Oil and the "Chance Fate of the Unfortunate Individual"

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.

More like this

It is stories like this that need to be brought out to remind people. Specifically, when I hear "Oh, you environmentalists, you predicted doom in 1950 and 1960 and 1970 and it never happened!!!!

What we need to be reminded of is that we fought tooth and nail for regulations needed to stop idiotic things like the sludge dumping referred to here and many other things. The result of the environmental movement was to clean up the environment and reduce the level of damage being done. It worked. It is not done, but what was done did in fact work.

It's not good anymore.

BP and Louisian politicians are trying to sell the idea that if you can't see it on the beach, it does no harm. Don't buy it. They're destroying the Gulf, from the bottom up:

Giant oil plumes found under Gulf

Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.


âThereâs a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,â said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. âThereâs a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.â

It is all our fault a little bit. I don't know why anyone would drill in such risky places without the freakish demand we have for oil here. The risk was taken so we can do shit like drive to the beach whenever we want. All those times I could have walked but drove instead keep coming back to me when I look at the oil spill.

It is wretched, wretched, wretched, about the Gulf. "So how's that 'drill, baby, drill' thing workin' out for ya?" isn't even funny anymore.

Agreed: The Outermost House is a wonderful book. Takes some getting used to the pace of it, but it's truly lyrical. We are lucky to have so much of outer Cape Cod preserved as National Seashore.

Cape Cod (Nantucket Sound) is now poised to be the site of the USA's first offshore wind farm. It's had very intense local opposition here, largely by people with property in sight of its proposed location. But Federal approval means it's good to go, in theory. The Gulf disaster has taken some wind (har!) from the sails of the NIMBY crowd but they will still try to hold it up in the courts.

I felt I must reply. Strangely enough, and I am a firm believer in serendipity, I was quoting from Outermost House myself just last week, and even more amazingly, just picked up a new copy of it.

I think one of the most important things here and now that is vastly different from 100 years ago is that so many people believe that we must have an either/or situation, and that just isn't true. It might take awhile, and it might mean some years of sacrifices, but once we free ourselves from dependency on fossil fuels, we can finally move forward with some semblance of decency toward Mother Earth.

By Mary Hartery (not verified) on 16 May 2010 #permalink

- we aren't, are we? -

What, are you kidding? A few years ago I looked at a house being rented by a guy with family in the heating oil business, and he regaled me with tales of how twice or three times a week they'll steal a truck's worth of oil -- 500 gallons' worth, that is, of #2 heating oil, which is just kerosene with red dye in it -- drive door-to-door and sell what they can out of it, and then, in order to avoid bringing back a half-full truck which would make the theft of oil obvious, they go and dump what's left over into the Jones Falls -- just pump it straight out of the truck and into the water.

And that's in a place where a lot of rich liberal yuppies fondle themselves to thoughts that they Care about the Environment, but somehow there's never enough tax money for the regulatory agencies charged with preventing that kind of pollution and penalizing the companies which engage in it -- which would put heating-oil thieves and their dumping practices out of business in a hurry, just as soon as Carroll Fuel got that first ten-thousand-dollar fine.

So I'm thinking, way out where there's not even a neutered regulator to see, who's going to scruple for an instant at pumping the lees of their tanks into the ocean?

I feel so terribly sad about this. I'm a native Floridian, and know that area well - the Florida-Alabama coastline is lovely. Well, was. I spent many happy days enjoying the beaches along the "Redneck Riviera" and am utterly incensed at the cavalier attitude so many are taking toward this (including the "oh, the ocean leaks way more than that daily" crowd, who I'd love to just dump in some of the oil washing ashore).

I moved to Massachusetts a few years back, and have been listening to the ongoing to-do that sandy mentioned:

Cape Cod (Nantucket Sound) is now poised to be the site of the USA's first offshore wind farm. It's had very intense local opposition here, largely by people with property in sight of its proposed location.

The irony is that a huge percentage of those people shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joes, and recycle, and are all self-congratulatory about their "green" and "organic" lifestyle.

Yet another group of people to fantasize about dumping in the oil spill, I guess.

By OleanderTea (not verified) on 22 May 2010 #permalink