Is there any more beautiful, yet over-exploited, abused and benighted place in America than the Louisiana Gulf coast? Okay, maybe Appalachia. But today we've got to give this tragic distinction to the delta, where a massive, growing, seemingly unstoppable oil slick is now impinging on its vast, fragile marshlands.
I'll never forget my first visits there. Drive out through cypress swamps and pass strip malls you might see anywhere. Then you'll enter small communities organized along bayous, former Mississippi River tributaries whose banks provide high ground and traditional living space. The people are mostly energy industry workers and fishermen. Hundreds of shrimp boats line the channels. Keep driving, and the homes and seafood shacks finally disappear and there's nothing but marsh grass and water seemingly going on forever. In winter, especially, the light is pale and gorgeous.
This is a landscape in rapid transition - to oblivion. Thanks to the leveeing of the Mississippi River, the normal deltaic cycle of spring flooding and silt deposition abruptly ended in the 19th century, and the entire region began to sink and erode. Then about 100 years ago, the oil and gas industries entered the picture. For decades they drilled wells, built pipelines and other facilities, dumped their waste and carved channels throughout the marshes, greatly hastening the delta's decline before decamping to offshore operations.
This story is an essential part of the background to Hurricane Katrina and why New Orleans remains so vulnerable to storm surges. But the small towns out on the marshes are already in deep peril as the land they sit on dissolves. So also goes the huge estuarine ecosystem that is both a unique natural treasure (the people trying to save it call it "America's Wetland") and vital economically, the source for shrimp, oysters, redfish and other staples. If you want to see the drama of climate change - sea level rise, rapid environmental changes and economic uncertainty - play out before your eyes in months or years rather than decades, just take a trip down Bayou Lafourche.
Now add to those insults the giant oil spill, which will foul the marshes and hurt aquatic and other forms of wildlife for the foreseeable future, leaving an additional, historic legacy of damage we can't yet assess. It's awful. Louisiana has benefited economically from the oil industry. And there's a measure of justice in that planned marsh preservation and restoration projects depend in part on offshore drilling royalties. But since Europeans first settled there 300 years ago, Louisiana has borne the brunt of catastrophic misjudgments over exploitation of the land and natural resources. That trend, it seems, continues.
This post first appeared on my True/Slant blog.