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Springtime in the Rockies


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 [email protected].