Last Stand

[published in unspOiLed.: Writers Speak for Florida’s Coast (2010)]

Welcome to Mississippi.  First, the bad news:  you’re too late.  Your granddaddy’s granddaddy might have seen a thing or two here.  Flocks of pigeons so big you could smell them coming, before you saw the darkening sky.  Cypress trunks so big you could build your house inside, and sleep on a Spanish-moss bed.  Bison herds thundering over sea-shell prairie, hooves stained red from wild strawberries.  Pine woods rolling like a flower-strewn sea; canebrakes you could fight through for days.  Panthers screaming in the swamp, parakeets swirling down the bayou, red wolves cackling round your campfire.

All that is gone.  We cut down that cane to get at the black earth, and then we drained that earth and drugged it and wore it out with our one precious crop, until the weevil and the flood exposed our weakness and cast us into squalor.  We hacked at those pines to get at the resin inside, and then we left them to bleed and to blow down, until the rolling sea was a sea of stumps and the clear Pearl was brown with washed-off mud; and then we denied the beaten woods of its fire, until the little pines were choked by thickets and the cattle had nothing to eat and the people had nothing to grow.  We chased down that game for food and for sport, beating the pigeons with clubs, trapping the bears in their dens, until the great flocks and herds and the fearsome things were gone, and we stood alone with a few hundred fugitive deer and gaped at what we’d done.  And in a final, harshest slur, we paved over what was left with vast landscapes of our own invention:  the asphalt sea, the soybean prairie, the dark and barren pulp-tree woods.  Beneath them lies not only a defeated land, but a buried history:  a history of exhaustion.         

But wait.  What if I were to tell you of something else:  a secret island, a place beyond the reach of the skidder and the combine and the backhoe?  A place where the eagles still wheel, and the gnarled pines still strain against the wind, and the green turtles still heave themselves out of the surf, just as they did for the frigates of Iberville and the first canoes of the Biloxi—as they did, even, when this swatch of sand first breached the tide, back in the days of Moses?  A place where you can still watch the galaxy whirl overhead, and listen to the sand shuffle itself underfoot, and feel your mind loose itself from the snarl of civilized life?  A last redoubt of wildness, solitude, romance?  What would such a place be worth to you?

That question is not rhetorical.  The place exists:  a humped serpent of sand draped between the Mississippi Sound and the open Gulf, four humps clearing the waterline, each garnished with pine, cordgrass, sea oats, and a French name—l’Isle aux Chats (Cat Island), l’Isle des Vasseaux (Ship Island), l’Isle a Corne (Horn Island), and l’Isle de Petit Bois.  These are four of the last unblemished pearls in the barrier-island necklace that lines America, a chain that is one of the great natural wonders of the world, the longest of its kind.  Their remoteness has preserved their life:  turtles grazing through undersea meadows, terns clamoring on spits of white sand, dolphins frisking in the passes, gators trolling the salty lagoons, songbirds raining from April skies.  It has also preserved their mythology.  The islands throng with stories, from the rum-runners of Smugglers’ Cove to the buried gold of the Empress of Mexico, from the lighthouse keeper’s ghost to the mad painter who laughed into the teeth of Hurricane Betsy.  These, like the plover or the leatherback, are fragile too:  uprooted, they wither.

The islands owe their resilience, paradoxically, to their ephemerality.  They are living, breathing, moving things, fed by riverborne Appalachian quartz, chased westward by waves and wind, reshaped and resurfaced by the great storms.  They wriggle out from under lighthouses and strand them in the surf; they emerge and submerge like Brigadoon.  Petit Bois was born in Alabama, a bud at the tip of Dauphin Island; orphaned by a 19th-century tempest, it struck out on its own and slouched across the border over the course of a hundred years.  Ship Island was cloven in two by Camille, its eastern half nearly wiped off the map by Katrina.  Cat, trapped at a clash of currents, was pounded into a crossbow shape and split along saltmarsh seams. 

And for over three centuries now, barely visible from shore as they slide along the horizon, these drifts of sand have continually slipped through the fingers of civilization.  Ship Island was chosen as the site of a proud Civil War-era fort; after the death of several hundred soldiers from sun, storms, yellow fever, and ennui, the project was abandoned.  (Its ruins still stand, shored up artificially by inputs of sand.)  Just west of Horn, tiny Dog Island was cannily renamed “Isle of Caprice” and developed as a casino resort, with Prohibition revellers encouraged to “Join the Pleasure Throng”; five years later, the entire island had been swallowed by the sea.  (The sea oats that had stitched the sand together had been cut and sold to a Chicago florist.)  During World War II, four hundred dogs and twenty-five Japanese-Americans were dropped off on Cat, on the premise that the former could be trained to sniff out the latter; the scheme ended in failure and infamy.  More ambitious plans were later afoot, but when the National Park Service bought the islands—setting aside Horn and Petit Bois as wilderness areas, the most rigorous form of preservation possible—it seemed that Mississippi’s crown jewels had their happy ending.

Here is what it says in the Wilderness Act, in one of the bravest and loveliest passages in the whole of our law:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

And here is what has happened since:  that brave claim has been skirted, twisted, eroded, and massaged to the verge of collapse.  The shallow Sound has been riddled with ship channels, clearing the way for millions of barrels of crude each year to feed the giant refinery at Pascagoula, and millions of tons of Colombian coal to feed the power plants of the South.  Channel dredging has seized vast amounts of sand from the great Coastal Plain rivers—a million dump-truck loads from Mobile Bay alone—and shunted it offshore, far out of reach of the sediment-starved islands.  Horn has lost a quarter of its land; Ship, a staggering two-thirds.  This year’s maps will be obsolete by next, as the waves eat away at the spits and bars, bringing nothing in return.

There are more direct pressures.  Fair-game federal waters begin just three miles south, and the latest oil and gas leases nudge right up to that boundary, which could mean platforms within shouting distance of Horn.  Though the companies assure us that the Valdez days are over, small spills are still routine, especially along one of the most hurricane-prone coastlines in the world.  Mercury-laden drilling fluids have caused Superfund-level contamination around some Gulf rigs, seeping far enough into the food chain to render grouper too toxic to eat.  But if it comes to it, we can live with a three-mile buffer, right?

How about one mile?  That’s the distance to the National Seashore’s boundary with Mississippi state waters—waters now ripe for drilling, thanks to a shrewd new law.  Frustrated by the reluctance of oil and gas companies to brave the state Department of Environmental Quality’s leasing process, legislators here took away the department’s jurisdiction and handed it to the Mississippi Development Authority.  Public hearings once held on the coast have been moved to Jackson, forcing locals to drive three hours to make their voices heard. 

But even one mile was too much to ask.  Closest of all to home is an amendment quietly tucked into 2005’s military spending bill and passed by Congress (the same body, of course, that gave us the Wilderness Act).  It allows oil and gas prospectors to conduct seismic surveying—the blasting of underwater explosives or giant airguns, often audible across dozens of miles, panicking and disorienting creatures within earshot—on Gulf Islands National Seashore property.  It also allows them to drill into the Seashore from outside, in case there’s any oil or gas to suck out from the islands’ underbelly—potentially exposing them to the same processes that have drowned hundreds of thousands of acres of Louisiana wetlands.  In tandem with a 2003 Park Service memo forfeiting the right to block such intrusions, this legislation has effectively made the Seashore’s boundary porous to the point of disintegration.

For thousands of years, these islands have found strength in fluidity, sliding and merging and dissolving like amoebae, yielding gracefully to winds and currents too stiff to resist.  Now, hemmed in on all sides, they may have run out of moves.  Wilderness—priceless in theory—poses too much of a temptation, or an affront, to be left unpriced.

But it may not be too late to take a stand on their behalf—and not only on theirs, but on behalf of the wild spaces that remain across the Gulf.  I’ve glimpsed them in Florida, from the wolf-haunted ridges and swales of St. Vincent Island to the boundless seagrass of the Big Bend to the dazzling shell beaches and mangrove labyrinths of  the Southwest.  You will be told, as we all have, that your duty to these places is fully compatible—to the best of our knowledge; so reads the fine print—with the wise use of resources.  What does this mean?  That it is worth accepting a small risk, a risk to nature, for the sake of maintaining business as usual.  On its own, such an argument is seductive.  But we are distractible creatures, our memories delicate and short.   The next time we are asked to take such a risk, we will have learned to live with the consequences of the last.  As our wild places ail—and they have, and will, as long as our knowledge lags our appetite—our baselines for wildness drift.

So much depends on the dominant mode on shore that it was necessary for me to come to sea to find the conditional.  Everything seems conditional on the islands.  Out there, if I eat I live, if something stronger than I doesn’t destroy me.

That’s Walter Inglis Anderson, the artist who spent the last twenty years of his life rowing out to Horn, ten miles each way in a plywood skiff, distilling the island’s color and motion into riots of paint.  He wrote also of three forms of poetry:  one of unrefined nature, one of civilized art, and a third poetry, “sometimes never written,” that unites the two.  This final and greatest accomplishment does not come easy.  It depends, as Anderson learned, on the existence of special places—places of “infinite refreshment,” as he called Horn—where one can leave the dominant mode behind, and confront nature on her own terms.  Such places are fewer and farther between than ever.  Can we love them enough?

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