I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call and may not be denied

John Masefield, “Sea Fever”

Sometimes, there is a story which hits so close to home that following it simply hurts, and there is a temptation to go around with fingers in your ears saying “la la la, I can’t hear you.”

The BP oil spill fiasco is one such story for me.

I have spent more years of my life in Northern California than anywhere else. But for all of those twenty-two years, I have never been a Californian.

I am a Floridian. A Western Floridian at that.

The Gulf of Mexico was my first ocean. It is a great starter ocean, with manageable waves and warm waters ripe for swimming. Not wild and exciting, like the cold and forbidding Pacific, my current ocean. It nonetheless beckons, promising adventure in its own way, and the gateway to the exotic Caribbean. It has its own dangers, mainly in the form of hurricanes that come sweeping through in the summer months.

It was on the beaches of the Gulf that I first learned about shuffling your feet to avoid stingrays. Where I first saw the breathtaking majesty of a thunderstorm at sea. Where I first walked along the tide-line looking for scallop shells and whelks. My first exposure to sand. (I was in my teens before I learned that not all beaches have sands the color and consistency of cane sugar.) Where I saw my first gulls, my first pelicans, my first cormorants.

The thought of all of that being drenched in black, sticky crude oil almost makes me weep.

Have you ever seen a bird covered in oil? I have. Many, many years ago my brother brought home a bird that had been fouled in a small spill in Tampa Bay. The volunteers were cleaning the oil off the birds and then keeping track of them until they could be released. The bird lasted less than 24 hours, a victim not of the oil on its feathers (which had mostly been cleaned off) but poisoned by the oil it had ingested. It was a terrible way to die.

Even though veterinary medicine has come a long way since then, the toll on wildlife will be enormous. Not to mention the beaches despoiled.

I could go on a rant about how this represents the failure of the free market to create and maintain adequate environmental safeguards because they are far too focused on the bottom line, or how the dismantling or refusal to create meaningful governmental regulation of the oil industry led to this mess.

To tell the truth, I am too heartsick. I have seen the satellite images of the spread of the slick, and it makes me want to cry. While there is some hope that the beaches I grew up in near St. Petersburg may be spared, almost certainly the beaches along the Northwest coast, in places like Destin, will not.

I know for a lot of people the fate of animals matters less than people. That issues such as the Proposition 8 case now winding its way through the course are far more involving and immediate. I get that, I really do: it matters very much to me, too.

But this… I feel like I may lose the best part of what was in very many ways a difficult youth and adolescence. Those beaches go, and a part of me will, too.

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