On A Tour Of 'America's Amazon,' Flora, Fauna And Glimpses Of Alabama's Past

Dec 6, 2020

On a bright November morning, the writer and photographer Ben Raines launches his fishing boat into Mobile Bay, the city's skyline visible in the distance.

"Right on the doorstep of this big American city, we have one of the largest intact wilderness areas in the country, certainly one of the largest wetland wilderness areas," he says, pulling away from the dock.

His boat is at the top of Mobile Bay, where a confluence of freshwater rivers flow into the salt marsh and eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico. It's known as the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

"Coming out in a boat in the delta, you may as well be in the Amazon," Raines says. "It's just so seductive."

In his new book, Saving America's Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation's Most Biodiverse River System, Raines explores the remarkable array of flora and fauna, as well as the history, found in this vast river delta on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Think pitcher plant bogs, purple iris fields, colorful dart fish and tiny seahorses.

"We are in the most diverse river system in North America," says Raines, navigating upriver as captain and tour guide. "There are more species of fish, turtles, snails, salamanders, crawfish and mussels here than any other river system in America."

The Mobile-Tensaw Delta is "the most diverse river system in North America," says Ben Raines. "There are more species of fish, turtles, snails, salamanders, crawfish and mussels here than any other river system in America."
Ben Raines

The Nature Conservancy has ranked Alabama No. 5 in the U.S. for biodiversity — putting a relatively small state in competition with the likes of California, Texas and Florida. Yet Raines says the Mobile Delta gets little recognition — with Alabama much more famous for its football prowess and fraught racial history than its natural wonders.

"Part of the reason it escaped notice is because it was in Alabama," he says. "We have this long history. We have this incredible natural place with all these species, and it's escaped destruction largely through benign neglect."

But Raines' book, which comes out Dec. 15, notes how pressure is mounting. There's pollution from industry on the banks, more and more people moving to the coast, and the damming of the rivers upstream.

He says it's critical to protect the edges, where the land and water interface.

"That's always the hot zone in biological terms — where aquatic creatures and land creatures, terrestrial creatures, interact," says Raines.

But he says that's also where people want to be, living by the water and exploiting the abundant resources.

"That edge is where all the biological activity happens," says Raines. "If we don't protect it, if we build on top of it, and live on top of it, or destroy it through logging, what have you, we lose that."

A step back in time

Fields of iris are seen around Alabama's Little Bateau Bay. The plants play an important role in the swamp ecosystem, helping to hold the mud in place.
Ben Raines

"We're gonna run up and then we'll tuck up into the swamp," Raines says, picking up speed in his boat, the Auriculatus, named for an extinct giant shark whose teeth he finds in the region.

We pass the remains of a military battery first built by the Spanish trying to keep the French at bay. He says it was later occupied by the confederate forces during the Civil War.

"They dug a trench on the other side to pull barges in back in the Civil War," Raines says. "And they made that hill to put the cannons on top up so they could shoot that little bit further."

At another spot, he is able to spot shards of Native American pottery, and an alligator sunning on the river bank as white pelicans fly overhead.

Further upriver, the landscape shifts from sea grasses lining wide open muddy water, to more narrow swamps and black water bayous with huge cypress trees on the shoreline.

It's like stepping back in time. Raines says the area has likely looked much the same since the Ice Age.

"Really that's the secret of Alabama's diversity," he says. "The reason we have all these creatures is because Alabama never froze and so everything that ever evolved here is essentially still here."

Efforts to establish a Mobile Delta national park have fallen short — even with support from noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, an Alabama native who wrote the foreword to Saving America's Amazon.

"This is such a haunted place"

The eye of a two-foot long alligator creeps out of the water in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
Ben Raines

Raines, a former environmental reporter and photographer for the local newspaper, has spent 20 years documenting the Mobile Delta.

But his most significant discovery came two years ago in the Mobile River.

"This is where the wreck of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America was found and I actually found it right here behind us," says Raines, beaching his boat in tall seagrass.

"The ship is about 20 feet deep," Raines says. "It's cock-eyed in the mud. You can follow its outline around the edge and feel the ship shape of it."

It's the Clotilda — long rumored to exist, a ghost that haunted both descendants of the enslaved, and the family of the man that brought them here around 1860, on a bet.

Ben Raines has spent 20 years documenting the Mobile Delta, but he made his most significant discovery two years ago when he found the wreck of the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to America.
Debbie Elliott / NPR

"A wealthy plantation owner and steamboat captain named Timothy Meaher bet that he could smuggle a bunch of slaves into the country, which was illegal and had been for 50 years," he says. "You could still have slaves, but you couldn't bring in Africans."

Just before the start of the Civil War, the Clotilda returned from West Africa with 110 captives and snuck in through this network of rivers instead of coming through the port of Mobile. The captives were hidden in the swamp thicket.

"After they got all the slaves off the boat, they lit it on fire and sank it to hide evidence of the crime," says Raines, who is now working on a book about the Clotilda. "We're in a very desolate place. There's nothing around. The reason the ship is here is because they wanted to hide it. And they wanted no one to know what they had done and where they had done it."

On the shore by the site of the shipwreck, Spanish moss drapes from the cypress trees along the shore creating a ghostly image.

"This is such a haunted place," Raines says.

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The restaurant industry has been battered by the pandemic, with many establishments going out of business for good. Millions of service industry workers all over the country have lost their jobs. Even at the best of times, those workers were typically paid below the minimum wage and relied on tips to make up the difference. Now, a new report finds that for those still working, more than 80% report declining tips, and around 40% say they're facing an uptick in sexual harassment from customers. The workers also expressed concerns about proper COVID-19 safety protocols.

Saru Jayaraman is president of the group One Fair Wage, which advocates for higher pay for restaurant workers. She's also a director at the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, and she joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

SARU JAYARAMAN: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: So for this report, you surveyed about 2,600 restaurant workers about how the pandemic has affected their lives. What did you hear?

JAYARAMAN: We were really shocked with how horrific the situation truly is. About half of the workers reported that somebody in their restaurant had gotten sick with the pandemic. About a third of the workers said they knew somebody who had died from the pandemic. Sixty percent of workers said that they did not feel comfortable enforcing social distancing and mask rules on the very same customers from whom they have to get tips to survive, to make up their base wage. And that's a public health disaster because the CDC in September reported that adults are twice as likely to get COVID from eating in a restaurant. But I think the most horrific thing that honestly all of us who are involved in the study were all blown away by was the huge increase in hostility and sexual harassment.

ELLIOTT: I mean, that's what you named your report - "Take Off Your Mask So I'll Know How Much To Tip You." That's one of the comments women workers say they've been hearing but a lot of other rather disturbing comments as well, right?

JAYARAMAN: That's right - in fact, so common that we've come up with a new phrase to describe it. We're calling it maskual (ph) harassment. It's basically a phenomenon in which women across the country who work in restaurants are being asked to remove their masks so that male customers can judge their looks and therefore their tips on that basis, which makes this the only group of essential workers who are not receiving the minimum wage and who are being asked to remove their protective gear for a chance to earn a tip.

And the thing is that there's a very clear solution. Seven states have gotten rid of this system of paying a sub-minimum wage. And workers in those states report one-half the level of sexual harassment as workers in the 43 states with a sub-minimum wage. And that's because when you get a full wage from your boss, you don't have to put up with everything from the customers.

ELLIOTT: You know, you worked with Catharine MacKinnon, who pioneered the term sexual harassment in a 1976 book. What was the link between COVID and sexual harassment in the service industry?

JAYARAMAN: It comes down, frankly, to the power dynamic between these women workers and their male customers. There's absolutely no power that the women have to slap away the hand of a man who's trying to grab them if they need their tip because the women reported, as you said, that tips are way down. And so the women are far more reliant on any customers they can get in just a matter of nine or 10 months.

It's like the mask has become the veil, and asking a woman to take it off is equivalent to asking her to strip. The only thing I want people to note is that in this case, stripping the mask off is equivalent to asking her to kill herself, to essentially subject herself to the virus and the possibility of death for the sexual pleasure of customers, all because she doesn't get paid a minimum wage.

ELLIOTT: I was a little surprised to see in your report a $2.13 pay rate because I worked in this industry many moons ago and was making about the same amount. It hasn't gone up in, like, more than 30 years.

JAYARAMAN: Well, there is somebody you can thank for that, and that's Herman Cain. Herman Cain struck a deal with Congress and the Clinton administration as the head of the National Restaurant Association saying they wouldn't oppose the minimum wage going up as long as the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers stayed frozen forever.

ELLIOTT: So how can we best support our favorite local restaurants or our regular waiters when we try to go out to eat or do so safely, anyway?

JAYARAMAN: We would love to ask you to go to your favorite restaurant and tell the manager or the owner that you love eating there, and you'd love to see them join forces with hundreds of other independent restaurants that have decided to pay what we call one fair wage. And you can say, as a customer, I would feel more secure knowing that the servers in your restaurant got paid a full minimum wage and therefore felt empowered to tell other customers to keep it safe.

ELLIOTT: Saru Jayaraman is a professor at UC Berkeley and the president of One Fair Wage.


JAYARAMAN: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: We asked the National Restaurant Association to respond to the One Fair Wage report. The association told us it condemns sexual harassment of all workers. The trade group also said that before the pandemic, tipped restaurant workers often earned more than minimum wage but that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the food service industry and that, quote, "we still don't know how much of it will survive." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.