Chicken Key, Canoes, and Challenges

Jacqueline and fellow FIU Honors College students enjoy lunch together before beginning the cleanup at Chicken Key of the Deering Estate (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

CHICKEN KEY, CANOES, AND CHALLENGES By Jacqueline Martinez (Chicken Key is part of the Deering Estate in Miami. Thank you to Jessica Fiallo for providing these opportunities.)

When I signed up for John Bailly’s Aesthetics & Values class, the last thing I expected we’d do is pick up trash in Chicken Key, a tiny island off the coast of the Deering Estate.

I was drawn to his course because it focused on how art, society, and different ideas all connect and affect each other. So when he assigned that task, I can’t say I was all that excited. The debris, he informed us, would go into the artwork Garbage Wall for Untitled Miami Beach art fair 2017. Still, I was both unsure of what to expect as well as nervous to canoe.

My judgment was wrong. Moreover, I’m even thankful that the first time was mandatory, because since then I have taken every chance I could get to go back into those waters.

Cleaning up Chicken Key has been one of the most challenging, gratifying, and unifying experiences I’ve had in my time as a student. But in order to understand where I’m coming from, I think it would be useful to explain how we get there.   

Bailly invites the students across all of his classes. As a result, you’re surrounded by new faces when you reach the Estate. Immediately, we jump into undocking the canoes together and pushing them into the water. This already poses a challenge. You’re surrounded by students from highly varied backgrounds. Neither the Honor’s College at FIU nor Bailly’s classes limit what majors can join. So as you get into the canoe, you ready yourself to work with people of unknown personalities, backgrounds, and views to you. The only thing in common at first is a shared goal to reach Chicken Key.

Natalie Brunelle, a senior in his Aesthetics & Values class, expressed, “as a Biology major, I’m usually in classes where only Bio(ology) majors would be… I have a different way of perceiving the world, and these cleanups put all these different people together.”

It takes 45 minutes to reach the Key, even though it’s only 1 mile away from the main Estate. The journey there involved us pushing paddles against shaky waves under a hot Miami sun, and the occasional scream when we almost tipped over. You have to synchronize your movements, because it only takes one overpowering push to throw a team off course. Despite these challenges, though, there’s a great opportunity to come out of your shell.  

“There’s bonding in all of this. You end up talking about things that you couldn’t talk about usually,” Brunelle added in regards to the journey. She was one of my partners on our canoe, along with a 3rd student who we had just met. I recall our conversations about the Canal+ TV show Versailles, and stupid Tumblr jokes we grew up seeing.

Isabella Marie Garcia, an English/Women’s and Gender Studies major in Bailly’s Poetry Art Community class, attested to this, “I canoed out with Melanie and Steph, two friends from the PAC class. We pulled together to fight the currents that tried to take us out to sea again, especially through Melanie’s experience and excellent navigating. The actual cleanup was another challenge…”

Once we arrived to Chicken Key, we docked off our canoes in one place and tied each one to a mangrove tree. However, I was horrified to see that ours weren’t the only strings tied there. Within the next hour, I was cutting through and untangling jungles of cords that strangled more trees than we could count. I thought, at least the inside of the Key was clean. The sand and trees at the heart of it were far cleaner than they were when I first visited it a year before. This is totally owed to our excursions, given that only our classes are allowed to enter for cleaning.

But according to Brunelle, there’s still work to be done, “Everytime I go, I find areas that are in their natural state, but when you look deeper into the island, you find piles of trash paired together… Before, it used to be big plastic items that were easily seen. Now the challenge was looking for hidden items like bottle caps that are more accessible to animals.”

This pollution builds up easily, as Brunelle highlights, “If you’ve ever forgotten to throw away a water bottle or let go of 50 balloons, 2 of them will end up on this island. You expect [the island] to be clean and beautiful like in the movies, but the reality is that if its untouched, you’ll likely find things that shouldn’t be there. Doing these cleanups has made me aware of my contribution to the natural state.”

Garcia came to the same observation, explaining, “Much of the garbage on the island was either covered in menacing insects or entangled in the natural landscape.” There is a silver lining, though. She added, “…but we managed to get several bags worth of trash, and it couldn’t have happened without each other’s help and guidance.”

By the end of the cleanup, we had hauled about 15 bags of marine debris back into our canoes. And then we began our journey back to the Estate again.

These excursions may only last 5 hours, but their impact lasts much longer.

“To me, this isn’t a resume builder,” Brunelle revealed. “To me, this is going out, doing something out of the ordinary, and growing from it. And I have personally grown from it. The experience will carry on to whatever I do in the future.”

There is a great irony that underlies this all: Chicken Key is not accessible to most of Miami.  It’s not uncommon to go to the beach, but it’s very uncommon for people to see how our actions affect those beautiful, once untouched, shores. These excursions serve as a reminder not only of how we can change our environment, but also to take the strange, surprising opportunities that life can throw at you and make the most of them. For every tangled rope, lost bottle or cap, there’s an opportunity to work together and make our communities a better place. That has been the greatest lesson these journeys have taught me.  

AUTHOR(S) AND LAST UPDATE Isabella Marie Garcia & JW Bailly 14 April 2018

Author: John William Bailly

Professor/Painter/Study Abroad Faculty Director FIU Honors College

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