icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Living and Writing in the Natural World

Heading Home: the South and Southwest by Rail

Petrochemical corridor, Louisiana ("Cancer Alley")

After a marvelous college-roommate reunion, I boarded Amtrak's Crescent route in Greenville, South Carolina (home of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which I bicycled along the Reedy River) and headed for New Orleans in a long day of riding the rails. The Crescent here traverses the cradle of two distinctly American phenomena: folk music of gospel, jazz, blues, country; and the Civil Rights Movement, both amply represented in the small and large towns I passed through this day.

Which set me to wondering about the connection between art and tragedy. In town after town, the legacy of slavery and poverty seemed intertwined with epochal musicians. Coincidence? Or the bitter yet beautiful fruits of struggle?

In several stops we were at the curiously nondescript depot of Atlanta, Georgia, hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., who would challenge the entire nation in his speeches and marches. The nearby village of Villa Rica was the birthplace of Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, whose Take my Hand, Precious Lord was sung at the funerals of both MLK and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Soon we entered Alabama, the first stop of Anniston being the site where a bus packed with black and white Freedom Riders was firebombed in the summer of 1961. Then came Birmingham, where nearby deposits of iron ore, coal, and limestone made it the industrial capital of the South, in large part due to cheap labor supplied by incarcerated blacks in the convict leasing system. A doo wop band from here moved to Detroit in 1957 and became The Temptations. Their sister group became The Supremes. On the same day (Mothers Day) as the bus attack in Anniston, the KKK attacked Freedom Riders on a Birmingham bus, as police chief Bull Connor and his officers watched for 15 minutes. Two years later, Birmingham racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing 4 young African-American girls and galvanizing the nation’s conscience (finally).

Though few realize it, this region has a deep history, also. To the north of the train route you can fleetingly glimpse several of the 29 mounds built by native-Americans in the 1500s in what is now the Moundville Archeological Park. Their descendants spread over the entire region I’d pass through today, as the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Choctaw tribes. Most of these were attacked and defeated militarily by Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s, and forcibly relocated (with horrible mortality rates on the Trail of Tears) to the West’s Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

Before 1970, The Crescent route passed through nearby Montgomery, Alabama, home to Hank Williams, Sr., the country music giant who gave us Your Cheatin’ Heart, Hey, Good Lookin’, and Jambalaya. Another giant figure lived here: Rosa Parks, whose 1955 refusal to sit in the back of a bus can be seen as the start of the Civil Rights Movement.

Soon we’re in Mississippi; the first stop is Meridian, where three Freedom Summer students were killed in 1964. Meridian is also the home of Jimmie C. Rodgers, the father of country music, whose In the Jailhouse Now figures in the Coen Brothers marvelous movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. (Interestingly enough, the two Euro-American musicians I’ve mentioned both died young, Rodgers at 35 from tuberculosis after a decade of struggle, Williams at 29 from the alcohol and drugs he used to deal with the lifelong pain of his spina bifida birth defect.)

The next stop is Laurel, Misissippi, birthplace of Leontyne Price, the Metropolitan Opera diva who dominated the role of Aida, among others in her long career. At dusk we rolled 6 miles over the Lake Pontchartrain causeway, the setting sun glinting on its choppy waters, and eased into New Orleans’ Union Station—the Crescent City itself. Here perhaps the greatest American musician, Louie Armstrong, was born in a shanty in the rough Battlefield neighborhood, and lived with relatives mostly, at times in the Home for Colored Waifs when he got into trouble (which was often). Satchmo’s skill at the trumpet earned him a ticket to Chicago, and transformed Jazz, elevating it to what Ken Burns calls “America’s greatest original art form.”

Violence, struggle, and tragedy, all caught up somehow in a great flowering of musical genius.

I splurged in The Big Easy and stayed at a modest hotel on the edge of the French Quarter, a short walk from the picturesque spilled beer and street jazz (and unrelenting crowds of wide-eyed tourists) that define the neighborhood. I downed the required plate of beignets at the Café du Monde (tho not the heaping mound of powdered sugar under which they hid) and happily lost myself in the Louie Armstrong rooms at the New Orleans History of Jazz Museum, where a surprised guard shooed me out ten minutes after closing time.

A highlight of my trip was a morning’s kayak tour of the Manchac Swamp bayous west of New Orleans, which I’ll recount in a separate post, along with my earlier kayaking trip on the Potomac River.

A streetcar ride after a five-minute walk took me the next morning to Union Station again, and I boarded The Sunset Limited, which would take me to Los Angeles in two days and nights. The first day featured more of the wet, bayou-studded wetlands that dominated Mississippi as I entered Louisiana, but with one important (and hugely consequential) difference: here an unrelenting succession of petrochemical plants occupies those wetlands, all the way across western Louisiana and eastern Texas to Houston.

The combination of plentiful petroleum deposits and ports had doomed this originally picturesque, wildlife-rich area. Instead of an ecosystem bursting with wildlife diversity and the spawning grounds of incredibly rich fish and shellfish populations providing a good, clean living to the human inhabitants, I saw barge after barge, factories belching smoke, and pipes carrying raw petroleum from across North America to be transformed into carbon-dioxide-producing forms to power cars, trucks, and yet more factories. Not to mention the many chemicals being created in their own belching factories.

Just extracting the petroleum deposits on- and off-shore of Louisiana and Texas had ravaged the countryside, as Big Oil corporations cut thousands of channels to penetrate the wetlands with their equipment. These channels permitted saltwater to invade the wetlands, killing the original, stabilizing forests. The extraction of billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas in past decades has led inevitably to significant subsidence of the land. The subsidence and the loss of stabilizing forests due to the channels had led to the frequent storms in the past several decades pushing larger volumes of water deeper into coastal areas, magnifying the storms’ destructive effects. Think Katrina and New Orleans in 2005.

The petrochemical plants had already devastated spawning grounds for seafood in the Gulf, even before the related 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill spewing 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf and its coastline, causing significant, documented die-offs of dolphin, fish, and shellfish. The dark legacy of the region’s petrochemical corridor.

To add insult to injury, these physical consequences of the petrochemical industry choking the Louisiana and east Texas coastline are accompanied by high incidence of human cancer and respiratory diseases of Louisiana as a whole, and particularly those citizens occupying this habitat, leading to its apt nickname of Cancer Alley.

According to a 2002 study, Louisiana had the second-highest death rate from cancer in the United States, and in Cancer Alley the rate was higher than the rest of the state. And no wonder. The Toxics Release Inventory for 2000 showed that Louisiana (with a population of only 4.47 million people) released a staggering 9.4 billion pounds of toxic waste into the environment from its factories that year. The small state ranked second in the nation for total onsite releases of toxins; seven of the ten plants in the state with the largest combined on- and off-site releases are located in Cancer Alley.

Postscript: some five months after posting this blog initially, a Guardian newspaper article described how two mammoth new chemical plants would soon be operating in Cancer Alley. The Chinese petrochemical giant Yuhuang Chemical Inc broke ground in January 2017 on a $1.9 billion factory to produce methanol--3 million metric tons per year--and ship 40-60% of it abroad. Yes, China, sensitive to massive protests by Chinese villagers against proposed chemical plants, is now exporting its pollution to America, and Louisiana politicians are eager to facilitate it.

Not to be outdone in profiting from pollution, South Louisiana Methanol also plans a $1.3 billion plant nearby, which will produce 5,300 metric tons a day. And a proposed Bayou Bridge pipeline is proposed to cross 163 miles of wetlands to bring raw petrochemical materials to the neighborhood. What could possibly go wrong?

So traveling through this formerly rich coastal ecosystem this day was not as delightful as I had hoped, knowing the consequences of the day-long progression of factories that greeted me. We pulled into Houston just before dusk. The Amtrak station is outside the sprawling city, so we had a fine view of the Houston skyline in the distance. A large number of the nation’s petrochemical firms are based in this Oil Capital of America, and for me this gave the skyline a sinister feel.

Researching my book on John Muir (Earth Wisdom) I had studied the data on the role of Big Oil and Big Mining in producing climate change and (very successfully) discrediting the abundant scientific studies showing its reality and consequences. So I was no fan of Houston and the petrochemical corridor I traversed that day. I reflected on the role of these giant, climate-denying corporations in scuttling measures to rein in climate change, thereby increasing the intensity and destruction of hurricanes and storms in particularly the Eastern U.S. and the Gulf, beyond the obvious examples of Katrina in New Orleans and Sandy in New York City. Little did I know it at the time, but Houston itself would in two months be itself devastated by such an enhanced storm, Harvey in August of this summer.

The great tragedy of all this is that the executives of the giant petrochemical corporations suffer the least from the consequences of their greed, putting their own profits ahead of science and refusing to deal with a phenomenon that will wreak widespread economic havoc within decades. It is their employees, the families, and the rest of the hard-working citizens of this corridor that are hardest hit by the consequences of their decisions. To paraphrase Galatians 6:7, as the petrochemical executives sow, so shall the common people reap, and bitterly.

Our second day dawned outside my compartment window in a different world, thank goodness. West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona was the order of the day. After breakfast we chugged into Alpine, Texas. Its dry, stark landscape gave no hint that it functioned as the gateway into stunning Big Bend National Park to the south, or that the Texas Cowboy Poetry festival transformed its streets, or that Sul Ross State University with its impressive Big Bend museum graced the town. So large is Texas that we didn’t reach its east boundary at El Paso until an hour past lunch, 22 hours after entering it from Louisiana!

The arid range land of west Texas gave way to the mesas and plateaus of New Mexico as the day progressed, the land that so entranced Georgia O’Keefe that she regularly abandoned New York City and Lake George (and her husband Alfred Stieglitz) to spend the summers here. Upon Stieglitz’s death, she made the state her fulltime home. Though the landscape is definitely dry, it displays an angular honesty and a rich palette of stony hues and shadows. The day passed very pleasantly.

We awoke the next morning coming into Los Angles, only an hour late. I quickly booked myself an earlier connection on the San Joaquin route north, relaxed an hour in the well-appointed L.A. Amtrak Lounge for first class and sleeping berth passengers (as in Chicago and WDC, featuring plenty of comfortable chairs, free juice, coffee and snacks, even showers available in Chicago), then was on my last leg home. I was back in Chico (north of Sacramento) in time for a late dinner with my wife. Ahhhh.

Seeing the entire country by rail had been an adventure, featuring every type of landscape imaginable, and meeting a similar diversity of my fellow Americans. I had no complaints about the staff, the sleeping accommodations or the food on my long journey by rail. I had seen much of what America has to offer, the good and the bad. And it convinced me that we are not exceptional, certainly not the Pilgrims’ light of the world, a city set on a hill. But we are a very large country, and we have the heart and energy to face all our problems—if only we have the wisdom to recognize them and put our shoulders to the task.

Be the first to comment