This morning no sound but the loud
breathing of the sea. Suppose that under
all that salt water lived the god
that humans have spent ten thousand years
trawling the heavens for.
We caught the wrong metaphor.
Real space is wet and underneath,
the church of shark and whale and cod.
The noise of those vast lungs
exhaling: the plain chanting of monkfish choirs.
Heaven’s not up but down, and hell
is to evaporate in air. Salvation,
to drown and breathe
forever with the sea.
“New Religion” by Bill Holm, from The Chain Letter of the Soul: New & Selected Poems. © Milkweed Editions, 2009.
Last Monday afternoon I met a radiant young woman with a smile that belied her steely determination. She had an outdoors kinda body – tanned, exercised, alive – that didn’t mind fresh air work. She was a blonde force that found a way around the cleanup carnival and decided to take on a project that may be equal part for herself, her own mental salvation and equal part for the long-term life of ‘her’ beach. Her name is Leanne and when all other options to help put a dent in the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster were crushed, or handcuffed, she decided look down the ‘charismatic megavertebrate media focused life chain’ and save hermit crabs.
Leanne is the park naturalist at Grand Isle State Park and she knows a wee bit about the ecosystem of the island’s life where she lives including the other creatures living there. Apparently not enough to save big media grabbing creatures, but luckily for little crustaceans just enough for them. Hermit crabs are outta sight, outta mind when it comes to the big clean up.
A few days after I met Leanne the Associate Press released a story about discovery of a 22-mile underwater oil plume. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, folks with a fairly solid track record over the years, in concert with a few university researchers and with peer review, had presented their not so pretty finding. They came in contradiction to the government’s just released version. The AP article at one juncture references retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, saying – the government’s point man on the Gulf oil spill, said it was a choice between two difficult options — with the discussions going on in front of the president. In the end, officials decided to “accept the implication of the hydrocarbons in the water column rather than Barataria Bay or the Chandeleur Islands” in Louisiana being smeared from sea to shining sea with oozing reddish-brown crude oil.
In early June the United States Environmental Protection Agency finally listed eight ingredients found in the COREXIT chemical dispersants being used in the BP oil spill. One is 2 butoxy ethanol, which is described as a carcinogen that along with nausea and vomiting may cause liver and kidney damage. BP reportedly has dumped on record more than 1.2 million gallons of COREXIT into the Gulf by June 10th.
Allen’s decision makes total sense if you are thinking like a Coast Guard Admiral – keep the enemy off our shores – outta sight, outta mind – or a BP exec. Ecosystems and food chains and global weather and oceanic systems don’t work like that. They are constantly moving targets – dynamic systems must work that way. We need them to work that way. They may be outta sight, but you better keep them on your mind. Even the retired admiral should have known this isn’t rocket science (although it is basic ecosystems science – I think they still teach that at the Academy in Rhode Island?)
Hermit crabs and oceanic oil plumes? Both meet somewhere near the bottom of the food chain – and countless creature up the chain depend on the health and well being of everything else that growths forth. Unfortunately plumes are outta sight, outta mind, especially for the media and public. Think about it, what made this oil disaster so media/public compelling was its reality-TVness. At any moment shortly after the disaster you could tune in to or log on to a screen showing the world the goo and bubbles spewing forth from a broken well head nearly a mile down on the seafloor of the Gulf. Finally we even saw it in High Def! HD. How much more reality can you get – HD-squared – Human Disaster High Definition.
Getting this mess off the big, and little, screens was of prime importance to both a company and a president whose numbers were in free fall, and if something didn’t get this oily image outta sight soon they would both be facing numbers deeper than a mile down.
And that urge to make it all disappear is what is worrying me and people like Leanne, and a score of fishermen, coastal ecologists and just plain old Gulf-folk. Where did the millions of gallons of oil magically disappear? They worry is the magic witches’ brew was toxic dispersants that will haunt this coast like a nightmare for decades.
While no one I have talked to has proof (in messes like this proof often has its own dispersant) the consensus is under the cloak of Gulf darkness aerial outlaws were at work. A story I have heard rumored much and repeated directly on three separate occasions, by a trio of unrelated individuals, was Vessels of Opportunity carrying oil skimming boom would locate oil and report it. They were told to stand off, wait on anchor for the night. As the Gulf passed into night the sound of low flying plane(s) swooped in the distance darkness. At dawn the surface slick had magically disappeared. Outta sight, outta mind.
Dispersants are the mystery, and they seem to be shrouded in mystery. As Susan Buchanan reported in the Huffington Post on August 3, “Many questions remain, however. Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission Secretary Robert Barham sounded alarm bells on June 3 at a commission meeting. He said the use of sub-sea dispersants complicates the state’s efforts to keep fishery products safe. After the spill, his agency was the first to object to dispersant use based on their unknown properties, but he said the state’s Dept. of Health and Hospitals has since raised objections. Barham said a post-spill study on the local food chain, including shrimp, crabs, oysters and fisheries will be done, but it may be years before the impact of dispersants on the chain is understood. And he pointed to the need to obtain COREXIT’s [the dispersant] ingredients and to ensure safety by doing fish-tissue analysis.”
The article also quotes Susan Shaw, marine toxicologist and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Maine, sight that dispersants are less toxic than oil. “But because COREXIT contains a petroleum solvent, we’re putting petroleum solvent on top of a petroleum spill. So it’s increasing hydrocarbons in the water column.” Dispersants can work like a delivery system, adding to the toxicity of oil for marine organisms, Shaw said. “Dispersed oil enters the body more readily than oil, and it goes into the organs faster.”
How does one illustrate the elemental persuasions in the food chain? Where sunlight and molecules fuel tiny plankters and swirl in an oceanic Cuisineart, fueling a planet. How do we place such a primordial practice firmly in the sight, and in the minds of all of us?
The outta sight, outta mind misbelief is no more prevalent than at the market, where most of us marry philosophy to diet. Today in a YahooNews online article it told of Ann Cashion, co-owner of Johnny’s Halfshell in Washington, D.C., who sees concerns about Gulf seafood safety fading. “I find that people aren’t even asking right now. It was more on top of people’s brains when the oil was still flowing,” the article quoted her. Fortunately for BP and the government dispersant dissolve concern with the same rapid effectiveness as on oil.
It’s interesting to feel the emotion of water-people versus those who only know it infrequently. For them, shimpers, oystermen, boat captains , biologists, coastal ecologists, marine wildlife officers, and park naturalists, the Gulf waters are a lunar push-pull in their blood. They are feeling this oil disaster on a level the rest of the country knew and is drifting away from on the outgoing media tide.
On the beach at Grand Isle State Park a kind heart and dedicated soul has saved over 5,000 insignificant looking backbone-less creatures from death. She and her volunteers have scrubbed and cleaned bottle-cap-sized shells and their resident crustaceans, saving them from perils of gooey crude. Not a CNN type report. I worry about the millions of hermit, ghost and fiddler crabs Leanne has no access to save. They are the bricks one layer up in the foundation of the food chain.
I’m introducing myself to a few hermit crabs, working on my Louisiana hermit crab drawl, and over the next year I hope they tell me what they see, hear and find. I fear the future food chain. I’m concerned I might lose a few of these new found friends – crustacean cancer.