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The Tarball Chronicles

Last summer I traveled down to the Gulf of Mexico to write about the oil spill and bird migration for the Natural Resources Defense Council. As I stayed in the Gulf the original article grew into a series of blog posts-- http://www.onearth.org/intothegulf --and those posts gradually grew into a book, The Tarball Chronicles. In the end, the writing was not just about the oil spill itself, but about larger connections: connections between how we have chosen to live and the consequences of those choices; between what we are doing now and our future; between our need for fuel and our love of nature; between the need for sacrifice and the love of luxury. (Below please find a short section below that I wrote about northern gannets to give you a sense of what I mean.)

At the same time, I wanted the posts to be blunt, funny, and emotional. I had never defined myself as a journalist before, but the story I was seeing, quite different than the national story, seemed to demand a fast, angry journalistic take. I quickly saw the great discrepancy between the national story, told in broad strokes like something out of Boy’s Life, and the real story on the ground. I sought out locals and explored local places, trying to bring readers along for the strange dark ride as I birdwatched, boated, flew, drank, ate, talked, listened and swam my way through the Gulf. I saw ospreys nesting above a tarball clean-up area and watched beautiful white ibises near Haliburton road. I spent a night in a fish camp on the bayou just a few miles from the encroaching oil, talked my way into a helicopter ride out to the rig with the Cousteau film team, and stared down oiled pelicans—a heartbreaking sight-- in the Fort Jackson re-hab center.

The resulting book is a strange mix: part nature book, part new journalism, part adventure story. Though the darkness is laced with humor there is an overtly moral element to the book. I felt I was going someplace different, and I find myself still there. There is no time for pussyfooting around, no time to follow the literary rules, or any rules that get in the way of the work of the world. Rather it’s time to face directly the way we are living and there’s no place for that like the Gulf.

From the Conclusion:

Life pours back in and sheer busy-ness takes over, the Gulf fading. But over the next few weeks I make a point of getting out to the beach to look for gannets. I see none during my first few expeditions. Meanwhile back at home I eye the spot where I will build my cabin by the marsh, where I will do my small personal math, not pretending that that math will somehow save the world. Deep down I still prefer Thoreau the wildman to Thoreau the economist and I will never be as strict as Henry. But that doesn’t matter; that isn’t exactly what I am after. What I am after, I’m just beginning to understand, is knocking over the statue called comfort, and seeing if sacrifice is still a possible virtue. But that isn’t it exactly either. Less simply, I am coming to see that I am just as connected to this world as the brackish waters in my creek are, and that some sacrifice must be made, either by me or someone or something else, for my comfort.

Right before Thanksgiving I head to the beach again. The wind has kicked up and the cold come in and I finally see what I’ve been waiting for. It is a day of churning surf and all the birds, pelicans, gulls, gannets, are plunging. But if it is a show of excess then there is no question which bird is the most excessive. I’d always thought of gannets as a cold weather bird, a wind bird, and they seemed to practically exult in the wild weather, turning and dropping like fighter pilots, as if showing off. To watch them dive is to watch a great festival of excess: the birds plunge by the hundreds for fish—thwuck, thwuck, thwuck—as if they have embraced a species-wide philosophy of wild abandon.
Gannets seemed to fly in the fact of Thoreau’s less-is-more thinking. They long ago embraced a species wide philosophy of excess. Theirs is the math of more, and they repeat their high dives again and again. Because they dive so much they need more fish and because they need more fish they dive so much. And it works. There are plenty of fish and they have plenty of energy thanks to the plenty of fish. What might look like squandering is in their case strategy.

You have probably made the mental jump before me. Americans have long been proud gannets. And why not? Rather than beat ourselves up about this fact, why not admit that for many years the math made sense. It worked for us. We stumbled upon a wide-open, relatively-sparsely populated country, a country full of trees, animals, fossil fuels, gold, you name it. How were we expected to respond given the circumstances? With caution and frugality? My field guide calls gannets “gluttons” and they have to be to supply their non-stop internal engines. It’s a crazy way to live, though it seems to work for them, and should continue to work for them as long as there are fish in abundance.
I am not wagging my finger here. For my part, I’ve always been a squanderer, charging ahead, pushed by my own ambition, rarely pausing. For one thing, it seems more exciting: who wants to go through their one life bored? And if I have lived a gannet life and we have long been a nation of gannets, what of it? As long as there are fish a-plenty, why change?

And here’s another question: Is it really possible for me, and for the rest of us, to be happy with less? Is it possible to make sacrifice as attractive a virtue as ease? I’m not sure. You could argue that homo sapiens are about as likely to change our ways as gannets: we are what we are. But even the dimmest of us seem to have become aware of certain connections--between our consumption and the world--that almost no one considered forty years ago. Now, with our luck running out along with our resources, we are perhaps starting to notice things we didn’t notice then--didn’t notice or pretended not to notice. Which in turn creates a cognitive dissonance between the way we live and the way we know we should live. It would be easy enough to shrug and say, “Hey, we’re gannets, what can we do?” Except for the fact of that singular human trait that some, like the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, claimed defines us: our adaptability. The fact that we can change over a lifetime, not just over evolutionary eons. I don’t want to get hokey here and say that something is being asked of us. But maybe something is being asked of us. And maybe this time around we’ll dignify what is being asked with an answer. Even if the answer is: “Well, what the fuck do we do now?”

I don’t have any answers but I do know the question is out there. If my waiter at Applebees could preach about energy and connections to me, you know it’s in the air. It has taken a long time for most of us to understand that our wild national orgy just might just be over. Right now thousands of gannets are returning to the Gulf, where they will plunge deep, again and again. What will they find? Will there be enough fish and if there are will those fish carry secret contaminants that won’t reveal themselves for years? Stay tuned. But amid all the uncertainty one thing is certain: if the seas are empty or the fish subtly poisoned, the birds will not have the luxury of our species, that of fast adaptation. Gannets, unlike us, have no other way of being.