John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

He knew the things Hammond was telling him, how the great swamps and wetlands nourished the Sound and the northern Gulf. He remembered his father picking up a few dead leaves, tupelo and gum. “Look like nothing, these leaves. You take a hundred pounds of them, boy, they float down the river and where the river spreads out into swamp, they sink and they rot, and you know what? That hundred pounds will set free about eight pounds of protein to float on downstream. Food for the fish critters. Old rotten logs, green algae, moss, plankton, all doing the same thing. You remember that.”

The freshwater swamps and the saltwater marshes had their chores to perform in the life cycles of plants and animals. And his father knew the plants of the marshlands Bed Straw and Ox Eye, Seedbox and Frog Fruit, Strangleweed and Dropwort and he knew the creatures of the Gulf waters blue crabs, grass shrimp, hermits, coquinas, sea anemones and sea leeches. “Use your eyes, boy! Use your brain. Every living thing works together with other living things. Figure out how.”

And now Hammond was talking about places along the coast which had gone bad. About the Biloxi-Tchoutacabouffa River System where raw sewage was entering the river from over a hundred different points, and the down river stench was memorable. About the quarter ton of sewage sludge pumped into Ocean Springs Harbor every day because the sewage plant was inadequate for the population growth. About the salt marshes along the coast being filled and being used in many cases as garbage dumps. And Wade’s father had been dead sixteen years. Wade thought once again how he would have hated what was happening. And no way to stop it, apparently.

He suddenly realized Hammond was talking about something he had not heard before and he brought his attention into focus. “… over there on the Alabama border, there is a relatively new chemical landfill dump with a lot of highly toxic shit going into it, and we’ve recently learned that the water-table flow is in the direction of the Pascagoula. Wade, it is a very narrow margin of safety for the Sound if nothing harms the Pascagoula and if the barrier islands remain wild. But, if the Pascagoula starts to die, then in a very short time this whole Sound will start to die and there won’t be one goddamn thing anybody can do to stop it. No plants, no animals, nothing!” And as he said the final word he slammed his fist on the table, startling the few other customers in the coffee shop and spilling coffee.

“Sorry. I get too worked up,” Hammond said. He smiled. “By now I ought to be able to take the long view. But you feel helpless. We’re in an endless war with the developers, a very critical and deadly war, and they don’t even know they’re in one. All they know is that if they are patient enough and generous enough and amiable enough, sooner or later they can pry some more fragile marshland from the politicians and take it away from the people forever. They rip it out of the ecosystem so completely it is as if it never existed. They put up condominiums and increase the sewage load, the traffic load, fire and police protection, water supply, education costs. But they make enough to join the right clubs, drive the right cars and build their own homes overlooking the water. And they go to breakfast work sessions of the Chamber of Commerce and the Committee of One Hundred to talk about the problems of the future of the Gulf area. And after they are dead, the damage they do goes on and on, visited on their descendants forevermore. Their great-grandchildren will live in a world that is drab, dirty, ugly and dangerous. A world composed of an unending Miami or Calcutta or Djakarta, sick and stinking.”

“People around here are getting more aware of it,” Wade said. “I saw in the paper where the country loses a half million acres of wetlands a year. I went up the Escatawpa a couple of months ago, first time in three years. It’s a mess up there. No grasses, dead cypress and a hell of a stench. Industrial pollution, they told me.”

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