From most people's point of view, a barrier beach is a paradox: appealing to visit but appalling to live on. An enjoyable day's excursion requires shade, dark glasses, sunblock, drinking water, food, and, of course, a shower afterward. Take all those amenities away and consider existing alone on the island fulltime, even during hurricanes.
When Wayne and Martha McAlister moved to Matagorda Island, a wildlife refuge off the central Texas coast, they anticipated staying perhaps five years. But sent to take up duties with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wayne McAlister fell under the island's spell the moment he stepped out of his aging house trailer and met his first Matagorda rattlesnake. Seven years later, the McAlisters were still observing the flora and fauna of Matagorda. Except for the road and some occasional fence posts, the island appears untouched by humans. In Life on Matagorda Island, Wayne McAlister shows what life was like amid such isolation.
McAlister revels in the ghostly twinkles of nights on the beach, as luminescent comb jellies, sea walnuts, and glow worms light up every crest of wave. He watches hungry whooping cranes snatch striped mullet trapped in tidal pools; hunts for Hurter's spadefoots, reclusive amphibians that surface during warm deluges; and sinks to his knees in the sand, flashlight in hand, to catch a glimpse of a whip eel's sharp snout.
Not all observations are limited to the psammobionts – the creatures of the sand. McAlister recounts petting a fatbellied coyote pup and handing out kitchen scraps to wild turkeys. Badgers make their home on Matagorda Island, as do alligators, raccoons, and hundreds of varieties of insects, including the aggravating salt marsh mosquito.
But McAlister doesn't merely observe: he tells why and how. Why oysters spit, why pistol shrimp snap, or how debris from offshore boats affects the beach environment. He also relates the more sinister aspects of living on a barrier island, such as finding himself ankledeep in quicksand. But it's all in a day's work – or play – to the McAlisters, as they balance their lifestyle with the will of the island and its nonhuman inhabitants.
"We try to stay in the background, enthralled observers," McAlister writes. "We do not belong, can never truly belong, but we can coexist and commingle. Close enough."
"This very personal, intimate account of the author's inquiry into the natural workings of Matagorda Island ought to be required reading for everyone who visits the place and certainly for anyone who works there. McAllister's life philosophy and sense of place, a journey that we experience in reading this account, is a state of awareness that all who call themselves naturalists ought to aspire. From the perspective of a successful teacher for three full decades, McAllister is a prime example of an insatiably curious mind, who not only self-instructs, but also brings an excitement to the learning and problem solving experience. This excitement and curiosity about the island world is infectious and, in my opinion, brings the reader right into the world of Matagorda Island and all its life down to the fine resolution of inhabitants of the odiferous marsh muck. I'd argue that McAllister is indeed the WGA (McAllister's term-World's Greatest Authority) of that Island! [...] McAllister's objective was to introduce the reader to the inner workings of the intricately interwoven natural and physical world of MI; he has done so admirably. In the process he provides a model roadmap for the inquiring naturalist's mind–one that should work for just about any location [...] Any naturalist or aspiring naturalist ought to read this account to learn the ways of a great teacher and naturalist [...] McAllister shows us the possibilities and models good behavior for naturalists and natural history educators and interpreters everywhere [...] McAllister's style is a pleasure to read."
– David Riskind, Director, Natural Resources Program at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
" [...] we are blessed with his eloquent prose, spacious intellect, inveterate curiosity, and extraordinary gift to impact the wonders of the island's natural bounty to all who care to stop to listen, or in this case, read [...] His intricate mastery of the island flora and fauna, both big and small, is unparalleled [...] he cares passionately that we see nature as an object of discovery and delight [...] I found his enthusiasm infectious [...] In summary, I found the book enriching, and I hope your readers do to. A man of apparent boundless intellect and curiosity, Dr. McAlister serves up the biological treasures of Matagorda Island like no other. Quite frankly, I can't count the number of times I read a passage and simply uttered, 'wow'."
– Carter Smith, Director, Conservation Programs, The Nature Conservancy of Texa
"This is an extraordinary book by an outstanding naturalist. Written on-island with a perspective of oneness with this unique environment, McAlister has captured the essence of Matagorda's true nature. His narrative contains personal insights into Matagorda's flora and fauna, including the hoards of invertebrates that so seldom are addressed. This is a book this is a must-read by anyone interested in the workings of nature on a barrier island."
– Ro Wauer
"Wayne McAlister's Life on Matagorda Island perfectly evokes the subtle splendor of Texas' largest unpopulated barrier island. It is an intimate portrait of a unique treasure of the Texas coast, by a naturalist who, himself, is one of Texas' unique treasures. This book is simultaneously a naturalist's guide; a musing on man, nature, and solitude; and a charming story. Life on Matagorda Island deserves a place on the bookshelf alongside A Sand County Almanac and Desert Solitaire."
– Larry Garrett, D.V.M., The Victoria College
"Wayne is the best field naturalist I've met in my career as an ecologist, bar none. He combines understanding of modern ecological theory, the naturalist's eye for detail, and an astonishing breadth of knowledge with the writer's way with words. There isn't a nature writer I've read that speaks to me with such authority and grace. I haven't been so moved by a natural history book since I read Rachel Carson's Under the Sea Wind 40 years ago."
– Paul Harcombe, Professor, Dept of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology MS-170, Ri
"For the human populations of Port Aransas and even the Calhoun County peninsula, he explains what we've sensed without knowing it's proper name: 'Island syndrome.' That's 'the ever increasing contrary tendency to regard the island as more secure than the hazardous mainland.' "
– Reese Vaughn
" [...] a wonderful overview of the ecology of this barrier island, indeed a rather comprehensive look at "life" on Matagorda Island."
– Audubon Naturalist News
"McAlister's journal of life on the barrier island is a sort of modern-day 'Walden,' with a delightful combination of both scientific and philosophical observations."
– The Bryan-College Station Eagle
"All without the help of a Man Friday. Daniel Defoe would be proud."
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Wayne H. McAlister is a retired professor of biology at Victoria College who worked as an environmental education specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for ten years. He and his wife, Martha, live in Victoria, Texas.