The Narrow Edge

The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey

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For the past few years, I tracked a tiny shorebird—the red knot—from its remote winter home on Tierra del Fuego up into its (difficult to reach) Arctic nesting grounds. Following the birds along the edges of two continents as they undertook an extraordinary 19,000 mile annual migration, I walked a windy beach whose high winds and rushing tides resisted Spanish explorers 500 years ago, but where the birds made a winter home. I sought them on beaches crowded with bathers in Argentina, bug-infested marshes, pristine barrier islands, and beaches ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Late at night, when the moon was full on a spring tide, I sought out the world’s greatest concentration of horseshoe crabs– ancient, primordial animals that come out of the depths to spawn once a year, whose eggs are essential fuel for migrating shorebirds, and whose blue blood is critical for human health. I detoured to Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to see why.

Returning home, I struggled with how best to assemble the story of horseshoe crabs, and the knot’s near-miraculous journey. Just as the corrected page proofs were due, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rufa red knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, its future imperiled by global warming—the first bird so listed in the U.S. Following knots along mile after mile of coast, I witnessed firsthand, how, and why, and began to see how the story of this plucky bird holds the story of many shorebirds.

I came away with a story of loss and resilience, a firsthand account of the tenacity of a tiny bird and an ancient crab on an epic journey, and a story of courage—the courage of many people who season by season and beach by beach, and with so much love, provide both birds and crabs safe harbor. They keep alive the possibility that our children may inherit a sea edge that still teems with life, a sea edge that humans and wildlife can share. They need us now.

In the end, writing is a solitary undertaking—the writer facing the page. And at the same time, in my case, it took a village to get me to that place. Traveling the length of two continents is expensive. Without The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation, Environment Canada, the Wellesley Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship, the Norcross Wildlife Foundation, and The Ocean Foundation, I would never have made these many miles.

Researchers from one end of the earth to the other generously shared their time, hospitality, and knowledge; and birders, with endless patience, opened an astonishing world for me, hidden in plain sight. I am grateful for your wisdom, and in awe of your work. In a publishing world that is rapidly changing, Yale University Press provided the means to tell this complicated and rich story in a book’s longer format. Through it all, my family and friends sheltered and shouldered me and never let me fall.

Following the publications of Great Waters and Smithsonian Ocean, I met many teachers. Those at NEOSEC—the New England Ocean Science Education Collaborative—welcomed me back into the broader world after I finally finished the book: I think of the teachers of our children always. Under increasing duress, you inspire in our youth a love of Earth’s life-giving sea, and in so doing, you are building a new generation capable of taking on the pressing and difficult challenges that lie before us. May we all be as plucky as that tiny bird, in it for the long haul, again and again.

With gratitude, and many thanks,
Deborah

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For Caroline Newman

I am deeply grateful to Will Amato  for designing the Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World website and blog in time to open the New Year, but it is with a heavy heart that I write this first entry, marking the sudden, untimely, and unexpected death of Caroline Newman, Executive Editor of Smithsonian Books.

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