James Lee Burke Foresees Devastation of His Louisiana Wetlands

The cover jacket of "The Glass Rainbow: A Dave Robicheaux Novel." The book is the latest in a series by James Lee Burke. Source: Simon and Schuster via Bloomberg

Listening to James Lee Burke reminisce about Louisiana wetlands before the oil spill is a lush, nearly tactile experience.

“It was like the Garden of Eden back in those marshes years ago,” he says of the Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest swamp. “I thought it was the most beautiful place in the United States. At sunrise there would be this stillness, like the first day of Creation, and the sun looked like cotton candy inside the cypress trees.”

Then the 73-year-old bestselling novelist drops the hammer.

“That’s all going down the drain because of what’s occurred,” he says.

I spoke by telephone with the writer, who lives part of the year in what he describes as “a little bitty town about eight miles outside” of Missoula, Montana.

He spends the rest of his time in New Iberia, Louisiana, the setting for his popular Dave Robicheaux novels. “The Tin Roof Blowdown” made Hurricane Katrina a central character while starkly depicting the storm’s human toll in death and derangement.

Burke worked his way through college as a sort of scout for Sinclair Oil Corp. in the 1950s. He knows from experience that oil has already worked its way into the area’s canals, eroding a root system vital to the integrity of the marshlands.

“There are 10,000 miles of extant canals that have been cut over the decades through the Louisiana wetlands,” he says.

“The first time there’s a storm surge -- and it’s probably going to happen this summer -- that oil is going to be driven into those canals. That’s the story that’s not being covered.”

Work of God

Burke fears that sludge washing into the wetlands will destroy the place once and for all.

“It is just an absolute tragedy. Very few people understand how fragile the wetlands are,” he says. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between everything that lives in a marsh, and when you impair it with toxic waste and infuse it with poison, it’s like tampering with the work of God.”

While Burke at one point wants to speak off the record, he changes his mind because “there’s no point in avoiding” the truth.

“This is going to remain not just the worst industrial calamity in this country’s history, but maybe in the world’s history, outside of acts of war. The magnitude of this is just immeasurable.”

Collective Illusion

When BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward said he thought the environmental impact of the disaster would be “very, very modest,” Burke was disgusted.

“He was either dissembling, or he’s unknowledgeable about his own technology and profession,” Burke says. “It’s one or the other.”

As for the reaction of President Barack Obama’s administration, he says, “I voted for President Obama and I think he’s a decent and good person. I feel, however, that the only conclusion one can make is that he did not understand the gravity of the situation.”

I ask Burke if he plans to write about the spill.

“I don’t know. My feeling is this is a disaster that was decades in the making. And it has to do with a larger story, one that includes Afghanistan and Iraq and the previous administration -- and, I think, a collective illusion about the era into which we have entered.”

Energy Independence

He does see a glint of a silver lining.

“We are paying a very high price for oil, and a lot of it is in human blood. The United States is one of the few nations in the world that, with relative ease, could actually become energy independent. We’re just going to have to give up some things, but we could do it.”

Burke’s next novel, “The Glass Rainbow” (Simon & Schuster) continues the Dave Robicheaux series, touches on an oil-rig explosion and reveals how the hero’s father died. It will be released on July 13.

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)