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Beach tar redux

July 29, 2010

Beach tar was always a nuisance, but in a good way. As in…..a bad day with beach tar on your feet beat a good day at the city swimming pool, hands down. Joni Mitchell sang about beach tar on her feet and made it romantic. Never mind that she was talking about the Mediterranean, probably then (in the 1970s) and probably now one of  the most polluted of our seas. In the Gulf of Mexico, beach tar just didn’t seem like something we should worry about.

I’ve thought about beach tar a lot more this summer than in the past twenty summers combined—maybe in all my summers combined (which number more than twenty and fewer than a hundred, thank you very much).  When I  was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s beach tar was always around—not lots of it, but you never knew when you might step on it or sit on it. We wondered sometimes where it came from, whether it was natural or constituted man-made pollution. From oil wells? From boats? We saw fishing boats every day, easily within a mile or two of the beach. We didn’t spend much time on it, though, because we mainly cared about getting a tan (we always burned) and logging as many days as possible with no seaweed and no flies. About fifteen years ago we  stopped seeing the boats inshore and eventually noticed we’d stopped getting tar on our feet. Was the problem gone, or just pushed out past the horizon? Or was it even a real problem?

By all accounts “our” beach—in the Florida Panhandle, now officially dubbed the Northwest Florida Beaches—is as  beautiful as ever, unsullied by recent catastrophic events. And as of this week, it seems all the news reporters want to talk about is the absence of oil on the surface of the Gulf. That’s great, so far as it goes. But what about below the surface? We’ve never spilled this much oil before, and we’ve never spilled oil this deep before. We’ve never before used chemical dispersants the way we did this time. We don’t know what is going to happen to the Gulf’s ecosystem. We don’t even know how we’ll know when it does happen. This is definitely a real problem—an unspeakably huge mess.

Maybe those little 1970s beach tar blobs were natural, a part of being at the beach that created just enough nuisance to keep us honest about where we belonged in the grand scheme. Maybe the next time I see one, that will still be the case. But it won’t matter, because now I won’t be able to keep from worrying. Nowadays, beach tar reminds me of a different Joni Mitchell song, the one that reminds us that we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

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