Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Through the Lens

Before the trip even began, I shared the same apprehension as a few of my peers about what we would be doing, where we would be going, and how serious our professors were about bringing shoes we would throw out from the muck.  Yet at the same time, I knew this was going to be a unique experience, and I brought my camera along as a second set of eyes to record the adventure. There were a few close calls in the marshes and kayaking where it almost seemed like a bad idea to bring technology, but in the end no harm was done.  Since the adventure has been fairly well documented by others, I won't reiterate the details, but rather the changes I observed through the footage I viewed afterwards.

We began our quest to Wallops Island as a group of strangers.  Most of us had friends or classmates we knew going, but as a group, we were new faces to each other.  Some were excited to go, others curious about what lay ahead, and some, like myself, who were questioning whether this was truly a better alternative to sleeping in and earning some cash. After all, it was the first true break since the year began, and we wouldn't see another rest from our studies until Thanksgiving! Yet nobody backed out, and we all loaded the vans.

As we traveled to the Baltimore Aquarium and then down to Wallops Island for the night, people gradually got into the attitude of the trip and began to enjoy themselves. We arrived rather late, so the only glimpse we got of the Marine Science Consortium was what the flickering parking lot light would reveal to us before we rested.

Saturday was an experience everyone had to enjoy, myself included.  That morning the group I was with set up a Rachel Carson display board to answer questions about her life and legacy. We also had the opportunity to take a hay ride, where we came across a hog-nosed snake. Harmless in nature, for those who don't know, this snake when frightened will flip over on its back. If it is still scared, it will vomit (having a rather strong aversion to snakes, I could sympathize). Later that afternoon we were greeted with fair weather as my group kayaked and got the chance to catch fish with a net. We caught a shrimp. Yes, one shrimp.

Sunday is when everything changed. We were up early, and the looks on our faces were not exactly blissful when we one-by-one remembered this beautiful morning included a laborious trudge through waist-deep mud. Once we arrived and started our hunt for trash, that feeling was intensified by the fact that there was little to be found in the shallow regions by the parking lot.  Deeper we journeyed, slowly submerging ourselves in something we could only categorize as 'natural,' and the plants rose higher and higher the closer to water we came (I am not a tall man by any means, and at one point I remember disappearing from view and wondering if I'd be found).

Then... the nets.

Resting on a sandy bank was a mountain of the stuff, used in clam beds further offshore. Glancing back at the murky depths from whence we had come, it was sprawling out on both sides, seemingly endless.  As if a light switch had been flipped, people sprang into action.  Hands soared out to grab any netting they could reach, and there was plenty to reach, indeed.  The larger the pile of nets got, the less tedious it seemed to be, and in fact people were having fun, laughing, and in some cases intentionally mucking themselves or each other while gathering the garbage.  There we were, covered in marshland hauling loads of netting and other garbage larger than ourselves, out of a landscape none of us prior to the start of the year could have expected to be in. 

Our friends back home were sleeping in their beds while we dove through the dirt trying to find the next piece of garbage, and suddenly we became the lucky ones. Joking and laughing in an environment with its own identity; a raw exposure to life in its most natural state. We respected the marsh, and we removed that which others left behind, and enjoyed it in a way I could not imagine before entering.  We live in a rural area rich in nature, yet there we interacted with the earth in a way I could only compare to that feeling when one is finger painting and no longer cares about getting their hands dirty.

I felt good about making a positive impact by cleaning the marsh that day. But the marsh had its impact on me as well. People travel from home to car to class or work and back again, moving from one box to another, and maybe we forget sometimes that it's places like the marsh that we come from, that we are family to. Even now, while I write this blog, I am drinking the water that man did not create, that has traveled farther than any one person could in their life,  just to end up in my glass. And it will continue to travel long after I am gone, forever binding man to the sea. Rachel Carson knew. And now we know. 

The rest of the trip (to the oyster vessels and the farm in Pennsylvania) solidified that connection. The apprehensive faces seen in the beginning were changed. Expressions of respect, comfort, smiles, and even guilt for previously disregarding something so directly intrinsic to our existence took their place. Most of all, it was fun. We got muddy as promised, found more trash than we thought possible, and came back as friends. We bonded with one other and the earth in a way no classroom could mimic. Some, before the trip, were looking for an excuse not to go; now we are all looking for an excuse to go back.

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