Sunday, May 23, 2010

Oak trees, oil spills and what lies beneath

This afternoon I attended an outdoor performance of the Cambridge Girls Choir in a park alongside Dow's Lake in Ottawa. It was a hot and steamy day for May, but no one was uncomfortable except, perhaps, for the performers themselves. That's because the stage had wisely been placed facing two large trees, one a silver maple, the other a red oak. From the shade of the silver maple I counted at least fifty people seated on lawn chairs or on the grass beneath the oak, with plenty of room to spare. With its classically-shaped canopy, the oak was not particularly large or mighty as far as oaks go, but like all oaks is nonetheless a structural miracle: a single column arising from the ground supporting an array of branches and stems, some perfectly horizontal, each one in turn bearing hundreds of increasingly smaller branches terminating in tonnes of leaves. The finest human architects using the most sophisticated materials could not begin to replicate the superstructure of that one unremarkable oak tree.

I doubt that those seated underneath that oak were marvelling at the silver maple above me; most seemed to be listening carefully to the choir (it was a good performance, I should add). They were probably even less likely aware that beneath their feet spread a root mass as large and impressive as the canopy shading them. And that would be no surprise: we humans are a species whose senses are generally dull in comparison with other animals, and one which relies disproportionately on the single sense of eyesight. We consequently show little interest in things we can not see. Moreover, as a species with few natural predators beyond other humans, our gaze tends to be disproportionately drawn to other other humans and the works of humans. Staple an ad for student painters on a tree alongside the sidewalk and we invariably notice the ad but not the tree. The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" is not merely an old adage; that really is the way most of us think and operate most of the time. Few if any people today took much notice of the tree they sat beneath at the choir performance; probably none but me gave any thought to the parts of the tree not immediately visible.

Unless you live in a complete media vacuum, you've likely heard or read about the recent oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and the oil that has been rushing steadily for weeks now into the deep waters of the Gulf. Out of sight, out of mind was no doubt what British Petroleum, the operators of the rig, were hoping would work in their favour while they slap-stickishly attempted to plug the gusher. Until this past week the public was not allowed to see video footage of the broken well-pipe, and until then BP issued a steady stream of reports vastly understating the true amount of oil being spilled. They were able to get away with this because most oil spills occur at the ocean surface, where the oil you see floating represents virtually all that there is - there's nothing hiding below the surface.

But a spill that emerges at the sea floor is a different situation: until the broken well is successfully shut off, the vast majority of the oil spilled and yet to be spilled remains out of sight. Although it has been weeks since the spill began, only this weekend have large sheets of gooey black oil washed up on Louisiana's shorelines and provided the news media with the images we typically associate with oil spills. But what currently appears on the surface is just a taste of that which is yet to come. Imagine again that oak tree large enough to shelter 50 people with ease, only half of it visible above the ground. Now imagine burying that oak tree even further below the soil (moving the 50 people away first, of course) until nothing but a few twigs and leaves poke out of the ground. That's what the oil spill in the Gulf is actually like, only it won't remain below the surface forever.

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