The kingfishers that flit along the Thornton, Hazel and other tributaries of the upper Rappahannock are not brown pelicans. The river mussels are mere distant cousins (multiple times removed) from saltwater oysters. And freshwater crayfish only seem like baby shrimp. And yet … and yet ….
Sometimes it feels as though, down deep in our instincts and innards, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is washing up on our wave-like foothills of the Blue Ridge. Imagine that. How horrible it would be to see Rappahannock’s charismatic wild creatures covered in suffocating black muck! And worse perhaps would be the environmental damage that we could never readily see beneath the rocks and leaf cover.
Watching and watching and not being able to act: That feeling of helplessness, of course, compounds the atrocity. There’s very little that anybody can do to fix things — even those directly responsible, who presumably had known about and thus had prepared for worst-case scenarios in deep-water drilling. That’s what engineering redundancies are supposed to be all about.
And on the political level, nobody wants his leader, in this case the President, to appear helpless. But practically speaking, what can the president actually do that he’s not already doing, except don tights and a cape and dive to the bottom of the ocean to twist the leaking pipes into submission?
Historically, Americans have felt a special connection with the natural world. Our national character was defined by the frontier’s movement ever westward into the wilderness. This almost spiritual connection with nature, as conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks has pointed out, is what makes the Gulf oil spill gut-wrenching and especially horrible to contemplate. As in a classical tragedy, it is our hubris to have deceived ourselves into thinking that something like this would never happen.
The only comfort to be gathered is that we do still feel, though painfully now, these natural connections. It would be a true horror indeed if we were so divorced from nature as to feel no horror but, rather, nothing at all. Yes, there’s comfort, small though it may be, in that — at least here in Rappahannock, where country living remains vitally intertwined with the natural world. Here hubris is never an option, for rural residents, by definition, always remember their humble place in the natural order of things.