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May 7, 2010

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Honeymoon in Costa Rica

What we're seeing now in the Gulf of Mexico is a radical intensification of environmental degradation which has been occurring incrementally for decades. Instead of the proverbial frog being slow-boiled oblivious to its fate, it has now been thrust into the killing water.

I grew up on Long Island where one is never more than 8 miles from a saltwater beach: Long Island Sound to the north, the placid playground of the Gatsby set where the water tends to be colder, catching wisps of the Labrador current from the north; the Atlantic to the south, warmed by the tail end of the Gulf Stream before it spins out and tapers into the chill North Atlantic waters off Montauk Point (where Great White shark attacks closed ocean beaches during my earliest recollected family vacation in the summer of '74--I remember the adults cautiously deciding it would be safe to swim in the bay as they sat under moth-clouded lights on motor court porches); and where the barrier of Fire Island stretches its slender limbs you have formed Great South Bay, on whose shores I grew up in Blue Point, the small fishing village which gave its name to a famously delectable oyster and where my elementary school mascot was a clam.

My neighbor Wayne Ramestella's mother's live-in boyfriend had his own boat and biceps the size and shape of softballs from hauling muck hand-over-hand to the surface using 30-foot-long poles with toothed baskets at the bottom. But you didn't need a boat and rake to get clams--we'd just wade in at Corey Beach and dig 'em up with our feet, eat 'em raw with ketchup or give them to our parents to grill or mix with stuffing then bake in their own shells.

The 70s were a bittersweet time to be a child. One could feel the world being diminished around them. I didn't know what to call it then, but I saw and felt the effects of sprawl as wild spaces were tamed, Sunrise Highway expanded, and the fishery died out due to pollution. I don't think I've ever quite gotten over that sense of loss. If it were an isolated incident, maybe, but it was just a local (and not very early) symptom of a sickness which continues to spread ever more rapidly.

I grew up loving the beach as only the American-born child of political refugees from a landlocked country can. There were no horizons as wide as the ocean's in Soviet Czechoslovakia and I suspect that far blue line symbolized the ultimate freedom to my immigrant parents. Almost all our recreations and vacations brought us to a beach and though my mother preferred calmer waters, from the time I was 4 I've reveled in the ocean's furious embrace, first fighting then riding the waves.

In 1990, just turned 21, 2 friends and I hitch-hiked cross country for 3 months. In the days before the Internet, planning was a little sketchier. In a guidebook I saw Biloxi, Mississippi advertised as having the longest white sand beaches in the Western Hemisphere. Having grown up on Long Island's splendid beaches I knew I had to go see them. The beaches were long and white, all right, if slightly soiled, but when we asked some locals why no one was swimming they just smirked and pointed to the oil rigs spread out over the water to the horizon and beyond.

If any good can come of this epic tragedy it is that it will lead to the cessation of offshore drilling and other ongoing intentional catastrophes such as the Tar Sands, but the only way that will happen is if the profit is taken out of these endeavors--which could be accomplished by heavier regulation (fees, taxes, penalties) and consumer boycott. Locally, even before this happened, I signed up to be a volunteer water quality tester here on Puget Sound. Training is on June 13. I'll let you know how it turns out.