Category: Estuary

Moving Beyond Survival of the Fittest

Moving Beyond Survival of the Fittest

I hadn’t heard the term in a while but it came up the other day–survival of the fittest (SOF). It has always made me cringe, especially when it is applied to new life arriving on the planet, be it sea turtle, squirrel, dolphin, whale or human. It seems so cold, so removed from compassion. So I decided to do a bit of research.

Herbert Spencer coined the phrase as an alternative to natural selection after reading Charles Darwin’s book and Darwin, in the 5th edition of On the Origin of Species published in 1869, credited Spencer with the phrase.

Biologists today don’t really use the phrase but rather use the term natural selection to reference differential reproduction as a function of traits that have a genetic basis. SOF is inaccurate because survival is simply a normal prerequisite to reproduce (duh) and fitness in biology has a different meaning than the way pop culture uses the term. It’s not about how strong or big or fast something or somebody is in biological circles. What Darwin meant by fitness was ‘better able to adapt to changing environments.’

Extinction of various species happens because of large shifts in the environment. So truly, fittest means those animals most suited to their environment.

If we ponder the sea turtle on the coast of Alabama, we see the natural environment has been substantially altered in most locations. Dunes have been bulldozed or significantly altered, light pollution abounds and roadways criss-cross what used to be natural habitat. So sea turtles, in essence, would become greatly reduced due to human alteration of the environment (they have already been greatly reduced in numbers). NOT because of weak hatchlings, but because the environment has been altered to the point where the turtles simply cannot survive there.

And if we look offshore, we see the environment has also been significantly altered through use of nets and fishing practices that have harmed large numbers of turtles. Even though some commercial fisheries vessels use TEDs (turtle excluder devices), not all do. Onshore and offshore, the environment has greatly changed and thus made it difficult for sea turtles to live and reproduce.

I think of cancer rates in humans and mysterious diseases and see that natural selection is playing out in our own species. We alter the environment, fill it with toxic waste produced by corporations, we purchase products by said corporations and invest in the very culprits altering our ecosystems to the point where we cannot survive.

Corporations can donate endless funds to politicians. This opens the proverbial door to the rape and destruction of our planet on a scale unimaginable to us. Profit-at-any-cost is how corporations operate. There is never enough wealth to fill their coffers. So profit-hungry corporations buy more and more into our government (contributing to campaigns), elected officials then ‘owe’ the contributors and therefore legislate to please whoever donated the most money. And no matter what ‘side’ you may lean, the Earth is going to lose and that means you, me, children, wildlife, wild places….all of these precious, sacred elements of this water planet will become expendable as corporate control of our country expands.

People ask why spend so many hours and put so much effort into a nest of sea turtles. Share the Beach was originally formed because sea turtles were not able to adapat to the human-created changes in the coastal environmental. That’s why they ended up protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. We have to move beyond the idea that species that cannot adapt to human-created changes (over-fishing, lights, destruction of habitat, pollution) are not worth saving. Otherwise the human species would be extinct…there would be no need for doctors, nurses, medical researchers.

Because we have the ability to be compassionate and recognize value in all life, we can move beyond human arrogance and the belief that altering the ecosystems to suit our own needs is okay. We can refuse to buy into the belief that corporations have the right to continue their pillaging of the planet. For every hour spent holding a space of compassion and light in endeavors to help others, whether its humans or wildlife or wild lands, we magnify the spirit of unity and love that is the answer to healing our wounded world, to healing our own woundedness.

Standing Up to a Big Blow–Lesson in Life from My SUP Board

Standing Up to a Big Blow–Lesson in Life from My SUP Board

Yesterday morning started with a visit to Gulf State Park before the sun peeked above the horizon. I arrived early for my first sea turtle volunteer patrol walk because I wanted to take a few photographs before meeting my walking partners. It was serene and lovely and the Gulf of Mexico was gently rolling like it sometimes does. No shore birds were out yet so the only sound I heard was the shuuusshing of sand and water and shells tumbling together.

I met my walking partners and we headed out for our walk to the Gulf Shores Public Beach. We immediately met a group of giggly young folks drinking beer and smoking….yes….before sunrise. We had been warned that we might see left-over partiers from the pre-Hangout Music Festival day. And it only got worse as we neared the music festival staging area. Never mind sea turtle crawls…we were busy dodging condoms floating in the tidal pools, beer cans, liquor bottles, articles of clothing, half-burned cigarettes…not the usual sight on these white sand beaches.

The once ‘public beach’ was fenced off so as to not allow the public inside. Or sea turtles that might not have received the press package about the festival and thus altered their egg-laying plans. We carefully watched for sea turtle tracks as we tiptoed through all manner of human nastiness. Almost two years ago I was tiptoeing through volatile crude oil on the beach but today I felt volatile. A few days earlier the City of Gulf Shores bulldozed sand dunes with sea oats growing on them to make way for this parade of the worst of humanity. If you or I had picked a sea oat on our own property we’d be ticketed. If we had bulldozed a dune full of sea oats we might be in jail. I guess it just depends on who you are and who you know and how much you pay the right people. I don’t know what to think after witnessing this and hearing loud diesel generators and buses running non-stop. Talk about your green festivals!

After completing the turtle nest patrol I walked in the opposite direction, into Gulf State Park. Shores mostly untouched by development called to me as I walked in the soft, cool sand. I reflected back to when I worked in the park as naturalist–over 30 years ago–and the frustration I felt by the encroaching development and the political demands placed on the resources within the park. I remembered something I wrote in my first book, Sharks On My Fin Tips: “I left the Gulf Coast many years ago feeling hopeless in my efforts to help the land amid hungry developers yet on that day (a visit after Hurricane Ivan) I felt a renewed sense of commitment. I could use a tool that might truly make a difference–my words.” (p. 11).

Another quote from the book also haunted me as I walked back to my car, “Did I abandon this land when I left it many years ago? Had I left home, in the truest sense of the word?”

This morning I needed to be on salt water, away from the crowds and connected with the elements to ponder the questions that were raised within me yesterday. I am not a grouchy, un-musical person. I love music and play piano, guitar, flute, drums….it’s part of me. But profit at any cost? Had I left 21 years ago and returned to find that profit and money–greed–were still the determining factors along the coast? The dune is in the way….just bulldoze it. Never mind that it’s against the law! And fence off the public beach and don’t allow people to visit it unless they pay the $150+ to attend the festival. Does anyone else feel frustrated at this kind of behavior? These double-standards? This profit-at-any-cost mentality?

So…..I drove to Johnson Beach, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. After showing my annual pass and I.D. I drove to a boardwalk and couldn’t help noticing that both the Gulf and Sound were very much affected by the strong and steady ESE winds. Oops…so much for a calm, contemplative morning.

After unloading my board and gear, I walked to the Sound and was nearly knocked off my SUP board as soon as I stood up. The wind was really kicking. Rather than paddle against it with no warm-up, I decided to just do a downwind paddle and then deal with the paddle back after my body was ready for the assault of wind against woman.

The downwind run was screaming. I was flying and my thoughts were far from the anger and frustration of the previous day. Concentrating on staying balanced with a wicked back and cross-wind was my only focus. In 15 minutes I covered an amazing distance. How awesome that I’d get to paddle against that crazy blow to get back to my take-out point. Honestly, that’s not what I was thinking.

As soon as I came out of the calm canal I had drifted into and faced the wind, it caught my body and tried to push me back into the serene water. Who wouldn’t like that? But I really wanted to get back to my car. The breeze (ha…breeze) was so strong that I dropped to my knees. That helped but I was still making little progress. Finally, I sat back on my heels and finally my blade starting generating forward motion.

Being in this prayer position, I decided to say a prayer to gain understanding about the struggles I was having emotionally from yesterday’s experiences. I started thinking about the land and water and wildlife still being exploited for human greed. I felt weary of the entire human-dumb-ass behaviors which was exacerbated by the weariness I began to feel as I paddled into the wind. As I struggled to paddle, I thought how 30 years ago I struggled to make a difference along the coast. How I’d given up and let the ‘human wind of development’ push me away and relinquish my dream to help people appreciate and care for this beautiful place. It was relatively easy to just let go and forget the developers and others who always put wildlife and the Earth last–dead last. I let myself go into ecological numbness. I didn’t know how to deal with the grief about the planet so I just shut down.

But that oil spill…remember THAT oil spill? It’s what called me home.

It’s not easy standing up against strong forces that want to push over everything in their path to make a buck. It’s sometimes almost impossible to stand and fight greedy humans. So maybe I can alter my approach and drop lower and catch less ‘wind’ but still keep going, keep going forward. Or maybe I might have to crawl a while and make seemingly little progress like I did at Johnson Beach when I sat on the back of my board in shallow water and used my toes to crawl along the bottom as I rested my arms and shoulders. The key is to keep moving and keep working to spread the beauty of this place and speak up against those who truly do not care for anything but money and power. They will fall…eventually. Nature is more powerful. Ask Hurricane Ivan. Or Katrina. Humans have no power compared to the power of nature. Okay….I understand, I thought.

I got back to my take-out point and sat on my board for a long time contemplating life….watching the endangered Least Tern feeding just a few feet from my board, wondering if they knew they were endangered (no…of course not) and thinking how they go on regardless and continue to live and enjoy life. I watched families playing along the water’s edge and Great Blue Herons waiting for fishermen and women to reel in their breakfast. I realized, in those long, blissful moments spent bobbing up and down on my board, that I don’t have to stand up to power and money-hungry humans alone. Many of us feel the same way. We can proceed little by little to speak out, write, work…whatever we have to do…to save this amazing place from annihilation at the hands of those who fail to understand and appreciate the treasure it is…just for the beauty and life it contains. Not because it can generate a profit.

Stand Up 4 The Gulf…something you might find interesting and might like to help build!

Passion to Proceed

Passion to Proceed

I am sitting at the counter at my mom’s kitchen gazing out at Mobile Bay. Just a pause before writing.

I’m presenting a program at Gulf Shores Library tomorrow morning and was reviewing my A/V presentations to see which one I’ll use. In reviewing my library of programs one I put together showing the worst part of the oil spill at the Gulf Shores, Alabama area caught my attention. Tears poured down my face as I watched and recalled vividly the heartbreak experienced by so many of us that love this area. And then I felt a surge of passion and love for the Gulf Coast that caused a transcendent moment to spontaneously occur within me. It provided an amazing moment of clarity that sealed the deal, so to speak, for my move back to the Gulf Coast.

Over a decade ago I felt called to return to the Gulf Coast to work but as I stood on the shore with warm, salty waters lapping over my toes, I heard in my mind…’Not yet…but you will know when to return.’

When the oil spill first happened and very often for 18 months, I made the trip from Asheville, NC to coastal Alabama to document…to WITNESS what what happening here. I felt the call to return but I didn’t expect to move back. Little-by-little, however, I felt that this was the big leap needed to fulfill a promise I made to the Gulf those many years ago.

A few months ago I put my mountain home ‘on the market’ and waited. Within these past two weeks everything has begun to come together. Two incredible people have connected with “The Cathedral of Trees” and immediately understood the power of the home and land I have been blessed to call home for over five years. They decided to become the new owners of this special place. And just yesterday, I finalized a contract on a nice cottage home near the Magnolia River that will nurture me and my work as I leap back to the headwaters of my life. The place of my birth.

With every major change in life there comes anxiety and fear and those emotions were doing their best to rattle me. But when I reconnected with the immense love and passion I have for the earth, specifically this area of amazing beauty…my coastal Alabama home…all doubt was erased and the anxiety and fear begin to diminish.

I have dedicated my life to help our beautiful water planet. How thrilled I am to feel doors opening so that I can continue my work here, in this sacred place. There’s a song that has been my theme for this next stage of my life as it unfolds…Homeward Bound….”Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.” My heart is very, very full and I am so grateful.

Parting the Veil–Thoughts from New Year’s Eve

Parting the Veil–Thoughts from New Year’s Eve

As I paddled through thick, gray-white mist across the mouth of Weeks Bay, the silence was broken by a loon that surfaced nearby. The haunting cry bounced off the wall of fog and wrapped around me like a voice from another realm.

I felt peaceful and quiet, encapsulated by a small radius of open water as I glided through the new year’s eve morning. No sun, no warmth, the only comfort was the shroud of containment hugging me, coating my eyelashes with tiny water droplets.

Up the west side of the bay I traveled–the mostly undeveloped side where natural marsh grasses grow in sandy soil right to the water’s edge. No bulkheads disturbing the natural flow of the tides, wildlife or sand migration. Every paddle stroke yielded sounds magnified by the dense fog….droplets of water sliding off the blade, returning with a plop into the bay from which they came; the wake of water curling off the bow of my board; my own breath, warm against the air as I pulled myself and the twelve and a half foot board through the brackish life-blood of the estuary.

Further along, the mist parted so I could see the other shore, less than two miles away. I decided to paddle across, thus making a loop on my last paddle of 2011. I glanced back over my shoulder as I reached the middle of the bay. The fog was closing in behind me rapidly. The scene reminded me of the Mists of Avalon, a favorite book of mine from many years ago.

Parting the veil is a quest worthy of any seeker.

The rolling wall of fog pushed me forward. Access to what was behind me faded as if it never existed. It wouldn’t be wise to go back, to enter a white-out and get lost. The past is done…over….gone.

I hugged the shoreline as the fog intensified and made my way back to Mobile Bay. I didn’t want to spend new year’s eve paddling in circles in the bay so I kept the shore within sight. Years ago I was paddling my kayak in a large, fogged-in lake and lost my way by failing to follow the shoreline (and not having a compass on board). I nearly paddled over a dam (or close enough to make my legs shaky). Reflecting back, I saw where I have managed to learn a lesson or two that has gotten me safely through almost of all of 2011 and the years in-between.

Past skeleton piers and roosting shorebirds I glided. Slowly I maneuvered over pieces of broken piers, buried in the shallow water. I was in no hurry to reach my destination given the lack of visibility and snags floating just below the surface. Plus, I was enjoying the beautiful white cloud I was moving through and was not eager to step out of the other-worldly realm created by the bay, water and fog.

The solitude was a gift bestowed by the fog as it kissed my cheeks and swirled around me as I remembered the secret to parting the veil.


Polar Bear Paddle 2012–Magnolia River was a great time! Even with our small crew we had a blast exploring far up into the river in the warmish temps…and one of our crew decided to take a plunge as well but she lives in Michigan now so a little winter river water did her no harm. Happy 2012!