The Treehugger by Dawn Corrigan
Auntie May was turning 80. When asked how she wanted to celebrate, she announced she wanted to return to the beaches along Fort Pickens, where she hadn’t been since she was a girl.
This was before Ivan, so the road out to the fort was still open. Which was a damn shame, from the Jenkins clan’s point of view. The clan didn’t want to go to Fort Pickens. A trip to Fort Pickens meant driving more than an hour, paying three tolls, and having to sit on a beach where there was no shade but what you brought yourself. Any sort of people might be sitting right next to you, and there wasn’t much you could do about it. A beach full of strangers that weren’t kin was not the Jenkins idea of a good time.
The Jenkins weren’t big fans of Fort Pickens itself, either. It was an interesting enough old ruin, if you went for that sort of thing. But Pickens had been occupied by Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, U.S. Army, in 1861, and held by him and 80 of his men for the next four years. As far as the Jenkins were concerned, this lessened its value considerably, and they would have sworn Auntie felt the same way.
But she was lost in some fantasy from her youth, when she was young and beautiful and danced on the beach with a handsome boy in a uniform who’d probably taken her up in the dunes and had his way with her before shipping out and disappearing from her life forever. This fact had been a source of shame and sorrow in her life for decades, but now, suddenly, on the eve of her 80th birthday, her shame was washed away.
When one of Belie’s female cousins suggested maybe a barbeque along the river would suit her better—the Jenkins were river folk—Auntie grew uncharacteristically snappish, demanding to know what did they ask her for, then, if they were just going to do what they wanted anyway. So off they went. They packed rafts and inner tubes and towels and chairs and homemade shade tarps, devised of large sheets of canvas and four fishing poles; and fishing poles, though none of them cared for the idea of gulf fishing much; and coolers full of sandwiches and beer and gallon jugs of tea and toys for the few kids they’d managed to produce in the past ten years. After decades of fecundity, the family was drying up.
They loaded all this stuff, plus the kids and the dogs, into three pickups and an ancient Lincoln Town Car that no longer shifted into fourth gear, and headed south.
Dogs weren’t allowed on the beaches, but the Jenkins would be damned if they let that stop them.
They arrived and unloaded the pickups. The men unfolded their camp chairs and sat in a crooked row drinking beer while the women made their tent, spread towels and blankets, and set out food on an ancient card table.
Belie was the only male who stayed on his feet to help the ladies. His mother, Mary, had him squirting catsup onto hamburger buns when one of the cousins started heading toward dunes. Belie watched as Eddie reached the dunes and yanked on one of the tall grasses that grew sparsely over them. He’d intended to use it as a prop in some prank, but he never got that far. All of a sudden Belie was in his face, pointing the catsup bottle toward him menacingly.
“What’s your problem?” Cousin Eddie asked. He was not inclined to tolerate Belie’s eccentricities.
“That there’s sea oats. It’s a protected species.”
“Sea oats prevent dune erosion,” Belie said fiercely. “Take your paws off it.”
Eddie stared at Belie in astonishment. Dune erosion?
He did it, though. He took his paws off.
A few months later, Uncle Don got up a duck hunt one weekend. He’d rigged up some new blinds out in the swamp, and wanted all the men to go out together.
Belie had kept mostly to himself since May’s birthday party, but Uncle Don insisted all the male cousins had to go. Belie wound up in a blind with Eddie and their cousin Joey. The sun had just come up and they were just sitting there waiting, not talking much, when Eddie looked across the bog and saw some tall grasses, sort of feathery on the top. They looked just like the ones at the beach Belie had made such a fuss over.
Eddie decided to tease his cousin. He was bored, sitting there in the blind. He wasn’t crazy about duck hunting, being more of a hog and deer man himself.
“Hey, Belie, isn’t that some of those sea oats you’re so crazy about? You know, the ones that prevent dune erosion?”
Belie looked in the direction Eddie was pointing. “Those ain’t sea oats. You won’t see sea oats up here. Water’s too brackish. Those are Phragmites.”
“Phragmites. The common reed. Such as sheltered the baby Moses when Jochebed hid him from the Pharoah’s wrath.”
“Sounds like you love those Phragmites just as much as the sea oats.”
Belie looked thoughtful. “Hard to say. Some ecologists consider Phragmites a nuisance. They invade marshes and overtake the ecosystem, crowding out other plants and even animals. Others say Phragmites marshes are valuable wetlands in and of themselves.”
Joey cut to the chase. “Belie, are they good or are they bad?”
“Personally, I can’t see how the reeds that saved the baby Moses can be anything but good.”
The Jenkins family tree had been invaded by a treehugger. Though it surely meant the End Times were nigh, Eddie had to admit he was impressed, hearing Belie talk like that.