Martha Serpas: Our Life, Between Sea and Oil

In today’s New York Times, Louisiana poet Martha Serpas gives a rich and sensitive account of Louisiana’s environmental predicament by focusing on Bayou Lafourche where she was raised and the Cajun people who have survived through generations of “persecution, banishment and years of deadly storms.” These people and their culture—along with the entire southern part of the state—are now at risk from encroaching BP oil and salt water erosion of the delicate coastline.

Her essay is subtle and nuanced—the energy industry is not cast as a one-dimensional villain, and she acknowledges that “we Louisianans have not always acted in our own best interests”—and we’re happy to see that the Times editors gave her the space her subject deserves, room to explain some complex history and political, cultural, and environmental issues.

Well, enough clumsy summarizing. Please, read “Our Life, Between Sea and Oil” for yourself in its entirety below the fold. It’s well written, and we highly recommend it. We also hope you’ll watch the video clip of Veins in the Gulf, a feature-length documentary about Louisiana’s disappearing coastline. Martha Serpas is a participant in this film that traces the history of the environmental crisis of southern Louisiana and its threat to Cajun culture whose music, cuisine, and joie de vivre have enriched the nation and the world. The film is due out in September.

Our Life, Between Sea and Oil

By Martha Serpas  |  New York Times  |  July 11, 2010

I WAS born and raised on Bayou Lafourche, 30 miles from Grand Isle, which is Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island and also the setting of Kate Chopin’s 19th-century novel of maternal disorientation, “The Awakening.” But “Frankenstein” offers the more appropriate narrative lesson for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Mary Shelley begins her story with the anti-hero Victor Frankenstein declaring his admiration for scientists who “penetrate into the recesses of nature.” Full of hubris, he “pursued nature to her hiding places,” bringing horror upon his family and community. He has no foresight, only the belief that “maternal nature” can be manipulated by unvetted technology.

Today, we are both the victims of such shortsighted overreach and culpable for its grim results. Despite our long experience with the delta’s powerful waters, we misplaced our confidence in yet another industry claiming dominance over the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

Grand Isle suffered some of the earliest damage from the disaster. The oil moved slower than a hurricane, but granted less opportunity for experienced preparation. It moved faster than coastal erosion, which takes a football field of land every 45 minutes or 25 square miles a year. Bayou Lafourche, a major Cajun settlement, was once an important tributary of the Mississippi, but was cut off from the river by a dam in the early 20th century, depriving the vital wetlands of nourishment. What with nitrates flowing down the Mississippi, the leveeing of New Orleans and dredging by the oil and gas industry, my home, even if it escapes the crude, will sink into the gulf.

The Cajuns who live on Bayou Lafourche and elsewhere on the gulf have long exhibited resilience in the face of natural and manmade disasters. This fortitude is a legacy from their ancestors the Acadians, who survived persecution, banishment and years of deadly storms.

“Acadian” and “Cajun” are often used interchangeably, somewhat incorrectly. The Acadians were the 18th-century French Catholic settlers in Canada who named their colony La Cadie, after the Micmac word for “land of plenty,” and were expelled by the British in the Grand Dérangement of 1755. They migrated primarily to Louisiana with the aid of Spanish land grants, and to Bayou Lafourche in particular after 1785. Their direct descendants are counted among Louisiana’s Cajuns, but the community includes everyone who has assimilated the Acadian lifestyle—an original cuisine, architecture, music, dance, language and religion, Cajun Catholicism. This amalgam includes descendants of Germans, Italians, Irish and other immigrants, as well as Native Americans and Africans.

Cajun culture embraces this diversity. Okra, introduced by West Africans, was added to gumbo. Statues of two Italian saints, Lucy (patron saint of Syracuse, in Sicily), and Valerie (protector against hurricanes), stand with France’s Joan of Arc in Thibodaux’s St. Joseph Co-Cathedral. Names like Anselmi, Allemand and Rebstock are considered as Cajun as Cheramie and Guidry.

Many extended Cajun families, three or four generations, live in clusters of houses down the same lane. A third cousin might as well be a sister, and family extends to godparents—marraines and parrains.

My family is Sicilian, German and Spanish, and for generations my relatives have taught, kept books, sold groceries, worked on boats and hunted and fished on the bayous. On Fridays in Lent, we went to crayfish boils. There is no better food anywhere than the boiled seafood and seasoned stews of true Cajun cooking. (I never ate anything blackened until I visited New York.) My English is inflected with Cajun French and odd French translations: I “caught” the bridge; I’ll “get down” with you at the store; did the mail “pass”? And the compliment often given subjects of photographs: “Mais, you stayed so good!”

The very elements of Cajun culture that distinguish it from a materialistic lifestyle—an emphasis on living in the moment, independence, self-sufficiency and generous hospitality—can often work against the people’s best interests. The Cajun perspective is present tense; people come over and plans are put aside. Meetings are often scheduled as “just come by.” The drawback of such a view is that it’s hard to raise concerns about future dangers like coastal erosion, or prioritize the risks of deepwater oil and gas drilling when those turn into today’s paychecks. One of my friends, Trey, a diesel mechanic, says, “People’ll care when their feet get wet.”


DOWN the bayou, pontoon and lift bridges act as major intersections. Boat traffic—tug boats, barges and crew boats—have the right of way. Ever since the first offshore well was drilled in the 1940s, the oil industry has had the right of way in Louisiana, dredging canals through the trembling prairie, spilling oil into the gulf and taking most of the profits out of state.

On the other hand, the industry also employs hundreds of thousands; provides tax revenue for schools, levees and roads; contributes millions to ecological and cultural projects; and helps meet the country’s voracious energy needs. If you are warm or cool, ride in a car or own something plastic, you’ve probably consumed something that passed through Louisiana’s Port Fourchon, which supports 90 percent of deepwater rigs and 45 percent of shallow water rigs in the gulf.

Unfortunately, the ledger doesn’t balance. Trey says: “I can see if we made a deal with the devil for our land. But show me the money!” The formula for Louisiana’s share of oil revenues is complicated, but our share is considerably less than that of other states.

In the late 1940s, coastal states argued with the federal government over their “seaward boundaries”—the line inside of which states could claim 100 percent of oil and gas tax revenues. Earl Long’s special assistant attorney general, Leander Perez, brokered a shortsighted deal with the Truman administration. He gave up any revenue from drilling beyond three miles in hopes that he would be able to push for a 100 percent share of a larger area of water. He believed oil production would never be profitable, or even possible, so far offshore, and his later legislative attempts to establish a three-league seaward boundary for Louisiana failed. While many other states get 50 percent of their oil revenue, Louisiana kept none generated outside six miles until a 2006 Congressional bill increased Louisiana’s take to 37.5 percent on new leases with a larger overall share coming by 2017.

That is to say, we Louisianans have not always acted in our best interests. A “doing something is better than doing nothing” attitude (and hopes of national photo-ops) have some politicians calling for barriers made of sand berms and rock jetties, against the better judgment of many gulf coast scientists. Dredging sand from fragile barrier islands will take many months, and the berms may wash away in a single storm. Interrupting tidal flows with rock jetties could hurt marine and marsh life.

At the same time, most people down the bayou denounced the Obama administration’s efforts to impose a drilling moratorium, which shut down 33 rigs, laid off many workers and cut the business of support industries. “Don’t further threaten our way of life while we have to deal with this mess,” the message is.

One can understand the frustration. In the 1970s, companies were told to drill as much as possible, in the ’80s, don’t drill—and so on. Hard work on the water is a core part of Cajun identity. In “The BP Blues,” a member of the Dirty Cajuns sings from an oil rig worker’s point of view: “I was stuck out here for seven more, watching everything turn black offshore. . . . Tell the banker I don’t want a loan. Send the lawyers back to where they from. . . . Eleven of us lost our lives, just so you could get to work on time.”

While much of the country bemoans the entire offshore project, local outrage is focused on BP’s incompetence specifically and on the moratorium. Those who work in energy production in the gulf know that the sudden shift in economic and environmental balance must be accomplished slowly and with great care.

I once went canoeing down Bayou Lafourche with two filmmakers and Kerry St. Pé, an expert on coastal erosion. As we paddled between cypresses, mirliton vines, kingfishers, heron and a few of the estuary’s other 735 species, Mr. St. Pé explained his hope for controlled Mississippi flow diversion and a pipeline sediment plan to rebuild lost land. “No one can live here without the wetlands,” he said. But he leveled no blame against the oil industry for the rapid erosion. That said to me, “No one can live here without oil jobs either.”


DOWN the bayou we are used to dealing with sudden adversity. We calibrate history by big hurricanes: Hilda, Audrey, Betsy, Camille. And the Great October Storm of 1893 that sent the survivors from Chêniére Caminada (between Fourchon and Grand Isle) migrating up the bayou, their numbers diminished by some 800. That painful loss was not enough to drive them far. Only five houses remained standing, and women, it is said, were saved from drowning when their long hair tangled in tree limbs.

My mother was pregnant with me when Hurricane Betsy hit Grand Isle in 1965. My family huddled in the hallway of my grandmother’s house in Thibodaux, where they’d evacuated. My father and aunt went outside during the eye and cleared storm drains, my father staying out longer than anyone else thought wise. The house did not flood. No one had to escape to the roof. However, by a conservative estimate, there were over 1,000 square miles more of wetlands to absorb the surge in 1965 than there are now. Long before the storm I didn’t mention, Hurricane Katrina, Lake Pontchartrain poured into the Ninth Ward. Lyndon Johnson showed up the next day, and Betsy is now retired as a storm name, too painful to be recycled.

Perhaps this in utero experience of Hurricane Betsy helps explain my Gulf Coast obsession. The marshes are sacred to me—an interstice of what is life-giving and what brings death. They embody how fluid those distinctions can be. As a child, I remember going crabbing with my family at the end of summer and wearing the year’s worn-out Keds to protect my feet from the sticky tar balls from oil spills. None of us thought too much about this. It was an accepted part of the beach, like thunderstorms.

I learned to scuba dive under oil platforms, artificial reefs supporting grouper, amberjack, lookdowns, tarpon, spadefish and barracuda. Often I’d dive down through the calm water’s blue, light-streaked strata, and resurface in four-foot chop 20 minutes later. The gulf can turn even an intrusive structure into a powerful matrix of new life, and can also turn suddenly destructive.

When tankers sunk in the gulf during World War II and coated Grand Isle in oil, waves eventually washed the beaches clean. The gulf again will have to clean up and restore life as we, like Victor Frankenstein, have proved ourselves inadequate to the task. But we may not be around this time to see what that new life will look like. And in the meantime we should not exploit or even take for granted the gulf’s restorative nature.

The Louisiana flag features a Christian image called “the pelican in her piety,” plucking flesh from her own breast to feed her young. Some flags show three drops of blood near her beak. A few years ago, the Louisiana Legislature decreed all official flags must feature these marks of self-immolation. It’s a destructive message in our context. Ecological self-sacrifice is not pious; cultural self-destruction is not our duty.

Neither should progress depend on the exploitation of others. What we can do is work with nature to rebuild some of the wetlands. We must treat with respect those who have labored to meet our country’s demands for oil. That would call for humility before powers greater than ourselves and a more forward-thinking stewardship of the gulf region and the inextricable Cajun culture it nurtures.


Martha Serpas is the author of the poetry collections Côte Blanche and The Dirty Side of the Storm.





Martha Serpas: Our Life, Between Sea and Oil