Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Gulf Situation and the Destructive Effects of Oil: More Childhood Memories

We often don't think to write about the things closest to us.  Because they're, of course, familiar to us, and we assume that means they're familiar to others.

It suddenly hit me today why I am so absolutely certain what the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will do to the ecology of the area it affects, and why that grieves me so.  I'm certain of the effects of the oil spill because I grew up seeing the results of mini-oil spills all around me.  And what I saw was invariably horrific.

From the time I was 9 years old until I graduated from high school, my family lived in a county in south Arkansas that was a major oil-producing area.  My father's parents had moved up to south Arkansas from Louisiana during the 1920s, when he was a boy, because of the oil boom there.  It provided well-paying jobs for farmers like my grandfather, who had been barely scratching a living from the soil in the first decades of the 20th century.

Growing up in the middle of an oil boom was, for my father as a child, a romantic experience, one that provided him with many colorful stories for the rest of his life.  The gushers, the sense of excitement about all the new-found wealth flowing from the ground, the hucksters who descended like locusts on the camps of workers to set up gambling tents: this was high drama for my father.  Stories he wrote in college about these experiences earned high marks with encouragement to publish.

My father even had fond memories of playing around the dangerous oil pumps with his brother and cousins.  They would, he claimed, climb onto the pumps and ride them astride like bucking broncos.  And when sloughs of water formed around land that had been dug out to facilitate the extraction of the oil, they'd swim in the sloughs, ending up with hair dyed red from the oil in the water.

Those years of high drama were long gone by the time I grew up in the same area.  What remained, though, were the visible signs of the damage done to the landscape of south Arkansas by the oil industry.  They were everywhere.  Dotted throughout our county and nearby counties were patches of, well, wilderness amidst the lush greenery of south Arkansas--places that looked as if someone had sown them with salt, so that they would never support life again.

These were easily recognizable precisely because they stood out so starkly against the backdrop of green, the pine forests and rolling hills covered with sumac, kudzu, sedge grass, and other local flora.  Where oil had been spilled, where its extraction had resulted in any noticeable seepage of the oil into the surrounding countryside, everything was dead.  Brown and sere.

And it remained dead, some forty years after oil had been discovered in the area, a mute testament to the ability of human beings, through our interaction with a piece of nature, not only to destroy all the life in that patch of nature, but to make life insupportable there for the foreseeable future.

Why do I doubt the promises of the current administration that things will not only return to normal, ecologically speaking, for the Gulf region, but will even be better than they were before?  Because I've seen at close hand what even small oil spills do to a natural area.

Oil is a highly destructive substance.  What it kills, it kills decisively.  The effects of an oil spill are long-range and long-lasting.  We're not going to see the Gulf of Mexico returned to anything like normalcy for a long time to come.  If ever.

And for that I mourn.

Later in the day: scientists are now warning of a "mass die-off" in this "environmental catastrophe unparalleled in U.S. history."