A Pagan Point of View of the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico
I stand with my toes in sugar-white sand and squint through bright sunrays at the turquoise-green waters. It’s eerily beautiful yet it feels more like a death watch for an old friend—not of natural causes but one who has been poisoned or slowly is suffocating to death as a result of someone else’s actions. It’s a strange sensation for a Nature-loving Pagan who can feel someone—or something—dying.
I’m not a native to these Gulf of Mexico beaches, the blinding white “singing” sand of the Northwest Florida coastline. I came from the sandy farmland and red clay of South Georgia where “The Beach” usually meant a summer weekend’s visit to amusements parks in Panama City. Frankly, as a non-swimmer, I preferred vacationing in the mountains and was never big on water sports. Even more frankly, none of that’s changed.
When I moved to a little town about 5 miles north of the beaches of Destin, Florida, in 1985 and married a local Air Force brat, I was a Southern Baptist who didn’t fully appreciate Mother Earth. I was raised with the belief that man was given the Earth by God “to have dominion over it and all its beasts.” In other words, humans were given a planet full of resources to use and abuse however we liked. Yet, my deep love of Nature was always there. As a Christian, I found God not inside the bricks and stained glass windows of my hometown church but outdoors—in the flowers, in the woods, in the sway and rustle of the corn crops on my parents’ farm, in the scent of the pear blossoms on the tree that held up the clothesline, the gurgling of quiet streams that fed fish-filled lakes, the immense bowl of starry heaven in the early twilight of autumn. Being outside, barefoot in the grass…that was as close to Deity as I could get, and one of many reasons I felt I’d “come home” when I discovered Wicca. It took Deity out of the churches and into the cathedral of Nature. Unspoiled Nature, that is. Nature devoid of choking oil spills, just as most churches I know are devoid of garbage and sludge in the aisles.
As a Pagan who finds God in Nature, my cathedral has been tainted by an oil spill.
For someone so closely tied to land and the element of earth, my initial visits to the beach were a little disconcerting yet pleasing at the same time. I found I did not care for the crowded beaches overrun with tourists, trash, cigarette butts, half-empty suntan lotion bottles, and abandoned beer cans—but I loved the autumn months when the beaches were so empty of footprints that I felt I’d been walking on the moon instead of on pre-Hurricane Opal dunes. I didn’t like the harshness of the Florida sun, preferring instead to get what I jokingly called a “moon tan” as the waves crashed ashore under a full moon. I liked the beach most for what others did not—the soul-singing serenity, the vastness, the oneness with Nature, the highly spiritual texture of the sunsets.
The first time I visited Destin was with my then-fiancé in 1983. The last thing we passed was the tallest building around— the round Holiday Inn—on the right as we headed east into nothing but high white sand dunes and a huge statue long known as “the Green Knight”on the left.
It’s all now wall-to-wall condos and hotels, overlooking the turquoise and emerald waters and white sand, but there are occasional parks and public beaches that are as pristine as my first visits there. And the sand still sings. More aptly, it “barks.” If you scuff you heels on it, it makes an odd barking noise unlike most other beaches. My favorite of these is at Grayton Beach State Park and a little beach town known as Seaside, popularized by the movie, “The Truman Show.” Yes, that’s exactly how it looks, too, if you see the movie.
My love affair with the beaches of South Walton County and those of Destin began with a tradition I started in 1989. I was six months pregnant with my oldest daughter when we began yearly celebratory trips to the beach on Thanksgiving Day. We would pack a picnic lunch, walk the almost solitary beaches, and take family photos for Christmas cards. Our friends in Canada would mistake the sand for snow, and it did indeed look like pure, untrampled, freshly fallen snow, and they were always awed by the fact that we were playing in the sand and surf on Thanksgiving Day when they were worried about stepping outdoors and flesh freezing.
We have, to date, honored Thanksgiving Day on those pristine beaches every year except for 1992, when I had my Thanksgiving meal in the hospital with my newborn. My dining room walls now show off photos from 20 years’ of Thanksgiving picnics, our special family tradition. Some years were cold, some sunny, some cloudy, some warm and breezy. When I divorced in 2004, I kept going at Thanksgiving, with both my daughters. They now come home from college and re-arrange schedules so we can make our annual pilgrimage to the beach. As my daughters fledge, eventually it will be just me going to those beaches, and I have no idea what the beaches will be like then or this coming Thanksgiving or if they’ll even remotely resemble that covenant with Nature from two decades gone by.
When I converted from Christianity to Wicca in 1997, I began appreciating the Gulf of Mexico more than ever. I began to understand more about the element of water and its importance in our ecosystem and in our lives. Here on the Gulf Coast, it’s crucial to the economy—tourism, restaurants, fishing, hotels, real estate, even the Gulf Range that the Air Force uses in test missions. To me, it’s been more personal, more spiritual as I feel a part of that vastness of Nature, feel connected to the Universe and everything around me. It’s one of the places I feel most connected with Deity, and yes, the same Deity I knew as a Christian. Many times, I have felt such gratitude on these sugar-white beaches and beautiful waters for the spiritual gifts they offer that I have left little circles of rocks, shells, or feathers on the sand as a thank-you to my Higher Power. I count my blessings and let the tide claim my offerings.
Now that the BP Oil Spill threatens the living, “breathing” Gulf, I find myself caught up in a sadness I cannot shed. Most of the Pagans I know—and many of my Christian friends—are stealing visits to the beaches for what might be a final look. As a Pagan, I know that Nature will re-assert itself. All it takes is time. I’ve seen this first with which flattened my beloved dunes with its powerful storm surge, and more of the same with The winds shift the sands over time, forming dunes once more, though smaller than ones built up over 20 to 30 years’ time. The grasses grow again on the dunes, especially with help from Nature lovers of all religions. And eventually, the sand and sea recover from the natural cycles of weather patterns. So it is with all Nature, even natural cycles that take decades or millennia to rise again.
But this oil spill is not natural. Regardless of the media spin BP would like to put on marketing this catastrophe away, it is not a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake. This is not Mother Nature balancing herself out through climate changes or deep internal rumblings. This is a man-made disaster. It is not an “act of god” –unless BP really wants to make that assertion of their own dubious divinity.
So, like others here on what we have until now called “The Emerald Coast,” I make these little trips to her bedside, to the beaches. The Gulf is like an old friend with a terminal illness, one caused by the hazards of someone careless who seems to take little or no responsibility or will, at the very least, brush it off as a “tiny spill” or pass the costs of care on to others.
We see her as often as we can now, not knowing how much longer we’ll recognize her or she’ll recognize us. We enjoy these visits but mourn them already. We know that one of these visits, it will be the last. After that, the tar balls, the dying sea life, the sickened birds, the stained beaches, and eventually a dead sea where nothing grows or lives. A void where there is nothing spiritual left but darkness.
And we’re both sad and angry. We’re feeling victimized. This was not an illness brought on by Nature itself. It’s not death by natural causes but something more akin to manslaughter or perhaps murder. Our emotions have a direction for venting, and it’s not at God.
In that battle of Man against Nature, chalk one up for Man.
But don’t worry.
Nature will re-assert itself in this never-ending cycle of life-death-rebirth that repeats in all of Nature, and whatever damage has been done to the Gulf by BP’s Oil Spill will be overcome, but it’s doubtful that it will happen in my lifetime.