Learning Guana Cultural History

Learning Guana Cultural History

A salt marsh in Florida’s GTM Reservea place rich in cultural as well as ecological history. Photo and story courtesy of Ellen Leroy-Reed, director of the Friends of the GTM Reserve, originally published in the Fall 2020 edition of the Estuary Examiner.

Looking out onto the peninsula, I see figures carrying baskets brimming with indigo cuttings. Small silhouettes bend to gather clippings, while taller ones heft bulky loads above them. I spot the disparate shape of structures amongst the verdure and inhale the tang of caustic dyes steeping within them. I hear both the soft murmurs and discordant shouts from distant voices, but cannot make out the words. Do I hear a song, or is it the tonal clippings of a spoken language I do not understand?

I am looking out at the Guana peninsula in the year 2020, but I am seeing it as it was in the year 1773. I am looking out at Grant’s Plantation and seeing its truth.

For nearly five years, I have worked as the executive director of the Friends of the GTM Reserve. Less than a handful of yards from my office window is the Guana Dam, location of the Florida Historical Marker for Governor Grant’s Plantation. It reads, in part:

“In 1768, James Grant (1720–1806) Governor of British East Florida from 1763–1773, established Grant’s Villa Plantation at the juncture of the Guana and North rivers. Enslaved Africans cleared the 1,450-acre tract of land, planted indigo seeds, and processed the plants into blue indigo dye.”

Until recently, my kinship to this story has been by way of a loose connection through my Caucasian heritage. My ancestors come to America by way of Ireland, Scotland, England, and assorted countries—just like so many of the U.S. population. It was in August of this year that the sign became a catalyst for me, and it had nothing to do with Governor Grant, Europe, or even indigo.

During the summer of 2020, I watched as issues of inequality were exposed in real-time. I sensed fear, frustration, and exhaustion among those close to me who had suffered under its oppressive weight. This unrest prompted difficult conversations as I learned about disparities I never knew existed. Even after spending the last two years working on the GTM for All initiative, I realized I had more to learn about inequality and more to do.

GTM for All is special to me. Helping to weave accessibility and inclusivity into the fabric of the Reserve has been one of my proudest accomplishments. Diversity of thought and diversity of perspective makes for a better outcome, and I believe with all my being that diversity of people is what makes for a better world. 

But for all the good work that has been done to create an inclusive space at the Reserve, had we done enough to cultivate a welcoming environment for underrepresented populations? According to a National Park Service survey in 2014, out of the 292.8 million visitors to its parks, only 22% identified as minorities. Our anecdotal knowledge of GTM visitation demographics would likely align with their figures.

We had work to do. If we wanted to forge a connection between the Reserve and underrepresented populations of visitors, we had to learn how to interpret GTM’s unique culture and history… which brings me back to Grant’s sign. What of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the Guana peninsula? What can we learn from history’s complexity? How can we connect through knowledge and understanding?

I pored through books, manuscripts, and photos, stopping on occasion to share some factoid I had discovered, usually with the frenzied zeal of a child retelling a story to a parent. There were letters with the names of men, women, and children who were brought to the peninsula by way of South Carolina and before that, the Transatlantic slave trade. Among them were members of the Gullah Geechee people, descended from West Africans. They brought with them expertise in rice and indigo farming, along with a rich heritage of art, language, cuisine, and expression. Looking at photos, I saw the faces of strong people who endured brutal conditions while creating a culture built on faith, family, and hope.

This is how I came to love the history of Guana, and how I came to view the landscape around me with a new perspective. I may not be able to see myself in the Gullah Geechee people, but I honor them. I see the richness in their arts and expression and honor their contributions and sacrifice. I see the complexity of prejudice in our past and honor the hope of equity for all in our future.


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The Gullah-Geechee People and Folk Tales

The Gullah-Geechee People and Folk Tales

Photo and story courtesy Josephine Spearman, education coordinator at Florida’s Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve. Originally published in The Estuary Examiner by the Friends of the GTM Reserve.

The Guana Peninsula is home to historical and cultural sites that tell the story of the land and its people. The most recent discovery is that the Gullah Geechee people were enslaved on the peninsula on Governor James Grant’s plantations. This connects the Guana Peninsula to the Gullah Geechee Corridor, which extends from Wilmington, North Carolina, south to St. John’s County, Florida.

Learning about the Gullah Geechee culture is a personal journey for me because it is part of my heritage. I grew up hearing my grandmother speak and tell stories in the language. She taught me about ethnobotany and natural medicine and shared her childhood experiences of living in a Gullah community. As an adult, I have finally begun to make connections from childhood memories to the rich Gullah Geechee culture. 

The Gullah Geechee people are descended from mainly West African tribes. They were brought to the southeastern United States to farm rice, indigo, and other crops. The terms “Gullah” and “Geechee” are used interchangeably and refer to their original ancestry in Africa. “Gullah” is said to be derived from “Gora ” or “Gola,” which were tribes living in Sierra Leone. “Geechee” is said to be derived from “Kissi” (pronounced Geezee), referring to a tribe living between Guinea and Liberia. The Gullah Geechee culture arose from close contact between many ethnic groups (West African, European, and Native American). The resulting unique language can be described as creole (a dialect from two or more languages). There is also a rich heritage of art, religion, music, and food. 

The Old Plantation. Artist: John Rose. Possibly between 1785-1795.

Gullah Geechee Storytelling 

Storytelling is a tradition among the Gullah Geechee people. Many stories (or folktales) have animals with human personalities as protagonists and center around a moral principle or learning experience. We know rabbits do not keep gardens or get advice from other animals. It helps make the characters more relatable and communicates the theme.

I would like to honor the tradition of storytelling with a folktale of my own, featuring animals and themes from the Guana Peninsula. This story focuses on the destructiveness of invasive species (such as feral hogs), the benefits of native plants, and the need for balance within ecosystems

Gullah Geechee Words

Gullah Geechee words often sound like the word they translate to in English, even if they are not spelled the same way. Some words are similar to Germanic Languages in that the sounds of v’s and w’s are switched.

  • Ain cyear – I don’t care, don’t care
  • Cyan’ – can’t
  • Don’gi – Don’t give
  • Ent wut – isn’t worth/ain’t worth
  • Gaya’d’n – Garden
  • Wine – going to, going
  • Hunnuh – you
  • In de ‘good – in the woods (forest)
  • Leebe – leave
  • Nyam – eat, eats, eating, ate
  • Tep – step
  • Wods – words

A Folktale: Rabbit and Wil’ Hog

Down in the forest by the ocean, all the animals lived in a big community. It was like a big family, where most animals worked together to make a good place to live.

Mouse had a very big family. They made sure there was the right amount of plants in the community; not too few and not too many. Too many plants would be a bad thing, tangling animals and stopping them from reaching their food. Too few plants were bad also because many animals would starve. Mouse’s family was very good at taking care of the extra plants by eating them. In fact, sometimes they were too good at it. That was where Indigo Snake stepped in.

Indigo’s job was to chase Mouse and her family away when they ate too many plants. Indigo helped to keep things balanced.

Rabbit had a big family as well. She was very skilled in growing things and had a lovely garden. She would toil and plant, and water, and fertilize, so that her beautiful garden could feed many of the animals.

Gopher Tortoise, slow as he was, was a good builder. In fact, he built the biggest and best burrows in the forest. Everybody wanted to stay, and it was safe! Not even the wildfires could touch the animals when they went down into Gopher Tortoise’s burrows. 

Most of the animals worked together in harmony — except Wil’ Hog. He didn’t work well with anyone. Wil’ Hog did not like to work, he did not like to share, and he took whatever he pleased. In fact, every year, while Rabbit tended to her garden (which everybody loved because she grew the best vegetables and liked to share), Wil’ Hog stomped through and ate everything in sight. He never asked permission and usually left a nasty muddy mess.

One day, Rabbit was ready to harvest her best vegetables yet. She came with her basket in hand, only to find Wil’ Hog had marched into her garden again. This time he had rooted up every single vegetable. He had eaten the melons, the okra, the yams, and the turnips. Wil’ Hog ate everything! All that was left of Rabbit’s garden was a muddy wallow.

“Wil’ Hog!” she squeaked indignantly, “Hunnah tek wuh b’long to me and eb’rybody! All my gaya’d’n is gwine, hunnuh t’ief!” 

Rabbit’s whiskers twitched this way and that. She was very very mad! She had a big family to feed and Wil’ Hog had eaten everything she, her children, and all the other animals were going to need for the rest of the season.

Wil’ Hog looked up with a mouth full of her vegetables. “Ain cyear.”

Rabbit bristled. “We wu’k hard for we’self, and hunnuh fuhr’ebbuh tek’way an don’gi!” They all worked hard and selfish Hog just took and took and never gave back.

He swallowed the last of her turnips and looked past Rabbit for more. “Ain cyear.” Clearly Wil’ Hog, an animal of very few words, didn’t care. 

Rabbit furiously hopped away to get advice from Gopher Tortoise who was digging another burrow. “Gopher, mek Wil’ Hog leebe. He tek eb’ ry ’t’ing. My gaya ’d’ n ent wut’ nutt’ n ’ fo nobody in de wood.” She was still angry, but now she was sad too. Rabbit worked so very hard to make a garden that could feed all the animals and now it was worthless, because Hog ate it all.

Gopher Tortoise stilled, “Well, Will Hog wey tummuch bigguh den me. ‘E gwine tep on my shell an bruk’ em. Puhaps hunnuh moobe hunnuh gaya ’d’ n way an change de wegitubbles, den Wil’ Hog cyan ‘ ketch.” It wasn ‘t that Gopher Tortoise didn ‘t want to help, Wil’ Hog was just too big and could break his shell. He couldn ‘t fight, but maybe Gopher Tortoise could help Rabbit with advice instead. He slowly turned his head and paused again. “Puhaps Indigo Snake got wods tu.”

Rabbit thanked Gopher Tortoise and hopped away. She felt a little better. She could move her garden and change the vegetables she planted there. Maybe then Wil’ Hog wouldn’t want to eat them. She was feeling much more thoughtful than before. Getting mad or sad for too long would not help but thinking would. Even so, Indigo might have some advice too.

Rabbit found Indigo Snake sunning herself on a rock. “Indigo, Hog dun nyam eb’ ry ’t’ing. Wuh gwine do fuh muh chirren? Cyan ’ hunnuh mek Hog leebe, luk hunnuh do w ’ enebbuh Mouse nyam tummuch?” Rabbit explained again. Wasn’t there anything Indigo could do? What if she chased Hog away like when Mouse ate too much?

Indigo looked thoughtful. “Hmm, “Wil’ Hog tummuch bigguh den me. He gwine tep on my head and bruk’ em. Puhaps hunnuh mek bigguh gaya ’d’ n.” Wil’ Hog was too big and dangerous for Indigo also, but maybe, Rabbit could plant more than Hog could eat; then there would still be enough for everyone. Rabbit thanked Indigo Snake and hopped away to start replanting. She would use both Gopher Tortoise’s and Indigo Snake’s advice.

Rabbit began planting different seeds from those in her old garden. No more yams, turnips, melons, or okra. She planted things Wil’ Hog wouldn’t notice as much like wild grapes, hickory nuts, wild greens, blackberries, and wild plums. She planted anywhere and everywhere seeds would grow. She was going to make the biggest garden she could. In fact, Rabbit made the entire forest into a garden. Rabbit couldn’t fight Wil’ Hog face to face, but she used other ways to beat him. To this day, Wil’ Hog is destructive, selfish, and “ain cyear,” however, Rabbit and the other animals now have many more places where they can find food.


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Volunteers Give & Gain at Jacques Cousteau

Volunteers Give & Gain at Jacques Cousteau

Photo and story courtesy Pat Filardi, a volunteer at New Jersey’s Jacques Cousteau Reserve.

I’ve been a volunteer for the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Rutgers Marine Field Station here on the Jersey Shore for twelve years.

As a field volunteer I’ve been involved in many facets of scientific research. My first field work was tracking flounder on the Navesink River in the winter, which was very cold but very enjoyable. I’ve been involved in the ongoing collection of larval fish sampling, the taking of bottom samples to evaluate benthic life, trawling sessions in the Reserve—and my favorite—tracking the herring run in the Pineland rivers and streams. Most recently I’ve been kayaking with Ken Able in the Mullica watershed as he researched for his latest book Beneath the Surface. I not only enjoy the work, but also the people and all I have learned from them.

Being involved with these projects has been truly eye opening. I always find it incredible that after all the scientific study there is still so much to be discovered. Meeting so many great people who are willing to share their knowledge was beyond all expectation. To see the abundance and variety of life in our vast marshes is enlightening. It takes many people on all levels to collect and catalog all this information over many decades.

As a citizen scientist, I believe I have truly gained more than I have given. To be involved with the Reserve’s community has been both educational as well as personally fulfilling and I would recommend volunteering on some level to all. To be a part of the community made up of the JCNERR’s Education Center and Rutgers Field Station personnel have really made for a worthwhile retirement. 


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Trading Snow for Pluff Mud

Trading Snow for Pluff Mud

Photos and story courtesy Duane Draper (center, crouching), chair of the Inlet and Bay Stewards, friends group to South Carolina’s North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve.

When people ask “What brought you down to South Carolina?,” I tell them six feet of snow in three weeks, in February 2015, was the final straw. My wife and I were living on 30 acres of woodland at the end of a half-mile long private road, and I did most of the plowing. So we traded in New Hampshire snow for South Carolina pluff mud!

After settling in Pawleys Island, one of the first things I did was register for the local Master Naturalist program. I learned about it from our realtor, also a Master Naturalist, and thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about the totally different habitat we had inserted ourselves into. The program was managed by the stewardship coordinator for the North Inlet-Winyah Bay Reserve, Dr. Jen Plunket. 

After completing the 12-week program, I began looking for opportunities to volunteer, which is a hallmark of the program. I signed up to teach Ecology Camp programs for rising second thru fifth Graders, educating them on pond, forest, beach and salt marsh ecologies. I also started leading tours as a docent for Hobcaw Barony, a 16,000-acre private preserve that is home to the Reserve. This preserve has a rich diversity of all the habitats found in coastal South Carolina: ocean beaches, 5,000 acres of salt marsh, maritime forest, upland pine and hardwood forest, bottomland forest, and former tidal rice fields from bygone plantation days. In my spare time, I volunteer for South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts (SCUTE), patrolling and monitoring beaches for loggerhead sea turtle nests.

I enjoy working with all of the Reserve staff on various projects, like phytoplankton monitoring, leading salt marsh hikes for plant and animal identification, conducting marsh sweeps to pick up incidental marine debris. Soon, we’ll be starting our own local Nurdle Patrol to track microplastic pollution. All of this activity led me, and other local Master Naturalists, to start up a local Friends Group for the Reserve, Inlet and Bay Stewards (IBIS), for which I serve as chair. We’re small but growing! 

Every Reserve is special. And everyone has a Reserve story to share. Why do you care about your Reserve? How has it made a difference in your life? Have a few minutes today? We want to hear your story.


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Growing With Salmon

Growing With Salmon

Photos and story courtesy Jacob Argueta, research technician at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was told the significance of salmon from a young age. From grade school through college, in multiple disciplines, we were taught how salmon had provided for the indigenous people and sustained the landscape through their lifecycle for millennia. 

Over and over again, this idea of salmon being a cultural and biological keystone was presented to us in the past tense, with many people working to restore what had been lost. We learned about, and saw firsthand, that development and population growth had come at the cost of salmon habitat. Rivers and streams were controlled, dammed, culvertized, and disconnected. The remaining salmon populations were just a shadow of what they had historically been, even with large inputs from hatcheries. 

By the time I arrived in Alaska in 2017, I had become accustomed to the view that salmon were a species that couldn’t survive without people because of what we had done to their habitats. It is hard to describe the sight of a largely unimpacted salmon run battling upstream after so many years of the aforementioned mindset. The rivers team with life. What you thought were riffles or eddies are actually hundreds, thousands of fish driven by instinct to return to their natal streams. It is also not just the fish that gather, but the birds, mammals, insects, and people do as well. The whole ecosystem responds to the return of the salmon. 

The last few years at the Kachemak Bay Reserve has allowed me to work with an amazing and dedicated group of people who strive to better understand and protect these incredible fish and the landscape that supports them.

My teams’ work has largely focused on the freshwater portion of the coho salmon’s life cycle. I am continually blown away by the resilience and determination of these juvenile fish. They are now understood to spend multiple years in freshwater, utilizing every part of the watershed, from the estuaries to the smallest headwaters. Perhaps equally important is the role the landscape plays in maintaining productive salmon streams. In the Kenai Lowlands bordering the Reserve, the land is a tapestry of salmon support. Alders fix nitrogen into the soil, peatlands store large amounts of carbon and regulate water temperatures, and shallow groundwater acts as a transport mechanism bringing these critical elements to the salmon streams. 

I have been given a glimpse into what it must have been like only a hundred years ago in the Pacific Northwest. Like my mentor, Coowe Walker, says, ‘in Alaska we have been given an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others and not destroy an intact ecosystem. We know people and salmon can coexist, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. We know better than ever the mechanisms and elements that make good salmon habitat.’ 

I hope that we can come together around this unifying species and become a shining example of coexistence and mutual sustainability.  

Still Snail Crazy After All These Years

Still Snail Crazy After All These Years

From left: Kerstin Wasson, Jeb Byers, and Rachel Fabian investigate Batillaria snails at California’s Elkhorn Slough Reserve. Photo and story courtesy of Kerstin Wasson, research coordinator at the  Reserve.

The invasive mudsnail Batillaria attramentaria has intrigued me for decades. My first investigation at Elkhorn Slough was a survey for invasive invertebrates conducted in 1998 as a little side project while I was a postdoctoral fellow focusing on the evolutionary ecology of tiny colonial animals. Carrying out the study had value for me personally—I’m guessing it is what got me my job as research coordinator at the Slough, because it was my only experience with estuarine ecology, and had introduced me to Reserve staff. Now, more than twenty years later, I’m revisiting the topic of Batillaria, and finding it has been a recurring theme for the Reserve and for my career.

In the paper describing the 1998 surveys, we estimated that there were at least a billion mudsnails living in the Slough. In a map in the paper, I labeled a particular mudflat as “Batillaria Heaven,” because the invasive snail was so abundant there—it was like a gravel beach, except instead of gravel, a covering of snails. This mecca for snails was the site of field experiments by a NERR graduate research fellow, Jeb Byers, who I met in the field there.

Then, in 2015, I was doing some other work at “Batillaria Heaven” and was astonished to discover the snails had completely disappeared from this site where they used to occur in the thousands per square meter. That launched a three year investigation of potential causes. We pulled together a dream team that included Jeb Byers, now a professor in Georgia, as well as other past NERR graduate fellows and current NERR interns.

We explored a whole variety of hypotheses for the Batillaria decline, including agricultural molluscicide, parasite loads, and acidification, and none of them fit. So what did cause the decline? We think one major culprit was predation by shore crabs—when our interns tethered snails with dental floss, many were eaten rapidly by snails at the sites with the strong declines.

Another factor that plays a role are tidal restriction gates. The artificial conditions upstream of dikes seem to allow the invader to thrive. We saw a major change at one site on the Reserve, Whistlestop Lagoon, following restoration of natural tidal exchange there in 2014. The crabs had become much more abundant, and today there are hardly any live mudsnails left there. Restoring natural tidal exchange is not only good for water quality, but also for getting rid of this invader!

These snail investigations exemplify what I love about working at a NERR—joyful collaborations, long-term perspective, place-based research, and solving mysteries that help us take better care of our estuary.


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