Good-bye, Fox Island

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July 13-26, 1986

Those dates were hands down, the very best days of my teenage life. This is not hyperbole. This is true.

And this will be raw. I’m not interested in creating anything cohesive, not interested in editing or caring about flow or format right now. Above all I’m not interested in trying to tell a story with a happy ending or a valuable lesson. I suspect if there is one, I won’t be able to see it until much later. But what I really suspect is that there is no happy ending or valuable lesson. So you can stop reading now if that’s what you’re here for.

During the summer of 1986, I was thirteen years old. I was well on my way to fourteen, but not until the middle of August. And that was the best summer. A summer when, though I was far from mature, I started to grow up. A summer when, though I was a huge nerd, I found acceptance from a small group of people. A summer when I had one of the most formative experiences of my life.

I was lucky, oh so very lucky, to go on a great adventure, a two-week field trip to various educational centers around the Chesapeake Bay. It was something I dreamed of doing, something I applied to do, and after applying, waited, and waited to find out if I would be accepted. The day I received my acceptance letter in the mail, I leaped up and hugged my older brother, and believe me, the hugging of older brothers was not something my thirteen-year-old self ever did.

The first week of camp involved traveling around the bay: by canoe, by rowboat, in a workboat called The Osprey, on foot, and in a van. We baited our own trot-lines with salted eel and went crabbing. We had canoe races. We built osprey towers and wood duck boxes. We conducted experiments on water samples from the bay to determine water quality, dissolved oxygen content, salinity, and more. We searched for and recorded the locations of SAVs-submerged aquatic vegetation.

The second week was spent on Great Fox Island on the Tangier Sound. A century before our arrival, a hunting lodge was built on pilings next to a marshy island. The only solid ground-the floors of the lodge and the wooden boardwalks-were manmade. There was no electricity, just kerosene lanterns for light. The running water was supplied by a stationary bike in the kitchen. By pedaling the bike, water was pumped for washing dishes or taking short showers. The toilet, one that composted waste, used no water.

During our two-week bay odyssey, we got a first-class, hands-on, up-close-and-personal lesson in conservation and ecology. We did other things, too. We had ice cream in Annapolis. We swam at Sandy Point State Park where we also took our first hot showers in five or six days. We christened the van that drove us around “the party van” because we got to listen to “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins and “The Glory of Love” by Peter Cetera on the radio and because we were thirteen and fourteen and we were just that cool. We rescued a raccoon that got stuck in a trash container. We listened to ghost stories and told jokes and played Trivial Pursuit: What part of an airplane gives the bumpiest ride? Uh, the john? Hilarity.

During that trip, which I have always referred to since as “Fox Island,” I became friends with a boy named David. When the trip was over, I exchanged a few letters with three or four kids. But David and I wrote to each other for years. And years. This was when you still had to sit down with a pen or a pencil and a piece of paper and then put a stamp on an envelope. And we did. I have seen David three or four times since Fox Island ended. Our correspondence has dropped off in recent years, but we are Facebook friends.

That trip was the topic of many of my high school essays. What is your favorite place, and why? What is the most exciting thing you have ever done?

Why am I sharing all of this? Because just last night, I was thinking about Fox Island, fondly, as I always do, and wishing that my kids could experience this wonderful place. So today, I went to Google to see what I could find out. And what I discovered was devastating. Fox Island, for all intents and purposes, is gone. Last fall, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation made the heart-wrenching decision to suspend operations there. Due to rising sea levels brought about by climate change, the island is gone. The lodge and its boardwalks are still there, but it is no longer safe to take students there. It was the end of an era. I didn’t know.

Now I do know, and part of me wishes I didn’t. Fox Island will always exist in my memories and in my mind, but I never thought it would only exist there. It is terribly ironic and desperately sad that the very place that strove to teach generations of students about the dangers of climate change and the importance of conservation has succumbed. I can’t find a message of hope in its loss, all I can find is sadness.

I immediately contacted the one person who could understand and share my sadness. David. He responded to my Facebook message right away, as if he had been sitting there in front of his computer, waiting for me.

That’s so sad.

I’m really sad.

Those were good times.

They were great times.

I’m no stranger to loss. The older I get, the more things change and disappear. My elementary school is gone and so is the public library visited I growing up. Shops and restaurants in my hometown have closed. Places I took for granted and thought would always be there are gone. It reminds me of a poignant exchange between Armand and Lestat in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. About how hard it is to go on when everything that you love “slowly rots, or fades away.” I wasn’t expecting the world to change so quickly. I don’t know what the answer is.

I only know that I am sad tonight and I am weeping. Not only for the thirteen-year-old girl I once was, a girl who loved, and still loves nature, the outdoors, the water, and adventure, but for all the thirteen-year-olds who will never know what it’s like to step onto an island, step off the grid, and find yourself.

Good Night, Oppy. You Were Us.

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I have spent the better part of the day going back and forth between crying over the “death” of Mars rover Opportunity, and trying to understand why it has affected me so deeply. There is something at once poignant and terrifying at the thought of a small, silent ambassador of humanity stranded—perhaps forever—on a distant planet. Cut off from any and all contact with those who sent it, disconnected from the mission that once gave it purpose, beyond any hope of return or recovery. Dead.

Tributes have been pouring in from all over the world. An achievement like this captures the imagination. It confirms our shared humanity. It is a communal triumph of the human spirit and of human ingenuity. It affirms our thirst for knowledge, our drive to discover, our insatiable need to ask “why?” and perhaps more importantly, “why not?”

Opportunity was meant to last 90 days. Three months. A span of time smaller than a blip, not even worth mentioning or quantifying in an infinite universe where millennia have passed in the blink God’s eye. Yet Opportunity outlived its expected lifespan and increased its usefulness. Months turned into years. And for nearly two decades, much less than one human lifetime but longer than anyone could have hoped or predicted, the little rover that could gathered data, processed information, took photos, and brought us all just a little closer to the stars.

Now that contact has been lost and Opportunity has been declared dead, my mental image of a brave and intrepid little robot trundling over the surface of Mars has changed to that of a sad, lonely, and abandoned heap of metal and circuits. Logically I know that Opportunity is not a person, not an animal, not a sentient being. Emotionally, though, my heartstrings are remorselessly stretched to the limit by the message, “My battery is low and it is getting dark.” Even now, reading these words makes me want to sob with despair, and rage against some kind of unfairness I can’t define. And as I ask why this should be, an answer suggests itself. Perhaps it’s not the defunct machine I am crying for, but for myself, and for all of humanity.

How often have we felt similar sentiments? I am tired. The darkness is too deep. It’s so cold. I can’t do this anymore. I am alone.

Somehow, a little rover on exploring a new world gave us a reflection of ourselves. It moved over the surface of a planet that has stirred our imaginations since we first knew of its existence, and has starred in our popular culture since we created such a construct. It did just as you or I would do, have done, when set down in some new place. Explore, learn, tell our friends what we have discovered, take photographs, share selfies. In this way, a manmade machine was humanized. It was like us.

Human beings built Opportunity and launched it to the stars. Humanity is its creator and commander—we sent it out into the world to see what we could not. And we waited and watched to see what it would do. And now it sits, abandoned, in a world colder and darker than we can imagine. It’s not so different, really, from the story of us. After all, God created people, and launched them into a new world. Granted, it was a lush garden where every need was met, a far cry from an alien world of dust and rocks, a true howling wilderness. But then God found it necessary to banish humankind from that ideal, into a world that was bigger, harsher, scarier, and more dangerous than anything we had seen before. And while He hasn’t abandoned us, I know it sometimes feels that way.

The banishment from the Garden of Eden is the world’s first morality story. A cause and effect narration that explains the introduction of sin into the world. Yet God himself placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden, along with the Tree of Life. Of course he knew that His people would seek knowledge. I’m sure He expected it. The Bible tells us that wisdom is more valuable than gold and that only fools despise knowledge. When humans moved from the Garden of Eden into the wider world of God’s creation, I am sure He watched with great expectation to see what we would do. Like Opportunity, we began to learn, to explore, to investigate, and to discover. But unlike Opportunity, we are not abandoned. There is no place dark enough, cold enough, far enough, that we can go where He won’t look for us, find us, and call us back.

Even if, like Opportunity, we can’t, or won’t answer, He won’t cease communication, end the mission, or declare us dead. God’s grace is everywhere and we can’t lose it or shake it off. God Himself may call us to go where we don’t wish to go. Far from friends and family, into places that are dark, or cold, or lonely. But He goes with us. Opportunity allowed us to look beyond ourselves, into the infinite worlds of God’s creation and to find, not only the eternal, but ourselves.