The Waves We Leave Behind

This article is from the spring 2024 edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in the past year. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by Cade Kistler | Photo by Alex Timoney

This year we lost two inspiring environmental advocates who worked to make Coastal Alabama a better place. Sallie Smith and Carol Adams-Davis spent countless hours working to help others and protect our waters, while bringing others along in the fight to improve our shared planet.

A former schoolteacher, Sallie spent countless hours throughout her life working with the community to nurture growth and opportunities. Her efforts involved establishing a prison library, improving youth literacy through the non-profit Read Aloud Baldwin, and working to mitigate family homelessness through Family Promise of Baldwin County.

Most recently, she spearheaded the Coal Ash Action Group in Baldwin County, which educated untold numbers of Coastal Alabamians about the dangers of coal ash. Her life exemplified kindness, but also an unflinching willingness to call out injustice and wrong when she saw it. She lived each day in a way that made this world a better place. (Sallie’s husband, Andrew “Sandy” Smith, passed just months after she did.)

Carol came to this in a different way. A native Mobilian, she returned to the area in 2006 and immediately began working to defend the environment of Coastal Alabama. Carol nearly single-handedly started “Sierra Club Earth Day Mobile Bay,” the largest Earth Day celebration in the area. She also worked on numerous critical issues for the Sierra Club Mobile Bay group with dedication. No matter how daunting the issue, she always believed it could be surmounted and volunteered untold hours to solve these problems.

Sadly, their time on the planet came to an end late last year. While we all know there’s an end awaiting each of us, many of us spend a great deal of energy avoiding or running away from this universal truth. I have, for a number of years now, attempted a different strategy, a clear-eyed resolve to remember that our time here is limited. Not out of some morbid fascination with death, but rather, because it influences how I live. Of course, this isn’t novel, the Latin phrase memento mori (roughly translated as “remember that you will die”) reminds us this is an ancient practice that has been used by cultures and religions for millennia to fundamentally inform one’s philosophy for living.

We cannot be Sallie or Carol. We all have our own skills, energy, resources, and ultimately our own journey. But we all have an opportunity to decide how we will treat others, how we will spend our money, how we will vote, and ultimately what we are going to do with that most precious of all commodities, our time. When I remember how limited, and even unknown, my remaining time is, I’m motivated to spend it with family and friends, standing up for what’s right when I have an opportunity, and doing things that matter to protect this fragile earth.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions in life is to buy into notions that tell us we don’t have a choice. That we must compromise our values for one or another necessity. Money, powerful interests, career interests, etc. But Steve Jobs does a great job of dispelling this, saying, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

While many things in this world are outside of our control, we do have control over what to do with our time. Reflecting on the legacies of Sallie Smith and Carol Adams-Davis, we are reminded of the profound impact that dedicated individuals can have on their community and the environment. Sallie, with her unwavering commitment to education, community service, and environmental advocacy, and Carol, through her relentless defense of Coastal Alabama, have left behind waves that will inspire others.

The answer, as they have shown us, lies in recognizing the power of our actions and the choices we make with the time afforded to us. When we look back on the sum total of our life, will we be proud to see the waves we’ve left behind, like Sallie and Carol, or will we be left with a mostly empty collection of things like personal gain and petty wins, small ripples in a big pond? The answer is largely up to us. To quote J.R.R. Tolkein, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Cade Kistler is the Baykeeper at Mobile Baykeeper.


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