Like many children, my older sister, Jody, loved horses. She read books like Misty of Chincoteague out loud to me over and over. She died in a car accident when I was eleven. As I grew up, I felt guilty that I was alive, that I would have experiences that she never would be able to have. To cope with these feelings, I began to explore the outdoors and the places she had dreamed of visiting—a ghost bucket list.
When my family took an extended RV trip down the east coast, it was imperative to me that we stop to see the wild island horses for Jody. The campground is on Assateague Island National Seashore, so we weren’t exactly where Misty of Chincoteague took place, but hopefully Jody understood. Camping on the beach of the barrier island, watching the stars make their appearance while listening to the sounds of surf and shore birds was soul-soothing.
On Assateague, vegetation, such as salt wort, salt meadow hay, and sea beach grass, tends to grow low due to the salty conditions and intense storms. They have all adapted to handle the salt-dense soil and water, providing shelter for the birds and food for the wild horses. The horses have had to adapt to survive on the high-salt grasses. They drink twice the amount of water that an average horse drinks, to offset dehydration.
As we explored the desolate island, we came across the remains of an old asphalt road. Once called Baltimore Boulevard, it was the main street of a planned community, developed after World War II. Mosquitos and the salty conditions made inhabiting the island difficult, but the investors were determined to create a resort community similar to the nearby Ocean City. A storm swept the development away in 1962, nature reclaimed the island. It was never rebuilt.
The island’s main inhabitants are the wild horses. Local legend says that the horses are survivors of a 17th century shipwreck. They can typically be found near the maritime forest, which consists mainly of loblolly pines. The trees grow back from the shore, protected somewhat by the natural barrier created by the blowing sand and beach grasses. The forest shelters the horses from the harsh Atlantic storms.
I had hoped to see some horses up close, because the visit was for Jody and I wanted it to be as special as possible. A lone mare answered my wish by coming close enough for us to pet her, if we had wanted to try. There are strict warnings about petting the horses due to potential biting or kicking, so we just talked to her. Much like her tamer cousins, she was a fantastic listener and stayed by us for a long while.
We later learned her name is Sierra, and that she was born in 1991. The National Park Service maintains the island, but other than naming and monitoring the horses, and taking some measures for population management control via a non-invasive birth control program, the horses are left to themselves. Most of the horses now live into their late twenties to early thirties due to the birth control program.
The specter of death: the aspect of nature that forces the survivors to adapt. The horses and plants that make the barrier islands their home have changed to meet the demands of the harsh conditions. Yet even with the ability to adapt, they are particularly vulnerable to the issues of climate change, such as rising sea levels and worsening storms, because the changes needed to survive take time. It takes time to heal and to learn to live a different way.
Photos by Author
I am a writer and photographer based out of Houston, Texas. I earned a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MLA in English and Irish Studies from the University of St. Thomas. In addition to writing and photography, I am the co-creator of a podcast: The President Obama Book Club.