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Life on a Barrier Island

By Michael Berryhill

If you care about the middle Texas coast, chances are you’ve read Wayne McAlister, the biologist from Victoria who has written naturalists’ guides to Matagorda Island and Aransas. Now comes the capstone of his career: Life on Matagorda Island (Texas A&M University Press, 288 pages, $35 cloth, $17.95 paper) is one of those rare blends of science, education and personal history that makes the reader crave more knowledge, more patience and more time outdoors.

McAlister spent 10 years on Matagorda Island working as an educator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He and his wife lived in a sandblown trailer at the remote western end of the island; and with the exception of visiting groups of schoolchildren and a few other park employees, had the place pretty much to themselves. McAlister blends personal stories of the hardships and delights of living on an isolated barrier island with descriptions of treks into the beach and marsh and explorations at the microscopic level.

This is a book about ghost shrimp, mole crabs, coquinas, moon snails, swash, quicksand, marsh muck, robber flies, burrowing sea cucumbers and black beach beetles. It’s about the only dragonfly whose larva can tolerate brackish water and why the striped mullet needs a particularly long intestine. McAlister probes the mysteries of the root hairs of cordgrass and explains why fiddler crabs are the earthworms of the marsh. This is a man who will calculate the number and estimate the weight of beetles on a mile of beach (44 million weighing 36 pounds) and can figure out what ate the owl regurgitation pellets he’d left sitting on his desk (carpet moths). He shows us things too small to see without a microscope: wigglers, tumblers, copepods, snail veligers, arrowworms and accordion algae, many of them drawn with a simple zen touch by his wife, Martha.

McAlister never lets his personal stories get in the way of biology, but he never lets the biology overshadow his pure sense of wonder. This is a fine book. It will change the way you think about the coast.

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