categories: Cocktail Hour
I am now in the green, beautiful, and paranoid heart of southeastern Louisiana, a sinking land less than fifty miles from the Deepwater site. Things happen fast in this strange world. Take yesterday for instance. At dawn I went up in a helicopter with members of the Cousteau film team, and on the way out to the rig site we flew out over the patched grasses that make up over 13% of our nation’s marshlands, green jigsaw pieces in an ever-rising body of water. The rig itself and boats around it looked like Tonka Toys, fitting for the work of little boys, and it was all lit up by the green nimbus of the sunny and flowering BP logo.
My day was just starting. Almost as soon as I got back, I headed out by boat with the Cousteau folks and another boat captained by a charismatic sportsman named Ryan Lambert, who among other things runs Cajun Fishing Adventures, which is housed in the lodge where I’ve been staying. The boat also held David Guggenheim (aka the Ocean Doctor), who was there to take samples and was constantly circled, in the manner of a pilot fish, by an NBC news cameraman with a South African accent that sounded thick and garbled. We cut out to the Gulf, riding past dozens ofsplit-tailed frigatebirds on wooden posts, posts that acted as grave markers for a submerged bayou town (which made me think that it is fitting, if goofy, that Kevin Costner has become involved here: this place is the real Waterworld) until we finally landed on an island that held a thousand or so terns, not to mention beaches oiled with what looked like small orange rocks, toxic but flat and good for skimming. Of course there was the usual angle of absurdity you find down here: at one point, as we crossed the island, I could look ahead to see David Guggenheim’s brother, Alan, filming one of the Cousteau cameramen (Brian, a new friend) who was filming the NBC pilot fish camera guy with the fancy accent who was filming David as he recorded (for his radio show) what Ryan, the only local, was saying. Then, what the hell, just to add another Russian nesting doll layer to the whole thing, I, last in line, started to describe all this into my tape recorder. Which got my head spinning– the crazy self-consciousness of so many recorders, including myself—and so as an antidote I pulled a beer out of my pack, and said goodbye and hiked off on my own. I was about a half mile down the beach when I discovered the first of two dead pelicans. Soon the rest of the gang caught up to me and the dead birds had their posthumous media moment. As it turned out, it wasn’t oil but a too-big catfish that killed at least one of the pelicans, or as Ryan put it, as he drew the huge skeleton of the fish out of the bird’s throat and through its gular pouch like a magician pulling out a sword, “He bit off more than he could chew.” While oil
might not have kill the first one, we couldn’t be sure about the second and overall it has been a bad couple of days down here for oiled birds: yesterday at least a half dozen pelicans were rushed to the animal MASH unit in nearby Fort Jackson, as well as a tricoloroed heron that the Cousteau crew rescued themselves.
Later when we got back to camp, Dr. Guggenheim put the purple liver of the redfish we’d caught in ice and mailed it off to Maine as a sample, but my day still wasn’t over. I had to leave as everyone huddled around to see if we’d made the evening news (we hadn’t, pre-empted by Chelsea Clinton’s wedding) because I was driving north to Myrtle Grove Marina. As I drove my car bucked because, as a local who looked suspiciously like Javier Bardem’s character in “No Country for Old Men” told me, there’s lots of water in the gas down here (as well, obviously, as gas in the water). But I made it to the marina where I had arranged for interesting accommodations for the night. At dusk I got a lift from a bayou kid named Anthony out to his fish camp, a dilapidated shack deep in the soiled marsh that had somehow survived Katrina with just the roof blowing off. I spent the night surrounded by herons, swallows, egrets, and, downstream, a hunting alligator. When Anthony grilled a redfish for dinner it occurred to me that this is a whole new way to take a sample, and I thought it might be interesting if someone put my liver on ice and mailed it to Maine. While it may have been dangerous to eat the local fish, I was in full-on When-in-Rome mode and would have probably dug heartily into a baked nutria if that’s what he had served up. The night was peaceful but it grew less so at six this morning when the Vessels of Opportunity, as the clean-up boats are called, started their morning commute through my canal out into the Gulf. The laughing gulls, equally opportunistic, also made an appearance at this point, following the boats, begging for breakfast.
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But I am getting ahead of myself. It’s Monday morning as I type this, and since I first landed here about sixty hours ago I have tasted the oily pang of paranoia in the air. You’ll have to trust me when I say that I’m not usually a paranoia-conspiracy theory kind of guy, I’m really not. No tin foil for me, thank you very much. But something deeply strange is going on down here. Maybe it’s a fact that everyone who isn’t out on a VOO (the local shorthand for the Vessels of Opportunity), seems to be a cop, and cop cars hide behind every sign and shrub (which became even more apparent as we lifted off in the helicopter and got a bird’s eye view.) Or maybe the feeling is due, or at least aided by, the crazy DDT truck that patrols the streets at night like a toxic ice cream truck, spraying a huge cloud behind it (and last night even came down our driveway as if to make sure it got us while we sat on the porch). Or maybe it’s the guy from the bird organization I talked to who has been out surveying the damage but couldn’t tell me, even off the record, the figures because, as he said when pressed, “B.P. is our trustee” and he had therefore signed a confidentially agreement.
Is it me or is this last fact particularly insane? Almost everyone here seems to have signed a deal with the devil, a devil that in this case isn’t represented by horns and pitch fork but by that same green and sunny logo I saw out at the rig. The other day I suggested that, after two hundred or so years of independence, we, or at least our Gulf States, have been conquered by the British. And I need to ask again: how can this be happening? How can so many of our organizations, scientists, fishermen, and workmen be beholden to a foreign corporation? I understand that the template for this response was created during the Valdez crisis but how about breaking that mold and creating a new template for this one, given the much different circumstances? How about someone sensibly saying, “Hey guys, I don’t know about you but it seems kind of wrong to me to hand over so much power—so much, excuse the word choice here, of our freedom—to a foreign entity, particularly one that just soiled our waters and coasts.” Sure they should pay for the mess, but here’s an idea: what if we bossed them around and not them us? As it stands it’s a little like having a house guest who takes a shit in your bathtub and then, loudly and boorishly, orders your children to clean it up. But worse still the guest slips your kids each a fiver and then has them sign a piece of paper promising that they won’t tell anyone what happened. The truly wild thing down here is that we have all nodded and gone along with this plan, carrying it out as if it makes sense, nodding and going about our unsavory business like a pack of unquestioning zombies.This blog of course is supposed to focus on nature, or at least natural history, but both of those topics are really about connections and it would be hard to say that what is happening here, both to the homo sapiens and the other animals, is not connected to politics in the deepest way. Even my attempt at birdwatching, on my first morning in Buras, turned in an unexpected direction. I’ve always been an early riser and I got up at about 4:30, threw my telescope and binocs in the car and headed out with a fresh cup of coffee, thinking of course that I’d have the road to myself. Which was when I got caught in rush hour on Route 23 south. This was an earlier version of the parade I would see a couple of days later from the dock of the fish shack, the morning commute down to the VOOs, hundreds of cars pouring south toward the harbor, all going from essentially the same origination to the same destination, but none of them doing anything as unmanly as carpooling. “You should see it on a weekday,” said the guy buying a tin of Skoal chew at the convenience store. When they finally turned off, through the gate with the guard, I drove south a few more miles, through three feet of standing water where the tide had rushed over blacktop, to the very end of the road, a rundown marina where the sign said, “Welcome to the Southernmost Point in Louisiana.” In the water covering the road I observed a black capped night heron in my headlights, and I wasn’t surprised to see so much water on the road since it felt like the land here was somehow below the water. I found a spot beyond the fish scaling table covered with bolts, between some weeds and paint cans and a midden of empty Bud Lites. There I set up my lawn chair at the very tip of the land, the southernmost of the southernmost, and rested my cold coffee on an upside down white plastic bucket. I had a fine view of a half-sunken tugboat that looked like it had never recovered from Katrina, and of the birds of course, which suddenly were everywhere. A green heron hunted from the dock, a half dozen white ibises skirted an oily puddle, and egrets, splashes of white, dotted the trees. It was satisfying but not as good as what I saw on the way back, right before the sign that said “Haliburton Road—Do Not Litter.” There I pulled the car over by the side of the road, on a causeway an inch or two above the water level, and stared out at three cypress trees that must have held a couple hundred rooting ibises, all of them settling and fidgeting, settling and fidgeting, like fussy sleepers. The birds had already lit up the tree but then behind them the orange ball lit up all of it, the world greening as it lightened. There is a vibrancy here that reminds me of a word I learned from a former chiclero, a worker who helped find and tap rubber trees. It is a Maya word called “yax,” meant to describe a particularly vibrant and wild green. Here there was yax aplenty, from the cypresses to the marsh grasses and ferns and what I took to be some sort of elder plant. One thing I noted, though, was happily devoid of the pervasive color. The sun still brandished its usual blazing colors and, despite what was no doubt considerable pressure to sell out, it rose freely, having not yet donned the green and yellow.