I seek relief in Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the day Trump tells four women of color to go back to where they came from. I walk the gravelly path, canopies of live oaks and loblollies shading the way – cicadas in full song – aged wood and pine straw scenting the air. Wisps of Spanish moss coexist with other allied plants seeking nutrients of the air. I’m slowly learning the names, the history of this place. Today, public lands are an act of resistance. Let resurrection ferns, wax myrtle, false rosemary, reindeer moss, and red saddlebags the size of small birds dissent.
Anoles rattle the tops of dried saw palmettos. If only I could turn into a tree and live here year round, to be a devoted resident of a scrub forest. I could witness and mourn and thrive like Cyparissus – all the losses and deaths by a thousand cuts and the milky way each inky night – to go back to where I came from. A spiral – stardust – carbon.
This is a safe place, far from news cycles, from the souvenir shops, jellyfish of the sky – aka parasailers – the exotic zoos, high rise condos, single-use plastics, and the endless lines of traffic snaking every inch of blacktop. In truth, I am not far from the place the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brought enslaved Blacks to build a fort eventually commandeered by the Confederate Army. The narratives of black faces in these white spaces are difficult to locate. Too many stories have already been buried.
To travel through the changing ecology of a place – from oak to pine to tidal swamp to salt marsh – brackish lagoon, and then the path winding toward sand dunes large enough for sand oaks to flourish – a mountainous sugary forest tufted in leathery leaves – and finally to the Gulf – the surf populated by hundreds of pelicans, gulls, terns, and sandpipers – all gathered for the wormy feast at their feet. No wonder this place is called refuge.
It’s safe to assume you will encounter a handful of people, if that – those die hard birders on a 90+ day, heat index of 103. I plop down on a wooden bridge over the canal connecting the lagoon to Gator Lake. A great blue heron rises and disappears beyond a grassy bend. I hear the cry of an osprey. This is the perfect place to scan for young alligators. If I sit still long enough, at least twenty minutes, my eyes slowly adjust to the enormous drama. A 220 million year lineage continues as a striped mud turtle rests in the shade of marsh grasses, and a painted turtle materializes from the rusty depths. For a moment, I’m not sure which Epoch I inhabit. Between the blades of grass, a slim black arm shimmers in the sunshine. At night, the snake will seek warmth on the walking path. Three pipefish suddenly appear – one nosing another – their bodies a creamy blue. Schools of minnows make all the letters of the alphabet. Rhythms of my own body align with the heat and humidity. Perched as still as a sea snail, I keep waiting for Alligator mississippiensis, and then the trance is broken by the sound of music.
Cyclists park their bikes next to a bird stand, music still playing on a portable device. It sounds like Mariachi music, which I would normally enjoy, say, in a Mexican restaurant, but why, for the love of Pete, do they feel the need to share it with the wildness? I want to march up to them and ask, “Why did you come here just to listen to music? Do you realize there’s a whole symphony happening all around you, all the time, 24/7?!” My biases do not elude me. I have strong opinions about what is okay and what is not okay on public lands. Part of my American identity (and mythology) is the solitude and solace wild places offer and what it means exactly to express these values. Our founding environmental fathers and mothers would have never endorsed smartphones, Go Pros, smart speakers, and the like while seeking the restorative benefits of nature, and so, do I give myself special permission for my love of recording, photographing, and filming what I see in the wild? I wonder what Muir would have thought of Gortex or write-in-the-rain paper. Did Rachel Carson whistle while she researched?
Of the three cyclists, one of them is a guide. He could be Jerry Garcia’s younger, fitter brother. In forty years of visits to the Gulf Coast, never did I anticipate personal guides who offer complementary music while pedaling through a national wildlife refuge. I was raised to honor and respect cultural heritage. Would I feel differently if the music were Classical, say, Bach, performed by Yo Yo Ma? The answer is a hard-to-swallow Yes. I associate Mariachi with schlocky Americanized Mexican restaurants. Classical music feels contemplative with the land. This problematic admission tells me that my Americanness is intertwined with white, privileged transcendental biases – that if Debussy were playing, I would be elevated to an even higher high, as if the heavens inserted a PICC line, pumping endorphins straight to my heart. The sharp notes I hear in the refuge rattle my private world. Even now, as I write this, I question the origins of the music. Maybe it was something else, and I leapt to this reference for that particular moment – all in infantile protest – shining a light on ignorance and prejudices I never thought were there. A bit of research reveals the roots of Mariachi are not unlike Jazz – both are a culturally blended art created by people of color who have been systemically oppressed and disenfranchised.
It takes energy to think critically.
I leave the bridge and continue walking, hoping the music people will not follow. On the thin stretch between the lagoon and the lake, I first hear – then see – what makes any kind of music in the refuge seem okay: a jet ski. The high-pitched whine of the engine shatters any hope of communal solitude. It sounds like the water is made of wood, cut by a chainsaw. A heron leaps into the air, away from the two-seater operated by a man who is spooned by an oiled woman. The man slides off into the water and wades. He is smiling and splashing water on his arms and chest. The woman is about to join him when some primal urge in me rises up, and I yell,
“Have ya seen any gators?”
The man’s voice tells me he must be from Alabama – affable, easygoing, a lovely cadence to his words. “Here? Nah. They’re over there in Gator Lake but not here. It’s too salty.”
And then, out of my anger at Trump and the mobile music and the aquatic dirt bike ripping through critical habitat, I lie.
“Well, I just saw one right over there,” pointing toward an area not twenty feet from them, “and it was biiiig.” I relish the extra syllables rolling off my tongue.
“What!?” he exclaims. The man jumps back on the jet ski faster than a mating turtle, and the two zip back to where they came from, leaving me in a stunned silence.
I breathe in thick air and walk toward the dunes with an empty pit in my gut. The sound of the jet ski fades over the horizon. I am winded, thirsty, and overheated – struck by uncertainty about my place in the biotic community.