FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 10/12/2010

The Oil Spill, Dante and St. Augustine

 September 22, 2010                                                                     Volume 3 Issue 11

. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . . 

By Thomas Albert Howard

Watching the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer wrenched the soul: the triumph of (bitter) experience over hope. I grew up in Alabama, charmed by the waters of the Gulf. My family vacationed regularly on Dauphin Island, Alabama’s large barrier island not too far from the state line with Mississippi. We knew this was not Malibu nor the Bahamas, nor even the upscale white sand beaches of the Florida panhandle. This was beach-going in Alabama and that meant a certain grit.

But a highly desirable grit. Motels with their blue-collar, fishing clientele; a waterscape pocked with broken piers from hurricanes past; sticky, salty, delicious air; water always a bit cloudy from the muddy rivers that poured into Mobile Bay; lonely shrimp boats and shrimpers with their sun-baked skin, Miller Lite and cigarettes; Brown Pelicans preying upon unsuspecting mullet; and the occasional afternoon downpour, announced in advance by unsettled clouds galloping across the horizon.  

Then there was small Sand Island, which could only be described as a barrier island to a barrier island.  It arose, enigmatically, from the Gulf, a lonesome patch of windswept sand not too far from Nowhere. You could only get there by boat. There was not much to do there except size up the mystery of being itself. Sea gulls, nesting amid scrawny scrub, would squawk and dive if you got too close. In the shallow waters, you might see a whole school of string ray scurrying under the water. With luck, you’d spot a dolphin just off shore. My family treated them like unicorns—rare and magical. “Look, there’s one, over there.” Diving under water, it might reappear—or not.

I used to wonder what it would be like to be a dolphin. I still do. Especially now.

Like many, I was transfixed by the tragedy of the oil spill this summer. On a PBS website, I was able to watch six screens simultaneously showing oil gushing into the water. The underwater lighting, the pipes of the collapsed rig and the man-made geyser created a mesmerizing, poisonous image. Click the mouse. It went away. Click again, there it was. Unchanged. Irreparable. Irredeemable.

An exile in New England, I now live far away from Alabama and the Gulf Coast, but my sadness is not tempered by distance, especially when I consider the thousands of people—shrimpers, fishermen, oystermen, restaurateurs—for whom this is an immediate, livelihood-threatening tragedy.

I stand with Dante that we are meant to know “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.” I stand, too, with Gulf Coast residents and onlookers who want justice done, rights wronged, people fairly compensated, nature restored. I appreciate the political dimensions of the tragedy, how it can and should change some of our policy decisions about oil and energy. And where avarice and malfeasance have been sewn may the culprits know, as Dante writes, “what brief mockery / Fortune makes of goods we trust her with, / for which the race of men embroil themselves.” 

But as we aim at justice in this world, we should also gaze upon the naked cruelty of the calamity and allow it to wean our affections. St. Augustine helps out on this point. I don’t know what birds or landscape he would have enjoyed as Bishop of Hippo centuries ago. But I think he would appreciate the homely beauty of the Gulf’s Brown Pelican, the intense longing conjured by salty air and setting suns. “Now there is a comeliness in . . . all things,” he wrote. “The life which we live here has its own peculiar attractiveness because it has a certain measure of comeliness of its own.”

Still, delight in creation reveals our limitations and we often find ourselves involuntarily weaned from its succor. After the death of a childhood friend, Augustine was reminded of this fact. In his Confessions, he famously recorded his world-weariness and restlessness. “Not in pleasant groves, nor in sport or song, nor in fragrant bowers, nor in magnificent banqueting, nor in the pleasures of the bed or the couch; not even in books or poetry did [my soul] find rest.  All things looked gloomy, even the very light itself . . . Thus I remained to myself an unhappy lodging where I could neither stay nor leave. For where could my heart fly from my heart?”

The tragedy in the Gulf calls for serious thought and wise action. Indignation, grief, and regret are appropriate responses. Going forward let the impartial hand of justice reign. But the tragedy should also remind us of our first affection and what Medievals called the deep sadness of the world. 

While the well is now capped, the Gulf Coast will enduringly suffer from this tragedy. As image of oily Pelicans and “tar balls” linger in memory, as years—if not decades—of recriminations and lawsuits now commence, I wonder with Augustine: “Who can unravel such a twisted and tangled knottiness?”  

Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard is associate professor of history at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, where he is also director of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum. He and his family live in Georgetown, MA. (A version of this essay will appear in a forthcoming issue of Commonweal magazine.)