My Chincoteague

October 30, 2001|By Edward Flattau

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. - I think everyone needs a Chincoteague, especially after the horrific terrorist assault on our nation and individual psyches.

For me, Chincoteague is a place to retreat for spiritual reflection and some assurance that there is a divine plan in which order ultimately materializes out of chaos. I never needed that assurance more than immediately after the bloody events of Sept. 11.

Chincoteague is more than an abstraction for me. It is actually a 10,000-acre national wildlife refuge situated on Assateague, a barrier island bordering the Atlantic Ocean off the Virginia coast. The wildlife refuge has been my inspiration for years, providing a location in which to escape the daily grind of the modern world and soak up the wondrous miracle of nature.

Although I usually visit the refuge's forest, wetlands and undeveloped beach in the late spring or early fall when the climate is typically benign, I am under no illusions that life can be a rugged test for wildlife in the dead of winter or the high heat of mid-summer. And even now, at this most hospitable time of the year, the deadly interplay between the hunters and the hunted in the ecosystem persists in unrelenting fashion.

A major distinction, however, between the killing on this barrier island and what happened at the World Trade Center and Pentagon is motivation. Predatory actions of creatures inhabiting the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge are aimed more at perpetuating life than snuffing it out. When certain species are slain (or more accurately, devoured) by other species, self-defense is no excuse for the perpetrators. But self-preservation almost always is, consistent with the elemental law of "survival of the fittest."

Moreover, whatever violence is associated with these predatory actions is rarely visible to the naked eye, resulting in a languid tranquillity settling over the refuge, especially on warm, sunny autumn afternoons. Images of the World Trade Center catastrophe recede, at least temporarily.

There are no military checkpoints, no terrorist targets. There is only the surf crashing against a broad white sand beach populated by shore birds feeding furiously on ghost crabs and microorganisms in the inter-tidal zone. You won't hear the wail of sirens, just the wind whistling through the needled branches of loblolly pines.

As a regular visitor to the refuge, I am comforted by the regeneration of woodlands decimated by the outbreak of a pine bark beetle infestation several years back. The forest's renewal has been helped by federal managers seeding hardwood species among the pines, thereby depriving the beetle of a tasty monoculture that would eventually lead to an insect population explosion. (Diversity creates resistance to attack. Is there a lesson for us there?) The forest's renewal inspires my own.

As with all barrier islands, Assateague is in constant flux as tidal onslaughts ever so incrementally redistribute its foundation and push it in the direction of the mainland. I take comfort from this immutable change and the message it conveys - that as mighty as humans think they are, they are dwarfed by the power of nature.

Chincoteague for some may be a public place. For others, it may be a cozy nook at home or even the inner recesses of one's mind. But whatever form, everyone should have a Chincoteague to which they can withdraw in these trying days.

Ed Flattau generally writes about environmental issues from Washington.

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