Romantic Poetry

BILOXI, MS – It’s five in the morning, St. Patrick’s Day 2011; I’m in a cheap motel 75 yards from the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve opened the door to let in cool pre-dawn air. I hoped to hear the surf but it’s drowned out by the hum of electric lights outside and the traffic on US 90. The first birds are beginning to sing, however, and I’m glad to hear them.

I’m escorting two Germans – Joerg and Daniel – documenting the effects of BP oil on the gulf as we approach the one-year anniversary. I’m part guide, part fixer, part cultural interpreter.

The results of their investigation are what you’d expect. I’m not going to blow their surprise if I tell you. The oil is still here, everywhere one looks. The effects on the environment are clear for those with eyes to see past three speeds of spin.

Fast spin is from BP and the other oil companies. “The oil is almost gone, thanks to our efforts and Mother Nature’s oil-eating microbes.” There are still work crews around. In the Louisiana bayous yesterday we saw them and counted 10 workers sitting on boats or driving around for every one actually raking up oil-covered vegetation.

Medium spin is from the government and mimics the corporate spin. It spins faster at the federal level and slows closer to truth the more local it gets. These folks just want it to be over, so they can move on to the economy. They’d like tourists to come back and feel safe spending money; they worry about their constituents’ livelihoods.

Slow spin is from the people themselves. They’re clearly ambivalent when they see us. Last year they were so grateful to know we were telling the world of their plight. Now they’re tired and depressed. Post-traumatic stress disorder is not just for returning soldiers here.

Yellow-ribbon magnets are still on cars here, reminding me this region bears much of the burden of our two wars, the ones we’ve mostly forgotten. They also remind me of the unrest in Middle Eastern countries pushed off the news by the disaster in Japan.

The Germans and I spend our days driving around in boats and cars. We start early and end late. We grab a meal at an IHOP or Waffle House (where cultural interpretation comes in). By the time we get to a cheap motel we’re tired but can’t sleep. We open our laptops and download the latest news from the melting reactors. We’re environmentalists and these are the disasters – massive oil spill, huge radiation leak – we warned against for so long. We talk about radiation poisoning and myriad defects of the GE boiling water reactor with the Mark I containment, a design I know too well, since it’s the same reactor type we’ve been fighting to close at home in Vermont.

I hope I appreciate nature as much as the next Greenpeacer, but I didn’t get into this business because I’m a tree-hugger. I do this for people in the small towns and rust belt cities who bear the brunt of the pollution and degradation (ecological and social) that corporate power delivers. We know the same suffering that continues in the gulf is now visited on Japanese people, only worse.

People here are wary of us this year in ways they were not in 2010. They’re tired; they’re panicking about the future. The tourists aren’t coming back. Maybe it’s oil; maybe it’s just the bad economy. They’ve lived for the last year on handouts they never wanted from a corporation that damaged them in a way they never thought possible. They’re depressed and angry.

They realize the attention of the world has now passed them by. That’s OK, they don’t want attention. They just want things to go back to the way they were before but it’s just starting to sink in that The Ways Things Were Before is a land they will never see again. Their depression and anger grow profound.

While we drive the Germans and I compare the wrecked economies of Europe and the US. We wonder what the effects will be from the blow suffered by the third-largest economy, Japan. It couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The economy, wars, oil spills, nuclear meltdown. The machine we’ve built is broken. It was poorly designed and we’ve run it carelessly for too long; it’s coming apart everywhere. The Gulf of Mexico is one place where the welds have ripped open.

I’ve been using my high school German this week. It gives Daniel and Joerg a chance to laugh, to release stress. We’re bearing witness, as our Greenpeace philosophy says we should. Along the passes of Bayou Batiste yesterday, bottlenose dolphins swam so close to the boat I could hear them breathe. Later, we came across a bottlenose corpse on the bank, its eyes gone, its jaw exposed where the flesh had rotted away. We breathed stench of its decay, bearing witness.

Maybe it’s remembering high school German, but high school poetry has been coming back, too: the apocalyptic Yeats of a century ago and the weltschmerzed Wordsworth of a century before that, at the moment we began this industrial revolution. Mr. Wordsworth was right, the world is too much with us – and we’re too much with it.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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