Environmental writer David Gessner was a thousand miles away in North Carolina when a friend suggested he travel to the Gulf and cover the spill. At first, Gessner couldn’t really see the point.
An associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the author of eight books, Gessner (My Green Manifesto, Return of the Osprey) didn’t see himself as the right person to cover the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. “This is not the kind of nature you write about, ” he told himself. “You write about birds and the coast, and you are not a journalist who chases stories.”
But he remembered something the great naturalist John Muir said about the connections in life — “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else” — and changed his mind. Gessner decided he needed to experience firsthand the reasons we were “giving up some of our land, and our people, so the rest of us can keep living the way we do.”
The results of his investigation make up the passionately subversive, openhearted essays in The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill, a book for all those who never quite believed BP when the company triumphantly capped the spill in July, dispersed the oil and claimed that all was well.
From the minute he sets foot in Florida, Gessner finds a different story unfolding, the first signs of which are the highly paid local crews he sees scouring a Florida beach clean of the “tarballs” of the title — wearing “fluorescent BP vests” and cautioned by the company not to talk to civilians.
But civilians are more than happy to talk to Gessner, who interviews the people who live and work in the thick of it: locals, shrimpers, fishermen, seafood company owners, rangers, scientists, naturalists and marine biologists.
With their help, he documents BP’s sweep-it-under-the-carpet techniques and policies, their history of cost-cutting and accidents and the questionable decision to let them run the cleanup. The picture that emerges is grim, but for all the potential damage from the spill and the chemical dispersants used to mask it — to the wetlands, the migratory birds, marine life and the nearly invisible organisms at the lowest rung of the food chain — Gessner’s chief concern in The Tarball Chronicles isn’t BP.
It’s what this latest disaster symbolizes: America’s inability to recognize that in the pursuit of more fossil fuels, we’re turning a blind eye to the risks involved. “Are we so desperate for this one particular type of fuel that we are willing to sacrifice our beautiful places, ” he asks, “in a desperate attempt to slurp up what is left?”
The answer should lie in environmentalism, but as we now know it, Gessner says, its warnings are too dire; the term “global warming” has become a cudgel used to pound concerned citizens into hopelessness. “Maybe, ” he writes, “it’s time for the word environmentalism to go away altogether.”
Instead, Gessner offers a blueprint for a more fluid, less black-and-white approach, based on the sort of sacrifice that has always been part of the ebb and flow of life: Homegrown solutions, based on realistic expectations, from the same people who make their living off an at-risk ecosystem and are willing to fight for it.
He talks to a local fishing and hunting guide in Louisiana who explains how the Mississippi River could be freed from its levees to allow freshwater to flow back into the wetlands, replenishing and replacing lost acreage. One of the country’s leading experts on coastal geology, who has long warned of overbuilding on the shores, points out why sandbagging is bad for beaches and how letting “a few houses plop into the sea” is good coastal management.
Gessner repeatedly points out the dangers of any system that goes against nature and “seems to hint at the perfectibility of man.” He’d like to see engineers “work with the world and not against it.” And when mistakes are made, he suggests we keep “an honest ledger sheet, ” not sink the evidence to the ocean floor with chemical dispersants.
Above all, we need to understand what we’re in danger of losing: “It’s about this beautiful gray river and the osprey and the line of clouds and the roseate spoonbill. It’s about what is best even if we sometimes forget what best really is. It’s about wildness, a wildness that is still there inside our human chests and that vibrates like a tuning fork when we see a match for our wildness in the world.”
For those interested in putting the Gulf crisis in perspective, there can be no better guide than this funny, often uncertain, frank, opinionated, always curious, informed and awestruck accounting of how we’ve gone wrong and could go right, a full-strength antidote to the Kryptonite of corporate greed and human ignorance.
By its end, we, too, are hitched back to everything else, including a glimmer of hope.