Inspired by the environment, islanders rally to protect it. Susan Hill Smith meets some inspiring ladies who have stepped up to protect our fragile islands. Photos by Steve Rosamilia
They don't see themselves as "activists," but as "advocates" striving to protect our natural world. The islanders in this trio of stories were all compelled to get involved in their respective causes after seeing environmental challenges they couldn't ignore.
The most well-known — Isle of Palms’ bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe — helped create the “green fiction” genre with The Beach House and a wealth of subsequent novels that connect readers to endangered wildlife. There’s also Don’t Drill Lowcountry leader Alice Morrisey of Sullivan’s Island, who won’t give up on protecting paradise, and the grassroots group, Ban the Bag, who made the Isle of Palms the first municipality in the state to enact a plastic bag ban for retailers.
They’ve all made an important impact, and in each case, a pivotal experience pointed to an unexpected but passionate path.
Engaging the power of fiction
When novelist Mary Alice Monroe moved to Isle of Palms two decades ago and joined the Island Turtle Team, it became a turning point for her as a writer. She already had several published titles, but as she talked with people along the shore and shared the importance of protecting sea turtles and their nests, she saw an opportunity to enrich her fiction with an environmental component, even if she had to persuade her publisher. “No one wants to hear about turtles. Don’t write about them,” she was told. “And I said, ‘I am writing this book. Period.’”
Published in 2002 and adapted into a 2018 Hallmark Hall of Fame film, The Beach House tells the story of Caretta Rutledge, a woman who returns to her family’s Isle of Palms beach house and becomes a heroic turtle team volunteer as she also navigates complicated personal relationships.
When first released, it stirred a wave of awareness, volunteers and donations for sea turtle organizations along the East Coast. “When you show a moral truth through the power of story, and you engage emotion, it touches people in a profound way, and that is what moves them to action,” the author explains. Monroe’s first “hit” on the New York Times Bestsellers List empowered her to follow the same model with subsequent books. “It changed the way I wrote my novels, and it changed my life living here on Isle of Palms.”
Each novel flow from extensive personal research of a species that serves as her backdrop — whether that’s sea turtles, shorebirds, dolphins or monarch butterflies — with characters, themes and details that Monroe creates around what she has learned from the animals. For example, in The Beach House, the return of female turtles to nest in their birth parallels the main character’s return home. In The Summer Girls — the first in a Sullivan’s Island series highlighting dolphins — themes revolve around communication, family bonds and connection.
Monroe’s drive for accuracy and authenticity leads her to places like the Dolphin Research Center in Florida, where she returns every year to help rehabilitate injured and sick dolphins. And her website includes a conservation page with linked resources. But she keeps two Facebook pages, with one geared toward book promotion and a more personal page where she takes conservation stands.
In her role as a novelist, Monroe believes her primary job is to entertain and tell about the struggles, joys and triumphs of people. Along the way, she hopes to help people appreciate the power, majesty and beauty of nature. “I am the canary in the coal mine. I sing the song to entertain, but in the song, there’s a note to say, ‘Pay attention to the threat.’”
Alice Morrisey’s entry into advocacy was warning against a threat to “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” over a bird sanctuary in Mount Pleasant off the Ben Sawyer causeway, not far from her pink cottage on the backside of Sullivan’s Island.
Looking out at the creek from her dining table, Morrisey recalls listening to a string of eloquent opponents at a Mount Pleasant meeting in 2015, then taking her turn without knowing what to say. So, she sang from the well-known Joni Mitchell anthem Big Yellow Taxi, which became her signature when speaking and writing on environmental issues.
Seeing that development blocked was a stepping stone to what has become her most daunting cause — stopping oil drilling and gas exploration off the South Carolina coast. Morrisey and a small group of Sullivan’s Island neighbors started an organization called Don’t Drill Lowcountry later that year when it became clear that Gov. Nikki Haley was facilitating the possibility of offshore energy exploration in what Haley positioned as an economic win.
While they all had different reasons for joining the fight, what fuels Morrisey most of all is her concern for wildlife. She and her dog, Lola, paddleboard from her dock, and for years, they have been joined by a familiar family of dolphins, including a calf who has grown up to have a damaged dorsal fin that makes him easy to spot.
“You know that dolphins are the most intelligent creature, except maybe humans,” she smiles. Then she pulls up a video on her phone of dolphins on Folly Beach strand-feeding — a group effort by pods to push fish up onto shore. It’s a phenomenon that’s seen only along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. “Isn’t this amazing?” she smiles as if seeing it for the first time.
Don’t Drill protectionists contend that the seismic testing for energy exploration can harm dolphins, whales and other marine life. Moreover, an oil spill would be a catastrophe for South Carolina’s coastal ecosystem, they say. The state’s current governor, Henry McMaster, has joined the chorus against drilling along the Palmetto State, but the fight has shifted to federal efforts to open exploration by the oil and gas industry.
A psychotherapist by trade, Morrisey laughs that her efforts in organizing and speaking out for Don’t Drill Lowcountry have soaked up as much time as the work she put into her advanced degree, dissertation and all, but adds, “I don’t regret a minute of it.”
If the threat of drilling looms, she will continue to speak out, and sing, as she has done from the Lowcountry to the Statehouse to Washington, D.C.
“The reason I do it is not because I’m a singer — because I’m not — but people remember that. People walk out humming, ‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’”
For Morrisey, the call to save paradise is a song everyone should share.
Disposing of plastic bags
The campaign to ban retail “single-use” plastic bags on Isle of Palms originated in spring 2015 with a visit to the South Carolina Aquarium by 5-year-old Suzette Head. There, she learned how sea turtles suffer and sometimes die when they mistake plastic bags for their favorite food — jellyfish.
“She said to me, ‘We have to do something, mom,’” Kathy Kent recalls of their conversation afterward at home on Isle of Palms. “And I said to her — I remember this so clearly — and I said, ‘Well, Suzette, you can’t really change people.’”
Then Kent checked herself. “I thought what a horrible lesson to teach a child, and I said, ‘You know what? We’ll make it our goal to ban plastic bags this summer.’” Soon she was talking with friend Rini Kosmos, who had been having similar conversations with her daughter, Mila, as they picked up plastic bags along the waterway side of the island, and they enlisted the help of two other moms. Together they developed strategies for engaging the community and lobbying City Council to restrict retail plastic bag use and divided up the work. “We all played an important role, but we did what we were good at.”
Kent, a financial research analyst, boosted the group’s arguments with credible information that she shared on the group’s Facebook page. “I love data, I love science and facts, and I can’t stand it when someone tries to advocate a position with less-than-accurate facts.”
Jackie Kilroe and Christy Humphries researched similar ordinances in other parts of the country while Kosmos, the extrovert, got island businesses on board, including Front Beach retail shops.
The group heard early on that its proposal would probably be well received by the city, so they didn’t worry with a petition. The opposition they encountered seemed generated off-island by the plastics industry.
When they went before Isle of Palms City Council in May, “Ban the Bag” speakers included 5-year-old Suzette, who wrote her own speech and stood atop a chair to reach above the podium to deliver her remarks. “Imagine if you were a sea turtle that died from eating a plastic bag because people weren’t taking care of your habitat,” she asked council. “It’s easy for plastic bags to blow into the ocean. Please vote to make a rule to stop using plastic bags.”
The next week, Suzette helped South Carolina Aquarium officials release a sea turtle named Bohicket at Isle of Palms County Park after the turtle’s rehabilitation from ingesting plastic bags. By the end of June, with a vote by City Council, Isle of Palms became the first municipality in South Carolina to approve a plastic bag ban — and summer had just begun.
Suzette’s mom would later be asked to be a panelist during the South Carolina Aquarium's Plastic Pollution Summit in 2017 and find herself opposing state legislative efforts to prevent cities from enacting bans like Isle of Palms. Yet Kent carries an understanding from her first dive into advocacy that true change must come from collective effort. “You can’t do it by yourself.