The oil spill disaster off the coast of my home state of Louisiana is stark evidence that humans have an awesome power to change the natural landscape, often for the worse.
But landscapes also have the power to change us, as John James Audubon was reminded when he arrived in Louisiana in 1821.
In Louisiana, Audubon encountered a biblical abundance of wildlife that transformed him and his bird art, enlarging his sense of possibility and refining his genius as an observer of the natural world. Audubon did more pictures for his "Birds of America" project in Louisiana than in any other single place, and he said that of all the states he had visited in his pursuit of wonders, Louisiana was his favorite. The natural beauty he saw was sustained by an ecosystem that, in the wake of the oil spill, is now threatened with ruin.
It's a possibility that Audubon seemed to anticipate nearly two centuries ago. His bird pictures, for all of their vitality, also sound a strong note of elegy, like hieroglyphs marking the memory of an already vanished world.
In his journal from the period, Audubon wonders aloud about the implications of environmental recklessness, perhaps most notably in an entry from New Orleans, where he's struck by the scale of a massive plover shoot. In a single day, he writes, "144,00 must have been destroyed."
The worry doesn't stop Audubon from picking up his gun and joining in, one of several examples in which he not only documents the fragility of nature but is complicit in its destruction. His actions invite us to ask how what we say about environmental protection squares with what we do, and the current catastrophe in Louisiana is a good case in point. A lot of lip-service has been paid to the cause of preserving Louisiana's wetlands, but the scale of the present disaster suggests that our performance hasn't nearly lived up to our rhetoric.
Part of the problem is that wetlands have never been a favorite national poster child for environmental preservation. Lacking the grandeur of the Smokies, the majesty of the Grand Canyon or the crispness of coastal Big Sur, the swamps and estuaries of my home ground harbor qualities that are more difficult to distill into a snapshot or wall calendar.
"Swamp," in fact, is usually mentioned only in derision, as something to be drained, reformed, removed of its peril.
"We thrill to the surprising twist in the road that reveals the vast panorama, the unexpected waterfall. We canonize beauty that can be framed on the walls, in the camera, or on the postcard," naturalist Barbara Hurd has written. "To love a swamp, however, is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised."
It's in such dark and ambiguous places, Hurd suggests, that we often confront the mystery of who we are.
Which is why, one gathers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow set "Evangeline," one of his most famous epic poems, near the Louisiana wetlands now stained with oil. There is no known record of Longfellow's coming to Louisiana. He based his imagery at least partly on what he'd seen in Audubon's pictures, leading readers of "Evangeline" into a land touched, as the poet put it, by "strange forebodings of ill."
Longfellow wrote powerfully of a Louisiana wilderness he apparently never saw, implying that the connections between geography and imagination are perhaps more tenuous than we commonly assume. Yet the recent news images from the Louisiana wetlands, in which oil-soaked creatures look rather sadly like Audubon prints sullied by vandals, have hit an international nerve, presumably because the natural landscape still lingers in the public imagination as a powerful force. Can the wetlands of Louisiana continue to inspire the creative spirit, even if the coast is ruined?
As thousands of gallons of oil work their way inland, perhaps we're about to find out.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."