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Out of Place: Skeptics
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xii Skeptics out of place  david gessner This summer I spent a month traveling along the ravaged Gulf Coast. Why? One reason I went was because I wanted to see the place for myself, unfiltered, instead of trusting that the national media would take me on its knee and, like a kindly uncle, tell me its version of the story. As I drove down I understood the hypocrisy of traveling eight hundred miles in a vehicle powered by a refined version of the same substance that was pouring out into the Gulf waters, and knew that I, like the rest of us, was a big fat hypocrite. But I needed to see the oil. The truth was that at first I wouldn’t even read about the spill. I put on blinders. I wanted nothing to do with yet another dismal, depressing environmental story. But a friend convinced me to open my eyes. He knew that I had spent the last few years walking the coasts of North America, from Alaska to the Outer Banks to Nova Scotia and Cape Cod. It was as if I had been training for something but I didn’t know what. It turned out I had been training for the Gulf. Once I was there I couldn’t have imagined being anywhere else. I have written several nature books, but have given up on the idea of the natural world as a place apart from the human world, which is to say I’ve embraced a messier nature. It doesn’t get much messier than the Gulf of Mexico. The national media has now skipped on to its next big story, but some of us are still stuck back in the old one. Mired. During my weeks on the Gulf Coast—out on the water, up in helicopters, walking and camping on the coasts—I kept thinking, This time we have really done it. I still xiii believe that, despite the current feel-good spin on the spill. This time we have passed a certain point, and that is obvious to even the most casual observer of the natural world. Put inelegantly, we have shat ourselves. And yet I am wary of my own lines. Wary of overstating, of evoking the language of doom. Wary of dragging out that old apocalyptic cloak. “The worst environmental event in our history,” the president called the oil spill. Perhaps—though we have had some doozies. One of the reasons that I have never been a big fan of the apocalyptic tone is that I have made it a personal goal to keep an open mind in this time of adamancy and increased hysteria. Environmental writers are often called “prophets,” a word that, like apocalypse, makes me uneasy. The writer I am reading most often these days, Michel de Montaigne, was the furthest thing from a prophet. Montaigne created the essay form in mid-1500s. Almost three hundred years later, in 1844, another essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would look back and write a celebratory essay called “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic.” “The right ground of the skeptic,” Emerson wrote of Montaigne, is “of consideration, of selfcontaining ; not at all of unbelief; not at all of universal denying, not of universal doubting—doubting even that he doubts.” I can’t imagine that Montaigne would have fared well on CNBC or Fox News. He would have peppered his interviews with howevers and buts and on the other hands. When one dons the prophet’s robes, a conscious simplifying is required. Certain rules and expectations go with those robes, and one of those rules is no public wavering. Jeremiah can’t afford to be Montaigne. In fact we are talking about no less than two distinct ways of seeing the world. To warn of coming doom is to express certainty about the future. And what is more uncertain than the future? An honest reaction to any prophet is “How the hell do you know that?” Many have seen in Montaigne the birth of the modern attitude, questioning everything. Inherent in this attitude is the belief that we have not one self but a fluid identity made up of many selves, and that...