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Texas Reader: Matagorda Island Life

Read this before moving to a barrier island.

By E. Dan Klepper

Texans who have fantasized about living an isolated existence along one of the state's Gulf Coast barrier islands should consider reading Wayne H. McAlister's Life on Matagorda Island (Texas A&M University Press) before they commit. This autobiographical treatise chronicles McAlister's long-term stint, along with his wife Martha, on Matagorda Island while employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although it's always interesting to discover why oysters spit and pistol shrimp snap, readers may also want to know "...when people leave [the island], the sudden quiet falls like a curtain. It is both relaxing and a bit unsettling. Suddenly, we are truly alone, not just to do our own thing but to survive, each to tolerate our own personality as well as that of our partner in the forced togetherness that has got to work if we are to endure. There are other times, ranging from a few days to nearly two weeks, when there is no one else. Those are the times when you really discover whether you have in fact adjusted to life on a barrier island."

McAlister, a retired professor of biology at Victoria College, hired on with USFWS as an environmental education specialist. The job is an ideal outlet for his detailed and exhaustive observations. McAlister's personal interests extend to just about every aspect of the wilderness island, including Neptunian sand, the phallic stinkhorn fungus and ghost crabs.

But it isn't necessarily the natural history that makes Life on Matagorda Island an enlightening read. Rather, it is McAlister's anecdotes of intimacy, not to be found in any sort of textbook, that slip through the narrative on occasion and tell readers something completely revelatory about adjusting to island life together.

"While slogging through the smooth cordgrass on the edge of Bray Cove, I noticed small, colorful beetles milling around on the flower heads ... Took a few back and identified them as soft-winged flower beetles.... In both sexes there is a series of soft, bright orange bags protruding from the sides of the body beneath the margin of the wings. Again, the books speculate — the bags might secrete a defensive goo. Apparently no one really knows. I tried my acid test — I got Martha to sniff at my dead specimens — but she could not detect an odor. If she can't smell it, it's not there."

I'm not sure about the rest of the nature enthusiasts out there, dear readers, but if that is the kind of unflinching commitment that barrier island living breeds between couples then I am packing up my significant other and going native.

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