The vacation cottage is the same one, coincidentally, that we stayed at a year ago, when celebrating my father’s seventieth birthday. It’s a squat little hut of five rooms, located just off the main drag on Santa Rosa Island, nestled between the larger two- and three-storey rental condos looming over the road to the north and the dunes along the beach to the south. From Via de Luna, the main drag, it’s completely invisible, which is what appealed to us in the first place—cheap and cheerful, out of the way, and thirty seconds from the water at the most.
We’ve come this year to celebrate, belatedly, another birthday—my aunt’s—but had we known what awaited us upon our arrival in Pensacola, where my mother’s side of the family is from, we would have waited even longer. Days earlier the Gulf Coast had braced itself for the arrival of Tropical Depression Five, which, as far as storms go, ended up a flop: despite its initial charge into the Gulf of Mexico, it has petered out into nothing more than a series of annoyingly persistent showers that settle over the Mississippi-Alabama region, then double back to the Florida panhandle just, it seems, as we are crossing the state line. The remnants of the storm periodically spring up out of nowhere, lashing the coast one minute and speeding off again inland the next, leaving the beach baking again in the mid-August heat.
We joke about the timing, but the vein of humour quickly runs thin. It’s not just that we’re more annoyed than we like to let on. It’s more that the prospect of a major storm entering the Gulf, while the oil from the Macondo well continues to flow unimpeded into the water, is something that no one can laugh about no matter which way it’s turned. We’re entering the height of the hurricane season—from the middle of August to the middle of September—and while the 2010 season has been uncommonly quiet, confounding the record activity forecast back in June, we’re still on edge, all across the region. The thought of a storm churning up and redepositing millions of gallons of oil onto any of the Gulf states—what friends in New Orleans call an ‘oilcane’, and which has never happened before—is enough to end any conversation before it starts.
From the vantage point of Santa Rosa Island, however, and the broader Pensacola Beach community, the oil is most present by the absences it has left behind. In contrast to the invasion underway in coastal Louisiana, where the oil is ubiquitous, the oil in coastal Florida is everywhere talked about but nowhere actually seen. It’s in the restaurants where we eat (we are assured repeatedly about the safety of the seafood), the bars where we drink (the bartenders nod knowingly to the empty stools), and even the shops where we get our groceries: Island Wine and Liquor bears a handwritten sign in its window that says “Thank you for your support during these hard times—please help us keep our beaches beautiful!”
To say that life in Pensacola revolves around the water is like saying that the process of photosynthesis revolves around the sun. The site was originally chosen by Spanish explorers for its position at the mouth of the bay, strategic not just for its natural deepwater harbour and access to abundant marine resources, but also for its control of the flow of trade along the Gulf Coast. This aspect has been true as long as Pensacola has existed: forts and coastal defences still litter the landscape, long made obsolete by the replacement of air over naval superiority. In adapting to these developments, however, the Department of Defence chose Pensacola as the site of its Naval Yard and Naval Air Station: the Base, as it’s called, is both the largest naval air training ground in the country and one of the largest employers in the region. The city was born, grew up, and matured on the water, and its other main industry—tourism, to Pensacola’s equally famous white sand beaches, and all its sister industries, from hospitality to real estate development—thrives almost exclusively upon it.
Consequently any threat, real or perceived, upon the city’s most prized possession leads to significant concern among locals. My other aunt, a lifelong resident of Pensacola—my mother, her older sister, and my uncle, her younger brother and husband of the birthday girl, both moved to Mississippi after high school and never left—tells me not long after we arrive at the cottage about the anger, fear, and confusion that Pensacolans have felt in the wake of the spill. The oil made landfall here for the first time in late June, two months after the explosion, having travelled hundreds of miles from the wellhead. She says that in the days in advance of its landfall, people began to man the rooftops of local condominiums and hotels armed with binoculars and telescopes, in search of any slick or sheen that they could see. When it finally did arrive, hundreds gathered on Casino Beach (one of the main stretches of Pensacola Beach) and linked arms in protest, naming the land as holy and sacred, in an act that I have since learned was replicated around the world.
The impacts of the spill on Escambia County, Florida—on wildlife, on ecology, on commerce, and on tourism—are less severe than those in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, for clear and present reasons. But as swift as they are to express outrage at the impacts anywhere, Pensacolans are even more prone to blame the national media for what they see as a distortion of the real story: that the beaches here are beautiful, that the water is safe, that the seafood is edible, and that, in short, there is no reason why anyone would want to report anything otherwise. On this view, what can’t be seen can’t hurt anyone—the real damage has been done not by toxic, carcinogenic petrochemicals bubbling up out of the ocean floor, but by news crews, producers, and reporters standing on these beaches issuing anything other than a clean bill of health for prospective visitors, snowbirds, and holidaymakers.
The unofficial mantra that what you can’t see can’t hurt you is strangely echoed by an encounter that takes place the day after we arrive, during one of the breaks in TS Five’s squalls. I’ve just come back to the cottage from a walk along the beach, when my mother opens the door from the patio and says, “Come look, I think something’s going on out there.”
We step back outside into the glaring midday sun to see a large coach idling on the road outside the cottage, offloading men and women onto the beach, and a deeply tanned white man wearing a wide-brimmed cap, sunglasses, and half a dozen badges and ID cards round his neck. We introduce ourselves, and ask what’s happening. Carey Hobbs, who introduces himself as one of the subcontractors working on beach cleanup, informs us that a crew has come to take samples of the sand along the beach. These samples are collected not just to measure the depth of the oil’s penetration under the surface, he says, but also to test for traces of natural and chemical contaminants such as those from the toxic dispersants used in the aftermath of the spill. At the end of the process the testing facility separates the oil out and returns the sand to the beach. We ask how long it takes: “A long time,” he laughs, “but BP is paying for every inch of it.”
No, really, we ask. How long? Hobbs shrugs. “It’s hard to say—it’s everywhere. All you have to do is dig your heel into the sand like this”—he takes his foot and scrapes backwards a few times—“and you’ll find it. Some places it’s as little as eight inches down.” (We’re well behind the dune line; no oil turns up in his trench.) They plan to keep working for the next six weeks, he says, then, when the tourist season ends in late September—what tourist season? we all laugh—the cleanup operation will bring in industrial-sized snowplows for the beach, massive motorised devices called Sand Sharks that, as Hobbs put it, “churn up the length of the beach, flipping the top two feet upside down and scrubbing all the oil right out of the sand.” At the end of this operation, he says, the beach will look like it always has—like no one was ever here.
It’s a nice notion, but unlikely—earlier, on my walk, the impact of the heavy machinery that had already travelled the length of the beach was apparent, with tire treads two feet wide ploughing up and crushing the seashells to brightly-coloured dust. But this is no fight to pick—thanking Hobbs for his time, my mother and I head back to the cottage. But I’m intrigued, and excusing myself, I clamber over the dune in search of the crews themselves. Long shadows of a dissipating storm overhead sweep the beach; several hundred yards away, I see about twenty men and women in bright orange and yellow safety vests, some prowling the sand with long poles and others sitting underneath a makeshift tent. I approach one of the testers directly but he waves me towards the tent, where I meet three more subcontractors, two men and one woman, all African-American. I introduce myself, saying I’m in a nearby rental, and was wondering what they’re doing.
One of the men, Eric, who doesn’t give his last name—the others don’t give their names at all—tells me, simply, they’re working on the beach, doing cleanup. I say I’m interested in how it works, am just trying to learn about the process. At first he is unwilling to give any information, but after a few minutes of idle chatter he echoes what Hobbs had said before—they’re taking samples, and they’re the only crew along this stretch at the moment. It’s actually comparatively rare, he adds, to be working during the day. Most of the crews work at night, out of the heat and when there are fewer distractions—he coughs—to encounter. What brings you out here during the day, I ask, and how long do you typically stay out on a given job? “You sure ask a lot of questions!” the woman suddenly breaks in, and laughs. “I’m a student,” I reply. “It’s my job to ask questions.” The second man grins, but doesn’t say anything. With all three of them in sunglasses, I can’t even tell if they’re looking at me as we speak.
A few more minutes and it becomes clear that they either don’t believe me when I say I’m a student (it is only technically true), or that they’ve simply been warned off talking to anyone, period. Eric does tell me, somewhat apologetically, that earlier in the cleanup operation BP had distributed to its site managers and subcontractors laminated cards with pre-printed information, because they wanted their local representatives, he says, “to know what’s going on, and to be able to tell people that too.” I ask him if he has any left and he says that not only have they all run out, but that they aren’t printing anymore, it’s too late in the operation. That’s a shame, I say, I would have loved to see one, but as I thank them for their time and walk off, it occurs to me—even apart from BP’s known restrictions on talking to media, if the information on these cards never changes, how useful would they actually be?
More questions than answers, as usual. I head back to the cottage, and to my family. At my aunt’s birthday dinner that night, the raw oysters we share, from a bed in East Bay in nearby Apalachicola, are tart and briny, but nowhere near the plump, meaty Gulf monsters we’re used to eating. Over dinner we debate what to do the next day—risk playing hide-and-seek with TS Five, or drive inland to a museum or gallery in Pensacola. Then we strike upon the idea of visiting Fort Pickens, a pre-Civil War era fort at the tip of Santa Rosa Island, and nowadays a historic site operated by the National Park Service. None of us have been there in years, and it’s recently been reopened after damage incurred by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Another round of oysters—due to their small size, the shuckers throw in a few extra on the dozen—and it’s decided.
The next afternoon, after lunch, the sun streams down upon us as we drive. Ten minutes down the strip and we’re at the guardhouse, where a park ranger greets us with two things: the surprise news that entry is free this weekend, and an information sheet with warnings about the possibility of oil. We thank her and drive into the fort, arriving after a few miles of scrub pine and salt-choked oak (further remnants of Ivan) and the occasional concrete bunker at the westernmost tip of the island and the primary complex of the fort.
Begun in 1829, completed in 1834, and in use until 1947, Fort Pickens is the largest of the four forts guarding Pensacola Bay and is actually comprised of several different structures, emplacements, and batteries. Most of these were originally built with African-American slave labour, and today are found in varying states of disrepair. Fort Pickens, known primarily for the months that it housed the Apache commander Geronimo, is often mistakenly referred to as a Civil War fort because it was only during the Civil War that the fort saw any conflict—as the information leaflet says, “Ironically, the only real action the fort endured occurred when the country was at war with itself.” Union forces, in control of the fort at the outbreak of the war, faced a few early skirmishes with Confederate troops, then took Pensacola immediately after the Confederates abandoned it in the spring of 1862. The fort would never see combat again.
Wandering around the premises today, it is easy to envision its days of glory: the complex is extensive, the artillery formidable (its 12-inch guns weigh 58 tons and had a range of 8 miles), and the brick walls are several metres thick. Even despite their emptiness, the old generator chambers and powder magazines still exude a sense of humming activity, of men stationed at the ready for the threats that would never come. Wandering around old military sites (which my father and I often do, as a result of his medical service in the Navy), I have always found a certain melancholy among those that never saw much action—as though their purpose had never been fulfilled, or some tacit promise in their construction had never been kept. At Fort Pickens this sense comes via the reminders sprinkled throughout the complex: one sign, near Battery Payne, notes that the battery, built in 1904, “never fired in combat, but in 1922, recoil from a practice round tore a gun from its mount and hurled it down the emplacement steps, killing Private Hugo W. Paap.”
The sense comes as well through the conversations with the park rangers. One of these rangers, Don Holifield, a native Mississippian who had settled in Pensacola (like my mother and uncle, but in reverse), echoes this sentiment. After a detailed and informative explanation of the construction of the exterior walls, Holifield describes the changes in the interior of the complex over the years it was in use. Some of these changes were deliberate, reflecting the ongoing evolution of the site (as the entry sign notes, the fort is a “confusing jumble of fortifications”). Others, however, were not. In 1915, Holifield tells us, the Army accidentally dynamited one of the southern walls, resulting in its collapse and demolition. “They did what the enemy never could,” he says, scratching his cap. “Sometimes, I guess, we’re just our own worst enemy.”
I ask him about the impacts of the spill. Holifield says that visitation at the fort is down seventy percent—and that the recently-completed repairs after Hurricane Ivan meant this “should have been our booming year. It’s not.” You can’t force people to visit, even with free entry. “There’s just not a lot we can do,” he concludes, “except sit tight and wait for next year.” Before we leave I pay a visit to one of the largest guns on site, mounted atop the western wall. This fifteen-inch gun, a Rodman cannon, is the largest smoothbore cannon ever used by the US Army. It took ten men to operate, and today sits demilled and unattended, facing southwest to the mouth of Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Its line of sight is aimed, I realise, in the exact direction of where another alleged enemy is located, one that is amassing its forces, slipping out of the ground and sailing towards these shores.
I wonder: is this the enemy that Fort Pickens has so long awaited? Is this the invasion it was always promised and denied? The war this fort could wage went out of fashion a century ago, nor would this invader be repelled with any guns—even as they all gaze out to sea. The space this invisible enemy has left behind provokes the mind—I wonder whether these weapons are aimed back at ourselves. As we pile back into the car and drive away, winding slowly and quietly down the highway back to the cottage, I realise it may be another ten years before I visit Fort Pickens again, perhaps with my own children, and I wonder what further changes we’ll see. More sections either stabilised or cordoned off, the signs a little more bleached by the sun, and in the event of another hurricane, the dunes and oaks and sea oats even more stripped and sparse. Perhaps it’s just as well: ideally, defences such as these would never see any action at all, entertaining instead their own disappearance.
The end of our visit to Fort Pickens largely marks the end of our visit to Pensacola—the weekend over, and the birthday celebrated, we all begin to clean and pack for home. The next morning, after we’ve loaded our things into the car, I go out one last time to the beach. I’m on a search—this time not for oil, but for shells. I have a friend for whom I always collect a few whenever I set foot upon a shoreline, and the shells I find for her this morning do not disappoint: long cream spirals, palm-sized mottled fans, and the occasional wedge of sand dollar are washing up in the tide, and as I search I let my mind go slack about everything else.
But the moment you stop looking for something, of course, you step right on top of it, and as I reach in for a tiny pink lady’s slipper I see a large dark object bobbing past the shelf. I reach in, curious, and as soon as I pick it up I realise what it is: a finger-sized chambered shell covered inside and out with crude oil, which as it rubs off on my fingers brings up a familiar smell. When I was a child, the beaches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast were variable affairs: in some places powdery and fine, but in others they were long grey stretches that soaked up runoff from the offshore rigs and refineries and always smelled vaguely sulphurous and rotten. The shell I’ve found smells just like that but worse: up close, it smells like a metastasised fart. I bring it back to show my parents, then wash my hands and the rest of the shells, and then we leave.
The organism that created this shell is in all likelihood buried deep inside the oil that became its tomb, and echoes the untold numbers of other organisms—shelled, scaled, gilled, feathered, or mucosal—that have met their ends prematurely as a result of this disaster. But a seashell is not a lesson, any more than it is a symbol, or an argument, or a clause. It was an animal, and for us, it still us. But tempting as it is we can neither romanticise its loss nor gild the prospects of our own—of either our individual or our corporate selves. This disaster will not be the end of British Petroleum, nor will it be the end of petroleum, or of drilling. It will only be this disaster, which has come after the last one, and which comes before the next. As I argued in the first part of this essay, it may, however, signal the end of an era in which our prior comforts and attitudes are taken for granted, and this may need to be the work of the next environmentalism: besieging the walls of the self, upending the beaches of the known.
I’m back in New Orleans now, at home and at work. But as I write this I cannot help but imagine two things. First, what is happening in Pensacola right now—if all has gone according to plan, the process Carey Hobbs described, of flipping the sand upside down, is taking place right this very minute. I can only imagine the machines trawling the length of the beach, exposing what has lain underneath the surface for so long, and what those hundreds of people linked arms to protest if not prevent. This will all be happening at night, of course, as unlike protesters, cleanup crews rarely operate during the day. I wonder if it is because if we saw what the process actually involved, we would do more than protest it—in other words, I wonder if BP, and the state, have learned when the time is right to do their work.
As unpleasant as the thought may be, I wonder also whether some of the oil ought to be left somewhere—not as a deliberate hazard to the public or to wildlife, but as a token, an omen reminding us what will happen again should our ways and habits never change. When I was researching my doctoral dissertation, about the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina, I came across a letter to the local newspaper by a resident who insisted that the visible black waterline the floodwaters left on structures in the city ought to be preserved. Three years after the storm, too many homeowners and businesses were scrubbing it off their walls too soon, she argued, leaving no material trace of the storm for future generations. “The brown lines have mostly disappeared,” she wrote: “Given the notorious shortness of human memory, it seems to me that we will make a huge mistake if a program isn’t undertaken soon to install permanent Aug. 29, 2005, floodmarkers in every damaged neighborhood. What better way for city officials to remind the public that, despite the best intentions of the Corps of Engineers, levees are never fail-safe?”
Her point, while unheeded, is worth considering: should we not leave reminders of these processes and these risks for ourselves, moments that, no matter how small, would mitigate against forgetting? Despite the best intentions of Transocean and BP, drilling platforms are never fail-safe, either, a lesson which seems obvious to say so now, but which we would still do well to remember. (And I, for one, would like to see a preprinted information card, even if in a museum.) But it seems that the residents of Pensacola—unlike those in coastal Louisiana, who see the impacts of the spill as a long-awaited source of momentum for social justice and policy reform—would rather do just the opposite, would rather this whole episode vanish like the thin remnants of a bad dream. To put it all behind us, to go on with life as it was before, as if the whole thing—thanks to the Sand Sharks, churning up the miles of white-sand beach—had never happened.
Nor, second, can I help but imagine the days before radar and satellites, before forecasting and storm tracking—the days when the invading army or navy simply arrived, either cresting the far hill or appearing as dots upon the horizon out at sea. I wonder how we lived, then, in times both of war and of peace, with the knowledge that one day those discolourations at the edge of sight could be meant for us. These days we can track with remarkable accuracy, unheard of in those times, where storms are headed and where slicks have spread, but have our responses become any more sophisticated in turn? Hearing about the hundreds of people linking arms along the beach—were they protesters? denialists? militiamen?—calls to mind a line of monks clasping hands in the face of a Viking longship, and invites us to wonder about the effectiveness that such forms of prayer do and do not have in our lives. This is not to say that the lines of defence we erect for ourselves never serve a purpose, or have an impact. I, too, pray. But it is equally worth remembering that we build trenches and forts, like cemeteries, not for others but for ourselves—not for those who will come but for those who plan to stay. And that act of choosing is the act more worthy of care than any other.
All photographs are by the author. Thanks to Laura Blackwell, Freddie and Mary Jo Wicke, Toxey and Virginia Morris, Carey Hobbs, and Don Holifield, without whom this essay would not have been possible. Len Bahr’s letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayunewas published on 27 August 2008, page B4.