Watching the Oil Spill


Letter from Our Southern Editor


Dear Lorin,

It’s strange that, right as you confer on me the undeserved (but I hope not wasted) honor of Southern Editorship, this region would reclaim its hold on the American imagination. I refer to the underwater live feed of the oil leak. Are you watching it? Down here we do little else. I made these notes on the experience. They may not be appropriate for the new blog. You said on the phone, if I remember, that you wanted to cover “the intersection of culture and everyday life.” But the leak has simply overpowered culture, to the extent that anything happening in that department now assumes a ghoulish cast.

You can feel the other millions of people watching, especially late at night, and at times there has even been a Lincoln’s Death Train quality to this thing, a sense of shared, and deliberately prolonged, mass shock.

On YouTube, collections have formed of people’s favorite moments from the feed, sequences they found beautiful, or ones that appear to support a theory they developed about something BP did and lied about.

When something odd occurs in the frame—when three orange sponge-looking objects float by, for example, or when a striped tube-shaped thing rises up at the left and vanishes into the oil—there’s this reflex to call out to the others, and verify that they’ve seen it.

One clip going around shows an eel that swims up to the plume and hangs out for a few seconds, like, What the . . .

It looks as if they’ve somehow beamed a Victorian-era smokestack to the bottom of the ocean, and it’s billowing brown ash.

The oil is changing. It’s getting darker. Go on Google. AP headline: GULF OIL PLUME DARKER; NOT GOOD NEWS, EXPERT SAYS. Apparently there are natural variations in oil deposits, strata. The darker the heavier, this Texas expert says. The darker the more toxic.

Jack: What is that?

Egg: Black blood of the earth.

Jack: You mean oil?

Egg: No, black blood of the earth!

(Remember? From Big Trouble in Little China?)

“This well is evil,” said energy analyst Byron King to The Washington Post.

Getting up every day to proof of its continual blasting brings to mind two lines from the late Vic Chesnutt’s song “Big Huge Valley”:

And the oil is pumping up out of the dirt, Yes, those virile dinosaurs continue to squirt.

Oil’s not made of dead dinosaurs, I just learned. Probably a person could have figured that out by thinking about it—not enough of them. There may be stray dinosaurs in there, somewhere. Mostly it’s algae, though, or more than algae, the single-celled aquatic organisms, which grow and die endlessly over the eons, drift to the bottom, help make sediments . . .

A good book, The Last Dinosaur Book, goes into the origins of the oil-and-dinosaurs connection. In the 1930s, the Sinclair Refining Company needed a way to make their gasoline stand out from the competition’s. They decided to emphasize, in their marketing, the supposedly great age of the particular crude deposits they’d been working with, so Bronty the Brontosaurus debuted as the company’s mascot. For a while you could pull up to the pump at a Sinclair station and order not Premium or Regular but Jurassic or Mesozoic . . .

Local news has tar blobs floating up on the barrier islands, here in southeastern North Carolina. They showed a kid letting one dangle from his fingers like black snot. The scientists say the oil can’t have reached this far that fast. Yet the natives say they’ve never seen tar balls before. A coincidence? The story may be both urban legend and omen. The scientists say the real oil should be here before the end of July.

There’s a pitiful comic effect to the “dispersant wand,” the small hose that pokes naggingly at the cloud-dragon, releasing a constant white puff of the toxic chemical Corexit, millions of gallons of which will have, we are told, an “unknown effect” on the marine biology of the Gulf. Visually, the wand is like the guy’s finger in Chris Rock’s joke about the wrong way to ask for something unusual in bed. “Excuse me, ah . . . excuse me, excuse me . . .”

It was disturbing how Obama, in his first big speech on the oil, kept reassuring us that the federal government was in charge of BP, that BP couldn’t do anything without the government’s “say-so.” We live at a time when most people aren’t sure if the senators or the CEOs win in an open power struggle.

My dad never used to let us buy gas from BP. I had forgotten this. It was a common (because essentially effortless) Irish-American affectation. He’d pass up a roadside exit, with the needle squarely on E, if the only station there were a BP. So at the risk of walking with the can, we’d wait to patronize a benevolent establishment such as Sunoco.

Anyone trying to tell you how bad this thing will be or won’t be is at best overconfident. Nobody knows. We just poisoned the well-source of a planetary current. In the words of Samantha Joye, a marine biologist at the University of Georgia who’d just spent a week on a ship surveying the undersea oil clouds, this infusion of oil and gas, happening where it’s happening, is “unlike anything . . . certainly in human history.” The death of fisheries, the by now most likely unstoppable devastation of the reefs off the Florida Keys, and the Gulf itself changed into an oxygen-starved dead zone for who knows how long—those are some massive ecological dominoes to push over and hope nothing happens.

Big sharks are coming in closer to shore than they normally do. Some are lethargic and appear disoriented. “Something’s going on,” says a marine biologist. Scientists have spotted dolphins spewing heavy oil from their blowholes. In Florida one researcher is trying to create a laboratory “ark,” to preserve coastal species for eventual reintroduction.

Macondo. That’s the name of the oil field to which this well belongs. Taken, presumably, from the name of the village in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Is anyone looking into whether Gabriel García Márquez can sue BP?

They say that if a big-enough hurricane comes—and the leak will make them stronger by heating the Gulf waters—there could be oil on the streets in New Orleans.

It reminds me of a kid I met last summer. I was teaching at a college in the mountains in Tennessee. Living next door was a family that had been displaced by Katrina. The dad, a soccer coach, looked exactly like Roman Polanski. I mean he looked exactly like Roman Polanski. “People have been telling me that all my life,” he said. “I don’t even know who he is.” Very nice neighbor. But he and his Irish-looking wife had produced this cherubic blond boy named Michael. And Michael loved to drive in circles around their front yard
in a motorized miniature race car, wearing a sharp-toothed grimace of reckless intensity on his little angel face. One day he came over. At our house there were usually two or three people sitting in the front room playing guitars and mandolins and things. Every person you meet in Tennessee plays about four instruments. On this particular day we were sitting there in the afternoon, and people were singing, and Michael walked through the screen door. I particularly remember that he didn’t knock. He went and picked up a guitar that someone had put down. “I have a song,” he said, “Can I play my song?” Of course, of course, we all said. “I have to do my strings first,” he said. With that he went at the tuning pegs furiously, tightening some and loosening others. People leaned forward—a prodigy? But no, he’d done it all randomly, he’d seen his dad do it or something. When he strummed, it made cacophony, which satisfied him. He threw back his head and banged out his single atonal chord. “Ohhhh, Lord,” he sang, “Miss my city of New Orleans . . . Ohhhh, Lord! Sixty-seven miles to New Orleans . . . That’s my city . . . Thirty-two miles to see my city . . .” It went on for about two minutes. Afterward, when he’d gone, we agreed that if Buddy Bolden himself had been present, he would have been well pleased with this boy.

Oil in the streets, Jesus.

Jesus Christ, if you have the least desire left in you to exist, now would be the time to kill this well. Descend in glory and nuke it.

Everybody who isn’t working for somebody says it will flow all summer.