Here at Mobile Baykeeper, we talk about our responsibility to future generations. How it is our duty to protect the bounty of the Mobile Bay Watershed for our children and grandchildren, so that it may sustain them in the same way it has sustained us in our lifetimes. This is what drives much of our work.
What we don’t talk about as much is our responsibility to the past — to the history, ideal, and natural perfection of what came before. When the first Spaniards showed up on the Gulf Coast in the early 16th century, this stretch of land must have been something to behold. It was an exotic clime (the French eventually called it a “trembling land”) that no doubt elicited a WTF moment, and settling here, in the case of the French a century later, was no picnic. Just ask the Cassette Girls of Fort Louis, who arrived in 1704 fresh off the boat from Paris. They arrived at Twenty-Seven Mile Bluff, the French equivalent of Jamestown, and found themselves living in a Hank Williams Jr. song (“Country Boy Can Survive”), likely skinning bucks and running trot-lines.
As local naturalist and author Ben Raines points out, Alabama remained untouched by the glaciers of the last Ice Age, a fact that accounts for our wealth of biodiversity and the darkly romantic aesthetic of our delta, one of the country’s last great wildernesses. Our patron saint of the sciences, E.O. Wilson, famously dubbed it “America’s Amazon.”
“Warmest climes but nurse the cruelest fangs,” Herman Melville once wrote. Today’s cruel fangs are not the smallpox and yellow fever that ravaged the colonists and natives of old, but — aside from hurricanes and floods — come in the form of pollution, notably the Plant Barry coal-ash pond that corrupts our groundwater and puts our region at such great risk.
Of course, there are other pollution culprits: excess nitrogen from runoff, PFAs, PCBs, etc. And they’ve all left their mark.
“All these people that are moving here, they ain’t got any idea what a paradise we used to have,” Jimbo Meador, our local version of Huckleberry Finn, told Mobile Baykeeper last year. “They have no conception of what Mobile Bay used to be like. And you know, it is a dying breed that remembers what it used to be like. And so, it’s hard to fathom for some people, but I used to spearfish in Mobile Bay. I mean it was that clear. I used to put on a mask and snorkel and fins and I used to chop barnacles off of the pilings and spear sheepshead and even flounder and stuff.”
You can never return to the past; it’s a fool’s errand to try. But it takes a herculean effort not to squander all the good stuff, and to keep the rock we’re pushing up the hill from rolling back down on us. And while much has been lost, a lot of good remains. We still have quite a treasure among us. Perhaps if we can stop the pollution our waters can begin to heal.
— Caine O’Rear, Communications Director, on behalf of the Baykeeper Team