As a child, Stephenie Livingston encountered an alligator snapping turtle in the dark waters of the Suwannee River. When she became a science journalist later in life, she realized the turtle was a symbol of the resilience of the river itself. But resilience, she writes, is complicated and fragile in the Age of Humans — for nature and us.
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state. This essay was funded by the Society of Environmental Journalists.
The alligator snapping turtle waded just below the dark, tea-colored water. Sharp jaws and head dinosaur-like, this largest of North American freshwater turtles can reach up to 200 pounds fully grown. It was summer in the late ‘90s, I was 10 years old, and my dad held out a stick near the animal, which it promptly snapped in two. “It’ll bite off your toes,” he warned, as we watched the creature slip back into the Suwannee River that slices through millennia-old limestone in rural North Florida where I grew up, a reptilian living fossil sinking into unknown depths.
The river has teeth, I learned that day. But can it defend itself?
The next time I saw an alligator snapper, it wasn’t in the flesh. Its bones sat in a drawer at the Florida Museum of Natural History where scientists had just made a breakthrough discovery: the Suwannee’s snapper was a separate species from all other turtles, existing only in this river. I was a new science writer at the museum, and it was the first time I’d ever heard scientists refer to an animal as resilient. If any animal were built to withstand time and change, it was this one.
A thick-shelled apex predator that loves warm water, the turtle has a brilliant method of attracting prey: it sits motionless on the river bottom spinning a bright-red, worm-like piece of flesh on its tongue that draws smaller animals close enough to snatch. Growing up, I heard rumors that in the 1960s, an alligator snapper was found with a Civil War bullet embedded in its shell — a tall tale, probably, but one born from the turtle’s real life span: up to 100 years. Much like the Suwannee itself — one of the least obstructed and least polluted rivers in the United States — the turtle looks much the same as it did millions of years ago.
But the museum scientists were concerned. Its isolation means the snapper’s existence is inextricably tied to the river’s health. It’s only as resilient as the river itself. Rivers (more than half of the world’s population lives near fresh water) are projected to experience worsening symptoms of climate change, both in the obvious ways, like floods and drought, and more subtle ways: disease and extinctions.
Over the last decade, I’ve interviewed hundreds of scientists and conservationists about the climate crisis and threats to the natural world. During that time, resilience is a term I’ve heard increasingly. It’s a word that comes up in conversation when those working on the front lines of climate change want to remind us there’s hope. Our planet, they often tell me, has natural mechanisms for adapting to extreme environmental changes. Some scientists say that in order to keep ecosystems resilient in the face of climate change, people have to help them adapt.
After all, why conserve a forest if a single wildfire sparked by climate change can cause irreversible damage? What’s the point of preserving coral reefs if they’re vulnerable to increasingly violent storms? But resilience, I realized staring at the turtle’s bones, is complicated and fragile in the Age of Humans — for nature and us.
As a Floridian from a deeply rural part of the state, my resilience is double dosed. I’m of people who fix anything with a roll of duct tape. We rebuild, replant and persist. But when humans try to adapt to an environment where the natural rules are changing, it doesn’t always work out. Miami has floating mansions and raised buildings, and, by any estimation, is still drowning. In other places, strategies around resilience have played better. Pacific Islanders have gained recognition for their efforts to build resilient communities and ecosystems reinforced by climate science. Though some, like the Carteret Islands’ natives in Papua New Guinea, are preparing to surrender their land to the sea.
I understand the desire to stay in a place, though. I’ve always considered myself one of the lucky ones: born in my place, I didn’t need to do much wandering to find purpose. There was nothing better for a person drawn to wild things than to grow up on a dirt road that cuts through wetlands and forests in Hamilton County, a peninsula within a peninsula — surrounded on three sides by rivers, all connecting to the Suwannee.
Small towns, farmland and communities supported by river tourism and recreation sit near its banks. In my hometown of Jasper, shadows of shuttered buildings block the sun during summer heatwaves. The media calls this place “Trump Country,” though, in reality, the majority poor and working-class people here are more concerned with putting food on the table than who is president. But they care about the Suwannee. Like the alligator snapping turtle, there’s a connection between the river and its people that even climate change will have a tough time breaking: it feeds, recharges and sustains us.
Sometimes I think about a 2003 Mother Jones article by Ted Williams that delves into EPA changes during the Bush administration that threatened the Suwannee’s wetlands. He tells the story of Svenn and Joy Lindskold, who continued to live in their home that sat on 14-foot stilts during a mild flood in 1998, which sent five feet of river water into their first floor. “Scarcely inconvenienced, they canoed to and from the stairs,” he writes. It’s not an unusual story. Our resilience is so built-in; we may persist in areas like floodplains for longer than is in our best interest. Climate change kills people, too — and it’s easier to flee a place when you’re rich.
Climate change is a greater threat to already vulnerable people. Rural Florida doesn’t have the resources to tackle the crisis alone, and I worry that worsening rural stereotypes that vilify and scapegoat us for the nation’s worst evils could replace the silence of our voices in the narrative around climate change with ideas that rural people are somehow lesser — less educated, more racist, less moral, more hypocritical — and less worth saving.
When Hurricane Michael impacted much of the Florida Panhandle’s rural “Forgotten Coast” in 2018, our government and the rich were slow to respond. Now COVID-19 is ravaging rural places. In Hamilton County, there’s not even a hospital — it shut down years ago in the tide of rural hospital closures that have swept the country.
In the throws of these climate change disparities, there are unheard allies in the climate change fight that could bolster conversations around solutions. Sarah Smarsh, a journalist who writes about the working class and feminism, has said that the women who raised her in rural Kansas “don’t give a shit” if you call them feminists: “Working-class women might not be fighting for a cause with words, time and money they don’t have, but they possess an unsurpassed wisdom about the way gender works in the world.” I come from a similar breed of Florida environmentalists.
There were times when I saw locals, including my own dad, enraged at government and corporations over environmental wrongdoing. Like when a sinkhole opened beneath a gypsum stack at a local phosphate mine near the Suwannee, dumping 84 million gallons of toxic sludge into the Floridan Aquifer that feeds the Suwannee and local drinking water. He wouldn’t compare himself to Al Gore, but he’s a river guardian nonetheless.
A century ago on the southern end of Hamilton County, a sulfur spring’s mineral waters drew tourists, including famous ones like Henry Ford and Theodore Roosevelt, who believed in its healing powers. When the famed spring sunk into the aquifer more than 30 years ago, the residents of White Springs held out some hope that environmental policies and water conservation might reverse the spring’s demise and the town’s economic downturn that followed.
But, today, an empty, turn-of-the-century bathhouse sits on the Suwannee’s banks at the edge of town. Old black and white photos replicated on posters outside show women in early 20th-century bathing suits lined up on its walls, smiling. Inside, there’s nothing but a pool of mud.
When I first met White Spring’s mayor Helen Miller, she wasn’t smiling. Miller had recently attended a Suwannee River Water Management District meeting to advocate against the largest Floridan Aquifer (which feeds the Suwannee and its springs) permit up until then for Jacksonville Utilities: 160 million gallons annually would be taken from the Suwannee Basin.
The permit was granted as the Suwannee region experienced its driest spring since 1932 — a drought that broke record low water levels on the upper Suwannee. “As our springs, streams and rivers, including the Suwannee River, dry up, so does our future,” Miller told me when I interviewed her for the Suwannee Democrat. The dwindling water supply would further hinder an already struggling economy — how can a vulnerable community grow with an endangered water supply, she pondered aloud.
Later that spring, I traveled to the Upper Suwannee to photograph the river’s unusually low levels for the newspaper. I could see the once mysterious bottom of the black river, a body of water that for all of my life had seemed so deep, ominous and mighty. Now it was shallow, too much like the bathhouse, showing its long-shrouded vulnerability. Nearly a decade later, in the fall of 2020, I stood on a high bluff where the Withlacoochee River meets the Suwannee at Suwannee River State Park. Below, the current twisted where the two bodies intertwine, enjoying high water levels during a rather wet season.
Perhaps it’s this ebb and flow of resilience that’s problematic, even dangerous. It creates the illusion that the river will always come back, unlike the sulfur spring — and it may. Likewise, it’s easier to focus on our ability to adapt, though small wins in the face of climate change may distort our view of reality: climate change is already here and rural Florida isn’t ready.
As I stared out over the Suwannee from the bluff, a place I’d stood many times before, I thought about the turtle in the drawer. Like it, I’m tied to this river. Without it, I wonder, would I drift into a deep chasm, like a spring sinking underground? I made my way down to a nearby sandbar and put my feet into the brisk water — my skin lit up a bright rose color beneath it. Since that day as a kid in the ‘90s, I haven’t seen another alligator snapping turtle in the wild despite spending so much time here. There, in the distance, I noticed a swirl followed by bubbles on the surface. The river has teeth, I remembered. Its people are, perhaps, more fragile.
Stephenie Livingston is a writer and journalist based in Florida. She writes about science and the environment for various publications, including Scientific American and Hakai Magazine.
Thank you to the Society of Environmental Journalists for contributing support to The Marjorie’s Dispatches from a Sinking State series.
Credits: Photos courtesy Paula Ezelle and Stephenie Livingston