When our industrial culture shows its failures, we have an opportunity to ask the right questions about industry. We have an opportunity to question our limits, our pride, the way we construct our meaning and culture. Jung called this a kind of necessary reckoning with our “Promethean debt,” writing, “… our progressiveness, though it may result in a great many and delighted wish-fulfillments, piles up an equally gigantic Promethean debt which as to be paid off from time to time in the form of hideous catastrophes.”(1) More than a simple failure, however, catastrophe begs the question of our fundamental relationship with the earth. The symbolic relationship with petroleum shifts. Our habitual use of this Promethean symbolic space is to draw up the oil, and then sublate the prima materia as a kind of burnt offering, a tribute no nothing less than a fantasy of privilege in the biosphere. When this symbolic relation is disrupted, however, as in this catastrophic happening that poisoned large swaths of the Gulf, this same substance no longer signifies freedom, or prosperity, wealth or power. It becomes, rather, more what it really is – ancient and noxious goo from the underworld. When this carbon is not hidden away in the sky, and instead spread over our wetlands in liquid form, it pulls our awareness back to the land, to a different sensibility of place, to a cultural order that is more varied, more ancient, and more rooted than the post-industrial spectacle could possibly conjure for itself.
There is another culture, another version of truth, a living culture in the Gulf coast with an entirely different symbolic relation with the land that is more open to its living presence, the methectic workings of the bayou, participating in centuries-old imaginal interactivity and subsistence life that it affords. The oil industry brings an agenda that seeks no responsiveness to the landbase. The oil industry is more than just a neutral technology because technology is never neutral; it always comes with an agenda, a worldview. These contrasting techne make coastal Louisiana is an excellent case in contrasting epistemologies, contrasting attitudes to the landbase, and a case where we find that the environment responds to us in the way we treat it, or as Chalquist wrote, “Nature turns toward us the face that we turn toward it.”(2) Cultures that are particularly embedded in the landbase demonstrate imaginal interactivity, a great trust for the water and the life that it provides. On the other hand, cultures that impose a heavy utilitarian and mechanistic view of the landbase are likely to encounter that land as hostile and recalcitrant, a place that needs to be tamed or improved.
The Louisiana Gulf Coast has been branded by the oil industry in a profound way since exploration began in the early twentieth century in along the coast and the Achafalya Basin, long before the rigs took to open water. Until this time, much of the coast was isolated from the global market geographically, culturally and linguistically. Industry, war, and public school introduced the markets and Anglophone world. Oil has been a mixed blessing, turning a myriad of faces to the landscape – bringing industry jobs on the one hand, and alienating a culture from the land and a subsistence economy steadily throughout the decades.
The oil industry was first met with careful suspicion of outsiders and city folk, exemplified in a rarely seen 1948 film called Louisiana Story by Robert Flaherty, (who did much to invent the documentary form with his Nanook of the North in 1922.) Louisiana Story depicts a Cajun boy and his pet raccoon living on the swamp. The boy becomes enchanted by some interlopers, oil workers, who come to drill in his neck of the woods. The locals had never seen or heard such a monstrosity, but show more curiosity than enmity until the derrick blows and spills oil all over the swamp. The workers spend days capping the blowout, and finally retreat to rest. Then something curious happens – the boy sneaks up onto the capped well and reaches into his shirt to pull out a sack of salt which he pours onto the wellhead. He then pulls out a frog from his shirt, mutters something inaudible (at least to my ears) and puts it back. (This is a Cajun folk superstition. When you don’t want someone to return to your home, once they leave, you are to spill some salt on the doorway to curse them to not come back. The boy was cursing the oil to stay underground.) The boy goes to tell the oil men that the well will be okay from now on because he performed a charm. They laugh at the boy and his face sours on these men and becomes distrustful of the oil men and their crazy contraptions. The film ends with the father opening Christmas presents with the family. The message is that the oil brings wealth, so Louisiana can accept the industry.(3)
It turns out that the industry has brought little wealth to Louisiana, and the coast has remained one of the poorest areas in the United States. The state is a paradise for privatization just as much as it is for sportsmen – the state gets very few royalties from the oil industry. The money slips through like the oil – going somewhere else in more refined states. Louisiana Story was another piece of disinformation. Far from a “documentary,” it was produced by Standard Oil.
Acadian people are long accustomed to their status as marginalized people. The subjugation to the corporate power plays like an old familiar record. They originally escaped political strife amid the Catholic-Huguenot struggle in France, settling along the wild coast of Eastern Canada and Nova Scotia. They made a subsistence living fishing those rich waterways until the French lost the Seven Years War (The French and Indian War) in the 1750s. The British knew that to disrupt a community the best way was to move them around. It was a tactic the Americans would use against native peoples time and again, most famously in the Trail of Tears. The Acadian diaspora lasted for a couple of decades and those communities were spread throughout the colonies. These Acadians, however, facing intolerance, language barriers, and a great sadness over their dislocation, found each other again in Louisiana, among other French speakers. For the genteel, the swamp is dark, dank, and inhospitable. But for a culture that bonded over a great sense of common loss, over a tribal sense of mutual aid, and who had the trapping and fishing skills to live off the land, the South of Louisiana is a land of milk and honey. As Longfellow wrote of it in his epic poem Evangeline, a romance set amid the diaspora, “Beautiful is the land, with its prairies and forests and fruit trees; Under the feet a garden of flowers, and the bluest of heavens Bending above, and resting its dome on the walls of the forest. They who dwell there have named it the Eden of Louisiana.”(4) And such as it is when a culture comes to trust the land and water it inhabits. The Louisiana tagline says it’s “sportsman’s paradise.” It’s said that all you need to grow is some potatoes, maybe some rice, and the land will provide everything else. As Terry Tempest Williams aptly wrote while visiting, “Magic lives in the world when we surrender ourselves to a place.”(5)
A remarkable thing about the Cajun people is that it is one example of a culture that has not just settled in a place, but that it has set its roots deep to indigenize with the landscape. The language and traditions are embedded there, as if emerging from the cypress roots and crawfish chimneys. It’s in the music, the language, and the food – a rooted sense of identity and place that is special among settlers in the Americas. Cajun people are not mere displaced French occupiers, but have become part of a syncretistic culture of Natives, Blacks, Acadians, Creoles and Anglos, part of a remarkable breathing diversity that displays an improvisation, an openness and an aliveness that is as textured and rich and fertile as the land, turning old haunts into celebrations of endurance. This endurance comes from a connection to the land, as Mike Tidwell, author of the great Bayou Farewell, writes, “For whomever these people are – French, southern, Indian, American – they are clearly citizens first and foremost of the deepest bayou country, defined by life on that outermost realm.”(6) For the locals, this means the deepest levels of freedom, the freedom of the water. A Cajun named Charlie explains to Tidwell what it means to have that knack for the water, to have the sense to be a citizen of this place. “’It’s a knack,’he says, ‘It’s a knack we got. Most people up nort’, dey couldn’t last a day down dese bayas like us. Dey’d starve, even wit’ all de fish and birds and gators around. But a Cajun, nobody gets de catch like a Cajun man…. For me, it’s when dat old mornin’ sun comes risin’ over my boat deck and de boat’s covered wit’ a ton of shrimp, and den I have me a big bowl of jambalaya wit’ de guys at de shed, and we all ever’body got money in de pocket. Dat, to me, dat’s bein’ Cajun!’”(7)
The Cajun people grew into the land, learning life ways Native Americans had been practicing since time immemorial. The Atakapa-Ishak viii people are divided into two general groups – sun up people (east) and sun down people (west). They have two different cosmogonies. The “sun down people” say that there was an ancient flood and when the water subsided, only they were remaining in the world. The “sun up people” say that people emerged from the water from the lips of a giant oyster. They have been living subsistence lives for centuries on the water along the coast from Texas to the Mississippi. These ties to the land bespeak of a radically different epistemology, and hence a different land ethic. Land is not disposable in this system. Yet, as I discovered, it is land that is being taken away. And for a culture that is so tied to place, the dislocation of place, the dislocation of people, and the disablement of the natural resources upon which a whole culture subsists on, constitutes that level of catastrophic event. It is where ecocide and genocide are the same crime. Rosina Phillipe is Atakapa-Ishak activist and community leader tells Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:
“The life of our community is more than just ourselves. You know, we are part of this ecosystem. Everything in it, you know, we’re a part of, and it’s a part of us. People as us, you know, how long have we been here. We’ve been here forever. We still have our sacred spaces, you know, back – the landscape has changed. You know, it used to be forested. The land used to be high. Now we have no trees, and that’s because of saltwater intrusion, with canals that were cut for oil exploration. This is what nature has managed to come up with when all the trees are gone. You know, the land subsided. The other vegetation died off. So nature finds a way to bring something in. So this is like Spartina, a salt grass, and you know, it used to have small amounts of it, but over a period of time it took over, because it didn’t have anything else to compete with. So now we have this kind of prairie marsh.”(9)
When I began this research I kept thinking about the oil, the intrusion of the oil, the destruction of life from the spill. It turns out that the assault on the landbase had been going on for decades. I felt embarrassed that I had no idea this was going on. It’s a big secret in America that the Louisiana Gulf Coast is losing land at a rate faster than anywhere else on the planet. The oil and gas industry have dug 10,000 miles of canals through the marshland, canals that widen every year due to erosion as salt water intrusion cuts into fresh water plants and the sediment sinks into the Gulf.(10) Since 1930, Louisiana has decreased a Delaware in size. It loses a football field of land every thirty seconds.(11)
This land loss poses an enormous threat to a vital ecological niche. The Louisiana wetlands are breeding grounds to shrimp, fish and crab, feeding millions of people every year. These wetlands comprise an amazing 25 percent of all wetlands in the United States. And it contains the home of 353 species of fowl and 20 percent of all ducks. It is also a major stop for migratory birds, what biologists call the Mississippi Flyway.(12) This intensely rich ecosystem is desperately endangered, and the biggest most horrible ecological secret no one talked about – and that was before the Deepwater Horizon oil came and went.
Equally worse to all the canals dug from oil are the levees and canals made to channel the Mississippi built by the Army Corps of Engineers after The Great Deluge of 1927. It was a disaster that left more than a million homeless in its wake. The problem now is that the river is being channeled right off the continental shelf. Silt runs off to deep water and is not able to create new land in Louisiana. The land continues to sink. There are huge new plans to help fix this problem, to help set the Mississippi free again. But funding and political will lie elsewhere. This is a typical problem in the region fraught with histories of corruption, greed and the hubris to improve upon nature. A Freudian might even call it a repetition compulsion, a kind of neurotic re-patterning of the landscape in the image of a displaced industrial and urban identity. Meanwhile, the famous boot shape of Louisiana is vanishing precipitously. It took 7,000 years to create, and just 70 to destroy.(13) Or, as Rosina Phillipe of Grand Bayou says, “We’re facing the potential for cultural genocide.”(14)
In this case, vanishing a land and vanishing a people is saying the same thing.
All of this land loss, combined with the loss due to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, has emerged into an apocalyptic event for the indigenous communities of Lousisiana. The feeling is one of alienation from the world and of victimization by the corporate state. Jamie Billot is a community organizer with the Houma tribe in the fishing village of Dulac in Terrebonne Parish. She tells Antonia Juhasz the cultural despair when the land is assaulted, “Our waters are bleeding. It feels like we are bleeding.”(15) United Houma Nation Principal Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux echoed this sentiment in her testimony to Congress:
The relationship between the Houma People and these lands is fundamental to our existence as an Indian nation. The medicines we use to prevent illnesses and heal our sick, the places our ancestors are laid to rest, the fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters our people harvest, our traditional stories and the language we speak are all tied to these lands inextricably. Without these lands, our culture and way of life that has been passed down generation to generation will be gone. … (it is) perhaps the greatest challenge in our history, as we are at risk of losing the heart of our culture – our homeland … (and it) looms as a death threat to our culture as we know it.(16)
The mounting despair opens like a crack in the world. The community grows wearier, more cut off, more suspicious, more despondent, and more cynical of globalizing powers and an unresponsive government. Louisiana is functionally an oil colony, and the psyche of the people is one of colonized people. And while that rich gumbo of exiles and marginalized people persist in the landscape, it may turn out that the Cajuns have run out of time. There are no more frontiers to escape to. And, astonishingly, it isn’t the people that are moving, it is the land disappearing from right under their feet. The maps have to be continually updated. And only time will tell the long term effects on the fisheries.(17) But history warns us from Valdez; we do know that fisheries were permanently affected in Prince William Sound, that you can still find oil there under the rocks, and that the migratory herring never returned.
All of this leads to a great and palpable fear and fatalism as thick as the crude, a pervasive sense of despondency, hopelessness and resignation that occurs in disenfranchised communities. This is another side of that thanatos-laden death mask. The fashion in which a community with strong ties to the land occurs as they undergo the traumas of the slow omnicide of the Gulf Coast. Watkins and Shulman explain how this calamity effects the community:
The key characteristic of traumatogenic events, whether a sudden shocking disaster or a slow insidious development, is that they bring about a calamitous emotional rupture in our sense of self-identity and community, disconnecting us from the ways of thinking, speaking, acting, and relating through which we previously made sense of the world. When trauma affects the whole community, particularly if the calamity was avoidable and human error or neglect played a role as in an oil spill, destructive social forces may set in, driving people apart. …While such calamities as earthquakes, mudslides and floods have always been part of the context of human life, what is new in Erikson’s view are large-scale toxic events that are human caused such as chemical explosions, groundwater contamination and nuclear accidents. These events cause despair, a sense that no one cares and that one’s life is expendable. … Individuals begin to feel as if they are completely on their own, and a sense of distrust about the world often develops. The individualism and isolation felt to be norm in modern urban environments may in fact be the end product of the traumatic disruption of communities over time.(18)
This is the sense, the palpable fear on the endangered coast increasingly aware, increasingly despairing in its creeping endangerment to an entire culture, disassembling their identity. In his travels on the bayou, Tidwell called it a “deep, paralyzing, and seemingly genetic sense of cynicism and hopelessness.”(19) That the land, and hence the culture, are gravely threatened, is a prospect that it difficult to comprehend, resulting in a mental paralysis. A fisherman named Big E tells Tidwell, “Maybe dere is no future for us … Probably dere is not. But where are we gonna go? Dis is where we belong. Right here. We’ll stay till de land’s all gone and maybe dat’ll be the end of us too.”(20) Antonia Juhasz reported this same sense of doom, finding people constantly worrying, suffering grief, depression and despair. Jamie Billot offers activities for the family and children of a community, trying to use cultural tradition to help heal the wounds of industrial violence and a tribe decimated by a disaster economy. She observed that drinking, drugging and domestic violence rise when the community feels this despair. The spill is feared to be an ongoing apocalypse, a horror with no clear or near end, as Billot tells Juhasz, “There is a whole culture that is literally being washed away because of the spill. This is not just about making a living … Our entire way of life is going to disappear.”(21) She says that half of the community fishes, the other half works in the oil industry.
The oil apocalypse poses a double-threat and not one without a sharp sense of irony. Although the oil industry has precipitated the catastrophe of a culture and way of life, that same industry is now the best hope for the economy’s survival. Either way, the supremacy of the oil industry looms large. It seems there is new land being created after all, trading in the wetlands for oil platforms; new acreage of space age technology floating on the ever stranger spaces of deep water.
To be continued …
(1) C.G. Jung and Meredith Sabini. . The Earth Has a Soul: Nature Writings of C.G. Jung. (Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books 2002), 123.
(2) Craig Chalquist and Mary E. Gomes, Terrapsychology: Re-engaging the Soul of Place. (New Orleans: Spring Journal Books, 2007), 49
(3) Robert Flaherty, Louisiana Story (Home Vision Entertainment, 2003).
(4) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Evangeline, (Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition 2004), Kindle Locations 381-382.
(5) Terry Tempest Williams, “The Gulf Between Us,” Orion Magazine. Nov/Dec 2010. Internet resource.
(6) Tidwell, 235.
(7) Tidwell 50.
(8) The tribe is commonly called the Atakapa tribe. This was a Choctaw slur for the Ishak people, a Muscogean tribe of the Louisiana Gulf coast meaning “cannibal.” This kind of misnomer based on a slur is common throughout the colonial accounts of ethnology. The slur stuck, but the term the tribe has for itself is Ishak, meaning simply, “the people,” which is common for tribes to call themselves. Today, the tribe hyphenates Atakapa-Ishak to both offer recognition of the old way of understanding and offer a correction.
(9) “BP oil spill threatens future of indigenous communities in Louisiana.” Democracy Now! June 7, 2010. Internet resource.
(10) Tidwell, 36.
(11) Tidwell, 57.
(12) Tidwell, 60.
(13) The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com/speced/lastchance/multimedia/flash.ssf?flashlandloss1.swf
(14) “Oil Spill Threatens Native American ‘Water’ Village.” National Geographic. June 9, 2010. Internet resource.
(15) Juhasz, 87.
(16) Juhasz, 89.
(17) As reported by Al Jazeera and Discovery News is how fish continue to have spots, and shrimp are being discovered that don’t have eyes. The repercussions of the microfauna and biomagnification are yet to be fully understood. BP claims Gulf seafood is unchanged. (Wall, Tim. “Mutant crabs turning up in the gulf,” Discovery News. April 19, 2012. Internet resource.)
(18) Watkins and Shulman, 106-107.
(19) Tidwell, 80.
(20) Tidwell, 200.
(21) Juhasz, 178.