The Marsh Grass bows gracefully before an early morning breeze as our boat eases near the bank where the oyster reef is hiding under the gray-green water. It is shallow, and we can already see the tell-tale signs of feeding activity, big Redfish working along the reef in search of juvenile blue crab, mullet, and shrimp, their tails tipping up and down, breaking the surface as they nose the rough stubble of the beds. Quiet, so as not to spook the school, we toss our jigs as close to the grass as possible, and work back steadily, bracing for a hit. In a matter of seconds both of us have a hefty Red hooked, and the serenity is transformed to an adrenalin rush of urgency. Fishing the Louisiana marsh bays, it is a one of a kind thrill.
It is also one of the most delicate eco-systems and resources in our nation, one that has been attacked and devalued since Europeans began tromping through the muck of the bayous. And now, another threat looms off shore.
There is a delicate balance at stake in the Gulf as the oil threatens the cost. Ecologically speaking? Of course! From Letterman on late night television to the nation's news media, the stories abound of how marine and shore life is at risk. Those who depend upon the shrimp, crab, fish, and oyster harvests are wondering how they will survive another disaster. Restaurants that depend upon the fresh catches wonder if they will be able to keep their doors open.
But there is another risk, an attitude that would minimize the symbiotic relation that has developed over the last one hundred years between oil and the Gulf Coast. The coast, our nation for that matter, is as dependent upon the petro-chemical industry as it is upon the other natural products of the sea. I'm not thinking of the " tycoon" tucked in the insulation of corporate comfort or coddled returns. I'm thinking of the families, the men and women, who actually work in the petrochemical industry. The potential impact of a spill shutting down the industry is staggering in the lives of those who tend the rigs, ferry the crews, deliver the goods, design the operations, cook the meals, engineer the process, and clerk the systems.
Since Spindletop spewed to life on the Texas coast in 1901, the Gulf Coast and oil have lived together. Much of that relation has been destructive to a fragile system. But is has also generated benefits beyond measure in employment, infrastructure, and development.
Many of the men and women I know who work along the coast as engineers and geological professionals now spend as much time protecting the environment and restoring habitat as they do actually looking for deposits and drilling. This is good; this is something they do with pride. They, more than most, respect the coast and want to preserve it for every generation.
A good friend who works with a major company e-mailed me one day from a rig in the Gulf, teasing about the shrimp boil he was enjoying that moment. They had purchased the shrimp from a trawler that was pulling its nets a mere one hundred yards from their platform. From the water to the cooking pot, now that is fresh!
The metaphor is clear, of the co-dependence the coast and oil have developed, and the ability to live in a balance that benefits more than the residents along the beaches, but also those of us in any part of this nation who have to fill up to run the kids to a ball game or sit down to enjoy a stuffed flounder.
The dismissal of this balance between the ecosystem and the oil industry is, it seems, flippantly rejected by the critics on the outside who do not want to look any further than the latest aerial photograph of the oil spill. The spill is bad and should not be dismissed or trivialized. But before we blame British Petroleum or the oil industry, we had better look in the mirror of our own consumptive habits and dependence upon oil. The fact is we are all party to this catastrophe. And when a president or anyone else suggests the oil company will pay to clean up the mess? Well, they will, when the prices we willingly pay at the pump are increased.
My grandfather was a first generation rough neck, working the rigs of East Texas during that great bomb that began in 1930. I remember as a kid riding from well head to well head with him in an old, yellow Ford pick-up. Back then the oil field roads honey-combed the countryside, and there was no restriction between properties. Today you cannot drive to those wells without a key or combination, locked gates protecting land that fifty years ago was considered useless or of little value. Back when I was a boy you never saw a deer or hay meadow, and rarely a pasture. Now it is lush and filled with wild game and improved lands. During the course of my life, we have learned to live with oil and care for the environment.
Therein the answer to me, learning to be stewards of both our consumption and our environment. Learning to value our resources and protect the source is not only smart, it is holy. Respecting those who make a living providing for our habits, needs, and desires is not only decent, it is right.