Thursday, June 24, 2010


My family and I have been really fortunate to spend several days in Hilton Head, SC. It’s a working vacation. Heidi and I have been giving workshops to teachers in Blufton, SC. While we have had to prepare for these extensively by reviewing videos and notes, making copies of student writing samples, making DVDs, listening to tapes of classroom conversations, etc., it is work we love. And, hey, someone has to come to the beach to work with these brilliant teachers in this beautiful environment.

We got here a couple days early and are staying near the beach. From our window we can see a wide expanse of the beach. While there is spectacular diversity of wildlife here, I have been studying the brown pelicans. Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Pelecanidae
Genus/Species: Pelecanus occidentalis

Pelicans have interested me since we moved here. But honestly, I always thought they looked a little goofy. Their bills are so big and heavy and their heads so large in proportion to their bodies that they seem a little top-heavy when they are standing. Stock Photography: Brown Pelican with summer plumageBut the more I watch them, the more I appreciate their beauty, how wonderfully they fit into their world. How clever to have those huge saggy pouches to capture and hold their prey. Their bills are so incredibly long and powerful. Their flight seems effortless when they skim inches above the ocean water.

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Sometimes they fly by the window, right in front of the porch (which I always want to call a lanai). I have been able to get almost eye-to-eye with these birds. Their wingspan is longer than I am tall – over six feet. Often they fly in a diagonal line formation and it is fascinating to watch. They all glide for a while. When they begin to lose altitude the one in the lead flaps its wings. Then the one behind. And then the one behind that one. As you watch there is this ripple of wings from front to back. Stock Photography: Brown Pelican in Flight at Sunset in CaliforniaIt’s almost as if they are doing “the wave”. Just now as I was watching a line of 15 or so, the one at the end of the formation broke off and ascended in a slow spiral. Then it dove, folding in its wings back and piercing the water. How did it learn that, I wonder. Did it just come out of the egg knowing that move? Was it demonstrated? When another line of pelicans flew by, it flew up to join them. Awe inspiring. Truly.

I have not seen one on the beach. They are not scavengers of the leftovers of humans like the rowdy crows or the crafty gulls. They stay out over the ocean feasting on nature’s fare. And there seems to be a lot of it. When the baitfish are near the surface, the pelicans spread out, each within its own column, circling and diving. Then lifting off, circling higher and higher; then diving again. It’s really quite graceful, quite simple, quite elegant.

They often glide just over the surface of the water. When the ocean is calm you can see their reflections below as they skim past. When there are big waves, they tilt their wings, catching just the right force to air-surf under the curls. Their life out there above and among the waves is steady. Predictable, I imagine. They do very well, thank you very much.

Brown Pelicans in Flight

Then CNN, NPR, the newspapers, the internet. Then the Gulf Oil Spill. It is the most bizarre feeling to know that as I write this millions of gallons of oil have spewed into our beloved Gulf. My Gulf. Your Gulf. So much oil that the most astute scientists can only guess. We’re talking 2.5 million gallons per day. I can’t even get my head around that. Anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons have fouled the waters since the April 20th explosion. And it keeps gushing, and gushing. At 2.5 million gallons per day, thousands of gallons, tens of thousands of gallons have spilled into the Gulf since I started writing. And it keeps gushing and gushing.

And when you Google “pelicans, oil spill” BP’s site comes up first as a “sponsored link” (read: paid-for-so-they-get-the-first-word). Learn about BP’s progress on the oil spill cleaning efforts… Learn how wildlife is being saved from the recent oil spill… Support the Nature Conservancy’s Fund for the Gulf coast restoration!... When you go to BP’s site, the propaganda would be laughable if the situation wasn’t so tragic. Because the oil keeps gushing, and gushing.

“We’ve helped organize the largest environmental response in this nation’s history… More than 3 million feet of boom, 30 planes and over 1,300 boats are working to protect the shoreline… Where oil reaches the shore, thousands of people are ready to clean it up… We know it is our responsibility to keep you informed and do everything we can to make sure this never happens again.”

I have seen BP’s ad campaign. It cost them over $50 million. They want us to know how sorry they are for this whole mess. But when you see the ads you know that the oil is still gushing and gushing, out of control. While the BP officials were complaining that Americans don’t appreciate all of their clean-up efforts because of all the negative attention, the oil was gushing and gushing. Are we supposed to pity them? And while Mr. Hayward was apologizing for the disruption in the lives of so many he had to add, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” It’s hard for me to feel sorry for Mr. Hayward because 11 lives were lost in the explosion. Those 11 men will never get their lives back. Their families will never see them again. Last weekend Mr. Hayward went yachting. I'm guessing the families of those 11 men killed didn't have such a great weekend. And that spill is still out of control, leaking out millions of gallons of poison every day in a catastrophe so large that we have no idea how long the deadly effects will last. No idea.

Will The Gulf Oil Leak Camera Sink President Barack Obama?              It Is Almost Impossible To Avoid The Live Video Of The Coal-gray Oil Gushing From Bp's Well A Mile... Washington

Hayward was correct in the ad campaign when he said, “The Gulf oil spill is a tragedy that never should have happened.” That is an absolutely true statement. When BP Oil Co. submitted their environmental impact studies to build an oil rig tapping into the earth a mile underneath the Gulf of Mexico, the first thing their researchers were to consider was “worst case scenario”. I guess that didn’t happen. Because this is the worst case scenario and they were totally unprepared because when we woke up this morning and when we go to bed tonight, the oil will be gushing and gushing.

The slow work of collecting oil that's come ashore on Pensacola Beach, Fla.

BP may be sincerely sorry for this tragedy. I hope so. I know they’ll throw a LOT of money at the problem. Some of the fisherman and shrimpers this mess has put out of business, fishermen whose family’s livelihoods have come from the Gulf for generations, may be hired to clean up the mess. BP spokesman Hayward says they intend to make it right. But what about the pelicans? What about the gulls and starfish, the fish, the turtles, the sand dollars and hermit crabs?

Those pelicans belong to you. They belong to me. They belong to the earth. While BP worries about their image, spending millions of dollars so that we know they, “helped organize the largest environmental response in this nation’s history,” they killed our pelicans. Should we be grateful about their response to the largest environmental disaster in the history of the world? The disaster that came directly from their greed, deceit and oversight? Right now, as I look out the window and see these magnificent pelicans making their way the same as they have for thousands and thousands of years, the oil keeps gushing. And gushing.



Ruth said...

In case you were not enamored enough with pelicans and their brilliance, look at this:

Chris Hass said...

I once saw a man messing with a pelican that was sitting on the railing of a boat just minding its own business. Eventually it had had enough and reached out and bit the guy. He totally freaked out. It was one of the most satisfying things I've ever witnessed.

Did you see the senator from Texas apologize to BP for the White House "extorting" money from them to pay for this mess? It was laughable. Well, it had to be laughable; otherwise it would only serve to make you feel incredibly angry.