A brief history of the beach: nobody liked it for eons on account of the 10 million mosquitoes per square inch found there, except for a few hunters who liked, among other things, the feathers of shorebirds because they looked nice in ladies hats. We can call that “The Wilderness Era”. Then in the late 1800s those shorebirds dried up, so the hunters, needing work, invented the “Woolen Swimming Costume” and marketed it to some rowdy Victorians who soon discovered that some light imprudence was actually fun and that swimming in the sea, and showing a little ankle, neck, and forearm was worth the spiritual risk. So a handful of them created a few debaucherous outposts along the coast where they would huddle together against the wilderness and get a little wild themselves. We’ll call that “The Wild Era”. This continued throughout the 20th Century until most of the coast was paved from end to end, and filled to capacity with humans seeking light imprudence. Once everyone was on board, we had officially left the “Wild Era.”
And where do find ourselves today? In “The Post Wild Era.”
Have you ever been over a friend’s house for a family supper and suddenly choked on a mouthful of chicken when Grandma busts out with some totally racist comment? Something like “Oh, I love the Filipinos! They make the best housekeepers, because their homeland is so dirty and uncivilized!”, or some other comment that not only betrays her overt racism, but also the fact that she truly believes her comments show how open minded she has become. The mid-generation adults might sigh, put their hands over their face and think silently, “I understand her perspective, but she shouldn’t say that.” The schoolchildren will angrily blurt out “Grandma, you’re wrong! That’s racist! The Philippines is actually the 4th cleanest Island nation in the…. (etc. etc. etc.)” Even the toddler-aged grandchild knows better and will manage to add through a mouthful of mushed peas, “Bad Gwandma.”
That’s an example of what you call a Generationally Shifting Baseline: the phenomenon whereby we can only recognize and evaluate what has changed in relation to what we we’ve known before. If you arrived in Massachusetts in 1798 and miraculously managed to stay alive until 1882, you would have witnessed the epic deforestation of the Northeastern U.S. and would have noted that the young nation was running out of trees. If instead you arrived in 1902 and managed to hang in there until 1997, you would have noticed the Northeastern U.S. regenerating rapidly from a clearcut wasteland into a virtual forest again (surprisingly, even most of today’s sprawling suburbs are now actually forests by comparison, and by definition). You probably would have concluded that we actually have too many trees. Or more realistically, you would see the few trees being lost to strip malls and such and would mistakenly decide that the tree situation was getting much worse and that somehow it was surely better 100 years ago. Which it wasn’t.
If you played on the Jersey Shore in the 1970s, and proudly decorated your sand castles with some of the unlimited supply of used, plastic tampon applicators found on the beach, your baseline would make you thrilled at how much cleaner the shore is today, and appreciate how valuable the single used, plastic tampon applicator your kid still somehow manages to find and use as a play cigar really is. You might remember traipsing though the Bayside marsh and being mercilessly mauled by biting insects as a child. The clean, paved roads you now walk today are such a welcome relief, you might not even notice that the marsh is completely gone, and that the only thing left living there is the elderly woman who scowls at you out her window and runs out when you walk by on your way to the bay, yelling “Excuse me, but where do you live? This lane is PRIVATE!!11!!” Your baseline perspective convinces you that the insect situation is getting better, the little-old-lady who is obsessed with her property and has lost the spirit of the beach as place to be shared has gotten worse, and somehow you just plain missed the whole disappearing marsh situation. In fact, that marsh of your youth probably still exists for you, just only in your imagination and an imagined “somewhere else.”
So much has happened in the last 100 years along the coast, and it has been observed by so many overlapping lives with various baselines and frames of reference. We’ve seen Eagles, Osprey, and Peregrine Falcon completely decimated, then experience incredible comebacks. Sands have been lost to sea, dramatically replenished for a mere hundreds of millions of dollars, then lost again a few short years later. We’ve watched the sea turn from an original emerald green, to a muddy brown from sewage and pollution in the 70s, then back again through tougher laws and better hygiene. The generations of beach bums have witnessed the discovery of oil as a fuel source, its subsequent annoyance as tar stuck to our sandy feet, and its slow and steady disappearance from the tideline. Depending on your exit and entry points, and the stuff that interests you about a life along the coast, you might have concluded that things were either going to hell or coming up roses.
But one thing has surely remained constant no matter which baseline you choose to start from: human development has grown, and wilderness has shrank.
Even though the entire East Coast of the U.S. is now virtually saturated with us and our stuff, the myth that out there, somewhere, is still a vast wilderness, persists. But it’s actually not there. Pretty much every place you can build something, something has been built, and the government land-grabs for wilderness areas and parks is pretty much over. Sure there are still a few gems of sand or marsh being hotly contested by developers on one side and wilderness advocates on the other, but those areas aren’t going to tip the balance or redraw the map. We’ve got the coast locked down already. We are fully in maintenance mode. Still, it is hard to see. Just as each year would-be adventures go through tremendous trouble and expense to climb Mt. Everest. Upon reaching the Summit, they find themselves not looking up to the heavens-so-close, but instead, looking down at their boots, trying not to step in the piles of human excrement and trash left by others chasing a similar myth of wilderness. Post Wild!
To see the Post Wild Beach clearly sometimes requires removing our sunglasses, and installing a fresh pair of eyeballs to help see what is actually right in front of us, undistorted by the mind’s quirky lens and its baseline perspective biases. Unfortunately, when you mix this distortion with our delightful tendency to hold fast to easy answers that suit our individual purposes with great convenience, you wind up drowning in a salty soup of malformed opinions that are often totally made-up and usually a little bit dangerous.
This becomes triply true when it applies to things people only kind-of care about; like Piping Plover.
There is a real art to getting yourself into an unbiased and light conversation with a fisherman, dog walker, shell collector, or any beach-goer caught in the middle of the act of jeopardizing the life of an endangered wild animal on the beach, sometimes completely knowingly. These folks are usually conveniently characterized as haters of animals, especially the Piping Plover, because the PIPL are the poster children for things-that-get-in-the-way-of-enjoying-the-beach. The fact that “Piping Plover Tastes Like Chicken” bumper stickers even exist proves that this is at least somewhat true.
But talking with them, you soon find that outright confessions of animal-hatred are as rare as Piping Plover themselves. What you actually find are generally good people: well-meaning but confused folks, half-caringly repeating strange and totally false craziness about the current state of the coast, its creatures, and our activities, all based on outdated or borrowed baselines and easy, convenient answers which are often based on the exact opposite of facts.
Perhaps the real problem is that we don’t have enough voices saying straight up that “I don’t value the native wildlife of the coast, and I wish it would all just disappear” or “They are cute, but my freedom to do whatever I want, wherever I want, whenever I want is more important.” Those are valid, albeit crazy-selfish, opinions, and valid opinions demand respect and consideration. You surely have integrity and courage if you can say such things clearly and plainly. But people generally don’t actually feel that way all. They actually think wildlife is cool. They just want it to be cool somewhere else; somewhere more convenient.
The most common things you’ll hear are gems like, and I’m not making this up, “They shouldn’t close Holgate anymore. There are so many Piping Plover at Barnegat Light now that they are trying to find out how to get rid of some” and the ultimate doozy, “I heard they are actually extinct. I’ve never seen one here. The Fish & Wildlife folks are just pretending so they don’t lose their jobs and can keep the beaches closed so they can have them to themselves.” Then there’s the classic “The predators will kill them anyway so I’m actually helping them” and the most widespread and relevant, “They have plenty of other places to go. Hopefully I’ll scare them out of here and they’ll go someplace they belong.”
These types of conversations are as common as they are embarrassing to find yourself in when you know the basic facts (and to be clear, all of the above examples are undebatably false in the extreme). But this nonsense is understandable. It suits us well as it effortlessly minimizes the annoying parts of wildlife that get in our way of enjoying the Post Wild Beach, while allowing us to avoid sounding like total monsters.
There are certainly crazies on both selfishly-extreme ends: some who would have it illegal for any human to even look at a barrier island on the coast lest they disturb a bird, and others who would blow up the entire Island with dynamite happily if it allowed them to catch one more fish on some Sunday afternoon. But in between exists millions of people, and every hue of opinion imaginable. Diversity is the spice of life, and figuring out who is right, who is wrong, what is valuable, and what should be done about it, is some of the trickiest and most fascinating stuff we have to deal with on this planet. But in order to even begin the fun stuff of arguing and duking it out over the future of the coast, you have to start with realistic, usable opinions and not nonsense. Garbage in, garbage out.
So it is not people’s honest and differing opinions that are a problem. And it is not humans enjoying the coast that is the problem. It is not that wildlife is fragile and has hard-to-describe-value that is the problem. And its not the reality that in the Post Wild era, we and the animals have to learn how to live together as neighbors. These are real, complicated, interesting things. And we humans know how to deal with those things, how to negotiate, how to compromise. The real problem is the crazy, lazy, half-truths, make-em-ups, and fuzzy fantasies we lean on for convenience. (Actually, those are pretty interesting too, but mostly as exercises in human psychology).
The annoying and scary thing is that all this craziness winds up dictating the future of the coast for everyone. For us, for the animals, for the present, and for the future. It can be hard enough to pick a restaurant the whole family will agree on and enjoy, and won’t take 6 hours to get a table, during your annual beach vacation. Imagine working through that decision based on a list of restaurants and family members that don’t even exist, and menu items that were kind of made up. Your chances of an evening that was memorable for the good times would be extremely dubious.
When we listen closely to what comes out of our mouths regarding wildlife and its management along the coast, and check our assumptions about what is possible and what the best options for the future are, we can easily hear the echoes of outdated baselines from generations past. We continue to betray the fact that we believe the very, very false notion that there is a “somewhere else” and a mysterious “wilderness” left out there for those, for example, Piping Plover to go to. Throughout their entire habitat, from the far reaches of the Canadian Coast, to the Islands of the Bahamas, they now live among us every step of the way, right along with us, right next to us, hiding in plain sight. Our lives are irreversibly and very directly intertwined. Only in those nutty fantasies that we still harbor is it any other way.
The truth is, The Post Wild Beach is a beautiful, amazing, and hopeful place. It’s those fantasies that are ugly, and their distortive powers that truly sour things. Incidentally, its those photographers who are partly responsible for perpetuating these fantasies and filling our heads with visions, painstakingly Photoshopping out the telephone wires, coke cans, nuclear reactors, footprints, and other evidence of the Post Wild Era to present us with visions of a bygone world that has not existed for a long time and most likely won’t exist in the future. Even in the wildest places along the coast, the Snowy Owl will always choose the one metal sign, or old toilet, to perch on, and the Piping Plover will choose the dirty plastic water bottle to roost behind. Post Wild!
The reality is that we are living in an exciting era of humans and wild animals living together and sharing the beach. As the older generations who have watched the coast get “overdeveloped” during their lifetimes, but still cling to, and propagate, a belief in the boundless wilderness of their youth, begin to pass, new generations are discovering the Crowded Coast, and have a fresher view and more realistic understanding that the tiny bits of wilderness we miraculously managed to maintain are what we have to work with, and are of unbelievable and irreplaceable value, so they are most likely to make the most of them. They are also more likely to truly appreciate them. Seeing things as such, we can begin to embrace the wild animals and the tiny bits of wilderness right around us, instead of being satisfied with vague, weak, tacit support of “wild” animals in wilderness that does not exist anywhere but in the myths that haunt our thinking and influence our actions.
And with that, we can also come to celebrate, to high-five, and to assist that small minority of visionaries who saw the dawning of the Post Wild Era, and worked to preserve as much as they could for all of us against the grain. The gap between scientists, ecologists, and nature lovers on the one side, and the general, beach-loving public consensus on the other, has been too large for far too long. While the image of of our coastal stewards as land-grabbers and fun-killers won’t be fully eradicated for a long time, the incoming generations of beach bums are much more likely to see and appreciate just how cool it is that someone is watching out for the animals for the rest of us, because they themselves are much more likely to appreciate the now quite rare & precious treasures that remain.
We have built a magnificent playground on the coast which, for many of us, is heaven-on-earth. And we have managed to preserve enough bits of wilderness that even the most endangered little creatures who live here have a shot at avoiding extinction. That’s an incredible achievement.
There is no place to hide in the Post Wild Beach. The walls are closing in and all of us, locals, tourists, dog walkers, birders, fisherman, scientists, wildlife management folks are being forced to share the same beach camp, and swim between the same orange flags together, to get to know each other, and to shape the coast of the future with purpose. Everyone has a seat at the table. And if your voice says “Piping Plover are not important and we don’t need them or want them in our future” then you should, and will, be heard.
Just be sure if that is your opinion, say it clearly, and don’t be a Racist Grandma. Because nothing spoils a nice dinner like Racist Grandma!