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2001.11.27 19:27:04

Sea Bean Lady finishes journey

Billy Cox

Following Cathie Katz's debut for Sierra Club Books last year, it appeared Nature a Day at a Time: An Uncommon Look at Common Wildlife was simply a preview of things to come.

At age 52, after considerable trial and error, the much-traveled "Sea Bean Lady" from Melbourne Beach had found her voice, and she regarded the enticing prospects like a kid with a nose pressed to the glass of a candy store. "I'm using creative visualization," she said then, "and I can picture myself as a 90-year-old woman signing books about sea beans."

Like the annual Sea Bean Symposium she founded five years earlier, or her tri-annual Drifting Seed newsletter with an audience in 20 countries, or her four meticulously illustrated, self-published books with environmental themes, the hooks and bends in the river of Cathie Katz's life had converged into eloquent currents of cogent observation. Her work navigated the natural world and its order, at once unforgiving and reaffirming. From the conjugation of parasitic microbes to swift endings amid raptors' talons, Katz wove the fabric of life and death into a tapestry of eerie mirrors on the human experience, without pretension or proselytizing. She delivered an edgy point of view, cushioned with the smarts of a dispassionate veneer.

So maybe, in retrospect, it was fitting that an environmentalist who mined revelations from the seemingly ordinary and insignificant found herself struggling with end-stage cancer at the doorway to broader commercial success. She had been to the brink before, in her 20s, when she was nearly killed in a car wreck on the German autobahn.

"She told me she was living on borrowed time from that moment on," recalls Ed Perry, a state park ranger at Sebastian Inlet. "She said every day she got after that was a gift from God."

This from the daughter of a Jewish father and an atheist mother, her world view shaped by Quaker tutelage through her senior year in high school. Katz's pursuit of traction drew her to jobs in the disparate worlds of Germany and Israel (to mention just two), and there were no shortcuts through the forests of familiar painkillers. What surprised her, at the end of the search, was the primordial simplicity that confronted her along the shoreline of her final sanctuary -- the beach.

The story she liked to share was her epiphany during a sea turtle encounter. For the first time in her life, Katz tuned in to an exhausted reptile as it completed its journey of uncounted miles to the scene of its birth under shadow of night. Instead of resting, the creature merely hoisted its bulk against an impossible slope, planted its seeds in the sand, and vanished into the ocean, the source of life on Earth. Katz wasn't the same after that.

"When you read her nature books, you feel like you're walking side by side with your best friend," says Perry, who was recommending her work to tourists long before he met Katz six years ago. "She was this really neat person who talked about bird poop and guts, and knew how to bring the importance of ecology together in a way that the average person could relate to. Good interpretation does that -- it takes you beyond the obvious and changes your way of thinking."

If Katz envisioned Nature a Day at a Time as the first in a series of books, she also knew nature obeyed its own cycles. Still, she resisted. Perry says she eased up last Tuesday after being assured that her friends would carry on with her newsletter and the Sea Bean convention. Consequently, her passage on Thanksgiving can only be attributed to coincidence.

Memorial Services are scheduled today for 4 p.m. at Brownlie-Maxwell Chapel in Melbourne.

What Cathie Katz leaves behind is a box full of 3-by-5 note cards from her unfinished book. She called it Beaches and Beyond. She introduced it this way:

"When I lost my ability to walk on the beach because of cancer, my world expanded when my friends gave me beach reports. I saw the universe through their eyes, another dimension which I've included in this book, too.

"Could I trust that the words would come? I wasn't sure what needed to be said, but I know I had to hurry. I loved the urgency. I loved the compelling nature of the days. I was luckier than anyone deserved. To have this joy of living fully, for the first time, day after day, without knowing how many days were left, made each one the biggest, best and brightest I'd ever experienced."

For those who knew Cathie Katz, or for those who enjoyed her books, regular updates will be posted at low tide.

Billy Cox's column runs every Wednesday. He can be reached at 242-3774, or Florida Today, P.O. Box 419000, Melbourne, FL 32941-9000.

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