The Tarball Chronicles (2011)

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Florida. For many, a pilgrimage to the sunshine state is a beloved childhood memory featuring mouse ears, outlet shopping and exotic Canadian Snowbirds in swimsuits. Plotting out a 5,300 kilometer road trip to the state started me thinking about fuel economy, gas prices and a recent oil spill.

Figuring a little advance reconnaissance would be a great place to start, I picked up a copy of The Tarball Chronicles. While driving across Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, and encountering thoughtful locals, mass media, Jean-Michel Cousteau and flocks of feathered friends, David Gessner became quickly immersed in the Gulf community. In 2011, he published his experience in a first-hand account of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Bringing under his wing those of us who witnessed the disaster only through HDTV, David intersperses humour, colourful language and insights from numerous subject matter experts to connect the oil spill to a bigger and more complex environmental story. The author’s ability to read people, birds, sea life, animals and physical locations, coupled with his no-nonsense writing style, quickly engages the reader.

Fed by streams and rivers described as “capillaries and veins and arteries,” he describes the Mississippi River as “a great cardiovascular system of almost the entire country.” Visiting Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, he explains that “sediment dumped by the Mississippi has weighed down the Gulf floor, causing it literally to sink. And as the land sinks and waters rise, saltwater invades the marsh, killing cypresses and other plants that help stitch the wetlands together. Louisiana’s erosion rate is the worst in the country and the equivalent of sixty football fields of wetland are lost every single day.”

Complicating things further, David notes that “over 50 percent of our country’s population [lives] on a narrow fringe of coast that constitutes only 17 percent of our landmass, just as the shoreline is eroding and the sea level is rising and coastal storms–including…hurricanes [which] are becoming more violent.”

David compels readers to consider “that the places we are now getting our fuel from are our most beautiful places. Think of Alaska, or…the miraculous Mississippi Delta and the Gulf…we couldn’t develop these coasts without the fuel that destroys them, and in getting the fuel we destroy the initial attraction of the places.”

The book left a lasting impression and led me to reach out to David directly.

Bamboo Magazine: What reaction have you had to The Tarball Chronicles?
David Gessner: I guess the biggest surprise has been the lack of reaction. I worked on this book with a great sense of urgency. Part of that urgency came from the sense that what I was working on was vitally important, not just because the untold story of the spill needed to be told, but because the spill posed a question to us as a country: will we change, or will we continue to hurtle down the same path? I tried to make this question very personal: to ask it of myself and others. The spill is [now] old news and there’s little question that we have decided to keep on hurtling: re-opening deepwater drilling and now considering doing the same on the Atlantic coast.

BM: What impact has your time in the Gulf had on your day-to-day life?
DG: I am a long time lover of Thoreau’s Walden, but what I loved about it most, as a younger man, was the idea of loving a place and of loving your life in that place. The Gulf marked a new era in my own life, and a new reading of Walden, one in which I took the hidden economic message to heart. Look, I am not a perfect environmentalist. I still drive a car and fly in planes. But, at least, finally, I am staring the harder questions in the face and trying to use my own creativity, and art, to answer them.

BM: What lessons are you sharing with your students?
DG: I teach nonfiction, and I find that most of my students, both undergrad and graduate, tend to write memoir; that is, nonfiction about themselves. Since the Gulf spill, I have nudged my students harder to let more of the world into their work. I don’t mean that their work should be overtly political or moral. I just mean that I don’t see how a writer can write in these times without considering the times themselves. Or to put it another way, it’s fine to write about the self. Just don’t forget the world. It’s important, too.

Floating in the Gulf waters after running my toes through the seemingly pristine sand of a St. Petersburg beach, I couldn’t help but wonder about the oil and dispersants that flooded these waters just two years ago. By gently encouraging people to “remember that there are priorities other than efficiency, comfort and profit”, The Tarball Chronicles is a compelling read that sticks with you. At least, it sure did with me.

An associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and award-winner author of eight books about the natural world, David Gessner also founded the semiannual journal, Ecotone.