ILLUSTRATION & PHOTOS Catherine McGuigan DESIGN Doug Dobey
by Charles McGuigan
There’s an old saying that advises you not to defecate where you eat. Another variation of that same aphorism suggests you not soil your own bed.
As a species we have done that and so much more. Not only have we fouled where we sleep and eat, we have poisoned the air we breathe. This, too: we have even polluted the water we drink, and seem hell-bent on irrevocably contaminating and destroying the great nurturer of all life—the sea.
“For all at last returns to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the everflowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.” So wrote Rachel Carson, mother of the modern environmental movement, almost seventy years ago. Trained as a marine biologist, Rachel Carson, who was called the scientist-poet of the sea, would later write “Silent Spring”, which proved conclusively that chemical corporations were poisoning the world we live in, and lying about it. With the publication of that book back in 1962, the environmental movement was launched. The power of her words would lead, one year later, to the Clean Air Act, and the following year to the Wilderness Act. But the book’s impact continued to grow. Rachel’s words lived on, even after her death, propelling lawmakers to pass the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, and ultimately, to establish, in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency.
When I was a boy, our family, all seven of us, packed into a station wagon as big as a boat, barreled north up the interstate, and visited, for the first time, coastal Maine, and Canada’s maritime provinces. My brother Marty and I spent hours in the tidal pools on low tide, examining the abundant life cradled and trapped in these small hollows carved out of solid granite. We would lift curtains of bladderwrack and rockweed, great strands of amber seaweed which grew from the sides of granite monoliths, and unveil rock crabs and colonies of clinging limpets, and below the dense crust of barnacles, we would settle into the water itself and find sea urchins and starfish moving slowly among banana-like clusters of mussels as dark blue-black as moonless midnight. Small fish lived in these pools, and tiny grass shrimp, and thousands of periwinkles, and the occasional hermit crab who had taken the vacant home of a deceased periwinkle and made it its own. Since that time, I have always sought out those tidal pools along that rocky coast, something my children now do every time we head to the far north.
Years after that first introduction to Maine’s tidal pools, I would read Rachel Carson’s books, and find that she was inspired to investigate our delicately balanced biosphere by these very same tidal pools of Maine. In fact, she built a house on a rock overlooking a tidal pool, where she would study the shoreline world, mainly at night, armed only with a flashlight. About the same time I was reading “The Sea Around Us”, I came across a word that captured my imagination, and still holds it hostage today. The word was microcosm, and when I fully understood its meaning, I immediately considered the tidal pools, for they had always reminded me of miniature manifestations of the oceans at large.
There is a very large microcosm of the ocean right here in Virginia, but it is not ringed in rock. Instead, it is surrounded by thick strands of sand on the east, and low lying mud flats on the west, and it runs north to south more than seventy miles. It is one of the most studied ecosystems on the planet, and had it not been for the efforts of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) over the past fifty years, it would have been destroyed beyond reclamation by greedy developers and other money-obsessed enemies of the Earth. Today, it is a working laboratory of environmental science that shares its knowledge with the entire world. And it is a success story of what can happen when an entire community, led by a team of committed scientists, join together to combat environmental degradation.
This system of barrier islands and seaside bays and riparian lands are on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. This past October, just before Halloween, my daughter Catherine, an environmental scientist and artist, traveled with me to experience this unique ecosystem first hand. We were guests of TNC’s Virginia Coast Reserve, and its executive director, Jill Bieri.
The day is overcast and cool, and a mist falls faintly, as we pass through the village of Nassawadox and make our way out Brownsville Road to the headquarters of the Virginia Coast Reserve. Jill Bieri greets us and invites us into a large conference room. Like all the other Nature Conservancy employees and volunteers we will encounter here over the next two days, Jill is a wealth of documented scientific fact, and exudes energy and enthusiasm and love for this place she and her fellow scientists call home.
Jill tells us that TNC is the single largest landowner on the entire Eastern Shore of Virginia. Other portions of this singular peninsula and its barrier islands are owned and protected by other conservation groups.
“On this seventy-five mile long peninsula, one hundred and thirty-three thousand acres are protected,” she says. “That includes state holdings, federal holdings, The Nature Conservancy’s lands that we own outright, and those that are owned by private landowners and are held in conservation easements either by The Nature Conservancy or the Virginia Eastern Shore Land Trust, or other entities like Ducks Unlimited.”
Though the conservancy owns the bulk of the delicate chain of barrier islands just off the peninsula, they have partners who are equally committed to protecting this rare environment.
“Out of the eighteen marsh and barrier islands that exist on the Virginia coast, we own all, or parts of fourteen of them,” says Jill. “Fisherman’s Island, Assaateague and Wallops are federally owned. Assawoman, Wreck and Mockhorn are owned by the state. But we all manage the islands together as a partnership.”
Jill refers to the Virginia Coast Reserve as one of TNC’s flagships. “The programs that we have here really do sort of encompass all that The Nature Conservancy is,” she says. “Long-term land conservation, protecting that land, managing that land in a responsible way, connecting people with nature, doing restoration in this area. So we really are a flagship, a shining star for The Nature Conservancy.”
We begin our tour with the Brownsville Preserve which encompasses about twelve hundred and fifty acres of maritime forests, fresh water impoundment areas and coastal salt marshes, which support a variety of habitats for a host of denizens that crawl, slither, swim, and fly. Half a dozen of us board what amounts to screened-in porch on wheels that is pulled along at a snail’s pace over a rutted road by a white pickup truck. Jenny Miller, who manages the preserve, acts as our tour guide.
“What you’re seeing off in the distance there is a coastal salt marsh,” she says. Jenny gestures to a vast expanse of grasses of different hues, from black needle rush in the higher marsh area down to spartina, which thrives in a salt water environment. This marsh is bordered on each side by large stands of loblolly pine, and ends on an arm of Hog Island Bay.
In another salt marsh there are a number of dead cedars, white as bone. “That is most likely due to salt water intrusion,” says Jenny. “When the saltwater comes up and floods in these high marsh areas and gets up on the edges of these maritime forests, these trees, like the red cedars and the loblolly pines, are not adapted to dealing with that long period of standing water and also salt, and so they can’t deal with it and it stresses them out, and then eventually they’ll die off.”
This is just one example of the undeniable sea level rise we will see over the next two days. And that rise in sea level is due to human activity, and the resulting global climate change.
Along with her duties as preserve manager, Jenny also heads up the education program, which is an integral part of the Virginia Nature Reserve’s mission. “I coordinate and run the fifth and seventh grade field trips for our local schools,” she says. “It’s fun to see the kids out exploring, and doing all sorts of things that they don’t normally get to do.”
When I ask, jokingly, if the kids start forest fires, Jenny shakes her head, and, not missing a beat, says, “Noooooo. There’s no fire involved. But hopefully we’re sparking a fire for them to become future stewards.”
Education can do this. ”We definitely mention that as sea levels rise we’re going to see a change in our vegetation and a change in our habitats,” Jenny says. “And we talk about the human impact that we have on these areas of the Eastern Shore, both positive and negative. Sometimes it’s a tough topic to talk about, but we definitely mention it because we know it’s an important concept for them to at least start thinking about.”
Margaret Van Clief, who sits next to Jenny, is the Reserve’s outreach and education coordinator. “I partner with Jenny in our education program by leading the tenth grade field trips out to Parramore Island where we do discuss a little bit more climate change related stuff,” says Margaret.
Out on Parramore, there’s a mile-long path that cuts straight across island through the heart of a maritime forest. “We take the kids through several different ecosystems, and we talk a bit about changes occurring over the years,” Margaret says. “When we first land there, we’re in a bayside marsh, and you can see some of the die-off of cedars like the ones we just saw. When we reach the other side of the cross island trail, we’re out on the beach, and we do an activity that helps the students understand longshore drift, the way sediment moves along the coast of a barrier island. And we’ll talk to some extent about how climate change is effecting these things and what humans can do, but we also talk a lot about adaptation because we’re definitely in a period here now where these changes are happening.”
Which leads her to another important aspect of her job.
“Community engagement is absolutely a conservation goal for the Virginia Coast Reserve,” says Margaret. “We do a lot of conservation and restoration work, and without community support, we would be nowhere. A lot of what we do is simply go out and listen in the community, and talk to people about what they’re experiencing, and then talk to them about how we can all play a role together in adaptation.”
One of the keys, too, is stressing the economic value of a conserved landscape. Thanks to two projects TNC engaged in years ago, the local fisheries, once near collapse, have rebounded in exceptional ways. Through the eel grass restoration project (the largest one in the world, by the way), and the steady rebuilding of oyster reefs, the seaside bays of Virginia are now some of the cleanest water on the entire East Coast of America.
“The Eastern Shore is the largest exporter of clams in North America, and that is definitely due to improved water quality,” Margaret says. “We’ve also now got a major hard shell clam fishery and oyster aquaculture. Wild oyster harvesting and clamming have made a comeback, as well food fish, and crabs. And all of this is because of the positive water quality that we have. So part of my job is to talk about all this stuff.”
So much of the Conservancy’s work on the Eastern Shore is dependent on its volunteers. Two of them are with us as we make our way through the Preserve.
Barbara O’Hare has been volunteering for the past four years, working with the kids, mainly, though she has done her share of community outreach activities. “I’ve been out on Parramore Island to help with the renovation of the Coast Guard boathouse,” she says.
Judy Illmensee, a retired school teacher from Long Island, has been living on the shore about five years, and almost soon she arrived became an Eastern Shore master naturalist. “It was only natural that I fell into volunteering with kids here on the shore,” she says. “In fact, I subbed for a little while, so I got to know the culture of the children here on the Eastern Shore. The thing that I like to get across to them as subtly as I can is how fortunate they are to have this as their home.”
Later that day, we drive over to the waterfront village of Wachapreague and board a Privateer, a dependable, seaworthy craft still built down in Beaufort, North Carolina. Our captain is Marcus Killmon, whose roots grow deep in the Eastern Shore. Among the others on our vessels is Bo Lust, another local, who is a coastal scientist specializing in marine habitat restoration.
I take a position next to Marcus in the wheelhouse. “I used to work on the charter boats when I was growing up,” he tells. “You used to be able run up between Parramore and Revels Island, and all of that’s closed off now.”
He points to a thin line of spartina that runs parallel to the waterfront about a hundred yards from the shoreline. “That berm was a lot higher, and that would actually protect boats from a lot of the wave action,” Marcus says. “If it was too bad of a storm, a lot of the captains would take their boats into the headwaters of Finney Creek.” He studies the berm, which is now almost level with the water, just sprouting inches above it. “All of this used to be twice as high,” he says. “When I was a kid, you could walk up and down it with no problem.”
Now, with sea-level rise, Wachapreague itself is under threat. “A lot of what the town’s wanting to do is to try to rebuild that to help keep some of the wave action from hitting the docks,” says Marcus. “You’re not going to stop the water from coming up into the roads, but you can stop the wave heights.”
Jill, who is also with us, nods along. “The sea is rising,” she says. “Six times a year the road at Brownsville is completely underwater. And on the south end of Brownsville, there’s no farming there anymore it’s gotten so low. People here have seen it happen over their lifetimes. They do know it’s changing. Something’s happening. Their docks are underwater, or there’s a road they can’t access.”
One of the ways to absorb some of that wave energy is by creating oyster reefs, which is one of Bo’s specialties. “I do marine habitat restoration work, and that specifically means restoring oyster reef habitats and sea grass habitats,” he says.
When that last vestige of salt marsh disappears, the waterfront of Wachapreague will be susceptible to head on attacks by the rising waters. ”Once it’s eroded, the working waterfront of the town of Wachapreague is going to be exposed to a whole lot of wave energy,” says Marcus. “So we’re doing an oyster restoration project along that shoreline to see if we can stop that erosion.” Oyster reefs have proven effective deterrents against wave energy elsewhere in the seaside bays.
“We’ve shown that these arrays of oyster castles are helping to attenuate waves, or dampen waves,” Marcus says. “It’s a good nature-based solution to protect these really vulnerable coastal communities.”
After a short visit to Parramore Island, we return to Wachapreague, and Catherine and I have dinner and then turn in.
The next day, we board a much smaller boat out of Oyster, and make our way out to the southern tip of Cobb Island. Throughout the morning, we can see the evidence of all the work TNC has done to reinvigorate these ecosystems. For one thing, though it’s overcast again, the water is crystal clear and the color of the gemstone, aquamarine, and you can see all the way to bottom where pale emerald blades of eel grass wave with the currents.
About five hundred acres of eel grass had been planted in the seaside bays, and the grass quickly spread, now covering some nine thousand acres. And with the restoration of these grasses, sea scallops may soon make a comeback. We see more and more oyster reefs, like veritable hills rising from the bay. And they are not only filtering the water, they are also absorbing wave energy.
After tying up at the dock back in Oyster, we join Jill Bieri back at the Virginia Coast Reserve headquarters. She tells us how TNC’s operation on the Eastern of Virginia is helping folks all around the globe cope with environmental cataclysms.
“Those communities might not have the water quality conditions that we have, or have these intact natural systems that we have, but they can learn from what we are doing,” she says. “And we can learn from other scientists as well. We are hosting study groups tours both within the Nature Conservancy, and with external partners from around the world who are saying, ‘Hey, I need to get out there and see what’s going on. I want to look at how you’ve been successful with the eel grass restoration project. What techniques are you using for the oyster restoration? And we need to fix our water quality so we can get to that point.’”
For the past forty years, less than a decade after TNC started its program on the Eastern Shore, the Virginia Shore Reserve has been a part of UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Man and the Biosphere Programme.
“We were one of the first sites around the world designated as part of this UN program,” she says. ”The program’s about protecting lands and waters, and then having those lands and waters be used sustainably to help local economies. So, it’s really very analogous to the goals of The Nature Conservancy.”
The current administration, known for its Neanderthal understanding of global climate change, no longer recognizes the Virginia Coast Reserve’s membership in UNESCO. “But we still are part of one of seven hundred sites around the world that belong to that organization,” says. Jill. “We’re connected to the world. It would be really easy to think, what I have done for the last thirty years of my career? Is all for naught because of what’s going on right now. But I don’t feel that way. This is just a blip, and I believe this is where I need to be because I think we are a global organization that can take the science and answer these questions, help to make policy changes and bring the right people to the table. That’s why I’m upbeat.”
And you can hear it in her voice, and see it her eyes, which flash with a limbic spark. “It goes along with what you said earlier about me, that I’m optimistic,” says Jill. “And I am, because we’re doing stuff every single day. There’s a lot of doom and gloom, and you see the data and, you know, if carbon levels get to this level at a certain point, we’re at a point of no return. But we’re not there yet, and so let’s keep really focusing on the positive.”
Jill looks past me to a fellow scientist, my daughter, Catherine, who is now twenty-three.
“I think about my children, who are twenty and twenty-one,” she says. “When I went into marine science thirty years ago, there were very few women in marine science. Now, it’s more of a mainstream career.”
Turns out her daughters are following in the footsteps of their mother. “Both of my daughters are majoring in either marine science or environmental science, mainstream and respected professions,” says Jill Bieri. “I mean, we don’t give them any credit. We say they’re lazy and they don’t work hard enough. That’s not been experience. They’re going to change the world, they’re the ones.”
Like the teenager who just became Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg, whom Margaret Atwood compared to Joan of Arc. She, like so many of her peers, has the fight and the will of the Maid of Orleans.