The last week or so I’ve been reading that classic of naturalist writing, The Outermost House by Henry Beston, as the last of this year’s selections for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Book Club.
The book is a delight to read for those who love language – it is essentially one long prose poem. But at the same time, it is sweetly painful, as one takes the measure of all the glory that must have been lost in the time since Beston wrote.
Nothing quite prepared me, however, for encountering the following passage about halfway through the book, in the chapter titled “Winter Visitors”. Beston is described the birds that come to the Cape in winter – “a region which is to them a Florida”.
A new danger…now threatens the birds at sea. An irreducible residue of crude oil, called by refiners “slop,” remains in stills after oil distillation, and this is pumped into southbound tankers and emptied far offshore. This wretched pollution floats over large areas, and the birds alight in it and get it on their feathers. They inevitably die. Just how they perish is still something of a question. Some die of cold, for the gluey oil so mats and swabs the thick arctic feathering that creases open through it to the skin above the vitals; others die of hunger as well. Captain George Nickerson of Nauset tells me that he saw an oil-covered eider trying to dive for food off Monomoy, and that the bird was unable to plunge. I am glad to be able to write that the situation is better than it was. Five years ago, the shores of Monomoy peninsula were strewn with hundreds, even thousands, of dead sea fowl, for the tankers pumped out slop as they were passing the shoals – into the very waters, indeed, on which the birds have lived since time began! Today oil is more the chance fate of the unfortunate individual. But let us hope that all such pollution will presently end.
Oh, unfortunate individuals of the Gulf Coast, how I mourn for you and your “chance fate”. I suppose we can take heart that we are no longer purposefully discharging “slop” into the ocean – we aren’t, are we? – but it’s slim comfort.
But no matter. I heard a story on NPR the other day about how the oil slicks haven’t made it to the beaches of the Gulf Coast yet, so the white sands are still sparkly. And the state tourist bureaus are hard at work on ad development to reassure you that your vacation need not be ruined or delayed by any distressing sights on the beach; all is well! Out of sight, out of mind! The only oil you need to worry about is the tanning oil on the shapely young lass on the beach towel in this tourist ad! (There’s nothing female flesh can’t sell!) Come relax, spend your dollars, support our local tourist industry, and forget about the environment for awhile! It’s all good! Till it’s not.