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Shrimp and Crayfish. Photo by Terry Tempest Williams.
resilience
A Tale of Redfish and Oil
Terry Tempest Williams is a Utah native, writer, naturalist, activist, educator—and patient. On the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Terry reflects on ecological change, the coronavirus, and the power of friendship.


20 April 2020
Castle Valley, Utah
 

"Ten years ago today our beautiful golden water recorded history. Oil began to spread in unbelievable millions of barrels. Animals…birds…seafood and humans began the journey to the unknown. The journey covered days and days, then traveled into months of changing this beautiful gulf waters. Waters were blackened from substance to depths of six feet deep. The vision through the eyes of Cajuns were blurred in depths of disbelieves. The heart was stabbed with wrenching pain. The future was dulled and filled by mistakes of humans. The unknown future was lingering and life changed on this day…April 20, 2010.”                                          

— Becky Duet, “Through My Eyes: Deepwater Horizon" (book in progress)

It

was Day 100 of the BP oil spill. I was on assignment for Orion Magazine. We were a small crew, a writer, a photographer, and an activist. We had been out late surveying the damage at Grand Isle, considered “ground zero” for the oil spill as this was one of the first sites where waves carried the petroleum on to the beaches in Louisiana. I ended up interviewing some of the clean-up workers who were talking to us about the dispersants being sprayed out to sea to absorb the oil. 

We had forgotten to eat. Driving back to New Orleans when we entered the town of Galliano, we saw a light on at Jordan’s Deli & Convenience Store. We pulled into the parking lot off the main road. I got out and knocked on the door. The woman inside, kindly opened it, "Can I help you?" she said. I apologized, realizing she was closing. “Well, what ya’ll need?”  I shyly said, “Anything you’ve got, I’m afraid we haven’t eaten.” I told her we were journalists reporting on the oil spill. 

The next thing I know, Becky called her son Jordan (who the store was named after), and within minutes, he and his friend put their wooden canoe into the bayou and beneath a full moon, we found ourselves fishing for redfish! Jordan caught two. They were among the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. Heightened by the moonlight, their scales were a shimmering gold with one black spot outlined in white appearing near the tails resembling an eclipsed moon. Each redfish was a foot long, maybe longer. I remember the dorsal fin on its back looked like another fish had taken a bite out of it. Becky asked me to help clean the fish which I did — thankfully, I knew how having been taught by my father when we fished the lakes for rainbow trout in the High Uintas. She still teased me, however, about the look on my face.

Becky invited us back to her café where she cooked us a Cajun-styled dinner of redfish and fried potatoes – truly one of the best meals of my life. We talked about our sons, about the places where we live, and the impact of the spill on their lives. She told me that Grand Isle in the first weeks of the spill was black with oil, wave after wave breaking heavy with petroleum from Deepwater Horizon. Becky’s husband Earl was a shrimper. Nobody was buying gulf shrimp anymore. The oysters were saturated with oil. The pelicans were so covered with oil they could no longer fly. She also told me, that every night the U.S. Coast Guard sprayed the Cajun community with dispersants while they were sitting outside on their porches. “They were trying to stop the spread of oil into the bayous, but I guess they forgot about the people who live there,” she said.

On that night that extended into the early hours of the morning, a sisterhood was forged.

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Becky Duet and Terry on the boardwalk at Grand Isle, Louisiana - 2019. Photo by Brooke Williams.

Ten years later on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, many will say that the gulf has recovered. That is only partially true. And much remains hidden like the oil still sitting at the bottom of the sea. The loss of birds and fish and sea mammals have never fully recovered. And neither have the people who live along the gulf coast from Florida to Louisiana to Mississippi to Mobile, Alabama. Becky lost her business, she and Earl lost their livelihood as shrimpers, and they lost much of the gulf they love and have known as Cajun people who have navigated this land and water as local inhabitants for generations. Becky also lost her health, now diagnosed with several auto-immune diseases layered on top of each other. Her life now is going back and forth for chemotherapy treatments and endless doctor appointments. What she hasn’t lost is her greatness of spirit, her family and the Cajun way of living – feeding people with love and generosity.

Last December between Christmas and New Year’s, Becky invited us to join her family for a seafood boil. We accepted and we have never eaten so well for so long. We had fresh crayfish, shrimp, and blue crabs, alongside chicken gumbo, and custard tarts and Cajun dishes I can’t pronounce but devoured joyously. It was a bounty from their home. Much of the day, we spent either walking around their neighborhood, visiting neighbors or sitting outside watching cardinals and hoping to see the great horned owls nesting in the live oak.

But there are shadows in the bayous. Becky told me in the Lafourche parish, the community no longer has individual funerals because there’s just too many of them after the oil spill. They have an annual memorial honoring all those who have died that year. “It’s all from the oil spill, “ she said. “These are the stories nobody hears. Most think the oil spill is over. But it’s never going to be over for us.”

So here we are in 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic, with 44,885 deaths (as of April 20) to date and rising in the United States where the mortality rate is gravely underreported. We read the numbers, but it’s easy to forget each number represents an individual with a real life and real people who loved them. Bless the Boston Globe for running 16 pages of obituaries in their Sunday paper on April 19. I read each of those obituaries and it took me most of the day. The abstract became the real. I wept.

Here we are on the tenth anniversary of the BP oil spill with CNN reporting that the price of oil has now dropped to $0 a barrel. Oil producers are begging people to take the excess oil off their hands. Metaphor and fact.

Our press on the planet as a fossil-fuel dependent species is wreaking havoc on the Earth. The BP oil spill in 2010 and today’s glut of oil is tied inexplicably to the COVID-19 global pandemic that is now seeping into the bayou and the Cajun community as the climate and ecological crisis show themselves in more extreme weather. All of these stresses are the ongoing evidence that we are sorely out of balance with our surroundings. The climate catastrophe is real. The ‘Sixth Extinction’ is real. America’s WETLAND Foundation reporting that Louisiana is losing a football field of soil an hour due to coastal erosion caused by more violent storms is real. And ‘Wet markets’ where the slaughter and sale of illegal wildlife meats continue to breed and spawn contagions for viruses is all very real. What is unreal is our denial to recognize our survival depends on our capacity to change and reimagine a different way of being in the world.

Becky Duet called me yesterday, “Do you remember what day it is?” she asked.

“I do.”  I answered.

“Thanks,” she said. “The only good thing that came out of it is we became sisters.” I agreed.

When I asked her how she and Earl and her family were doing in the midst of this pandemic she said that they were all doing fine.

“We’re having another seafood boil,” she said. “We just bought 50 pounds of shrimp to share with our neighbors. We Cajun’s know how to take care of ourselves – everything we need is right here in the bayou,” she said. “Do you need me to send you some shrimp?”  she laughed. “I’ll bet you’re having a tougher time feeding yourself then we are,” she said knowing that I am a terrible cook. I told her Brooke was doing the cooking. “Well that’s good news,” she said.

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Becky Duet preparing Seafood Boil, 2019. Photo by Terry Tempest Williams.

Last week, Becky told me she was diagnosed with the coronavirus. It was my great fear because she is so vulnerable given her pre-existing condition. She also told me it was a mild case most likely because of the medications she was taking.

“The virus is hitting this community hard,” she told me yesterday. You have to be really sick to go to the hospital. So people are just dealing with it at home.”

I think about all the people who are invisible to the government numbers, who are not reporting to health care officials that they have the virus; or those that don’t even know if they have been infected; or most sadly of all, those who are sick at home alone, who may die from COVID-19 and nobody will ever know their stories.

A student of mine, Emily Duma, wrote recently, “What is the half life of touch?”

Now more than ever, we need to make contact with those we love by phone, by mail, any way we can. Keeping in touch is now the closest thing we have to holding one another close.

On the anniversary of the BP oil spill, I hold my sister named Becky in my heart. We are waiting for her visit to the desert where I can show her what feeds me – these red cliffs, these wide-open spaces, and the stories we continue to tell each other about home in the bayou and here in Castle Valley.

Contributor

Terry Tempest Williams

Writer-in-Residence, Harvard Divinity School

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