Letting nature speak up

by Holly McKelvey

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Dusty chaparral aromas of sage and mugwort mix with the salty humidity off the ocean at Coal Oil Point, a coastal Californian reserve where I lead educational tours on weekends.

The reserve lies nestled tight against the UC Santa Barbara campus where white erosive cliffs give way to dunes and estuary.

Each tour begins with an explanation of the reserve's inauspicious name: it is not, in fact, in reference to Santa Barbara’s offshore oil industry, although drilling platforms stand ubiquitous and imposing along the horizon.

Rather, Coal Oil Point is named for a millennia-old natural phenomenon. Just offshore, oil leaks upward into the Pacific through cracks formed by a thousand earthquakes, and washes up on Santa Barbara's beaches as clumps of sludgy black tar that cling to unsuspecting feet.

Apart from the lumbering figures of oil platforms out at sea, and the odd grove of gangly non-native Eucalyptus trees, Coal Oil Point still looks much as it would have to the Chumash.

The reserve is a haven for species native to this region thanks in large part to recent restoration efforts.  

Today, lizards stretch out lazily on rocks. Formations of once-endangered brown pelicans sail serenely overhead. On the beach a small community of skittishly watchful Western Snowy Plovers—completely absent in this area only ten years ago—nests at the foot of a restored and thriving coastal dune system.

The criteria for ecosystem restoration are strict here; only seeds taken from within or close to the reserve are used in the propagation greenhouse, where native seedlings are grown in foot-deep planters to maximize root growth. Once in the ground, seedlings with longer roots have a better chance of accessing water in an ecosystem accustomed to intense drought.

I share these details as I guide visitors along the slough, adapting each tour to match the day’s interests.

Sometimes the group focuses on the reserve’s edible plants, or on the area's cultural history, or on the sleekly beautiful egrets and herons that stalk the water’s edge and fish from low-hanging branches. With a BSc in Geosciences, I can't help but walk every group through the area's rich geological history and the provenance of its eponymous beach tar and oil slicks. I like to think that there is always interest in that topic.

The goal of the tours, of course, is to educate people about Coal Oil Point Reserve's local landscape, both natural and cultural. I want visitors to look at the reserve as it is now—a haven for birds and beetles and surfers and sand dunes—all coexisting peacefully in a shared ecosystem.

I want them to imagine the point as it was some 90 years ago during Prohibition, when surreptitious deliveries of alcohol were smuggled up from the beach by night to lubricate lavish galas. I want visitors to look back further, to imagine the Chumash living on the land, using the fragrant (and hallucinogenic) leaves of Mugwort, and the tart seeds of Lemonade Berry to brew teas. I want them to picture the Chumash harvesting tar off the beaches as sealant for canoes, and to imagine a rich culture of trade between mainland and offshore channel islands.

I want visitors to know what time of year they can come back and watch mama gray whales with their calves meandering down the coastline (February-May, fyi). And I want people to consider what exactly the process of conservation entails: it is not passive. We cannot stand back and wait for a heavily disrupted ecosystem to repair itself.

But surprisingly, at least half of each tour I lead has nothing to do with the reserve.

Instead, I ask people to tell me about themselves: we talk about their studies, their jobs, their goals, and people open up. They open up with enthusiasm, and over the course of the tour their thoughts turn increasingly to the reserve and its richness.

My visitors share themselves rather than passively hearing someone talk at them. To follow a tour, not speaking, for two hours? Yawn. To listen and then share, exchange, divulge? That creates a relationship, and opens the door to further exchange.

After a tour, many people start frequenting Coal Oil Point’s trails. They get involved in the reserve's volunteer programs, or invite others to join on future tours. One student was so excited to learn about the invertebrates that inhabit kelp strands on the beach, that he decided to research the ecology of groomed versus un-groomed beaches for an upcoming project.

This, to me, is environmental education. We cannot consider the environment as something separate from us.

If we place ourselves in it, appreciate that we can be a part of it, and feel joy when we're in it, then we take responsibility for it. We come back. We help to make a difference. And we celebrate the tar we bring home with us on the soles of our feet.

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Holly McKelvey is a graduate student in Applied Ecology at the Université de Poitiers, France, working on bio-indicators in stream ecology. She can be reached at holly.mc.kelvey@etu.univ-poitiers.fr

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