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Where the Map Turns Blue

A place for all the things that pop into my head.

From blue waters to big city

It’s 2016, and I’ve relocated again! I’m making my way north–all the way to the nation’s capital. I couldn’t have asked for a better greeting than the snowstorm of the decade. With 20 inches or more of snow falling in a 24-hour period, this storm was the first of many firsts for me as I transition to the city.

It may not seem to make sense for someone like me, who enjoys the solitude, majestic beauty, and intrigue of untouched places, to move to Washington, DC. However, going back to my overall trajectory of “saving the world,” what better place?? I am starting a year-long Knauss Fellowship in NOAA’s National Sea Grant Office. Here, I’ll be working at the interface of science and solutions for coastal communities across the country. The position alone will make for an exciting year, no doubt, but being in the city for one week has shown me there is plenty to learn in this concrete jungle.

First, there are people everywhere, but you aren’t supposed to acknowledge them. This is definitely different than anywhere I have lived before. I am used to smiling or saying hi, when I encounter someone on the street, but here you get a very strange response if you even make eye contact. When I got off the bus the other day, an older woman exited the bus from the back door and consequently had to climb over a snow bank to get from the curb to the sidewalk. I saw it was going to be difficult for her, and I second-guessed myself on whether I should give her a hand. As I argued internally with myself for a few seconds, I actually walked past her a few steps, then turned back to ask her if she needed help. But alas, she had headphones in and didn’t answer me (or even look at me).

That brings me to my next revelation: snow doesn’t melt. Growing up in South Carolina, when we would get a dusting of snow, we had to hope and wish with all our might that it wouldn’t vanish as soon as the sun came up. However, when you get two feet of snow, and then plows pile it up even higher on the sides of the road, it sticks around for quite awhile. It’s been a full week since the storm, and there is still snow on the ground!

Another thing that is different, is there are always sirens. There must be constant emergencies in the city. Most recently, when I lived in Athens, GA, I thought we heard sirens going down Milledge Avenue pretty often, but that was nothing compared to here. All day long, there are sirens- fire trucks, ambulances, police cars- and they have multiple sirens, with different tones and tempos. It’s kind of interesting, when they aren’t deafening you on the sidewalk.

One thing I do love, though, is that everything is so accessible. I can walk to most things I need- the grocery store, Target, restaurants, CVS, public parks. If it’s a little farther, I can easily hop on a bus or the Metro. This is the first time since I started driving that I don’t have a car with me, and so far, it’s been completely fine. Earlier this week, I took a ten-minute walk to the National Zoo to see the adorable giant panda playing in the snow. Not all of the animals were out because of all the snow, but it looks like they have some awesome exhibits-with plenty of interesting information. With access to the suite of Smithsonians, I can’t wait to be enlightened!

I’m excited for an adventure completely different than any of my previous adventures, and a year that is sure to be full of many more “firsts.”

 

…So, my last post was in 2014. You may be wondering what I’ve been doing for the past two years. Two words that have taken over my life: grad school. Maybe I’ll figure out something more to say about that, and share it in another post.

If it’s bad, then why do we do it?

Kids say the darndest things, don’t they? Most of the time those statements are just the simple, logical, truth.

I was leading a night walk on the beach recently with about 10 or so guests. We were walking along in the dark at the edge of the water giddy with the scurrying ghost crabs, and hoping that the stars were in our favor to encounter a female loggerhead sea turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs.

The crashing of the high tide and darkness made it hard to capture the entire group’s attention at once, so I was answering questions, telling stories, and carrying on conversations in a few different directions. With it being shrimping season, the horizon was dotted with the lights of offshore shrimp boats. The question, of course, was if those were offshore oil rigs.

A young girl, about seven to nine years old, touched my leg to get my attention. She was no taller than waist-high standing next to me, and I had to bend over to hear her quiet question. “Why is oil in the ocean bad?,” she asked me. I knew that her family lived in Texas and visited the Gulf coast often, so I tried to be diplomatic in my answer, not necessarily knowing their history with drilling. I explained that drilling in the ocean was dangerous, and sometimes there are accidents where people can get hurt and oil and other chemicals spill into the ocean that are bad for animals that live in the ocean.

As I said it, it seemed like a reasonable enough answer. No one could argue with that. However, her next question threw me for a loop. “If it’s bad, then why do we do it?”

I started to explain that our society uses a lot of energy, and oil traditionally has provided a lot of that energy. I tried to explain that money drives many of our decisions, and we don’t always do what is best. I talked around it a bit, and ended by telling her that I hoped in the future, we could use cleaner forms of energy and that maybe people like her could help us move in that direction.

I thought about that conversation a bit. What were the right answers to those questions? What were the right answers for a seven year-old? I felt like a hypocrite. I had just made excuses for offshore drilling to an innocent young girl, and worse, I put it on her to solve the problem.

I feel like older generations have tasked my generation with solving the worlds environmental problems. I’m afraid, though, this is a dangerous cycle. Especially if I just passed on that duty to an even younger generation.

The reality is our society needs to ask that simple question: “If it’s bad, then why do we do it?” We don’t need to make up excuses for why it’s not as bad as we may think. We need to behave like we teach our children to act in the world, and we need to be able to be proud of what we are passing on to future generations, not ashamed that we couldn’t fix it.

We didn’t see a sea turtle that night.

Spring has sprung!

Since February, I’ve been meaning to write a blog about Spring on the island, but here it is the beginning of May. Honestly though, Spring has been getting more and more wonderful each day, and it is quickly turning into full-blown summer here in south Georgia.

It’s amazing what a change in the weather can do to your mood. Of course, it starts with a little bit of sunshine and some warmer weather, but the little things that emerge each day just build the excitement.

I think my first notice of Spring was the beautiful trumpet blooms of the yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). From then, the bright green spring growth topped all the live oak trees and wax myrtles, and I am hearing a new bird song each day. I was delighted to hear the familiar trill of the Northern Parula again, and I may have actually screamed with excitement when I saw the first Painted Bunting of the season.

As I am sitting here on my porch, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird just buzzed up to nectar on the flowers of citronella plant (which is a defense against one of the downsides to warmer weather!)

Spring is still alive after the sun goes down. The still night air is full of the sounds of the season, as well. With the torrential rains we’ve been having, the frog chorus is incredible! The owls, Chuck-wills-widow, and nighthawks have been speaking up as well. My favorite moment s0 far this year, has to be a nighttime walk down Middle Woods a couple of weeks ago. We were on a search for owls, alligators, and the like, but we paused amongst the pines and turned off all our lights. Revealed immediately was a golden light show in all directions. The lightning bugs were so plentiful that they lit up the bases of the pine trees. The view was incredible, mirrored in the sky with the multitude of the white stars of a new moon sky.

Right now, at the beginning of May the Southern magnolias are just beginning to bloom, the shorebirds are sporting their beautiful breeding plumage, and the egret chicks are growing fast! For the next couple of months, I am excited to drink in every changing nuance of this magical little island.

Eagle nests and nature play

Nature education is invaluable.

This is a simple statement, but I think that intimately knowing and experiencing nature can change your life. Ok, that may seem a little dramatic, but there have been numerous studies that show exposure to nature affects children’s development, reduces obesity, improves creativity and problem solving, among a myriad of other benefits. I’ve seen first hand so many times how nature excites and brings genuine joy to children, but recently, I have been impressed by the lasting effects of these experiences.

On Little St. Simons Island, the majority of our guests are adults, but I occasionally get the chance to work with kids. It’s instantly rewarding to hear a child shriek with delight as they hold a fiddler crab from the first time. It is a thousand times more rewarding, though, to hear months later that they are still talking about that experience.

Last spring as the juvenile Bald Eagles were getting close to fledging, we took a group of about eight kids to watch the eagles in their nest through a spotting scope. When we returned, we built a life-sized nest in the yard. We used huge branches, worked together to create sturdy walls, and entered a world of imagination as each child inevitably transformed into either an eagle chick, parent, or both. It was a hit!

Even better though, when these same kids came back in October, one of the first questions I got was “When are we going to build the eagle nest?!” I was reminded about this again a few days ago when the experience was brought up again by one of the grandmothers. The simple activity was even referenced in this response to a very scary Toys ‘R’ Us ad.

Last week, I had a similar experience with a family from Savannah. This summer, I spent some time exploring the island with a fantastic 10 year old girl. By the end of the trip, she was jumping into the tidal creeks and playing in the marsh mud without a care. When they returned to the island last weekend, the entire family was ecstatic about the things learned and experiences had on their previous visit. It was incredible to see the impact that a few days on a secluded barrier island had on this family!

My initial intentions were just to give my little students an idea of the size of one of those magnificent nests and to teach a young girl a piece of salt marsh ecology, but I believe the outcome was much more than I anticipated. It turned into play, fun that was born out of the creative minds of children experiencing nature. These kinds of experiences are forming lasting connections to the natural world, something our society is dangerously close to losing altogether. 

Some of my own most vivid memories from being a kid include swinging on vines across a creek in park near our house, creating tunnels, forts, and secret worlds in the shrubs and trees in our backyards, and searching for worms and other creepy crawlies in my mom’s garden while munching on fresh peas.

How long do you think the average child reminisces about beating a level in the latest video game?

 

Kayaking in the saltmarsh

For a blog about my proximity to and affinity for water, I haven’t written much lately about the body surrounding me.  I have not been ignoring it, though!

I have been spending a good bit of time in a kayak. The kayak takes it to the next level: I can go from being near the water to actually being on the water.

Who knew? Kayaks are great for taking naps, reading books, chatting with friends. And of course there is the more obvious: exploring, exercise, and wildlife viewing.

It’s finally getting to that time of the year when it cools off a little bit in the evening, and I took advantage of that break in the sweltering heat earlier this evening to get out on the water. I had an incredibly beautiful paddle as the sun sank lower in the sky, illuminating the marsh around me.

It is so peaceful to be out in a kayak all by yourself in the tidal marsh. I probably didn’t get more than a mile from our dock, but with the low tide and the snaking creeks, I was immersed in natural beauty.

While I was entranced with the perfect scenery, I also had plenty of great wildlife spots. Not even five minutes into my trip, I startled 4-foot alligator who came sliding down the smooth mud bank right into the water next to me. Then, I silently floated up to a feeding Roseate Spoonbill as it swept its bill back and forth through the water, occasionally gulping back a tasty crustacean. To my surprise, I got a long look at several Clapper Rails poking around on the mad banks. I hear these guys so much more often than I ever see them, and when I do see them, it’s usually a fleeting glance as they tuck away into the grass.

It’s such a treat to be able to observe the habits and behavior of these animals. It’s like getting a peek into a secret special world.

As cliche as it may be, the highlight of trip today was the show put on by the dolphins. I can’t help it, but there are some animals that you just cannot get tired of seeing. These dolphins caught my attention while I was still a good distance from them. I saw huge splashes near on oyster bed on the shore, way too big to be one of the silly mullet that jumps clear out of the water for seemingly no reason at all. I took a look in my binoculars, and what I was seeing were dolphins using their tails to splash fish closer to shore, and then whipping around to gobble them up after they had been corner. I crept closer, skirting away from the bank so I didn’t disturb the action. Over and over, they turned their bodies sideways so the tail was perpendicular to the surface of the water and with incredible force, splashed towards shore. I was mesmerized.

I don’t know how people survive without experiencing nature. How can you go through life without seeing and appreciating what is real and unmanipulated?

Winding paths and waterfalls

What a dramatic change of scenery! Last week, I traveled from the coast of Georgia up to it’s beautiful mountains (only about a 4,000 foot change in elevation!). We took some back country roads instead of the interstate, and passed through the small towns and past the farms and pine plantations that I picture for every “small southern town” novel that I’ve ever read.

After about seven hours of traveling, we drove through the weirdest town of them all: Helen, GA. The entire town was German-themed. Anyway, after that space/time warp, we climbed up the winding mountain road to nothing but natural beauty. We hiked in to our camping spot adjacent to a roaring stream, thanks to the incredible amount of recent rainfall.

It was like I was on a different continent than my little island home. The water tumbled over mossy rocks, gravity pulling it downstream. There were no flying bugs buzzing around my head, and the temperature was so cool that my camera lens would fog up each time I pulled it out of the case.

As we climbed up and down switch-back paths through the mountains, I was overwhelmed by the volume of moving water and the number of rocks. I loved how when we got down to the base of the larger waterfalls, the air cooled off several degrees, something like walking into a refrigerator.

You’d think that jumping into one of those pools would be refreshing on an August day, but I discovered the contrary as I tried to take the plunge. After a 15 minute struggle with my wimpy self, I only made it as far as sitting in the frigid water with both my legs completely submerged. We found that the salamanders were much tougher than us, as they just chilled under rocks in shallow water pretty much anywhere you looked.

I don’t remember realizing how spectacular rocks could be. I don’t see rocks on a regular basis. Little St. Simons’ natural substrate consists of sand, dirt, and silty sediment emptying from the Altamaha River. The Georgia mountains were covered and founded in rocks. The rock staircases gave a nearly vertical climb, the rock outcrops gave incredible views of the mountaintops. The crooks between the rocks provided nice hidey-holes for critters, too! As a passing hiker lost his footing and tumbled over some rocks, we saw a newborn Timber Rattlesnake take shelter between some boulders. Beautiful snake!

It’s great to have a change of scenery every once in a while. I was familiar with the upstate and mountain scenery growing up, but experiencing it again after being in a completely different environment for awhile was eye-opening. There was so much to take in, so much to appreciate, and so much to admire!

A green isle across the big pond

Not two minutes after we stepped out of the airport, a soft drizzle hit our faces as we wheeled our suitcases down the sidewalk. This was going to be the general weather pattern for the next ten days. After a full day (and then some) of traveling, we landed on an island in the North Atlantic about the size of West Virginia, otherwise known as Ireland.

It was a whirlwind of a trip. We made a loop from Dublin to the west coast south, and then back up the southeastern coast, stopping in 16 towns and cities before making it back to Dublin.

It was a great first trip to Ireland, just enough to wet my appetite. There was such a variety from the lush green countrysides to the colorful cities to the centuries-old castles. It was amazing to me how far back Ireland’s human history went. We saw tombstones from the 8th and 9th century, and ruins of forts that went back even farther than that!

I was also impressed by the landscape. Of course, the towering cliffs aren’t something I ever encounter on the islands of the Southeast US, but the fact that there were rocks and boulders everywhere pushing out of the ground was very neat, too. The moss-covered forests, the fields of wild flowers, the sheet flow of water through bogs, and “loughs” nestled between mountains carpeted in green were so tempting.

Ireland would not have left quite the impression on me if it weren’t for the people. Everyone we met was very friendly (and tolerant) to us tourists. I loved the overall attitude of the country, as well. People generally seemed to be in a good mood, and music seemed to be everywhere from classic folk songs sung a cappella  to music on the streets to lively Irish tunes greeting us when we walked into a pub.

Yes, I did say “first trip” earlier. I would love to go back to Ireland someday and spend more time exploring those awesome landscapes and friendly culture.

If 30 is not the new 20, what am I doing with my 20s?

I just watched this TED talk by clinical psychologist Meg Jay: Why 30 is not the new 20.

Actually, I watched it twice because the first time felt like a slap in the face. After I regained my composure a bit, I decided to watch it again and really pay attention to what Meg Jay had to say.

I’ve been having a really good time since I’ve graduated college, and I’ve taken some fun jobs in some beautiful places. You might not consider them “real jobs,” and in all reality they are dead ends. There is no room for advancement, no real security, no good pay. In the last three years, I’ve had four different jobs and lived in seven different places. 

I enjoy what I am doing now, and if you read my last post that is evident, and I enjoy moving around and experiencing new places. I even like living on this little secluded island where I see the same 20 people everyday.

From what Jay says though, I should totally be on top of things at this point (which I can’t even pretend to be), and should be headed in the direction of the rest of my life.

Jay called your 20s  “the defining decade of adulthood.” Yikes! That’s nothing to take lightly. She described this period in our lives as the critical time of adult development. This is the time we shape ourselves into the grownups we will become.

Just thinking about the career path is stressful enough, I won’t even get into my love life. I may be an optimist, but I am under no illusion that my Prince Charming is going to fall out of the sky and land on this 10,000 acre island.

I figured I have plenty of time to mess around, explore, and meet people. Heck, my next plans were to not have a job and travel around the country for a while, but am I shooting myself in the foot in terms of my future?

At 25 years old, I am half way through this defining decade, and what do I have to show for it? I feel like time is ticking and I’m not getting any closer to achieving any goal. Actually, I can’t even figure out what my goals are!

Jay finished her TED talk by saying to all the 20-somethings: “You’re deciding your life right now.” To that, again, I say, “Yikes!”

 

Don’t you get bored?

Working and living in such a different environment than most Americans, I get a lot of questions from the people that visit Little St. Simons Island about my lifestyle. The interrogation usually starts out the same:

“You live here on the island full time?” (with a look of bewilderment)

“You don’t have TV? What do you do when you aren’t working?”

“How often do you get off the island?”

And then there’s the interview-type questions. (I’ve gotten so good at talking about my past and present job experience, my passion for my work, my current interests, and what my goals are for the future that when I do start looking for a new job I should ace my interviews.)

“How do you even find a job like this?”

“When did you graduate? What was your major?”

“Where did you work before you came here?”

“Where do you want to end up?”

The list could continue forever in both of these categories, but one of the questions that has always been a no-brainer for me is whether or not I get bored giving the same tours around the island week after week. Of course not!

Just like everyone, there are some days I don’t want to get out of bed and go to work, especially on these chilly mornings. There are also days that I am fed up with rudeness or condescending questions from some guests, or days that I am frustrated with my co-workers. Overall, though, I really enjoy what I do.

I never really get bored exploring the island because there is always something new to see. Whether it’s the season, the weather, the tides, migrations, or just animals moving around, things are always changing. Even just taking different people out on the island, offers a different perspective.

Consequently, I am always learning something new, and that is really the exciting part. Seeing, observing, experiencing are all fun in themselves, but when I notice something new, curiosities start to develop. Those new questions about “how”, “why”, and “what else” are what are so interesting to me.

For example, I was out with guests a few days ago doing a routine North End Adventure. We had stopped at River Beach to look out across the Altamaha River Delta at Wolf Island, Egg Island, and Egg Island Bar. You can even see Sapelo Island’s lighthouse in the distance. I brought the spotting scope with me in case we saw any birds we wanted to get a closer look at it. Sure enough, there was a group of pelicans and cormorants and some shorebirds sitting on the point at Sancho Panza Beach, just like there always are.

I set the scope up and was pointing out the difference between a Brown Pelican and the American White Pelican which was also out there amongst the group. I was explaining how the White Pelican is only a visitor to our area. They are only here in the winter and head back west for nesting season.

I left the scope set up for folks to look while we chatted about other things and enjoyed the view. Then one of the guests said, “There’s a tag on this White Pelican. On it’s back, a green tag.”

I am familiar with bands around birds’ legs, but I hadn’t ever heard of tags on their backs. My first thought was maybe it was caught or tangled in something. I took a look, and there it was, a green piece of plastic similar to a cattle tag with three black numbers printed on it. As I was watching, trying to decipher the digits, the pelican stretched and moved and preened, revealing that the tag was on its wing, not its back.

How cool! There was my new fact for the day: White Pelicans are tagged on their wings. But why? And where? And what else?

After a little bit of research, I realized that it would be hard to see leg bands on a White Pelican because of the way they feed. They sit on the water like a duck and use their huge webbed feet to corral the fish. So, the wing is a much more visible location. A bird forum revealed to me that researchers had tagged pre-fledgling pelicans at nesting sites in the western part of the US, and that they were using green tags in Utah. So, this bird had flown all the way from Utah!

And what else? Did you know that they also use similar kinds of tags on Black Vultures because they defecate on their feet and legs, and their poop is very acidic which helps kill bacteria and other germs that might be growing in the dead things they prefer to devour, but it is so acidic that it corrodes metal leg bands?

There is no way I could get bored on the job. There is so much to see and do and learn! Once I know everything, and have seen everything in every possible light and from every point of view, and I have solved all the problems of the world, then maybe I will be bored.

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