I spent the last day of the long July 4th weekend sitting in the Emergency Room with my almost-11-year-old son and his mangled, bloody finger.* I wasn’t thinking about the Gulf of Mexico until the nurse came in, looked at his laceration and started firing off questions about his health.
Does he have bleeding disorders? No. Immune deficiencies? No. Chronic infections? No. Any underlying health concerns at all? Thank goodness, no, no and no.
“Good,” she said. “This will be straightforward. Dermabond, splint, antibiotics. No other complications to manage. In 10 days or so, he’ll be good as new. Healthy kids are very resilient.”
It was the word “resilient” that made me think of the Gulf and how the oil spill is a profound injury made worse by the Gulf’s underlying health conditions. It also made me think that if there were a nurse to take the Gulf’s health history in the ER the day of the spill, it would have been a pretty sobering conversation.
Bleeding disorders? Well, in a sense. The loss of steady freshwater flows to the Gulf over the years contributes to the alarming pace of erosion of coastal wetlands.
Immune deficiencies? Yes, but not as bad as it could be. Even though oyster reefs are in extreme decline around the world, the Gulf – before the spill – had some of the healthiest reefs remaining in the world. Oysters are important for all the functions of a healthy Gulf coast. They purify water, stabilize sediment and help prevent erosion. In the Gulf, they are also important to the economic foundation of many coastal communities.
Chronic infections? Well, the flow of nutrients from fertilizers and other runoff into the Gulf and the resulting Dead Zones are unfortunately chronic right now.
Taken together, these issues add up to a Gulf with some serious underlying health conditions that – if ignored, or left untreated or unmanaged – will compromise and hamper its ability to recover from the injury of the oil spill.
From this perspective, it’s very clear that recovery for the Gulf of Mexico must go beyond just responding to the oil spill to restoring the whole system, from rivers to oyster reefs, seagrass beds to marshes. We need to restore the sources of the Gulf’s resilience.
It won’t be easy or quick. Certainly it will take much more than Dermabond, antibiotics and a splint. And it’s not something one organization can do alone, but it can be done.
Nature is incredibly resilient. As a mother, I’m blessed to see that resilience in my generally healthy, but occasionally emergency room-prone children. As a writer for the Conservancy, I’m privileged to work on stories of nature’s resilience on an almost daily basis.
I’ve waded through frigid water to help scientists monitor restored oyster reefs in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. I’ve hiked the edges of a wetland in Illinois that was cut off from the river, drained and farmed for 80 years. When water was finally returned to the land, seeds that had lain dormant for all those long decades leaped back to life.
All nature needs is a fighting chance.
* For the curious, my son’s laceration was the result of an illicit indoor baseball game with this little brother that ended abruptly with a shattered picture frame, an index finger filleted to the bone and our aforementioned trip to the emergency room. The younger son said it was the older one’s fault because “he ducked.” The older one maintains that the whole episode wouldn’t even have happened if he was “still an only child.”
Cara Byington is a senior conservation writer with The Nature Conservancy.
(Image: a brown pelican and chicks nesting in a mangrove forest rookery in Barataria Bay along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Source: Bridget Besaw)