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Commentary: A lesson learned out on the Gulf of Mexico

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Gordon Stewart
Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is a Presbyterian minister and pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska.
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The day I'm remembering happened 15 years ago, when I joined a group of pastors sailing the waters of the Chesapeake Bay on one of the last remaining skipjacks -- the old motor-less vessels used to harvest the clean oyster beds of the Bay.

Our teacher that day was Earl, an old waterman who for 54 years had harvested the oysters in Chesapeake Bay. 

A single oyster filters five gallons of water a day. Before the Chesapeake had been polluted, the oysters there would filter the equivalent of all the water in the Bay in just three days. 

By the time we spent our day with Earl, less than one percent of the Bay's oysters were left. 

The old oysterman was a man of great joy who told stories about the beauty of the bay and the joy of the gentle breezes that moved the skipjack silently in and out of the oyster beds... but his sorrow matched his delight when he told the stories of the thoughtless assault on the oysters by the toxins that had been dumped along the Bay, the rivers and the oceans. 

"It's humans who are doing this," he said. "The oysters will come back; I have to believe they'll come back."

Like Earl, the Cajun watermen interviewed on the news these days are harvesting oysters to make a living. But that living won't last long without respect for the oysters...and for the ecosystem those odd creatures both depend on and purify. 

The oystermen know that when the oysters are in trouble, it's not just them and the restaurants and the raw oyster bars that are in trouble; we're all in trouble.

The devastation in the Gulf of Mexico happened for many reasons. The Most obvious is the failure of a blow-out safety valve. 

But before the blow-out valve blew was the failure of a corporation and a government agency charged with protecting the ecosystem; and long before that was a society that demanded cheap oil no matter the global cost, a whole culture built on the idea that nature is an endless quarry for human beings to mine. 

Only now are some of us learning that the oysters and the other creatures share the Earth in common with us. They do not live for us and that, in a very real sense, our whole world lives in an oyster The death of a single oyster signals the death of everything on which life itself depends. 

I see the faces of the Louisiana oystermen, but I'm hearing the voice of Earl. I share his hope that the oysters will come back once man stops his meddling. 

And an old hymn invites me to join the fight to stop the madness, to turn back, if we can, to something sane: "Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways. Age after age their tragic empires rise, Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep; Would man but wake from his haunted sleep, Earth shall be fair and all folk glad and wise."

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Gordon Stewart is Pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota, and Moderator of the Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues, examining critical public issues locally and globally.