From the sky, the Earth’s water courses harken the human circulatory system. The resemblance is both troubling and appropriate as they serve much the same purpose: they carry liquids and nutrients to vital systems in both bodies, but they can also carry poisons. When a human being ingests poison, some is absorbed in the stomach, and much is distributed to the vital organs by the blood vessels. For the Earth, the constant motion of water through its passageways can take oil and chemical dispersants to its most vulnerable and essential systems.
Last night, a flight over some of the coastal wetlands and barrier islands of the Gulf of Mexico brought home the terror of this reality. I was flying on an assignment for Defenders of Wildlife. The organization is trying to assess the current damage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and to get a sense of the magnitude of the threat it poses to wildlife and habitat resources.
Pilot Dan Luke had volunteered his time and his plane through Southwings, a great organization that connects volunteer pilots with scientists and environmental conservation projects. Dan flew us directly over the Gulf coastal islands of Alabama and Mississippi until we reached the now-renowned Chandeleur Islands of Louisiana. Many of the island chains we saw along the way were partially enveloped by booms, in hopes that when the oil travels–as it surely will–islands will have some measure of protection. Many question the extent to which this approach will help, and photos suggest that while the devices may slow the progress of the oil to shorelines, they will not succeed in stopping it. One photo of the island chain showed a boom-encircled island with a line of oil slick unbroken through the boom to the island shore. The measures we are taking to protect the earth from millions of gallons of oil and hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersant may not succeed, but they are all that prevents us from standing by with our hands in our pockets and a sickness in our souls.
On nearby North Island, dark crude had washed onto shore in a thick, orange-black ooze. This was the first I had seen of the oil making landfall, and it was a disturbing sight. But more disturbing was the dull shimmer on enormous patches of water, evidence that dispersed oil lay beneath the surface, impossible to show effectively on a camera, but fouling the water that is home to sea turtles, dolphins, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, and many other creatures that now live and breathe in a toxic dump of enormous proportions. For me, the scene held an added disturbing dimension. It was very difficult to photograph in a way that would convey the magnitude of the situation. And what people cannot see with their own eyes, is often easily forgotten.
Pilot Dan and I, along with a freelance reporter Glynn Wilson of the Locust Fork News-Journal, flew the return trip to Alabama over the coastal wetlands that I had visited with Defenders of Wildlife in the preceding days. At the edge of Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge we saw the liquefied natural gas operation and Chevron Oil Refinery that sits adjacent to the Grand Bay refuge. The incredible vulnerability of these rare protected lands was unsettling. It was like seeing a small child pulling the tail of a crocodile—just waiting for the bite that kills it. The refuge has already weathered a massive phosphate spill from a nearby plant; now it faces the arrival of an oil slick from the Gulf.
Observing fingers of gently curving water winding through the salt marshes of the refuge, one can’t help but wonder what will be next, and how much more can the biologically rich waters of this refuge take before the poisons coursing through them tips the scales from sickness to death. The Gulf and its coastal lands are resilient, as much as any landscape and indeed any person. But there is a limit. Poison is poison. Some would argue, and are indeed beginning to, as the oil spill and accompanying chemical dispersants balloon in size, that we have reached the outer edges of that limit for the Gulf.