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Life on Matagorda Island

By Wayne H. McAlister; Illustrations by Martha K. McAlister

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.”

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Louisiana Coast

Guide to an American Wetland

By Gay M. Gomez

Hurricane Katrina gave the nation an urgent reminder of the extent and value of Louisiana’s wetlands when daily discussions of subsidence and sedimentation revealed how much ordinary coastal processes affect humanity—and vice versa. Now, with a native Louisiana naturalist as a guide, readers can learn how best to enjoy, appreciate, and protect this vanishing landscape. Part natural history and part field guide, The Louisiana Coast takes readers across one of only three major chenier plains in the world to the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest river basin swamp on the continent, and through the network of bayous, natural levees, cypress swamps, marshes, and barrier islands of the Deltaic Plain. Color photographs illustrate chapters on vegetation, wildlife, and the rich human culture that defines Louisiana. With the intimate knowledge of one whose life has been shaped by this remarkable environment, author Gay M. Gomez leads visitors to nature trails, wildlife refuges, Audubon sanctuaries, and parks. A visitor’s guide at the end of the book features destinations open to the public for wildlife watching, photography, and even hunting, fishing, crabbing, and cast netting. Everyone who lives in or visits Louisiana and anyone interested in the conservation, ecology, natural history, and geography of the region will appreciate Gomez’s exploration of the land, its people, its resources, and its vulnerabilities. The Louisiana Coast will encourage readers to share the author’s love for this vital, distinct, and beautiful place.  

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Plants of the Texas Coastal Bend

By Roy L. Lehman

For everyone who studies or simply enjoys the impressive variety of wild plants that grow in the counties of Texas' coastal bend, here is an authoritative, user-friendly book that will make an excellent reference.

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River Music

An Atchafalaya Story

Ann McCutchan; With CD, Atchafalaya Soundscapes, by Earl Robicheaux

Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin, the heart and soul of Acadiana, or Cajun country, is the focus of this compelling narrative by Ann McCutchan. A masterful weaving of cultural and environmental history, River Music also tells the life story of Louisiana musician, naturalist, and sound documentarian Earl Robicheaux. With Robicheaux as her guide, McCutchan embarks on a musical, visual, literary, and historical tour of the Atchafalaya, where bayous, swamps, marshes, and river delta country have long sustained nature and culture, even as industry has changed both the landscape and the people. Along the way, she and Robicheaux pay homage to distinctive voices of the region’s singular soundscape, including Acadian and Native American elders, birds, frogs, alligators, wind, water, and weather, which Robicheaux chronicles in archival recordings and musical compositions for museum exhibits, radio programs, and repositories such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A CD of Robicheaux's soundscapes is included with the book. In counterpoint, McCutchan recounts Robicheaux’s remarkable struggles as a jazz and classical artist, Katrina victim, cancer survivor, and steadfast son of the Basin devoted to remembering, preserving, and sounding out the ecological and cultural riches of his home. An original blend of nature writing, music history, biography, journalism, and memoir, River Music: An Atchafalaya Story eloquently celebrates the one-and-half-million watery acres that have shaped the lives of the people there—and been transformed by them in return. An epilogue written in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the disastrous oil spill that followed provides a fitting and poignant coda to this memorable book.  

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Storm over the Bay

The People of Corpus Christi and Their Port

By Mary Jo O'Rear

Since the late 1830s, the natural harbor at the mouth of South Texas' Nueces River has been a center of regional maritime trade. But by the early 1900s, a storm of political wrangling, cronyism, and corruption was threatening to scuttle the city's efforts toward securing a dependable deep water port to attract international commerce to Corpus Christi. On September 14, 1919, a massive hurricane struck the bay, burying the downtown area under ten feet of debris and killing as many as one thousand people. The storm left millions of dollars of damage in its wake. The citizens of Corpus Christi, rather than being demoralized, however, were galvanized by the disaster.   In gripping detail, author Mary Jo O'Rear chronicles the successful efforts of the newly unified Corpus Christi—efforts that culminated in the dedication of the Port of Corpus Christi on September 14, 1926, seven years to the day after the storm that devastated the city. Storm over the Bay will appeal to readers interested in regional history, politics, and economics. It is a must-read for anyone who appreciates Corpus Christi and its colorful past.

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Texas Coral Reefs

By Jesse Cancelmo; Foreword by Sylvia Earle

Just one hundred and ten miles south of the Texas-Louisiana border, beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, lie two coral reefs, together called the Flower Garden Banks. This coral community, the northernmost reef system in the United States and a national marine sanctuary, is home to hundreds of kinds of fish and other tropical sea life. Manta rays and turtles visit regularly, as do whale sharks and schools of hammerhead sharks. Other wonders include the annual mass coral spawns and a briny depression called Gollum Lake. Nearby are two other reefs. Stetson Bank, its top spotted with hard corals, mollusks, and sponges, is known for its diversity—from black sea hares to golden smooth trunkfish. At Geyer Bank, thousands of butterfly fish dominate a huge population of tropical fish whose density rivals that of the coral reefs in the South Pacific. Protruding from the flat, muddy continental shelf, these and thirty other natural reefs support an exceptional amount and variety of sea life in Texas waters. They sit amid hundreds of oil and gas platforms, which create their own special reef ecosystems. These reefs, equal in their profusion of life and color to the storied reefs of Florida and Hawaii, have not been widely known to Texans outside of a small group of scientists and divers. With extraordinary photographs and a knowledgeable first-person narrative, author Jesse Cancelmo instills an appreciation for the beauty and fragility of one of the state’s least-known natural environments. Texas Coral Reefs will inspire adventurers—both the underwater and armchair varieties—to enjoy these spectacular but little-known sites that lie so close to home.

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Texas Market Hunting

Stories of Waterfowl, Game Laws, and Outlaws

R. K. Sawyer

From its earliest days of human habitation, the Texas coast was home to seemingly endless clouds of ducks, geese, swans, and shorebirds.

By the 1880s Texas huntsmen, or market hunters, as they came to be called, began providing meat and plumage for the restaurant tables and millinery salons of a rapidly growing nation. A network of suppliers, packers, distribution centers, and shipping hubs efficiently handled their immense harvest.

At the peak of Texas market hunting in the late 1890s, Rockport merchants shipped an average of 600 ducks a day in a five-month shooting season, and in the last year of legal market hunting, an estimated 60,000 ducks and geese were shipped from Corpus Christi alone.

Market men employed efficient methods to harvest nature’s bounty. They commonly hunted at night, often using bait to concentrate large numbers of waterfowl. The effectiveness of the hunt was improved when side-by-side double barrel shotguns and large-gauge swivel guns gave way to repeating firearms, with some capable of discharging as many as eleven shells in a single volley.

Their methods were so efficient that, by the late 1800s, Texas sportsmen and others blamed the alarming decline of coastal waterfowl populations on the market hunter’s occupation. In 1903, after a long fight and many failures, the first migratory bird game law passed the Texas legislature. Though the fight would continue, it was the beginning of the end of the year-round slaughter. Most market hunters quit, and those who didn’t became outlaws.

In this book, R. K. Sawyer chronicles the days of market hunting along the Texas coast and the showdown between the early game wardens and those who persisted in commercial waterfowl hunting. Containing an abundance of rare historical photographs and oral history, Texas Market Hunting: Stories of Waterfowl, Game Laws, and Outlaws provides a comprehensive and colorful account of this bygone period.

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