The Burning Present

Our toxic desire for the natural world

| March-April 2011

  • Burning-Present

    Al Magnus /

  • Burning-Present

The Gulf of Mexico was dying already. For thousands of years, the Mississippi River, before being dammed and channelized, carried the tops of old ghost mountains down its winding corridor, emptying the continent’s heartland into the delta of south Louisiana. The river built the incredibly rich land there like a gardener dreaming a new garden, bringing in billions of metric tons of sediment from upstream and spilling it enthusiastically into the marshes of the vast delta, which was sinking at a rate miraculously and perfectly in balance with that replenishment of sediment—as if the marsh itself were a set of lungs, inhaling but then exhaling: living.

The shimmering grains of clay and organic matter nurtured the shrimp and oysters just offshore, and made it possible for me as a young person in this world—this made world, not past or future—to go out onto a pier on the Gulf at night and shine a flashlight into the bay and watch schools of glowing shrimp, like underwater fire, made phosphorescent by my light and by the stir of their own movements, their physical presence in the world, and the excitability of their own bioluminescence. On a quiet night you could hear them slicking, squealing. Live in the here and now, we try to tell ourselves with every breath, but sometimes our love for the world—like our despair—wells up so strong within us that it is like its own kind of bioluminescence, a glowing, a burning that makes us feel more present in the world.

So not only is the Gulf despoiled with the poison of our need, being covered with oil, but it is sinking, too. Death is one thing, but extinction is quite another, and worst of all is extinction of habitat, so that not even the dream of resurrection can remain: For without the physical vessel to make visible and better understood the beautiful spirit, isn’t it all just smoke, ether, and dreams?

In order to love this world most fully, I need to know the specificities of things. I don’t always need to understand them—I like that there remains room in me for mystery and awe—but I do need to see, touch, taste, hear, smell the world’s wonders. Maybe it is a kind of spiritual set of training wheels, but if so, I hope I never lose them.

And yet we are losing them.

We wanted oil—oil is attached to every last one of us—and we got it. Such an old, weary lesson: Be careful what you ask for.