Can you believe I have not seen this place for 50 years? And yet, so much of this beautiful landscape is just how I remembered it. The expansive saltmarshes dotted with small islands, the persistent sun reflecting in marshy puddles. And the Laughing Gulls. Those darling, stubborn gulls. Listen to their voices on the wind. They sound like they're laughing, don't they? Do you think they could remember me from so long ago? But of course, that's silly, because none of these gulls were alive then. This story took place long before they, or you or your mother were born, the last time I walked these shores.
In 1965 I was a graduate biology student at Rutgers University. Rutgers had a sister school, Douglas College, which had a summer research program in biological sciences near Egg Harbor. I signed on, and in addition to teaching classes, I helped doctoral students and professors work on their research projects, doing field work. The work was far from exciting. Even though you love to hike, I don't think you would have enjoyed trekking through the woods, for example, to measure the same 20 trees each week, in undergrowth heavy with poison ivy.
Your love of nature is why I thought you would enjoy coming here to this nature center while we're vacationing in Stone Harbor. I think you agree that it gets boring just sunning on the beach, doesn't it?
Of course, in those days, this nature center did not exist, with all of its informative displays and bleached wood walls. Instead, there was a little research station, owned by Rutgers and situated on the last stretch of virgin forest in the southern part of New Jersey.
By far, my favorite work was with the ornithology department. Early in the summer, I was told to place mist nets in the forest to catch birds. Every hour I would check them, delicately remove the trapped birds, examine them, band them, and release him. Typically, I caught small songbirds, like robins and grackles, but once I actually caught a red-tailed hawk.
When I checked that particular mist net, the poor hawk was flying back and forth as high as it could reach, pulling the net behind him and reminding me of a giant, filmy sail taking wing. In those days I had no knee or hip problems, but I was still just a wisp of a girl, just over 5 foot tall and barely 120 pounds. I saw that hawk, circling back and forth across the sky, and I panicked. How would I ever handle such a gloriously independent spirit, especially one with sharp talons?
Thank goodness for Sam. He was a PhD candidate a few years older than me: lanky, dark-haired and athletic. He rushed to my rescue. Patiently, he reeled the net down until, working as a team, we disentangled the hawk, examined it, banded it, and let it go. As it swooped away, Sam remarked, "Isn't it beautiful?" Then, dropping his eyes to me, he asked, "Are you okay?" I was, but I noticed a thin trickle of blood on his forearm.
"Looks like it nicked you, though," I said.
Dropping his eyes to the wound, he reacted with surprise. "I never felt a thing," he said, "I was too busy trying to make sure it didn't scratch you." Then he grew awkwardly silent, before adding, "I guess I ought to go take care of this. Are you going to be all right by yourself?"
I assured him I would be fine, and that I'd let them know if I needed more help. I didn't put that particular mist net back that day, just in case the hawk hadn't learned its lesson.
That night, the handful of us grad students who were staying at the research station for the weekend went stargazing. As we relaxed on heavy tarps, upon which we'd spread blankets, we took turns pointing out constellations. This dissolved into a dozen conversations, as various as the stars decorating the sky above.
Sam, who had thrown his blanket next to mine, took a deep breath of the pine-tinged air. He sighed and remarked, "Won't it be a shame if all this becomes just another seaside resort?"
I responded, "But the University owns this forest. They need someplace for the graduate students to perform their research. They're not about to cut down all the trees."
Sam leaned forward and told me, in a hushed voice, that plans are afoot that could forever change the coastline. The owner of much of the marshlands in Egg Harbor, he told me, was negotiating with a developer to fill in part of the bay and put up condos and high-rises.
Now I was angry, as well. "How could they?" We both knew that the last known flock of Laughing Gulls in New Jersey lived in those wetlands. Of course, in those days there was no Environmental Protection Agency, and little anyone could do to thwart developers.
Gesturing emphatically with a piece of bark he'd plucked off the ground, Sam told me about his plan to rescue the gulls. For his doctoral thesis, he was conducting experiments on methods of moving the gulls to a new location. He was tracking the gulls, gradually moving their nests, gradually transplanting the colony several feet from their current location. If he could prove that the gulls would accept being moved this way, it could provide a possible solution for relocating them away from danger.
"If you'd like, you can be my research assistant," he told me. I agreed readily, and we shook hands on it. Sam's grip lingered a little longer then he might have realized, as he continued to tell me more about his project.
"Can I have my hand back?" I asked him. If it hadn't been so dark, I'm certain I would've seen him blush.
As we set out on our first day, in a little rowboat, Sam warned me not to sit too close to him. When I asked him why, he just said grimly, "You'll see."
We had barely been in the boat two minutes when gulls began winging towards our boat. At first, I thought they would just fly over us, but I was wrong. Instead, they headed straight for us. Or rather, straight for Sam. As they neared him, the gulls dropped seashells and pebbles they'd gathered. A few of them hit him with some whitewash, as well. They made a raucous laughing sound as they did so, sounding for all the world like they were mocking him. Then they flew away.
"They don't like me," he told me. "And it's no mystery why: I'm moving their nests."
Sure enough, the birds continued their assault the entire time we were in the wetlands. Sam warned me, once we reached the gulls' little island, not to step in any puddles of water, since they could be much deeper than they looked. He tasked me with counting the baby chicks in each nest, while he meticulously moved nests further afield, measuring the distance each time and making notes. Undeterred by the gulls, who continued to harass him, he jumped nimbly between the little islands as he set about his work.
Surprisingly, the gulls left me alone, perhaps because I was only observing them. They didn't seem to mind me taking a close look at their precious young; they reserved all their attacks for Sam.
By the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted from all the kneeling and the need to walk carefully between wet patches. However, when I looked at Sam, whose hair and clothes were spotted white and covered with sandy soil, I couldn't complain.
On our return trip, I asked him, "With that sort of abuse, why do you keep going?"
"It's important," he replied. "If we don't save these gulls, who will?" Then he added, "And for more practical reasons, as well. It's for my doctoral thesis, and I've been working on it for two years already. I have no choice but to continue."
As we parted ways that weekend, he gave me a sheepish grin and asked, "Did the gulls scare you off, or will I see you next week?"
"I'll be here," I told him.
Throughout the rest of that summer, I climbed into a rowboat every Saturday with Sam. Despite the fact that they clearly recognized us, the gulls never turned against me but instead continued to wage war against Sam, the Mover of the Nests. I'm sure they disliked the way he put their nests in such unusual configurations: such as geometric patterns. Once, in a particularly goofy mood, he even spelled out "SAM." "Just to spite them," he joked.
By the end of those months, I had grown so used to the gulls' cry that I could discern Sam's voice easily underneath the chatter. Improbably, we held long, rambling conversations, waxing ecstatic on nature, pop culture, poetry, and politics. Sam told me how, growing up in New Jersey, he'd despaired at the burgeoning development and the impacts of industry. He'd gone into environmental science in order to make a difference.
My story was vastly different. Growing up in the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania with a miner father, I'd promised to make something of himself. To my father, that meant seeking a degree in science, not studying art like I'd preferred. When Sam had heard this portion of my story, he'd expressed an interest in my art, so the next week, I brought him a pastel I did for him of the wetlands. He told me he loved it, and he hung it above his station in the research center lab.
As the summer program drew to a close, I found myself growing a little sad at the thought of no longer spending each Saturday in the wetlands. It seemed absurd that I would soon be studying in the Rutgers library, rather than mucking through the marsh and shouting conversations beneath a flock of angry gulls.
Our last Saturday, I was disappointed to discover that Sam had set out without me. I checked my watch, but I was on time. Yet, the boat was not at the dock. Frustrated tears were just welling in my eyes when I saw the little white boat growing near. "Sorry to leave you stranded," Sam said, "but I got started early so I could complete a special project."
Feeling put out, I said as I climbed in the boat, "It's all right, but you could have let me know."
He joked that maybe he should have left a note on a turtle for me, but when I didn't laugh, he grew unusually quiet. Great. It was our last day in the field, and he was brooding. Suddenly, the library was starting to sound better.
We began our work in silence -- except for the usual cacophony provided by the birds -- as we did our separate work. The chicks had grown to young adults by now. The birds were still using their original nests, though by now they'd been moved far afield from their initial location.
Sam called out to me, "Be sure to make a note of where the nests are. It's important." As if I didn't know that. I'd been logging his nest patterns on a grid each week. I began to wonder if I had done something wrong, or if this was simply his way of distancing himself. Surely, he was reverting to professionalism because he knew that, next week, he'd have to start anew with a different assistant.
Mumbling to myself, I began marking the location of the nests on my graph paper. The first batch now were in a neat column, while the next four nests formed an "L" shape. Then came a circle. And a "V." My breath caught in my throat as I moved quickly through the rest of the nests. An "E." And then a "Y," another circle, and a "U." I dropped my notebook.
He was standing, thrusting his hands into his pockets and then pulling them nervously out. I called, above the gull chatter, "I love you, too!" And picking my way carefully through the love note of nests, I pressed my lips to him in our first kiss.
For once, the gulls left your grandfather alone.
Most of the details of this piece come from my mother, who was a Rutgers biology grad student in the '60s and worked on field studies like the ones described in this story. She assures me that the gulls survived, thanks to a benefactor who bought the bay and donated it to the community for use as a nature preserve.