Mermaid Paradise

Linda Quest By Linda Quest, 23rd Nov 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Essays

Have you ever come back from a long absence and noticed how much things have changed? I enjoyed many a day on the beach as a child, pretending that mermaids exist. I come back to the same area years later to find environmental degradation.

Coming Home to Coastal Virginia

Looking out through the stingy little window of the plane on its descent to Norfolk International Airport (that’s ORF to all you frequent flyers out there), I know we are close. Coasting in the sunset over the water, a flutter of excitement rises from within as I recognize the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. I am flying from Brussels, like I always do on family visits. But this time is different. This time my ticket is one way. I am coming home to stay after 28 years living in different European cities. I can’t wait to be part of my own community again.
We make our final approach to the home of my heart and deplane. My brain is still in European mode. To get myself back into my American persona, I look for her. Her! My beacon! The Norfolk mermaid! She is always there to greet me at the airport, posed gracefully with her tail and arms outstretched, turning sideways to greet me as she swims by. She is my smiling symbol of the people and things I love dearly, the life that has gone on without me while I was having my international adventures. I have now officially entered the universe of Coastal Virginia. And soon I am wrapped in the arms of my loving family, grandchildren jumping up and down, competing for my attention.

Playing on the Beach

I didn’t grow up here, I grew up in the military, moving around. But I spent the biggest chunk of my childhood in the Richmond area, in Virginia’s interior. Once a week in the summer, my mother and her best friend would take us kids out for a day at the beach. We’d drive along Route 460 to Dam Neck, with one baloney sandwich for each of us and a jug of water to share. And we would play all day and protest going home in the evening.
Back then in the 1970’s, there was still a lot of life on the beach: sea gulls and sand pipers, crabs and fish. When the waves rolled in, thousands of sand bugs and tiny angel-shell clams would pop up out of the sand, feed in seconds, and burrow back down into the sand as the water receded. There were colorful shells everywhere. Oyster shells had peachy, yellow, purply, or bluish tones. They were shiny inside and truly deserved the name “mother-of-pearl”. We collected them for arts and crafts projects. Macramé was big then. My grandmother made a picnic basket decorated entirely in multi-colored angel clams, with their shells opened out into butterfly shapes. Most days the water was opaque, but on some days the water was quite clear and you could see your feet at the bottom, even if they were a bit blurry. The ocean was a magical place and it was not hard for a little girl to imagine herself swimming close to an undersea paradise of beautiful mermaids and mermen.
We land people have been polluting the mermaid’s idyllic world for a couple of centuries. Even back in my childhood, big clumps of tar would wash up on the beach. We’d have to use gasoline to clean it off our feet.

Things have changed

I read the accounts of the early European colonists, or perhaps we should call them invaders. Sailing into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, they found waters as clear as glass. On the rocks were oysters as big as dinner plates and they would just reach down from their longboats and pluck the oysters to eat. Imagine the happy mermaids, slightly troubled at newly arrived bearded men raiding their dinner table.
Since then we have cut down trees, dumped toxic chemicals, raw sewage and fertilizers into our water. We have dirtied the waters to a cloudy muddy color. If my imaginary mermaids exist, they must be choking.
In 1972 the federal government passed the first Clean Water Act, followed by more stringent laws in 1977 and 1987. The objective was to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters by preventing point and nonpoint pollution sources, providing assistance to publicly owned treatment works for the improvement of wastewater treatment, and maintaining the integrity of wetlands.”
Returning after my 28-year absence, I don’t see any more tar on the beach. But I don’t see many oyster shells either, or other wildlife. The water is dead except for jellyfish and a few small crab claws here and there. There are more gulls at the Captain D’s Seafood restaurant dumpster than at the beach. Maybe that’s why all the mermaids are propped up on sticks in front of landmark buildings, I think to myself – pollution killed them and they have all been stuffed by taxidermists.
The oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay, once the most plentiful in the country, had dropped to 1% of its population by the beginning of this millennium. Most of the loss was in the decades since the clean water act was passed. Shad fishing had to be banned in 1990. Pollution and dams had taken their toll. People today don’t even know what shad is – it used to be a staple fish in the Virginia diet and a big export. Menhaden fishing has been cut way back. Nobody eats menhaden directly, but we use its oil in cosmetics and other products. More importantly, menhaden is a key food source for all the bigger fish and birds that live in the bay, even dolphins and whales offshore. Without the menhaden, they will all die. The famous Chesapeake blue crabs are at an all-time low. There is not enough grass on the sea bed for them to hide their eggs from predators. Striped bass were brought back from a huge decline due to overfishing, but their population is dwindling as there is not enough menhaden to eat.
Large parts of the Chesapeake Bay are dead zones – so polluted with nitrogen and phosphorous, there is no oxygen and nothing can live. Algae blooms suffocate plants and animals. A few summers ago as 296,000 fish died in a runaway algae bloom in Mattox Creek. The decaying algae sucked even more oxygen out of the water.
If there is a mermaid left, her once beautiful sea skin must be gray and pocked now. Her luxurious hair, thin and limp.

Bring Back Paradise!

Environmental groups and concerned citizens have fought hard to stop the pollution. They have poured their energy into cleaning up the water, building oyster beds, planting grasses, and restoring fish populations. Here and there, they gain some ground, and then they lose ground somewhere else.
But the tide of man-made pollution is hard to stop. The largest share of pollution comes from excess runoff from wastewater treatment plants. Big agriculture, raising and processing of animals and over fertilization also contribute a huge amount. Urbanization, cutting down trees that filter water, and the grime from too many streets and parking lots all dirty our waters further. Carbon dioxide pollution from traffic, power plants and factories settles over the water and sinks down. Activist groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network have campaigned politically and legally to force Industry and agriculture adhere to the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, and pushed government to toughen their lax enforcement. Slowly and reluctantly, businesses have had to clean up their act. I hope it’s not too late.
But there is one source of pollution that continues to grow steadily: the pollution that is created by individual people. We keep driving our cars everywhere, we keep using power tools. We keep buying too much stuff and throwing it away. Our pet waste gets washed away with each rain into storm drains, putting more nitrogen into the bay. Worst of all is the ideal we hold for green lawns and exotic gardens. Lawns! Water the grass to make it grow. Dump lots of fertilizer and weed killer onto it. Make it green and unnaturally uniform. Cut it every weekend. Water and fertilize some more. In our gardens, we plant flowers that aren’t native, ensuring we need to spend a lot of time fertilizing them and protecting them with pesticides. Our lawns and gardens are time-consuming, expensive, and highly toxic to our waterways – when more eco-friendly and still attractive alternatives exist.
By artificially manipulating our land home, we are destroying the mermaid’s natural home.
I just bought a house and moved in this month. The garden is an unkempt tangle of overgrown ornamental bushes, a lawn, and a lot of pine trees. I am going to tackle it over the winter. I keep a mermaid plaque on the wall, with the words “Welcome to Paradise” written on it. She will remind me, as I shape this garden, to make sure that my paradise does not further destroy her paradise. In fact, by planting a bay-friendly garden, I can even help to restore her paradise. Hint: there will be no lawn.
Will my mermaid’s paradise be restored within my lifetime? My children’s lifetime? How about my grandson? What changes will he see in Coastal Virginia over the course of his life – from a wiggly, giggly little boy playing on the beach to an old geezer like me walking along picking up shells?
We may not care about animal habitats and we may not care too much about the beauty of the world we leave to our children. Perhaps the most hardened among us might care a little about the economy, the fish industry, the tourism industry, or keeping the military presence here in Hampton Roads.
If we continue to pollute as we do, if we allow oil rigs and gas pipelines (which corrode, leak and explode), we will most certainly destroy all of these economies. The few good jobs in gas and oil will be filled by technical experts brought from elsewhere – it will not be a boon for the local economy at all.
It could be different. Natural, bay-friendly gardens are a thing and you can find out how to create one. Drought-friendly, little need for fertilizer or pesticides. We can develop public transport and bicycle paths. We can live with fewer box stores and parking lots, and give land back to parks with trees. We can let some coastal areas go back to wetlands. We can keep working on restoring wildlife – especially oysters who filter and clean the water for everyone else. We can vote with our dollars, our voices and our ballots to pressure agriculture and corporations to be even cleaner. We can fight for clean energy and fight against oil drilling and gas pipelines. We have the power and we can do it. Remember how we got people to wear seatbelts in cars. Remember how we got cigarette smoking confined. We can do it. We can have our paradise back, and so can the mythical mermaid.


Coast, Environment, Essay, Mermaid, Ocean, Personal Experience, Virginia

Meet the author

author avatar Linda Quest
Born in the US, I lived in Europe for 28 years before returning home. Currently in Norfolk, Virginia. I teach, research and write about management, but use these pages for play!

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author avatar RondaKay
23rd Nov 2015 (#)

Change is hard to accept. Sounds like you have some really wonderful memories. I wish I lived near an ocean.

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