Christian Gonzalez is an FIU student and active member of the FIU Honors College. Born and raised in Miami, his passions lie at the intersections of art, nature, and technology. Christian is a junior seeking a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and is currently majoring in Finance.
The Deering Estate is a national landmark, a museum, a historical site, a cultural asset, and a tourist destination located in Palmetto Bay, south of Downtown Miami. Since 1986, it has been listed as a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. Part of the Deering Estate’s mission is to preserve the early 20th century estate of Charles Deering and also to manage and protect hundreds of acres of pristine onsite property extending across multiple biomes of natural Florida wilderness.
Chicken Key is a seven acre island managed by the Deering Estate. Off the coast, it is accessible from the estate by canoe. Chicken Key is also a nature preserve home to precious mangroves and many species of local Florida wildlife such as birds, fish, manatees, and turtles.
Working with the Deering Estate to help clean and preserve the island of Chicken Key was important to me for several reasons. As a native resident of Florida, born and raised in Miami, I feel a special and sentimental attachment to my home and the ecological imperative of preserving the limited native land still left in this region. Growing up in the area, it is impossible to not be raised by lessons from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Rachel Carson. We are taught from an early age about the impact man has on nature and why we must protect life and preserve our natural ecosystem, to live in balance, for the good of all species. What we give to nature, nature often gives back.
The opportunity to volunteer with the Deering Estate to help cleanup Chicken Key was presented to us as a part of the Miami in Miami course curriculum at FIU. Professor John Bailly, an artist in residence at the Deering Estate, helped make connections with the organization to allow his students access to the nature preserve at Chicken Key. He also arranged free kayak and canoe rentals for his student volunteers, which made it possible for us to reach the island for this project.
WHERE & WHAT
I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Professor briefed us well, but the preparation required was almost overwhelming. We were told to bring water shoes, gloves to pick up trash, plenty of water, lunch, sunscreen, bug spray, and a camera or phone to take photos. When we arrived that Wednesday morning in early October, the Professor was there to greet us and usher us into the property. With our things in hand, each of us were then fitted with an oar and a life jacket before marching out to the docks where a rack of canoes was waiting for us.
The journey to the island was invigorating. Arriving at Chicken Key, we were surrounded by a forest of mangroves. We made our way to a small clearing with a fire pit, where we placed our equipment and belongings before getting started. The Professor distributed reusable trash bags to each of us, and we set out in search of trash to collect.
Among the refuse and the detritus, we discovered many things that we were astounded to find on a remote island uninhabited by man. We found glass bottles, empty soda and beer cans, broken lawn chairs, wooden crates, large buoys, and a wide assortment of plastic derelict. As the Professor pointed out, the plastic was among the worst offenders. Nearly impossible to break down naturally, it pollutes the ecosystem more than most other materials. Plastic can be deadly to wildlife when swallowed by a turtle, for example, or when lodged into a whale’s blowhole causing suffocation.
By the end of the day, many of us had filled two, three, even four bags each full of waste and debris. In our canoe alone, we hauled a dozen bags of garbage back to the shore where we were met by management from the Deering Estate. After we arrived back to the mainland, they helped us dispose of the trash. Evident from their expressions was a clear appreciation for our help cleaning up the island and assisting in the preservation of the area’s natural wildlife.
After our experience at Chicken Key, I imagined that thanks to our combined effort that we had recovered so much waste that the East coast of the island would be clean and pristine for at least a year, if not more. Of course, I was shocked like many of my fellow classmates, when the Professor revisited the island only one month after our cleanup and shared a video of Chicken Key. It was almost more polluted than when we left it. At that moment I felt like Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up the hill only for it to roll down again once reaching the top.
To get to the root of the problem, we need to determine who is causing this mess to wash up on shore in the first place. Is it boaters? Or is it people on Biscayne Bay? Discarding trash wantonly as they party on the coast. Maybe its tourists from cruise ships sailing out of the terminals at the nearby Port of Miami. Or maybe this is the result of poor waste management, sewers that spill out all this plastic and other garbage out and into the coast. Is the whole city to blame?
Not only do we need to take personal responsibility for our actions as citizens of one Earth, but we also need to acknowledge why we do this for the larger benefit of our survival. The ecosystem is maintained in a delicate balance that we far too often ignore. As species like the Florida diamondback terrapin become endangered and faced with extinction, whole links in the food chain are at risk of being removed. Biological foundations can collapse in a cascade as the loss of one species removes checks and balances that regulate populations of other species and provide food for multitudes of other forms of life, which, in turn, helps sustain our own.
Cleaning up one island one time won’t solve all of the environment’s problems. However, we can’t overlook the impact that individuals can have when organized into repeated habits that prioritize and enforce conservation, as we learn to take personal responsibility for our actions. When we volunteer like this, not only do we give back to the Earth which nurtured us into existence across millions of years, but we also become cognizant of the impact mankind has on the environment and why it is so important to take care of the only home we have, the only home we may ever know.