Deep Waters: Heebie-Jeebies

Do you believe in oil plumes?
Or global warming? Peak everything?
A nation’s split, the hull’s two sides
move apart on these rocks.

We thought we were the iceberg.

We have a chicken’s urge to peck at things
that could crush us; a chicken’s urge
to flee into the phantom safety of a leaning board.
Safe now. As if.

I dawdle over supper on a dappled lawn,
as mowers drone, bees murmur.
This sleepy burg’s phantom safety
can’t calm the fluttering inside.

Deep Waters: Burnt Umber

‘The Worker’ is painted in oil:
the ingrain yarn of his hands,
every fine line between finger and thumb
demarcated. His life line
veers off at a tangent
as though it’s onto something
he knows nothing about.

Between the rig and the kitchen table,
the ocean. Only the sea-birds
are pencilled in his book
and one or two comments
without question marks. It’s oil
and bread and the harsh squawk
of the gulls that make him up,

some foreign artist’s Romantic impulse.
In the top left-hand corner
of the painting, a quarter
of the window. I imagine
he’s been looking out all morning,
trying to gauge the extent of the damage.
But the spill is a different country.

Deep Waters: The Undone

Just for a moment, in between the fall of waves on the Louisiana coastline, between the dying flutter of wings of the latest heron to wash up on the floor, ask yourself a question, ask yourself simply, ‘What wouldn’t humanity do?’

It is a simple question, but one that bears some reflection. Think for a moment on the long and varied history of our search for knowledge and power, and reflect on how many times in human history we have been confronted with the ability to do something, albeit something carrying a terrible level of risk, something even terrible in and of itself, and not done it.

There are examples of such restraint. For now. We have never used a neutron bomb or a hydrogen bomb in anger. Similarly, for all our fear of weapons of mass destruction, we have not yet unleashed a biological weapon with an impact so terrible as the plagues that nature so readily casts upon us. But, of course, we have used atomic weapons. In the name of freedom, we have caused thousands to die in a moment. There is no evidence that I am aware of that there is a single technology capable of weaponisation that has not, or is not at least in the process of, being weaponised. The Nobel prizes are a testament in perpetuity to a man who inadvertently unleashed a terrible weapon of war upon the world. Indeed, the most deadly of weapons have been created with the most benign intentions – Richard Gatling believed that his machine gun would make war unthinkable by virtue of the carnage implied.

It is similarly difficult to find an example of a resource, of some material of value that mankind as a whole has baulked from harvesting even when the collection or use entails the most terrible suffering and destruction. The diamond trade is widely recognised as a driver of corruption and warfare. Every country in the world carries the scars of mining its subterranean bounty, for gold, copper, aluminium, coltan, etc. etc. Few indeed are the habitats so pristine that given the choice to access wealth through destruction humanity has chosen to stand back. Coal and oil have been similarly exploited, and in the Niger delta, in Colombia, in the Gulf of Mexico and Azerbaijan and the North Sea the damage lesser or greater that this exploration entails is ready to be seen.

Like bulls stampeding through a Spanish festival, in our constant desperation to evade the now and raise ourselves into the future, we may not only crush and gore all that lies around us, but also fail to find a real escape for ourselves. Humanity’s willingness to chase progress at any cost has achieved such incredible things, but it is not clear that bringing humanity any closer to a lasting happiness is one of them.

Meanwhile, like the people of Easter Island, our rapacious appetite for resources has achieved a scale upon which we are in peril of out-consuming our ability to supply ourselves. There is no question that we are depleting the Earth’s oil supplies – only of how many decades it will take. Deepwater Horizon reminds us that some accidents must always remain normal; that the pursuit of financial gain is not a strong guarantee against catastrophic failure; that our chasing after progress carries the most profound risks of damage to ourselves and our environment. And while it seem appealing to hold this up as a turning point, to postulate that this time, unlike all the other times, we will really learn our lesson, that we will really start to behave in a different way, the chances seem slim.

President Obama’s moratorium on deepwater drilling was struck down in a conservative courtroom – a disproportionate response. To ban such activity was an unreasonable restriction on the freedom to enrich oneself, an attack on jobs, corporatism and the American dream. Oil companies are queuing up to drill in and near the Arctic wildlife reserves, and though they have been held back, the sense of resolve is anything but clear. In China, the Yellow River runs black with oil.

Confronted with the inevitability that oil, not to mention phosphate, aluminium and many other ‘vital’ materials shall in due course run out, the question becomes this. Are we ready to hold back? Are we ready to halt the gold rush? Can we watch the white stag pass and bless its going, or must we forever pursue?

It has become ubiquitous to recognise the Earth’s resources as something that are owned. Perhaps you believe that they can be bought and sold as commodities. In Venezuela, in Norway, and in various countries in various ways, these resources are seen as the birthright of some subset of humanity ‘fortunate’ enough to live in the same political unit as the latest find. Some countries, Britain notable among them, have made their own good fortune by annexing into their political blocks new areas of natural wealth. Think about it and tell me honestly, does it really seem obvious and right that the British people should benefit from the spoils of oil around the Falklands to the exclusion of all others? Would it be different if it were the Chinese people benefitting from gold in the mountains of Tibet? What about the Canadians of Alberta, feathering their beds with tar sands?

The reclamation of natural resources by relatively local peoples from the marauding corporate tendrils of the rich is not to be taken lightly – this can be a profoundly important step. But if this means that not to exploit a resource is to fail the poor, is this a sustainable philosophy? The belief that all that is found must be used is killing our planet, and will kill many of us before the century is out.

The Macondo spill is a reminder that there are choices, that it is up to us to choose whether we drill further and deeper, or whether the time has come for a fundamental shift in the way that we as a species deal with nature’s bounty. There are choices upon us already – will we use tar sands oil? Is a deepwater drilling moratorium appropriate? Should Alaska’s oil be sacrosanct? What agricultural benefit can justify destroying the remaining wildernesses of our planet? We can stand up and say that enough is enough, that humanity does not always have to climb every mountain just because it is there.

We can make it a central tenet of the way we live that many things are best not done. And perhaps, at the same time, we need to recognise that nobody should acquire exclusive right to riches to the exclusion of all others simply by virtue of owning the right bit of ground. Canada is unlikely to feel fairly treated in abandoning the exploitation of tar sands while we drill everywhere we strike oil. Indonesia may rightly ask why it should preserve its forest at the behest of a Europe sorely bereft of trees.

It’s time to step back and stop. It’s time to err on the side of ecological caution. Anything we leave now is, either way, a gift to our children – and yet it is often those most bullishly insistent on leaving the largest gifts to their children who least understand this.

And let us remember the many, many thousands who have been killed because one man thought his peers would refuse to use the thing he created – and because his peers, then and now, have so badly let him down.

Deep Waters: Melancholia

The skin of my mood
is easily pierced.
A dead bee splayed
on a laminate floor,

as ungainly in death as in life.
Carried out into the light,
on the step,
its curled abdomen

cradled in paper, a full stop,
to punctuate the break
between the animate
and the not.

And a bramble cut
stretched across my knuckle
splits wide open
as I watch

a young sparrow at the feeder
eyed by the crow,
the poppies blood red petals
spilled by the wind

and beneath it all an excess
of bile, black bile, rising
somewhere
out in deep water.

Deep Waters: Lines of Defence (1): The Thin Brown Line

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.