Finding Odysseus in Spokane – One Man’s Journey South to Conquer Oil
By Paul K. Haeder
Dispatches from a Disaster –
A Down to Earth Special Report on the Largest Oil Catastrophe in US History
Paul K. Haeder as told by March Gauthier
Wetlands – a delicate and profound balance of rain, riparian grace, wind, geology, plants, ice, sun, geochemistry and percolating soil. Home to myriads of birds, but recharger of moisture for areas much greater than the wetland ecosystem. Unfathomable ecosystems services these wonderful areas give humanity.
We’ve all but bulldozed our landlocked wetlands in this part of the world. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to flood control and water filtration.
For one Spokane resident, those wetlands of his Michigan and the Pacific Northwest will be embedded in his heart as he “goes south” (countervailing Horace Greely’s admonition to “go west, young man, go West and grow up with this country”) and tries to make sense of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster that’s spewing 210,000 gallons a day from a twisted well head 5,000 feet under the sea.
The ocean, or water more specifically, is the magnetic force here for Marc Gauthier, Evergreen State College graduate in natural resources management and owner of the now shuttered Natural Start Bakery on Hamilton.
For Marc, his filmmaking talents will be the force that propels him to find out what really matters in this entire BP mess. He’s interested in the narrative hooks, the people, and the wildlife. He hopes to find himself in situations where one-on-one interviews produce for him the linchpin to the filmic narrative he hopes to thread from this three-week journey.
It’s all shoestring budgeting, and he’s set up a website, http://www.soso.bbnow.org/, and he’s taken donations of a cheap rental car from Avis, camping stuff from Mountain Gear, food and some money to make the trek down May 11, 2010. The 35-year-old bearded, pony-tailed filmmaker chuckles when he says he’s got all these skills to be put to use as one in the ranks of the newly unemployed. He was recently laid off from Main Market Co-op.
What he hopes to discover on this trek is the catalyst that he can say changed him and might change those who get to see his finished work when he comes back to edit and tweak his footage into some magical documentary that gets under the skin, under the sickening oil slick caused by a culture of profits over safety, promulgated through the covering up of environmental impacts, aided through the secreting away of studies showing the equipment and conditions too shaky for a legitimate and clean underwater oil exploration rig.
That’s a mouthful that speaks to a transformative documentarian in the style of Red Gold or Big River. Gauthier wants Spokane to make the connection of our oil dependency to the havoc wreaked upon the tidelands Teddy Roosevelt set aside almost a century ago because he loved the brown pelican so much and thought the labyrinthine glades and cypress swamps were totally unique to the US.
This journey, thanks to Marc’s vision and the donors, and his trusty sea kayak and video making equipment, will be catalogued on Down to Earth Northwest. We’re calling it Dispatches from a Disaster, but what I hope comes of these daily check-in calls and updates I’ll be penning with Marc’s expert perspectives will be the old style of journalism where you take a bit of risk and creative impetus by getting off your duff and putting your feet where your mouth is.
I’ve sold the farm, so to speak, several times in my life, heading to Central America in my late twenties; and then at Marc’s age, I headed to Viet Nam to put my money where my mouth was working on biodiversity surveys of forest and jungle along the Laotian border.
Bats high in the limestone mountains of my dad’s Viet Nam war, absolutely insane treks through cobra and viper populated jungle, and communes with gibbons and a riot of forest life change me, and helped to propel me as a wildlife photographer and journalist in my third or fourth iteration of life’s journey.
Marc’s part of that breed of people who feels the injustice and wants to translate that awakening into something meaningful, yet this journey is bound to surprise him and awaken some other spirit in him to get the job done as an environmentalist.
That’s why I hitched my regular DTE Column http://www.downtoearthnw.com/paul-haeder/ to his wagon/kayak, so to speak, and the benefits will be all Spokane’s as we can watch this journey unfold as he makes it, and then the film he conjures up on his return here will be posted on Down to Earth. He’ll be appearing all over the place to talk about this journey and creative child he gives birth to.
Marc and I have agreed to work this Dispatches from a Disaster this way, and while I’m his narrative sponge and translator, our intent is to get to the visceral, to be true as much as we can to the reality of Marc’s experiences through my writing. In that process, we’ll find out what the oil story is – oil that could end up in a million gallon a day hemorrhaging that will foul those tidelands and mess with the water column and the entire sea floor ecosystem for years to come. Maybe in that journey, Marc will be able to capture and make sense of this national and regional psychosis of fear when it comes to changing to a post-carbon society.
Through the various degrees of good and bad media, we as citizens will discover the impact of blatant disregard for safety measures by BP and the lack of oversight by the current interior department honcho, Ken Salazar, a recent Obama appointee who is working with eight years of George W. Bush’s drill, drill, drill policies.
While the eventual outcome of Marc’s endeavors might be to rally people in the Pacific Northwest to understand the heavy environmental, personal, economic and cultural toll the oil machine is unleashing, we still want that narrative – the stories of the shrimpers, the restaurateurs, the people sopping up the mess, the heartbeat of a floundering ecosystem few really understand.
Can we find the true measure of men and women in the grips of tragedy and economic holocaust? And those fellow bayou Americans so far from Spokane’s realities, are they truly from another planet? Do we have it in us to understand their one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina and now this?
As part of that journey, Marc will be kipping along the way, from Montana, down, through Arkansas and beyond, hoping to hire on with clean-up crews, and figuring out how to navigate the complex ecosystems of the tides to see what is really happening, surface level, and under the waves.
He’s entering a strange world, one so far away from Spokane, where he ended up after Evergreen State and after working on a 1,000 acre private ranch in Michigan, where he originally hails from. He spent summers on Lake Huron, doing all the things necessary to stimulate the mind and spirit to want to know more about the workings of ecology and those species that are remarkably cosmic and crazy.
Even with all the gardening and bakery-coffee shop work he and his partner-slash- significant other, Alyssa Krafft, did to get things going, Marc still found the time to continue filmmaking, with his Black River Productions. I’ve seen his 45-minute flick, Reviving the Sound, and that was done 2001 and shown all over the Sound area as he paddled to each little town he could to give free screenings. His most recent completed film is Controversy to Common Ground-The Colville National Forest Story, posted on the Down to Earth site, the first time the film has gained an Internet hold.
This oil disaster is emblematic and axiomatic of much that is wrong with the way do business in the USA, and how politics has turned into a game of stuffing pockets full of money, tainting common sense and logic.
Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is one of those examples of money buying off the Senators, as this member of our esteemed house has taken $252,950 in oil contributions during the 110th Congress. From 2000-2008, she’s one of the highest sell-outs in Congress to the oil companies to a tune of $574,000.
Marc’s film won’t get mired in that ugly economics’ worthy of a Dickens’ story, but he hopes to see bird life and turtles like leatherbacks, and he’ll be there with camera in hand, paddling away as the crud smothers a vast area the size of Texas with these pancake sized oil globules.
Winds, undercurrents, the layer of salt water mixing with brackish freshwater from lakes like Ponchartrain, Borgne, and Salvador, that’s what Marc will experience if he gets it right. Chandeleur Sound and Barataria Bay, that’s where he wants to spend time. And In Acadiana. It’s all a living Gaia, microcosmic in its creation and power, as the water breathes, and the prairies and swamps turn into the conveyor belts of sea life, migratory birds and humans meting out livings.
Shrimp. It’s the symbol of the tidelands of this Gulf coast, and their deep water larva lives are spent in deep waters, the pelagic zone that is far from shores but not on the ocean bottom. Currents move them and they feed off suspended bio-matter, or anything. They grow plump quickly.
Now they enter the food web, the protein source for all swimming things around them. So, the hundreds of trillions that are hatched now are reduced to a few trillion. They then advance toward the shore through this action of flood tides. Northerly winds push them to these wetlands, or marshes.
Now they are teens, juveniles. They grow and grow in this feeding zone, along the coast, into the brackish waters of the tidelands. They live in the Spartina grass. They go at it for food in the bayous.
The ocean delivers them the geochemical signals to make the final push of their lives as adult shrimp returned back to the open ocean. That next to last stage, in the benthic zone of a few hundred feet down, is when they get that final growth spurt, putting on the weight. When the water warms, they do the quickening – rising up, spawning, charging the surface with trillion of eggs.
Marc’s going to be in that surreal magic realism, and the work of finding how those natural gas, oil and petrochemical industries have worked the past 100 years to do the damage of the tidelands will be the undertow to the story. People have made their livings off of shipping, manufacturing, hard work and hydrocarbon processing, as well as the wonky stuff tied to this industry which over time has become the quintessential character wanton of greed and more oil capture in the movie, “There Will Be Blood.” It’s an industry that has plagued not only this neck of the woods, but in countless countries, from Iraq to Nigeria.
Marc probably will have very little need to mess with that history while he’s down with the bayou.
We’ve messed up the entire sedimentation process of those wetlands by channeling through it. We’ve locked the Mississippi and other waterways in concrete and rammed earthy dams and canals. Oaks and cypress have been killed, and so has the prairie grass. By 2002, the Gulf was seeing each year more than 24 square miles of land lost to the waves that are now coming at it because of all the barrier islands leveled and the entire swamp system surgically cut to shreds.
Marc will be our guide, our eyes and ears. We’ll want to know what the dispersants are doing to ecosystems yet to be fully studied. We want to know what the BP “suits” are doing to stymie political and citizen action.
We want to see the men, women and children of the Gulf Coast deal with this disaster. We want their stories – the kind that push every human being to make the connections to this life and their lifestyles to the disharmony of our world as we gobble up more mountains and more coast for the triplet monsters of coal, oil and natural gas.