Where My Soul Lived
Earth Day Sunday 2011, Seaside, Florida.
A smiling man with a clipboard makes his way along the sand, stopping to talk to each group, mostly condo renting tourists. As he nears I can hear him:
Have you been here before?
Is the beach clean?
Do you see oil?
Do you see changes?
Do you think we’re doing a good job?
So I sit in my chair waiting my turn.
He arrives in front of me all tan, clean golf shirt, khaki,
and a smile to make an orthodontist proud.
He asks Will you take part in a survey?
I smile back and tell him I will be happy to.
He wants to know where I'm from.
I point southwest out over the water. I was born on Galveston, Texas.
I point southeast out over the water. I live near Clearwater.
I look him in the eye. I point straight west.
Half my family is from about a hundred miles north northwest of Deep Water Horizon.
He pauses, the smile leaving his eyes, becoming stiff on his mouth. He takes a careful breath.
Have you been here before?
Why yes, yes I have. Three or four times a year since 1981, 30 years come May.
He exhales the held breath and marks a box on his page about me.
Is the beach clean?
Pristine, I tell him. The sand is white as sugar and twice as fine. But…
He raises his eyebrows.
Where are the fiddler crabs? You know, those cute little crabs speckled to match the sand running out of the little holes they dug ceaselessly. Where they lived. They run out, grab a bit of rot and then run back in? Thousands used to live on this stretch alone.
He looks at me.
Where are the sand pipers? Little birds running the tideline in synchronized flocks eating bits and never getting their feet wet by the incoming wave? All day, every day.
He wrinkles his brow, pen hovering over the next set of check boxes on the page. He clears his throat.
Is the water clean?
Crystal clear, I tell him. But where are the blue crabs walking on the bottom? Where are the orange rimmed black starfish? Where are the swirling masses of minnows? They used to look like dark tornadoes. Where are the bigger fish that make the children and the northerners scream when they swim passed, brushing legs?
He wrinkles his brow again, now frowning at the sanctioned answer boxes. The margins are filling with my unsanctioned answers. He takes another breath and tries another smile.
Have you seen any oil?
No. I have not, but look. I rise and walk down to the wet, motioning for him to follow. I scoop up a double handful of sand and water. Where are the mussels? The little bivalves in all colors of the rainbow wriggling back under the sand as the waves recede. They eat microscopic pieces of tide borne food.
I look at him. Did you know they are food, that we can eat them?
He shakes his head slowly.
Gather enough, boil briefly in sea water. Like clams, only tiny, so it takes a while to gather enough for a meal.
I drop the sand at my feet and rinse my hands in the toe deep water. I ruffle the tideline with my big toe.
Shelling is good this year,
No need to leave them in the yard for the ants to clean.
Everything is already dead and empty.
His sunglass covered eyes struggle to hold a neutral expression.
But the beach and the water are clean?
Spotless. Thanks to the chemical dispersant y'all sprayed on the slick before it reached here. Never mind it’s more deadly than the oil. Oil floats. It lands. It’s a mess. Oh yes, I remember the Galveston spill, before you were born. Globs and chunks, so dirty and ugly it wrecked the beach that year and tar balls still stain your feet, even now. Dead birds, dead fish, dead turtles, whatever once lived along that stretch. Expensive clean up. A PR nightmare. But it was a small spill by today’s standards. It healed.
I look out at the water and back at him.
Game fishing is great this year, but weird. Big game fish are coming right up into the warm shallow bay like they never did before.You see, they're hungry. There is a famine in the Gulf. Last year’s dispersant killed this years food.
He stares at me, his clipboard at his side.
It left a cloud on the bottom instead of globs on top, hundreds of feet deep and hundreds of miles long, where the larvae live. Write that down. Write. That. Down.
Yes, you kept the beaches clean. Yes, you will pay out far less to the hotels and restaurants, the tshirt shops and tiki huts, the businesses that suffered “economic loss” and all the people who worked for them. You can show pretty pictures of white sand, sterile and barren, and clean water, turquoise and jade, instead of the mess.
I point again.
He does, and looks back up at me and my friend, two crazy old beach ladies drinking illegal beers out of 7-11 thermal mugs.
I smile at him.
This is not what you wanted to hear, is it?
No, no, he waves my words away.
We want to hear it all.
You live near here? What did you do Before?
Walking the beach is not what this obvious MBA did before The Crash. He has one of those BP promised jobs. Freeport, he says, and I don’t remember which economy tanked career he had Before.
I have held him here 10 minutes now. By the way he looks at his watch and then down the beach I know he is being paid by the page.
I’m sorry to keep you, but one more thing. Smell that?
He sniffs. Smell what?
Exactly. Where is the sea smell? That slightly fishy organic scent carried on the Gulf breeze? The scent of the creatures that live in and off of it. Gone. Gone. Write that down, too.
Ok, I’m done. Be on your way. I extend my hand to shake his, thank him for his patience and wish him luck. He tucks the clipboard under his arm and takes my hand.
One more thing.
A pained look crosses his face.
Will you be back next year?
He looks down the beach and shrugs, I don’t know.
He waves and walks to the next group of condo renting tourists.
I turn to my friend. My face shatters into a thousand wrinkles. I lay my head in her neck,
dropping tears down her back while I breathe the salt perfume tobacco sunscreen scent of her.
A year has passed. Eight months since my friend died and I have finally arrived at that place in mourning where I can leave the house without a chore. Sunscreen, cooler, 7-11 mug, chair. I drive to the big water where my soul used to live. Not the groomed tourist beach, the fishing spot on the causeway where the locals and the poor people go.
So here I sit wielding the word net her ghost gave me.
I watch for the fiddler crabs, but they don’t live here anymore.
I watch for the sandpipers, but they are gone, too.
One species of gull instead of five. No pelicans at all.
I watch a speckled bird walking, turning over rock after rock after rock
looking for what doesn’t live under them anymore.
The rocks are covered with silt instead of seagrass, which is washing up dead, broken and decaying on the tideline. No mussels. Not even any shells this year.
I watch 3 different men cast nets for bait, come up empty and leave. I watch people come here to fish one of the best spots in the county, only to give up and leave without their dinner.
In the distance, across the blue and green span of Hurricane Pass the Clearwater Beach hotels rise high with clean white sand and blue umbrellas. Spring break families brave the still cold but sparkling clean water. Sea breeze with no scent still deposits salt in their hair and on their lips. They dine on shrimp farmed in Thailand and never know the difference.
I sit at the no wake border and watch the wakes keep on washing up. The Guaranteed Dolphin Sightings With Free Beer and Wine Boat makes a u turn when a dorsal fin is spotted. I saw it, too, but that was a shark, not a dolphin. The dolphins are all having miscarriages because of the dispersant. The pilot cuts the engine and I can hear the muffled speaker telling the passengers the history of Hurricane Pass carried on the wind.
Some line was crossed that changed me into one of those telling the stories instead of listening. An old one telling stories of the old days. No. Not that long ago. Just stories from Before, a grandmother passing memories, details to be forgotten by the new listeners, of how things used to be.
April 17, 2012
Earth Day, to honor the dead of the Gulf of Mexico during the ongoing disaster of Deep Water Horizon