Thursday, January 06, 2011

To shrimp, or not to shrimp

You don't need to pick up Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet to partake of a good Shakespearean tragedy.

All you have to do is head down to Louisiana.

The New York Times' Amy Harmon, I am sure, knew she had herself a good story when she started trekking down to Delacroix to chronicle the struggles of a shrimping family in the wake of the BPocalypse. What I wonder, though, is whether she knew she was committing Shakespeare -- albeit a Shakespearean tragedy that trails off before everybody's dead or bereft.

IF YOU'RE NOT from the state of my birth, you'll start to get what I mean pretty quickly:

While Americans were debating their reliance on fossil fuel in the wake of the worst offshore oil spill in United States history, Aaron Greco was trying to decide what to do with his life. His story illuminates the singular appeal and hardships of a livelihood in jeopardy.

And as the Obama administration paves the way for deepwater drilling to resume in the gulf, it is young men like Aaron who will shoulder the direct impact of the nation’s decisions about what energy to consume and what seafood to eat in the years to come.

Few of his friends born into the Gulf Coast’s fishing communities were following their own fathers and grandfathers in the pursuit of wild seafood. Long before the oil rig exploded, rising fuel prices and competition from Asia’s cheap farmed shrimp had made a risky and physically punishing profession far less profitable: only a few thousand Louisianans now make their living fishing, down from more than 20,000 in the late 1980s.

Yet Aaron was among those of his generation still drawn to an elemental way of life. He wanted to be his own boss, to spend his days on the teeming marshes outside his door, 30 miles south of New Orleans and a world away. He wanted to pace himself to the rhythm of the oysters, crabs, and his favorite quarry since childhood, the shrimp.

“I want to chase the shrimp more than anything,” he told his girlfriend. “But I’m stuck.”

When the spill closed the waters around St. Bernard Parish, Aaron bounced between doubt and determination. His sisters pushed him to go on to college; his uncles warned of the lingering effects of dispersants used to clean up the oil. Even after the well was capped, Aaron questioned his own abilities.
IF YOU ARE from Louisiana, and if "it was good enough for my daddy" is your motteaux, you probably think the damn Yankees are making fun of you. Read on anyway.

Better yet, go to the
Times website and read the whole thing. Not that it'll do any damned good.

For Buddy, who had dropped out of school in 10th grade without ever learning to read, there had been no choice: like almost everyone else in Delacroix, descendants of Spanish-speaking Canary Islanders, he never considered anything other than fishing.

The time he did spend in school he used to advantage, singing “Sweet Caroline” to the pretty blonde in front of him on the bus, whom he soon prevailed on to marry him. But like many who grew up on the banks of the Bayou Terre aux Boeufs, he felt looked down on at the high school “up the road” — a designation that denoted social class as much as geography.

Others may have regarded them as poor, but the truth was teenagers could make good money in those days on the brackish waters that flowed into the gulf. In 1986, the year Buddy and Carolyn’s first child, Brittany, arrived, wild-caught gulf shrimp still accounted for nearly a quarter of the shrimp Americans ate, commanding the equivalent of nearly $2 per pound dockside.

And when Aaron was born, in 1990, Buddy covered the hospital bill with a few hundred sacks of oysters at $27 each.

“I paid for your stinky behind in that bayou,” he liked to remind his son, and it didn’t take long for the lesson to stick. Aaron spent his childhood catching minnows with a scoop net in the ditch near their home, his shrimper boots reaching up to his shorts. On fishing trips with his father, he lined up the little fish that dropped from the netting and stuffed them in his pockets.

“You take those out of there,” his mother commanded when she caught him. “They get in my washer and dryer, I’m going to have a smell out of this world.”

By the time Aaron was 13, he was lobbying to leave school himself. “Let me come on the boat,” he pleaded.

But Buddy wanted his middle child, and only boy, to have other options. The money in fishing was unpredictable, the work was dangerous, and there was no retirement plan. Carolyn’s father, a shrimper all his life, had had his hand ripped off in an accident with his rigging. Buddy’s father, stricken with lung cancer, hauled his oxygen tank with him onto the boat until a few days before he died in 2001.

“You finish school, Aaron,” he told his son. “You take after your mother — you smart enough to go to college.”

LARGE SWATHS of my home state -- millions of its citizens -- are the last of the Mohicans . . . or the Sioux in an eternal Wounded Knee. The world has fundamentally changed around them; they stay the same.

The economy upon which they have staked -- continue to stake -- their all is sinking as fast as what's left of the marshland under their feet. The only question is what will slip beneath the Gulf swells first, the land or the people who have populated it for generations.

Tradition is a fine thing. But it can turn deadly when it leads to ossification -- to turning one's back on education and new ideas. Holding fast to a way of life is a noble thing, except when it is untenable.

Louisiana is fast becoming untenable. All the things crucial to its survival are all the things in which it so desperately lags.

Ay, there's the rub . . . to adapt and forswear a way of life, doomed though it may be, or to follow in thy father's footsteps, yea, though they lead to, and over, a precipice.
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. . . .
TO BE, or not to be -- that is the question. I dread the forthcoming answer.

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