THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, September 24, 1995 TAG: 9509210604 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J2 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Book Review SOURCE: BILL RUEHLMANN LENGTH: Medium: 83 lines
At first encounter, the outdoor passion of environmentalist Pat Garber can be unsettling.
One instinctively says whoa.
For example, in her panoramic collection of personal observations, Ocracoke Wild: A Naturalist's Year on an Outer Banks Island (Down Home Press, 166 pp., $13.95), the intense teacher writes:
I was just arriving home from a trip up the beach and was weaving my way around the puddles toward the house when a sudden movement brought me up short. Then there it was again, on the ground in front of the porch. Another look sent a thrill of joy through me.
It was a toad!
Well, big alfresco deal, the jaded reader might mutter. A toad is a toad is a lump of leather, and no beauty to boot. Whatever would justify the exclamation point?
First, Garber's boundless enthusiasm for every animate thing. Second, her wide-ranging knowledge of the natural world. Because the toad on the ground turns out to be special, even downright rare:
Amphibians have always been scarce on Ocracoke. There are no documented accounts of salamanders and only four recorded species of frogs and toads. This is because of the scarcity of fresh water and the large amount of salt spray which, during storms, reaches almost all areas of the island.
Garber, 42, identifies her find as a Fowler's toad (Bufo woodhousei).
Two to three inches long, it is gray, olive or brown with a light stripe down its back and numerous dark dorsal spots containing three or more small warts.
She so succeeds in communicating her excitement, we are led at last to supply our own exclamatory punctuation. Garber needles us out of numbness to nature. This happens again and again, as she describes wild ponies, piping plovers, snowy egrets, great blue herons, bottlenose dolphins, even the microscopic organism Noctiluca:
It is filled with a greenish gelatinous substance which is lighter than water, making it possible for it to float to the surface. The name Noctiluca means ``night light,'' for this bioluminescent prototzoan produces some of the brightest lights in the sea. Sparked by darkness and turbulence, they account for the eerie green flashes we sometimes see in their ocean surf at night.
Emerald lava by moonlight!
``I have a kind of message about bringing out the magic that is all about us and we don't have time to see,'' Garber said in a telephone interview from her Ocracoke home in North Carolina. ``Every little thing has its own life and meaning, if we stop to find it. If we can feel this, then we can come to realize how important it is to preserve it.''
The Virginia native went to Ocracoke in 1985 to heal up after a painful divorce and discovered an American Eden with a piratical past, 17 miles of windswept woods, sand and salt marsh. She found safe haven there. After an interlude in Arizona, where she taught the Havasupai and acquired an advanced degree in environmental anthropology, Garber returned to the island and wrapped herself in it like a hermit crab.
She taught guitar, tutored students, conducted kayak tours and wrote a nature column for the local Island Breeze. That column won first-place awards three years running from the North Carolina Press Women. Now the newspaper work has been collected in Ocracoke Wild, capturing the breathing rhythm of the mile-wide barrier island.
``This might be my big chance to have an impact on what I believe in and do something for the environment,'' Garber said.
The book celebrates what she admires, what she is:
When I was a kid living in Virginia, I had a self-imposed mission every spring. All kinds of frogs and toads would lay eggs in my father's swimming pool, and these eggs would hatch into thousands of tadpoles. When it was time for my father to empty the pool for painting, my best friend and I would spend days carrying tadpoles in buckets to the pond across the road.
In her prose, Pat Garber is still performing that service, encouraging the rest of us to lend a hand.
- MEMO: Bill Ruehlmann is a mass communication professor at Virginia Wesleyan
College. ILLUSTRATION: ``Every little thing has its own life and meaning, if we stop to
find it,'' says author Pat Garber.