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Our incessant motoring is a failure to face reality

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Earth and Spirit

While in Louisiana last month reporting on the human and environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon crude oil spill, my wife and I made a side trip to Cypremort Point in Vermilion Bay. The highway wound its way through marshes bordered by moss-draped live oak trees. At the water’s edge we walked along the narrow beach picking up oyster shells and water-carved pieces of driftwood. Coffee-colored debris at the water’s edge looked like oil from the spill but a local told us it was detritus from the marshes that washes out then drifts back onto the beaches. The oil hadn’t arrived yet.

That morning we interviewed Providence Sr. Helen Vinton, assistant director of the Southern Mutual Help Association in New Iberia. She had just returned from a visit to areas near the Gulf where the oil directly threatened fragile marshes.

She spoke with both fishers and with members of a community of the first Louisianans, the native Atakapa people.

She said the fishermen -- tough guys used to daily struggles with the sea, a tough economy and five years of devastating hurricanes, would tear up, walk away from her in mid-conversation then come back, composed for more talk.

The Atakapa families live at the mouth of the Mississippi, in a village only accessible by boat. This community is wholly dependent upon the waterways as a means of daily nutrition, in addition to commercial ventures. Members of this group liken the water to a grocery store; most of what they consume comes from the marsh. Their ancestors are buried in mounds in the marshes.

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Rosina Philipe, a spokesperson for the tribe, told Sister Helen: “The Atakapa have survived smallpox, manifest destiny and a millennium of hurricanes, but the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which represents a complete unknown, is the scariest threat of all.”

Rosina’s 16-year-old daughter, Ani, handed her a braided sampling of native marsh grasses and blooms neatly tied at the bottom with a large strand of reed, and with tears in her eyes said simply, “My home is being destroyed, and I don’t mean my house.”

As I sat near the beach with an offshore wind at my back, I heard the piercing cries of killdeer and watched towering cumulus clouds out over the water moving like stately galleons into the West. Looking out to the not-too-far Gulf waters where the sticky red-brown globs of oil approached, I thought of desert rat and environmentalist Edward Abbey’s lament that cries out in the deepest, most inconsolable anguish at the ongoing destruction of the Southwestern landscape:

“Oh my desert, yours is the only death I cannot bear!”

Indeed, to see your place -- the woven, quilted mosaic of weather, trees, vegetation, landforms, rainfall, birds, animals and wildflowers particular to that one locale that nourishes you and gave birth to your culture -- to see all that go down has to be a death that is well-nigh unbearable.

As we assess the fallout from the spill, geopolitical realities and growing resistance in the developing world to exploration are likely to keep the focus of U.S. energy independence on our own offshore areas, where high-tech rigs like the Deepwater Horizon poke and prod at the seafloor to yield up its diminishing stores.

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, a critique of America’s car-dependent suburbanization, said: “Scaling down is apparently not an option, though it will happen whether we participate or not. The United States is like Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener who, when asked to do anything, replied, ‘I prefer not to.’ ”

Kunstler’s book indicts, often hilariously, the hideous inversion of the idea of public transportation, in which every individual drives to work for long distances every day in his or her own bus (an SUV, van or oversized truck). Kunstler decries the ubiquitous strip mall, big box store, fast-food chain, dreary, soul-slaying sameness of the U.S. landscape.

We’re going to have to import even more oil than the two-thirds-plus we already depend on. Meanwhile, no one in office or in the media will speak a word about our massive, incessant, sometimes purposeless motoring.

Few want to think about living with fewer cars, driving fewer miles. We’ll be dragged there kicking and screaming, but that’s probably our destination, like it or not. The effort now going into developing alternative fuels and hybrid cars is just a form of bargaining on the Kübler-Ross spectrum of dying.

Traveling around the United States, it’s not hard to understand our failure to face reality. As Kunstler describes, the nation is fully configured almost everywhere for extreme car dependency.

I remember as a kid in the 1950s traveling with my grandmother from Kansas City, Mo., to Parsons, Kan., on a train. It was a hot summer day, and all the windows were open. You can’t get from here to Parsons on a train anymore, and I consulted Greyhound schedules as I write: You can’t even get there on a bus.

We spent all our collective national treasure building the road and highway systems and the extensive suburbs and malls suited for one mode of existence. We incorporated it into our national identity as the American way of life. Now, we don’t know what else to do except defend it at all costs, maybe waving the magic techno wand, murmuring incantations like “ethanol,” “hydrogen cells,” “electric.”

We pay for this car dependency in the coin of ever-diminishing prospects for better places and lives, and in the ever-expanding geography of nowhere.

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is rheffern@ncronline.org.]

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