Written by Steven Payne
Ok, so here we go…. I was born in the country, now I live near the ocean. I love animals. And nature. The End.
Elaborate? Ok fine.
For those of you in the US, or are familiar with our geography, I was born and raised in Kentucky. Small town with mainly farm land. The Appalachian Mountains are in Central Kentucky, so where I grew up is mainly rolling hills and farms. Still, we had lots of hiking trails, lakes and open land to explore as kids. I used to walk through cow pastures, play in creeks and streams… run through corn fields… get chased out of the corn fields by the farmers. (We were just having fun man, geez).
So, animals were everywhere. Everyone had a dog. Cats were everywhere. Wildcats, panthers, bears, lots of deer, squirrels, rabbits, snakes… and one of the coolest things I remember was the bird migrations. The whole sky would be full of birds. As far as you could see in all directions. It had been a long time since I’d seen that.
All of these things had an effect on me. We also moved to Florida and lived near the beach for a few years when I was very young and that cemented my love for the ocean. Back in Kentucky, I used to watch Jacques Cousteau – The Ocean World on TV every week. I was entranced by the ocean and all that lived in it. My dad bought me an aquarium, and I’ve had one in every house I’ve lived in ever since.
My love for animals started my conservation journey. Being young, I never thought about how the Earth would change, or how throwing a bubble gum wrapper on the ground as I was riding my bike would somehow come into play decades later. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, you never heard about micro-plastics, or global warming. Cars were huge and loud. Gas was cheap. Emissions were… whatever the hell they wanted to be. Humanity as a whole had not started to really wake up. Or, at least, it had not reached me yet.
Come my 13th birthday, and I’m on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico about to go scuba diving for the first time. I’ll never forget that first back-roll off the boat… you hit the water, the big splash, all the bubbles… You take those first few breaths, then as the bubbles start to clear you look around, and it’s just blue. You look down, its deep, dark blue. All around… the same. You’re in the ocean. You can’t see the bottom. There’s no sides of the swimming pool anymore. You’re just a little speck of life swimming in the vast expanse you just fell into. Coolest feeling I’ve ever had.
We dove on a wreck that day. I remember seeing lots of fish. Pricking my hand on a sea urchin I didn’t notice as I went to grab the handrail of the wreck. Then I remember seeing a soda can. Then, another one. Then along the way some other random pieces of trash. It didn’t make me mad, or sad, or anything really. I just remember seeing it and thinking, wow, that stuff ends up here.
Then the more I went diving, the more trash I saw. I knew it was all debris from boats. Fishermen. Divers. Recreational boaters. As I got older, all of that started to bother me. Especially as my interest in the ocean grew. I wanted to be a Marine Biologist. I wanted to study the life that exists in the ocean. And I wanted to help things grow and survive, and all this stupid trash was getting on my nerves.
Fast forward to 1995. I’m in college, preparing my senior thesis for my graduation. I’m about to officially become a Marine Biologist. I’ve been diving and studying the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico shoreline and offshore waters. I’ve been diving in the Bahamas and recognise the similarities of the life there and in the Straits of Florida, the Florida Keys and the southeast waters of Florida. My main area of focus is Marine Ecology, specifically, reef ecology.
On a smaller scale, I have designed ecosystems that thrive on natural and chemically integrated filtering systems to achieve the desired equilibrium given introduction of pollutants. I have trained fish to “sniff” out pollution. Point source the location of pollutant introduction. I dove with NOAA and The National Undersea Research Centre as a certified research scuba diver to monitor the reef growth on National Marine Sanctuaries, specifically, Grey’s Reef off the coast of St. Simons Island, Georgia. Species Diversity. Identification and Relative Abundance surveys. We dove with schools of manta rays. Just incredible experiences.
These moments led me to start designing larger scale systems similar to the ones I had constructed at home and at the laboratory there at the college in the Marine Biology Building. Experimenting with breeding of rare aquatic species for conservation and re-population. Large closed systems for these breeding populations, as well as community education. Trying to spread awareness. Large scale mechanical and chemical filtration systems. Wind-powered, floating chemical filters to remove pollutants and replenish the needed trace elements.
Again, this is all 1995. All of these things, all of these ideas, and nobody would listen. Nobody wanted to invest or “waste time” on something that the general public knew nothing about, nor wanted to support.
I see these “garbage boats” all over the world now. These small rovers that collect floating debris from bays, inlets and shorelines. Looks familiar to me. Those ideas were long ago, and not a soul would spend a minute to listen. But now, it’s happening. Do I wish just one of my ideas would have been heard? Of course. Not for the money or recognition, but because maybe things might not be quite so bad for one small portion of the world. Or one lake. One stream. One shoreline. One reef. One current. One community. That’s all.
It’s nice to see the activism now. It’s a breath of fresh air to see all these organisations, clubs and societies that are doing things to make a difference and spread that awareness that we so desperately need. You thought I was about to wind this down, didn’t you?? Here’s a plot twist: I’m a general contractor too. I see the destruction of land and natural areas every day. I’ve seen mangroves levelled for the sake of million-dollar homes and tax revenue. I watch golf courses dump tons and tons of chemicals to keep that grass nice and green. I watch the algae blooms and the dead fish in the waterways because of the runoff. I drive down the road and see dead animals that were struck by automobiles because they were fleeing from the land clearing that is going on to build those 500 new homes “Starting in the low $600s!” I participate in this, and it makes me sick. I love to remodel homes. I love to build stuff. But I can’t stand to see the level of development I see.
It’s a funny word in the construction industry: “development.” It’s destruction. It’s ruin. Its death. It’s a race for the human population to reach our carrying capacity. For those of you who are not familiar: carrying capacity is the maximum number of organisms a given ecosystem can support before it collapses.
The Earth is collapsing in front of our eyes. Yet, “the sound of windmills cause cancer.” Idiot.
The powers that be will fight us until the end. As long as there is money to be made from “development”, it will continue. We are truly powerless to stop it. But we can fight and be a total pain in their asses. We can make a difference everywhere we can until they finally see there’s money to be made from “preservation.” That’s where I was going with my general contractor story. There are ways to do what I do, but not destroy. Not kill. Not ruin. It takes a lot of thinking and creativity, but it can be done. It’s playing the role of reverse-psychologist with all these money-hungry, war-mongering, corrupt people that are the 1% of the 1% that truly control the world. They’re actually not that smart. They only know how to do one thing: corrupt.
We need to trick them into caring. Convince them that there’s something to be made from making the Earth healthy. Until the last drop of oil is sucked from the Earth, they won’t relent. We will continue to fight greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. We will continue to see all of our rainforest cut down. All of our waterways polluted and the oceans laid barren of nearly all life. Somewhere, somehow, someone has the ingenuity to convince these bastards that what we stand for is better than what they stand for.
It’s tricky. But someone can do it.
And by the way, I fight personal battles. I don’t drink or do drugs, and I still have demons that haunt me. Anxiety and depression are a real thing. They deserve our attention. They deserve your attention. Find a friend and talk. Find me and talk. Go to your doctor and talk. There are ways of getting help without taking habit-forming drugs. Medication is ok. CBD is ok. THC is ok. Psilocybin is ok. Educate yourself, and I mean thoroughly. You will never help this world unless you are the best version of yourself you can be. And only you can make that happen. As they say: nobody can have your fun. And, my friends, nobody can have your happiness. And nobody can take your happiness unless you let them. Find your happiness, and keep it. Cherish it. Nourish it. Help it grow. Pardon my language, but you will be fucking amazed at what your life will become when you find that happiness. Go find it.
For more of Steven, check out @stevenpayne on Instagram