Alabama

Posted by Ellen

 We have all seen pictures of the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico; this is the one that put a catch in my breath today.

Nicole Kesterson of Gulf Shores, Alabama, is snapping a picture at the public beach near Gulf Shores State Park, while blackened surf splashes down onto the sand. Used to be, Gulf Shores and nearby beaches were characterized by what people called "sugar sand"--fine, white, perfect, clean quartz crystalline sand. I've seen tarballs there before--Gulf oil platforms are visible from many parts of the beach--but black waves of crude are something else again.

Picture these gentle little waves roughed up and built into mountains by a hurricane--Atlantic and Gulf waters are warmer this summer than ever before in human history, and hurricanes are the earth's major mechanism for dealing with hot spots of subtropical water. The oil will come crashing inland, obviously, surging for miles to flood uncleanable marshes and swamps. And evidence is accumulating that thanks to BP's massive use of dispersants, oil will also likely be sucked up into the sky; oil vapor will gather in the clouds along with water vapor to rain poison down on us all.

For what it's worth, the good news is that mosquitoes don't do well in oily environments. 

I have spent enough time among geologists to accept that all substantial reservoirs of oil on the planet will eventually be tapped for human use. But what I hear about energy policy in America these days seems completely backwards to me: why aren't we letting the Saudis and the Russians let their wells run dry before we tap into our own precious reserves? Countries with no other source of income or with desperate economic problems have no choice but to sell off all their oil as quickly as possible. We're rich enough to wait for a while, and as the rest of the world's oil disappears, ours becomes more and more valuable. Perhaps eventually it will be worth so much that oil companies will be cautious not to risk spilling a drop.

Or whatever.

Posted by Ellen

Winter is still with us, or at least with many of us, and there will soon be at least one more quick glance at icy cold stuff through that hole in the clouds. But let's hear it for daffodils in February.

This photo was taken yesterday in Tuscaloosa. The thing about spring in Alabama is that it starts right about now and goes on and on and on, growing flowerier and flowerier, month after month, till finally, some time in May, the air disappears and it's just too hot.

The daffodils are nothing but a tease, along with the quince blossoms and the Japanese magnolias. Then the wisteria and the redbuds. Until finally, around the beginning of April, it's seriously spring, with dogwood above and azalea all over. (The big Southern magnolias don't bloom till June, when it's hot, so I count them as summer flowers.) 

They had hard freezes this winter in Alabama and even a little snow. But by yesterday, according to our Tuscaloosa correspondent, it was 70 and sunny.

 

 

Posted by Ellen

Why do people keep dumping noxious, toxic, no-good very bad stuff in west Alabama? Which do you want first, the geologic reason or the political reason?

The geologic reason is a thick, 100-million-year-old layer of chalk that sits not far below the surface in Sumter County, Alabama, and thereabouts. You can make compelling arguments that this chalk is pretty much impermeable, sealing off any pollutants that might be deposited in a hazardous-waste landfill, such as the Arrowhead facility pictured here. (The only problem with those arguments is that unmapped faults deep in the chalk seem eventually to compromise these landfills; over time, they all spring leaks.)

The political reason is that west Alabama is desperately poor and majority African American. Local governments in less desperate parts of the country would not allow projects like Arrowhead, which clearly put citizens' health at risk and drive away more reputable industrial development. But where there are no jobs and no tax base, an opportunity to store other people's dangerous filth can seem better than no opportunity at all.

And so it came to pass that companies operating the Arrowhead landfill won a supposedly lucrative contract to "dispose of" a billion gallons of waterlogged coal ash that had spilled near Kingston, Tennessee, last year when a retention pond failed outside a power plant. 

Arrowhead's neighbors soon complained of horrible odors and other concerns. They threatened to sue. Arrowhead immediately declared bankruptcy, claiming that people from New Jersey had run off with all the money from the cleanup contract. They are now un-sueable, but at last word, trucks were still pulling up to the landfill day and night with loads of coal ash to dump.

Posted by Ellen

All five Stein brothers in an elevator, on the first day of 2010.

From left to right:   #3, #1, #4, #5, #2   (1981, 1978, 1988, 1992, 1979).

Posted by Ellen

Neely and Damon were married on New Year's Day, 2010, in Tuscaloosa. The cake decorations are just what they look like: American childhood delicacies.

Posted by Ellen

All five Stein boys touched down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a few days ago and claimed the beachhead for the Crimson Tide. That's not very hard to do in Tuscaloosa.

The occasion was the premier social event of the year, on New Year's Day, the wedding of Neely Sims and Damon Ray.

Posted by Ellen

For a million years--34, to be exact--the sixth-grade gym teacher at Westlawn Middle School in Tuscaloosa was Yvonne Wells. So far as I could tell, Ms. Wells was a perfectly normal physical education teacher, who probably went home hoarse every night after a hard day's work.

When she got home, she took up her needle and thread and scissors and spread out her fabrics on the living room floor and went to work quilting. Sometimes she stayed up half the night. She'd had no training in quilt-making, and when she tried to reproduce the old patterns, she felt frustrated and dissatisfied with the results. Gradually, she abandoned traditional patchwork for her own intensely personal, and often political, storytelling style of quilt.

Wells sells her quilts at festivals and in galleries; almost all her work, she says, winds up hanging on the wall instead of laying across a bed. Her style has attracted attention far beyond Tuscaloosa, and in recent years her work has been featured in traveling exhibits at museums all over the country. Half a dozen of her quilts, including this one, are now part of the permanent collection of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Nebraska.

What we see here is the Statue of Liberty holding dollar bills in one hand and a black person, perhaps a child, in the other, while she stomps on an Indian with both feet. The title pretty much says it: Being In Total Control of Herself, B.I.T.C.H.

Posted by Ellen

Please forgive me for writing here about Alabama football--just this once, I promise, at least till next year.

Some people don't like football. And even among those who do like football, some don't like Alabama football. All I can say is: better luck in your next life.

Nobody doesn't like Terrence Cody--Mount Cody--the unheralded defensive lineman from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College who showed up for practice in Tuscaloosa weighing 400 pounds. Off the field, they say, he's a gentle, teddy bear sort of guy, who likes cartoons on TV and sleeps on Spiderman sheets. On the field, he's not gentle; Alabama's defense is ranked number one in the nation, and on that defense Cody has participated in more than his share of tackles and sacks. Last Saturday, he saved a close game for the Tide by blocking two field goal attempts, including one in the final seconds of the game.

But Mount Cody's value to the team doesn't really show up in the formal statistics. Basically, he is so big and strong that the opposing team will need two guys to contain him. This double-teaming gives his teammates a numerical advantage; because of Cody, somebody else is wide open to make more tackles and sacks.

Last Saturday, Tennessee put two guys on Cody, the Sullins brothers, identical twins who are big, strong, experienced offensive linemen. They each weigh something like 275 pounds. Cody has trimmed down a bit; even at 400 pounds he had moves, but now at 365 he can almost run. Still, he outweighed either of the Sullins boys by a good 90 pounds. Several times during the game, double-teaming didn't work to stop him; he would swat the first guy out of the way before the second guy showed up to help--and when Cody gets moving, it might take three or four guys to stop him.

Bama has a number ofl exciting players, including defensive linebacker Rolando McClain, who seems to be a football genius, always guessing right about what the other guys are going to do with the ball. On offense, there's the ridiculously fast receiver Julio Jones and the running back Mark Ingram, a sort of zombie runner who won't stay dead.

But last week was all about Mount Cody. Here he is, number 62,  blocking a kick., Notice the Tennessee player lying down in front of him, number 69--that's one of the Sullins brothers, just trying to do his job.

Posted by Ellen

For many years now, as the University of Alabama has expanded its football stadium, it's been interested in a small piece of land across the street from the stadium that was home to Temple Emanu-El of Tuscaloosa. The university and the congregation finally agreed to a land swap, and a new synagogue building is now under construction across campus. This past month, the frame went up.

It's not clear what the university will do with its new land--"Some more game-day something or other," according to Anna Singer, who chairs the Temple Emanu-El building committee.

Posted by Ellen

There will come a day when nobody cares about Alabama football any more. True, we're not there yet. We'll probably have single-payer health care in the United States long before the Crimson Tide roll over and play dead.
As I write this, Alabama is losing its first game of the season 16-17, to Virginia Tech. They're playing in Atlanta tonight, in the Georgia Dome, but some sunny Saturday very soon, Bryant-Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa will once again look exactly like this.