The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Coral, waste, water and weeds: Environmental vignettes from a UT journalism class

Written by Kaylee Walper, Mallory DeVore, Grace Ellison, Kathryn Kavanagh

An empty Circle Park as trees bloom on April 02, 2020. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of TennesseeAn empty Circle Park is seen in April. The park is adjacent to the UT School of Journalism and Electronic Media. Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee

Everybody has a story about the natural environment. Look around, and into yourself.

University of Tennessee journalism professor Mark Littmann asks students in his environmental writing class every semester to write short sketches about environmental issues they may observe during any given day. Such an assignment requires an almost poetical approach. Here's a sampling from spring semester.

A reef of bones

Huge schools of rainbow-colored fish weave through the brightly colored corals as Sir David Attenborough describes a day in the life of a fish on the television screen. A little girl is mesmerized; this is no Disney fantasy but real life. The nature shows on Animal Planet capture her imagination and soon mornings and afternoons are spent watching big cats and meerkats navigate the wild spaces they call home. She finds an instant favorite in the book “The Rainbow Fish” and celebrates turning four with a sparkly rainbow fish cake, hand decorated with sprees for rainbow scales. She insists someday she will swim among the fish in their magical undersea world. 

A few years later her family vacations in Hawaiʻi, but she is too young to join in on the snorkeling adventure. So she stays behind with the other young children, collecting shells and looking solemnly out at the water, watching the boat carrying her parents and sister move farther and farther away, imagining the sights they will soon see. When they return, she cries about all of the sand stuck in her bathing suit but maybe a few of those tears are shed out of jealousy for the experience she missed. This does not hinder her growing love of the oceans and all of the creatures that thrive within it. She even returns home from this trip with a new favorite book — this one starring a baby sea turtle and his young dolphin friend. 

She is lucky. The next year her parents plan a trip to Australia and a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. The snorkel is too complicated, so she settles on holding her breath for as long as possible and holding on to Mom for balance. Far below her, bright yellow corals shaped like giant brains glow and bright blue fans wave to her. Her mom pokes her in the stomach and points: a giant sea turtle is gliding across the reef, a real-life version of the turtle from her prized Hawaiian book.

Fast forward 12 years and as she scrolls through the class catalog at her land-locked university, she comes across a scuba certification class. Immediately she signs up and her childhood dream of becoming a marine biologist is ignited once again. Next comes a class on oceanography: learning the 101+ threats to coral reefs. It hurts to hear the professors lecture about the deaths of the coral reefs, knowing she is so close yet so far from her dreams. 

As fate would have it, an email arrives from her scuba instructor inviting her and her classmates down to the Florida Keys for their first chance to dive in the ocean. She finally has her chance to live out the scenes she watched so intently on TV, imagination running wild with all of the creatures she may get the chance to see for herself. She packs her gear with anticipation and boards the boat. She is jittery with excitement and too distracted to hold any conversation for long; her eyes keep drifting out to sea — filling with visions of what lies waiting underneath the waves for her to explore. Before she can truly comprehend what is happening, she is jumping off the back of the boat and sinking under the waves in a stream of bubbles.

She twists and turns, gathering her bearings, looking around, her heart pounding full of suspense and excitement. Confused, she swims forward a few more feet, looking around again. Where are the schools of rainbow-colored fish darting in and out of their natural playground? Where are the bright colors and fantastic shapes of the corals? Where are the giant brain corals and neon fan corals? Where is the giant sea turtle making its way across the bustling sea floor? Why is she only seeing piles of pale rubble with only the occasional fish poking its way through? Did she imagine all those colors and creatures from her trip years ago? Were all of those nature shows a lie? Slowly the warnings her oceanography professors shared come back to her.

 Her heart aches as she realizes: this is no coral reef, but a coral grave.

— Kaylee Walper

Saving the world one tree at a time

For two midwestern teens, saving the world means traveling to Costa Rica to join the fight against climate change.

After a terrifying flight on Spirit Airlines with enough turbulence to bring to mind the plane crash from “Lost,” followed by a harrowing drive on tiny cliffside roads with clusters of alligators keeping watch as they pass, the teens finally reach their new home away from home for the next two weeks. 

The hostel is surprisingly nice and feels almost familiar. The wooden bunk beds are reminiscent of childhood summer camps but with the added benefit of a full kitchen and bathroom inside the building. Not that they need the kitchen as the hostel staff provides three meals each day. The biggest difference so far is remembering NOT to flush the toilet paper; it must be thrown away.

The teens have come to the small town of Parrita, Costa Rica, bordered on one side by a large, slow-moving river and on the other by black sand beaches sloping up from the ocean. It’s beautiful, but the signs of climate change are already visible. The remnants of old homes stand abandoned near sandy cliffsides where the high tides eat away at the beach and threaten to reclaim the land beneath. The teens must stay vigilant as they walk the path from the hostel to the beach, as the coastline drops away abruptly past the last line of trees and shrubs. Only a few feet of plants staunchly protect the road from the hungry ocean as it rises to eat away more of the land. But all hope is not lost because a nursery is under way. 

This is why the teens are here, volunteering to help protect this small town from the ravages of climate change. Led by a wise local man, they collect tiny seedlings from along the shore, almond sprouts and seeds that one day will grow into trees whose strong roots will hold the land together and starve the hungry waters of land they so hunger for.

The volunteers have no easy task. Before the baby trees can be planted, the tall grass must be macheted away to create a path to the nursery. Then a shade must be erected to protect the saplings from the burning sun. When it is time to begin planting the saplings, a storm appears, pounding the tiny peninsula with torrents of rain. For a time, it is possible to keep working — laughing and dancing as the rain comes down — but soon the nursery begins to flood and the volunteers rush back into their hostel, safe from Mother Nature and enjoying an afternoon off. They spend a moment to grieve the pants they wore that day, now forever stained at the knees with mud.

Despite the setback, the nursery is complete at the end of two weeks and hope for a new future burns bright because of those little saplings and the trees they will one day become. Once those little saplings grow bigger and stronger, they will stand as sentinels along the beach, safeguarding Parrita from the ravenous reach of the ocean.

Leaving is hard but their hearts are full, knowing that good work was begun. The flight home is almost as boring as the flight down was exciting, and life slowly returns to its normal pace.

Months later an email arrives with the subject line “Parrita in peril.” A mighty storm has pounded the tiny town of Parrita, and the once slow-moving river has overflowed its banks and drowned the little town. On the opposite shore, the waves grew stronger and ate away the land that the beach almond trees had been holding together. The nursery is destroyed. The saplings drowned by the waves they were meant to stand guard against. Maybe saving the world takes more than planting a few trees.

— Kaylee Walper

Kill the weeds 

He gets out early in the day, before the summer sun has fully risen and the scorching temperature makes it too hot to get anything done. From the cluttered garage he pulls out the backpack weed sprayer, a device that looks straight out of a “Ghostbusters” movie. Once the sprayer is assembled, he makes his way back to the work bench where the wall is lined with shelves containing any chemical, cleaner, or tool that you could ever need. He pulls off the shelf a milk crate containing bottles of RoundUp, Ortho, weed killer and grass killer which he then begins pouring into the canister of the weed sprayer. Once he combines the various herbicides to his liking, he then grabs a jug of gasoline.

“This helps the chemicals stick to the weeds and makes sure to kill them,” he says as the thick gas begins glugging into the cocktail shaker of the backpack. It’s the final ingredient in his weed-annihilating mixture.

He screws the lid on tight before hoisting the backpack onto his shoulders and making his way down the driveway, spraying the poison into every crack in the black pavement. The shiny mixture saturates each leaf and stem of the weeds until it begins to drip off and pool on the asphalt, creating tear streaks as it runs off the edges of the tidy driveway. Into the grass it soaks, into the groundwater, and into the creek that flows at the edge of the property.

— Mallory DeVore

You know the rules

The same four college girls who close the restaurant every Friday are here tonight. The majority of their friends are already hitting up the local bars, but these girls have no choice but to work — rent won’t pay itself and food doesn’t just magically appear in their mini fridges. 

All four of them are six figures in student debt, sacrificing their social life by working late nights for $2.13 an hour, batting their eyes in hopes for good tips. 

The clock strikes midnight and the locking of the door occurs simultaneously. Time to clean up and get out. 

Foam to-go boxes start piling up on the server line. Fried catfish, crispy okra, steaming dumplings, freshly cooked chicken tenders — all much better options than the microwave hot dogs and instant ramen that’s on the menu for these girls when they get home.

One of the girls reaches for a small bite of chicken when her arm is stopped. 

“It’s Mike closin’ tonight. You know how he is about the rules.” 

With one fell swoop the pile of fresh-fried goodness cascades into a trash bag, gets tied up, and out to the back it goes. 

The girls head home, dreading their fifth pack of 10-cent noodles this week and hoping they’ll make rent this month. 

— Grace Ellison

Just go outside the city

If you live in the metro Atlanta area, you are no stranger to filth. The stench of trash left out two days too long makes you nauseous, cigarette smoke from pedestrians fills your nostrils, you hear the song of an endless parade of gas-guzzling Range Rovers and pickup trucks.

The rambunctious 7-year-old you’ve been charged with caring for this summer is unimpressed by the dull inner-city parks littered with garbage. Instead, go outside the city, to the scenic Lake Lanier where she can swim for hours in the algae-infested waters. The Riverkeeper says it’s safe despite the rising levels of phosphorus. Don’t worry about the odd odor that reminds you of spoiled milk and dirty shoes — she certainly doesn’t.

Just go outside the city, to the peaceful Chattahoochee River that flows slow enough to catch tadpoles. Don’t mind the reports of E. Coli and sewage that can coat her blonde hair with dirt and debris — she certainly doesn’t. All she sees is water up to her waist that she can wade through, finding slippery rocks to take home along the way. The song of gas-guzzling Range Rovers and trucks is replaced with songs of birds and trees. She doesn’t mind the smell of rotten eggs and metal because she’s mesmerized by the towering oak trees and summer foliage intertwined with the most vibrant red flowers she has ever seen. The murky brown water glistens from the summer sun, begging to be disturbed by a rambunctious 7-year-old.

Too bad she never got to touch the water.

— Kathryn Kavanagh

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