siana's wetlands are a religious thing for Christopher Hallowell. "Life begins for untold animal and plant species in the twilight of swamps and the hidden reaches of marshes," he writes. "They are breeding grounds, cradles, larders, the source of life, fecund beyond comprehension." In Holding Back the Sea, Hallowell sounds the alarm on behalf of these natural nurseries. Louisiana's 300 miles of wetlands almost half the coastal wetlands in the U.S. are rapidly succumbing to man-made depredations. Artificial levees, reckless tunneling and drilling for oil are killing off native wildlife, from marsh grass to oyster to muskrat. Throw in the global warming that is raising the level of the adjacent Gulf of Mexico, and you've got an entire state slowly sinking below sea level.
It's not just a plethora of critters that's in peril, Hallowell explains. The loss of wilderness threatens Louisiana's booming oil and natural gas industries whose pipes lie under a shallow layer of sand on an eroding beach. With Louisiana quietly providing 25% of the nation's natural gas and nearly 20% of its oil, the prospect of losing this resource is horrifying. Saltwater intrusion on freshwater wetlands also endangers Louisiana's oysters and the communities that have for generations made their living by oystering. Why is an environmentally conscious nation letting these things happen? Hallowell cites some tentative reasons. Louisiana's reputation for dumping toxins in its own marshes is one possibility. The state's relative invisibility is another. While Floridians raise a hue and cry over the Everglades, the death of Louisiana's sweeping wetlands provokes few headlines, Hallowell argues. On his travels through the wetlands, Hallowell meets memorable characters, politicians, fishermen and engineers who give the narrative the feel of a novel at times. His skill in conveying the demise of the Louisiana oyster reveals the fragile interconnection of living things in a way few writers have accomplished since Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf. Though it's necessarily scientific and technical, Hallowell's ability to poeticize nature makes this an eminently readable book.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.