Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Things With Feathers

"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops — at all

"And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm

"I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me."

Emily Dickinson

I've had many thoughts as the enormity of what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico has become apparent.

Some of my thoughts are relevant, and, I suppose, others are tangential.
  • One thought I have been having pertains to religious conversations I had with an acquaintance in college.

    Now, when it comes to matters of faith, I suppose I'm like a lot of people. There are some things that I believe, and there are other things of which I'm not so sure. And that, I suppose, is what keeps bringing me back to my church, even if I have been away for awhile — a desire to sort them out.

    At this stage of my life, there are many things of which I am not certain. But when I was in college, I believed I knew most of the answers. I didn't, of course, but I thought I did.

    And this acquaintance was convinced that he, too, had all the answers — about God and the afterlife and the existence of hell and the certainty of the end times as described in the Book of Revelation. His answers weren't like mine, though, and he apparently decided it was his obligation to "save" me.

    Problem was, I didn't think I needed to be saved. The mean and vengeful God he kept describing sounded nothing like what my parents had always told me about God. So I defended my image of a loving and compassionate God. And he defended his image of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation. Neither of us budged an inch.

    Ultimately, I suppose, we decided to agree to disagree, and we went our separate ways. He probably thought I was a lost cause, doomed to hell, and maybe he was right.

    I know I'm not as convinced about some things now as I was then, but one thing that I still believe that I believed in my college days is that humans are obliged to be good stewards of this planet.

    We are so obliged because, of all the creatures on earth, we are the smart ones. Every other creature on this planet does things to satisfy its needs without giving any thought to the consequences to others. But only man's activities can completely alter an ecosystem.

    And man knows it.

    We aren't necessarily superior. But it is humans' ability to think and to reason that sets them apart from all the other creatures."[W]hy did God plague us with the power to think?" asked Henry Drummond in "Inherit the Wind." "What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse is swifter and stronger, the butterfly is more beautiful, the mosquito is more prolific, even the simple sponge is more durable. Or does a sponge think?"

    Like Matthew Harrison Brady, I do not know if a sponge thinks. I doubt it. But, if it does, its reasoning cannot possibly be worse than the reasoning of those who found ways to cut corners — and allow man's lust for oil to jeopardize the Gulf of Mexico and all the wildlife who live in and around it.

    If there is a hell, surely there is a place in it that is being held for those who allowed this catastrophe to occur.

  • I also have been thinking of times I spent on the Gulf coast. I was thinking of one year in particular — which year it was escapes me at the moment, but I'm guessing that I was about 14 or 15 at the time — when our family went to South Padre Island for Christmas, then drove north by northeast until we got to New Orleans and went to the Sugar Bowl.

    In those days, my family had one of those tent trailers, and we often slept in it when we went on trips, but, for some reason, as we made our way along the Louisiana coast, we stayed overnight in a very basic travel lodge. The rooms weren't very fancy, but they were roomy enough for a family of four, and they had their own stoves so we could cook our meals there.

    I can remember the seawater smell of the harbor that was a short walk from the place where we stayed, and I can remember tasting that smell in the fresh (and dirt cheap) shrimp we bought from the local fishermen. I always loved my mother's cooking — but what she was able to do with that fresh shrimp, some rice and some canned vegetables (plus a few well–chosen spices) simply defied belief.

    And I wonder what this oil spill is going to mean to fresh Gulf seafood.

    Will future generations be able to enjoy the pleasure of fresh Gulf shrimp?

  • Several years later, I went on a trip with my mother to Biloxi, Miss. She loved to jump the waves in the ocean — no matter how old she got, she became almost childlike when she was near the sea — and for some reason the two of us decided to go to Biloxi one summer. I was living in Arkansas, and Mom was living in Texas. We saw each other so rarely that I guess we just decided to take a little trip together.

    So we got a motel room on the beach and spent a few days breathing the Gulf air and jumping the waves. At night, we dined on fresh seafood and gazed at the water. From time to time, we saw birds that had been perched on the roof take flight over the water.

    It was a memorable trip, a memory that I will always cherish. But I wonder how many such memories will be made in the coming years if the oil slick turns out to be only as bad as — and not worse than — the experts predict.

  • Then, a couple of years later, when I was working on the copy desk for a daily newspaper, we began to get word of an oil tanker that had hit a reef in Alaska and spilled a quarter of a million barrels of crude oil into the water.

    I am speaking, of course, of the Exxon Valdez disaster. That happened more than 20 years ago. You don't hear much about it anymore, but they are still struggling to clean up the mess.

    Granted, it is pretty remote — and relatively confined — but it is not terribly comforting to know that it is far easier to access the Gulf of Mexico than Prince William Sound — nor is it reassuring to think of how vast is the Gulf's area by comparison.

    In fact, if the worst–case scenario that I have heard (so far) is correct, the spill in the Gulf exceeded the volume that was spilled into the waters of Prince William Sound sometime on the third day — and crude has been gushing into the Gulf for more than a month now with no indication that man has found a solution.
I know that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was panned — and deservedly so — for delivering an, at best, tepid and, at worst, vapid response to Barack Obama's address on the financial crisis in February 2009.

But I have to give the man credit for taking the lead for his state, which is still recovering from the damage left by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago.

"We've been frustrated with the disjointed effort to date that has too often meant too little, too late for the oil hitting our coast," Jindal said.

Well, somebody has to stand up for Louisiana. And that's what citizens elect governors for, isn't it?

I guess it's also what presidents are elected to do. But, as Bob Herbert observes in the New York Times, "after more than a month of BP's demonstrated incompetence, the administration continues to dither."

I know there are budget problems out the hoo–ha today. But the oil spill in the Gulf calls for bold leadership now, not dithering. The cost should not be a factor. Nor should anything else other than stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf and devoting all available resources to cleaning up the oil that has been spilled there so far.

And whatever needs be done to rescue the wildlife of the region must be done. The creatures of the Gulf of Mexico are the innocent victims of human greed. No one would mistake me for an environmental activist, but BP must pay a heavy price for what it has done, and the federal government must shoulder the responsibility for repairing the damage.

Blame can be assigned later. The wildlife — and the livelihoods — of the Gulf need to be rescued now.

Sacrifice isn't the sort of thing politicians — especially politicians who belong to the party that is at risk in the upcoming election — want to talk about with their constituents.

But they must be candid with the American people — and they must be insistent about finding answers — whether or not this turns out to be an unusually active hurricane season.

To live up to the lofty promises of hope and change, Obama must be a true agent of change at a time when it is particularly challenging. Obama promised hope and change, but, with health care reform not kicking in for another four years and until unemployment starts making noticeable movement in the right direction, the average voter can look around and say things aren't noticeably better than they were the last time they went to the polls.

By law, a president is elected to a four–year term. But the actual "windows" for tangible achievements are two years and four years. The four–year window is for the president himself, but the two–year window — leading up to the aptly named midterms (because of the resemblance to mid–semester exams in college) — is an assessment time frame with which Obama has no experience, although it will produce the congressional lineup that will affect the president's next two years in office.

Bill Clinton understands it, though. Until the mid–1980s, Arkansas elected its governor every two years, and Clinton understood the psychology that is necessary to be successful in an office that was on the ballot every other year. It didn't help him prevent the tsunami of 1994, but I think he had regained his balance by 1998.

Anyway, I believe most House members (and any governors who live in states that still choose their governor every two years — if there are any) would tell you that the campaign never really ends. Neither do the expectations.

"Hope" made a nice campaign slogan in 2008.

Now, the folks who rode that slogan to victory need to realize that, in the words of Emily Dickinson, hope is the things with feathers.

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