Resources for the Teacher - Plunder
By Mary Anna Evans
Guide to the Incurably Curious—
A Personal Note for Teachers, Students, and People Who Just Like to Read
I’ve included a Guide to the Incurably Curious in each of my books since I learned that book groups and school classes were reading my work. Since I can’t sit with every group and I can’t visit every classroom, this is my way to be part of the conversation.
In other books, I’ve done things like distinguish actual historical fact from things that I just made up. (I’m a novelist, so I get to do that.) I’ve also pointed readers at books and websites that I used for research, in case Faye’s adventures have set them on fire to learn more about Choctaw folk tales or the conquistadors or the history of the Confederate States of America. Sometimes, I’ve suggested questions that a book group leader or classroom teacher might use to take a discussion deeper, then I’ve provided my own answers so that I could join in the discussion from a distance. I think readers like hearing about how books came to be.
When the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in 2010, I watched the news closely, because it was a horrifying event in both the real world and in my own imaginary world. If the coastline in the vicinity of my fictional Joyeuse was eventually inundated with oil, then I was going to need to deal with it in the next book. (Fortunately, this did not occur, so Faye’s home is as it always was.)
Because I spent a summer working offshore south of Grand Isle, Louisiana, my real-world memories were triggered by the spill. I remembered driving down Plaquemines Highway from New Orleans to Venice, then climbing aboard a helicopter that flew me over the marshes and the blue waters of the gulf until the great metal skeleton of a natural gas production platform rose up in the distance. At some point, I realized that there was a book to be written about the archaeological remnants that the spreading oil would affect, and that this was my book to write.
Since I’m serious about my research, I felt that I couldn’t make Plunder the book I wanted it to be if I didn’t go take a look with my own eyes at the damage. I went in June 2010, while the oil was still flowing unimpeded into the Gulf of Mexico. Its effects were already being seen on-shore. Tar balls were washing ashore in Pensacola, and a huge area of wetlands near the mouth of the Mississippi had taken the brunt of the damage. I came home with the sense that there was a story to tell, and that it would be told in terms of the people affected by an environmental disaster that covered such a large area as to be almost incomprehensible to a little tiny human being.
Since then, engineers were successful in stanching the flow after many months. Doomsday scenarios bandied about by the press were avoided, and the media has taken its flea-sized attention span elsewhere. We can’t see the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, and we can’t smell petroleum diluted in its water, therefore it isn’t there. Despite the fact that I’ve worked as an environmental consultant, I wouldn’t hazard a guess to the answer to the question of, “Just how much damage was really done?”
The more important thing, I think, is to take a moment to think about the immensity of a problem that erupted after a small-by-comparison piece of equipment failed. And then, I hope, we will take more moments to consider what it would take to prevent such failures in the future.
Here is a first-person account of what it felt like to look that failure in the face.
A Matter of Perspective:
A Novel-Writing Engineer Takes A Look at the BP Oil Spill
When you work offshore, water is everywhere. The
horizon is a great blue circle encompassing everlasting waves. This is
not surprising, miles from land. The surprising thing is the water
below. Your steel-toed boots rest on metal grating, and you can see
through it to the next floor below you. It is also made of grating,
revealing another floor below. And another. And another.
Beneath it all is the blue water.
It has been nearly thirty years since I worked in the Gulf of Mexico. Still, when I heard about the disastrous end of the Deepwater Horizon, I could only think of the people trapped in that inferno, surrounded by endless blue.
In the intervening years, I’ve worked as an environmental engineer, doing occasional projects in the fragile and overworked Mississippi River delta. These days, I work as a novelist. When the Deepwater Horizon went down, leaving us with a volcano of underwater oil, I knew I was meant to write about it. For me, writing about something means that I need to see it first.
I live in north Florida. Driving west, I was never out of earshot of people terrified for their future. Radio stations in Pensacola and Mobile and Gulfport blared classic rock, except when they were reporting the appearance of tar balls on sugar-white beaches. I drove all day, and not slowly. (My father said he never understood how a foot so skinny could be so heavy.) Yet I couldn't drive out of this thing. It was too big.
I reached New Orleans, crossed the river, and hung a left. Sunset lit the everpresent clouds as I settled into a borrowed house in Myrtle Grove. (Of course, clouds are everpresent. Water is everywhere, even underfoot. Why shouldn't water gather in the air above?)
Driving south the next morning, I stopped at Fort Jackson. The fort has been a military site since 1822, but it's a national monument now, so I didn't expect the constant thwap-thwap-thwap of helicopters taking off in quick succession. Something unidentifiable dangled from each chopper’s belly.
When I asked two gentlemen in protective gear what they’d seen, they just said, "The oil’s fifteen miles out." The twisting river makes local geography mind-bending, so I couldn't relate the fifteen-mile distance to any familiar place--Venice? Grand Isle?--but I did know that fifteen miles wasn't very far.
As helicopters lifted above the old fort, the men explained that the choppers were dropping sandbags into passes between barrier islands. Again, the enormity of their task staggered me. Sand is heavy. Each helicopter carried just a few sandbags. How many trips would it take to move enough sand to make any difference whatsoever? But we wouldn’t be human if we didn't try.
In Venice, the highway ends. A command station there sent out throngs of workers and lots of boats and miles of boom. At Myrtle Grove, I saw yet another command station. More workers. More boats. More miles of boom.
Next day, a friend took me out in a borrowed boat, looking for oil. Again, we saw workers and equipment but, for a long while, we saw no oil. We didn't even smell it.
Eventually, we reached Barataria Bay. Still, the water looked clear. Then my friend said, "Look at the grass." That’s when we noticed the stains at the base of the grasses extending along the shoreline, as far as we could see. Perhaps the tide had brought the oil in to foul the wetlands, then receded. Or perhaps the hard labor of all those workers had skimmed any oil from open waters. But you can't skim a swamp and you can't rip out several parishes’ worth of wetland grasses. Some mistakes just can’t be fixed.
During the ride back, I finally got a good noseful of oil. Why was that odor so elusive when I was on Barataria Bay, surrounded by the stuff? The chemical engineer in me says that the most volatile compounds had evaporated as that oil made its way to me. And the oil I did smell? Perhaps that air blew in off the gulf, where fresh oil was still bubbling to the surface. And it was, still.
I take research trips to add realism to my books and to find perspective. What perspective waited in the river delta?
I saw herculean efforts to set things right. I saw helicopters, people, boats, and equipment in quantities that would be staggering if they could be gathered in one place. Spread across such vastness, that effort is simply dwarfed. We’re only human.
And I, for one, felt small.