No one likes alligators, really. Most people appreciate them fried or turned into boots, but when they are real, alive, and sidling up to your fishing boat, they are less enjoyable. When you see an alligator in the water, you keep your distance. You don’t entice or antagonize it. You sure as hell don’t cast your fishing line thatway. In Louisiana, you grow up with a healthy respect for your toothy reptilian cousins. I fear no human being, but an alligator is one force I will not test.
This is where I grew up. I know it doesn’t mean anything to you. It matters to me, though, and all the reasons I can think of for you to care are insufficient. There’s seafood, alligators, oil, and the economy. But then there’s my home. That blue-brown swirl spilling out of a little wet crack in the earth? Yes, that. That’s where I’m from.
It’s not really a spill. It’s more like a gusher. A deep wound. It’s like being stabbed in the belly while wearing your Sunday best, something your grandmother made for you, something irreplaceable.
It’s like hearing your first love got hit by a train and seeing photos of his mangled body on the news while the broadcasters banter about how this is going to be some awful PR for the railroad business, and there you are at home, sitting in the glow of your TV, screaming inside and unable to act. There you are – watching part of your life die on the evening news while everyone feels sorry for the killer. The murderer. Sick.
Sulphur is the dot where I lived for my first 18 years. From where I grew up, the gulf is about an hour’s drive. You put your boat in the water at Cameron, the grey stone jetties guide you out, until the floor of the Gulf drops off and finally it’s just you and that fine line of a horizon, bobbing along together. Only you don’t really get that kind of intimacy with the sky because it’s interrupted by oil rigs unless you go out pretty far.
When fishing, you may find the rigs useful, as you can tie your boat up to one — they keep you from drifting off aimlessly. And at the end of the day, a pod of porpoises may join you on your way back to shore. They’d swim right at the bow of your boat, just riding along, jumping, escorting you. They’re in the dolphin family, but they’re not the same as the widely loved bottlenose dolphin. Maybe they’re not as cute or as open to being domesticated. Maybe they’re too damn Cajun for that showbiz nonsense. But they, like everything else that makes its home in the Gulf, are threatened by this oil spill.
The rig that actually collapsed was 50 miles from shore, near Venice, LA. The oil has been drifting away from my hometown and toward Florida instead, and for that we feel lucky. Lucky, but far from thrilled. It’s like feeling grateful when a hurricane turns the other way or when the flood waters rise in someone else’s neighborhood. We can always say that wasn’t our fault. We can call it a natural disaster and say prayers and collect canned food to donate to those whose homes were destroyed in one of nature’s mood swings. This is the kind of thing you’re used to if you grew up on the Gulf Coast.
An oil rig, on the other hand? That’s our fault. That’s straight up, undeniable, human stupidity.
Even the canal in the woods, where my best friend and I used to trek on summer afternoons to feel like explorers, is connected to the oil-vulnerable Calcasieu River. There are so many waterways in Louisiana that some of them don’t even have names. They’re just “the canal” or “that little inlet,” but they are all connected. Every last one of them. Every little blue line on the map goes somewhere.
We human beings have become too sure of ourselves, and we need alligators. We need some animals left that scare the daylights out of us. Do you know what happens when an alligator gets its teeth around you? In Louisiana, we call it a death roll. When an alligator has you in a death roll, there is no escape unless something juicier strolls by. But I’m afraid an alligator has no defense against oil spills.