Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The World of the Salt Marsh

As I could post more photos than you'd want to see of the salt marsh in my blog, I thought I might try to educate you about how special this environment is.  This is a book I recently read and enjoyed.  I always try to learn more about where I live.  Now, to read something about allergies in the fall as my head is spinning...

Charles Seabrook, The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 397 pages including an index and notes

            The salt marsh is an amazing landscape that is often overlooked or taken for granted.  Per square foot, it is one of the most productive areas on our planet and serves many functions: protecting the inland areas from storms, providing recycling and cleansing services to the water, and serving as a nursery for the oceans.  And everything must work together.  When the balance is lost, the marsh suffers and in the long term we suffer. 
I picked up this book in an attempt to learn more about my new home.  Although I grew up near the marsh in North Carolina, I never really studied it.  Seabrook, a science reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a native of Saint John's Island in South Carolina (one of the historic African-American island communities--the Gullah-Geechee culture--that is found in the islands along the Southeast Coast).  In these pages, he does a wonderful job of sharing the history and culture of those who live along the marsh; informing us of the animals that depend on this terrain; explaining the science, geology and hydrology that makes the marsh work, and presenting the problems facing the salt marsh.  Seabrook’s area of study is the South Atlantic Blight (the shoreline from Cape Hatteras to Cape Canaveral).  

Seabrook explains the complexity of the marsh.  Twice a day, tides move in and out, flushing the marsh with water and sea life only to withdraw it six hours later in which marsh gives some of its riches back to the ocean.  This cycle helps both marsh and the ocean, but it is more complicated because fresh water is continually introduced from the land.  All of this, mixed in with grass and snails, oysters and crabs, fish and animals, works together to efficiently produce biomass and to cleanse out harmful elements that might destroy the marsh or the oceans. 

Seabrook shows, through examples, how little changes can cause major problems.  The building of a tidal gate in Savannah, designed to help keep the shipping channels deeper, increased the salinity in the Savannah wetlands which had been a fresh water preserve.  The aftermath was dead cypress and the end of wonderful stripe bass fishing as neither the tree nor fish could take to the increase salinity. Other developments, such as the Diamond Causeway (which I drive over several times a week), reduced the salinity in the upper marsh and had an adverse impact on oysters and crabs which was one of the reasons for the closing of a packing factory in Pinpoint.  Another problem is the development along the estuaries that feed into the marsh.  As trees and natural vegetation is replaced with concrete, asphalt, houses, along with the draining that is needed for golf courses and parking lots, the amount of fresh water (often tainted from oils) going into the marsh causes adversity for salt water species, especially the important grass in salt water marshes.  Contaminates such as mercury are even more harmful as he shows in an example of a polluter in the Brunswick, Georgia.  When the plant was finally shut down, the owners and managers all received prison sentences for their role in flushing large amounts of mercury into the river that has affect the animal life not only around Brunswick but up and down the coastline. 

Much of what Seabrook writes about is loss.  Turtles that die in nets, shrimping that is having a harder time competing with factory farms in other parts of the world, native cultures (or at least native for the last 400 years) who are being forced out by developments.  But he also speaks of hope.   There have been odd groups that have come together to protect the marsh and as we learn how valuable the marsh is, more people see the importance of protecting it.  I hope people read this book and realize what a valuable asset the marsh is and truly appreciate it as more than just a beautiful place from which to observe the rising or the setting of the sun. 

One range of numbers that Seabrook mentions several places and which has me pondering my impact of living in this area is 10-15%.  It appears that when hard surfaces covers more than 10-15% of the land feeding the estuaries that feed the marsh, damage occurs to the saline balance (as well as an increase in pollutants).  With the increase in development and the sprawl that is occurring all over the country, but especially in the Southeast, in many places we have surpassed the threshold and need to be very careful less the marsh disappears and we become more exposed and lose an important source of food.  Another fact that stuck with me is how special this area is, in the center of the Atlantic Blight, with some of the highest tides in the world.  Tides here average nearly nine feet which are a lot more than what I was used to where I grew up a couple hundred miles north.

          Yes, I recommend this book!  However, I will note for my readers who are in the Carolinas or Florida, that Seabrook primarily focuses on the marsh in Georgia and the southern half of the South Carolina coast (south of Charleston).  I would have liked to have learned more about the issues going on further north (there is the issue of deepening the Cape Fear River) and in Florida (where development had a head start over the areas concentrated on within this book).

Friday, October 10, 2014

A morning paddle at low tide.

Photos taken on October 3, on a morning paddle in the nearby  marsh.

The sign says this is the Rodney J. Hall Boat Ramp, although it is known locally as “Butterbean Beach.”  There is a small sandy beach just south of the boat ramps.  For years, this was a swimming hole for Pinhook, a small Gullah/Geehcee (former slaves) community on the Moon River.  For nearly a century, this community supported itself by harvesting oysters and crabs for a packing factory.  Today, the site is a state boat launch, but we launch our kayaks on the beach just south of the concrete ramps that are beside the new high bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, connecting Skidaway Island (via the Diamond Causeway) to the mainland.  The tide has just turned, but is still very low.   This area, in the middle of the Atlantic blight (the scalloped coastline between Cape Hatteras, NC and Cape Canaveral, FL, has some of the highest tide swings in the world, often varying over nine feet.  We paddle across the waterway and head south, hugging the shoreline, going against the tide and wind, before turning up into one of the larger creeks.   The low water level creates high banks that shelter us from the wind.  The water level is five or six feet below the mudflats.  The spartina (grass) grows a couple of feet above the mudflat.  In six hours, once the tide has come in, only the top third of the grass will be out of the water.

We paddled up the creek, approaching egrets and herons standing as still as a sentry as they watch the water for a late morning snack.  Our approach startles them and they take to flight, landing in another crook along the river.   There are a couple of crab pots, halfway out of the water, the teetered floats pulled up steam by the tidal current.  In one of the traps in which I paddle close by, a rather large blue crab moves along the screen trying to find a way out.  The further up the creek we paddle, the water becomes shallower.  Baitfish and shrimp have moved up here, in an attempt to keep beyond the reach of larger fish (only to place themselves on the menu of birds).   When we approach schools of fish, the water appears to foam as they jump in an attempt to save themselves.  The creek becomes narrower and at places, sandbars run from bank to bank, requiring us to pole the boats across the shoals.  It becomes harder to keep going as the width decreases as the creek runs from one side to another.  The high banks are now dotted with pines, live oaks draped with Spanish moss, magnolias, palmettos towering over wax myrtles and yuccas.
When we turn around, the water is notably higher.  The crab pots are now full submersed.   At the mouth of the creek, the oysters are beginning to slip below the rising water where they will open up and cleanse water as they filter out nutrients.   The water foams around the mouth of the river as the incoming tide pushes against the wind.  We paddle a ways down the Intracoastal Waterway before heading back to Butterbean Beach.  It’s time for lunch.
Heading back

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Last Train to Zona Verde (A book review and update on life)

I am quickly settling down here in Savannah and on this island that seems separated from the larger world.  Almost all the boxes have disappeared and I have found myself enjoying walks by the marsh, bicycling and will be heading out to kayak in a bit.  More to come later.  Here is a review of one of the books I recently finished reading...

Paul Theroux, The Last Train to Zona Verde (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, 2013), 353 pages, 1 map.

                It has been a quarter of a century since I first read Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar.  At that time, the book was close to twenty years old.  Since then, I read all his train adventures (The Old Patagonian Express, Riding the Iron Rooster, Dark Star Safari and Ghost Train to the Easter Star) and have reviewed several of them in various blogs.  I was excited to see that he had a new travel/train book out and was continuing his African journey that he started in Dark Star Safari which took him from Cario to Cape Town.  In this trip, he planned to make his way overland from Cape Town to Timbuktu, but after wandering in Angola, he calls it quits and heads home. 

                When he wrote The Great Railroad Bazaar (he traveled in the early 70s), he traveled on what was left of the French-built Vietnamese railroad at a time the war was ongoing.  He was much younger then and I don’t remember him discussing in detail the possibility of death even though it was a dangerous journey.  He is now 70 years old and it is obvious from the beginning that he is pondering his impending death.  This book seems to ooze death and three of the people he meets on his journey die before he finishes writing the book.  When making this journey, it had been ten years since Theroux’s African overland trip through a continent he first encountered as a Peace Corp volunteer in the early 1960s.  It becomes apparent early on to the reader that this is Theroux’s swan-song, at least for adventure travel. 

                The journey starts in Cape Town.  After spending time visiting and seeing what has happened to South Africa since his last visit, Theroux heads northwest by train and bus, into Nambia.  He finds Southern Namibia pleasant, but life was tougher in the northern part of the country (especially after crossing a fenced line that is designed to keep hoof and mouth diseases out of cattle in the southern part of the African Continent.  The northern and more western parts of Namibia were more desolate.  He crosses over into Botswana and experiences a safari camp that boosted being the only place in Africa where one can ride elephants.  Elephants are not ridden or used as beast of burden in Africa as they are in Asia (although this left me wondering about Hannibal and his invasion of Rome on elephants, but that was a few thousand years ago).  This marketing scheme (riding elephants) is generally the type that turned off Theroux in his previous books, but since he knows the founder of the program (they are trying to rescue elephants), he visits and although critical does seem to have a good time.

                The closer he traveled to Angola, the more dangerous and daring travel becomes.  He is led across the border, through crowds of people.  Angola does not provide tourist visas, so Theroux has lined up a couple of teaching and lecturing gigs arranged that allowed him to obtain a visa.  Probably the most exciting part of the book is the journey from the border to Lubango, where he is in a car that breaks down in the remote countryside.  This allows Theroux to interact with locals (including a woman selling burnt and fly covered chicken) and see village life.  He also sees the poverty and the impact years of war had on the country.    He visits the old slave port of Benguela and travels up the coast to Luanda, the crowded capital of the country.

                Despite the depressing report on the situation in Angola, I appreciate Theroux’s insight.  He provides details into the dark history of the former Portuguese colony.  Like other European country, Portugal used Angola as a dumping ground for criminals, the only difference is that Portugal sent harden criminals where Britain and other countries mostly exiled petty criminals (some of whom main offense was to be poor).  These harden criminals quickly adapted to the slave trade, a major economic activity for Angola in the 19th Century.  Others became brutal managers of farming operations.  After the colony’s independence, a long war ensued that involved not only those living in Angola, but armies from South Africa and Cuba.  Although the war had been over for ten years when Theroux made his visit, it is still evident.  Furthermore, since then, the country resources are making a few people incredibly rich (in the capital, there is a private school that cost $47,000 a year for tuition and small apartments for the rich elite rent for $7000 a month while most people are unemployed and living in near starving conditions). 

Theroux repeatedly asks himself what he’s doing there, a question that becomes more frequent as he travels in Angola.  In addition to the problems of the journey, Theroux has his identity stolen in Namibia (which he learns about in Angola as has racked up forty-some thousand dollars of charges on his credit card).  With everything hard and upon learning the situation is even worse in the Congo and the horrors of the Boka Haram (meaning “Death to Western Education”) in Nigeria, Theroux calls off his journey and heads home.   It should be noted that Theroux’s journey in Africa was several years before the recent horrors of the Boka Haram (an extreme Islamic group) kidnapping Christian girls in Nigeria. 

Theroux, in Dark Star Safari, was critical of much of the aid work in Africa.  Then, he noted that how when he came to the continent in 1960, it was able to feed itself, but by the 21st Century, the continent was dependent on imports.  Although he saw some improvements in South Africa at the beginning of this journey, he comes away from this trip bitter and disappointed.  His experience of Angola is best described as a nightmare.  A country with vast mineral resources (oil and diamonds), most people live in a near starvation state.  There is little public transportation, the infrastructure is almost non-existence, and animals are absent from the countryside, which is littered with burned out trucks and tanks from the thirty year war.  Corruption is everywhere.   Theroux is disillusion. 
One of the things that seemed to be different in this book from his other books is that Theroux spent less time with people who were struggling in life, especially in northern Namibia and Angola. Certainly some of the drivers that he hired were struggling, but there seems to be more encounter with those who are in Africa on official business or who have connections outside of the continent.  Even his fellow travelers in broken-down vehicles only receive fleeting comments (such as his complaining about screaming kids), leaving me to wonder their stories.  In his other books, he shunned tourist and western officials while interviewing prostitutes and others on the margin of society.  He does, as he has done in many of his books, make contact (or attempts to connect) to authors in the region who do help provide insight into the struggles of the people.   And he still has disdain for tourists (at one point calling a safari operation in Namibia “Trophy Hunting for Dummies”) and for religion (he was especially critical of Brazilian evangelists in Angola and their “prosperity gospel.”) However, he seem to appreciate those who come and make a long term commitment to working for the betterment of the people in the continent.

Another common complaint from Theroux in this book is how he hates cities (here, I have to agree with him).  He notes the similarity of cities—especially within the slums—around the world.  Africa is quickly becoming an urban continent as people leave the countryside for the city, where there are few jobs.  Theroux does seem to be more comfortable in the countryside. 

One of the interesting groups that Theroux explores in Angola are the Chinese. Enterprising Chinese (the first Chinese to come, like the Portuguese, were convicts), have started restaurants and industry (making cinder blocks and roofing tin).  Many of the construction projects including rebuilding railroads (upon which Theroux didn’t travel) are being done by the Chinese, who are creating their own community within the continent.   The role China will play in Africa is important, and Theroux exploration here is enlightening.   He also provides some of the backstory to the funny but not political correct 1984 movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” (156)

Two final complaints (Theroux’s complaining must be catching):  I was disappointed that Theroux didn’t travel in trains (or write more of the experience in the few times he did).  I also wish he (or his editors) would hire a decent mapmaker.  I had to spend time putting the book down and picking up a large atlas to follow his journey.  In my opinion, all his books have poorly drawn maps. 

One final insight:  Zona verde means “The bush.” (322)

Despite the complaints, I am still glad to have read this book and appreciate the new insights I have for the continent.  I have long had a love/hate relationship with Theroux and his travels.   In a way, this book seems more personal as Theroux is often reflecting on his own thoughts.  However, these “reflections” become repetitious and are mainly centered on his age or his loss of identity and his credit card being compromised.   Nothing seems to be resolved and as a traveler, I would have been interested in how he dealt with the credit card problem.  Theroux crankiness is at a new level in this book, but if you can get around that, there is something to be learned from his travels.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Great Deal!

A few months ago, I reviewed a book by a friend of mine since elementary school.  Billy Beasley first novel is A River Hideaway.  From today through Sunday (September 26-28), the Kindle edition of his book will be on sale for only 99 cent for Kindle users.  Check it out!  Click here, for my review.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Learning to Walk in the Dark

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 200 pages

The title of this book intrigued me.  I have long been a fan of Barbara Brown Taylor and have read most everything she's published.  An Altar in the World  and When God is Silent are favorites and I have recommended and lent these two volumes to many people.  Back in the 90s, I was blessed to have been spent a week in San Francisco with a small group led by Taylor and came to admire not only her careful use of language but also her love of the natural world.  When I saw she'd written a book about darkness, I ordered it and immediately started reading, sitting aside other books that I was already reading. 

Taylor describes her book as a journal instead of a "how-to" manual.  She begins her book with a phrase most of us who grew up in an age when kids played outside all day have heard: our mom's calling us, saying, "Come inside now, it's getting dark."  From an early age, we are taught to fear the dark.  Darkness also becomes a metaphor for all that is bad, which is seen through the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Yet, as Taylor points out, the God of the Scriptures is responsible for the darkness, too, having separated day from night.  And besides, there are many good things that happen at night in Scripture (44f). She also raises questions about our "full solar spirituality" which only focuses on the light, the pleasant, the sunny.  Such spirituality sees everything as positive and upbeat, but such theologies fail to provide support when things fall apart.   Quoting theologians and others who have written on darkness and what we might learn from such experiences, she sets off on her journey.  Along the way, she ponders the idea of restaurants where one eats in the dark.  As you are served, you are told where your food is at on your plate (93ff). She goes through a "blind exhibit" where she gets to experience what's it like to move through the world without sight (96ff).  She crawls through a cave in West Virginia.  And she spends the night alone in a cabin in the words, experiencing night in a new way (153ff).

By exploring darkness, Taylor has an opportunity to explore an overlooked branch of theology that expresses what God isn't, instead of what God is.  There is an ancient root to this.  Augustine, in the 4th Century, said, "If you have understood, what you have understood is not God" (144).  She spends time with the writings of John of the Cross who believed "positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing."  By teaching what God is not, John attempts "to convince his readers that their images and ideas about 'God' are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing" (38).

The lunar cycle provides the structure for the book.  She recalls the parallel between the three days separating the old (waning) moon and the new (waxing) moon to the death and resurrection of Jesus (108).   At the end of Taylor's journey, she experiences a moonrise, a new experience for her (166ff).  I was shocked at this, perhaps because I grew up close to the ocean and have experienced many moonrises, especially in the fall of the year while surf fishing at night.  Before the moon appears, there is a light on the distant horizon, and when it rises, it appears to be much larger than it does when overhead, and its rays seem to shimmer across the water as if they were directed at you.   Taylor's moonrise was moving enough that she decided to make a point to experience more such events.   I also found myself wishing that she had experienced a night sleeping under the stars in the desert or high in the mountains, where you wake and gauge the time by how far the stars appear to have moved across the heavenly sphere. 

Although the book may fail to teach us to walk in the dark, it does help us appreciate what we gain from the absence of light.  Quoting Carl Jung, we're reminded that "one does not become more enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." (86)  There is much we might learn from the darkness and Taylor's book is a beginning guide to help us see when the lights dim and the shadows overtake us.