It’s 3:45 a.m. It’s so quiet at this hour that I can hear the subtlest murmurings of thunder. A flash of lightning as I unlock the car door. By the time I pull out of the driveway a light rain has begun to fall.
I meet Zach and Eric at Zach’s house and we pile into the truck for the drive down to Texas City. We go about a half mile before we stop at a Valero gas station.
“We always stop here for coffee,” Eric tells me.
The ride down is pretty silent. I’m hoping that the rain stops, or doesn’t get worse, at least. As we roll through the deserted streets of Texas City, they both teach me about the Texas City disaster.
“The whole city is dotted with all these monuments,” Zach says. He points at a massive ship’s propeller near the dike. “That propeller was blown a mile inland. There wasn’t much else left of the ship.”
We park on the side of the road beside one lone dock between the Valero refinery and the Texas City dike.
This is the Texas City ship channel, traveled only by ships bearing petrochemicals or boats trawling for shrimp.
The guys quickly prep the boat and it’s anchor’s away.
The crackly weather radio issues severe thunderstorm warnings but the drizzle has stopped. The sound now is of the motor’s deep thrum, the prow slicing water, and wind. There is a flash of lightning and a spotlight from a passing tugboat.
Zach speaks to fellow shrimpers via CB radio. We pull up near a buoy labeled “9” with a green light that reminds me of Gatsby and hold our position by circling in place.
The wait continues.
Then we drop the nets and hit the throttle.
The drizzle resumes and we’re joined by a flock of cawing sea gulls.
With Zach at the helm, Eric tells me about this dying trade. The selling price of shrimp has held steady since the 1970s–the actual dollar amount, not adjusted for inflation–while the cost of diesel, alone, has quintupled. As the profit-margin shrinks and the number of shrimpers drops, you would think that the shrimp population would skyrocket, but it doesn’t–the opposite is happening. Despite the dwindling number of shrimpers on the Gulf, the number of shrimp is in a steady state of decline, also, due to loss of wetlands and freshwater incursion.
At 6:30, dolphins are sighted. The disappear each time my camera comes out. Eric pulls in the test net. We have shrimp.
And thus begins the work of sorting shrimp. Mixed in with the take are long, thin ribbon fish whose fins will slice your fingertips, jellyfish itching to sting you, dinosaur-looking prehistoric fish alongside alien-looking squids, rays, and even big fat cat fish (remember the fresh-water incursion?) At one point Zach even grabs a baby hammerhead shark with his bare hands and tosses it overboard.
Pelicans swoop in. Gulls are coming at us like something out of Hitchcock–the flapping of their wings is terrifying.
I join in. By 7:00 a.m., my feet are waterlogged. They will remain waterlogged for the next six hours.
The fish are jumping, gasping, drowning in the air. I try not to squeeze them too tightly for fear of crushing them, even as I toss them overboard into the gaping maws of cawing gulls and pelicans. They are warm. I feel their dying heartbeats between my fingers. They struggle to slip free of me, though I present their only chance to slip back into the murky depths from whence we pulled them.
A tanker passes. We are, as Eric says, “treading in the path of global capitalism,” against a backdrop of oil refineries.
My feet squish. My fingertips have been poked. My arms are covered in fish scales. Sweat stings my eyes. I’m still doing better than the fish, which are still doing better than the shrimp.
One lone squid is caught in the net. Eric tries to fling it overboard but it falls short, on the deck, and squirts its ink in a useless defense. The deck is littered with dismembered fish, fish who got stepped on, fish with smashed heads, suffocating fish opening and closing their mouths, their gills, gasping for water.
The sun comes out and the gulls get bolder.
This goes on for hours. We spin in circles. We drop the net and trawl, we pull up the net and sort.
The day is winding down. We’ve got a decent catch. Then Zach’s phone rings.
“We’ve got a buyer,” he’s psyched. “We got a buyer for live bait!”
We drop the net once more. Twice more. Thrice more. The motor thrums. The bow splits water. The pelicans flap their wings. The sea gulls caw. The salt water streaks my camera lens. It rains a little, it stops, it rains a little more. The sun comes out. I successfully photograph a dolphin.
The guys explain to me what makes this art.
We are down to talk about it as art but not assert that it is, they say. We call the project a cultural investigation, if that nuance matters, they say. We are much more interested in talking about culture as a larger component of the human experience, they say. If we call it culture we can more easily take it for what it is. With these activities we are working to reconnect Houstonians to the region’s native landscape. We want to talk about the necessity for accurately understanding our landscape as one of the first steps in working towards an ethical society, they say.
Do you consider these trips that you take people on, like you did me today, to be part of that art? I ask.
When we talk about this project in an arts context we do refer to facilitating this activity as art, they say. We are providing a frame, they say.
We return to shore. We have live bait (medium sized shrimp) for the bait shop in Galveston and huge shrimp for some restaurants back in Houston. I go with Zach to deliver the live bait while Eric wraps things up on the boat.
Zach stands in the bed of his truck transferring shrimp to a bucket to carry it into the shop. He scoops a small fish out of the bucket and a sea gull catches it before it even hits the ground.
We sell the remaining live bait to a wholesaler near the dock when we return. It smells like death rotted over.
I ask Zach about notable incidents in the two years they’ve been doing this.
There are lots of anecdotes, he says. The most heroic act was performed by Eric at three in the morning. It was super windy and trying to get out of our dock we were blown into the shallow mud and hopelessly aground. It was freezing wind in late November. We decided our only solution was to get a rope back on the dock 200 ft away. Eric took off all his clothes and swam across the harbor. He made it with the rope and a floating tub with his clothes. After he got dressed and secured the rope to the bow of another boat we were able to winch ourselves off the mud. We then ran out of Clear Lake and into the bay but the waves and east wind were too much and we decided to turn back. Turning around the wind caught the cabin door and would have smashed my hand but instead my wedding ring caught its full force and was smashed cutting off circulation to my finger. We had to take it off with pliers while trying to get back to the calm of our little harbor under the Kemah bridge.
And on that note, if they’re providing the frame, then here’s some art:
Eh, you know what, I’m overseas and I’m going to have to update this with more images later, this isn’t working. Check back soon!