Earlier this month, a girl power contingent of the Helen White Lab (Helen, Alana, and I) embarked on the lab’s annual sampling trip to the Gulf of Mexico to collect oil-soaked sand patties that continue to wash ashore from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We traveled alongside this year’s four Interdisciplinary Documentary Media Fellows (IDMF): Hilary Brashear, Dan Fries, Gebby Keny, and Sarah Moses, who are making a short film focusing on restoration following the spill.
It is difficult to extract anything concise and definitive from my tightly-woven fabric of memory from this trip – four days filled to the brim with experience, viewed through a veil of giggly delirium that comes with such profound fatigue. Proudly, I took on the trip coffee-less, though I think we were all equally tired. The description I assigned to my photo album from the trip is probably my best hope of a summary:
In which white people went to the Gulf of Mexico and turned pink. Also samples were collected, documentary footage was shot, adventures were had.
Though this is quite accurate, it’s missing a few things.
For one thing, the trip was an amazing observational and aesthetic experience. I had never been to the Gulf coast before, and I was constantly captivated by new landscapes, flora and fauna – the silvery water on Dauphin Island beneath the storm, some fun pink lightning, and the strange pale yellow light that followed. The Louisiana wetlands – flat as far as the eye can see, a horizon broken only by silhouettes of low, dry trees and houses on stilts. The surreal weirdness of items washed up on Elmer’s Island. Spanish moss, the scraggly yet ethereal beard of the plant kingdom. The lacy Alamo architecture of New Orleans, a city unlike any I’d seen before, in which one needs a “handful of extra eyeballs,” in Alana’s words (though I don’t really like to think about holding them).
Traveling with Helen was very informative, not only because she has a PhD in Chemical Oceanography, but also because she has watched these specific geological features change over the past several years. She could tell us which little inlets were newly formed, that we were finding oil where she hadn’t in a while, and that we found much less in places that used to be littered with sand patties. This only increased our curiosity as to what the data from our new samples might tell us. Having this context makes our research all the more meaningful to me. Now when I pull a sand patty out of a glass jar in lab, I can picture the exact spot in the world where it was picked up and appreciate the effort that went into finding it.
The IDMF crew brought yet another dimension to the trip. Our collaboration was exactly the kind of liberal-arts-y interdisciplinary engagement I have been seeking throughout my first year at Haverford. We of the chemistry crew performed very different tasks from the documentary fellows, but we worked in parallel and followed the same rhythms. Each morning, all seven of us clambered into our big red bus (Chevy Suburban) and applied sunscreen liberally (with mixed results). At each beach site on our itinerary, we grabbed our respective gear, whether it be sampling jars or tripods, and collected what we needed – for the documentary, images of the landscape; for the lab, tiny pieces of it. The drives in between were filled with conversation and laughter at non-jokes (no Taylor Swift this time – perhaps a heresy for HKW lab, but maybe also kind of nice?). At the end of the day, we gathered in hotel rooms to log our findings from the past 24 hours before collapsing into much-needed sleep. Our goals were different, though connected, but the shared experience fostered an additional mutual understanding. For me, this was a reminder that the oil spill, like many environmental issues, is inherently interdisciplinary. It encompasses not only science, but also politics, economy, and culture. Being in places affected by the spill made us aware of more than the potential data scattered on the sand. I was glad to hear that scientists studying the Gulf were holding conferences in New Orleans to support the city’s economic recovery from the damage of Katrina and the oil spill, showing a consciousness of how their work is tied to people and place. What I’m saying is that science is sometimes perceived as an emotionally sterile pursuit, but really we are wonderful.
More than anything, the experience was one of contradictions and mixed emotions. As much as the days were long and intense, and the sun unforgiving, we were on the beach. The sound of the waves and seabirds was therapeutic even as I walked with my head bowed toward the ground, forceps in hand. The nicest hotel was also the worst, but we won’t talk about that. And of course, mixed feelings apply to the fieldwork itself.
There are many positive aspects to finding an oil sample. There is the satisfaction of fulfilling an immediate purpose; of locating the object of a search, much like the joy of each success on an Easter egg hunt. There is the relief of knowing the trip is worthwhile, the anticipation of information to be gained about the changing oil, and the privilege of sharing the distinguished title of “tar ball whisperer” with Helen. At the same time, of course, the ultimate hope is to stop finding oil on these beaches, and we are happy to come across fewer samples than in previous years. The places we visited have certainly regained their striking beauty, but the bits of petroleum we harvested were a constant reminder that we are studying the aftermath of an ugly event. This is the duality of environmental work – I can be absolutely sure of its necessity, which makes it at once wonderful, important, and very depressing. My personal enjoyment of the trip and enthusiasm for environmental study are inevitably accompanied by the sobering knowledge that all this work is a result of something that should never have happened. Also disheartening is the thought that research on this spill is motivated in part by anticipation of similar future disasters, but hopefully it will make us better equipped to respond when that time rolls around. Studying the spill is also an opportunity to learn things about our environment that we might not otherwise think to or be able to investigate. Solving the ills of our planet isn’t going to happen overnight, so the best we can do is to work at our problems little by little – one patty at a time, you might say – and have a good time doing so. In that respect, the trip was exactly what it needed to be, and I feel incredibly lucky to have participated so early in my college career. A big thank you to Helen, the lab, and everyone who made the trip so great! And apologies for writing such a long post. As a reward for at least scrolling this far… one last pic!
- Chloe Wang
PS – check out the lab twitter, which I may have sabotaged a little, for more from the Gulf and some exciting news regarding a new lab publication! www.twitter.com/HKWLab