Day 4: Of Forms and Fishermen, or, The British Are Coming/Here

categories: Cocktail Hour


 Before I say goodbye to camping at the national seashore, I need to mention something a new friend pointed out yesterday.  The park where I was staying used to be a fort, and remnants of that fort still stand, as well as bunkers that grow out of the side of hills like hobbit holes and grass-cracked stairs that lead up hills to nowhere.  This fort was built after the War of 1812 to defend the Southern coasts and to keep the land here from being conquered by the British.  Which it did successfully until about three months ago.  If there is anything that all Americans—conservative and liberal alike—should agree on it’s this. Get these fuckers out of here.  Yes, we’ll take their money, and we should, they need to

Fort Pickens, which until three months ago, had successfully defended this land against the British.

pay for their mess, but BP should not be running the show.  And they are running the show, believe me, if you’re down here you know they’re running the show.  The only things missing are those red coats, pointy hats, and rifles with bayonets. 

            But I’m getting carried away.  I’ve barely finished my first coffee and the daily fulminations have begun.  Smoke coming out of the ears and all that.  That’s because this place provokes fulminating.  Not just the oil, of course, but the money flowing everywhere.  Yesterday, after I packed up my tent and drove over the bridge to the mainland, I decided on the spur of the moment to head into the enormous seafood store I saw along the road.  I talked my way back into meeting with the store’s owner, giving him a copy of my first osprey book, and talking birds for a while.  When he said he’d seen a lot of “water turkeys” I assumed he meant cormorants, though someone later told me he was referring to Anhingas.  He invited me back into his office where he spoke in a deeply-accented and rumbling voice, obviously used to holding court.  “Fishermen are like farmers,” he told me.  “But they’re farmers who can’t see their crops.  It’s never been an easy job.  Now it’s impossible.”   Seafood is all about trust, and now the trust was lost.  I had noticed that all the fish out in the store was labeled by their origins in large print:  Haddock Filet from Glouchester, Snapper from the East Coast and the Yucatan, Grouper flown in from Costa Rica.  His had been a thirteen million dollar a year business but profits had been cut by more than half.  The chemicals were worse than the oil; at least with the oil you could “let mother nature have a shot” at cleaning the Gulf with winter storms.   But the chemicals eroded trust.  Who wants to eat fish with that inside it? 

There was a dock next to the store where two shrimp boats, the owner’s  and that of a Vietnamese fishing crew, would pull up and supply the company with their shrimp.  But no one wants Gulf shrimp and the two boats have now become “Vessels of Opportunity,” the Orwellian name for the boats that are being hired to search for oil and lay boom.  The pay was pretty good—$2000 a day for his larger boat and $1500 for the smaller vessel owned by the Vietnamese.  But, as Miranda, my waitress the next day at the Blue Heron Cafe in the fishing village of Bayou La Batre, put it succinctly: “The solution is temporary, but the problem is permanent.”  As soon as the lights fade, and they are likely going to fade if the cap works and America moves onto its next spot-lighted crisis, the payments will dry up.  And there will be no fishing to go back to. 

            In the meantime there is another problem.  As soon as you sign on with BP, you also sign away the right to criticize your new boss.  Before I shook hands and said goodbye to the my new friend, his store manager chimed in about the money that BP was paying fishermen: “It’s just hush money plain and simple.”  

* * *

            There is a story you hear and may have even heard.  You hear it from locals and you read it in the paper and I think it even got printed in USA Today.  But though it is a new story, and though it is a particular, tragic story that happened to a particular, grieving family, it has also taken on some of the resonance of myth.  It will be, when all this is over—if you believe that this will ever be over—one of the remnant legends of the spill.  The story goes like this:

 He was a good man, a strong man, who owned his own charter boat and made his living by bringing others out fishing and pulling fish out of the sea.  He led what the writer Henry Beston once called “an elemental life,” a life of the outdoors, of wind, sun, rain, sweat.  Of course he lost his job when the oil started pouring into the Gulf, followed by the chemicals that were poured on the oil.  Of course he had little money saved to pay for to support himself and his children, two boys and a little girl, and his wife.  And of course he hated working for the idiots at BP—they didn’t even know how to tie a line to a cleat, let alone a thing about the Gulf weather—though he admitted that the overall purpose of his new job was not a bad one: to spot and boom and eventually get rid of the accursed oil.   

            But then came the fucking form.  It was over fifty pages long, an invoice filled with questions that had nothing to do with running a boat.  They wanted him to fill it out before sending him out on the water, needed him to fill it out, they said, in able to properly insure themselves and compensate him.  But it made doing his taxes look like a joke—and when you’re self-employed taxes are no piece of cake.  A lot of things were pushing him, I imagine.  The oil spilling, The BP folks running the show, the prospect of a future where the gulf yielded no fish, or if it did, no one wanted to eat the fish it yielded.  But in the end it all came down to this thing, this form.  It came to symbolize all that was wrong with what was happening.  What is a form after all?  A shape, a physical embodiment.  (The form I am writing in right now, for instance, is a blog post, and shapes the way I write.)  And this thing, this form, became an embodiment of everything that was wrong in his world.

            What had been right in the world?  Even before the oil there had been a ton of stress, and the fish weren’t as plentiful as they had been.  But still there were deep pleasures.  The camaraderie of the docks, the pleasure of pulling out in early morning, a fresh start each day, the cyclical feel of both the days and the seasons, the fact that he knew this place and that on the best days when they puttered back in as the orange ball sizzled down into the water he knew that, despite all the crap, what he was doing felt right. 

            The form was not about the season’s cycles and was not about hard, honest work.  It came from the top down the way the whole disaster did.  He hated it and there was a meeting that morning that made him hate it–and the whole thing– even more.  Of course, he was angry and depressed about what was happening and it would be wrong to say that the invoice, a mere stapled sheaf of papers, was the reason he ended his life that morning on his boat.  But it would not be wrong to say that the those stapled pages symbolized something to him, something that he was perhaps unable to put into words, and it would not be wrong to say that it was in those pages that that something–a feeling of rage, impotence, and sorrow–found its lasting and final form.

  1. Wonderful posts, David, and the form story is eye-opening.

  2. Jan DeBlieu writes:

    Really interesting series of blogs, Dave. Thanks for making the trip and painting the scene for those of us who haven’t made the trip.

    I spent 12 years fighting Mobile and Chevron, with other activists, to keep them from drilling off the Outer Banks. To our astonishment, we won. There are no longer any active oil or gas leases off these islands. During those years we lost sleep over the thought that our beloved coast might suffer the fate that’s now plaguing the gulf. Watching this play out has been surreal.

    Yes, we’re all gannets, and hypocrites. We use too damn many resources every day, no matter how careful we are. But even a few drops of conservation are welcome in a drought.

    Through my two decades of environmental activism I’ve had my heart broken more times than I can count.. It still gets broken with regularity. But awhile ago I had an epiphany that has enabled me to survive.

    It’s simple: Nature is going to win. I’ve started considering the plight of our world in geologic and even cosmic time. No matter how we screw things up, no matter how much oil or greenhouse gas spews from our creations, humans have a shelf life, and nature will be here, recovering, eventually prospering again, long after we’re gone. JD

    • Dave writes:


      Thanks so much for writing this. It makes all my spewing into the void worth it. By the way, have you ever met Eva, the other commenter? You guys would really hit it off. She’s a whale girl from Alaska.

      Would love to talk more but it’s off for a night in a casino in Miss and then New Orleans tomorrow. Never been there before. Best, David

  3. Eva Saulitis writes:

    It’s worth looking into the facts of the psychological impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, which reverberate years later, and now manifest as a kind of post traumatic stress response to the Gulf crisis. After the Valdez spill, in coastal fishing towns like Cordova, depression, suicide, stress, lost friendships, broken families and other societal impacts mounted. But the people and Prince William Sound endured, and I pray for the same for the Gulf.

    The sense of disempowerment in the face of the oil giants and other powers that be also rings true in my memory, as does the comment about hush money. I worked on a government contract assessing impacts of the Exxon oil spill on killer whales and was slapped on the hand by my boss for publishing an editorial asserting that the hot water clean-up was causing more harm than good. My boss claimed it would compromise my credibility as a witness in the litigation against Exxon. Luckily, an NPR reporter was witness to the hand-slapping, went to the head of NOAA, and the dictate against freedom of expression was overturned. I hope the residents of the Gulf push past the smokescreens of alleged power. The power of ordinary citizens was massive after the EVOS spill. More spilled oil was picked up by volunteers wielding five-gallon buckets than by Exxon. Ordinary citizens got the laws changed, and told the true stories. Power to the people of the Gulf.

    • Dave writes:

      Thanks so much for writing this, Eva. See my comment above about Jan and you. And check out her great book, Wind.

  4. John Jack writes:

    Multinational corporations stole a march from government bureaucracy long ago, bury supplicants behind impenetrable bastions, red tape, and denial. Cleopatra is the patron goddess of bureaucracy, the queen of de Nile. Bureaucracy’s first through third answers are always no, makes most shut up and go away. No is easy to say, and doesn’t instigate more work.

    See if penitents have the same lasting power as bureaucracy’s practitioner priests, the same resources to commit, to bring to bear on an issue. Then once their resolve is demonstrated, give them a bushel basket of paperwork to fill out, that requires a lawyer battery, a CPA battery, and an English language specialist battery to interpret what is means, and an Olympic swimming pool of clerks and secretaries and and stenographers and copywriters to keep abreast of the paper blizzard. Regardless, reject a first submission on general principles, and lose it so it can’t be revised from, and forget why it was rejected in the first place, force starting over from scratch again and again and again.

    Many ways to say no means no is a good best practice critical path answer to any inconvenient issue. Respond to accusations of badgering foot dragging as consequences of a bureaucratic culture of incompetence, which is easy to believe. Headless left hand doesn’t know what headless left pinky finger is doing.

    “Millions for defense, but not one damn cent for tribute.” Usually attributed to Charles Cotesworth Pickney, said during the XYZ Affair French-U.S. tensions following both countries’ democratic revolutions, also attributed to Robert Goodloe Harper, a Federalist congressional statesman.

    Anymore, it takes a DD-form-X triplicate just to wipe off after defecation. Makes for chronic constipation and sore butts. Wanna sit on the porch with the big dogs, better wanna lick dirty ass.