I’ve probably heard the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama” a zilspilllion times in my life – high school dances, wedding receptions, and on the radio.
But hearing it last weekend along the shores of Mobile Bay, Alabama, surrounded by more than 500 volunteers, it struck a new chord.
Last week I traveled from my home in Seattle to Mobile Bay to help The Nature Conservancy with a landmark volunteer event to help restore the Gulf of Mexico. Along with hundreds of volunteers (nearly 600!) and partners, we worked to build four new reefs.
These reefs are the foundation of a living shoreline, designed to enhance habitat for fish, shellfish and birds while helping to minimize coastal erosion. As one eager grade school boy explained, “It’s like baking a cake. We put the ingredients there, and then the sea life comes and bakes the cake.”
The event was epic in many ways. Most notable was the energy of the volunteers. Cheers erupted and I got chills as more than 200 volunteers arrived from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. These servicemen and women gave up their Saturday to pitch in.
One by one, groups of volunteers waded into the water and stacked nearly 10,000 concrete blocks called oyster castles to form the base of the reefs. Each castle weighed 35 pounds!
Folks from Keesler shouted military chants (Hooah!), and our friends at Mobile Baykeeper, Alabama Coastal Foundation, The Ocean Foundation and 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama had smiles. The energy was palpable, and all around folks shared their memories and stories of the Gulf of Mexico. One volunteer described seeing baby dolphins feed near the shoreline, while others swapped their favorite oyster recipes.
The event happened just weeks before the three-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a story I have followed closely. From far away in Seattle, the situation often seems dire.
But being there in person, it became obvious that people like me — and the hundreds of other volunteers singing along to Lynyrd Skynyrd–Re are part of the solution. And the future of the Gulf is a bright one.
Katherine Sather works in digital marketing for The Nature Conservancy’s North America region.
Photos © Erika Nortemann/TNC