Into the Gulf, Day 5: Ecotones and Barriers

Daily reports on the BP disaster on the Gulf

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.

* * *

Heading in.

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.  Into the MarshBethany 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.”  Tiny SundropActually, 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.

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