By Abby Weingarten
On a clear morning in mid-February (the weekend of the 2020 New College reunion), six alums gathered near Anna Maria Sound for a day of canoeing.
Jono Miller, Julie Morris, Paul Carlson, Earle Barnhart, Edward Connor and Anya Woestwin (formerly Shery Litwin) planned to revisit—for the first time in nearly a half-century—two spoil islands they had studied in an environmental biology class as undergraduates.
“Originally, the bays on the west coast of Florida were very shallow. There was tremendous interest in facilitating deeper draft navigation through them, and that led to the Intracoastal Waterways being dredged,” Miller said. “Dredging the channels through the bays had the single-most negative environmental impact on the bays; it changed the flow in the bays and the dredging created this material called ‘spoil’ that had to be put somewhere. And that created these pancakes of land.”
The manmade islands—byproducts of the dredging—became the subject of the students’ research in a class with the late biology professor John B. Morrill, Ph.D. The project began in 1970, during the Vietnam War and the year of the first Earth Day—long before New College even had an official Environmental Studies Program.
Morrill tasked the students with developing a grant proposal to a scientific agency for their final class evaluation. A total of 10 students (including the six at the reunion, as well as Toby White, Barbara Beaman, Rosalie Winard and Kathy Wallens) teamed up to craft a proposal for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) new Student-Originated Studies (SOS) grant program.
“This student initiative was distinctive because it involved some advanced students who were preparing to do thesis work—and other students, such as Julie and myself, who had just entered New College that fall,” Miller said. “We brainstormed potential research projects, created a decision-making matrix, drafted a proposal and sent it off.”
The students learned that, in an effort to promote boating and commerce throughout Florida, numerous channels had been dredged through the state’s shallow inshore to provide depth for vessels to travel. While today, the dredged spoil is typically transported to upland storage sites, it was the practice then to simply deposit it in piles along the edges of the channels. When the piles became large enough, they would break the water’s surface and become spoil islands, giving way to plant growth and other ecological developments. The students had been introduced to spoil islands on several of Morrill’s ambitious weekend field trips.
The islands fascinated the students, and the news of their project appeared in Volume 8, Number 20 of The Cauldron (a New College publication at the time) on May 3, 1971.
The story mistakenly claimed that the students were “attempting to create a successful spoil island.” In reality, the study documented the succession of plant and animal communities on 13 spoil islands between Tampa Bay and Pine Island Sound. Based on these results, the team developed recommendations for the conservation and recreational management of spoil islands.
Those who attended the reunion—including three biologists with Ph.D.s—agreed that Morrill’s class had a significant effect on their interests.
Carlson and Beaman both based their theses on the SOS research. Carlson continues to be a leading researcher of seagrasses (those that were not inadvertently smothered by the creation of spoil islands). Beaman has retired after a botanical career studying white oak regeneration at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Connor is a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, where his research focuses on ecology and evolutionary biology.
Other alumni also continued working in related environmental fields (Miller and Morris even co-coordinated the New College Environmental Studies Program at New College). Barnhart and Woestwin were each involved in permaculture on different coasts, and Barnhart continues to do research and advocacy at the cohousing community on the site of the former New Alchemy Institute. Winard became a wildlife photographer known for her portraits of wading birds and pelicans.
When the group gathered in February, they headed out to the islands they had long ago named as students: Marina (which turned out to be a wild, barren spot) and M-16 (a scenic island with several campers). As they docked, they observed the changes, admired the plants and reminisced about the work they had done there.
“We were meticulously measuring and describing life,” Woestwin recalled. “I was doing the mapping. I made these maps that ended up being a picture with different colors for the different species, and I stacked them so you could see how much vegetation there was vertically.”
Morris added, “Jono and I would take the soil cores back to New College and sift them into coarse, medium and fine material to see if plants might be growing in particular kinds of soil.”
The research started in the fall of 1971. Carlson was the team manager—a thesis-student and the project overseer. The teammates recalled using equipment like a PDP-11 (a minicomputer, the size of a refrigerator, that inputted data and punched paper tape). Plane-table mapping involved a tripod with a square piece of plywood, paper, a ruler and a couple of nails.
“We got the massive salary of $80 a week to do this work,” Connor said with a laugh. “We all pitched in for the vegetation mapping—the plane-table mapping—and I was involved in the animal surveys.”
Since the students were not technically enrolled in the College at the time, they would sleep on friends’ floors, couches and hammocks when they were not out documenting the patterns of plants, animals and soils on the islands.
They noted that some of the islands they had visited at the time were absolutely barren. Invasive plants would at first appear at the edges, washed in by the waves. Barren islands were gradually populated by plants and animals from other existing ecosystems. Seeds washed up on the shores, often from plants that grew on nearby beaches. Insect species floated in on the sea surface or arrived on floating driftwood. Flying insects landed on the island, and spiders glided in on wind-blown webs.
Ferns, mosses, lichens, fungi and algae migrated via tiny spores moved by air currents. Birds carried seeds and deposited them on the islands in their wastes. Eventually, trees grew large and the islands began to contain areas of woodland.
Half-century-old spoil islands now have towering 80-foot Australian pines. Mangroves moved in around the island rims. And the ecosystems became dense enough to provide habitats for larger animals like armadillos, raccoons and gopher tortoises.
“There were 13 islands we studied. We tried to find some islands that had been around for 50 years and some that were a few years old so that we could get a time slice as to how they changed over time,” Carlson said. “We were looking at successional changes.”
In ecological studies, there are no “good” or “bad” values; the researchers simply look for those changes over time, they said.
“An entirely new invasive species (carrotwood, or Cupaniopsis anacardioides) has shown up. M-16 has some significant erosion on the Tampa Bay side and a de facto caretaker who has been removing litter,” Miller noted. “Marina was apparently sold to some neighbors who did a poor job of removing Australian pines.”
As the group tracked the changes, hours began to pass and they soon paddled back to the mainland in their canoes. It was the first time they had seen the islands—and, for some of them, each other as well, in nearly a half century.
“Just being out in the field was a big thing for me,” Barnhart said. “I really enjoyed seeing everything, and seeing everyone, again.”
To read all of the Nimbus Fall 2020 issue, visit issuu.com/newcol/docs/nimbus87-fall-web
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.