14 October 2021
On Thursday, October 14th, our group rose early in the morning for my student facilitated activity at Skidaway Island State Park, one of the 15 sea islands on the Georgia Coast. Here, we entered Skidaway's sparklingly clean and richly stocked information center and gift shop. There, we met Molly, a Park Ranger and interpreter from Savannah, Georgia, in the interpretation room. A large replica of an extinct ground sloth towered over us while Molly’s voice echoed around the room as she provided a short program about the ecology of Skidaway Island. She told us about barrier islands, tides, the salt marsh, the maritime forest, and iconic flora and fauna of the local environment. After this program, I led our group out onto the Sandpiper Trail—one of three excellent nature trails at the park—to learn more about the ecology of the Georgia Coast and see it up close.
Dr. Deal and Ian backgrounded by a maritime forest and salt marsh, photo by Jordan Fields
Visiting Skidaway Island was an intentional exercise in improving our topographical intimacy with the Georgia Coast for a more ecoliterate sense of place. Ecoliteracy, a concept defined in 1990 by Oberlin College Professor David Orr, as the ability to understand the organization of natural systems and the processes that maintain and sustain life on Earth, is vital to the environmental dimension comprising a sense of place. (Environmental literacy, McBride et al. 2013) Consequently, to better prepare our collective ecoliteracy within place, I provided the class with an informative, scientific overview of the local ecology through the University of Georgia’s Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant website to frame our visit and nature hike.
Our group walking into the Sandpiper Trail at Skidaway, photo by Jordan Fields
In the context of understanding place, knowing the names of local plants, animals, and the processes of ecosystems is a source of power. As our class learns about ways the Gullah Geechee, plantation owners, scientists, locals, and visitors interact with the lowcountry and sea islands, we must recognize that ecological knowledge provides power within place. For example, as plantation owners sought enslaved peoples with the particular ecological knowledge required to cultivate rice in estuaries, they essentially sought to extract and profit from the power of a people’s ecoliteracy. In essence, to know and understand the systems of the salt marsh is also to have power within it.
Moreover, visiting Skidaway allowed us to examine how a unique, isolated ecosystem inspires romance and thus invites interaction with nature. In Lure of the Local (1997), Lucy Lippard explains that “Divergent indigenous cultures see nature as natural, as a living web of respected and interconnected parts . . .” beyond imposed human hierarchies. (12) Similarly, as we have learned of the Gullah Geechee’s spiritual understanding of themselves as members of the environment, we are likewise invited to understand the environment of the sea islands and lowcountry as both natural and built environments wherein humans are indeed part of a place’s ecosystems.
Silhouettes in the salt marsh, photo by Jordan Fields
In this manner, the isolated geographical situation of a sea island and the rich ecosystems ask us to be conscious members of the environment, whether for research or recreation. Park rangers like Molly demonstrate how state parks like Skidaway balance isolation and romance. On one hand, the park invites a romantic vision of nature by maintaining the trails and programs available for its recreational use. On the other hand, the park aims to preserve the relative isolation of its ecosystems to prevent environmental degradation. The trails we walked thus simultaneously invite and moderate our topographical intimacy—we were free to sense place within the lines set to protect it.
Josh, Christian, and Bobby on a bench near salt flats, photo by Jordan Fields
Through facilitating this activity, I explored my love for wildlife and environmental education. Beyond pursuing this field for a career, I learned that environmental education is an axis through which we can find places and be placed. While walking through the trails and educating my peers about the names of plants, animals, and interactions between them, I felt like I actively participated in deepening our sense of place through topographical intimacy. At the end of the day, our critical reflection discussion affirmed this insight. By holding space for everyone to share their personal connections to nature in the places that shape them, we developed one of our most poignant moments of sensing place through the environment.
Dr. Deal examining a fallen Coastal Red Cedar, photo by Jordan Fields