while reef habitat may be increasing the habitat and thus the population of red snapper in the Gulf, the harvest is disproportionately taking younger snapper. That’s why you may hear about the increased populations of snapper while others warn of over fishing. Fishermen should take larger fish in deeper water (100-300 feet).
For more information about Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper go here.
I spent a glorious hour on the pier at Pensacola Beach high above the waves where you can see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon. The water was crystal clear to the white bottom. Some people floated, suspended in air it seemed, others walked far out from shore in tourmaline to emerald hues. The whole of it had no time. Slender needlefish meandered in small schools pushing a long nose to the surface while occasional dark clouds of spawning babies twirled by under the pier and beyond – the food of the sea.
The fishermen were in dreams, the lovers strolled in silence, and the gulls and terns fell in wide turns on the invisible ocean of air, a tern diving headlong into the green sparkling jewel…
Even the hotels and noise from beachfront bars became artful additions into a masterpiece of such beauty and tranquility all present are lifted into what must be Heaven.
I come home. Was I there really? My camera is here. I download the photos. A tiny sliver of what was there is recorded for the eyes but the heart and soul remains out there, out there!
Today I placed a Social Vibe charity widget on my blog to support the work of The Surfrider Foundation. My goal is to bring attention and resources to a citizen’s advocacy network that is making an impact worldwide, but that is also represented here in the Emerald Coast’s chapter by surfer and nature advocates. We each have a natural interest in sustaining the foundation of life on Earth: water.
Whether saline, brackish or fresh – bodies of water create oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, clean toxins, and spawn untold generations of life at the base of numerous human food and economic resources. The awe-inspiring beauty, complexity, and biodiversity in the world’s oceans can still be found across our planet, though diminished. Science is uncovering that ocean acidification and warming are causing changes in basic processes such as shell formation in marine invertebrates at the base of food chains. Changes from more localized impacts like the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, are harder to follow but observed by many local beachcombers and surfers including moi.
Our coastal communities with the state and federal governments are engaged in major economic diversification efforts for the reason that remaining a tourism-dependent community leaves us vulnerable (Restore the Gulf). Human error robs us of the certainty that our oceans and watersheds can provide us the beauty, food, recreation and inspiration that humans have relished for all time.
The EPA is under scrutiny about its estimates of oil inundation from the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. At issue is direct access to scientists at the EPA without oversight from the EPA administration. Congressman Raul Grijalva has been critical of the EPA policy that scientists cannot respond directly to journalists or government officials questions. Read below from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
WILL EPA SIT OUT SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY RULE-MAKING? — Memo Implies EPA Will Not Clarify Scientists’ Right to Publish or Speak with Media
Washington, DC — Despite a White House directive that federal agencies strengthen their procedures for ensuring scientific integrity and transparency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is apparently planning no changes, according to an internal EPA e-mail released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, EPA scientists will continue to lack consistent rules for publishing studies, speaking at scientific conferences or answering questions from the media.
Turtle Island churns under the soles of my feet on this fair-weather day on the Gulf. The ocean is green near the shoreline—pea green. I’ve never seen that before. I wonder if an algal bloom is forming in warmer seas. A battalion of brown pelicans coasts on dark arched wings over the waves.
Children build sand castles and bob in the surf while far out at sea large fishing vessels ply the waters for bigger catch. I can see one person atop a scaffold with a line trawling behind. I wonder about toppling into the cold, thick waves so far from shore.
There are few shorebirds but it is late in the day. They are probably on the bay side of the island resting in warm dunes. A moveable feast of beauty and abundance, we call this Santa Rosa Island named to honor a young woman from Lima, Peru who lived 500 years ago.
How arbitrary our histories.
Take the story of Caretta caretta. She doesn’t even know we’ve tagged her with a dichotomous term to set her species apart from others. Her only inclination is to find a darkened shoreline and lay her burden down.
Buoyed by the salty water she paddles with strong legs through the currents.
Through heavy lid, she looks toward shore and vaguely remembers its smell and warm, gritty touch. Suddenly she recalls the hovering gulls with their piercing eyes and angular beaks. She quickens her advance in hopes she might outpace the probabilities.
The moonlit shore is quiet as she takes purchase on the shifting sand below her. She looks from just under the water. Bright lights might turn her away to find a place where pale moonlight guides the way instead. It is instinctual.
And should she come ashore and dodge the beach chairs and plastic bottles, to lay a hatch of eggs, and later when they emerge, so tiny and vulnerable, will her young head toward the sea with its shimmering moonlight, or will they head for the Holiday Inn instead?
Countless volunteers tend turtle nests all along these Gulf shores to redirect hatchlings toward the ocean. Does it mean they are no longer self-sustaining?
Caretta caretta, loggerhead turtle mom, come back! Come back!
Will she find a place to lay her eggs? If she doesn’t, will she release them into the water and watch as a devouring host of predators gobbles them up as fast as they emerge?
And, what of it…what if all the Caretta caretta’s disappear? Will it change my walk on the beach?
To answer that question we would have to observe this beach over the long arc of time—not the brief period of a human lifetime.
If we could go back even a thousand years (a bleep on the screen of geologic, Earth time) we’d see an abundance of birds, perhaps many we’ve never seen here before. And the waters would team with crustaceans; you could just scoop up dinner with your hands.
We’d be looking at an ocean web of life that compares to today’s web like intricate lace to an old net. But if we do not know that, the old frayed net looks pretty good.
A Yale psychologist gave this phenomenon a name: intergenerational, environmental amnesia. Basically, we’ve failed to remember our origins; we’ve forgotten to tell the human story.
That story tells us how we evolved with a host of other species, interdependent on each other. In a far distant land, in a far different world, our kind began humbly dependent on the whole.
We were part of something that worked, found its rhythms in a sort of give and take that leveled the playing field for all. Some little guys had the gift of a poisonous bite that made the big guys shy away and so on.
Then we evolved an opposable thumb and a frontal cortex. We were powerful beings by virtue of our new intelligence. We learned to cooperate and bring down beasts that towered over us. We covered our bodies with their hides and set out to explore the world at large.
We got caught up in our own ingenuity; we forgot our origins, intent on harnessing nature to our collective dreams. This was our infant sensibility.
Today our task as a species is a difficult one: we need a dose of emotional honesty to accept that we aren’t as great as we’d thought. What’s superior about spoiling paradise, about circumscribing the futures of our children?
Well, we can chalk it all up to immaturity, for our species’ evolution is new and our learning curve is a sharp one. We’ve got to use our talent for the good of all. We can’t repair nature’s living webs, but we can give her a chance to do it herself.
For Caretta caretta we can turn down or turn off our lights, sit out on the decks of our homes and watch the waves glisten in the moonlight, listen to the oncoming waves. Is that so bad?
Native American wisdom recognizes the Earth as Turtle Island, the continents forming plates on her back. In this era of human pervasiveness, we are changing the body of the Earth in which every living thing finds a source of life.
For most of our species’ history we did not know that. But now we do recognize our impacts on the ecosystems that created the biosphere.
Caretta caretta’s plight to find a darkened beach points us toward a path we could take. If we turn off our lights, she might find a place to lay her eggs, her hatchlings a way back to the ocean, and for us a reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions.
It is rare for us to make these connections. Small though they seem, it is myriad of these that need correcting.
Global warming threatens our very existence. Since we are the cause of it, we can stop it. Doing so will correct our species’ relationship with so many others and begin to set things right again.
Caretta caretta’s story is mirrored in the stories of countless species feeling our footprint.
We must take up the cause for each of them where we live with the firm conviction that enhancement of life anywhere enhances life’s chance of survival everywhere.
Identify a small area of land or a nearby river and defend its integrity with your life.
Caretta caretta…no, it’s not a song. It’s a symphony.
Late this afternoon I drove to Santa Rosa Island, to the entrance of a seven-mile stretch of undeveloped barrier island, protected by the Gulf Islands National Sea Shore, one of our priceless U.S. National Parks. While there was a long stretch of beautiful beach, as I walked west toward the end of the island, I began to see oil – firsts dime-sized, then bottle-cap, then hand-sized: thick crude oil, pooled and hardened among shells and sea grasses on the high tide line. Adjacent to this pollution, black skimmers sailed by with their long lower jaw skimming in the shallow edge of the surf and Least Terns dive-bombed for small fish not far off shore. Surely they must be tasting and smelling this invasion of foreign substances. We can only guess what is happening to fish, corals, jellies, dolphins, plankton…I am so profoundly sad about this awful time when we are facing our ourselves – our ways and wants. It is NOT a pretty picture.
Only a few days ago this was the image of this treasured coast at sunrise:
And to think we are risking this and our families health for a culture addicted to speed and consumption and which cannot function without an enormous and uninterrupted supply of oil. Will it be worth it when all this plays out? And, it will continue to playout over months and years and there will be other catastrophes like it where we have taken enormous risks as the People of the Forward Stampede.
They will all be impacted by the oil catastrophe and eventually it will reach to our children and us through our air, food, and spirit.
Our local NPR station is covering our local conditions. Go to this link for WUWF.org for trajectory maps and fishing limitations. Also go to Skytruth for an interesting proposal to conduct ongoing satellite surveillance of all our oil rigs from now into the future.
After hiking on Santa Rosa Island on Saturday and Sunday I developed a migraine which I have never had in my life. I wonder…that is a symptom of air pollution where oil has evaporated and benzene, toluene, methylbenzene, and xylene compounds are in the air. Pensacola as terrible water and air quality due to an eddying effect, similar to those seen in the Gulf offshore our barrier islands.
This morning I checked into Skytruth.org to learn the extent of the oil plumes. A blog contributor took me to the Gulf Oil Blog of the U.S. Marine Sciences. There you can find results of sampling in suspected deepwater plumes of oil. The measure is called a CDOM (colored dissolved organic matter). Scientists measured above and below the plume then sampled from the middle of the plume. Above and below they found no organic matter but within the plume they got a strong reading and could see an oily residue left over on the filters. Skytruth is tracking the movement of oil plumes from the Maconda well and it appears to be moving in the loop current and toward the Florida straits.
Skytruth cautions that there are natural processes that can also create oil sheen on the surface. But when you go to the U.S. Marine Sciences site you learn to “trust your senses”. This spill, if as White House energy and environment adviser Carol Browner warned, goes on through August when relief wells will be in place to receive the oil, we could see lasting and extensive impact on marine ecosystems along the whole of the Gulf, Florida and perhaps even the Atlantic shorelines where the loop current turns north and runs up the eastern coast.