Book Review: The Tarball Chronicles by David Gessner

The Tarball Chronicles by David Gessner
Published by Milkweed, Milkweed Editions on 2011
Genres: Coastal Regions & Shorelines, Ecosystems & Habitats, Environmental Conservation & Protection, Nature, Oceans & Seas
Pages: 300
Format: Hardcover

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history: over the course of three months, nearly five million barrels of crude oil gushed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and washed up along our coast. Yet it was an avoidable environmental catastrophe preceded by myriad others, from Three-Mile Island to the Exxon Valdez. Traveling the shores of the Gulf from east to west with oceanographers, subsistence fisherman, seafood distributors, and other long-time Gulf residents, acclaimed author and environmental advocate David Gessner offers an affecting account of the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

My Review:

Travel stories, personal anecdotes, scientific evidence, soul-searching questions, and environmental tourism all combine in David Gessner’s beautifully written book, The Tarball Chronicles. Even the cover, featuring the image of a man’s body, clad in protective gear, with the head of the infamous “oiled pelican” gives the reader a predictive look into the story held within the pages of Gessner’s book. Much like the illustrative pelican/man, Gessner draws heavily on the idea of connectivity and how it is impossible to escape that web that binds us together with every other thing.

One of the most prominent themes in The Tarball Chronicles is the expansion on a John Muir quote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (157). Gessner argues that while we think we can outsmart nature, the reality is that we may fool her for a lifetime but “She’s coming to get us eventually, and she’s coming back to haunt us right now” (63). In this book he shows evidence of this time and time again, tracing the damage of the oil spill path now just across the beaches of the gulf but into the depths of the marshes and through the stories of the people who are dealing with the consequences. In a poignant statement near the end of his book, we are reminded that the spider’s web “takes the genius of time to weave it, but, as hard as it is to construct, its easy to rip apart” (255). In a similar fashion, Gessner weaves together the strands of his story to create a delicate, balanced web that demonstrates in a remarkable fashion the interconnectivity between humankind and nature – from the diving gannets down to the proliferation of periwinkles.

Part of that web involves asking some hard questions, and Gessner does not shy away from not only asking those questions but admits that, at times, he does not have the answer either. He spends time challenging the idea of what makes us human by engaging subjects like sacrifice, hypocrisy, insatiability, tradition and identity, the need to belong, and ambition.   Gessner asks if it is impossible for us to be “happy with less,” or if that is a sacrifice we are willing to make in order to “keep living the way we do” (279, 4). He argues that perhaps, instead of sacrificing, we should rework what it is we are looking for, to “refine and revise what we mean by ‘more’ and ‘better’” (67). Or is it in the process of looking for this “more and better” that our desire to control and fix is an urge that we have to live with (39)? In a statement that reverberates throughout the book, Gessner points out that some of the things that were broken “had taken a million years or so to make” (39).

Arguing against excess and fixing things means that Gessner is pointing us in the direction of doing less or changing our definition of what “more” could be. He quotes John Hay who “spoke of our need to ‘marry’ the places where we live, to spend a lifetime learning the land and people” (188). It stands within reason that in marrying a place and learning it, the desire to break and try to fix would lesson and, instead, one would seek to learn to live in harmony with the place. Gessner’s book provides stories of individuals who have learned to do just that.

Finally, Gessner’s book is a call to action. He points out the hypocrisy in the oversight of BP during the oil spill clean up through interviews with those who are working in the interest of the natural world and not in the interests of the company (22). He highlights the insanity of watching big business continue to make the same mistakes and expect different results (51). Gessner also does not shy away from giving voice to environmentalists who have willingly embraced the capitalistic nature of the society here; who point out that it is possible to make money while not causing harm to the environment (66). He admits that things have become “muddied and complicated” when it comes to a “clear-cut definition of what it means to be environmental” (69). When it all comes down to it, Gessner points out that the “oiled pelican” is more of a symbol for humankind in that it is our attempt to distill complex issues into something simple or obvious (137). The Tarball Chronicles is definitely not that oiled pelican; rather, much like the image on the cover, it is something much more complex that deserves a serious amount of attention.

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  • “All of this is to say that David Gessner’s The Tarball Chronicles is about more than crying over a little spilled oil, the proverbial “oiled pelican” –  Fresh Energy

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