Out and About

Living on the Gulf of Mexico heightened my awareness of the good sense to make refuges, parks, and preserves. Pensacola has one of the least developed barrier islands and is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, 130 miles of national parkland stretching from Ocean Springs, Mississippi to Ft. Walton Beach, Florida.

As a National Park, it is charged with finding the balance between preserving the ecological communities in its boundaries, but also making them accessible to people for their knowledge and enjoyment. This is increasingly a difficult balance.

On a recent visit to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, I was also reminded that a refuge has a different governing body – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Each American inherits 623 million acres of protected lands at their birth. Within this great treasure, parks, refuges, and wilderness status protects land in different ways and each system is governed by a specific governing agency. A wilderness designation protects land from any development – roads, etc are not allowed. However, people can hunt on wilderness lands.  For species, a wilderness is an unencumbered, natural system.

Florida has numerous wilderness areas.  But, all this may change sooner than we like to think. Check out the latest article in Grist Magazine on Florida’s shrinking coastline as ocean level rises.

The First American Democracy

“The future is a construct that is shaped in the present, and that is why to be responsible in the present is the only way of taking serious responsibility for the future. What is important is not the fulfillment of all one’s dreams, but the stubborn determination to continue dreaming.”

~ Gioconda Belli, The Country Under My Skin

Nothing can replace the act of seeking knowledge for oneself. I can read about it, have it explained, or live it through another person’s experience, but in each case I see it incompletely, like the blind man holding the elephant’s tail.

For Americans eighteen and older this has never been more relevant.

In 1990 I sought to learn about our nation’s first people by going to them. I left a high profile position at a well known institution, sold or gave away most of my possessions, packed up my pick up, and traveled to a dusty border town trusting my inner compass. There was a man and woman who agreed to take me on as an apprentice and student to help me understand American culture and my own life’s course through an examination of my country’s historical relationship with the First Americans and with the land, water, air, and wildlife of the North American continent.

Why did I do that, you may wonder. I had come to the realization that instead of my nation being a beacon of light in the world, it was in fact an empire to many other nations and peoples whose cultural beliefs and lands were at odds with ours.  How could there be hunger in a land of plenty? Why were democratic rights applied conditionally to members of our own society and in the world – and my culture accept that? How could we destroy the great natural beauty and abundance of our lands even while extolling how much we love it?

It made no sense to me and created a pervading sense of living a lie. I remember the unreality of my life then as I drove to work where architecturally beautiful buildings and the expansive green of a golf course tumbled down to the deep blue of the Pacific ocean. My day was stressful administering programs at a world renown health care facility where patients—banged up in the American market wars and social striving—suffered from heart problems, addiction, or complications from obesity.

One day I sat looking out the picture windows of my corporate office on a singing blue-sky day in southern California. Internally I felt lost and weak.  My eyes settled on a book that had lain unread on my shelves for many years:  Touch the Earth (T.C. McLuhan.) It is a book of Indian values from Indian voices.

At the first reading I experienced a profound sense of sanity return to me. In them I found a direction to pursue the answers to my deepest questions. I became aware of a pulsing hunger at my core for this knowledge, like something precious lost and then vaguely rememberd. Could it be that we have within us the knowledge of past human wisdom buried in our brains at birth? Looking back now, I realize that I had no choice but to make the decisions that led me to seek guidance and leave all I had known before – to clear the decks and make way for something new.

The next three years of living in the daily presence of two American Indian educators (one a Mojave elder, college professor, Korean veteran and social worker; the other an Iroquois artist and musician.) Their guidance changed the way I see myself and the world around me. I still believe the experience made me a better person. But the story of how that evolved is a hard one and definitely not what I had expected. The path to self-understanding is a crucible where falseness is burned away and a tender new skin grown. It requires humility, determination, and humor. It is anything but glamorous.

I hope you will return to my blog for journal entries about my experiences. Until then, here are some links to explore:

The First Democracy: the Haudenosaunee

Basic Call to Consciousness

What Does It Mean?

The Earth Charter

American Pubic Media “On Being”

I know that my discovery of “On Being” at 6 am on my local public radio station, WUWF.org, reveals just how out of it a person can be in a world with a cornucopia of media sources. Apparently the program has been broadcasting since 2008! However, humbly, I submit this link to this interview with Terry Tempest Williams.

The recorded podcasts on their main page are a treasure trove of some of our greatest spiritual voices and cultural innovators. This might be a very good way to “reset” your moral compass after a day or week out on Main Street.

Krista Tippett is the moderator. The link above to the unedited discussion with Terry includes many personal statements by both Terry and Krista that give additional insights into their focus and personalities.

I’ve been reading Terry’s books, blogs, and following her activities for the last 15 years. I am convinced that she is on the forward edge of an emerging sensibility that seeks to bring together divergent perspectives in American culture  for open dialogue and understanding. She gives numerous examples of how she personally is able to sit with people who hold opposite points of view and learn from them and stay in the dialogue….

If you read one book by Williams, read Refuge. You will understand then how Terry weaves the deeply personal, landscape, religion, spirituality, politics and the art of dialogue. This perspective might be similar to present and previous Earth – focused cultures  (e.g.  native cultures worldwide; ancient earth-based cultures.) However, what is evident in this interview and many others on the site, is an emergent blend of our best past and present thought. There is a heightened awareness of something much greater than ourselves, the issues at hand, and what we can perceive.

Listen and learn from a person who has learned to stay in the crucible of conflict and transform it into something of beauty….

Transparency in Reporting Science

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.

Mullet Tales and Shipwrecks

The Mullet Story© Part II

Osprey Photo from the Montana Natural History Museum

Mugil and his mullet horde swam vigorously in the bay exploring along its shores where tall tribes of saltmarsh cordgrass stood still and tall in the gentle waves. Ducks, herons, and other fish found refuge, food, and shelter in the marsh which drew the mullet families from the ocean to its teeming life and sweeter waters. The saltmarsh protected hundreds of birds, fish, amphibians, and mammals.

It was wintertime and the grass had turned brown and rotted below the surface of the water where bacteria and other microscopic life turned the dead stuff into food for many forms of life. Mugil’s round head and low mouth were perfect for sucking- up this delicious army of microbes. He gulped down the little snails and worms that got caught in the updraft into his mouth as he sucked along the stems and bottom of the marsh grasses.  Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm—this was good eating!

The mullet school swam vigorously toward the south end of Pensacola Bay Bridge where lay a slither of land named Deadman’s Island. It was surrounded by reefs and marshes that would provide Mugil and his family another great feast.  Long before on a fatal night, a British sloop wrecked upon the reefs of this island in a violent storm.  It sank to the bottom two hundred years before and gradually disappeared below the sandy bottom as waves swept sand over it.

Nearby the University of West Florida’s Archeology Institute students snorkeled and dove around the wreck to map its contours and recover sunken treasures. Mugil thought the divers were funny and he joined the crew, snorting around the places where they dug or measured, eating little tidbits of algae that grew on the old ship’s anchor and masts.  His mullet friends joined him to sail by the rotting barrel wells and shoot like bullets past the masks of the divers. However, sharks and dolphins also joined the curious onlookers, sending the mullet horde toward safer marshlands inshore.

It was on the way inshore that Mugil had his first real encounter with death. High above him and the mullet school there flew an osprey—a bird of prey. Its keen eyes spotted a moving shadow – the backs of hundreds of mullet swimming as one below. It turned its small head downward with its sharp curved beak ready to rip and tear flesh, its talons ready to grab a juicy fish for lunch. The bird folded its wings back and plunged from the sky at record speed right into the middle of the mullet where Mugil swam happily along unsuspecting of danger from above.

When the osprey hit him he was stunned and left helpless in the clutches of the giant bird. He felt himself lifted from the waters into dry air. Through one big eye he saw his tribe disappearing toward the reef and through the other he glimpsed the terrible form of his killer. Mugil’s gills flailed up and down for water and the sweet release of oxygen when suddenly he felt himself released from the tearing grip of the bird. He plummeted down, down, tail over head into the sparkling ocean that was his home.

Smack! Wow – that hurt!

Mugil lay motionless just below the surface until the return of oxygen to his brain and body allowed him to move his fins and right himself. He sped toward the shoreline unaware of the battle for the skies above him.

Check back soon for the next adventure of Mugil when he learns about gill nets.

Mullet, mullet, mullet!

The Mullet Story©

Mugil (Mugil cephalus) drifted with the current, tossed by emerald green waves. His tiny body was developing at a rapid pace since his mother had shed her row into the misty depths of the ocean. Millions of his brothers and sisters joined the transparent hordes of the plankton world encapsulated in an egg the size of a pencil dot on a page. Unaware that most of them would be eaten by a host of predators or crushed by giant waves, Mugil broke free of his egg casing on the second day of his life, emerging as a small larva about 15 mm long. Mugil instinctively snapped at passing zooplankton to fuel his growth and with his miniscule tail he followed the crowd up from the murky depths of the ocean toward the sunlit surface waters where the Gulf of Mexico food chain begins.

Phytophankton images from the Earth Observatory/NASA web site.

Sparkling microscopic phytoplankton were busy changing the sun’s energy into the food of life inside their diamond bodies. The diatoms, dinoflagellates, coccolithophores, and algae start out as drifters— prey to tiny copepods, crab,  shrimp and hungry mullet larvae on up to baleen whales that scooped them up by the billions. Mugil gobbled up the crunchy food as fast as he could manage. No human eye could see the teaming hosts of tiny ocean life struggling for existence at the base of a food web, yet all these tiny creatures were supporting  humans, whales, dolphins, sailfish, and sharks.

Instinctively Mugil headed toward land with thousands of mullet-fry (only one out of a thousand would live on to become a full-grown, frisky mullet.) As small as he was, it would be months before he found the bays and bayous of Pensacola where he would spend at least half of his life. Meantime it was a struggle for life in the sparkling waters of the Gulf. He grew by leaps and bounds changing from a larva to a true fish about three inches long with a torpedo-shaped body and strong forked tail fin. But those advantages also made him more visible to the eyes of spotted sea trout or a sea turtle with strong jaws.

As he swam with his kind in a sleek cloud that moved in unison across the lightening sands, moving away from the deep blue of the open ocean into the aquamarine waters of the shoreline. He was growing all the way and now he needed a lot more food. Diving down to crystalline white sands he and his horde ate algae, sand fleas, worms – whatever they could find. Along the shore line Mugil detected the sweet scent and taste of fresh water mingling with the bitterness of the salt-laden sea. Mugil was entering the Escambia Bay. Its bottoms and shorelines, bases of the bridge pilings, docks, old sea wrecks and reefs provided more and more good food for the mullet hordes. Mugil stuck his blunted head into the soft brown detritus on the bottom—a teaming microcosm of life on its surfaces. He ate it all indiscriminately. And he grew.

Lurking in the depths, a water snake spotted Mugil and lunged at him out of the shadows where the tiny fish and his family were feeding. Mugil caught the movement out of his big eye and with a jerk of his strong tailfin he barely managed to avert the jaws of the slithering beast. But sadly, one of his cousins became its prey. There were no guarantees in life. Mugil learned the hard way that the laws of nature spared no living creature. Every living thing was prey to something else.

To Be Continued

Adventure in the Bayou!

 

Beyond Margaritaville

Jimmy Buffet created Margaritaville on Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola Beach. He opened the Land Shark Landing bar and grill next door and gives benefit concerts to support local businesses hurt by the recession and Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. It is a jaunty-looking hotel now that Jimmy’s designers have added some color to the decor. It was originally built as a five-star, upscale resort until the recession tanked the project. Enter the tanned though aging Buffet whose reputation for losing his lost shaker of salt engenders a deep sigh of relief, donning of flip-flops and faded, oh-so comfortable tees—excuses to let the world’s tireless bantering just pass on by. Meanwhile, we’re in a hammock swinging in the breeze while Jimmy instructs us on how to develop the right attitude for the latitude. It’s a happenin’ place, part of the area’s story of adjusting to the times, cultivating resilience, and learning to keep on, keeping-on in spite of  environmental disasters.

Pensacoleans reflect the long history of seafaring, lumbering, fishing and tourism that have fueled the coffers of the community and made it possible to live long enough to air condition homes and spray down the mosquito hordes so that it’s actually a pleasant place to live in between hurricanes.

We’re a tough lot. When the big winds blow, we stick together and the community builds back bigger and better than before, like antibiotics that select out the most resistant strains. We build bigger but do we builder smarter? Jury’s still out on that one. Our bravado against nature seems dimmed somehow, especially after the Oil Spill. That’s a horse of a different color, now an invisible invader. We can’t see it but we know it’s around. Haunting…disturbing.

So—Margaritaville.

Beyond Margaritaville, if you travel another half-mile west, you enter the Ft. Pickens National Park—a seven-mile stretch of protected barrier island beaches and habitats. And, even though it, too, has been impacted by the human footprint (the park maintains an asphalt road for the big recreational vans to get to the camping grounds), you can still get a glimpse of the natural habitats of a barrier island ecosystem. And it is truly a wonder. If you go off-season like now, in December, and you take time to walk around the marshlands, oak-pine woodlands, beaches, bay and inlets, you will not go unrewarded for your troubles getting there.

Go light. Binoculars and camera allowed. Pack a snack or lunch and beverage and go to Battery Worth part of the William Bartram Trail. You can park your car and head out to the bay, back to the view from the top of the old ramparts, then head out on the west-facing sandy marsh trail (1.7 miles) that ends at the main fort and information center. Meander and listen. Lots of bird action, wonderful wildflowers and vines, herons, ducks, and estuaries. You might see a beaver or an armadillo waddling around. Stop to rest on a bench, better yet lay back and watch the clouds. You can find peaceful moments if you let your thoughts run off on their own, unattended. Keep going. There are miles of trails, interpretation of history at the Fort, a marvelous bookstore and lots of Civil War history. Walk to the fishing pier and diving points; you will not be bored. Keep going out onto the shore line and watch for the mullet run to the ocean waters where they are spawning millions of mullet babies now through February. Look for jumping silver-bellied fish, and dark-backed schools of mullet running the waves. I actually saw some cut the curl.

Beyond Margaritaville you’ll capture the attitude of the latitude for certain.

Hope Beneath Our Feet

Hope Beneath Our Feet, Restoring Our Place in the Natural World is a new anthology of essays by authors who responded to this question: In the midst of environmental crisis, how can we live NOW?

I am unabashedly promoting the book because I am one of the authors. To be published along with the writers and thinkers to whom I have turned for inspiration over the last twenty years, is a huge honor for me. Some of these mentors are: Frances Moore Lappé, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez and Howard Zinn.

The book’s genesis is the work of Martin Keogh, its Editor.  In the forward, Martin describes how his children expressed a sense of hopelessness about the future as they considered climate change or nuclear war—challenges that dwarf our sense of being able to make a difference. He wondered how human beings can keep hope and live well in very uncertain times. In 2006 Martin issued a call to writers to submit an essay answering the question above.

The book is published by North Atlantic Press and is now in its third printing – barely a month after its release.

Curve of the Planet

Once I went out to Santa Rosa Island very early in the Summer of 2008, exactly two years to the day. The sand was so white it looked like a ski resort near the parking area. I was mystified, scooped up the sand in my hand and filled a small vial for my friends back in the Sonoran Desert where I lived for 20 years. I walked past the dunes, out onto the shore and felt my soul lift up as I viewed this curve of the planet on the horizon above a calm, translucent sea. I could not believe that such a place existed, let alone that it would be my new home. There were birds of all kinds in clusters along the water or diving for silvery flapping fish. Crabs darted in and out of tunnels, sometimes perched with their eyes staring right at me on long stalks, at the ready to plunge out of sight. Men and women were fishing, set up long before dawn, some waist deep in the waves heaving heavy lines far out to snag bonita they told me. Dolphins plied calm blue sea far off shore. Had I known what awaited me I might have turned right around and driven 1000 miles back to Tucson. But I did not and life has thrown a full measure of challenges my way but also love and friendship and many gorgeous days on this treasured place. Now it has been stricken a blow that is altering it forever. I cannot go there because I get sick from its fumes. Where now can I find solace, inspiration, renewal? This must be what the Bible meant by Hell, a condition created on earth by our own doing or non-doing. Well, there is only one way out. Get up, dry the tears, resolve to learn and remember, hold hands, pray together, eat together, love one another and co-create a new reality. For now, that amazing creation – the result of tens of thousands of years of co-creating among many species, and the elements – and which we call Santa Rosa Island, is no more.

Mirage: Oil Underfoot

Went out to Santa Rosa Island on the sky trail of the Blue Angels. The local press and powers were all about encouraging everyone to come out to the beach.It had been over a month. I thought I’d never go back because of the pain and the worry about exposure. Having just lost my sister, more loss is hard to bear.

Looking out over the water it was hard to see oil in the waves. But the trucks and hundreds of workers dressed in hazmat boots and jackets combed over the beach with shovels, skimmers, and plastic bags.  It took only a few minutes to see what they were working on: oil beneath the sand.

These photos were taken on July 11, 2010. All along the beach road were trucks and down just about every entrance to the beach there were volunteers digging in the sand and bagging oil laden sand and seaweed.

The air stank with petroleum, breaking down in the intense heat and sunlight. I felt nauseated and weak and had to leave after only 15 minutes.

I noticed a few dolphins fishing close to shore and a couple of small dolphins in the bay adjacent to  the Santa Rosa bridge when I drove over to the beach. On the shore, I saw no sandlerlings or gulls actually standing or running along it. A pair of willets stood in the dry sand above the shoreline. They did not seem skiddish at all, allowing me to approach closely for a photo. I thought that unusual behavior. As I left at the Ft. Pickens entrance parking lot, about thirty gulls congregated atop the restroom pavilion  and were loudly squawking from their rooftop perch.

One man swam in the waves and out in the open water was a huge ship of some kind, perhaps skimming oil, or maybe doing some kind of research – it was an industrial looking type ship with a flat deck, quite high out of the water.

Our beach is greatly impacted. Don’t be fooled by the hype for tourism. We need to be more responsible about attracting unwary citizens and visitors to our shores, even if it means we’ll be hurt economically. It is the right thing to do to be honest, transparent, and to recognize and act like our home is under assault from our own energy policy and our corporate practice of taking risks with the public’s health and the environment’s well-functioning.