The Paddler’s Planet
The Paddler’s Planet by Christian Wagley
One of my favorite things about travel is seeing and appreciating the natural differences that uniquely shape each place and lead thinking people and communities to adapt to live in harmony. Those differences are the reason that landscapes and buildings look different in New Mexico than they do in Florida.
Over the years, I have become much more attuned to my surroundings and anxious to learn about the local conditions wherever I go. Climate, physical forces like waves in the sea and fire on the land, soils, plant communities, and many other natural forces determine the look and feel of every place on Earth. In order to effect positive change on environmental and community issues, this base of knowledge is the foundation of well-informed action.
A recent trip to Amelia Island, Florida —nearly 400 miles to my east—allowed me to experience the uniqueness of northeast Florida. It’s the same latitude as my home in Pensacola, but the differences between the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean sides of Florida are pronounced. Observing and experiencing the differences helps me refine my own level of awareness and ability to discern what drives the uniqueness of every place.
The coastal landscape of north Florida comes into view many miles from the island, as broad expanses of salt marsh extend nearly to the horizon next to a long and winding road across river and bay. Once in my hotel room, I leave open the sliding glass door so I can clearly see the rising light of dawn and enjoy the sounds of the ocean as waves pushed across the mighty breadth of the Atlantic crash upon the shore.
Walking out through the dunes, beaches are wide and flat–a reflection of the high energy of the ocean waves and the broad range of the tides that rise and fall up to eight feet on each cycle. Sands are full of shells whole and broken, indicating the richness of life in the nutrient-rich nearshore waters. The Gulf and inshore waters are dark with life, flowing full of tiny plant life and organic matter swept from the vast marshes and sustaining a very rich aquatic food web that includes the massive piles of oysters exposed at low tide.
All of this contrasts with the coast where I live. Along the northern Gulf waves are small, tidal ranges are only about one foot, beaches are narrower, and pure white sands of mostly quartz cover the beach. Our shorelines have very little salt marsh, and coastal waters run clearer, reflecting a relative paucity of life when compared to the turbid east coast waters.
As one who loves to explore how humans traditionally adapt to local conditions, I set-out to walk the streets. The town of Fernandina Beach is the original settlement on the Island, with many 19th century buildings lining a walkable downtown. Shops, restaurants, and a beautiful 1912 Renaissance Revival-style post office are tucked closely along the street. Wood frame houses with deep porches and live oak trees draped with Spanish moss provide welcome shade from the hot sun.
In an area of many large old homes, there is one street of smaller wood frame homes close along the street—each one with a front porch. I come to one home a little less kempt than the others but ironically showing the most life.
I hear voices from a loud television, as the front door of the home is open, and a well-used wooden screen door allows the sights and sounds of life to flow across a porch that sags just a bit. There’s the silhouette of an older man sitting easily in his big chair in front of the television, with an announcer calling-out election night returns. It looks like he may have lived in this home for much of his life, and I feel some comfort in how many of our basic human actions—including enjoying the familiarity and security of our living spaces—are universal across regions.
Once again I’ve called upon my powers of observation–walking the marshes and beaches, bicycling the town, exploring and observing the wildness of nature and the habits of people. It’s the first thing to do when visiting a new place, and should continue wherever we live and visit. Only by first gathering information, by touching the land and listening to its people, can we know enough to make good decisions about our future.
The Paddler’s Planet by Christian Wagley
If we want to preserve our waters, and the wild and special places that we love, then we have to preserve the land. Because they are so visible to us we often focus on the tiny patches of land in our yards and neighborhoods. And we should make those spaces beautiful and healthy, but they are too small to drive conservation.
What really has to happen is to place large areas of land—thousands of acres at a time–into conservation as national and state parks and forests, as well as private nature preserves. These protected lands are very popular with Americans, who flock to these special places to hike, camp, hunt, fish, and generally enjoy the wildness that tugs at us from deep within our psyche. Humans have spent much more of our history living close to nature, and so we continue to have an innate affinity for it.
However, we also tend to have a hard time living in harmony with the natural world that’s immediately around us. The lights on our porch, the plants in our yards, our dogs and cats, the backyard bird feeder, and even the noise generated from our neighborhoods all disturbs the natural cycles and ways of the natural areas around us.
Where I live in northwest Florida our natural ecosystems depend on fire to recycle nutrients, encourage plants to flower, and to keep the more open landscape favored by animals like gopher tortoises and red-cockaded woodpeckers. These fires happened naturally for thousands of years as lightning bolts ignited the flammable plants, and low-intensity fires burned for weeks at a time over hundreds of thousands of acres.
Today, as homes plop down in the middle of these fire-dependent landscapes, the natural fires are extinguished–starving the land of the very force it needs to remain healthy. So when we look around we see land free of development that we believe is preserved. But without fire, the land and its diversity of plant and animal life die a slow death as it becomes a tangle of thick shrubs that is anything but natural.
Humans are also not very good at restoring what we’ve damaged, or deliberately creating new ecosystems–which actually is not surprising. After all, nature has been creating ecosystems for millions of years, while we’ve only been trying it for a few decades.
For all of these reasons, the benefits of preserving large land areas are incredible. Natural systems need space to ebb and flow, to burn and flood, to wander and explore. They cannot do this easily within and next to our backyards. When we preserve large land areas we can take a step back and allow nature to thrive at its highest level, which includes soaking-up rainfall and delivering purified water into our rivers and streams.
Nearly every U.S. state has a program that buys and preserves wildlands, allowing each of us an opportunity to support these programs and thus help ensure a sustainable future for both people and nature. Florida once had perhaps the nation’s best program, but it has been nearly eliminated by the State legislature over the past several years.
In this year’s election, Florida voters will be asked to support Amendment 1, which would establish a land preservation program in the State constitution. This would guarantee the program for 20 years and in a manner in which the whims of the legislators would have no impact. With as much as 7 million acres of Florida’s wilds forecast to be lost by 2060, my fellow residents have a golden opportunity to help preserve our future.
We must continue to love, respect, protect, and enhance our yards and our neighborhood parks. But we also must see the big picture, and work to save the large and beautiful lands that we love and that love us back with clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and space for human solace and recreation. Our very survival depends on it.
The Paddler’s Planet by Christian Wagley
The calendar and thermometer say it’s summer, as hot days and sticky nights continue to prevail along the Gulf of Mexico. Neighbors lament the heat and humidity, and my wilting garden and tomato plants barren of fruit speak of the rigors of late summer. Yet looking closely I see the many subtleties of the season, as the signs are here that summer is slowly loosening its grip.
Unlike the tenuous winter cold, the heat of a Florida summer is constant. As an antidote we move slower and seek the cooling shade beneath a tree, the sea breeze, the afternoon thunderstorm, the glass of iced tea garnished with a sprig of mint from the garden.
Our clever adaptations help greatly, but never fully tame the beast of summer. So I relish the fall, when the air turns cooler and dryer.
Just a couple of weeks before the autumnal equinox and the official start of fall, there’s no cool air yet. But I do notice the sun lower in the sky and less intense as it moves toward the southern hemisphere.
In my yard, the shorter days trigger the longleaf pine trees to drop pine needles to the ground, which I gather for mulch that adds the beautiful burnt red color of fresh pine straw to my landscape. A few monarch butterflies flutter-by, and the buds of fall wildflowers swell.
On the Gulf, the north wind blows more of the time, calming the water like a little backyard pond and turning it shades of deep blue and green. Diving into the calm seas I feel cooler water as the Gulf catches-up with the sun that has been lessening in intensity for nearly three months now.
I find great joy in being attuned to the season, and adapting my life to work in concert with it. I cook, eat and work differently in July than I do in January. All of that has helped me to make peace with the seasons, so that I like them all and look forward to what each one brings.
So go outside. Breathe gently. Take a hike, a swim, and a paddle. Notice the sun lower in the sky, the squirrels busily preparing for winter, the nuts falling from the pecan trees, and whatever seasonal changes are happening where you live. Feeling the seasons is another part of living well, and living with purpose.
***Join us Saturday September 13, for World Paddle for the Planet Day! Paddles begin at noon all across the globe. Let’s send a wave of change for the Planet! Post your paddle activities on our Facebook page!***
The Paddler’s Planet by Christian Wagley
It was a temperate mid-summer night and a promised “supermoon” that brought a friend and me out to a favorite spot on Pensacola Bay. As the calm and beauty of the evening took over and we relaxed into the moment, the real story of my local bay was absent in the same way it is for thousands of waterways across the country. Yet these hidden stories must be told if we are to restore and protect the places we love.
From high on a bluff overlooking Pensacola Bay, an August “supermoon” rises boldly above the horizon. A few lights from docks and homes twinkle on the far shoreline; farther in the distance on Santa Rosa Island are the concrete and steel towers that house thousands of tourists on their beach vacations. Along the National Seashore there is dense forest and darkness.
The bay waters are calm and quiet, with not a boat in-sight. The peaceful immediate surroundings make the bay itself seem much like it would have looked in 1559, when the Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna sailed his ships into the Bay to escape a hurricane that eventually took them all to the bottom.
For all its beauty, it is a superficial look, and that is the only type that most of us ever get. We gaze out from above and celebrate the view.
Few of us stick our heads below water, or wade the shallows, or pull nets along the shore to see what we can catch. Most of the old fishermen who saw the bounty of the Bay in its earlier days have passed-on with time. Today just a handful of scientists look deeper, testing water and sediment samples, looking at plankton under a microscope, or inventorying the larval insects living beneath decaying leaves in a stream.
Those few who look deeper, or who saw the Bay in its time of great biological wealth, know the real story. They know that despite the idyllic view from above, that my local bay, and thousands like it, are very sick.
Water is a fluid and dynamic medium that closely reflects the world around it. As it absorbs all that touches air and land, the falling rain, the groundwater that flows beneath our feet, and all the streams, lakes, rivers, bays, and oceans tell the full story.
When communities are healthy, the waters around them are usually healthy. For Pensacola Bay, with a legacy of heavy industry, untreated runoff from city streets, and thousands of miles of dirt roads that wash away with every rain, the conditions are not good.
The most prominent indicator of all are seagrasses, the submerged vegetation of shallow waters that are gone from 95 percent of their former range in the Bay. The near-complete absence of seagrasses and loss of their vital function as a fish nursery tells us that Pensacola Bay is very, very sick.
Yet since most residents don’t look close enough to notice whether seagrasses are present, or never saw the Bay in its former days of bounty, they don’t notice anything amiss. For most, the Bay continues to look nice from above, just as it did on that recent night of the “supermoon”. Or they are distracted by more tangible assaults such as litter, which is actually quite trivial compared to the major causes of decline in our nation’s waters.
If we are to save our waterways, we must make visible what today is invisible to most. We must tell the stories of how prolific and healthy our local rivers and bays once were, and work with scientists to make the current conditions more tangible to those who happily gaze upon our waters. We must use the limitless energy and creativity of the human spirit to bring light to that which hides in darkness beneath the surface of the waters we love.