Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Carson and Cousteau


Ted Turner,the media entrepreneur, once said that if Rachel Carson was the mother of the environmental movement, then Jacques Cousteau was the father. I have just read back to back biographies of Carson and Cousteau. It would be hard to imagine two more different people: Carson -- solitary, unassuming, apparently asexual (although given to intense emotional relationships, especially with women); Cousteau -- gregarious, charismatic, physically voracious. What they shared was a love of the sea and a passionate desire to defend it against the predations of humanity.

I read these biographies at the edge of the sea, on an island in the Bahamas. In the almost twenty years we have been coming here, we have watched the slow erosion of the natural environment. You might even say we were part of the erosion. But we tried to lay a gentle hand on the land, and keep our hands off the sea. We pick up from the beach each year the plastic detritus that washes ashore (although it ends up in an iffy landfill at the back of the island). We have left our property pretty much as we found it, although to do so means an annual mano a mano battle with love vine and bur grass. We rely on the breezes for air conditioning and the Sun for drying clothes. I'm not trying to sound holier-than-thou; lord knows my ecological footprint is larger than it needs to be. But when I see the new developments hereabouts that cater to wealthy Americans, I feel positively virtuous.

The general strategy is to strip the land bare, dunes and all, down to bare rock and sand, shedding tons of reef-killing sediment into the sea. Then truck in plants, sod, and trees that require lots of water and pesticides to keep tidy and picturesque. Then, multimillion dollar air-conditioned homes that might be lived in a few weeks a year. What's the point, I wonder, of coming to this Edenesque place and turning it into Florida.

Jacques Cousteau was an effective advocate for the environment, but he had a taste for the highlife. My own affections run more to Rachel Carson, who finally had enough financial success to buy a cottage on her beloved coast of Maine, on a piece of property she maintained in its natural state. Cousteau live to age 85, long enough to make a mess of his life and the lives of those around him. Carson died of cancer at age 56, regretting more than anything else that she would no longer be able to enjoy her pristine tide pools.