The ocean is that other earth. Yet, it covers far more of this sphere than the land. It is incomprehensible, beautiful, mean and uniquely peaceful.
The first thing I notice about the beach is the smell. The water stops at the shore, but the smell extends like the scent of something from the kitchen. That smell offers the hint of a feast to come — of a different, relaxed way of life, at least for a few days.
When I finally get to the beach, I like to stand there alone and look for a long time. We can look into a night sky and know that the light from the stars has traveled many millions of years before it hits our eyes, but few people ever get to cross out of the orbit and touch “space.” I can’t imagine the feeling of stepping into “the heavens.” The closest most of us will ever get is the ocean. If I stand and stare at the ocean, I feel I’m looking at a separate universe, something that has and will be alive for eons with or without me — or us.
The ocean will, of course, live on beyond what is happening in the Gulf, that massive spill from a BP oil rig. But it may take many years for it to recover. There are countless living creatures choking on that fuel now, oblivious to the why.
I think of how little benzene, a carcinogen in gasoline, it takes to make water unsafe — five parts per billion. Then I think of the many millions of gallons of oil gushing in to the sea, not far from the Gulf coast. I worry that the oil will get caught in the Gulf Stream, make a turn around Florida and head up the Atlantic coast. I worry that the ocean as we knew it could be altered for years to come. I think of all the jobs potentially lost, all the plans altered. “The beach” could take on a new, lost meaning. We think of “fresh” seafood. What will that mean in the future — a benzene count of less than five parts per billion? Will that come on the menu?
We tend to break environmental issues into partisan matters. Of course, what doesn’t break along red and blue lines? Isn’t it insane? But is there any Republican or Democrat who has not stood by the ocean and thought of the fish, whether it’s how good they are to catch and eat, or whether it’s simply the fact that there’s a whole world of life beneath the surface that’s not concerned about you, and never will be, lest you reel it in for your plate? There is nothing partisan about recognizing the beauty of this world. There are many great things that will inevitably lie out of our reach, out of our sight, but that doesn’t mean we don’t affect them, that we shouldn’t consider them. To be willfully blind to this fact is simply a weakness of mind and spirit, nothing more.
Unfortunately, environmentalism is seen in our country through partisan spectacles. It’s easy to caricature those concerned about the environment as preferring a sparrow’s rights over a worker’s livelihood. Conversely, it’s easy to caricature those on the other side as caring more about a company’s profit line than how its toxins affect families.
There will be plenty of political fighting to come over the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf. But that beautiful scent coming off the water, the hint of the vast beyond, is being replaced with a terrible stink of our own making.
We must require better — no matter the politics.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal