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.

Every dark dot in the water is an oil rig.  You can see how close they are to the mainland. Close enough that if any one of them sprung a leak, the nearby shoreline would be destroyed.

The rig that actually collapsed was 50 miles from shore, near
Venice, LAThe 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.

*Please note: I had help editing this essay from my amazing editor friend Ellie Di. She can be found on Twitter @Ellie_Di. She’s also the founder of The Wholestyle Network.

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MARY HENDRIE (formerly Mary Richert) is a writer living and working near Annapolis, MD. Her blog is missdirt.net. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. You can also find her on Twitter, @MissDirt. Mary really likes it when people comment on her blog or talk to her on Twitter so she can meet new people and get new ideas, so feel free to say hello any time.

45 responses to “The Little Blue Lines”

  1. Joe Daly says:

    This incident is just one more sad reminder of what happens when humanity’s technological progress exponentially surpasses its moral progress. “Give me convenience or give me death” rings with a particular chill in this story.

    Long live the alligators.

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    *sigh* Drill Baby, fucking spill!

    Your description takes me hurtling back to the place where I was born. Calabar, Nigeria. Waterways so numerous and varied that they defy proper naming. Alligators (crocodiles in our case). And oh yes, the oil rigs teeming offshore. I certainly feel your pain. Many times I have wished that oil was never discovered anywhere near Nigeria. It has been a heavy, heavy curse, in its effect on our environment and economy.

    BTW, my brother found a graphic that gives a variety of interesting perspectives on the Deepwater Horizon spill:


    • Mary Richert says:

      Thank you so much for responding, Uche. You sound like my dad. He’s furious about the oil, about the clear cutting of forests to make room for oil fields, and about how (in his opinion) no one started caring about the oil spill until it started looking like the oil would wash up on the beaches of Florida. “As long as it’s just Louisiana, it’s ok,” he says. Well, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate, but I do feel like Louisiana is an easy place for other people not to care about.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Gawd, if the aftermath of Katrina wasn’t proof of that. I’ve often said that Nigeria provides better disaster relief to its stricken areas than the US provided New Orleans. Absolute dripping shame.

  3. Marni Grossman says:

    These sort of disasters cry out for personal connections.

    Let me try and clarify. If you’ve never been to Louisiana, an oil spill off its coast is awful but also awfully remote. You thinks it’s terrible. You make proclamations about Big Oil and global warming and environmental degradation. This is all intellectual though. You think it, but you don’t feel it.

    Which is why an essay like this is so important. Vital.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Thank you, Marni. I’m really not sure what we can do about this sort of thing, but talking about it is a start. Attempting to become less oil dependent is a good follow up, but I’m not sure what to do in that arena. It’s a funny thing — since much of the Louisiana economy depends on oil (my dad worked the oil fields as a teenager, many of my other relatives worked the fields or the rigs) — you don’t grow up questioning the ethics of oil companies. In most people’s opinions where I grew up, oil companies are a necessary evil at worst and a powerful economic force at best. No one really loves them, but everyone must embrace them. I may be writing more on this topic soon if I can get my brain around it… or maybe someone with a better grasp of economics should tackle it. Know anyone?

  4. Brad Listi says:

    I can’t even watch the news about this. And I’m a news junkie. Can’t take it. Feel too helpless.

    My family is from Louisiana, but I think you know that. It’s a good place. Good people down there.


    We’re just making a mess of things.

    • Mary Richert says:

      It’s the helplessness that makes it truly awful, isn’t it? Like, “oh, the thing’s still gushing… got a bandaid? Oh, that won’t work… well um… Can we… no? Then how about… I give up.”

      I think maybe I did know your family was from Louisiana, but I forgot. All my best to them.

  5. Don Mitchell says:

    Your linking the alligators, the rigs, and the spills in so many ways is just great.

    Probably the Op-Ed or My View kinds of columns in the Gulf press are turning away contributions by now, but I think you ought to try to get yours into a paper anyway.

    The risk of being taken by an alligator is low, but the consequences are severe. Who knows whether it was BP or Deepwater Horizon (or both) who ran the risk numbers, but it’s clear they didn’t put a large enough value on consequences, or they would have seen that the acoustic shutoff value was a good investment. I mean, it’s been a long time since I had a decision theory course, but we learned some of the ways to relate risk and positive or negative consequences, and which way you went depended on the numbers you assigned.

    You don’t test alligators because, as you tell us, the place they take you and the way they take you doesn’t leave you much of a chance to escape. Neither does drilling at 5000 ft.

    Anyway, all that aside, I feel for you. I’ve seen places I loved destroyed by both natural forces (like volcanos) and human stupidity (open-pit mining, cheaply and poorly done) and so I have a sense of what you’re going through.

    • Mary Richert says:

      I wonder. I hadn’t thought about trying to send this to a local paper. Maybe they would take it. Thanks, Don. I’m glad you appreciated this one. I required a lot of help in editing because it’s hard to reel the structure in when you’re emotional.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    I’m not an alligator fan either.
    They eat dogs down here.
    Last year, one ate a person,
    but it turned out she was drugged out on crack
    and sleeping with her feet and legs in a canal.
    Can’t blame the alligator for that one.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      We do still live in nature, we venal humans. And we should thank the starts we do, while it lasts, though we find ourselves in the bottom of a canal.

      • Irene Zion says:

        I have trust in the complexity of your thought process, Uche.
        I have looked up start as a noun and I still can’t make sense of it.
        I will go ahead and thank the starts though, wherever and whatever they may be, because, after all, how can it hurt?
        I don’t ever want to be in the bottom of a canal.

    • Mary Richert says:

      *snort* Irene, you know… I think that qualifies as testing an alligator. This is the kind of thing people learn not to do when growing up on the coast. We are bait. We are very big bait, suitable for very big, very hungry animals. We do not dangle carelessly in water. It ends poorly.

      • Irene Zion says:

        I promise that I myself will never carelessly dangle myself in the water of an alligator-rich canal.

        Just as an aside here, you know what else happens on a regular basis here in South Florida, concerning the canals?

        People drive into them. Usually they all drown, despite other drivers trying to get them out of their cars. It’s horrifying. Whole families lose control of their cars and drive off the road and into the canal. Happens, on average, once every three months. We have some seriously bad drivers down here.

  7. I was sent a document that was made by ocean oil explorers. The document discussed all the FAIL SAFE devices built in that didn’t work. I agree. Human stupidity. It must really be hard for you to stomach this disaster. It’s tough enough from over here in Central Cali.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Fail safe my ass. I’m sure some executive in his office was saying “90%? Sure that’s good enough” while the engineer who designed the solution was thinking, “Wow, I really don’t want to be to blame when 90% turns out to be not quite good enough after all…”

  8. New Orleans Lady says:

    Hello, Mary. I’ve been following TNB since, well, since there was a TNB. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we have ever crossed paths. On here I’m NOL but my name is Ashley. I was born and raised in SE LA and I know exactly how you feel. I rambled off my disgust on my facebook page but it was still too early for me to make any sense of the situation.

    I still haven’t been able to make any sense of it.

    I know the area you are from. I was born in New Orleans and lived on the westbank most of my life but I’m not just a city girl. My dad is from the Pierre Part/Paincourtville/Napoleonville area and I spent every other weekend and most summers in bayou country.

    I lost my train of thought…
    This has been really hard to handle.

    I guess I just wanted to introduce myself and to tell you that I understand. I enjoyed your post and look forward to more in the future.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Ashley, thank you so much for introducing yourself. My hope is that people who love the Gulf and understand the importance of the Gulf Coast wildlife will speak up more and demand better precautions for drilling, greater safety for oil rig workers, and more value placed on our irreplaceable wetlands. I am not normally an activist type, but I love that place and I’m furious with the oil companies, and perhaps the worst part is that I am not at liberty to swear off oil forever, although that was my first instinct when I heard about the spill.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Hey Ashley – I lived in NOLA until after Katrina but my dad’s from Napoleonville too! I lived there until my parents divorced when I was seven & went back forth after that. Bridging the two made for serious vertigo. And you?

      • Mary says:

        I’m excited to find that there are so many more Louisiana folks on TNB that I realized before. Granted, I knew you were from NOLA from your previous posts, but also with a name like Aucoin, you’d have to be. 🙂

  9. Simon Smithson says:

    Teppanyaki crocodile is delicious.

    What a motherfucker, you know? This oil spill even dominates the headlines over here. There’s something so insidious about the idea of it, the grime and the pollution being distributed through the waterways.

    A friend of mine once talked about how he agreed with just about everything Kurt Vonnegut ever said when he considered acid rain.

    ‘Rain should be fucking clean‘, my friend said.

    Hard to argue with that.

    • Mary Richert says:

      What is Teppanyaki crocodile? Is it anything like fried alligator? If so, I bet it’s pretty tasty. I think the only thing better would be if I were a dragon hunter eating grilled dragon tail at the end of my day’s work.

      Also, yes to Kurt Vonnegut, and yes to rain being clean. And natural waterways, too.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Teppanyaki is what the rest of the world calls what is termed Hibachi in the US. The dinner theatre where they make fire onion volcanoes and play conjurer’s tricks with eggs before frying them with your meat and veg on a large U-shaped table-cum-griddle.

        I don’t think I’ve ever seen gator or croc on a Teppanyaki menu. Yet another reason to visit the ANZes.

  10. Matt says:

    I know EXACTLY what happens when an alligator gets its teeth around you, and I have the scars in my left arm to show for it!

    This spill is horrifying and sickening. The contamination it has already caused is going to savage the Gulf ecosystem for generations. I mean, the Exxon Valdez spill was 20 years ago, and the aftereffects of that are still being felt. This is….well, as Thomas Wood might say, this is an oil spill on crack.

  11. Judy Prince says:

    A powerful, rich, beautifully written post, Mary.

    Soon, I think, an unassuming, quiet, motivated, creative and relatively unknown person will advance a sytem for providing power that will instantly trump oil.

    Down will go the rigs, the spills, and the current politics of global wars.

  12. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Thank you for writing this, Mary. You’re my people. I was born in Louisiana and raised in Lafayette. The day I heard about the disaster (yeah, that’s right) I couldn’t think straight. I can’t go anywhere near the news because I don’t know what to do with the rage. It’s a complicated rage because I have family members who work in a service capacity to the oil industry and I myself lack the courage/gumption/finances/whatever to radically change the way I live.

    Those of us who’ve grown up so close to the dwindling edges of Louisiana have a connection to the land and water that isn’t easily communicated to others. The seafood many of us have enjoyed will be inedible for some time—perhaps generations? Goodbye sport fishing. Goodbye family businesses that made their livings on the water and from what the water gave us. Don’t even get me started on the slaughter of billions of innocent creatures, now poisoned.

    Collectively, we all knew this was coming. Collectively, we’ve had decades to find alternatives to oil but have chosen not to do so. We didn’t learn a damn thing from Exxon Valdez—and this is so much worse. What the #(%#$%O* else is it going to take to get us to wake up?! If killing billions of animals and poisoning the water and coast doesn’t do it, how many humans might have to die in order for us to finally face reality? If there’s any positive in this, maybe this is the LAST TIME a disaster like this will happen.

    Have you seen the 1948 film Louisiana Story? It was done for Standard Oil to promote their work in the LA swamps as a good thing, but the filmmaker definitely understood something deeper about this “progress.” The cinematography is stunning. And for those who’ve never heard an authentic Cajun accent, you’ll hear it in the film. (There’s a big old alligator in it, too.)

    • Mary says:

      Starting from the end: I LOVE Cajun accents. I never quite had one because compared to some of my family members, I practically grew up in the city.

      “Those of us who’ve grown up so close to the dwindling edges of Louisiana have a connection to the land and water that isn’t easily communicated to others.” Yes indeed. I struggle all the time to explain to people how growing up in Louisiana is so important to who I am. The best thing I can come up with is the word “muddy.” Muddy describes my coffee, my writing, my feelings about the world. The things I love are muddy. I want to get my toes into them and squish around and feel the grit. It seems to make sense to no one but me.

  13. Jordan Ancel says:

    Great essay, Mary.

    An oil rig, on the other hand? That’s our fault. That’s straight up, undeniable, human stupidity.

    You’re goddamn right!

    And it’s only part of a bigger, more stupid problem we’ve created: The Oil Industry, in general.

    Obviously there’s much to be said about that, so I’ll just let it sit, like black muck ominously moving along a coastline.

    • Mary says:

      I don’t even know what to think about the oil industry. I really don’t. It’s become such a powerful force in our lives and our economy that even though it’s capable of causing such tremendous damage, we can’t walk away from it. What’s the best thing to do?

      As I ask myself this question, I realize I should start compiling a list of ways to reduce our oil consumption. Just things an individual can do. I feel like that’s starting awfully small, but it’s got to start somewhere.

      I don’t even want to talk about “carbon footprints” and all that jazz. That’s all important of course, but my main goal would be this: Lets take some of the power out of the hands of the oil industry. Even if we still need oil for some things, I’d like it if they didn’t have all the chips in this game.

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Wonderful piece, Mary. I love your appreciation for the places that don’t even have names. And yes indeed, long live the alligators.

  15. Erika Rae says:

    This was some great writing on an issue that’s obviously close to your heart. Well done. Alligators and oil. Great (and horrible) combo.

  16. […] also wrote this short essay, The Little Blue Lines, for The Nervous Breakdown about the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to my buddies […]

  17. Carl D'Agostino says:

    This tragedy is more than tragic. They have permanently destroyed a part of the earth. The is no redemption, no forgiveness,or atonement great enough for what has happened. From the southern tip of Texas along the shore line rim to the very western edge of Florida, the are more than 300 rigs! I’ve stopped watching MSNBC because every time I do, the big bandage wrapped around my grief stricken heart is torn away. Our very own backyard Chernobyl. Oh, and don’t think I don’t feel. I live in Miami. We’re waiting. And if the spill comes here, it will be the end of the world.

  18. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Thought this was worth sharing:

    “How “green-bashing” set the stage for the disastrous response to Deepwater”


    Via Alexander Chee.

  19. Richard Cox says:

    I realized I hadn’t seen anything of yours in a while, so I went back to look for what I had missed. I’m not a fan of unpluggable oil spills or really alligators either, but I’m a huge fan of your writing. Nice work.

  20. […] I can’t save the world, but I want to save the world. This has always been the case. Many times as a child, I thought I could save the world or otherwise do the impossible. Many times, I was proven wrong. […]

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