THIS IS WHAT WE HAVE BEEN TOLD:
- April 20, 2010: the Macondo well blowout occurred approximately five thousand feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, causing the BP-Transocean drilling platform Deepwater Horizon to explode, killing eleven workers and injuring seventeen others.
- 5 million barrels of crude oil were released into the sea from the BP blowout. On average, sixty thousand barrels a day were escaping from the well before the gusher was capped on July 15, 2010.
- 632 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline have been oiled: 365 miles in Louisiana; 110 miles in Mississippi; 69 miles in Alabama; and 88 miles in Florida.
- There have been 411 controlled burns on the surface of the sea, killing hundreds of sea turtles and untold numbers of dolphins. The number of deaths has been greatly underreported.
- Four hundred species of wildlife are threatened by the spill, including marine life from plankton to whales, dolphins, sea turtles, tuna, and shrimp; dozens of species of birds, including brown pelicans and piping plovers; land animals such as the gray fox and white-tailed deer; and amphibians, the alligator, and the snapping turtle.
- 8 million feet of absorbent boom have been used to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; 3 million feet of containment boom have also been set around islands and shorelines for protection.
- 2 million gallons of a dispersant called Corexit have been applied on and beneath the surface of the sea to break up the oil. It is produced by Nalco Holding Company, which has corporate ties to BP and ExxonMobil. The EPA, on May 20, 2010, gave BP twenty-four hours to find a less toxic alternative. Corexit’s known toxicity, acknowledged following its use in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, was denied by BP. The EPA’s request was ignored.
- On May 25, the EPA gave BP a directive to scale back their spraying of the sea with dispersants. The Coast Guard overlooked the EPA’s edict and granted BP seventy-four exemptions in forty-eight days, essentially rubber-stamping their continued routine use of Corexit.
- Defense Secretary Robert Gates authorized 17,500 National Guard troops “to fight the massive oil spill,” alongside an army of 42,500 individuals paid by BP to protect and clean up vital shorelines in the Gulf of Mexico. Over 5,300 “vessels of opportunity” have registered with BP, captains with their own boats being paid to look for oil.
- August 5, 2010: BP officials reported a permanent stop to the spill. Crews used a “static well kill” to plug the gusher with drilling mud and then concrete. Two relief wells at depths of 17,864 feet and 15,963 feet are being drilled to ensure a secure and final closure of the well.
- Amid reports of the oil in the Gulf being nearly gone, an article in the August 19 issue of Science describes the presence of a plume of hydrocarbons at least twenty-two miles long and more than three thousand feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, residue from the Macondo well blowout. The plume was said to be moving in a southwesterly direction at a rate of about 6.5 kilometers a day.
I AM ANGRY. I AM OUTRAGED. And I am in love with this beautiful, blue planet we call home.
This story in the Gulf of Mexico is not a new story. Living in the American West, I understand the oil and gas industry, both its political power in a state like Wyoming and its lack of regard for the safety of workers. Broken necks and backs are commonplace injuries. So are lost fingers. Occasional blowouts occur on land as well, resulting in fatalities. Production is paramount at the expense of almost everything else.
And I have seen the environmental degradation that is left in the wake of collusion between government agencies and oil companies. Federal regulations are relaxed or ignored, putting the integrity of our public lands at risk. Ecological health is sacrificed for financial gain. This sense of entitlement among oil companies is supported by the U.S. Congress. It has direct results on the ground: burning slag pools; ozone warnings; contaminated water wells flushed with benzene; and loss of habitat for sage grouse, prairie dogs, and pronghorn antelope. The scars on the fragile desert of southeastern Utah, from endless road cuts to the sheared oil patches themselves, will take decades to heal. These are self-inflicted wounds made by a lethal economic system running in overdrive.
After months of watching the news coverage on the blowout and subsequent oil spill, I had to see for myself what I felt from afar: this catastrophic moment belongs to all of us.
On July 28, 2010, I traveled to the Gulf Coast with two friends: Avery Resor, a recent environmental science graduate from Duke University, and Bill Weaver, a seasoned filmmaker from Montgomery, Alabama, who now lives in British Columbia. Avery grew up on her family’s cattle ranch in Wilson, Wyoming, where she continues to live in a log cabin without running water or electricity. She is twenty-four years old and bikes wherever and whenever she can. Her name ties her to a deep family history rooted in Louisiana: Avery Island, famous for Tabasco Sauce made from hot peppers, vinegar, and salt. Bill has dedicated his life to making films that illuminate issues of environmental and social justice. He facilitates Media that Matters, a yearly conference committed to more transparent journalism. He is more cat than human, quiet and nimble. When he rolls his camera, you don’t know it. He has learned how to disappear so the authentic story can be told.
We arrived on the hundredth day of the oil spill and stayed until the “static kill” was complete. We sniffed out stories and followed them. We listened and we engaged. I took notes. Avery took pictures. Bill filmed.
The oil is not gone. This story is not over. We smelled it in the air. We felt it in the water. People along the Gulf Coast are getting sick and sicker. Marshes are burned. Oysters are scarce and shrimp are tainted. Jobs are gone and stress is high. What is now hidden will surface over time.
Meanwhile, 1 billion birds are migrating through the Gulf of Mexico this fall, resting, feeding, and finding sanctuary as they have always done, generation after generation. The endangered piping plover will be among them. Seventy percent of all waterfowl in North America fly through the Mississippi Delta. Their energy will be compromised, with food not as plentiful. Their health will be vulnerable to the toxic traces of oil and dispersants lingering in the marshes.
The blowout from the Macondo well has created a terminal condition: denial. We don’t want to own, much less accept, the cost of our actions. We don’t want to see, much less feel, the results of our inactions. And so, as Americans, we continue to live as though these 5 million barrels of oil spilled in the Gulf have nothing to do with us. The only skill I know how to employ in the magnitude of this political, ecological, and spiritual crisis is to share the stories that were shared with me by the people who live here. I simply wish to bear witness to the places we traveled and the people we met, and give voice to the beauty and devastation of both.
To bear witness is not a passive act.
209 BOURBON STREET
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
“All worlds meet at Galatoire’s,” David Barr Gooch tells us as we are escorted to our table. He is the great-grandnephew of the original proprietor, Jean Galatoire, who first opened these doors on Bourbon Street in 1905. Mr. Gooch assures us that they do have oysters and that all the shrimp, crab, and local fish is safe to eat. “Our local suppliers take care of us first, so please enjoy yourself.”
Our waiter’s name is Shawn Perry, a native of New Orleans. He dotes on us as if we are the only diners in the restaurant. When he finds out that we are from Utah and Wyoming, he says, “Will you allow me to order for you?” What comes to our table is Galatoire’s Grand Gouté, which includes shrimp rémoulade, crabmeat maison, and shrimp maison with their signature French bread.
For an entrée, he orders redfish prepared both ways for us to try: broiled and fried, with vegetables on a bed of couscous and a side dish of creamed spinach. “You have to have creamed spinach in the South,” Shawn says. The food is delicious, especially the redfish, heightened by our waiter’s joie de vivre.
“How is the Gulf spill affecting business?” I ask. He pauses.
“The people aren’t coming.” He looks around the dining room. “Usually on a summer night, this place is packed. The wait can be long, an hour or more, outside on the street. You walked right in. As you can see, the dining room is only a third full. As far as the food goes, we’ve got what we need. But the oysters are the thing — everybody’s scrambling.”
For a split second, Shawn sheds his elegance as a waiter, and his eyes deepen. “It’s another blow to the region, and I don’t know how many more we can take. We’re resilient, we make do, but this spill is scaring everybody because we just don’t know.”
“Don’t know?” Avery asks.
“We just don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be to the fisheries, to the people, to the Gulf.” He pauses again. “There’s not a lot of trust in this city about what we’re being told.” He looks over at another one of his tables. “Would you like some more bread?”
The oil is not gone. The story is not over.
Avery and I finish our redfish. The gold fans with exposed light bulbs help distribute the air and conversation around the room. Green wallpaper decorated with gold fleur-de-lis rises above the mirrored panels, which create the illusion that the dining room is larger than it is. This is not a pretentious place.
Suddenly, a waiter in the far corner of Galatoire’s announces with great gusto that it is “Charles’s birthday.” The room breaks into song. Charles stands and takes a bow. I note that all the patrons are white and the waitstaff is black.
Shawn surprises us with bread pudding. “One should do,” he says smiling. One between us could actually be shared with another party of four. It is decadent and rich and we take our time with slow, small bites. Shawn is pleased by our unabashed joy.
We hug and kiss both cheeks after dinner, not common behavior for me with a waiter, complete with the exchange of addresses. Galatoire’s lives up to its reputation. We indulge in the tradition, saying goodnight to Mr. Gooch, who sees us out the door and watches until we disappear into the glare of Bourbon Street on a hot, steamy night in New Orleans.
MARGARET AND KEVIN CUROLE
ST. CHARLES PARISH
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Kevin is working on his daughter’s motor scooter, taking it apart in the middle of the sidewalk. I can’t help but stare at the extravagantly colored tattoo on his back, a narrative needled and inked on flesh that depicts Godzilla standing on a shrimping boat battling other boats, with oil rigs looming in the background. He gets up, catches my eyes on his back, and shakes my hand. “It’s a helluva good story if ya wanna hear about it.”
Margaret and Kevin Curole are Cajun shrimpers. They have lived along the bayous in Galliano all their lives. Today, they are staying at their daughter’s place in New Orleans, adjacent to a large cemetery. It’s beyond humid and the searing heat leaves me drenched. Margaret has agreed to talk to us about the Gulf crisis as both a resident of the region and an activist who serves on the executive board of the Commercial Fishermen of America. She also serves as the North American coordinator of the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, an NGO that works with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization to protect the rights of fishing communities around the world.
“It is a good story,” she says, smiling at Kevin. She has a flower tattoo on her right breast showcased by her low-cut black t-shirt. “Let’s get a couple of chairs and sit out back.” Her dark, layered hair, shoulder length, accentuates her yellow-brown eyes. “Are you cool enough today?” she asks, smiling.
On May 16, 2010, Margaret Curole joined aerial artist John Quigley and sent three text messages, spelled out with human bodies on the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, to BP, the federal government, Congress, and other officials, calling for immediate action to address the economic and environmental devastation from the spill. Their message was simple and direct: Never Again; Paradise Lost; WTF?!
This last sentiment is where Margaret picks up with our conversation. “Did you see that there’s another spill today, a barge hit ground off of Port Fourchon, not far from Grand Isle? That’s in the Lafourche Parish where we’re from.” Margaret is referring to headlines in the Daily Comet: “New Oil Spill Sullies Locust Bayou Near Border of Terrebonne, St. Mary.”
“About five hundred gallons of light crude. It’s the second spill this week in southeast Louisiana,” she says. “It’s endless and ongoing all over the world. I’m on my way tomorrow to a conference in Norway to talk about the state of fisheries and oil spills. Part of my job with the UN.”
Margaret tells me that her father was an oilman. In the 1950s, before she was born, her parents lived inside the British Petroleum compound in Saudi Arabia. “I was adopted. My birth mother was Cajun. I’m Cajun. The transaction was completed for the price of five hundred dollars and two new dresses for my mother. My parents are dead now, but I’ve lived in the same house in Galliano for fifty years.”
“And your husband?” I ask.
“My husband has shrimped all his life, until the local fishing industry collapsed in 2000. Ask him about separating shrimp from a bucket for his grandmother when he was three years old. It’s in his blood. He was fishing those waters as a kid. Loved it. Lived for it. We all did. It’s how we raised our daughter. You know why he quit in 2000? ’Cuz he was feelin’ violent — violent toward the government, violent for them not valuing an honest day’s work. He just left what he loved and went and worked for oil. At least we were one of the ones who had options.”
Margaret explains to us how the local shrimping industry has crashed in the bayous since 2000, due to America “dumping” Asian shrimp into the market. “Our shrimp aren’t worth anything, certainly not worth all the effort that goes into harvesting them. My husband used to sell a pound of shrimp all cleaned up and put on a bucket of ice for seven dollars. Then, after the Asian shrimp came in all covered with white blight and crowded out our own southern Louisiana shrimp, he’d get paid under a dollar. They treat our shrimp like trash. It’s not just the money, it’s our dignity. The ability to work hard is at the heart of Cajun culture.
“We are one generation removed from those speaking French, although Kevin still speaks the dialect. What you need to understand is that for us Cajun folk, fishing isn’t a business, it’s a way of life. It’s something beautiful. We may be poor, but we never went hungry. We had shrimp, crabs, and coon oysters. We had a free and abundant food supply. In these parts, you either fish or you work in the oil fields. So if you take away the oil job, with the moratorium on deep-well drilling, and the fishing is gone, we’re down to nothin’.”
Margaret’s fast speaking clip slows down. “And then you’ve probably already heard about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico created by all the dumping of pesticides from farming — the nitrates from farms upriver?” She pauses. “My sense of hope is fading fast.”
She looks away and then her gaze becomes direct. “Don’t believe 75 percent of what you hear about this blowout down here. Ask the people on the ground. People are not being allowed to talk. My husband has been working on the water for the past three months. Most of what is being done to clean up the oil is to make the American people think something is being done.”
“So what’s the story that isn’t being told?” I ask.
“Two things: how much oil actually has gone into the sea and the amount of dispersants used to make it disappear,” she says.
“The workers are getting sick with contact dermatitis, respiratory infections, nausea, and god knows what else. The BP representatives say all it is is food poisoning or dehydration. If it was just food poisoning or not enough water, why were the workers’ clothes confiscated? As we say in these parts, Answer me dat!
“I never really got nervous until I got a call at nine-thirty on a Sunday night from the BP claims office telling me to back off. But I’m speaking out. I kid my friends and family and say I’ll leave bread crumbs. The other day, two guys from Homeland Security called to take me to lunch. I’m a chef. They tried to talk food with me, to cozy up and all, and one of them told me he was a pastry chef.” Margaret shakes her head. “But I knew what they was up to, I’m not stupid. They just wanted to let me know I was bein’ watched.”
“Here’s the truth,” Margaret says, now emotional. “Where are the animals? There’s no too-da-loos, the little one-armed fiddler crabs. Ya don’t hear birds. From Amelia to Alabama, Kevin never saw a fish jump, never heard a bird sing. This is their nestin’ season. Those babies, they’re not goin’ nowhere. We had a very small pod of sperm whales in the Gulf, nobody’s seen ’em. Guys on the water say they died in the spill and their bodies were hacked up and taken away. BP and our government don’t want nobody to see the bodies of dead sea mammals. Dolphins are choking on the surface. Fish are swimming in circles, gasping. It’s ugly, I’m tellin’ you. And nobody’s talkin’ about it. You’re not hearing nothin’ about it. As far as the media is reportin’, everythin’s being cleaned up and it’s not a problem. But you know what, unless I know where my fish is coming from, I’m eatin’ nothin’ from here.”
Margaret and I sit in silence. I am suddenly aware of the shabbiness of the neighborhood, the cracking paint on the wooden slats, the weariness of the ivy in this dripping heat.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I haven’t cried in a long time. I’ve been tough, I’ve been holding it all together, but it breaks me up.” She looks at me with unwavering eyes, “Have you read ‘Evangeline’ by Longfellow?”
I can’t speak.
“Read it. Read it again,” Margaret says to me. “It’s our story as exiles. If I wasn’t speakin’ out about this, I’d be havin’ a nervous breakdown. I’ll tell you another thing that nobody is talkin’ about. At night, people sittin’ outside on their porches see planes comin’ into the marshes where they live, and these planes are sprayin’ them with the dispersant. That’s the truth. But hey, we’re Cajuns, who cares about us?”
“I don’t feel like an American anymore,” Margaret says. “I don’t trust our government. I don’t trust anybody in power.”
She leans forward in the heat as the pitch and fervor of frogs intensifies. “We might not be the most educated people schoolwise, but we know more about nature than any PhD. We know. We know what’s goin’ on.”
27900 HIGHWAY 1
PORT FOURCHON, LOUISIANA
The sun, a bright orange orb, slowly sinks into the horizon of golden grasses. Flocks of great white egrets are flying to roosting trees, mostly dead cypress that have drowned from rising waters. We are stopped by the side of the road, struck by beauty in Lafourche Parish, “Gateway to the Gulf.”
There is a sense that you are standing flush with the sea. Wooden houses are on blocks above lawns, some on stilts. Every half mile or so, there seem to be signs advertising BAYOU LOANS or APARTMENTS FOR RENT. One billboard with a large image of the Virgin Mary reads, THIS IS MY TIME. But the blessed trinity of shrimp, crab, and oysters is no longer a vision to be taken for granted. Between fields of sugar cane, seafood café after seafood café is closed, in spite of banners advertising, TAILS AND SCALES FOR SALE. Shrimp boats named Bywater Liberty and Daddy’s Angels remain idle on the sides of the canals.
In small coastal communities like Golden Meadow and Larose, local artists have turned the sides of abandoned buildings into murals: BP TOOK OUR ARMS, THE GOVERNMENT IS TAKING OUR LEGS, HOW WILL WE STAND? And then an image of the iconic Barack Obama poster by Shepard Fairey, revised with floating question marks and the words WHAT NOW? Another mural has BP portrayed as the grim reaper, rising toward the statement YOU KILLED OUR GULF, OUR WAY OF LIFE. In front stands a mannequin wearing a gas mask holding a placard: GOD HELP US ALL.
Production is paramount at the expense of almost everything else.
In twilight, we soar over the marshes on a graceful freeway bridge that brings Port Fourchon into full view. It is a horizon of lights rising out of the wetlands, what Avery calls “a city that is not a city.” It reminds us both of the oil fields in Wyoming where one can read a newspaper at night in what was once a wilderness of stars at the base of the Wind River Range.
We stop at Fin’s Bar for a drink. Once inside, we could be in Pinedale, Wyoming, or Rifle, Colorado, or Vernal, Utah. All oil towns breed the same kind of culture, hard-drinking drifters following the money. Avery and Bill sit down at the bar and talk to the bartender whose name is Angel. A circle of men are sitting on stools with pints of beer in hand.
Having grown up in the oil and gas industry, I recognize the men as kin. I walk over and ask if I might join them. Turns out they are captains working with the NRC, the National Response Center, hired by BP as skimmers. They follow the oil spills wherever they occur worldwide. Some had been in Kuwait, others had worked the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, and others had been in South America last year. They came from Seattle, New Jersey, Texas, from all over the United States.
“Do you think BP is doing a good job?”
They look at each other. One captain named Phil says, “They’re sure throwing a lot of money at it.” The men begin talking among themselves about all the bogus boats in the Gulf registered as “vessels of opportunity” that are supposed to be collecting oil.
“What they’re collecting is a hefty paycheck for driving around in circles,” a captain named Bruce says, laughing. “They’ve got nothing to do.”
“Where is the oil?” I ask.
“We sank it,” one of them says matter-of-factly.
“Dispersants, above and below.”
“Carpet-bombed the whole fuckin’ ocean,” says another captain, who by now is drunk.
“Yeah, above and below and deep, man, I mean way deep,” the man sitting next to him says. It was as though the captains were competing with one another for who could tell the most unbelievable story.
“It’s called Corexit — corrects-it — get it?”
“Wonder how many millions some asshole in corporate America got for coming up with that one?”
“Is it safe?” I ask.
“Who in the hell knows, but it got rid of the oil — at least on the surface. We just got told by BP that they’ll be sending us home in another week or so.”
“But don’t count on it,” says another. “We’ll probably get called right back for duty after the first hurricane dredges up all the oil sitting at the bottom of the ocean and throws it inland.”
The captain seated across from me seemed troubled. He didn’t say much. He told me later when we were at the bar alone that he had worked on the Exxon Valdez spill. He said he had watched fish eat the dispersant as it gathered along the tide line in Alaska. He said he had seen the mullet doing exactly the same thing out in the Gulf.
“They’re probably just eatin’ the microbes that are eatin’ up the oil after the dispersants have broken it up,” he said. “But it can’t be good for ’em.”
“I don’t know, I think that stuff really fucks up the food chain,” he said. “The herring never did bounce back in Prince William Sound. I’ve been up there fishing since the spill. Almost killed every last one of them.”
JORDAN’S MINI STORE AND DELI
17611 EAST MAIN STREET
When we asked Margaret Curole where we could get some good Cajun food, she told us to go to Galliano, her hometown, and look for a little café with a large red awning across from the church. By the time we get there, it is after ten o’clock, but the lights are still on.
“Welcome,” Becky Duet says warmly, a woman in her early fifties who is cleaning up. “It’s late and the grill is down.” We strike up a conversation, and before we know it we are sitting down at a table with Becky, her husband, Earl, and their son, Jordan. The convenience store and deli were named after him.
“He was conceived three days after my granddaddy died and I knew he’d be a boy. He’s our miracle baby,” Becky says. Jordan, now twenty, smiles, his multiple piercings shining under the direct lights. Just then, a person dressed in a white t-shirt, black pants, and silver chains, with a geometric haircut, walks in.
“This is my brother, Donna,” Jordan says with a mischievous smile.
“Yeah, I raised her, too,” Becky says. “That’s the way it is in these parts.”
Becky offers us a ham and cheese po’ boy on French bread. It is the best sandwich I have ever eaten.
“Eatin’s important to us, makin’ the gumbo and jambalaya. We feast in the bayou. We say, All you need to survive is some rice, some potatoes, and bread. Nature provides the rest.” She looks at her boy. “But not now.”
“I knew the oil spill wasn’t any good the minute it happened,” Becky says, stroking her ponytail tied loosely at the nape of her neck. “So I stocked up on local shrimp and put ’em in freezers all over. Good thing I did, too, ’cuz you can’t find any shrimp now, and if you could, you wouldn’t wanna eat it.”
“Be afraid to know,” says Earl. “Them sprayin’ us and the bayous at night.”
“Who?” Bill asks, since we’d been hearing about Coast Guard planes doing the spraying.
“BP. We’ve all seen ’em, heard ’em. They’re sprayin’ the marshes — everything. People are gonna get sick.”
“They already are,” Becky says.
Becky and Earl were both raised in the bayous. They speak Cajun French (derived from Acadian French, as it was spoken in what are now the Maritime Provinces of Canada — New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island — where Cajun ancestors lived before they were dispersed in 1755 by the French and found a home in the bayou country of southern Louisiana). They can hardly understand their son’s French, and so they settle on a hybrid Cajun-English between the three of them.
Becky served on the school board, working to create a bilingual English-Cajun program for children growing up in the bayou, where the average annual household income is $31,419.
She echoed Margaret’s sentiments about the bayous offering them a bounty of food in all seasons of the year. “We’re wealthy if you look at the food we can eat right here in our own homes. I mean, you just put a chicken neck on a hook and throw your line in the canal and you’ve got everything you need.”
“What’s a redfish?” I ask Becky, curious about the origins of our main course from the night before.
“We’ve got ’em here. They’re a fish that likes to give you a fight. They’re real pretty with gold scales and a dot on their tail, a big burgundy spot.” She pauses. “We might see some in the canal below the bridge?”
It’s been raining. The wet parking lot reflects the lights of Galliano, a town of barely eight thousand people. Jordan and Donna run ahead of us and disappear. I now see Becky’s uncommon beauty, the lines in her face.
She and I walk toward the bridge talking about sons. I tell her I became a mother at fifty, that our son is from Rwanda. “You’ll love your son like no other,” she says. “It’s a different kind of love than you have for your husband.” Becky then shares a Cajun tradition. “When you have a baby, you invite the women of the community over and each one writes some words of wisdom in red magic marker on a set of diapers, so that every time you change one, you are reminded of a thought or a wish that gives you confidence as a new mother. What I just told you about the love you have for your son, well, that was written on one of Jordan’s diapers. I still remember that because it’s still true.”
Jordan and Donna are already in their rowboat, fishing. We step onto the green-painted bridge that spans the bayou and stare into the tea-colored water. The canal is crowded with gar, recognizable by their long, peculiar snouts visible in the waning full moon of July, now emerging from the clouds. Leaning on the railing of the bridge, Becky points out that each gar has its own distinctive markings, some spotted like leopards, others marked like a maze on their backs. They slowly tread water, lazily, seductively, some three feet long, all facing the same direction.
Jordan screams, “I caught a redfish!”
Donna leans over to see. “Wow, on your second cast!”
Becky calmly says to reel it in so we can see the fish for ourselves. Jordan and Donna carefully bring the twelve-inch fish into the boat, but not without a fight. “Those redfish really give you a hard time,” Becky says. “It’s why the fishermen like them so much. They can live to be forty years old, weigh thirty-five pounds, and can grow to be three feet long. But we like the little ones.”
Jordan and Donna row the boat to bayou’s edge, tie it to some grasses, and bring the fish to Becky. Becky holds the redfish in her hands with its gold, glistening scales.
“See the burgundy spot?” Becky asks. It appears as a single unblinking eye.
At Galatoire’s, I didn’t know what a redfish was or where it lived. Twenty-four hours later, I am stroking the side of a redfish that will eventually find its way from these moonlit marshes to the sea. Magic lives in the world when we surrender ourselves to a place. Jordan doesn’t just know a redfish, he can think like one. The line he dangles into his home waters is his lifeline.
Becky gently returns the gift back to the bayou, and we watch as the redfish’s side fins propel it forward into the murky depths.
BRETON SOUND, LOUISIANA
The marsh grasses are burnt. The mud flats hold an iridescent sheen, and it looks like a painter came to shore with buckets of oil and dipped his brush in it, then spattered the island with drops, not black or brown, but red drops, like blood. Comfort Island looks like the scene of a crime.
Jumping off the boat, I sink into the muck. It is my first look at an oiled beach. Shells are strewn across the shore, angel wings, whelks, and tiny, hinged sunrise shells. Brown pelicans and royal terns are standing three, four deep on the edge of the island. One pelican is standing on the yellow boom, now a broken circle.
“Amateur hour,” grumbles the boat captain, Danny Diecidue, who has fished these waters for over thirty years. “The boom is fucked. It absolutely does no good. The island’s too big and the workers have gotten it all wrong. At least the pelicans get a perch to fish from out of this incompetence.”
I bend down and touch the oil, spread it over the pages of my journal so I won’t forget. It burns my finger. White curled feathers cartwheel across the beach until they become heavy with oil. I find a small bed of oysters saturated in crude.
“The oil comes in with the high tide,” says Danny, a native of Hopedale, in the St. Bernard Parish, an hour from New Orleans. “That would have been around two o’clock this morning.”
Farther down the beach, a television reporter from the CBS Evening News stands with perfectly coiffed hair, sporting a flak jacket. He wants a shot with the yellow boom in the background. He is about to interview Dr. Paul Kemp, vice-president of the National Audubon Society’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative. He asks his cameraman if he is ready. The cameraman gives him the go sign: “It’s Day 100 and I am on Comfort Island in the Breton Sound with Dr. Paul Kemp of the National Audubon Society. Dr. Kemp, would you agree this is not the environmental disaster we were all expecting?”
“It’s too early to tell,” says Dr. Kemp. “We just don’t know what the effects of the dispersants are going to be on the overall ecosystem.”
“But wouldn’t you agree that the oil spill isn’t as bad as was initially predicted?”
“No, I don’t agree. It’s just too early to tell.”
“What do you know?”
“What we do know is that the Mississippi Delta is the only world-class river delta we have in North America. It really requires our attention. People think this will be here forever, but that is not the case. The system is in collapse. It will not survive another generation unless we change our point of view and move it to one of restoration. We need to restore the Mississippi River and engage in something as large in scale and vision as the Marshall Plan, so it can deposit the sediments it once did into the delta and is meant to do. These extraordinary marshlands cannot afford to be cut up by canals to serve the oil industry or covered in oil when a spill occurs.”
The CBS anchorman is getting frustrated. This is not the story he wanted. He tries again. “So, what is the impact of oil on this system?”
Dr. Kemp: “No one can say. We can see that this system will come through it, but if we don’t change the way we manage these wetlands, this is the beginning of the end.”
“You are saying this is the beginning of the end?”
“Yes. Not because of the oil disaster, but because of the navigational canals. They are fragmenting marsh grasses creating more erosion. And coastal erosion is the issue. Since 1930, we have lost more than 2,300 square miles of land. In 2010, we are losing one football field of land every thirty minutes. If we do not change the way we think about the Mississippi Delta, it will all be underwater very soon.” He pauses. “America’s Gulf Coast is in cardiac arrest.”
“That’s a wrap,” the newsman says to his cameraman.
If only it were that simple. Take a few pictures. Speak a few words. End of story. Meanwhile, oil reaches the beach, the mud, the grasses, sullying the feet of birds now preening their feathers with oiled beaks, cleaning their feathers and ingesting the oil that will sicken them.
The system is breaking down not from one thing but everything.
To bear witness is not a passive act.
Dr. Kemp and I walk along the edge of the wetlands. He is a thoughtful marine scientist who worked at Louisiana State University before joining the environmental group. We are the same age, both of us now white haired, and share similar concerns. Where we step down, oil oozes up.
“This oiling extends across six hundred square miles,” he says. “Nobody knows. Nobody knows what these oil particles will do that are hanging just below the surface. Nobody knows how this will affect the animals living in the mud or the spawning of species in the sea or the planktonic absorption of oil or how the toxicity levels held in coral reefs will impact their health. Nobody knows what this means to the whole ecology of the Gulf Coast and the Delta.
“We need actions going forward, not incremental steps, that will change our whole outlook of how we see the Mississippi River. We have to start implementing this plan to restore the river now and get the Army Corps of Engineers on board — today.”
I look at him and smile. “You know what you are advocating . . . ?”
“What?” he asks quietly.
“You are basically calling for a complete restructuring of Western civilization.”
He doesn’t flinch. O