I was 11 years old when Bligh Reef ripped open the Exxon Valdez’s steel belly, bleeding over 40,000 tons of crude into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound. My family had traded Alaskan residency for our migrant lifestyle by then, setting up a winter life in Washington State and returning to Southeast every summer for the salmon season. I remember staring at the images on TV – seabirds grounded by sludge-drenched wings, dead otters like blackened driftwood – and wearing a T-shirt that expressed despair through furious satire: caricatures of a party boat perched “on the rocks,” newly christened the Exxon Fuxxup.
Twenty-three years later, I’m sitting aboard a boat in Southeast Alaska, my body re-calibrating to the continual motion of a life cushioned by the sea. The view is stunning. Living in the midst of the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest, surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and a parade of wildlife, it’s sometimes hard to remember that this splendor isn’t guaranteed. That however firmly rooted nature appears to be, we can’t take her for granted or become indifferent to our responsibilities as good stewards.
Poet Vivian Faith Prescott is a fifth generation Alaskan who knows all too well the cost of indifference – environmental, cultural. She knows that when horror is so vast, grief so unspeakable, art provides a life raft. Her post, “Fetched Up Hard Aground: Remembering the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” pulls readers into that life raft. If you’re not familiar with her work, please take a moment to visit Vivian at Planet Alaska.
Named and gendered, boats take on identities independent of the captains who come and go. They’re sized up and judged, bestowed with reputations that can’t be absolved with a change in ownership or a new name. So what was the fate of the ship forever shackled to one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters? The Mudflats blog answered that question earlier this week: “The Exxon Valdez Gets Its Death Sentence.”
In our sound-bite society, with social media’s barrage of moment-by-moment news updates, we’re good at year-of tributes. Succinct summaries of what happened back when and where they are now. This post is a perfect example – I wrote in that exact formula, without a second thought. And now I wonder… We remember, but what have we learned?
Update: Immediately after posting this, I learned that Mudflats had re-posted her 2010 story, “Walking With the Ghost of Exxon.” A powerful account of what she found lingering in Prince William Sound 21 years after the spill – long after we’d been assured that everything was cleaned up – this is on Hooked’s “Required Reading” list. Please do read and share.