Emory Report
October 1, 2007
Volume 60, Number 6

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October 1, 2007
Barrier island is no barrier to science education for Martin’s class

By Jerald Byrd

Explorers from Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies traveled ashore on an undeveloped barrier island recently and charted discoveries about the island’s ancient natural habitats and themselves amidst their embrace of environmental studies.

The course “Modern and Ancient Tropical Environments,” along with a departmental endowment from benefactors Edward and Frances Turner, brought the 13 students, faculty and staff to the oak, pine and moss-laden Sapelo Island off the Georgia coast. This course-required field trip, which constitutes 30 percent of the students’ grades, was for many their first taste of lab work where the confines of study were the reserve’s salt marsh, surf and creatures, both stinging and creeping.

Flying to get to Sapelo is not an option except for the many egrets, sandpipers and turkey vultures, to name a few of the island’s avian species.

Nor can visitors take their cars to this 17-square-mile wildlife sanctuary since there is no bridge from the coast.

For the visiting students, textbooks are largely shut but eyes are fully open.

“Here the students get it,” says Anthony Martin, senior lecturer in the Department of Environmental Studies, who teaches this course and was accompanied by Steve Henderson, associate professor of geology at Oxford College, and Environmental Studies Instructor Jessica Seares.

Senior Chandra Vonscherr found the scheduled rigors worthwhile: “This trip changes your perspective. It’s a lot more exciting and efficient than just accessing this material in a book.”

The stirrings of a scientific Saturday began not long after dawn. The group traversed the sea to the opposite shore and then climbed aboard the back of a flatbed truck awaiting them from the University of Georgia Marine Institute. This post provided them with dorm-style and air-conditioned accommodations equipped with kitchen facilities that were a welcome sight come supper time.

Later, the student crew attended an introductory lecture beneath a canopy of oaks surrounding the stucco structures that 60 years ago were a prized getaway shelter for the site’s wealthy patron, tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds.

Then as now the hush that is fortress from urban dwelling is essentially audible.

“Close your eyes, relax. Be quiet. Be still. It’s not only good for you, it’s healthy,” says Henderson. In his pointing to a means of scientific observation and cultural appreciation of Sapelo, from its Pleistocene origins and subsequent thawing more than 40,000 years ago to its pre-Columbian, Spanish, British, French, African enslavement and post-Civil War remains.

They proceeded then on foot toward the interior of the island where the evidence of human habitation leaves its centuries of traces, yet gives the island its state of preservation.

“This is not a pristine island,” Henderson notes, “it just appears that it’s pristine. What we see here is not what it would have looked like in the 1800s.”

Where there now is dense flora, he points out, there had been logging. Pines would have been harvested for ships of their day, and also the lives oaks seen draped with Spanish moss — a botanical relative of the pineapple, the students learned — would have been cleared for their naturally occurring contortions and strength that came in handy for the bows of sea-going vessels.

In the early 20th century Sapelo became the private hunting grounds of white landowners. Aviator Charles Lindbergh landed a plane on the beach, and presidents Calvin Cooledge and Herbert Hoover were also feted at the island. The owner of the Hudson Automobile Company, Howard Coffin, had title to the island until 1933 and is responsible for the many buildings there today. At the height of the Great Depression and in need of cash, Coffin sold the retreat to Reynolds, who added a few more structures of his own. He used his money to help leave the island intact in its present state of marine and estuarine research. Public funds did the rest.

Martin used this wide-open research lab to share knowledge and seek hypotheses from students every step of his metronomic and pedagogic way.

The flow of water through the island isn’t merely picturesque landscape; it is a hydrology lesson about the ebbing and rising of tides. A mudflat teeming with fiddler crabs provides biology instruction on the origin of the mud itself. Critters have to leave behind something after they eat, he reminds everyone. The sand beneath his feet is a geology lesson.

“You are looking at the Appalachians here,” Martin tells the students, “bits of ground material at your feet” — the result of hundreds of millions of years of pulverizing and being washed down rivers out of the interiors of continents such as North America.

The next day, the class moved to the more remote northern end of the island, where on a beach he points out a research marker at a sea turtle’s former nesting site. Martin makes a rare find there as well: alligator tracks on the beach. A ghost crab darts by. The sea is rough and waves crash against the shore.

“This is a much faster, easier and more imprintable way of learning about ecology than reading chapter after chapter in a textbook,” says Emory College student Mari Bales.

A perhaps definitive lesson this field trip left for future nature explorers: “Bug spray — I think everybody learned that they need to bring a lot of bug spray,” Vonscherr says.