Springtime in the Rockies

  • Christina Nealson


The Mancos Valley reverberates with the gush of its namesake river in an annual rite of spring runoff.  These waters are a perfect metaphor for starting a new life -- allowing winter's rigidity to melt and wash away. In this high mountain ranching valley of Colorado, the first water flows through irrigation spigots and onto hay fields. The swallows return and rebuild their mud nests under the eaves of the barn; foals hug their mothers' sides under newly leafed cottonwoods. All is rejuvenation.

Meanwhile, there is the black, slimy gush filling the Gulf of Mexico –– a flood of oil so gargantuan it is difficult to wrap our minds around it until we go online or turn on the television. The video of Philippe Cousteau (grandson of Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau who brought the oceans into our living rooms on television) diving into the sullied Gulf waters makes even the toughest among us gasp. "It's a nightmare," he says, as he moves through suspended particles of oil and muck, a few large fish looking eerily out of place in the background.

Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and director of the marine Environmental Research Institute, took a dive recently as well.  She described a, "surreal and sickening scene" as she passed through an orange-brown pudding mix of oil and dispersants.  She witnessed phytoplankton, zooplankton and shrimp enveloped in dark oil, and larger fish feeding on the poisonous oil dispersal droplets, mistaking them for food.

At a time when the world is consumed with religious violence and the so-called war on terror, perhaps it's time to ask the creatures of the sea:  "Who are the terrorists?" This is not a trick question.

As much as we want to dump the blame on some other, it is not simply the fault of British Petroleum Oil executives trying to save an extra day and making a bad decision to forego safety measures. It's not just because our government backed away from regulation. It's not due to Dick Cheney's secretive Energy Task Force, which apparently determined that the $500,000 shutoff switches (mandated in Norway and Brazil to prevent catastrophes like this one) were an economic burden on the industry and passed on requiring them in U.S. waters.   As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, "We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness."

I look out at newly greened sage, the La Plata Mountains in the background, well aware that this nightmare has everything to do with our -- my -- addiction to oil. Through my consumptive habits, I enable the oil companies to keep racking up profits.  Several years ago, I limited my plane flights to one a year and encouraged friends to do the same.  "Oh, but I can't," they replied.  "So and so" would be hurt if I didn't show up for their (fill in the blank: wedding, graduation, funeral, reunion).  And of course, for us baby boomers:  "I've got to see the grandkids!" topped the list.

But where will change start if not with us?  Imagine a phone call to that niece, cousin or sister telling them that you won't be attending their gradation because of energy consumption; that it's imperative to switch gears and make choices on behalf of the earth.  Take one plane trip a year and make it count.  Or if your family is a top priority, move and live closer.

Close your eyes and imagine what Philippe Cousteau saw 25 feet down:  clouds of granular water the likes of which researchers say now forms massive plumes hundreds of feet deep that stretches for miles. The pungent smell of diesel fuel, gasoline and oil.  His hazmat and diving suit had to be degreased; his skin needed to be carefully cleaned because the touch of that water would cause it to burn.

From 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil or much, much more continue to pour into the ocean every day.  No, says Philippe Cousteau, the ocean cannot take this.  No, he says, a hurricane will not wash it all away and make it clean again.  Unlike the Mancos River Valley, the Gulf has no rite of spring, no seasonal cleanup to scour the riverbanks.

It's rafting season here in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.  Rafts made from petroleum products, petroleum tires under the car and gasoline to drive to the put-ins. Don't forget the poly-pro wet suits for warmth and those large, soft inflatable pads to sleep on. It's springtime in the Rockies, but for many creatures of the sea, it's a dark, sad time of death.

Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes from her home in Mancos, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

common sense
Camille Cazedessus
Camille Cazedessus
Jun 13, 2010 09:35 AM
    My take on your eleven paragraph SPRINGTIME is that essentially because we are addicted to oil, Dick Cheney is the terrorist who polluted the sea (it is a gulf),
and inspite of the Gulf Stream and the fresh waters of the Rio Grande and the Mississippi flowing into the Gulf, Monsieur Cousteau says “the ocean can’t take this.” (It is not an ocean.) And in your last paragraph you urge us to not forget this “dark, sad time of death”.
    To me it’s quite obvious that had we let BP drill in ANWAR instead of in a huge crater of water a few hundred miles off our southern border, a similar accident would been of far less consequence. Also, Obama is in charge here, not Cheney. Note that ANWAR is thousands of miles away from a population comparable to Gulf Coast
    I’ll take Ben Franklin over Buddha any day. He says “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
-Camille Cazedessus
Dan & Jan Blair
Dan & Jan Blair
Jun 15, 2010 03:18 PM
Clearly the "take" on this wonderful article springs from a deep hole of anti-administration, anti-environmental angst, to which you have every right. But don't misunderstand what the writer was telling us, and what we all need to learn: we are all interconnected. All of life, not just all of human life. There are good reasons for not drilling in ANWR that have nothing to do with how few people live there (and by the way, it is important to the indigenous peoples who have made that area their home for millennia). Furthermore, the choice of Ben Franklin's quote is certainly interesting: if MMS and BP had invested in an "ounce of prevention" this "pound of cure" (if one can be found) could more easily have been avoided.

Thanks to the author for an really excellent article. Some of us "got it."
Hard choices
Wayne Hare
Wayne Hare
Jun 14, 2010 08:02 AM
Yep, we sure have some hard choices ahead of us. And obviusly we still don't get it. Nope, the answer isn't to drill in ANWR instead of the gulf so that a spill would occur thousands of miles aways from a population center. I got an email awhile back urging folks to be sure to remove the caps from their bottled water so that when the bottles end up in the land fill (bottles that take 3 liters of petroleum just to produce) that last bit of water will be evaporated back into the atmosphere and become available in the water sytem again. Huh?!?! High mpg cars are presented as being good for the environment. That's what is passed off as sacrifice and good stewardship. And if some super mathematician can tell me how we, with 3% of the world's oil reserves and 25% of it's use can drill, baby, drill our way out of this sad and serious problem, I'm all ears (Oh...and don't get me started on Dick Cheney!)
Camille Cazedessus
Camille Cazedessus
Jun 15, 2010 03:42 PM
So, if not ANWAR, where? There are almost a billion internal combustion engines world wide that need oil to operate. (Correct, don't mention Dick Cheney.)
still missing the point
Jun 17, 2010 12:42 AM
Camille...this really isn't all about Cheney, or the semantics of whether a body of water is a sea or not. He's just one strand in this very tangled and viselike web we've all woven for ourselves. We simply cannot build our lives around almighty oil anymore. The choice is still ours, but it won't be someday soon. Please think beyond how we're going to keep driving our cars. This nightmare is so very much bigger than that.
springtime in the rockies
Jun 17, 2010 01:36 AM
Obama tells us to "air up out tires" to conserve energy,apparently energy meant for the couple million high breeding immigrants we let in every year. Just as his heathcare plan adds huge new demand to the supply of health providers, he favors an immigration policy that adds ever more demand to our dwindling supply of resources.Edward Abbey said it, population is THE threat to our environment.The silence on the subject is surreal, mon.
Camille Cazedessus
Camille Cazedessus
Jun 17, 2010 09:58 PM
For the next 10 years, we need oil to operate our culture of extreme dependence on the internal combustion engine. Fine that we are solar/wind/electricity energy bound, but we CANNOT simply dump the IC infrastructure during the Obama's regime. (It's NOTHING about Cheney.) It's about being practical and using common sense: pump our own oil from our own grounds (ANWAR for sure!), promote natural gas as a fuel (we have a super abundance here in SW USA), mandate better IC fuel efficiency, and support all new energy sources. But oil is necessary to maintain our strengths at this time, and abruptly abandoning it is not the way. And what "nightmare" are you talking about?
Camille Cazedessus
Camille Cazedessus
Jun 18, 2010 09:21 AM
Dick Cheney's name get involved in this discussion of an oil spill in the gulf because Ms. Nealson wanted to brand him a "terrorist" by inferring it is HE that is responsible for the "sullied, surreal, and sickening scene of dark poisonous oil" in the Gulf, sea or ocean..."whatever." Her phrases, like your "viselike web we've all woven for ourselves nightmare," are all couched in emotions. It would be national suicide to abruptly boycott oil. In the real world, we must maintain our strengths, and right now, we're running on IC engines using oil. It will be 10 years before we employ the coming substitute for our energy. And if we are "addicted" to something, first it's electricity.

all one world, no place to hide
Jun 18, 2010 11:42 AM
Your partisanship, Camille, is a real turnoff. And the fact that you still seem to see the world in terms of "us", meaning the U.S,, and "them", meaning anyone but the U.S., a philosophy which should have died a quiet death after the Reagan admin, is very sad. Yes, an emotion. They're not bad things.
The nightmare is that the entire globe is addicted to oil, and it is a finite resource that does tremendous damage to the environment. We're overrunning our one and only planet because we like our lifestyles and think our genes still must be passed on, even though we're heading toward 7 billion humans. We are a pathetic and unworthy species.
I'm done. Won't be checking back, so don't bother with a response to me.
Camille Cazedessus
Camille Cazedessus
Jun 18, 2010 05:03 PM
Ms. Leason's article brought up Dick Cheney in re. an oil drilling accident in the Gulf of Mexico. THAT is partisanship. Who is us and them? Decisions based in emotion lead to problems.