The Valley and the Sea

22 May
Sun rises over beach in Port Aransas.

Sun rises over beach in Port Aransas.

When I pull up near the surf, the sun, a fluorescent pinkish orange, has just emerged from the eastern horizon. I blew 200 bucks on a Port Aransas hotel last night out of fear I wouldn’t break camp in time to meet naturalist Tony Amos at this precise spot; I realize now that I could have camped here, like a dozen or so others, opening my tent flap to the roaring surf, and sleeping better in the bargain.

Of course, the last time I pitched my tent on a Texas beach at night, back in 1986, we awoke to the realization that the sand was covered with blotches of tar from an oil spill. The stains remain still on my tent.

There is no tar today, mercifully. Even the cars that cruise the beach here are few and far between. When Tony – a 76-year-old oceanographer who has taken his detailed counts from this stretch of beach some 4,800-odd times over a period of 37 years – picks me up, there’s plenty of natural wonders to try to see through his expert eyes. Recording meticulously, he’ll count more than 800 individual birds on several miles of beach, as well as periodically pacing off the beach width and even measuring temperature, salinity and wind direction. If I point out a bird to him, he refuses to count it, as he doesn’t know if he’d have seen it – he strives to maintain a constant method from count to count. So I settle for picking up trash when I see it, lugging plastic bottles over to garbage cans.

“I don’t do that,” he tells me. “I’d never be able to finish if I did.”

For such reasons, he said, humans “aren’t my favorite entities,” although he then laughs and adds, “I shouldn’t say that.”

Tony leaves vehicle for one of his periodic measurements.

Tony leaves vehicle for one of his periodic measurements.

Not that Amos is a curmudgeon. His cordial English politeness has earned him friends all over this small Texas beach town, particularly when paired with his founding of the Animal Rescue Keep – which abbreviates to ARK, perfect for a barefoot man with long flowing white hair and beard. But unlike the Biblical figure, he resists dire prophecies; he says that when he’s interviewed, he resists “futuristic speculation” about long-term consequences.

“I don’t see doom and gloom when I think of the environment. When I get out there I see the sun rising over the horizon, I see the waves on the ocean I see this and I see that, and I know that nature has got an ability to survive some of this stuff.”

Are you more positive because you’re engaging in action?

“Yes. And I look at everything, and I see things like this.” He pulls out his camera, shows me a picture of two tiny flowering plants casting minute shadows on damp sand. “You know those large photographs with a single word under it, like, say, ‘Courage’. I want to blow this up; I just don’t know the word yet.”

“Hope,” perhaps?

That’s certainly something I’ve noticed over my week in south and central Texas. Down near the border in the Rio Grande Valley, at Proyecto Desarrollo Humana, I visited with Sister Emily Jocson and others – some nuns, some not – working to help immigrant families; you would think the overwhelming tide of immigrants, and the poverty most will likely never quite escape, would make that an ultimately sad visit. But of course those who work there were already aware of poverty, either superficially or intimately – Sister Emily grew up in the Philippines, where she was able to attend college and earn her civil engineering degree, but she saw plenty growing up in a Third World country. But much like Tony Amos being moved by a small flowering plant, she sees up close the quieter triumphs.

“The most rewarding is when I see people being empowered and that their lives have changed. There’s this movement from one level to another.” For instance, typically, she said, Mexican women don’t state their opinions even when asked, but at the community center, “they could express themselves, and you can see a change when they express themselves. Even their families are seeing the change.”

Sister Emily, right, shares laugh with clinic supervisor Shirley.

Sister Emily, right, shares laugh with clinic supervisor Shirley.

Then, of course, there are the more measurable ones – such as Aranet, the young woman working the reception counter. Her parents waded across the Rio Grande – her mother and sister floating in a tire while others pushed – and she came over later on someone else’s papers.

But now she’s documented, and, thanks to both donors and to parents who see the bigger picture, she’s attending college to become a physical therapist. She became interested while volunteering as an adolescent at the community center, where physical therapists, doctors and dentists donate basic services to people in the neighborhood. She wants to come back herself and do the same. “I think a lot of people need it.”

Tony, of course, has his own stories, fueled by his own compassion for both sea creatures and the people who want to help them.

What keeps him going? “First of all, I have empathy for these animals – without that you can’t do this.”

Daring to feel for them, however, could open him up to deeper outrage at threats to those creatures, from massive oil spills by corrupt corporations to the campers who leave fires burning, creating a situation where birds tempted to pick through the hot coals could harm themselves.

What balances against all these invitations to cynicism?

“What balances against that is that we use human beings we can’t be totally practical,” he says, laughing deeply. “It’s like the argument about recycling, what we do may be of no real help, but what it does do is promote a consciousness in the person who is doing it, as well as the thing being done, so it has merit that way, especially for young people. Do we always have to equate things we do with a measure of success or failure or gain, ultimately financial gain?”

Perhaps that’s why, despite all the large-scale abuses that sometimes makes me paradoxically angry and cynical, I walked away from both Sister Emily and Tony Amos feeling happier, not sadder. Elated, even.

Holding a busily flapping green sea turtle in the ARK.

Holding a busily flapping green sea turtle in the ARK.

Particularly at the ARK, where there were a lot of opportunities for me to play a part in the successes. The staff let me throw fish to the injured pelicans – a challenge in that healthy pelicans fly into the pen to try to cut in on the action, putting me in the position of a quarterback trying to get the attention of his wide receiver – as well as feed baby starlings.

And while I saw a dead sea turtle, I was later given the honor of releasing three live ones, fully healed, from a jetty lining the boats’ path to the sea. Anxious not to drop any of the green sea turtles, I lowered each into the surf, trying to point them toward the open sea.

One dove deep and disappeared, a second swam away from the sea – and the third shot up the channel, swimming so vigorously, it was hard to believe s/he ever needed rescuing.

I stared until the third turtle disappeared in deeper water – then clambered back up the rock jetty, feeling a little healthier myself.


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