THE PICTURE DRAWN BY KAREN'S GPS
A BLUE LINE IN THE OCEAN
"We're driving on water, in the Gulf. I don't like this," Karen says.
MOTHERSHIP IN THE GULF
Beauty of end times
Grand Isle, Louisiana
Karen, Sadie, me
The first pickup pulls out of Grand Isle State Park. Two men in t-shirts, windows down, elbows out windows. Houses on stilts ten feet off the ground. Bridge disappeared, with men fishing off the side. Fire charred pilings. House boats, and fishing boats. Evening light off the water. Narrow towns. Narrow land. Barrier lands. Grasses. Swamp or marsh. We've had it defined for us, but what is it when you're really seeing? Wetlands. The grasses slow the waves on the way in. A necessary beauty. Witnessing a grieving community. We'll handle it. How to enter this world. The drive in. The one you don't see anymore if you live here. Whereever you live.
Driving to Grand Isle last night, I slow the mothership for two dogs, and a man fishing off the side of the road. He turns to wave, returning my gesture, I think, and then I realize he is pointing, not at me, but away, like he's saying, "Over there." I'm off the road. The highway has crossed the canal—is that what you call it, canal? We turn around, stop beside him to admit the error of our ways. He nods. We hear the Cajun accent, "Grand Isle," in the native voice.
Signs by the side of the road: We can't work or swim—how the Hell we gonna raise our kids? Alongside the simultaneous defense of the family, the village. The homeland. Homeland Security's here too. "That's just the news, the two men in the volunteer Fire Pickup tell me as I'm checking in to the park. "Of course the shrimp are good here. Otherwise we'd be dead." I don't argue. Shrimp's been checked for oil according to my sources. For oil, but not for dispersants.
They've told their story and now they have to defend it. Or not. The world that needs them, walks with them. How we live with denial is part of our beauty.
Deepwater Horizon, capped and holding for two days. Most likely there's better news on tv than what we can get, but maybe we can feel something even NPR can't feel. Better news, and worse. Karen will find local radio stations. But this news doesn't grab me either. Latest news says it's leaking. Always more news. And news that stays news. A real question.
Karen says she's sleeping in this morning. I went to bed and she was still posting photos and writing in her blog. Watching Karen has been one of the joys of this journey. Two cameras have gone down before the humidity. We're taking pictures with the video camera now. I haven't looked at her work from last night. We're 18 days out, driven 3,500 miles and slept in the same bed every night.
Yesterday was one of those days in anyone's life. OK, OK, all days, potentially blessed. French donuts with powdered sugar and French Quarter coffee and cream at Café du Monde in the open air. Summer rain. A downpour. Walking the Sunday streets of New Orleans. Karen shopping. A 2-hour guided tour of the bayous at Jean Lafitte National Park. Under the boardwalk. Alligators. Heat and humidity. The meal with white tablecloths and an early dinner with pecan pie, and the accompanying drowsiness. Looking for a state park and a replacement, we found ourselves on the road to Grand Isle instead. We drove. And we made it.
Collecting raw data, the prayer of my story, to behold it, listening in suspension and uncertainty, my work and process. With an extra set of eyes in Karen. She was too exhausted last night to do anything other than look. Eerily beautiful. Privileged. Let us stay in our place. Let us not ask for too much.
Here we are.
The mothership is one of the gifts of our grieving.
Who by fire, who by high ordeal...
Some of this goes back to the Mississippi River Flood of 1927.
Bessie Smith sang about that flood.
Larry Tuohy's walk with us.
Bayou Coquille Trail: 0.5 miles one way. This trail is one of the Preserve's most diverse. It begins on high ground deposited by flooding from Bayou des Familes, once a major distributary of the Mississippi River. An American Indian village was here about 200-600 A.D.
Marsh Overlook Trail: Length: 0.4 miles one way. Access: Bayou Coquille Trail. This continuation of Bayou Coquille Trail sits atop a bank formed by dredged material from Kenta Canal. Originally used for irrigation and drainage of plantation fields, the canal was deepened and widened in the late 1800s so loggers could gain access to the bald cypress swamp.
Visitor Center Trail: Length: 0.25 mile one way. This trail meanders through hardwood forest and bald cypress swamp to a stand of giant cutgrass. It ends on the edge of freshwater flotant marsh, one of the most productive ecosystems on earth.
Here we are.
6:30 am now. I'll take the dog and the last camera and walk over those grasses and take a look at what's there when he sun comes up. As soon as I walk past the orange cones with my camera, I'm met by two young security officers. I'm ready, but not that ready, for how serious they are."This beach is closed and you must get back behind those cones. There's a beach a mile down the road that's open." They don't want to talk. They're not interested in why I'm here. They're the first people I meet. In a few minutes a young woman, Amy Wilkinson, who's in a tent, an animal person, who has been in Florida, will tell me more. And then I'll run into Rodney Bush, from here. I'll know lots more in fifteen minutes.
And then I see Holt Webb's bus: Vanishing America. Pulling a Land Rover, fueled by vegetable oil.
MEETING RODNEY BUSH DRIVING A SMALL SWEEPER
ON THE WAY BACK FROM THE BEACH
They're picking up the beach and removing it.
You can see the mounds.
This sand will be gone.
Taken out in trucks.
Venice got hit the hardest. This is nothing.
Cameron, my home town, was wiped out by Rita.
Katrina was a political war against the Bush administration,
but Rita was a nuclear bomb on my home town.
I'm half Cajun.
They give you a card when you go to work for them
and it tells you what you can say and what you can't.
They don't say who they are.
Don't cross them, though.
They took a man the other day
who walked by them.
Who walked past those orange cones.
And they gave him to the local police
and the local police took him in.
Cajun people are glad you came.
Shrimp are good. And fish, too.
We're glad you came. We need you.
The shrimp are glad you came.
Us Cajuns we talk with our hands.
We can't talk without 'em.
Don't screw with the wetlands, man.
Government digs 'em out, cuts new bayous.
That stuff gets you in big trouble.
My mama was a Dupecilien
and I'm half Cajun.
The other half is Texan-Irish.
Music, all Cajun. Cajun music's
coming out of all these little houses you passed through.
And what's your name?
And what do you do?
I write poems.
I write a little poetry myself.
I give him my card, Storypath. Cuentocamino.
Jethro. I like that.
Cajun people are good people.
They'll talk to you.
But go back to the small towns
you passed through on the way up.
You'll find better music and cheaper.
Go and eat at Sara's. Local folk there. They'll talk with you.
Amy tells me she's an animal person but she's not going to get to work with animals. There's too much macho on all sides. We're sort of reduced to being observers at this point.
Like election watchers in Central America, I think.
Powered by Vegetable oil—on the Land Rover.
I knock on the door. A young man comes out wearing a pin-striped bathrobe. "Holt Webb," he says, "I was just stepping into the shower." I invite him over to the mothership when he's ready.
HOW OUR CAMERAS ARE REPAIRED
Holt Webb knocks on our door. Vanishing America listens like this.
"You're almost there. The Cummins engine in this Dodge
will take vegetable oil, but don't melt your turbocharger."
Holt's a photographer from a small town.
Mom's Canadian and Dad's from California,
and they moved to Georgia when he was small.
"Alpharetta, Georgia. It means, 'first town.'
I sold greeting cards door to door and won
a Kodak 110 Instamatic. I never looked back.
I studied photography at U of Georgia.
I watched Alpharetta change from a farm town
to a great mall. Wallmart, Home Depot, all of them.
They're all the same. You can't recognize a town anymore.
I used to ride bike and trails to Stovall's.
Stovall's is gone. About the time I was 10.
I watched it happen in San Diego.
There's a law in quantum physics:
'The act of observing effects the observed.'
I'm not an activist. I struggle with what
can be changed and what can't.
I don't know. I watch people move
into the country and their dogs
get eaten by coyotes.
I've been on the Vessel of Opportunity here.
I do odd jobs to support my project.
I'll trade photography jobs for campsites.
I want to show communities working together,
to say, 'We're not allowed to fight.
We're going to help ourselves.'
I own no property. Just that bus
and the Land Rover."
Holt asks to see the cameras
and a pencil with an eraser.
He rubs the eraser on points of contact
with the batteries, and powers up
A SECOND GREETING AND ENCOUNTER
On our way in to Sara's to eat,
we pass by Rodney Bush driving
his compact street sweeper. I honk.
He stops, I back up.
I wanted you to meet Karen,
and wanted her to meet you.
Yes, Mam, we're glad you came.
Yes. Sara's. I had stuffed crab.
Only ate there once.
Be careful here, Grand Isle's expensive.
We pass the new cemetery.
The big cross made of fish traps stands back behind
the white crosses—maybe 100 of them—
names in painted black letters:
Sand Between My Toes, Sea Turtles,
Stuffed Crab, Lady Fish, Beach Ball,
Picnic on the Beach, Watching—one
for each death. With an entrance,
and a special sign for Tony Bologna
and the federal government.
We stop at Sure Way, the one grocery store
to pay the toll from the highway bridge that crossed us
to this barrier island. A 'Go Pass' good
for four days. Four days to pay.
Karen orders a cheeseburger.
The waitress says shrimp and oysters
are local and I can split the order.
When we buy gas the woman says to Karen,
"Do you need to fill it up, Baby?"
In the small town, best-meant way.
We know the best witnesses carry innocence
for the gift exchange. Back in camp,
satisfied by oysters and French fries,
we watch the big trucks haul away the beach.
At dusk we go out and see what we couldn't see
coming in, this time with our cameras.
What none of us can see where ever we live.
All this beauty. The grasses in the Gulf.
Grasses that can save our lives.
Karen's eye sharpens each time out.
The little boat on wheels.
This privileged moment, this glimpse into disaster.
Grand Isle, Louisiana
July 18-19, 2010