Wednesday, January 23, 2008


A good friend and fine fisherman who has just entered an MFA program in creative writing in deep South Texas sent this the other day:

"But he couldn’t keep away from the Valley. He would run like a hooked fish until the drag of his dying cells tired him out, and the Valley reeled him in."

It's a quote from a William S. Burroughs book, and nearly perfectly evokes the taut and persistent connection I feel to the low country of my childhood.

A couple of weekends ago, Tamara and I made a dash for the coast during a spell of warmer weather. Sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s greated us at Padre Island National Seashore. We took the long, sandy trail south -- down island to the tip of the park.

The details of the trip, and the memories it brought back for me, can be found at beginning Feb. 1.

The trip Tam and I took this month is one I've made probably more than 100 times. The first of those is beyond my recall, in my earliest childhood. They followed hard on the heels of my parents' courting, and of father-son trips in which my dad was the junior partner.

Padre Island held an almost mystical significance for my grandfather.

A child of the prairie, Grandpa must have felt at home in the wide-open emptiness of Padre Island. And, of course, there were fish there. The fish are what drew him to the Texas Gulf coast to begin with.

Grandpa cheered the acquisition of a large part of the island by the National Park Service. After he died in 1978, my father found a poem among his dad's papers. It begins like this: A dear old uncle left to me/A wondrous, beautiful legacy ... and chronicles some of the joys -- and history -- of the island.

The last lines of the poem go like this:

And now that my race is nearly run,
I can turn my face to the setting sun.
Knowing the battle has been won,
This spot will be left for you, my son ...

That your children and theirs forevermore
May build castles of sand on that golden shore.

Grandpa believed that the island was timeless, and changeless. The National Park Service advertises it that way:

Because the National Seashore endeavors to preserve Padre Island in its natural state, visiting the island is very much like stepping back into the past. With few exceptions, visitors can now see Padre Island as it has existed throughout most of its history and how it is described in the few extant descriptions by the early explorers.

In one sense, it is; the towering condominium developments of the extreme northern and southern ends of the island are nowhere in evidence here. Neither are cell phone towers, hot showers, fast food drive-thrus or any of the hundreds of other appertenances of "civilization."

But oil and gas exploration continues, mostly behind the dune line. The Sierra Club campaigned for a federal buyout of the island's mineral rights from the state of Texas and was flatly told "no" by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

"We get a better deal for developing the resource over time than we do from some arbitrary buyout," Patterson said in 2004.

In 2006, Patterson leased submerged land off the southern end of the park for what could be the nation's largest wind farm. Spanning 40,000 acres of state land, 500 of the turbines would generate enough electricity to power 125,000 homes.

Worries about the turbines are many, and include their impact on migratory birds (the site is in the middle of the Central Flyway, and Padre Island is the first landfall for many birds who have made a long Gulf crossing). And at 400 feet tall, the turbines won't exactly be unobtrusive.

"Those who are concerned about view sheds shouldn't have a problem," Patterson said. "There's nobody there to look at it."

By that logic, Yellowstone would be a pretty good place for an open-pit mine, wouldn't it?

To be fair, the land commissioner is required by law to maximize revenue from public lands. The money funds things like schools, and Texas schools need that subsidy.

Wind farms are an interesting problem for environmentalists. On the one hand, they produce clean energy with virtually no carbon emissions. On the other hand they're not so good for flying critters -- though the danger they pose may be overstated, in some cases -- and they're really, really big.

And, for the size of it's footprint, the proposed Padre Island project would generate only a little more energy (about 20 Megawatts) than a single General Electric H-series combined-cycle gas turbine, which could be fueled with the abundant natural gas found beneath the Texas coast.

The wind farm off Padre Island may or may not go forward after meeting stiff opposition from the Lower Laguna Madre Foundation, among others. On the other side of the bay, a battle over wind power is raging between two South Texas giants who have long been important conservationists: the powerful Kenedy Foundation and the iconic King Ranch.

The foundation wants wind turbines on its ranch; the King Ranch says "not in our (very large) back yard."

It's an odd sort of fight that sometimes leaves sincere conservationists and environmentalists wrong-footed. I'm all for clean, low-emission energy generation. But I equally value the dwindling number of places in this state where I can turn 360 degrees and not see some looming human artifact.

So, on the one hand, there is something timeless about the island. But it also changes, all the time. Barrier islands are organic structures and grow and shrink and migrate ... washovers carve new passes and channels, dunes drift and cover them.

The swirl of longshore currents and pinch eddies that wash Padre Island's shores bring with them an ever-changing array of flotsam and jetsom: fishing floats, logs, buoys, hardhats, bottles, televisions and plastic; lots and lots of plastic.

The island's function as a sump for the Gulf's trash was noted as early as the 16th century, when Spanish surveyors noted the jumble of lship's lumber, gun carriages and other detritus strewn across the island's shores.

It's no surprise, then, that even after more than three decades of trips down island, there's still something new to see.

During our trip a couple of weeks ago, the novelty was a bloom of the dinoflaggelate Noctiluca scintillans, also called "seasparkle." In the light of day, the bloom looked like orange paint poured thick on the water. In the dark of night, the organisms blazed neon blue as waves tumbled them across the sandbars fronting the island.

My friend Brandon in Fort Worth saw a picture and said: "That's not Noctiluca, that's magic!"

I couldn't agree more.

[Third photo from the bottom is a shot of the Laguna Madre from the back of PINS, courtesy of that crazy Viking, Kendal Larson.]