"These are working wetlands," Gay Gomez, an author and naturalist who grew up on the Louisiana coast, told me. "The land, the wildlife, and the people are inseparable here."
That's why, on day 22 of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson declared that the federal government was doing everything in its power to keep the oil from reaching the marshes.
But within a month of the explosion, the oil came to the marshes.
It didn't arrive in a simple, syrupy tide. It came in broken tendrils that slipped past the barrier islands and floated north on currents driven by a warm southern breeze. The oil changed shape as it moved. In one bay it speckled the water with brown turds and spit gobs. In another it coalesced into purplish rafts the size of small swimming pools. It was as thin as a rainbow sheen or as thick as carnival taffy.
Where it struck, it stuck. On Devils Point, a half-mile strip of saltwater marsh in Timbalier Bay, the oil glommed on to oyster grass stalks and mangrove leaves. In Redfish Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi, it blackened the ankles of ten-foot-tall roseau cane stalks. On Barataria Bay's Queen Bess Island, one of North America's most productive bird rookeries, thick tide pools of oil hugged the shore and tarred the feathers of brown pelicans as they dived for food. Day after day, the wind pushed the oil farther into the marshes. Miles of absorbent and containment boom, often laid haphazardly and left unattended, could not stop it.
The marshes of Barataria-Terrebonne estuary are already the fastest disappearing lands on Earth. Starved of Mississippi River sediment and carved up by hundreds of oil- and gas-exploration canals, the marshes are subsiding into open water at a rate of 15 square miles a year. "This oil is hitting a coast that's already sick," said Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.
The locavore movement has become trendy in America's hipper zip codes, but down here folks have been living off locally grown food for hundreds of years. Roadside diners serve up shrimp po'boys, French bread stuffed with the fried pride of Barataria Bay. Children bait strings with chicken necks to catch blue crabs. On Sundays friends and family gather for local crawfish or crabs boiled in huge pots over propane burners.