Is Arcadia Lost?
The entire Gulf Coast wetlands ecosystem is a delicate and profound balance of tides, winds, and ocean temperatures. Tides push and pull vast and deep columns of water through narrow passes into lakes and bays and back out to the open ocean. This is a marine cardiovascular system on a continental scale, one supporting waters that roil with life. Winds move shallow layers of salt water toward the shore and push back with undercurrents of brackish and fresh water from lakes like Pontchartrain, Borgne, and Salvador. The coastal prairies and cypress swamps breathe. Water temperatures and salt concentrations from the edge of the continental shelf and as close as the shallows of Chandeleur Sound and Barataria Bay trigger complex movements of sea life, telling them when to spawn and where to feed. Larger seasonal shifts provide signals to migratory birds, ushering them to land upon horizon-to-horizon beds of grass where they feed from the bounty all around.
And humans, too, live in this balance. For hundreds of years Cajun, Isleno, Creole, and African American fishermen have watched the tides and licked their fingers to the winds, following the shrimp, oysters, fish, and fowl of this land-meets-ocean edge world that their ancestors deemed a paradise. "Acadiana," from which "Cajun" is a modified Anglicization, at its root refers to the idyllic place of Greek beauty and bounty, Arcadia.
But as Nicolas Poussin's shepherds remind us--et in Arcadia ego--even in paradise, death exists. The seeming paradise of southern Louisiana, resulting from cosmically dynamic interactions of ocean tides, wind, and river flows, has been morbidly upset by human greed. Beginning with the plantations in the 1700s vast forests along the Mississippi and distributary bayous were cleared, wetlands drained, levees erected and canals dug with slave labor. King cotton and queen sugar reigned supreme and befouled their hinterlands until the early twentieth century when the petrochemical industry and shipping industry eclipsed any ecological harm they had ever caused. The shift from agricultural plantations to chemical plants, from the extraction of crops to the extraction of minerals, did more than upset the balance. Southern Louisiana is dying today. The land is disappearing. What land remains has been made toxic by the chemical plants and oil wells, dump ponds, slag and waste.
The Deepwater Horizon's explosion and the "river of oil" now flowing from its ruptured well riser five thousand...