Louisiana should change its state bird from the brown pelican to the yellow canary. The image on the Louisiana flag, which fluttered over my New Orleans
childhood, is no longer appropriate. As a child in New Orleans, I grew up under the image of a mother pelican staring down at a nest of its young, surrounded by the navy blue background of the Louisiana flag. Beneath was a banner proclaiming the state’s motto: “Union, Justice, and Confidence.”
The pelican was chosen to represent Louisiana because of the pelican’s “generous and nurturing” nature. When food for its young was unavailable, mama pelican would use her beak to pierce her own chest. She would then extract some blood, which she would feed her young. The flag portrays her in the midst of this selfless act.
Mama pelican’s self-mutilation conjures an image from another part of my identity. Upon hearing the news of the death of a close family member, a Jew is expected to tear a garment. This ritual of “rend [ing] the garment to expose the heart” is believed to have been instituted as an antidote to the ancient practice of cutting the flesh as a sign of mourning. The practice of wearing a torn black ribbon as a sign of mourning descends from these more aggressive rites.
I fear that mother pelicans all over the Gulf of Mexico will soon be tearing their breasts, not to nourish their chicks, but to mourn them. The eggs from which the chicks might be expected to emerge are likely to remain unhatched in their nests. This is because they may be filled with lifeless embryos that have failed to thrive because of contamination from the British Petroleum/Deepwater Horizon/Halliburton disaster. The bounty once extracted at great peril from the gulf by its deep-sea fishermen will no longer be a generous gift from Louisiana to the rest of the world. What Louisiana now offers is a warning about what the future may look like if we don’t overcome our oil dependence.
There is a sad parallel between those who bring destruction to our country, whether by design or as a by-product of practices that ignore the common good. One group of perpetrators takes flight lessons but excludes from its studies any mastery of the skills required for safely landing a plane. Another pursues the advancement of technological competency in the extraction of oil from the earth, but does not pursue the accompanying innovation in the safety measures needed to protect the ecosystems impacted. Denying our interconnected fate, both pursue false prophets, whether economic, religious or political. Both affect great peril. They don’t experience the gratification in John Muir’s declaration that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Those words inspired me in the early 1970s when I worked for the Ecology Center of Louisiana. I bicycled from the Garden District to the French Quarter each weekday to present a five-minute radio segment on the CBS affiliate to warn residents of the Gulf South of the dangers of the chemical by-products of the oil industry; the toxins in our food chain, water and air; global warming; the erosion of the coastal wetlands; and the potential for disaster when the Army Corps of
Engineers tries to out-engineer God and nature.
Following Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees in 2005, I returned to the South and witnessed the environmental nightmare we forecast all those years ago.
I visited homes awash in the Katrina flotsam, reeking of mold and chemicals, which penetrated every material thing that denoted daily life. New Orleans’ normally verdant foliage, bleached by floodwater, resembled nuclear winter. Without electricity for many weeks, refrigerators were covered with the spores of their long-decayed contents. Nearly every refrigerator in town, stinking of rotted food, was set out on the sidewalk to await removal and disposal. But there was no one to haul them away and no place to bring them. In Louisiana in 2005, I saw and smelled the future. Without a commitment to break the addictions that cause the oceans to warm and give us hurricanes and flooding, we can all look forward to a similar assault upon our senses.
Meanwhile, the dead zone in the Gulf continues to expand. It will choke the life out of the waters and sever the lifeline from the financial and cultural livelihood of Southeastern Louisiana. This blight is likely to spread to many of the fishing communities that line the coasts of the Southeastern United States and to those who enjoy their resources. Like the hungry chicks in the mother pelican’s nest, all of us at a higher elevation on the food chain, may soon be yearning for nourishment that may no longer be available. But we are all culpable. Unlike the mother pelican, who of us has been willing to make the sacrifices needed to sustain our progeny?
As those whose way of life has been decimated by the environmental disaster mourn and head for higher ground, we should be forewarned about the world that awaits us all. The demands we make upon the earth will force the earth to cough us up. We will follow the stunned communities of coastal Louisiana into a future that does not resemble the world we take for granted.
It may be time for Louisiana to choose the canary, the sensitive sentinel bird that was brought into coal mines to provide early detection of toxic gases, as its state bird. Perhaps the state should also reverse its motto, in order to Confidently assert the sad Justice that, as goes Louisiana, so goes the Union.