Somewhere around 10:30 a.m. last Saturday, January 22, it occurred to me that I had never seen so many cold, wet, muddy people look so happy.
They were at Helen Wood Park on Mobile Bay in Alabama ostensibly to help build just under a kilometer of oyster reef—a living shoreline that will help expand and strengthen the marsh, slow erosion and provide important habitat for oysters as well as fish, crabs, wading birds and countless other species that live in the Gulf of Mexico.
But really, they were there for so much more. I had a chance to talk to some of them as they worked next to me and when I thanked them for their time and for coming to help, they all gave me some version of the same response. They thanked me for the opportunity to “do something with my hands for the Gulf.”
They came from as far as San Francisco and New Hampshire and as close as four blocks down the street. A bus full of volunteers from Honda enlivened everyone with their excitement and their bright red shirts. People came in groups and by themselves and with their families and their friends. Ladies from the League of Women Voters made us sandwiches (turkey or peanut butter) and Bethany Kraft of Alabama Coastal Foundation brought her turkey fryer so her husband could make hot chocolate by the boatload.
By the end of the weekend, some 545 people donated their time, and also something of themselves—their spirits and enthusiasm. I am still awed by what I saw.
For hours upon hours, they moved thousands of heavy sacks full of gritty oyster shell. And some of them—most of them—were beyond “muddy.” That’s the polite word for what they were, which was filthy.
I had to look twice at this volunteer—a young man who was part of a group from AmeriCorps who came down to help on their day off. I thought he was wearing boots with his shorts, but no—that’s not a boot. That’s good old Gulf mud caked all the way up to his knee. He looked like he couldn’t have been happier and the amazing thing was, he wasn’t alone.
Everywhere I looked people were laughing and joking, helping each other and helping the Gulf. They were wise in their hope—as one woman told me, “We know one kilometer of new oyster reef in this one place in Mobile Bay will not fix everything that is wrong with the Gulf, but it feels good to start.”
Yes, it does. Stay tuned for more opportunities to help continue the restoration of the Gulf of Mexico. We’ll be in the water from Florida to Texas, and we need your hands, your time and your voice. The Gulf we depend on depends on us. (Bring your boots!)
The recent work at Helen Wood Park in Mobile Bay is part of the larger 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama project. Led by a partnership of the Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile Baykeeper, The Nature Conservancy and the Ocean Foundation, 100-1000 is working to build 100 miles of oyster reefs and plant and promote the growth of 1,000 acres of marsh and sea grass. You can also support the Conservancy’s work in the Gulf with a gift to our Fund for Gulf Coast Restoration.
(Images by Erika Nortemann/TNC.)