Finding Resiliency in the People of the Gulf

The following guest post was written by Christine Griffiths, communications manager for The Nature Conservancy’s North American priorities. Christine is based in northeast Florida.

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By Christine Griffiths

The late Wangari Maathai, the women’s rights campaigner, professor, founder of the Green Belt Movement and Nobel Peace laureate, used to tell a story of a hummingbird:

A large forest fire forced all the woodland animals from their home. Feeling overwhelmed and powerless, the animals watched helplessly as the fire destroyed their forest, all except the hummingbird. He took a drop of water from a nearby stream and released it onto the fire, again and again, flying as fast as he could. The other animals tried to discourage him, saying that he was too small and couldn’t carry enough water. The hummingbird replied, “I am doing the best I can.” 

After all that has happened in the Gulf of Mexico — repeated hurricanes, a tumbling economy and finally, one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history — you would imagine that the people of the region would feel as beaten and battered as their coast. Not so. After repeated trips to the Gulf in the last couple of years, I’ve been in awe of the hummingbird spirit that soars in these coastal communities.

In December 2010, Atlanta filmmaker Andrew Kornylak and I, along with my colleague Cara Byington, traveled to Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a small fishing town along Mobile Bay’s western shore. From successful entrepreneurs to striving local business owners, from recreational fishers to out-of-work shrimpers, we interviewed a number of locals who all had a personal version of the same story: Mobile Bay and the greater Gulf of Mexico provide the foundation for the culture and economy of the coastal communities. When the natural resources suffer, so do the people.

During that first trip, we met several people from the local Southeast Asian fishing community. Men, women, young, not-so-young — what they all had in common was that they were out of work due to the oil spill. One woman lost her shrimp boat years earlier in Hurricane Katrina, so she went to work shucking oysters in a local seafood processing plant. But once the oil spill started, the plant was shut down. Her whole way of life was in jeopardy. We heard story after story, each more heart breaking than the last. For all that the people of Bayou La Batre had been through, they were ready to work their way back, given the opportunity. Their resiliency was inspiring.

Fortunately, through Boat People SOS, several found employment bagging oyster shells for a living shoreline restoration project, the first project spearheaded by 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama, a coalition that The Nature Conservancy helped organize. That partnership continues today as workers with Boat People SOS are helping the Conservancy install living shorelines this spring in Mobile Bay. In effect, these out-of-work fishers and seafood industry workers are helping to repair the very natural resources they depend on for a living.

See how 500+ volunteers built an oyster reef from those bags of shells.

Earlier this month, Andrew and I returned to coastal Alabama. This time we spent our trip on the east side of Mobile Bay. Among those we interviewed were Alan Williams, a horticulture teacher, and his students at the North Baldwin Center for Technology. Through the Grasses in Classes program, Williams and his students are growing marsh and seagrasses to enhance living shoreline projects around Mobile Bay.

Andrew and I met the class early one morning along the shores of Weeks Bay, a small estuary on Mobile Bay’s eastern shore, where students donned chest-high waders and set out in pairs with shovel in hand to plant the very marsh grass they grew in their classroom. Supervised by Williams and Margaret Sedlecky, coordinator of the Grasses in Classes program for Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the teenagers ventured into the shallows and worked quickly and meticulously, despite pesky swarms of no-see-ums buzzing around their heads. Most of the students had grown up along the bay, fishing with their parents and grandparents and hunting in the nearby coastal forests. To these kids, this was a day to get out of the classroom, get their hands dirty, their feet wet and have fun. Whether they realized it or not, they were changing their corner of the world.

Years from now, each of them will be able to return to this spot and show their own children a flourishing shoreline, teeming with life. They will have the satisfaction of knowing that they helped save this shore from erosion while creating a healthy aquatic habitat for fish and birds.

These teenagers, the out-of-work fishers and the struggling business owners epitomize the hummingbird spirit that Dr. Maathai so eloquently described. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed with the economic and environmental issues facing the Gulf now. But together, if we all do our best, the Gulf of Mexico will once again be a healthy, thriving place for future generations.

In the words of the late Wangari Maathai, I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.

Become a fan of The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico and follow along our restoration journey in the Gulf.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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