Monday, February 28, 2011

Grass and Beach Peas Growing Up Through Oil

At the advice of a friend whose name is Wilderness, I begin this blog with a metaphor.  More than 20 years ago, I sat on a beach log in a cove deep inside Herring Bay, in Prince William Sound, Alaska.  It was spring, a year after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  The bay was enveloped in fog.  Where I sat, my gumboots were entwined with young beach peas.  Toeing around, I uncovered a mat of oil beneath the greenery.  It stained the rubber of my boot tip.  A stench of asphalt wafted up.  I knelt and parted the beach peas to get a closer look.  Imbedded in the tarry black mat were thousands of brown flecks:  spruce needles dropped from the forest above.  And poking up through that oil were new blades of grass.

I've studied orcas in Prince William Sound since 1987, before, during, and after the oil spill.  The Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on March 24, 1989.  In late March of 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer while visiting my sister on Cape Cod.  I stayed there for my treatment, separating myself from Prince William Sound for the first time in 24 years.  During the surreal summer months on the Cape, I watched unfolding my own body's demise via chemotherapy and simultaneously, the demise of the Gulf of Mexico as oil gushed out of the Deepwater Horizon well day after day, creating inside me an upwelling:  memories of oil and whales and carcasses and boats and haggard human faces.  And now, of new grass growing up out of oil. 

I finished treatment on December 1, and for the past three months, I've been recovering in Hawaii.  In March, I return to Alaska, to home.  Recovery is blades of new grass pushing up through an experience I wish sometimes to bury.  But it would mean burial of both grass and poison, both growth and demise.  Eventually, the seasons lay the grasses down over the mat of oil; time buries the disaster, but it remains a part of the substrate.  This blog is to record this process of restoration.