Of Disasters, Natural and Unnatural

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Brown pelican / Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

Brown pelican / Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

All day long I’ve been thinking about the creatures in the Gulf of Mexico who are being buffeted by globs of oil, have no idea what’s happening, and no way to ask. This is not a case of the Bambi syndrome.  I don’t ascribe human desires and emotions to animals. (I don’t even ascribe human desires and emotions indiscriminately to all human beings, actually. There are vicious beasts among us, and I’m sure we can all name a few — though not the same ones, necessarily.)

I’m mindful that eleven lives were extinguished when the Deepwater blew up, and I wish there was a way to ease the pain of those left behind.  But human beings are not helpless, even in the face of disaster. They may, of course, feel so, but if you watch you see that the life force in them leads them to some kind of self-rescue or resolution.

I’m mindful of the fisherfolk and others along the coast whose lives are bound up in the environment now in its 35th day of undergoing destruction.  I won’t claim to feel their pain. How could I?  I’m up here in New England, the weather is beyond gorgeous, and I have everything to be thankful for. But I have faith in the people of the Gulf Coast. They will survive, and find doors that open when the ones they’ve been used to have closed.

Animals, too, given a chance can help themselves in important ways. I’m thinking of the summer of 1955, when I was a 19-year-old camp counselor, second in charge, when two successive hurricanes came at us, almost simultaneously, where we were summering in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, on a piece of land between the Delaware River and the Lackawana Creek.

I had my own little cabin on the Delaware side of the spit of land. When I got there  the river was so low I could have climbed down the bank and walked across into New York State.  I wonder what it would be like if the river came up, I thought. Later that summer I found out and my cabin, with everything I owned including my precious acoustic guitar, broke loose and floated away. If I’d been in it, you wouldn’t be reading this.

There was the counselor staff and about 150 girls. The head counselor, informed of what was coming, shooed us all into the arts and crafts shop — my domain — up a flight of stairs above the horse stable. Usually eight or ten of us were there at a time; there was one toilet. The head counselor sat down in a corner and, literally, stuck her thumb in her mouth and started to cry.

We all lived through it. Up the road, at another camp, a couple of children died.

What I remember most were the horses. They called for help. Some of the men at the adjoining boys’ camp got into rowboats and canoes. In  the dark and at significant peril, they made their way in and opened the stalls. Somehow none of the boats got swamped as the horses rushed out.

When dawn came and I looked out the window, I could see the horses on high ground, browsing for stuff they could eat. They, too, all lived.

This comes back to me as I think of the dolphins, the fish, the pelicans and other sea birds who never knew disaster was coming and would have had no way to call for help if they had known. For them there was no way out, no high ground. So many have died. So many are covered with oil and will die.  So many that live to breed will bear malformed young because of the hormonal implications of Corexit, the dispersing agent BP bought from one of its subsidiaries to make the oil go away (as if it could.)

The horror of this will be with us for generations — of fish, of birds, and quite likely of human beings. Those birds and fish, even the shrimps, have a will to live, and the right to do so. They have been robbed, plundered, destroyed. The Gulf will not be the same within my lifetime, perhaps never. I think now of the pelicans, just recently removed from the endangered species list.

I cry on happy occasions, at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs and live births. When I’m sad, I write. This is what I’ve been doing all day.

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5 Responses to “Of Disasters, Natural and Unnatural”

  1. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Very moving. You are a fine writer. Yes. The poor animals. Alas!

  2. Yes, Miryam, “You are a fine writer.”  A person to emulate.

    We are coming upon Memorial Day.  You and I are more or less neighbors in a village small enough that a somehwat disappointed local politician who came to be seen at the Memorial Day Parade last year but found almost no spectators, could have the explanation made that all the potential spectators were in the parade.   A scale on which things can work.   

    When I  came across your “blog” (somehow the designation does not adequately describe it)  I was pondering what in this time of trepidation and turmoil we should promise those who died for their country in many a war, including for instance those who died  at Kent State and in Mississippi Summer and the Civil War and the Revolution.

    As you know, I’ve been immersed in the issue of “Peak Oil” in recent weeks.    “No more oil spills”  is certainly a promise that comes to mind, but as you know, it is too little, too late.  It must be part of a bigger promise.We live at the end of the Age of Oil, so a promise of “no more spills” will fulfill itself.  The Age of Oil was less than a century, and however difficult it may now appear to go without it, we have done without it for more than half our nation’s history, and therefore we have no need to focus in coming  decades on replacing the petroleum god with another in its own image. 

    But during the Age of Oil we somehow rewrote our history as that of a nation of consumers dedicated to cars with more horsepower,  televisions with more pixels, drugs with more opiates.   Is that what our soldiers  died for, suffered for, struggle to stay alive for as PTSD-ravished hunter-gatherers  on the  streets of the big cities?  Is that what we should promise to preserve or rebuild?  No.
    As we leave the Age Oil behind, we enter an age in which no race or ethnic group will have a majority and therefore the long-awaited promise of equalitycan finally be met.  Of course we have an alternative, to which the language of “terror” and “homeland security” is well-suited – the age of ultimate white supremacy built, as South African Apartheit was built, on a foundation of dehumanizing corporate power.  

    But without oil, we will of necessity enter an age in which  home is once again a small community like those those in which our ancestors lived, where democracy can, with the protections of the Bill of Rights, come back and thrive.   And so can our fellow beings on the planet, like the pelicans of whom you write, when we are no longer dominated by global corporations and our own shear numbers,  overwhelming  us all.  

    So the promise we must make this Memorial Day is that there be no more BP spills or their like, that we shall take the end of the Age of Oil as an opportunity to restore the Constitution to the glory it once was,  to return our population and the communities of which it is composed, to a scale on which democracy can thrive and we can live in peace rather than at war with Mama Nature.

    We live in an era in which the earth dies an ugly death in one BP Spill after another, as humanity continues to be dominates by amoral corporations training us to believe that amorality is the highest and best use of the tools Mama Nature gave us.  Or we live in an era in which the end of oil is also the end of amorality disguised as morality, is the rebirth of democracy and community, and is the restoration of “purple mountain majesties, from sea to shining sea,” with “not man apart.”  It’ our choice that will be made in the coming decades.

    You know all this, Miryam, and could write it better.  Thank you for a beautiful piece of writing, and have a restorative weekend.

    Nick Arguimbau

  3. A fine tribute to those who have no one to speak for them and no way to ask.

  4. At the risk of sounding like a mutual admiration society I want you to know that Nick Arguimbau, who is a member of our town’s selectboard, has a superb article on peak oil at


    It’s long, but worth the time it takes to read it.

  5. I understand that peak oil is true and that we are now past the point of peak oil. I believe many of the current events have to do with this downturn and it won’t be long before the main stream media and population wake up and understand what is going on. For me and my family, we are preparing for the next generation.

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