One of the greatest things about Holgate is that it allows us to remember what the Island actually is, what it actually looks like underneath all of the shops, and roads, and homes, and with its massive stretch of beach, Holgate also lets us observe the natural processes of the Island’s evolution first hand.
Hurricane Sandy greatly increased the number of “washover” areas in the Holgate Refuge. These are those seemingly terrifying areas where the ocean meets the bay across the beach.
Yet with their appearance came an explosion of life. While the storm was a nightmare for houses and roads and cars and the like, it was a Godsend for the other creatures who live here. Our Island habitat was actually quite thirsty for a big flood, and for a setup for more frequent flooding. Storms like Sandy gift the habitat much needed ecological nourishment, right on schedule, as they have since the Island was first born.
And in the years since, we’ve been able to watch a system of massive dunes growing seemingly out of nothing, right before our eyes. No not the Army Corps’ replenishment project; the natural ones at the main Holgate washover! It has been astonishing to see that process unfold in real time… a massive storm violently floods the barrier Island, destroying older vegetation that has thrived too much, flattening everything, then slowly rebuilds itself again, creating new dunes from wind, and sand, and tiny scraps of anything, and sprouting new vegetation, which in turn will one day itself be destroyed by the same processes. It is fragile, unpredictable, dicey, at odds with our human uses of Long Beach Island; but it is also amazing, profound, and undeniably beautiful.
The Holgate Refuge continues to flood, and seemingly more frequently. It is a mixed feeling seeing it. It is certainly scary to see the ocean meet the bay and think about your home. Yet a dry Island is a dead one, and floods equal food, and appropriate shelter, for the native animals.
Standing in the Refuge in the middle of a flood event last week at sunrise, I thought less of how soaked and freezing my feet were, or how insane I was for driving through it, or how I better go give my car a double wash immediately after leaving, and more about all of the worms and other invertebrates which would now hopefully thrive here this summer, as they were meant to, in these conditions. I thought of all the tiny areas with clumps of fresh vegetation mixed with shell debris which would become the perfect home for the Least Tern in the wake of all this flooding… (Actually that’s not true… I only thought of it when I txt’d a picture of the flooding to the great Plover scientist Michelle Stantial who immediately replied “Great! Food! We needed it!!11!” I was definitely totally worried about my vehicle and my shoes.)
The natural processes of the planet were watering a garden of worm, and the ideal habitat, for those creatures who are perfectly created and adapted to live in such a strange place: Our beach nesting birds.
It is hard to weigh our lives against something as tiny and seemingly insignificant as a Piping Plover or a Least Tern. But when you look at the big picture, and the enormous systems which create, sustain, destroy, and then recreate the Island, and how much the creatures who were here before us actually crave and require these floods which we fear, and how much better adapted they are to this fragile chaos than we are, it is hard not to see ourselves as the tiny, insignificant ones! Watching the Island’s reality and future unfolding at Holgate can be like looking up at the stars; totally overwhelming to the point of helpless thankfulness for the enormity of the mystery of it all.