I spent a recent weekend on Fire Island hoping to catch a striped bass as I did last year. The fish won this year. I am not a particularly accomplished fisherman, whereas the fish are quite accomplished fish; they have an advantage. The surf didn’t help either as a hurricane thousands of miles off shore had stirred up waves that appeared to me several stories high, though that may have been colored by abject terror.
The weather otherwise was quite lovely and gave me a chance to walk quite a few miles from my base in Davis Park. I was pretty impressed by the differences in plant life that I found in the spots where humans had been chased out by the park service.
The island is really more of a barrier sand dune extending along the southern shore of Long Island. Its form changes constantly as storms and the sloshing of the ocean erode bits here and deposit bits there. These changes irritate the owners of the 4000 or so “houses” on the island. I put scare quote around houses because in the area I stayed the buildings were what Wikipedia calls “stick built bungalow-style with generous helpings of bamboo.” Most are built on pilings sunk into the sandy soil but otherwise have a tenuous look to them.
It seems clear to me that the ocean will eventually claim most of this land – it grabbed a lot back during Hurricane Sandy. Despite valiant efforts to restore the dunes, constant use imperils what’s there.
What’s there is really quite beautiful. I don’t just mean the ocean and bay views of the setting sun which inspired me to sit and make guttural noises and gestures. I also mean the community of people who love the place. This is especially true of the people who own said bungalows and venture out in the chill of October to stare at waves and not fish. There is a small village feel and friendliness that is really unusual. The lack of cars helps.
I saw some of these lovely folks feeding crackers to the deer. Deer that at this point are not only unafraid of people, but view us as food dispensers. Deer no doubt crossed to Fire Island before humans showed up, but they were not abundant. According to the national park service, in 1960 a deer census found no deer on the island. By the early 2000’s there were over 500. They are now abundant, friendly and a nuisance to the remaining plant life.
As with most parts of the settled northeast the deer have no predators. The foxes that live on the island can’t take down a deer (though one did steel my running shoes. I managed to recover the shoes but not before he/she chewed the laces off; they are dogs after all). Without predators and with human crackers, the deer population has grown way past the carrying capacity of the land.
The shape of the bungalows and their jury-rigged septic systems suggests that perhaps the humans have grown a bit beyond the carrying capacity of the land as well. I saw grey water getting discharged directly out of PVC pipes onto the sand only 10 feet from the dunes. The tops of many septic tanks – really just pits – were exposed now that some of the sand has been blown or has washed away. The ocean will be the final arbiter, but it would be nice if we did a better job taking care of lovely places instead of loving them to death.