I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about the BP oil spill, but I’ve failed. Despite all the boom I’ve laid, it has seeped into my consciousness and I can no longer contain the outrage, sorrow and utter helplessness gushing under the surface of my daily façade.
Although I don’t watch TV or read a newspaper daily, I listen to NPR during my long commute to and from work. Even so, since April 20, I’ve managed to listen to the news but not hear it. On May 24, a Monday morning, I drove as reporter Melissa Block of All Things Considered described pictures she had seen from the Louisiana coast of “oiled brown pelicans still alive and pelican eggs in the nest, brown with oil when they should be white.” As hard as I tried to listen without absorbing, I couldn’t wash the image of those petroleum-glazed eggs out of my mind.
Block described taking a walk with bird conservationist Melanie Driscoll from the Audubon Society. Against the warbles and cackles of a panoply of birds and the audible wind in the air, Ms. Driscoll spoke of her concerns about the damage Block had seen in the photographs, but expressed her fears about what might not be as obvious. “That kik-kik-kik sound that you just heard is a clapper rail, and clapper rails are a marsh-nesting bird that weaves in and out of the marsh grass. The term 'thin as a rail' comes from rails wandering between blades of grass without disturbing them. Those clapper rails, if they die in the marsh, they'll never be found. They are too small and they'll be too hidden.”
I had never known that the expression “thin as a rail” comes from the birds she described. I had assumed it derived from the thin rail of a wooden fence surrounding a farm. I almost dove into a trap of language, musing about the expression, “dry as a bone,” which seemed to me, by my former understanding of it, “thin as a rail’s” twin, when Melanie Driscoll’s words drew me back in. “One of the things that really strikes me being on the beaches is watching the birds with no care in the world, just going through their normal behaviors -- courting, chasing each other, running in and out of the waves, probing in the sand, eating marine life.”
Although intellectually I acknowledged this would mean the birds would feed their young contaminated fish and the lifecycle would end, I almost managed to dismiss this as the inevitable result of yet another environmental disaster over which I had no control. Instead, Driscoll’s unique perspective lured me back again when she said, “They can't go to a grocery store and buy safe water. We have the ability to modify our behavior to reduce our threat level, and they don't. They don't even know there is a threat, so it's very poignant watching these birds engaging in these incredibly hopeful activities -- nesting, you know, going out to feed, bringing fish back to babies, and knowing that they have no idea what they're bringing back to their nests.”
As I pulled into the corporate complex surrounded by fields where I had recently watched red-tailed hawks circling above, the half-empty bottle of water in my cup holder caught my eye. I thought about my decision to buy that throw-away petroleum product when I had a perfectly good water jug waiting to be washed and refilled in the back seat.
That day at the consulting company where I work I overheard a few people suggest that one of their teams could surely do a better job than BP at mitigating the disaster. I knew my period of denial was over; the oil coated my consciousness, heated and turned to globules of tar. The click-clacking of my keyboard began to sound like the kik-kik-kik of the rails, and the only image in my mind was the birds against the bright blue sky of the coast, flying blindly to their deaths.
For a transcript of the original story on NPR, go to http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127095938