Going Coastal With David Gessner

David Gessner, author of numerous books, including Sick of Nature, is a nature writer without quotation marks. He's also a professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Founding Editor of Ecotone, serial blogger and YouTube sensation. Long fascinated by sea and coast, Gessner had plans for a book exploring human impact along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. Then the Deepwater Horizon exploded. Many weeks in the region of the disaster and many blog posts later, Gessner emerged with his forthcoming book, The Tarball Chronicles. Conduit's self-proclaimed merman, Patrick Culliton, managed to get Gessner to sit still for an hour and talk on the phone.


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conduit: Many of your posts touched back on this idea of man's attempts at control over nature and repairing the results again and again when those attempts fail. One such passage I'm curious about is when you state, "And it seems that one of the true challenges of living on the coast isn't to try and control what can't be controlled, but to learn to live in uncertainties." Echoes of Keats aside, how often do these lines of David-as-environmentalist and David-as-writer blur?

david gessner: One of the most vivid images I took away with me was of the Mississippi from above. I was lucky enough to be invited up on a helicopter with the Cousteau film team (The Ocean Futures Society) and was able to see this caged-in river—caged in by the levee—running through wetlands. It was just so intense to see it and get the sense of this powerful thing hemmed in. When I got back home I picked up a book about the river by John Barry called Rising Tide and in the front was a map of the river that blew me away. I'm an East coast person, you know, so to me the Mississippi is this straight-line river that starts in Minnesota and then runs straight to New Orleans before dumping in the Gulf. But this map showed all the rivers and streams that feed the Mississippi itself, and they were like a great capillary system that ran all through the country, spreading from upstate New York with the Allegheny to Montana up by Missoula with the Missouri.

Earlier we talked about the need to give up control, to embrace uncertainty. Now let me give you a practical example. Ryan Lambert is a big advocate of "freeing the Mississippi," which means diverting the river into canals and smaller rivers that then feed the dying wetlands of Louisiana. By not letting the river divert, by keeping it unnaturally hemmed in, all the nutrients, not to mention the fertilizers and other chemicals, just dump into the gulf at the river's end, creating a dead zone, devoid of oxygen and fish life, about the size of Delaware. And, as the wetlands sink, we lose our defense against hurricanes and, as it turns out, oil too. These wetlands are disappearing, as you may have heard, at the rate of about a football field every half hour (it is always described in football fields for some reason.) or whatever the saying is. So, Ryan and others are saying, what if we diverted the Mississippi, broke open the levee and let it feed the wetlands? Well, it would start re-growing the wetlands almost instantly. Fresh water and the nutrients from the Mississippi is what grew the state in the first place, why not let it do its job again? Now, it would do more than that. As for the fertilizers and crap that create the dead zone, the wetlands would act as a giant filtering system, cleaning the water before it gets to the Gulf.

That's one example. There were many others, like The Nature Conservancy creating oyster bed projects to regrow barrier islands and also to regrow the oysters—these things where they were working with nature and not against it. Now, it's not that simple, it's not black and white. There are plenty of people on the other sides of these questions. It just seemed to me that a big part of the problem was the Army Corps of Engineers and their insistence on straight lines, and the way they say "That is not how you do things." But nature's not very fond of straight lines. You see these wetlands where the natural course of the water flows with these sinuous curving creeks, while people, and oil companies, prefer turning them into checker boards, using straight lines to transport oil pipelines and people. These canals, these straight lines, are another reason the wetlands are sinking.

This kind of goes into your question of David-as-environmentalist vs. David-as-writer. It was pretty fascinating to me how much the practical and environmental issues jived with my overall aesthetic. That is that what I found in the Gulf was first and foremost a tragedy. But it was also an embodiment of how I've come to feel about the world, human and natural, over the last few years. By that I mean—nature and humans all mixed up, a world where resources and beauty cannot be separated.

At the same time I was outraged. Look, I'm not an engineer. If my kind of people, the artists, ran the earth a log over a creek would be the height of our engineering achievement. So I admire people who are good at practical things I'm not good at but, on the other hand, they don't seem to admire my tribe, and respect what we're good at. I wrote about the spill, "The little boys made this mess, and now the little boys insist that they're the only ones who can clean it up." You're down there and helicopters are flying every which way, and millions of gallons of gas are being used to fuel the machines cleaning up the oil, and airboats are flying over (and through) the marsh, chewing it up so they can get oil off the marsh. It's just ridiculous. Looking down at the rig site from above I would see all these boats and cranes and think: "Tonka Toys."