Into the Gulf, Day 8: The River

Daily reports on the BP disaster on the Gulf

These days I take a walk by the Mississippi up along the levee almost every evening.  I have the luxury the local fishermen and oilmen do not, the luxury of letting my mind take a break from the oil.  As I stroll, I think about the book I want to write about all this, since I, like so many people down here -- from the fishermen turned oil boomers to the reporters hoping to advance their careers to the politicians seizing the spotlight to the scientists angling for BP money -- have complex and not always altruistic motives.  In fact, you could argue that my potential book is no less of a Vessel of Opportunity than the boats that putter out each morning.  But there is something else going on during these walks, too, something I didn’t expect.  I am growing genuinely and deeply fond of this place.  Who knew it was going to be so beautiful, this fragile green land, more water than earth, caught between river and sea, with, as is always the case in places of such abundance, birds out the wazoo?

Tonight it is the tree swallows that are putting on the show, carving up the air as they swoop after the evening insects (including one breed of dinosaurian dragonfly that looks as big as they are).  From up here on the hump that sometimes struggles to contain it, the river looks muddy, caged-in, powerful.  These swallows -- which are everywhere now -- with their blue backs and orange bodies, appear particularly muscular, though they aren’t likely any different than the ones I see at home.  There is heat and the blare of crickets and sagging willows and reeds as tall as trees.  I stare down from my grassy hump, away from the river, at the homes of the brave souls who are building just on the other side of the levee.  One house is hexagonal and up on stilts, fifteen or sixteen feet off the ground at the base of the first floor.  Not quite high enough if the number that gets thrown around down here is accurate: twenty-two feet the water rose during Katrina.   

Mississippi River deltaAs much as anyone or anything, the river has done its part to keep the oil at bay, pushing back against the Gulf’s inward surge, but that might change once its seasonal strength wanes.  The Mississippi, seen from above, from a helicopter with the Cousteau gang, say, looks like a sinuous brown snake, but once it gets down below here, past Venice, it snakes, not through fields and meadows, but through the sinking marsh itself.  Which creates the strange and vivid picture of fresh water, barely hemmed in on each side by green, weaving through salt water.  If it were not hemmed in, it would spread out naturally, like a watery hand, feeding the marshes with nutrients it has gathered during its powerful crawl and sludge from Minnesota down through the country’s middle and finally, to the Gulf.   “Free the Mississippi,” is the rallying cry of Ryan Lambert, my new friend and local lodge owner, though he is not talking radical freedom here, since without the levee his lodge would be underwater, and what he is really looking for is a series of diversions so that the river could feed the marsh at various points, rather than dump all it has to offer in one great slug out in the Gulf.

I hope I have helped you get a sense of the geography in this land almost two hours south of New Orleans, but it’s really hard to picture even when you’re here.  My car has been acting up, the engine light blinking and a noise like breaking glass coming from the exhaust pipe, and when I suggested to Ryan that it might be the salt water I’ve been driving through when I head down for my morning bird-watching at land’s end, he laughed at me.  “There’s no salt water down there,” he said.  “It’s all fresh.”  Which made sense once I thought about the direction the water rushed over the road -- it was spilling from river to Gulf -- though it was hard to get my head around the fact that it wasn’t salt when there were thousands of acres of salt marsh all around me.

During Katrina this little artificial valley got its share of both salt water and fresh, hit from both the river and Gulf sides.  And it will happen again of course.  “What’s wrong with protecting ourselves?” people understandably ask.  That is the same question asked by those folks who are still piling sand in front of their homes back on Dauphin Island.  And the answer is that of course there’s nothing wrong with it, though there was something wrong with building there in the first place, particularly if the place is dependent on artificial barriers.  One problem with false barriers and blockades is that they encourage people to live in places they shouldn’t be living.  And once they live there they want to live the way everyone else is living, thinking, “Hey, it’s this way in suburbia so...it should be this way here too.”  That is when they start to lay their straight-lined grid over whatever individual and varied place they have laid claim to, which is often when the trouble starts, nature having almost no interest in straight lines.  It is in fact straight lines -- canals built for boat travel -- that have helped sink the great marsh that the Mississippi weaves into.  How so?  I think back to when I was a kid on Cape Cod, how I loved to play on the small sandbar islands that revealed themselves at the beach at low tide and how, when the tide started to come back in, I would aid the rising waters by digging lines across the sandbars with my heel, creating canals for the incoming tide to run through.  I would often dig about a dozen of these lines across the sandbar islands, flooding them before their time.  The same thing is going on here on an enormous scale, and of course, the sinking of the marshes means less of a defense from the oil.

But enough with doom.  This place, like so many of our places these days, like Masonboro Island which I often paddle to back in North Carolina, is a temporary one, but that doesn’t make it any less joyous.  We had better not be too strict in our judgments since so few places we love are “natural” in any full sense anymore, and in fact Cape Cod, which I am prone to romanticizing, was transformed from peninsula to island a years ago hundred when someone decided to sever the Cape at the shoulder from the mainland.  And I think of another artificial and temporary place, a place called Pilottown, which can only be reached by boat or plane and is the very last town on this river, a place where the river pilots take over the great boats, only they being capable of navigating the river.  (Which is a place, incidentally, where Anthony, he of the fish camp, dreams of one day living while he awaits his own boat to captain.)   

So I worry about too strict definitions during this mess.  While I find myself growing more “environmental” by the day, I have a problem when environmentalism gets too rigid.  For instance, directly to the south of me, not fifty miles away, is what our president is calling the worst environmental disaster in the history of our country (apparently forgetting about the stripping of the continent of trees or the extensive bombing of the American West with nuclear weapons, and about a hundred other things). But despite this truly depressing event, the great shitting of our national bed, and the fact that what is happening here is bad, truly bad and tragic, I am right now walking along the banks of the Mississippi, something I had never done before this week, which doesn’t feel folkloric just because I’ve read so many books about it but also because these muscular swallows are shooting everywhere and because reeds and small trees are growing out of this old half-sunk barge in the shallows and because the trees are buzzing with insects and the sun is beating down and the wind is blowing along the dirty river and I am watching a fish jump out of the water and splash back down and I, sipping a warm Corona (the most exotic beer in Buras), am feeling something like pure contentment, a temporary animal feeling somehow unrelated to the disaster fifty miles south.  Because there have always been disasters and there has always been death and there’s always been a dark thing lurking right beside the light.  And because even when Whitman was whooping and hollering his way around the country there was a Civil War about to break out and TB killing thousands and god knows what else and everybody dying at 32.  But there was still some joy and still some euphoric moments and why does that matter?  Because that is the heart of what it means to be environmental, or at least half the heart.  Because if you strip the thing of its joy then all there is left is finger wagging and who wants that?   And more importantly there’s this: Why fight for a place if you don’t love it?

I hike down to the levee to a little marina and then down a side path to the surging river, where it looks like someone has set up a lawn chair where they come to have their nightly beer and watch the river and maybe occasionally throw a line in, and I, hoping the owner doesn’t mind, claim a seat in his chair and toast the river with my empty bottle.  I am exhausted and I need a rest from this place and, oddly, the place itself is giving it to me.  And what does it matter that I, one human being from someplace else, am feeling good for the moment and not thinking about the oil which is, of course, bad, so bad?   Not much, I think.  Not much, or, possibly, everything.

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