Shadows on the Gulf by Rowan Jacobsen - Read Online
Shadows on the Gulf
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In the spring of 2010, we watched oil gushing unstoppably into the
waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But as bad as the spill was, it is
only the latest chapter in a century-long story of destruction.
At
the height of BP's dispersant madness, the amount sprayed each day
merely equaled the amount of dispersant that washes down the Mississippi
from the Heartland's dishwashers and washing machines. Coastal drilling
has damaged the region's ecology far more than offshore drilling. And
the acres of marshland ruined by oil slicks can't compare to the amount
that disappears in every hurricane, due to the work of the Army Corps of
Engineers. Southern Louisiana is subsiding. Even if we succeed in
restoring every mile of beach and wetland from the oil spill, the entire
Mississippi Delta could be lost this century, and New Orleans will sink
beneath the waves, an American Atlantis.
Surveying
the Gulf Coast by sailboat, skiff, car, and kayak, Jacobsen journeys
from the bayous of Terrebonne Parish, to the last shucking house in New Orleans's French
Quarter. He discovers a little-appreciated ecological wonder of breathtaking
natural beauty and rich culture struggling to hold on to the things that
have always sustained it.
Shadows on the Gulf
details the catastrophe creeping across the region and reveals why the
damage to the Gulf will affect us all. Not only are the Gulf's wetlands
the best oyster reefs and fish nurseries in the world, they also provide
critical habitat to most of America's migratory songbirds and
waterfowl. If the Gulf is allowed to fail, the effects will ripple
across America.
Published: Bloomsbury USA an imprint of Bloomsbury USA on
ISBN: 9781608197002
List price: $17.50
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Shadows on the Gulf - Rowan Jacobsen

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Chapter 1

FALLING FOR THE GULF

IN THE TIDE pools of Alabama’s Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, on May 13, 2010, the water was alive and blue. Look at that turquoise! said Bill Finch, director of conservation for the Alabama chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Look at it! We were standing in a salt marsh in Grand Bay, crown jewel of Gulf natural areas, and squinting into a depression in the rushes. I leaned in close to watch an aquamarine trail streaking through the water like a shooting star. Look at that turquoise! Bill said again. Isn’t it beautiful? How do I capture that on film someday?

We were watching male sailfin mollies. The minnow-size fish live close to shore and move into open pools in the rushes, where they can display for females without being eaten, turning sideways and making quick runs across the tide pool, catching the sun along special iridescent scales. It looked like they were flashing neon lights. God, that’s stunning, Bill said. I could watch all day.

It was springtime on the Gulf Coast—mating season. All around us, life was making new life, or at least contemplating the idea. The male sailfin mollies were nudging females toward the privacy of the reeds. Behind us on the salt pan, willets were flitting into the air and piping their pennywhistle love songs. A rail had just hatched her chicks in the cordgrass. At the edge of the marsh, acres of oysters were spawning. And farther out to sea, uncountable crab eggs were riding the warm Gulf currents. This was, normally, the most hopeful time of the year. And Grand Bay sure as hell looked normal. Miles of rush stretched to the Mississippi state line, backed by a wall of some of the only tidal pine forest on Earth. The sun glinted off waves rolling over vast seagrass beds. Beautiful.

But we couldn’t enjoy it. If Bill wanted to capture the mollies on film, he had better do it today. Ten miles straight offshore from us, the first black cannonade of tar balls was splatting into Dauphin Island, the sandy barrier island that is the coast’s first line of defense. Farther out, something dark and dead was gathering in the depths.

To the east, on the hazy horizon, we could just make out the buildings of Bayou La Batre, a small town that is America’s shrimp capital. In the movie, Forrest Gump keeps his shrimp boat in Bayou La Batre. The previous weekend the town had held the Blessing of the Fleet, the traditional opening of the fishing season. The decorated boats paraded past a priest, who blessed each in turn. But then, instead of heading to sea, the boats turned around and returned to their berths. No fishing on the Gulf.

I hope I have more time with Grand Bay, Bill said. With his gray beard, balding pate, and general demeanor, he gave the impression of being the Lorax of the coast—an impression strengthened when he later leaped across the marsh, through knee-deep muck, to stop an airboat from plowing into the needle rush. Bill has sun-reddened skin and the kind of soft Southern drawl that has always put me at ease. Today, though, the softness of his voice made the alarming nature of his words stand out almost unbearably. I don’t know that you will ever, ever see a salt pan like this anywhere else. Grand Bay is our model. If we want to know what the coast was like, we come to Grand Bay. There are all these community types, like this tidal pine forest, that just don’t exist anywhere else anymore. This is just the very edge. You have to see the seagrass beds. You have to see the shell mounds. Not long ago, Bill had been out on those Native American shell mounds, on islands in the middle of the bay, shucking oysters straight out of the water and picking wolfberries—North American goji berries, delicious savory little fruits that grow on the mounds—and grazing on glasswort, a salty, crunchy, asparagus-like plant. It’s the way people must have eaten for ten thousand years.

In early April, the Nature Conservancy’s Alabama chapter had established a mile and a half of new oyster reef on Coffee Island, off the Alabama coast. It was the best oyster-restoration project this country had ever seen. It had seemed like a heartening success until the Macondo well beneath the Deepwater Horizon blew out on April 20 and sent a tidal wave of oil straight toward that reef. I’d been interested in reef restoration for years and decided to visit those oysters a few days before the oil did. Bill and I got talking, and at every turn in the conversation he told me something new and surprising. Alabama has the greatest biodiversity of any state east of the Mississippi. Alabama has the greatest diversity of crawfish. Of freshwater fish and mussels. It has the greatest concentration of turtle species in the world. The entire Appalachian Mountain chain has twelve species of oak trees; Alabama has thirty-nine. I felt the scales of ignorance falling from my eyes.

Sensing a kindred spirit, Bill had brought me to Grand Bay, to see it as it was, before anything changed. He’d been coming here since he was a kid growing up in southern Mississippi in an old Choctaw town. In those days, it was just the scenery of growing up. I don’t want to say you take it for granted, but you don’t have a context for it. Now he had a context. You can imagine what happens when oil runs into this. It’s just gonna stick to it. It’s the gum-in-the-hair problem. You’ll never get it out. But here’s the real problem. It’s gonna be coming in for a very long time, and some of it’s gonna be coming in on storm tides. If we were to get a storm tide that lifted it right over this marsh, that would really worry me.

It was only a few weeks after the blowout, but already it was clear that the thickest, tarriest oil—the stuff riding well beneath the surface—would be coming in sporadically for years. When oil hits marshes, it chokes out the oxygen and nitrogen that the grasses need. The soil goes hypoxic. Then the marsh grass dies. Estuaries like Grand Bay are where 90 percent of the fish species in the Gulf come to breed. They are the nurseries of the Gulf. Whenever an acre of marsh grass dies, another acre of the Gulf dies.

We don’t really know what breeds in these tide pools, Bill said. The young come in here for protection. There’s a real convergence of freshwater and saltwater species. In 2004, when Bill was an editor at the Mobile Press-Register, the reporter Ben Raines discovered a possum pipefish in Grand Bay, the only one seen in the Gulf in more than thirty years. The find scuttled an oil company’s plan to drill for natural gas right in the heart of Grand Bay, which has the best remaining seagrass meadows possum pipefish require. It was found only in these types of habitats, Bill explained. And now it may be too late. Bill turned away from watching the mollies and stared out at the waves. He was speaking softly, as if to himself. I fall in love with these places way too easy.

Our species has always hugged the coasts whenever it could. Not only because we like gazing out at the rolling waves and the sea of infinite mystery and possibilities beyond, but also because the coasts of the world are uniquely abundant in everything that makes our lives grand. The zone where land and sea intertwine has an intensity to it, like the embrace of two living bodies. We all pick up on that feeling—a quickening of the senses, an intuition that vital things are happening.

And we’re right. In the places where land and sea come together in a tangle of limbs, new life begins—life that couldn’t exist without the unique contributions of both partners. The sea provides the watery medium, and the land provides the fertility. That’s why the best grazing in the ocean is in the wetlands—the shallow, warm, protected estuaries. There, in the bays and marshes, seagrasses and algae thrive, and everything that eats greens, or that eats the things that eat those greens, comes to the table.

You’d think that we’d place an extraordinarily high value on such places. After all, we have made our livelihoods off their largesse for millennia. And it isn’t simply a matter of livelihoods. It’s a question of meaning, and beauty, and spirit. They are the places where, like the old beer commercial, you look around at your buddies and say, It doesn’t get any better than this. This was not lost on the first Native American residents of the region, whose vast oyster shell middens remain as silent witness to their coastal devotion. Nor was it lost on the first European arrivals, refugees from Acadia and frontier types from France and Spain, who mingled to form a unique culture powered by everything that was bountiful on the bayous.

I first fell in love with the Gulf of Mexico twenty-five years ago, during four years of college in Sarasota, Florida. From the cradle of a giant banyan tree near College Hall, I’d watch a ginger sun sink into the silvery bay. My friends and I would slip away to Lido Beach for midnight swims. We’d pad through the mucky estuaries, on alert for horseshoe crabs and stingrays, then later sit cross-legged back at campus with a pile of Apalachicola oysters, a couple of knives, and a cold, cheap six-pack. And now I was back, to see it once again before two hundred million gallons of oil, and a heavy-handed response to that crude, altered it in ways I couldn’t anticipate.

Perhaps because the centers of political and cultural power lie on our Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the Gulf Coast has never gotten its due. It’s off most people’s radar, except perhaps as the Redneck Riviera. Most never learn about the other Gulf, the natural miracle with the finest beaches in the nation, the best diving, the best birding, the most productive wetlands.

The Gulf Coast will surprise you. If you’re used to the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, your first reaction to the Gulf is to melt a little. The sand is so fine, the water so warm, the waves so gentle. It seems like the world’s biggest kiddie pool. If history had been different, it would have become the globe’s elite beach playground. A few spots on the Gulf are like that. But the rest went down a different path.

On Dauphin Island, Alabama, I slipped out of the Pelican Pub, where an out-of-work charter boat captain in an XXL teal sportfishing shirt had had enough of out-of-towners like me (Tar balls on the beach is normal! Dead sea turtles is normal! People need to understand, this is all normal!), and walked the baby-powder beach. Little girls in bikinis splashed and giggled in the shallows and tried to stay out of the way of teams in hard hats and protective white jumpsuits patrolling for tar balls. A quarter mile down the beach, hundreds of dead catfish were washing ashore. I stood there, waves lapping my toes. And then my eyes caught something blocky on the horizon. Once I adjusted to the shimmering waterline, I could see the distant rigs—five, six, eight of them— rising out of the Gulf on spindly legs, like the Martian death machines in War of the Worlds.

This is no eulogy for the Gulf. Resist the media’s hysteria to write off the whole area. The Gulf lives—for now. When I told people in the Northeast and Northwest during the summer of 2010 that I’d just returned from a few weeks in the Gulf, they looked at me as if I’d just crawled out of a foxhole in Afghanistan. Oh my God, they’d say, sympathy in their eyes, was the stench unbearable?

In places, yes. The ugliest slick I saw was at Grand Isle, Louisiana. The beach was closed for mile after mile, blocked off with plastic orange construction screen. Signs on the road advertised ON-SITE DISASTER RELIEF CATERING. At the far end of the island, at Grand Isle State Park, I found a young ranger named Leanne Sarco quietly scrubbing oil from one hermit crab after another with a Q-tip. Leanne was wearing white slacks, shirt, and cowboy boots and was smeared with oil from her boots to her blond hair. She led me along a path to the last wild beach on the island, a magnet for birds and other wildlife. Liquid crude rippled in the tide pools. The sand was the color of coffee grounds. When you squeezed a handful, gobs of black jelly oozed out between your fingers. Leanne told me that the oil had seeped several feet below the surface and would be bubbling up for years.

Horrible. A tragedy that never should have happened. But I had driven through a hundred miles of gorgeous marsh to get to that spot—marsh that the press ignored. One captain participating in BP’s Vessels of Opportunity oil-recovery program in Alabama was disgusted with the media coverage. They don’t come down here and take a ride in Mobile Bay and cover two or three hundred square miles and take pictures of how pretty things are, he told me. They sit on their asses until somebody reports an oiled bird, and then they take six hundred pictures of it.

That was my impression, too. It’s not really the fault of the press, whose job is to find the most riveting stories and images. But then people take these extreme cases and mentally paint the whole Gulf Coast with them. That’s not the reality. Most of the Gulf Coast has not been touched by the oil spill and is as beautiful and vital as ever. I spent the majority of my time on the Gulf Coast traveling through a paradise of pompano, waterfowl, and incredibly friendly and good-humored people. As long as I stayed away from Interstate 10, I had no issues with diesel fumes. The scents I recall most vividly are those of salt air, oyster shells, and Vietnamese pho.

Make no mistake, the Gulf Coast has been horribly impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—some of it directly, most of it indirectly. It will take years for some of that damage to come to light. But in a way, BP’s blowout simply brought some old, hidden issues into plain sight. We were headed for trouble anyway in ten to fifteen years, said Bill Finch, who calls the BP oil spill merely the latest in a hundred-year catastrophe along the Gulf Coast. Now we’ve just shortened that timetable. If we use this as an occasion to turn away from all the shit we’ve been doing all these years, it’d be great. But if we keep on doing what we’ve been doing, and have the oil on top of that …

This book is not simply about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. That disaster is just one piece in a terribly disturbing overall trend of lives ruined, environments trashed, places bled of character until they are pale and placeless. My hope is that, by painting a sort of cubist portrait of a beautiful and sometimes contradictory region, this book will let you see the Gulf as I saw it in the aftermath of the oil spill. I hope I can serve as a stand-in for the many people whose relationship to the Gulf is something like mine was: I knew it a little, liked it, harbored a few illusions about it, grew deeply concerned as the oil well churned day after day, and became amazed as I learned more about the region and its vast importance, to all of our lives, and about the unbelievable things happening to it.

As tragic as it was, perhaps the Deepwater Horizon blowout can ultimately inspire more appreciation for this jewel in our backyard. If so, this disaster may still, in the long run, end up saving more livelihoods and wetlands than it destroyed. I hope that, like me, the more you learn, the more you’ll agree that a national effort to restore this coast is in all of our interests. I hope you’ll fall for this place, too.

Chapter 2

THE LAST HUNTER-GATHERERS IN AMERICA

IN DULAC, LOUISIANA, I stepped out of Schmoopy’s Restaurant onto an oyster-shell parking lot. After the wintry air-conditioning of the restaurant, the steamy Louisiana air hit me like a moist towel upside the head. I’d just feasted on generous piles of briny oysters and sweet shrimp, topped off with something called a crawfish pistolette, which is kind of like a battered, deep-fried lobster roll and is probably something one shouldn’t eat every day. It was damn good. The oysters and shrimp were unloaded off a boat directly onto this parking lot, then carried into Schmoopy’s. (Schmoopy is what owner Ronnie Richaud calls his wife, and it’s what she calls him.) The crawfish came from farther north, because crawfish live in freshwater swamps, and Dulac has been taken over by saltwater.

On one side of the parking lot was Route 57 and a line of trailer homes raised up on eleven-foot wooden pilings. On the other side was Bayou Grand Caillou and a line of shrimp boats paralleling the road out of sight. Beyond the road and the bayou there was nothing but marsh grass, the flattest landscape imaginable, a prairie on the water. This is the landscape of the Mississippi River Delta: a bayou, a road, a line of houses on stilts, then the marsh. The design is not arbitrary. The houses are there because the bayou is there. The road, too, is there because of the bayou. It could not have been built anywhere else. Even the marshes owe their existence to the bayou. This is the inescapable logic of the delta. Everything takes its cue from the nature of the place. Everything has a reason.

A bayou is not, as many people think, a swamp. Nor is it a bay. It’s a tidal river, and most of the bayous in the Mississippi River Delta were once distributaries of the Mississippi River. (A distributary is the opposite of a tributary.) As the Mississippi River reaches the flat and muddy delta—a sea-level wetland made with its own sediment—numerous distributaries branch out, and then keep branching into a many-limbed tree that meets the Gulf of Mexico on either side of the river’s main stem. These are the bayous of the delta. Slowly fed by the Mississippi when it was high, they used to meander to the Gulf, taking their own sweet time. They also used to flood regularly, along with the Mississippi. When they did so, the first place they deposited their mud was on their immediate banks. Smaller, lighter sediment was spread out through the marshes. Over thousands of years, this resulted in two strips of high ground—and by high ground, I mean just a few feet above sea level—lining each of the bayous. When the Cajuns