Into the Gulf: Journal

From the NRDC magazine, OnEarth, a great magazine…

Editor’s note: Writer David Gessner, a frequent OnEarth contributor, is visiting the Gulf Coast to report on the BP disaster. Follow his journey.

No one is popping champagne down here quite yet. Pardon the locals if they have become a little dubious about ingenuity, American and otherwise. The more realistic attitude is less “hoo-ray” than “we’ll see.”

I’m in Mobile now, and even before I came down I planned on using the whole “stuck inside of Mobile” Dylan line. But the fact is I’m not stuck. In fact, I am the guest of the generous Bethany Kraft, Executive Director of the Alabama Coastal Foundation (if you want to write a check that will do some real regional good, and not get used for Yacht upgrades, this is the place!), and her husband Alex, who have let me turn their guest bedroom into my command center, and have quietly put up with a house guest who gets up at 3:30 to type and stumble loudly around their house. As it turns out, they live in an ecotone between a poor black neighborhood and a more well-off white one, their house being the exact spot where the change occurs. Yesterday I walked in the poorer, blacker direction, many of the houses propped up on cinderblocks with a bombed out look to them, and asked everyone I ran into about the oil spill. (Though the neighborhood is reportedly dangerous, little bravery was required on my part since I happened to be walking Bethany’s dog, Moby, a chocolate lab the size of a small lion.) One shirtless guy (it’s about 110 by breakfast) with cornrows and a Yankees cap (boo) complained that he hadn’t been able to go fishing, but in this neighborhood the ties to the Gulf are not always direct. There was general consternation but lots of cynicism, too, a cynicism I have heard wherever I go, about who was getting the money and for what. I stopped and talked to a woman who was about my age who was sitting on her front porch smoking a cigarette and drinking her second Miller Lite (if the empty next to her was any indication.) “Well whoop-de-doo,” she said when I mentioned the possibility of capping the oil. Someone else mentioned that his brother, formerly unemployed and now being paid well to clean up the beaches, had said, “The spill is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Everyone rich, poor, and in-between wants a piece of the big BP pie while it lasts. And everyone is pretty sure that pie is going away just as soon as the spotlight does.

* * *

Today I spent the morning wading through a different sort of ecotone, the marsh on Grand Bay below Bayou La Batre, with a delightful and knowledgeable naturalist named Bill Finch. Bethany came along, too, as did Alex, who was introduced as “E.O. Wilson’s photographer,” since he is down here shooting pictures for Wilson’s book about his childhood in Alabama. We rumbled down a red dirt road toward the marsh, a road that served essentially the same function as Bethany’s house, though instead of sitting between black and white it served as the dividing line between fresh water and salt water habitats.

“I wish they’d take it out,” Bill said of the road. “It acts as a causeway and doesn’t allow for interaction between fresh and salt. Without it you’d have a lot rougher edges between the two.”

I’m all for rougher edges and said so. But then I also said something foolish as it turned out. When Bill brought up carnivorous plants, I boasted, with newfound regional pride, that my current home in southeastern North Carolina, home of the Venus fly trap, was a kind of unofficial capital for bug-eating plants.

“Yes,” Bill admitted. “You have almost a dozen species of carnivorous plants.” And then he dropped his naturalist’s hammer. “Here we have over a hundred. This is the world’s capital.”

He went on to prove his point out on the long leaf pine savanna, pointing and giving Latin names until I was ready to cry “No mas.” Actually, the plants were beautiful, especially the tiny sundrop, that brings dewy death to bugs who think they’ve struck water, and a larger red-veined beauty that looked like it might take pleasure in its work. But the real treat was just ahead. A couple miles down the road we climbed out of the car and cut in through a slash pine forest and into the marsh itself. I can say with confidence that I’ve spent more time tramping around marshes than most people but I usually stick to the mucky earth and don’t wade right in. But that’s what we, led by Bill, did, tramping first through the brush of a slash pine forest and then wading, in our long pants and sneakers, through the thigh-deep water of the salt pan that borders the taller grasses of the marsh. We sloshed along and as you already know if you’ve been reading these posts, we soon enough struck oil. Not the goopy black variety of our nightmares, the kind I imagined before coming down here, but a light blue sheen, beautiful really, that wove and curled around the marsh grasses. We picked up the oil and rubbed it in our fingers and it left a rusty red film. This was deep within the marsh and when Bill and I cut over through the taller grasses to the shore itself, there was no obvious sign of oil in the Gulf waters. In other words, ours was subtle oil and so Bill talked about the subtle, and ultimately deadly, damage it could do. He pointed to the periwinkles that clung to every single blade of grass in the salt pan.

“How many periwinkles do you see?” he asked.

“Millions,” I said.

“That’s right millions. And while they look nice they are really trying their best to swallow the whole marsh. They are injecting a parasite into those blades and then slowly chewing them up. So what happens if the crab population—the young crabs are way off shore right now—is impacted by the oil and there are fewer crabs that return to the marsh. Suddenly, the periwinkles have lost their predators and they mow down more grasses and the marsh, already degraded by the oil, begins to die. It’s not as obvious as a fish floating belly up, but it’s one way for the marsh to die.”

And why does it really matter if the marsh dies? After all, there wasn’t another human being in sight for eight miles or so, and most of those humans were clustered over in Bayou La Batre, puttering out to sea in Vessels of Opportunity, hundreds of boats, comically close together, heading out to sea one after another as if filming a re-make of The Russians Are Coming. Well one reason it might matter is that the marsh is a nursery and pre-school for almost all the fish that, in better times and when not laying boom, those same boats were used to hunt for.

These are the things that keep sticking in my mind as I wander along the Gulf. “You have to listen to what the marsh wants,” Bill had said earlier, pointing at the way the road blocked the proper flow of waters, “This marsh has connectivity issues.” And of course it occurs to me that I have connectivity issues too.

* * *

In the afternoon I got to watch a transformation. If the Bill Finch of the morning was Clark Kent, this new Bill was a kind of Eco Superman, letting his Ed Abbey cape fly behind him. After a great lunch of Vietnamese noodles at Pho in Bayou La Batre, during which I not just devoured my own BBQ chicken (no seafood thanks) but stole a few of Bethany’s sausages, we drove along the Porter Marsh. This was the marsh that Miranda, my waitress the other day, had told me a story about. Her sister—or was it cousin (correct me here if you’re reading this, Miranda) lived in a house that was all but surrounded by this marsh and during Katrina she had had to swim, baby in her arms, for about a mile until she found refuge in the highest spot, the local church.

After we passed the marsh, we drove over the long bridge to Dauphin Island. Things were going quite normally, though we were still wearing our marsh-wet sneakers and pants, until, heading down toward the west end of the island, we hit a roadblock. There was a cop and a trailer and a woman who looked like your grandmother disguised in a security uniform. We tried to talk our way in, Bill after all was a well-known local nature writer and Bethany the head of an environmental NGO, but no go. So Bill, a little too fast, pulled into a spot down a side road, slammed the door, and started marching down the road on foot. He was walking impossibly fast, and I, having just changed into kayak shoes that are a little like black ballet slippers, had no chance of keeping up. Bill was pissed about being kept out of a place that he considered part of his home range. As a cartoonist, I might have drawn smoke coming out of his ears.

We soon learned what the barrier was about. The cynics in Bethany’s neighborhood had nothing on the folks on Dauphin Island. Huge piles of sand, some thirty feet high, lined the beach, or south side, of the island, and further to the north two more rows of sand ran in lines down the island’s spine. Trucks full of sand were rumbling up and down the road. I lived on a barrier island for years and instantly knew what was up. Sand from the calmer Sound side of the island, the north, was being carted over to the south, or Gulf, side of the island to protect the homes that were threatened by erosion. What I didn’t know yet, but would soon learn, was that this was all being done—trucks running up and down the island for two months already millions upon millions spent—under the auspices of protecting the islanders, and more importantly their homes, from oil. The residents had been trying to bolster their Gulf-side homes for years but some very sensible government regulations prevented it. But when the oil started spilling these keen-eyed opportunists saw their moment. They petitioned for some of the millions that BP had given the governor and, since all rules were off during the gold rush of emergency, they finally not just got the beach nourishment project of their dreams, but had it all paid for. You may think people who take advantage of a disaster are venal, but you can’t say these folks aren’t smart.

Let me pause here briefly for a little science. Over the last few years I have had the good fortune of walking up and down barrier islands with Orrin Pilkey, a retired geology professor emeritus from Duke University who had long been a galvanizing figure in our national coastal battles. As such he has become something of a lightning rod and while many people speak of him fondly, others do not. “An idiot with a beard,” a town planner at Topsail Beach, an island near my home, recently groused. But others see Orrin as a kind of coastal prophet, fighting against over-development. In that role his main message, the one he has brought back from the shore as if carved on sand tablets, is a simple one: retreat. The reason Orrin stresses the need to retreat is the way barrier islands work. Essentially barrier islands migrate, usually shoreward. This is happening constantly, but particularly during storms. The way an island handles a storm is through a kind of elemental judo, letting the water rush over it, its sands breaking down and reforming, retreating to the marsh on its backside, rebuilding in a new place, giving and taking. To survive the onslaught, islands let the surge flow through it, breathing with the storm, never foolish enough to think it can block it. Think Ali fighting George Foreman. In short, the island survives through a primal rope-a-dope, an ancient and time-tested technique. (For a GREAT book on this and the issues below, read Cornelia Dean’s Against the Tide, which stars Pilkey at his confrontational best.)

Of course homeowners don’t like to be told their property is on the move, or that their yard is migrating. So they draw a line in the sand. But the ocean doesn’t care about lines. In some ways “barrier” is the wrong word for these islands; they do defend the mainland to some degree but they are also essentially permeable.

But don’t tell that to the residents of Dauphin. On the Gulf side, where houses are almost falling into the sea (as they have many times before), the giant sand piles are being plopped (to be blown away with the first storm.) This is all standard, if ineffective, island protection. But the genius of what they have done down here on Dauphin is what our group witnesses after we catch up to Bill, who has cut over to the back, or Gulf, side of the island. At first we seem to be seeing a series of Olympic-size swimming pools, but then the pools gradually reveal themselves as what they are. They are huge holes, now filled with water, where sand was dug out for the front side. Which means they serve a brilliant double purpose. Not only do they bolster the houses falling onto the sea, but by ripping up the backside of the island they return the houses on the tamer Gulf side to what they once were: oceanfront property. Because when the island naturally migrates shoreward it leaves these backside residents high and dry, with docks that run out from the backs of their houses but find only sand. Until now. Now the docks reach the water again, the new Olympic pools that will connect them to the Sound. Which means that now everyone is happy. The islanders, both Gulf and Sound side, are happy because they got what they want. The Governor is happy because the islanders might vote for him. And BP is happy because these folks sure aren’t going to be complaining about a disaster that they have cannily turned to their advantage.

Everyone is happy, except, to adopt Bill’s lingo, the island. And of course Bill himself. One thing he is particularly unhappy about are all the beach grass and plants, plants that hold the island together, that have been uprooted on the Sound side and ended up in the huge piles, dead, on the Gulf side. But if he is unhappy he is also energized. Gone is the professorial figure of the morning, dispensing Latin names. Here is a new Bill, charging around, assessing the damage, beginning to make calls to his editor and local politicians, ready to uncover this mess. And he is still walking so fast that there is no chance of keeping up with him as we continue to case this place. I start to take notes—I scribble down the words on a sign on one of the beach houses that says “Organized Chaos”–which leaves me even further behind, and the rest of them make it to the car before me. I try to speed up but it’s a rush hour of oversized vehicles. I have grown used to dumptrucks rumbling past, but now, in the homestretch back to the car, dozens of Humvees fly by, coming from God-knows-where. Bill is ready to go, eager to spread the news of what is going on here, so he ignores the septuagenarian policewoman and drives past the barricades to pick me up. As it happens we are trailed by security as we leave the island, and when Bill dips in and out of side street, they follow. When we finally turn for the bridge Bill waves goodbye in the rear view window.

“It’s unbelievable,” Bill says quietly. “These people have done a thousand times more damage to this island than any oil will.”

OnEarth is a quarterly magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. OnEarth and the Greenlight blog are open to diverse points of view; the opinions expressed by contributors, online commenters, and the editors are their own and not necessarily those of NRDC.

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