The Nature Writers of Texas

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Book Review
The Book of Texas Bays

by Ro Wauer

Jim Blackburn's new book - "The Book of Texas Bays" - is a marvelous read about an area that has a great deal of pertinence to all of us living along the Central Gulf Coast. The book is divided into 26 chapters, including those on Matagorda Bay, Mad Island, Palacios, Lavaca Bay and Formosa Plastics, Port O'Connor, San Antonio Bay and Sustainability, Rockport, Port Aransas and Lighthouse Lakes, and Nueces Bay. Each chapter begins with a personal on-site experience by the author, and is often oriented toward the wildlife that occurs within that particular region. In addition, and of special interest, each chapter contains several excellent photographs of scenery and wildlife by Jim Olive. This is a truly exceptional book!

The beginning of the introductory chapter, "Spirit of the Mud," states: "My place, the Texas coast, is a plain that gently emerges from the Gulf of Mexico, a mud platform ascending slowly from the ocean's grip. Rainwater joins with the mud and establishes the base of life on the coast. No rocks, no mountains - just mud and water." In further describing the area, he wrote: "The bays of the Texas coast represents ecological resources of the first order. Our coastal bays are water fingers, drowned river channels carved when the Gulf was several hundred feet lower in elevation. When the sea level rose over five thousand years ago, these river channels were filled with Gulf water, creating places where riverine inflow combined with salt water, creating areas of immense natural productivity called estuaries."

The Mad Island chapter includes various stories about how the region got its name. One of those stories tells about the local Indians who traveled with dogs. "One year, when they [Indians] departed, several of the dogs were left behind on the point in the marsh. After a while, the dogs went mad, hence Mad Island." Blackburn's favorite story was about mosquitoes that drove the cattle mad. He also includes the importance of the Mad Island area as a significant wintering bird area, and points out that the Christmas Bird Counts, started in 1992 by Brent Ortega (Texas Parks and Wildlife in Victoria) and Jim Bergen (Texas Nature Conservancy) has become North America's premier Christmas count.

The Port O'Connor chapter contains descriptions of fishing tournament preparations. "Port O'Connor is sport fishing territory, the motherland of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA)." But, he points out, unless the entire ecosystem, particularly the phytoplankton, is protected, the Gulf fisheries will no longer thrive. Blackburn explains that "The stewardship concept of heroic men protecting microscopic plant life lacks a certain something in emotive force, unfortunately, but ecology is like that...the phytoplankton is what feeds the microscopic animals that feed the tiny shrimp and crabs as they float from the Gulf to nursery bays, eventually becoming food for the redfish fry...the reds feed and grow in the nursery bars, eating the small fare first before moving back out to the Gulf waters when they are ready to spawn."

The San Antonio Bay and Sustainability chapter contains the following comments: "We in Texas have a situation in our rivers where the base flow - the flows that are dependable year in and year out - are already allocated to water users. That is certainly true of the Guadalupe River, which was identified in 2002 by the nonprofit American Rivers [organization] as one of the most endangered rivers in the United States. There is simply no water left in the Guadalupe that is 100 percent dependable in dry years as well as wet. Now that the City of San Antonio is being forced off groundwater because of endangered species, people are looking across Texas for more water."

Backburn compares some of the negative impacts on our Gulf Coast resources to those that concerned early-day conservationist Aldo Leopold. He disagreed with those that claimed humans often kill the things they love, but "say we had to." "Leopold clearly thought that we were not predestined to destroy what we love, that we can save that which is important if we can develop an ethic of protection. Leopold called this the land ethic, but what he was referring to was an ethic of stewardship of the natural system, an ethic requiring that the full costs of a transaction or an alternative be developed and articulated, an ethic requiring that a transaction or alternative be rejected if it does not take into account all of the damage it does."

"The Book of Texas Bays" is filled with philosophy and good information about our Gulf coastal areas, including some insightful narrative about the resources, the people, and concerns about the future. Blackburn's final comments include a recommendation: "To save the Texas coast, we must value it and we must defend it. The first step is to get to know it."

"The Book of Texas Bays," published by Texas A&M University Press, is available at stores or direct from the publisher at 800-826-8911 or www.tamu.edu/press. It includes 304 pages and 116 color photos, 32 figures, 26 maps, notes, and an index. It is available only in cloth at $40.00.

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