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Site Fidelity

On a November day, on the cusp of another subtropical Florida winter, I am sitting on the edge of a dike road at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Before me is an expanse of water that looks as deep as a mirror. It is evaporating along the edges, leaving the wet mud favored by least sandpipers and semipalmated plovers. The shallows nearest me are stippled with western sandpipers, and near them are several dozen dunlins and short-billed dowitchers. Just beyond the dowitchers, in a deeper channel of water, a lone yellowlegs runs to and fro, and in the middle of the shallows on a narrow island of mud, a hundred yards out, are a couple of hundred gulls and terns huddled as close together as their dispositions allow. I come here often at this time of year to watch the dunlins hunch over their reflections in the water, to listen to the wind in the rushes and reeds, and to find again the stillness at the center of a flock of sandpipers flying low over the water.

Beyond the far edge of the water is the dull green of low-lying salt grass, which quickly gives way to a broad river of waist-high black needlerush, named for its fine point and the color it assumes this time of year as it dies back. To the north of where I sit, the needlerush is replaced by Spartina, though this is not the ragged Spartina of most southeastern coastal marshes, Spartina alterniflora, but a more elegant species, Spartina bakeri, which grows in “high marshes” in clumps that look both in color and shape like shaving brushes stood on end. At the horizon is a band of dark green—a line of cabbage palms and slash pines growing on the berm on the other side of this impoundment.

From above, a perspective I enjoyed once in a helicopter that swept dreamlike over the land as two biologists counted wading birds, the area [End Page 1] resembles a thick, brocaded rug laid 10 miles east to west, and 25 miles north to south. The greens of palm trees, pines, wax myrtles, and mangroves seem woven in cloud shapes over a fabric of ochre and umber grasses, reeds, and rushes—or they encircle great cerulean blooms of shallow water. Standing on the ground, at any point in the marsh, the land and water are flat and wide open. Look up, and the cloud-brushed sky is pale blue and amazingly still.

Merritt Island, a barrier island halfway down Florida’s Atlantic coast, is attached by a thin strip of beach to Cape Canaveral, a spur of land made famous by the Kennedy Space Center. A sandbar that has been above sea level continuously for only 20,000 years, the Cape as well as the beach, Merritt Island, and the lagoons surrounding it—Indian River, Mosquito Lagoon, and Banana River—were sculpted by wind and waves as sea levels rose and fell during the 25 million years since Florida first emerged as land.

Native Americans arrived in the area 7,000 years ago, leaving behind shell middens and shards of pottery. The Spanish who came in the early 1500s planted orange trees they brought from China. In the 1700s British colonists drained and diked parts of the area for farming. But few people stayed for long. The orange trees died out, and native vegetation grew over what little remained of the settlements. Eventually, settlers were driven out by a particularly aggressive species of salt marsh mosquito, Aedes taeniorhynchus, estimated by the Department of Health to land on its victim at the rate of 500 individuals per minute. In the summer breeding seasons, taeniorhynchus could produce a million offspring in one square yard of marsh. Thus, as the rest of the Florida coastline was developed, Merritt Island remained largely unsettled, and the character of the place changed very little until the 1950s, when NASA began buying up the land to build a space center.

The mosquitoes were a bane to the space center employees as well, so from 1959 to 1963, workers used a diesel-powered drag line that they...