In 1974, we moved to New Orleans, the last stop in my dad's career with the American Red Cross. Before that, he did twenty years in the Air Force, so our family experience was one of being transients, rootless visitors to new places, never really belonging anywhere.
To welcome us, our neighbors brought over soup, but it was brown, dark, thick, and a big claw stuck out of the top. What did I know of gumbo? Before a year had passed I'd tackled cracking crabs with an empty Dixie bottle on a newspaper-strewn picnic table, attended my first Mardi Gras, watched slack-jawed as an alligator strolled down our street after a hard rain, and gone out fishing with my brother in a bayou off a local boat launch, only to realize we were under a canopy of oaks where water moccasins hung lazily from the branches and alligators barked at us from down dark arteries of the marsh. I fell in love and I've been here since. I cannot imagine living anywhere else.
The pelican is Louisiana's state bird, but I never really saw one until about 1990. We'd woken up early on a day off in spring, and like Binx Bolling, tooled along the Gulf Coast highway to the Mississippi beaches, about 90 miles east and slightly north of New Orleans. In Gulfport we boarded the Captain Pete and headed out on an hour's ride to Ship Island. We'd done this many times, as it was a favorite escape from civilization - an undeveloped, quiet beach, home to birds and crabs, with a pre-Civil War fort, a snack bar and some bathrooms and a boardwalk, nothing more.
This trip was special, though. As we left the harbor, we saw pelicans, brown pelicans flying alongside the boat, and dotting the wooden piers. They'd been nearly extinguished by chemical pollution and hunters, but here they were, making a comeback.
Over the next few years, the numbers of pelicans we'd see on our drives up to the coast grew, and we'd see them sooner each time. By the mid 1990s they were on over Lake Pontchartrain, in Slidell and Eden Isles. By 2000, I started seeing them flying along the Causeway Bridge, further west over the same lake . And by 2003 or so, their ranks had grown into the city itself, and I'd see them flying and nesting on Bayou St. John, the waterway that connects Mid City to the lake.
In 2004, I got a tattoo based on a Greek key pattern, in a blue that makes me think of the Gulf waters. In 2005, before the storm, I added a pelican rising up over that water, an image taken from a Walter Anderson woodcut; I like how his primitive style echoes the ancient Greek imagery of the wave.
Last week I went to Ship Island, and enjoyed the pelicans and dolphins that accompanied the boat to and from the island. I got sunburned and windswept, and I put the constant news stories of the spill and our inability to stave it off out of my head for a few hours.
But now I'm grieving something fierce, knowing these magnificent birds, along with their dolphin pals, and the many other species - gulls, herons, and more - are being coated in oil, their eggs ruined in their nests - and that they are dying miserable deaths while we are powerless to help them.