Ebb-Tide Optimism on a Climate-Changed Island

Hoping for the best on a hike through the "ghost forests" on one of Georgia's barrier islands

My family likes to accuse me of downplaying the total distance I plan to cover on outdoor trips with them. How far are we hiking? “A few miles,” I’ll say, vaguely. “Two hours, tops.” But then the venture will last three, and they will start to turn on me, which is why I always bring chocolate. I think I give a low estimate because I know that if I say we are hiking eight miles and it will take five hours, no one will join me, even though, in the end, we will all enjoy the journey. They’re on to me, but I do this subconsciously to myself as well. I take advantage of the brain’s “optimism bias,” which leads us to be more hopeful about future events than might be justified by a careful review of the available information.

And maybe I forgot to check, but I thought the hike from Sea Camp to Brickhill Bluff on Cumberland Island was seven or so miles, which seemed doable, even with packs. Yet on that summer morning, in the air-conditioned room at headquarters for Cumberland Island National Seashore, the ranger informed us that it was really ten. My son Sam, about to start his first semester of college, with several cross-country running awards behind him, blinked not. I am in decent shape, but the heat index for that late June day was 105. The only one to complain to about the trek would be me.

Hiking companions also like to accuse me of packing the bare minimum, only what we need, no luxuries or excess weight. Sam and I had gathered our gear on the spur of the moment, and I was doing a mental review. Tents and bags? Check. Enough food and water? I thought so. “My Brickhill Bluff people,” the ranger said, “boil your water.” I started worrying about the amount of gas in our small backpacker stove. I dug the cylinder of gas out of the pack and shook it. It felt about a quarter full. Enough for cooking, but for boiling water, I wished I had more. Optimism waning.

Sam and I were on this last-minute trip because Carol Ruckdeschel, resident naturalist and wilderness advocate, had said she could meet us on short notice, and that was too good an opportunity to pass up. I had embarked on a research project to learn more about what communities in the Southeast were seeing in terms of sea level rise and climate change, and experts I spoke with in Georgia said if I wanted to know what was happening on the barrier islands, particularly Cumberland, I should talk to Carol. She has lived on the north end of Cumberland Island, not far from Brickhill Bluff, permanently since the ’70s and comes by headquarters once a week to pick up mail. We had arranged to meet her at 11 a.m. at Sea Camp dock, on the southwest side of the island, where the ferry brings passengers from St. Marys, then talk more the next day at her place.

Carol arrived at noon, wearing camo pants and a khaki shirt, pigtails under a sun hat, and rubber boots. Her ATV had been overheating, so she had to stop and let it cool down. She does a weekly beach survey to look for marine animals or other curiosities that have washed ashore, then drops off trash at the ranger center and picks up her mail. I wanted to know if her daily island observations included dune migrations and increased water levels that would point to evidence of climate change. I wondered if a rising sea had affected her beloved sea turtles.

Carol was profiled in “Travels in Georgia,” a 1973 New Yorker article by John McPhee. In the opening scene of that article, she comforts a dying turtle by the side of the road. After the local sheriff shoots it, she carves up some of the meat and buries some of the eggs in a sandbank, as the turtle herself was about to do; then she takes the rest of the eggs and the meat home to cook. In the decades since, Carol has continued to research sea turtles and fight for the preservation of the island while posting to a website, wildcumberland.org. Her brief brush with fame continued with Will Harlan’s 2014 book Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island. Carol is the “wildest woman,” and Harlan describes how she shoots a hog that is eating turtle eggs. She also rolls a turtle over to tag it and then rides it into the sea: “She straddled the turtle’s massive shell and held on to the front edge, riding bareback into the wild waters.”

Carol told me she has marked low nests, where the eggs are washed over by the tide, but she does not move them. In general, she doesn’t interfere with natural processes, except when, as in the case of feral hogs released by humans, they interfere with what otherwise would be.

“We’ve done our damage,” she said last June, as another full ferry of passengers drifted into the dock while we sat on the deck. “There’s too many of us,” she added, a little wearily. A small jet boat screamed past the dock. “I’d hate to be a porpoise.”

Sitting on the deck at Sea Camp, we talked some more about the health of the island. At that moment, superintendent Gary Ingram, who oversees park policy, was at what she called “wilderness school.” She hoped he was learning something so he could “understand why I’m always a bitch.” She was always on his case about Wilderness with a capital W, a federal designation, and about keeping Cumberland as wild as possible. About 25 percent of the island is designated as wilderness, and a thousand acres are privately held by some twenty families. Recently, one of them proposed to subdivide and develop eighty-seven acres, a proposal Carol would fight.

One issue she and Ingram disagreed about was fire management. She wanted to let the fires burn. The park management wanted to control burns to save particular species, such as the longleaf pine, which, Carol said, “doesn’t really belong here.” She would rather let the scrubs grow. Saw palmetto, staggerbush, and bay all compose a large portion of the north end of the island. After wildfires, the understory is cleared, new light reaches the forest floor, and new growth emerges. Ticks are reduced. Soil fertility is enriched. Birds flourish with the new food and proper cover. Nature finds a way. During a recent lightning storm, she said to herself, “OK, this is it.” Remembering this, she let out a mischievous laugh, and her brown eyes, like the color of the tidal creeks, grew wide.

I steered the conversation back to climate change. She said she used to be able to walk to Little Cumberland Island, off the north end of the main island, but it was hard to know if that was erosion or sea level rise. Islands are dynamic systems: part of it disappears and forms somewhere else. We agreed to talk more the next day at her place because Sam and I had a long trudge ahead.

On the hike up to Brickhill Bluff, we stopped at Plum Orchard, a 20,000-square-foot mansion built in 1898 by Lucy Carnegie (Andrew’s sister-in-law), for her fifth son, George. Sam would rather learn about wildlife than capitalist tycoons, but he was grateful for the respite from the heat. So we took the tour, sweaty and grimy from the walk. Sam, shirtless and with his long curly hair tucked into a red bandana, tiptoed on parquet floors through the stately Gatsbyesque mansion. It is home to an early ice maker, a giant thing in the basement, and an elevator powered by water pressure—both state of the art in 1900. There is a heated tile swimming pool flanked by squash courts. There are Tiffany lamps designed to look like turtle shells, and red carpet and mahogany tables where formal dinners were the norm, a waiter behind each chair.

The building had a separate stairway and even a separate hallway for servants. The Carnegies were great believers that the divide between rich and poor was a good and even necessary aspect of social evolution; the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few was, in Andrew Carnegie’s words, “essential . . . for the progress of the race.” He and other social Darwinists argued, on the basis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, that the best-adapted humans naturally rose to the top social and economic echelons. It was a rationalization for his own rise to the top tier of his social class, an excuse for exploitation based on a poor understanding of biology.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, robber barons built factories in the cities and mansions on the coasts. Georgia’s barrier islands, with their warm weather, quiet seclusion, and abundance of game and cheap land, attracted these millionaires. The Gilded Age came to the Golden Isles. A who’s who of corporate tycoons pooled their money to develop Jekyll Island, a couple miles north of Cumberland. Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Pulitzer, and others formed The Jekyll Island Club, perhaps the first gated community, and no uninvited guest could ever step foot on the island. To this day, entrance is fee only. Snubbed by the Jekyll group, the Carnegies purchased Cumberland, the largest and southernmost barrier island.

In the ’60s, developer Charles Fraser wanted to turn the island into another Hilton Head, but the National Park Service offered an even better deal: millions for the land, and the families could continue living there for the rest of their lives. Live there they did, until they succumbed to the same ravages of weather and age as the rest of us. And now we can all enjoy the island, regardless of income. The writer Wallace Stegner once called the National Parks our “best idea.” They are also one of our most egalitarian ideas.

After filling our water bottles from a spigot on the side of the mansion, we hiked up the road to Brickhill Bluff. We saw armadillos on the way and a momma raccoon with several youngsters. When they spied us, the raccoons all scrambled up different trees, an adaptation to escape predators and one I recognized from my youth: when the bully comes your way, split up.

At the campground, we dumped our gear, stripped off sweaty clothing, and headed for a swim. To get to the water, we had to step over scrambling fiddler crabs and several downed trees. Once imposing and upright, they had toppled over, now gray and ghastly. Whatever high bluff once existed was now an eroding coast, with no root system to protect it. Oyster shells tucked into plastic netting were an attempt at a living shoreline, but they weren’t holding either, and much of the sand and clay-heavy soil was slipping into Fancy Bluff Creek. A lone egret speared fish near the marsh, across the silvery tidal creek, while the sun faded over it, casting shadows over the splayed root ball of a fallen live oak.

For dinner, we ate razor clam chowder from our home market, right out of the bag, and used the gas in the cook stove to steam open some clams Sam had found. I didn’t want to waste the boiled water, so I poured the clam juice into an empty water bottle to cool overnight, just in case we needed it.

Then I lay in a hammock under the live oak canopy and listened to the chirr of insects. Despite the sweltering heat, we slept well in our tent to the sounds of cicadas and whip-poor-wills. In the night, I went out to investigate a sawing sound, which turned out to be an armadillo scratching against a palm. We woke with red spots on our arms, from no-see-ums, ghosts of the night. By morning, I had found so many ticks on my body that I started trying to scrape off freckles.

After breakfast, we hiked a few more miles to the north end of the island. Carol lives near the First African Baptist Church, a one-room structure with white clapboard siding and a tin roof, where John F. Kennedy, Jr., married Carolyn Bessette in September 1996 to avoid press and photographers. From the church, you can see Carol’s cabin, weathered siding with pieces of driftwood attached to it. The yard is scattered with rusted tubs, farm tools, crates, broken down carts, and buckets stinking of sea life. Maceration is Carol’s preferred method to skeletonize marine animals. After soaking the carcasses, she bleaches the bones in the sun.

Carol joined us at the picnic table beside her garden and chickens, telling us how she arrived to Cumberland. She had been making visits since the ’60s but moved there full-time a few months after the National Park Service purchased much of the island in 1972. She worked for the Candlers, heirs to the Coca-Cola fortune, and Cumberland Island Hotel, a resort originally built in the 1870s. At one time, there were some 400 black families on the island, some of whom worked at the hotel, too. They lived in the north end, on the least desirable land. There were still some collapsing shanties in “the settlement” when Carol arrived in the ’70s. 

Days, she polished silver. At night, she waited for sea turtles. Over time, she would become a leading expert on sea turtle mortality and conservation, publishing scientific articles and a book, Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States (2006).

Illustration by Anna Hall

She described how sea turtles are “natal homing,” which means they return to their birthplace to lay their eggs. I wondered if rising seas would affect their habitat, but Carol told me they are “programmed to be flexible.” Loggerhead sea turtles live for thirty-five years before they sexually mature, and conservationists’ efforts over thirty to forty years ago to protect their breeding sites has contributed to the turtles’ current success. In the summer of 2016, the park found 800 nests on Cumberland. Another naturalist, Stacia Hendricks of Little St. Simons Island (another barrier island), told me they found eighty-one nests in the first half of June alone—a high tally for so early in the season. Hendricks seemed to share Carol’s view of turtles, that they are built for survival. Turtles have an antifreeze in their blood that allows them to tolerate cold, and some sea turtles can collapse their lungs, an adaptation that helps them avoid the bends when diving to the bottom of the sea floor. Sea turtles, Hendricks argues, have lived for millions of years and will continue to do so with a kind of slow, steadfast stamina.

Some researchers are not so hopeful about the sea turtles’ prospects for long-term survival, however. If their breeding grounds disappear, turtles won’t know what to do. Some will “stray” and find a new home, but mostly they are squeezed. And because nest temperature affects sex selection, climate change could also affect the turtles’ incubation. As a group of interns from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island told me, “The ladies like it hot.” Hotter sands caused by a warming climate and increasing drought could cause greater numbers of sea turtles to be born female, which is not at all good for the long-term viability of the species.

After we talked, Carol gave us a tour of her “museum.” Though the outside was a clutter of objects, the 20-by-30 freestanding plywood building was clean and orderly inside, with bright walls but no windows. And it was air conditioned. She and her longtime research partner, the former Robert Shoop, who retired from academic herpetology to live on the island, created it. It’s not open for tourists, but was built to house her life’s work of scouring the beaches and nearby forests for the dead. “I always tell people, ‘Find anything dead, bring it to me,’” Carol said, cheerfully. Specimens were neatly arranged, labeled, indexed on handmade shelves. A card catalog housed insects. On the wall hung skulls and skeletons of every creature on Cumberland Island, identified by both scientific nomenclature and common name. Over the entrance perched the perforated baleen of a juvenile humpback whale. In the back, skeletons of sea turtles were stacked like nesting boxes.

Carol called out stuff she wanted us to see. A coyote puppy. The biggest hawksbill turtle ever recorded in the state. A painted bunting. A screech owl. Sam enjoyed the snakes coiled tight in jars, milky-eyed. A small egret sat in an olive jar. Touring through here, pulling out drawers and trays filled with bodies, was like walking through a catacomb, and Carol was a kind of caretaker of the dead.

Some of her collection has been sent to the Smithsonian, a fact she delights in telling. But much of it, all labeled and arranged, the stomach contents analyzed, may have no purpose other than scientific curiosity.

Scientists journey from far and wide to sort through this treasure. Perhaps the mystery of how (or if) climate change has affected the sea turtles’ diet is in here somewhere, in the indexed stomach contents, the data about diet and dates. Hours and hours of labor are packed into these bags of bones, puzzle pieces for a picture yet to be made clear.

“We hoped to make their deaths useful,” Carol said, turning out the lights. “You never know what may turn out to be valuable.”

While I signed the guestbook, we talked some about TEDs—Turtle Excluder Devices for shrimp trawlers—which Carol had a hand in implementing and which have been required on large trawlers since 1987. From her perspective, they did not reduce strandings, when turtles are harmed by nets and end up injured (or dead) on the beach, possibly because shrimpers, who resisted the regulation, skirted the law. Carol was as busy as ever picking up carcasses in the early ’90s. What has helped is an economic downturn in the shrimping industry, brought on by adaptations in aquaculture; increasingly, shrimp are grown in ponds without a need for boats or fuel. Nest counts still go up and down, mysteriously, but the overall trend in Georgia is up by as much as 3 percent annually over the past two decades, according to Mark Dodd of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. There were some 3,200 loggerhead nests on Georgia beaches in 2016, up from a low of 470 in 1993. This trend is holding in other Southeastern states, too, though the turtles are still listed as threatened in this region.

The trail to Stafford Beach, seven miles to the south, passes through a saw palmetto and live oak forest, dark and eerily gothic. Despite the positive news about sea turtle nesting trends, a pensive mood overtook me. Trudging through leaf litter and pine needles, I thought about “useful death,” Carol’s notion that something good could come from the creatures she studies. Maybe the dead trees last night or the tour through the catacomb in the morning influenced my thoughts, seeming to rise and fall with the trail. So much dead and dying. So much simultaneously alive and buzzing around me.

We walked through a wetland where there were quite a few tall dead trees, gray and weathered, ghostlike. Scientists call these “ghost forests.” Those trees on the Brickhill Bluff coast could have toppled into the water because of boat wakes, but they could also be the result of storms or rising seas, which degrade the peat and soil, destroying root systems.

Chester “CJ” Jackson, a coastal geologist at Georgia Southern University, has studied shorelines and estuaries of the Georgia islands, using a software called AMBUR, Analyzing Moving Boundaries Using R (where R is a software for statistical computing), developed through funding from Sea Grant, a NOAA program dedicated to coastal research. He has been digitizing the coast, comparing the modern coastline with historical data. Using aerial photographs and maps to plot the change, Jackson determines rates of erosion and accretion along the coast. Red lines show erosion on islands; blue, accretion. The southern end of the island tends toward blue while the northern tip is red. He also finds erosion on the backside of the island and up into the marshes. At Brickhill Bluff, he has plotted an average rate of erosion of a half meter per year over a twenty-year period.

Of some 77,000 transect points Jackson has plotted in Georgia, over half experience erosion of up to one half meter per year. Whereas coastal points experience some net gain, deposition in the marshes is not keeping up with erosion.

I asked Gregory Noe, a research ecologist who has been studying the impacts of dying cypress along the Savannah River, about the dying trees in these coastal marshes. “Those trees are a dramatic expression of climate change,” he said. The river brings sediment to the marsh, combining with dead plants and peat, a natural accretion, but the swamps are losing the race with the rising sea. Drought is also factor, for if the rivers are not carrying enough freshwater, the trees are affected. Noe tells me the “ghost forest swamps are harbingers of what is to come.” Sea level rise will make things worse. On Cumberland, according to a 2016 study prepared by the US Geological Survey, the average retreat would be fifteen meters by 2050 and approximately thirty-seven meters by 2100. That’s bad news for the islands, but also for coastal communities, for which the islands provide a crucial buffer against storm surge.

I kept thinking about a “useful death” and wondered if these dead trees, and not sea turtles, were the necessary visual to communicate the danger of a rising sea. Carol herself studied death to better understand life. I asked her, months later by e-mail, if she stayed optimistic despite her daily contact with death, the unrelenting march of it. “I am not optimistic about our species,” she replied, adding a frown emoji.

By late afternoon, I had again fallen under the trance of the live oak understory, pine needles and sand crunching underfoot, Spanish moss brushing my shoulder. I had some idea where we were, but my map was sweat-soaked in my back pocket. The day was even hotter than the one before, and we had glugged most of our water. I was down to clam juice—salty, a little fishy, not altogether bad—which would, I hoped, provide necessary electrolytes. I thought of the water in the marshes, the chicken soup-like broth that feeds shellfish and birds.

Sam asked how much farther we had to go. I was ready to be at camp, too, so sweaty a rash had developed between my legs. If we ran out of fuel, the heat of my inner thighs might stand in. In these swampy parts of the island, the mosquitoes multiplied. I scratched around the tops of my socks from some invisible bug, possibly chiggers. Paradise was not supposed to itch this much.

That nature is a static, unchanging paradise is an idea created by culture. Where I walked, the land looked like wilderness, but it was in fact trodden and cleared by former inhabitants. Cattle and hogs were let loose, trampling the ground underfoot. Horses still roam, grazing, a sore spot with Carol, who would have them eradicated because they didn’t belong there. Near the beach where we were headed, at Stafford Plantation, there were ruins of slave quarters, lone chimneys from plantation days. The constant on this island is a buzzing, humming change.

Out of a pastoral impulse grew our national parks; our guide on the ferry ride to Cumberland had reminded us of the history. In 1916, when Congress created the National Park Service, it charged the agency to leave the parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” though what unimpaired meant was never defined. In the ’60s, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who oversaw the purchase of Cumberland, had wildlife biologist A. Starker Leopold, son of conservationist Aldo Leopold, chair a study. The resulting report directed the National Park Service to maintain the original “biotic associations” that existed before European settlement, each park a “vignette of primitive America.” What the landscape was before development, or destruction.

We dumped our packs at camp, quickly pitched tents, filled empty water bottles, and then strode over the dunes to the shore. No condos stole the view, no boardwalk or Ferris wheel, and very few people. Instead, just dunes and the rolling surf. We swam in the cool ocean, but the insides of my thighs burned in the salty water, no cool relief to counter the sting. We came to meet Carol and learn about sea turtles, but also for this, a spectacular view of the wild ocean coast. It might indeed be Leopold’s vignette of what things once were.

In 2011, Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis had a panel reexamine the Leopold Report. “Revisiting Leopold” proposed a new set of goals. Rather than recreate primitive vignettes, the National Park Service would manage for “continuous change that is not yet fully understood.” The report does not reflect an official shift in policy, but it acknowledges that changes are underway and that the parks’ infrastructure will have to adapt to those changes. Here on the seashore, that means the park will not try to fight the inevitable, but may move as the island moves. It means understanding vulnerabilities so a plan can be put in place. It is a recognition that not all can be saved. “We can’t control all that lies ahead, but we will prepare for it,” Superintendent Gary Ingram told me. “Being a dynamic island, we’re along for the ride.”

Back at camp, we used the last of our gas to heat water for our dried rice, cheese, and broccoli mixture. Snacking on protein bars and nuts, we eyed the stove, willing it not to peter out before heating just enough water to pour into the mixture. We were hungry enough to eat the packaging.

Staring in anticipation of the boiling water, I reflected on first learning of climate change in college thirty years ago, growing weary of how little we had done. Sam would soon begin college, a future in front of him that will require serious thinking about climate change. We talked about optimism bias and how it was built into us. Was our Pollyanna-ish belief that things will turn out fine responsible for the reckless building we did on the coast? Was it what kept us from tackling climate change head-on? Our brains tilt toward the positive, but they mislead us. They tell us stories—the ones we want to hear—that help us cope with the unpredictable. Optimism bias is a problem with our risk calculus: “It won’t happen to me.” Humans seem better equipped to imagine a bright future than confront a likely one; we are comforted more by illusions than hard data.

During most of our evolution, this adaptive trait made sense. Bad weather and accidents were beyond our control. Tomorrow would be different. Such an outlook was good for mental and even physical health, as it reduced stress. But now that, for the first time in history, we can predict the decades-long consequences of our past activities, the liabilities of this trait are also becoming more clear. Analysts name optimism bias as one of the core causes of the financial collapse of 2008. Many hope we will figure our way out of climate change before too much damage is done. According to Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, while 70 percent of Americans say global warming is happening, only 40 percent think it will harm them personally.

When we give ourselves over to optimism, we give up our agency and put faith in something else—technology, a supreme being, aliens from outer space, magical thinking. Rejecting optimism, we stop being hopeful that the awful situation we are in will somehow resolve itself, and we start working to change it. After blind optimism comes thoughtful action. Without that optimism trait, the human species might still be huddled in some cave. But it’s we who have to do the work. We who have to double-check that there is enough fuel for the fire.

Before we tucked ourselves into our bags, Sam set an alarm for midnight; we were planning to walk the beach and look for nesting sea turtles. He woke me from a deep sleep, and we were both too groggy to find the red filter, buried somewhere in the pack, for the flashlight. (Lights can deter the turtles from coming ashore.) Bleary with sleep, we walked in darkness, me like a bowlegged rodeo cowboy.

We traipsed along the water’s edge, in the soft sand above the tide line, until we spied a dark form before us—perhaps a turtle burrowing? But no, it was two people locked in an embrace. We kept walking, watching the shore, listening to the waves, also scanning the dunes in case one was up there. Our hopes were dimming for an encounter, and I realized we probably didn’t have a good idea where we had come out. Perhaps we would find our way back home by memory, not unlike a sea turtle.

Then we saw one. Waves splashed against it, kicking up spray as it crawled on flippers, making treads in the sand. Heave and ho, one appendage tilting the massive, ancient body—some 300 pounds—up, forward, then down, and repeating on the other side, like a cart with oblong wheels. When we encroached, for a minute its progress toward the dune halted. The turtle seemed to turn some with the line of the tide, as if being chased. So we moved out of its way, even tried to look away, as if that would help.

We had the impulse to move closer, to get right down to the barnacles and seaweed stuck to its frame. Maybe even to touch it. But we also wanted to keep away, to clear the path, to sit on the sidelines and cheer for its success. Its journey had been too long for it to turn back now. “Big mama,” one of us whisper-shouted; the other, in silent awe. A thing as big as a bathtub emerged from the inky depths like a shadow of the distant world.

I hadn’t wanted to wake up, but I was glad Sam had set the alarm. It was an awesome sight, a primeval creature heaving itself to shore, aided by ancient, natural processes, but also by protective measures begun by humans, including Carol, some forty years in the making. That’s what we were witnessing, something both ancient and relatively new. It’s the same with sea level rise.

Recognizing its advances will require being attentive, alert even when we don’t want to be. Meanwhile, the humble turtle plods on, sticking its neck out, enduring drought, volcanoes, glaciers, and a meteor strike. It has survived mass extinctions that wiped out much faster-moving species. Slow and steady won it the evolutionary race. But changes are happening now more quickly than most species can adapt.

I was buoyed by the sight of it, a symbol of the resilience of nature. To endure, like the turtle, we ourselves will have to adapt. An alarm is ringing. A nearly invisible thing moves toward us in the night. Do not be misled about the distance we have yet to go.

About the Author

Van Noy Author Pic
Rick Van Noy

Rick Van Noy is a professor of English at Radford University. He is the author of Surveying the Interior: Literary Cartographers and the Sense of Place and A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons.

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