We’re spending the week at Hilton Head, dog sitting for some friends who have a wonderful home that once looked out to the ocean. New houses have since popped up–McIsland McMansions, that mostly serve as rental properties. It is striking how many swimming pools fill the yards, even with the ocean just steps away.
The first time we visited, in November of 2014, we were arriving well after dark and I was taken by the lack of light pollution even as we drove the highway of the island. No signs recognizable from the road–no Golden Arches or Green Mermaid Goddesses of Starbucks were visible. Even the small gas station signs, while lit, were darker than the ones that line my street. No blinding lights calling out into the night sky. Driving in, it becomes clear that you are entering a different space, sacred, if you will. The reason is the sea turtles.
Hilton Head is a nesting place for loggerhead sea turtles. An average of 150 nests are made here each season. And so the lights are dimmed, because artificial lights confuse the turtles. Artificial light is a threat to the safety of the turtles. The turtles will follow the light and lose their way, moving away from their natural habitat and getting lost in our human sprawl. The choice of an island to honor the sea turtle by reducing their lights, I remember thinking, is gracious. In our need to sell, promote and out-brand the other, this gentle lighting and making intentional turtle space feels like a small gift back to creation.
This morning we got up early, hoping to watch the sunrise (we were not early enough!). We made our way with the dog and the tennis ball to the beach. There we met up with two St. Bernard puppies (both of whom were twice as large as our fully grown charge) and their humans. We talked dogs and neighborhoods and then we stumbled upon the topic of the sea turtles.
A nest hatched last night. And at the same time, a bunch of people renting one of the new houses on the beach threw a party. Not knowing any better, I suppose, the house went to bed, with all the lights on. Through the night, the house lights shone out over the sands. The baby turtles made their way, not to their home in the ocean, but to the rental property, an icon of that over-built, over-indulged space of entitlement we humans seem so gifted at claiming. And the turtles tried to find water. Some found their way to the chlorinated pool and it’s powerful drain. A sole turtle made its way to the garage and found a puddle of water. When the rescuers came, the turtle was trying, with all its might, to swim in the puddle. The turtles remained strong, despite their being turned into the wrong direction. But the chlorine and the lack of water means that rescuers are doubtful that they will survive.
I’ve walked the beach these past days with the first lines of Genesis running through my head: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. I’ve thought about God the separating of the sea and the dry land. I’ve prayed the familiar (to me) prayer “at your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” I’ve thought about God creating all the creatures that dwell on the earth–the dolphins and the cardinals, the lizards and the gnats, the puppy-dogs and the humans. And I’ve wondered about that other planet they’ve recently found, one someone bigger, and a bit older than ours, but otherwise remarkably similar. I wonder if there is trash in their oceans, and hungry children on one side and overfed children on the other. Today I wonder if there is safe space on that planet for sea turtles to nest.
I try to be a good steward of creation. My choice to return to a vegetarian diet is part of that. I recycle. I try to buy more of my clothes at the thrift store than new. But I fail. I use too much water. I waste food. I am thoughtless with my driving habits and gas consumption. I am part of the problem that faces the sea turtles. I am part of the destruction of Creation. But all is not lost.
We find our way back, one step at a time. I don’t know all the steps, but I suspect it begins with listening to the songs of creation, the birds that sing, the waves that lap, the dogs that bark, the humans that cry. And finding our place in the song.