From most people’s point of view, a barrier beach is a paradox: appealing to visit but appalling to live on. An enjoyable day’s excursion requires shade, dark glasses, sunblock, drinking water, food, and, of course, a shower afterward. Take all those amenities away and consider existing alone on the island fulltime, even during hurricanes.
When Wayne and Martha McAlister moved to Matagorda Island, a wildlife refuge off the central Texas coast, they anticipated staying perhaps five years. But sent to take up duties with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wayne McAlister fell under the island’s spell the moment he stepped out of his aging house trailer and met his first Matagorda rattlesnake. Seven years later, the McAlisters were still observing the flora and fauna of Matagorda. Except for the road and some occasional fence posts, the island appears untouched by humans. In Life on Matagorda Island, Wayne McAlister shows what life was like amid such isolation.
McAlister revels in the ghostly twinkles of nights on the beach, as luminescent comb jellies, sea walnuts, and glow worms light up every crest of wave. He watches hungry whooping cranes snatch striped mullet trapped in tidal pools; hunts for Hurter’s spadefoots, reclusive amphibians that surface during warm deluges; and sinks to his knees in the sand, flashlight in hand, to catch a glimpse of a whip eel’s sharp snout.
Not all observations are limited to the psammobionts—the creatures of the sand. McAlister recounts petting a fatbellied coyote pup and handing out kitchen scraps to wild turkeys. Badgers make their home on Matagorda Island, as do alligators, raccoons, and hundreds of varieties of insects, including the aggravating salt marsh mosquito.
But McAlister doesn’t merely observe: he tells why and how. Why oysters spit, why pistol shrimp snap, or how debris from offshore boats affects the beach environment. He also relates the more sinister aspects of living on a barrier island, such as finding himself ankledeep in quicksand. But it’s all in a day’s work—or play—to the McAlisters, as they balance their lifestyle with the will of the island and its nonhuman inhabitants.
“We try to stay in the background, enthralled observers,” McAlister writes. “We do not belong, can never truly belong, but we can coexist and commingle. Close enough.”