Into the Gulf, Day 3: A Dawn Walk

Daily reports on the BP disaster on the Gulf


Photo by James Emery.

Yesterday I spent the morning wading through the marsh of Grand Bay, Alabama, with a delightful and knowledgeable naturalist named Bill Finch. Deep in the marsh, in the salt pan, we saw puddles of oil nearly the same blue as the backs of the small fish (Mollies?) that swam below the film. Then, after a lunch of BBQ pork and noodles at Pho, a Vietnamese restaurant in the hard-hit fishing town of Bayou La Batre, we headed out to Dauphin Island, where emergency money and the urgency of the situation are being used to move great piles of sand from one side of the island to another, nominally to protect residents from oil but actually to protect their homes from erosion, just one more example of the cynical ways people are taking advantage of the situation.

But I am getting ahead of myself. For now let me take off my Woodward-and-Bernstein visor and put on my John Muir cape. I promise some breaking news over the next couple of days, but for now I’m backing up and returning to my sassy lyric roots. Let’s do some nature. Here goes:

* * *

I sleep poorly in the National Seashore campground. I may like to quote John Muir, but I can’t emulate him. He walked down to the Gulf, after all, and then strolled through most of California. He usually just brought along a blanket and slept on the ground. By contrast, I need three pillows to sleep: one for my head, one between my legs (bad back), one clutched to my stomach (not sure why). Anyway, I toss and turn and wake well before dawn. I decide to turn insomnia to my advantage and throw on my pack and hike down the beach in the dark.

There is beauty in this world still. This I think as I hike among dead trees that twist up into the sky like mushroom stems, reaching upward to a new moon, just a sliver really, a lopsided orange grin above the black silhouetted trees. It’s funny how things work, the way that a deadly hurricane named Ivan, for instance, can create what turns out to be perfect osprey habitat, just what the birds are looking for: leafless trees with a panoramic view of dunes and water.

I cut up through the hummocks to the beach, happy to leave the road in a place where humans are undoubtedly the scariest animals. (Notwithstanding the photo my new friend James the surfer showed me yesterday of the rattler he found in the park.) I feel even better when I reach the water. Contaminated or not, it’s still the ocean, and at this hour, black patches of seaweed are indistinguishable from black patches of tarballs.

I walk hard for a while and, soon enough, a huge orange ball starts ascending over the sea oats, setting them afire. James tells me that the sea oats are in their prime. Which means that their budding heads are full and they are starting to bend low, just as Montaigne said of wise men, comparing them to wheat that bends down humbly as it grows fuller. The sea oats sway in the light wind, but the rising sun also illuminates the omnipresent signs: OIL SPILL RESPONSE—UTV ACCESSS ONLY. A dragonfly the size of a bird zips by, and then the birds themselves start showing up: terns shooting everywhere, willets letting losse their see-saw cries, two jaegers engaging in aerial battle over the dunes, an osprey working the coastline, hunting for breakfast, and then a great blue heron, standing straight up, that I almost bump right into. The bird shoots me an irritated look but doesn’t fly off, and I give it a wide birth, cutting up to the dunes and then back to the shoreline. Just as I return to the shoreline, I see an osprey diving right in front of me, pulling its wings into a shape like an upside down M and hurtling down toward the water. Ospreys don’t twist and plop into the water like pelicans or dart like a living check mark in the manner of a tern. They really dive. The only bird that I watch regularly that can compete is the spectacular northern gannet, which dives into the winter waters all along the East Coast, gathering in clouds of hundreds, and then slicing down from great heights into the water like white feathery arrows.

As it happens, this osprey misses. Zero for 1 on the day. He shakes off in the air like a wet dog, a kind of shivering, and then tries again, but pulls up at the last minute, as if it were all a feint.

“No fish,” I say out loud.

I say this without thinking about the larger repercussions of my simple caveman sentence. But. What if there really were no fish? This particular bird needs three or four a day, more when feeding a family. I may like to see the bird’s life as being about flight or freedom or athleticism, but one thing that is truly central to the life of ospreys, and any bird or animal, is energy calculation. How much fuel is put in the tank, how much energy is then expended. Every individual bird lives by this calculation, and each species does their math in different ways. The Great Blue Heron I almost bumped into, for instance, lives out an almost stately calculation, practicing the art of patience, of calm: a quiet stalking before spearing. While both osprey and heron pursue fish, at some point the two species branched off of the same evolutionary tree, moving toward their opposite strategies of survival. But while ospreys embraced a species-wide calculus of relative excess, they are far from the most extreme bird in this regard. That title, in my experience, belongs to the northern gannets I mentioned. Theirs is the math of more, and they repeat their high dives again and again. Because they dive so much, they need more fish, and because they need more fish, they dive so much. But the funny thing is this works. There are plenty of fish, and they have plenty of energy thanks to the plenty of fish. What might look like squandering is in their case strategy.

You have probably made the mental jump before me. Americans have long been proud gannets. And why not? Rather than beat ourselves up about this fact, why not admit that for many years the math made sense. It worked for us. We stumbled upon a wide-open, relatively sparsely populated country (whose people we would soon attempt to exterminate), a country full of trees, animals, fossil fuels, gold, you name it. How were we expected to respond given the circumstances? With caution and frugality? My field guide calls gannets “gluttons,” and they have to be to supply their non-stop internal engines. It’s a crazy way to live, though it seems to work for them, and should continue to work for them as long as there are fish in abundance.

I am not wagging my finger here. For my part, I’ve always been a squanderer, charging ahead, pushed by my own ambition, rarely pausing. For one thing, it seems more exciting: who wants to go through their one life bored? And if I have lived a gannet life and we have long been a nation of gannets, what of it? As long as there are fish a-plenty, why change?

And here’s another question: Is it really possible for me, and for the rest of us, to be happy with less? Is it possible to make sacrifice as attractive a virtue as ease? I’m not sure. You could argue that homo sapiens are about as likely to change our ways as gannets: we are what we are. But even the dimmest of us seem to have become aware of certain connections -- between our consumption and the world -- that almost no one considered forty years ago. Now, with our luck running out along with our resources, we are perhaps starting to notice things we didn’t notice before -- didn’t notice or pretended not to notice. Which in turn creates a cognitive dissonance between the way we live and the way we know we should live. It would be easy enough to shrug and say, “Hey, we’re gannets, what can we do?” Except for the fact of that singular human trait that some, like the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, claimed defines us: our adaptability. The fact that we can change over a lifetime, not just over evolutionary eons. I don’t want to get hokey here and say that in the face of the spill something is being asked of us. But maybe something is being asked of us. And maybe this time around we’ll dignify what is being asked with an answer. Even if the answer is: “Well, what the f___ do we do now?”

I don’t have any answers, but I do know the question is out there, permeating the air along with this tarry stench. If my waiter at Applebees the other night could preach to me about energy and connections, you know it’s in the air. And then yesterday at the ranger station, I did something I’ve never done before. The rangers here are great and they have fed me pictures of tarballs and other tidbits. They must feel a sense of powerlessness, though, like the people of an occupied country: their territory, their land, has not just been conquered but is being administered by a foreign corporate force. I don’t know about other places, but here BP rules. At some point they’ve got to start feeling beaten down.

Anyway, as I walked into the ranger station on my first night here, I noticed that there was huge white truck outside that was still running with its AC blasting. It turned out that it belonged to a guy who was making a documentary about tarballs. Inside he was talking to the rangers, something about the evils of BP, and I don’t know what got into me but before I could stop myself I had interrupted him and said, “So maybe you should shut off your truck when you’re not in it.” Right away I felt bad and he got defensive, muttering about how hot it had been out on the beach and how his personal energy use was “just a drop in the bucket.” Of course by the end I wished I hadn’t said anything. And I knew I didn’t have a leg to stand on, having just driven almost a thousand miles, my Rav IV slurping down fifty or so gallons of gas.

But still. Still I felt, and still feel, something cracking in me, a sense that I am crossing a line. My plan now is to trade in the Rav for a Prius when I get home (I know they are yuppie cars, but they are also affordable), but that’s not really what I’m talking about, either. I have vowed not to use my AC during this trip, and have kept to that vow so far, but I understand that this is just a symbolic gesture. And I know I am a big fat hypocrite, just like we all are. In fact, it is usually this thought that stops me cold in our tracks. I am a hypocrite. So why say anything or why try to do anything at all? Why not just shrug and say, “Once a gannet, always a gannet.”

Well, here’s why not. “We are all hypocrites,” said my friend the environmental planner Dan Driscoll, who has fought for twenty years to green the banks of the Charles River. “But we need more hypocrites who fight.” I will amend this slightly and say that we also need more hypocrites who try to think their way toward something new, despite their self-acknowledged hypocrisy. That is why we can’t let the fact of our current hypocrisy stop us in our tracks as we try to imagine something new.

Or so I’m thinking this morning. Now, as I hike back toward my campsite, the whisper of a ghost crab -- a tiny albino speck -- scuttles in front of me. It has taken a long time for most of us to understand that our wild national orgy just might be over, and there is no better evidence of that than the soiled beach I’m walking on and the sight of a diving bird coming up empty. By November, thousands of gannets will be back here, plunging again and again. What will they find? Fish or no fish? Stay tuned. But one thing is certain: if the seas are empty, they will not have the luxury of our species, that of fast adaptation. Gannets, unlike us, have no other way of being.

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