I think there’s something that pulls me—pulls us all towards water. Towards those edges where contrasts between wet and dry, high and low bring life’s richness to bear.
I think that we are pulled towards edges. The wildling in all of us knows that in these edge places an abundance of resources abound. In a place they call Delmarva--an expansive peninsula that stretches from Delaware south to Virgina, there are wondrous spaces between the sea and dry land that exemplify the ecological importance of edgy places. Stitched together with estuaries, mucky plough mud flats, spits of sand and swaths of marsh covered in green spartina the coastal bays of the mid-Atlantic are one such magnetic place that causes many of us to commit time and energy—our heart’s longing—to its well being.
And so two weeks ago I took the ‘round about way home. Home? Yes. Home. The Mid-Atlantic is where my father’s family got its start on New World soil. My paternal slave ancestors likely came south from the tobacco tired Maryland and Virginia region in the 1790’s to Edgefield, South Carolina to plant cotton. And so I saw my call to come to Delmarva and Ocean City, Maryland and speak on my passion for conservation at the “Get Out. Get Green. Get Paid.” Youth Summit as a reunion long overdue. It was also an opportunity to commit to a mission that drives me hardest—that of making nature a more relevant thing for people of all colors.
Carrie Samis, the Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program asked me to come and meet her flock of students who work in the edge places learning about their Home Place.
The Coastal Stewards are high school and college students who give their summers to working with Maryland Coastal Bays Program and its partners, Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park, to conserve, educate and advocate for the natural resources that lie so abundantly on the brackish edge between Maryland’s inland and the Atlantic. Most of the students are like every other young person in their teens or early twenties –full of promise and angst as they try to find identity and purpose. The search for these essentials is made more challenging for some of the Coastal Stewards because we share a common heritage of being Black- Americans.
|Coastal Stewards at work!|
And so flying into Salisbury from Philadelphia, a short flight of a half hour or so, I thought hard about what I’d be saying about being a conservationist. I thought even harder about what I’d be saying about being a conservationist who happens to be black man.
The challenges of being an odd bird—one of the few among many—have followed me through my career. I will always (and proudly) be black and so the challenges will likely always be there. Yes, there has been racism, overt and cleverly hidden. People still have a hard time connecting me with the birds and other wild things I love so dearly. I suppose I should be doing something more “black”—whatever that is. But then there have also been wonderful people and places and opportunities that have presented themselves to me because I’ve proven some competence and passion for saving the wild places and wild things on which we all depend, black, white, brown or otherwise. I had words prepped for the occasion—and slides too. But then upon landing—and even more on a back road tour of the Salisbury, Berlin and Ocean City landscape, my heart flipped. The place was distantly familiar to me. Carrie and I rolled past the flat fields of sunflowers and fallow ones full of Queen Anne’s Lace that define part of the place she proudly calls home. The forests meeting the field edges were full of the same loblollies and hardwoods I know from South Carolina. I saw familiar birds—eastern bluebirds, mourning doves and red-tailed hawks patrolling the ecotones. There were herons and egrets stalking flooded fields. It was the upper South Carolina coastal plain replicated a few hundred miles north. And it felt like home.
As we entered the historic little hamlet of Berlin, Carrie talked about the many rewards of the Coastal Stewards Program. She mentioned her interns by name and talked about each one's unique qualities and abilities. As we left the narrow streets of downtown Berlin with its quaint bistros and shops offering gourmet sandwiches and pastries we crossed some invisible barrier into East Berlin. It was suddenly reminiscent of the Cold War demarcation that sprung up between West and East Berlin in post WWII Germany. Except here the dividing line seemed more defined by color than some hard and fast political ideology.
We went from quaint to Section Eight; from cobblestone to simple concrete and pavement. East Berlin is populated mostly by black folks making do the best they can on low paying jobs in agriculture and at giant poultry processing facilities. For some, working at the chicken factory is apparently a sort of legacy—an expectation that’s passed on from generation to generation. Carrie envisions birds of a different sort delivering opportunity to the community. She remarked how the disparities in wealth and opportunity that challenge East Berlin are sometimes reflected in the youth that come to her program. Recruiting students with little or no knowledge of ecology or maybe even prior interest in the outdoors, she related the challenges that she’d overcome to get greenhorns into opportunities that most dyed in the wool field ornithologists would kill for—banding royal terns and brown pelicans, working in wetlands and spending long days on sandy beaches doing things that most would call play.
|Coastal Stewards are also Junior Outdoor Afro Youth Leaders!|
We drove by a new community garden that the stewards had recently helped install. It was conservation and connection to nature again made immediately relevant. Local foods are a mechanism for getting folks to understand their fate is tied to fresh air, clean water and healthy soil. Most students lucky enough to get selected to the program soon fall in love with the birds and their coastal bays home places in ways they’d never imagined possible. That the program had been such a success in only its fifth year of existence is a testament to how dedication to a conservation cause linked with a passion for bringing all people into the conversation can work for the greater good. For me it was an eye opening to how ecology and everday life can be bound together with bays and birds in ways that are meaningful. This was eco-activism of a different sort.
|Coastal Stewards --The future in good hands!|
|Stewards working across generations!|
I asked several people I met during my time there how it had all come together. To a person they credited Ms. Samis and her ability to pull diverse teams together to fund and facilitate activities that served the students, the bays and their communities. Even more amazing was that the various agencies and stakeholders-- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, Maryland Coastal Bays, and the MD State Park Service, and others--seemed to put their egos aside to make things work.
We left Berlin and found our way to Ocean City. A popular coastal vacation spot, the bright lights and seemingly ubiquitous opportunities to buy swimwear, beer and fast food were everywhere. Vacationers stroll the streets in swimsuits. Everyone is drawn in to this edge place by the water. It initially reminded me a little of a scaled down Myrtle Beach. In South Carolina it’s a place many natives avoid. Over commercialized with too many lights and a less than leisurely pace, those in the know back home would rather find a respite in a quiet place like Edisto, Hunting Island or Kiawah where nature still abounds at the edge between sea and high ground. But then Ocean City seemed different. The ride there through peaceful countryside and the lessons on Coastal Bays and Berlin had my head in a different place. A short turn off the main boulevard would simply make things spin a little faster as I saw that my hotel, the Lighthouse Club at Fager's Island, was surrounded by the Bays “backyard” birds. Just a few hundred yards from the bustle of the boulevard and we were in a different world. My home for the next few days was abutted by a shallow bay dotted with islands and sandy spits overgrown with green marsh grass and swarming with birds. People stood tall on paddle boards and made their way between the islands and through screaming hordes of royal terns and laughing gulls. Hidden clapper rails “klecked” in the tidal marsh and ospreys nurtured the next generation of fish hawks on platforms overlooking the scene. It was an idyll I had not expected. It felt oddly like home.
|(r-l) Nick, Carrie, Dave and unknown-Gleaming in the afterglow of a coastal bays day!|
Along with my friends David Magpiong (of Pledge to Fledge fame) and Outdoor Afro Founder Rue Mapp who were already steeping themselves in the surroundings, we met David Greaves from the Environmental Protection Agency and Nick Clemons, a Ranger at Assateague Island National Seashore. The two professional black men immediately made me proud.
|David Greaves of the EPA (left)--The look of success!|
Young, high achievers who provide real role models for what is possible, it didn’t fall lightly on me that life-taking decisions in Florida and perceptions of black men are always an issue. David Greaves, soft-spoken and professional, is EPA’s liaison to Coastal Bays Program and provides the bulk of the funding that makes the whole thing go. Nick Clemons, a quietly confident and introspective Bronx native, who, as an undergraduate, interned with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and then moved on to secure a National Park Service position, talked about his evolution to be in such a wondrous place.
|Rue Mapp (l) and Nick Clemons, NPS (r)|
We stood in the evening glow with the birds wheeling about, taking the spectacle in. In those moments I’m thankful for birds and kindred spirits who share my love for nature. Willets sat on the hotel rooftops piping like pigeons and an American oystercatcher casually plied his big-beaked trade close enough that binoculars would’ve been excessive. The noise from the state endangered royal terns was almost deafening. I was home.
The next morning I got down to business and met the Coastal Stewards for the first time. An attractive group of energetic, vibrant and intelligent young people, they all seemed genuinely happy for the opportunity to work with the Coastal Stewards program to make their home place a better place. Then, University of Maryland-Eastern Shore Upward Bound students and members of various youth conservation corps groups joined - nearly 200 youth, in all.
I had the honor of sitting on the dais with fantastic speakers who each shared their passion for conservation and how the profession and passion to conserve were opportunities to be explored. Rue Mapp, Amtchat Edwards, and Mirasol Moncada all spoke passionately and moved the audience through comedy and serious consideration. I saw a few tears too.
|Outdoor Afro's Rue Mapp|
When my turn came my heart flipped again and I spoke as simply as I could about what nature meant to me—the wondering and wandering among wild things that moves my soul. I talked frankly too about the hurdles –both within myself and set up by others—that I had to overcome. I spoke of labels and the importance of shedding some and making positive ones. I spoke from my heart more than my head. I hope that the students gleaned something from the words.
I got to spend more intimate time with the students after my presentation. I learned names and asked for personal stories. I was approached by several who told me the words did hit home. One young man re-counted his struggles with his bi-racial heritage and how others—black and white, chose to denigrate his dual heritage with insults and disrespect. We talked honestly and I left learning more than I could teach. The rain poured down in buckets outside but many of the Coastal Stewards and Upward Bound students chose to brave the deluge on the fishing dock, pulling wriggling fish after wriggling fish from the water with no regard for the soaking they were taking.
I could hear the laughter over the downpour. I moved back and forth between the fishing and kids learning to play the spades inside. The game is a rite of passage for young black folks. Around the spades table one not only learns what trumps what, they learn to communicate, cooperate and think.
|aim small... miss small!|
In a back room, Carrie directed students in an archery session where the long lines didn’t discourage eager potential archers from flinging arrows at targets. It was as surreal a scene as I might ever have been involved in. Fisher-people, card-players and archers—all within a sparrow’s hop of one another; each experiencing different things but all experiencing fellowship with nature and connection to each other as a backdrop.
|Coastal Stewards Got Out! Got Green ! And Got Paid!|
In a writing workshop the next day I asked the Coastal Stewards to tell me their stories. Harrison Jackson, Supreme Green, Trevon Johnson, Julio Richardson, Ashley Orr, Tashonna Grant, Omar Alvi, Jamal Alvi, Chelsea Lawson, Amy Cooper, Myia Tariq, Jeremiah Purnell, Isaiah Morris, Alison Alvarado, Chris Parks, and each told stories about what connected them to nature—what the bays and birds meant to them in their own way. What I heard in the two hours of exchange was gratitude, passion and a new way of thinking about nature from people who we hardly ever give voice to. The world was already changing because these young folks decided to care for home. I look into their faces and I see mine. I was moved deeply to my wild colored core by it all.
The words here can only express bits and pieces of what it all meant to me—those four short wonderful days on coastal bays. I hope that I get to go back. After all, it’s always good to come home again.