There’s a palpable sense of expectation as we cruise down the canal. Two dozen people and barely a word passes between us. It’s not the roar of the triple outboard engines, nor the forced camaraderie of strangers thrust together, with only their environmentalisms in common. Rather, it’s the sense that we’re travelling towards something—not a place, but a phenomenon, an event—whose name we know but whose face we have not yet seen.
Our journey nearly didn’t happen. The day before, at a conference in New Orleans organised by the Humane Society of Louisiana, the organisers had informed us that due to unforeseen events our scheduled tour of Barataria Bay might have to be postponed, or even cancelled. The reasons were unclear—possibly the rising cost of chartering a private vessel, or because BP, who had offered the conference a tour of the affected region, had pulled out unexpectedly. No one was sure, but everyone was disappointed. Then, at the last minute, Billy Nungesser, the President of Plaquemines Parish who had earlier received an award from the Society, made an offer they couldn’t refuse: he would take the conference attendees himself.
Nine o’clock in the morning and already the sun is high over the water when we gather at Myrtle Grove Marina in Port Sulphur, about thirty miles southeast of New Orleans. Half an hour while we wait for the parish boats to arrive, and then we’re cruising south down Wilkinson Canal, the main artery of waterborne traffic in the area, passing dinghies moored to water cypresses and fishing camps with street signs nailed to their front doors. We’re piloted by Corporal Gerald Cormier and Deputy Wayne Gaurour of the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office, the former a young, stocky officer whose skin gleams like burnished copper from a youth spent on the water and his partner, a sly, quick-witted man twice his age who is generous with his extensive knowledge of the landscape.
Or rather, the waterscape. The areas we are entering, as became well-known after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, are the areas of the state where the land meets the water and begins to yield. Yet these wetlands are not just the end of Louisiana, where the Mississippi River and its tributaries enter into the Gulf of Mexico, but the end of America itself. In previous decades they were arable; older friends in nearby Houma (in Terrebonne Parish, west of Plaquemines, its name originally meaning ‘good land’) point out patches of open water that used to be farms, pasture, neighbourhoods, even cemeteries that are now eroding away. But that, of course, was before we discovered oil in the Gulf. And now, years later, the irony strikes me that we’re on a mission to discover it again.
It doesn’t take long. Halfway down the canal, thick cords of boom begin to line the marsh grass. Our destination, Bay Jimmy—an inlet off the larger Barataria waterway—is still an hour’s ride away, but even within a few miles of the marina and already the extent of the spill’s incursion is clear. The boom lines snake lightly across the surface of the water, largely cream white on their tops and fading to a crudded dark grey. They are anchored in place by regularly-spaced stakes of three- and four-inch PVC pipe, which resemble bright toothpicks sticking out of the water. Most of them are speared upright into the marsh floor, but a few lay at angles, struck by smallcraft or buffeted about by recent storm winds—where they have snapped loose the boom lines dangle in the water, swinging idly like an unclosed gate. Visually, the effect, over miles, is of a ragged, poorly-constructed wall built between the water and the marsh grass, a makeshift fence that has no hope of deterring the enemy from invading.
I ask Gaurour about its effectiveness. ‘It’s better than nothing,’ he says, after a moment, ‘but you can’t stop the oil from going underneath it. And you can’t stop the boats from knocking into it, either.’ As he speaks, we pass a vessel on which contractors are replacing damaged and oil-soaked boom, offloading fresh lengths from the bow of their ship where it is piled like thick white spaghetti waiting to be ladled on a plate. Dressed in full-body Tyvex hazard suits—mandated by BP for all cleanup workers in direct contact with either oil or chemical dispersants such as Corexit—they look like astronauts on a deep space mission. Apart from the stray fishing boats we saw at the harbour mouth, it’s the first human presence on the water we’ve seen. Passing them at idle speed we wave; one of the conference attendees yells unhelpfully off the port side, ‘Don’t forget to detox!’
Unrecognisable as humans as they are, however, they’re not the first sign of life we’ve encountered. The closer we get to Barataria Bay, the more we begin to see scatters and then full flocks of seagulls and terns. One group of terns has established a roost on a section of marsh grass flattened, Gaurour tells us, by an errant airboat, and a row of brown pelicans (the state bird of Louisiana) perches lazily on a length of clean boom. In comparison to the iconic photographs of bird-shaped sculptures of oil that have circulated in months past, these flocks seem sprightly and alert, which is encouraging. But our spirits, briefly lightened by Cormier’s and Gaurour’s further report that the wildlife population seems to be stabilising, sink once again as the canal abruptly widens and we enter the bay.
For ahead of us in the waterway looms an armada of vessels, as far as the eye can see. Skiffs, shrimpers, trawlers, oysterboats, single- and double-outboard johnboats, airboats, even pirogues (Cajun for canoe)—all manners and sizes of vessels speckle the horizon, puttering about the bay, skimming the inlets in search of oil, and crawling both upon the boom and along the marsh grass. I’m reminded of Dunkirk, of the photographs of the evacuation—wherein literally anything that could float across the Channel was recruited, from destroyers to dinghies, and the effort never ceased until the last man had waded off the beaches in France. Here in Barataria they are sprawled throughout all the bayous, bays, and inlets, each sporting a brightly-coloured auxiliary flag to signify the specific region of the coast which they are assigned, and as we reset a bearing for Bay Jimmy and throttle up, we pass dozens in our first minutes alone. The attendee who yelled earlier gives the same cry at each marsh-bound vessel we pass, but soon gives up, unable to keep pace with the numbers.
As we navigate at reduced speed through this impromptu flotilla, one of the attendees asks why so many are idle. Gaurour clears his throat. ‘Because they’re waiting,’ he says. For what? ‘For the call.’ To do what? ‘Whatever they’re told.’ Most of the vessels are on standby, waiting in the bay for reports of sightings of oil—either by aerial observation or by other, smaller boats, known as spotters—at which point they then swing into action. They can wait for hours, or days, before receiving orders; these Vessels of Opportunity, as they’re called, are subcontracted and paid by BP. Slowly it begins to sink in: here we are in a few square miles of one waterway of one coastal parish of one state, and we’re looking at hundreds in one sweep of the eye. Imagining this sight across all waterways of all parishes of all the states affected, and the extent of the operation becomes clear. This isn’t Dunkirk. This is Normandy.
Shortly we draw near to the marsh grass where several vessels have crossed the boom line, itself just a few metres from the land. Closer up, features we couldn’t see from the canal begin to emerge. The first is an eerie stillness—unlike the rest of the waters in the bay, even unlike the rest of the waters inside the boom, the oil-soaked patches of marsh lay rigid, unmoving, even as the wind stirs and rustles the interior. The sight is utterly haunting. In the final scene of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Alessandra Ferri, playing Juliet, has just taken the fatal dose of poison when Wayne Eagling’s Romeo enters the Capulet tomb and finds her there. His inability to comprehend her death is expressed in the way he picks up her lifeless body and attempts in vain to dance with it, him increasingly frantic, her as limp as a rag doll, stripped of any motion of her own. My friend Catherine, who introduced me to the ballet, says there is nothing so devastating as seeing a living body that was just dancing fall completely still. Down in the marsh, the acres of grass stiff and unyielding in the breeze, it is impossible to think of anything else.
Further strangeness comes in the contrast of colours. I have always felt the coastal wetlands of Louisiana (as well as Mississippi, my home state) possess beautifully simple tones: a silvery-green surface to the water, often iridescent in the light, offset by an infinite robin’s-egg sky and thick white cotton-candy clouds. In such a landscape the horizon is but a gesture, a way of dividing colours on the palette rather than orienting oneself upon the water, and the supple, tannic greens and browns of the vegetation offer a rich visual texture that both blends in and adds depth to the inlets and bayous. To this vista, however, have come new, unwelcome colours. First is the black sludge of the oil itself, encroaching on the line of the grass, noxious and purpled and warted like a toad’s skin. Second, and more chilling, is the line that has formed on the grass itself, about halfway up the stalks—between the black of the oil below and the shock of green above is a line where the grass looks singed, a ridge of rusted yellow and coarse, charred brown, as though the grass had been burnt by this liquid at its base. This ridge, itself a mock horizon line, runs across every patch of grass the oil has met, a thin brown line that divides the healthy from the sick, the living from the dying, even on a single blade of grass.
It is almost too much to bear. In a sudden acid reflux of memory I recall how my grandfather, Alfred Wicke, Jr., a chemist, served on one of the research and development teams in Huntsville, Alabama, for liquid weapons during World War II. I can still remember his telling me over a decade ago, not long before he died, about the mechanism used to seal World War I-era mustard gas into delivery canisters so that it wouldn’t prematurely release—thick layers of cheesecloth gradually eaten away by the compound, timed for either ballistic or airborne deployment. The innovations of this mechanism were later incorporated into the design the Huntsville team engineered for napalm, another petroleum-based agent of liquid flame.
As I have grown older I have had to reconcile my love for my grandfather with his work—his research on weapons of war was a necessity of his era, and was a source of conflict and disgust to him too. His other accomplishments included serving as President of the Audubon Society in Pensacola, Florida, and developing a novel method for the conservation of pine rosin in timber processing, an early green technology then-unheard of in the 1950’s. PaPa-Gran, as we called him, was a member of that remarkable generation of self-taught botanists and ornithologists, and in the study of the natural world had forgotten more than I will ever learn—when I think of him today, it is for this, first and foremost, and our shared love of classical music, that I remember him. But still I cannot look at the silently burning marsh without seeing the flames of napalm: struggling with his role in its creation, wondering what he would think were he here beside me, and feeling the flicker of an answer without asking.
Leaving Bay Jimmy we set a course for Bay Long, passing back into the wider Barataria waterway north of Grand Isle (currently headquarters for the unified command for the coastal parishes), bearing towards Isle Grand Terre. With the average depth in this area hovering between three and five metres, we are still a few miles out from the Gulf of Mexico proper, though the chop picks up slightly after we cross the riptide. Before reaching Bay Long, however, Corporal Cormier wheels us around a small island in the middle of the bay, Cat Island (not to be confused with Cat Island off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, one of the four barrier islands that protects the coast from hurricanes and storm surges).
‘Y’all gotta look at this,’ he tells us, ‘Time for some good news.’
Cat Island was, like all of these wetlands, much larger years ago; as it stands now it occupies about an acre, possibly two, in the middle of the bay. As we approach we see it is ringed in a layer of boom about twenty metres out from its shore, inside which we begin to hear the chatter of brown pelicans. The island is choked with them, calling in their melodic trill, diving and bathing in the waters, jostling for dominance on the sparse driftwood washed up onshore—as a known rookery, Gaurour tells us, this was one of the first islands the parish response teams moved to protect, and has since become a small success story amid the wider scenes of devastation. The strategy here, not possible everywhere, was reverse containment: usually boom line is deployed around an oil spill to keep it from spreading outwards, but in this case the conservation teams encircled the entire island to prevent the oil from coming in. What this makes the wildlife—civilians in a war zone, refugees in a camp, or witnesses to a crime—I’m not exactly sure, but the pelican population appears thoroughly indifferent to their situation. Some of the birds even swoop overhead our vessel, scolding us from the air.
Bay Long is our last stop; as we bid farewell to the rookery and reset our course, I take a closer look at the naval GPS. We are deep into Barataria Bay, and the evidence of what has led us to this point becomes clear. Sprinkled throughout the display on the overlays of both water and land formations are labels reflecting the extent of the oil exploration and extraction industry: navigational markers named platform, pipeline canal, constructions: wells, obstructions: wells and pipelines, and submerged dike/pipe sit as little as an inch or two apart. It looks like a map of an invasion, with local features named and isolated, sites and structures to engage once the boots hit the ground. And to an extent, it is: this map, which Gaurour says is commercially available from the manufacturer Garmin Systems, updated every year based on satellite data and local observation, shows both the extent of our encroachment into the wetlands and the extent of their retreat.
For now, our own advance is stalled: upon our arrival, Bay Long proves too shallow to progress any further under our vessel’s draft, and so Cormier and the other officers decide to call it a day. As we set a course back towards the marina, we fall into conversation, reflecting on what we have seen. For those who have never travelled in wetlands before before, the talk is of the beauty of the landscape. For those who are collecting data for litigation, the talk is of the pleasures of prosecuting BP. ‘We are treating this like a crime scene,’ Nungesser had said the day before, ‘and we will collect as much evidence as possible to make our case.’ All I can see, however, is war—but war in which the disfigurations of man-made and natural disaster have so mingled that it is difficult to tell them apart. If we are under attack from the oil, as these sights perversely suggest—the fence-like lines of boom, the armoured Tyvex suits, the armada of cleanup vessels, the military-grade coordination, the corralled and protected wildlife, relief organisations with names like Defenders of the Coast, and the same weapons we use against human beings—then we are also under attack from our selves.
Like Hurricane Katrina five years earlier, a disaster which serves as a touchstone throughout the tour, this disaster has reignited the conflict about the nation’s energy supply and its future—a conflict about our ways of life, our habits of consumption, and ultimately, our dependency on petrochemicals whose extraction now costs us more than their use returns. And the site of local, regional, and increasingly national self-conflict over these lifeways will be the front from which dispatches never age. Of the four primary elements the ancients identified, it is now impossible to ignore how this fifth has entered and altered them all. Oil is born of earth, arrives through water, gives us fire, and departs as smoke in the air, and in the meantime, transforms everything it touches. When will we be able to look at the basic elements of our landscape again, and not see it? For now it is impossible to say. The most cautiously optimistic answer at present, outside the glare of national and international media, is years. Ask anyone from around here—we will still be telling this story a decade from now, because it will still be as fresh as it was the morning it arrived on our shores.
In one sense, our earlier expectations have been satisfied, and our appetite for loss satiated. We have met the enemy, and it is us. But questions still remain. The last one comes shortly before we dock in the harbour, as we pass a vessel idling in the canal.
‘Those guys are still sitting there from this morning,’ remarks one of the conference attendees, ‘The fishing sure must be good.’
‘They ain’t fishing,’ Cormier snorts, ‘They working.’
The attendee clambers over to the port side of the boat to get a better look: ‘What are they working on?’
In truth, it’s difficult to see what, if anything, they are doing—the two men are perched firmly on lawn chairs on the bow of the boat, sipping bottles of water, feet propped up on coiled boom, watching the canal traffic pass. Cormier gives a wry smile at the landlubber.
‘They’re working on getting their paycheck,’ he says, then pauses amid our laughter. ‘Can’t you see?’ Cormier resumes laconically, as though there were nothing in the world more obvious: ‘They’re working for BP.’
This article would not have been possible without the aid of Jeff Dorson, Billy Nungesser, Paul Berry, Donna Paige, PJ Hahn, Gerald Cormier, and Wayne Gaurour. The title for this piece was inspired by Bettina Furnée’s art installation of the same name. All images courtesy of Paul Berry.