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Seadrift Nation

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“Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight For Seadrift, Texas

While working on an oral history project called “The Voices of Civil Rights,” I spent a year traveling around the country, collecting dozens of personal stories about a critical period in our nation’s history. The stories I heard were both uplifting and heartbreaking. But they also made me wonder whatever happened to activism and activists, to people who were willing to put their lives on the line to change the world. The movement, it seemed, was a distant subject, something that had happened a long, long time ago before everyone settled into more comfortable lives.

Then I met Diane Wilson. My friend Michael Berryhill was a neighbor of hers in Seadrift, the small fishing community on San Antonio Bay where she grew up. She may have not faced the fire hoses on the Selma bridge or locked arms with nonviolent protestors in Memphis, he told me, but Wilson was a fighter willing to give up everything to fight for her bay and her way of life.

He wasn’t kidding.

Over the course of an afternoon on the front porch of a small purple house fronting the bay, Wilson reeled off the story of her life, how she grew up in a family of outlaw fisherman, worked as a shrimper as her father and her father’s father did before her, ran a fish house (a rarity for a woman on the coast), and came of age in her forties when she learned that she was living in the most toxic county in the United States and decided to take on the largest employer in the county, a Taiwanese-based corporation with friends in Austin and Washington.

She brought the saga into the present, how she’s banned from the Texas Legislature following a series of arrests for demonstrating in front of that august body, how she’s protested the Iraq War in Congress where she and activist Medea Benjamin unfurled a banner in the gallery while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified before a congressional committee. How she kept going back to New York for a hearing that had to do with civil disobedience actions at the United Nations, where she had handcuffed herself to the building in an effort to bring attention to an international campaign for justice for the victims of the 1984 chemical disaster that killed thousands in Bhopal, India. And how, despite arrests and harassment, despite setbacks and disappointment, despite the overwhelming odds she faced in tackling corporate power and its political patrons, she took pride in being what she called an “Unreasonable Woman.”

Diane Wilson

Later I would learn that the phrase has a special meaning for Wilson. It comes from a favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw: “A reasonable woman adapts to the world. An unreasonable woman makes the world adapt to her.” Wilson, in fact, helped to found an organization called Unreasonable Women for the Earth, a precursor to Code Pink: Women for Peace.

Fittingly, her memoir is titled An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. It’s the story of Wilson’s transformation from an inherently shy mother of five who preferred the solitude of the shrimpboat into an international environmental activist. She has also written an elegy to the endangered Texas Gulf Coast and an indictment of the chemical-political-industrial complex that has done so much to harm it.

Wilson evokes a visceral love for the water, the Gulf and the bays that define her sense of place. She never hesitates to invoke the ethereal, the mystic, and the spiritual to explain it all. At the same time, she makes clear that fishing, shrimping, crabbing, and living off the water is a way of life fast-disappearing from this part of the world for a number of reasons. No one has done a better job of capturing the challenges that this small, declining subculture deal with day to day. The shrimper, she writes

… was in the wrong century on the wrong path at the wrong place, and his addiction to the water was either gonna drive him crazy or kill him outright. One desperate shrimper lay facedown on the back deck of his boat in the shrimp and the muck and the hardheads and begged the dying shrimp to tell him their secret. Where they went. What they were doing. But that pile of shrimp said nothing and kept their silence to their slow gray breath.

Her own transformation began in 1989, when a shrimper named Bill Bailey, who was suffering from three kinds of cancer, handed Wilson a newspaper and told her to read an article from the Associated Press, a story about a first-ever report on the federal Toxic Release Inventory, which ranked the states on the emissions pouring from their industries. Texas, Wilson learned, was first in most emissions “with Louisiana breathing hard down our necks.”

“Four times our little Calhoun County was mentioned,” she writes. “A piddlin’ little county on the Gulf Coast that was lucky when fifteen thousand people lived and stayed overnight.… Besides that first-place prize, Calhoun was third for shipping toxins out, sixth for sticking them down wells, then twenty-first for flinging them in the air.”

Soon after she read the article, Wilson called Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney in Houston, who told her to call a meeting—the first of a seemingly endless series of meetings that turned into a series of one-woman hunger strikes and other “actions.” Wilson taught herself how to navigate the complex bureaucracy of state and federal environmental regulations and how to investigate the byzantine organization of a far-flung global corporation. Those skills, along with the chemistry that she picked up along the way, enabled her to expose the hypocrisy in the law, as she compared the heavy hand that metes justice to gill-net fishermen with the apologetic slap on the wrist delivered to industries that were dumping tons of toxic material into the air and water. Following the paper trail, Wilson outed a sweetheart deal between Formosa and its security firm, which happened to be owned by a Texas state senator (Ken Armbrister (D-Victoria)).

She also traced the fingerprints of former Senator Phil Gramm to the decision to locate Formosa Plastics’ vinyl chloride plant in Calhoun County. After environmental protesters in Taiwan forced the company to forgo construction of the plant on the island, it was Gramm who recruited the plant to the Texas Gulf. He then had his former campaign manager appointed regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas, where he regulated Formosa in the manner that Formosa wished to be regulated, i.e., discharging without a permit with the full knowledge of the EPA. As Wilson makes clear, fulltime environmental activism came with a price: Her marriage ended. Her brother went to work for Formosa. And in a bitter break, she parted with Blackburn. After everyone shunned her (somewhere after her first hunger strike), she found support among the Vietnamese shrimpers and crabbers in Seadrift.

Along the way, there are enough metaphors and homilies jammed into the telling to make me wonder if her editors didn’t make her busier’n a one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest to come up with yet more homilies in order to burnish her Erin Brockovich credentials. Although Wilson makes a pretty good case for ecofeminism, the references to goddesses, spirits, and dreams are not always easy to grasp, especially if one reads this as a policy book, which it definitely is. No writer has ever explained the tangled web that is Texas politics and its dealings with environmental issues so succinctly as Diane Wilson.

An Unreasonable Woman ends with Wilson’s attempt to blow up her beloved shrimp boat in the bay—a desperate effort to change, if not the world, then at least her part of the Texas coast. That effort led to some measure of success, as several chemical plants began to take seriously her campaign for zero-discharge.

Zero discharge is doable. So that’s what I say to every nonbelieving chemical plant and what I haven’t gained in sophistication or professional etiquette, I make up for in unreasonable behavior. I am not so well behaved anymore.

Indeed she’s not. In 2002, Wilson was arrested in Calhoun County after she scaled a fence and chained herself to a tower belonging to a Union Carbide plant, an action she undertook on behalf of the victims of Bhopal. For her, this was more than a symbolic act of solidarity: The Toxic Release Inventory—the subject of that long ago AP story that set her down the path of environmental activism—was written into the law by Congress in the wake of the Bhopal disaster. For Wilson, a vision of civil rights that includes global environmental rights is no stretch at all. Of course, that’s not the way local officials—nor officials from Carbide and Dow Chemical, its parent company—see things. Today Wilson is facing a four-month jail sentence as a result of that 2002 Carbide arrest. Currently she’s on book tour and in no hurry to come back to Texas and serve that sentence. As she explains in interviews and talks throughout the country, Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide, has never gone to India to serve time, despite that nation’s repeated efforts to have him extradited from the United States. So why should she go first?

Unreasonable? Maybe. But consider the decades-long tale of environmental destruction that Wilson relates in her book. And consider everything that has happened along the Gulf Coast in the past few months, we can only hope that it starts raining unreasonable women—and men—in this state. Soon.

Joe Nick Patoski is the author of Texas Coast (University of Texas Press, 2005).

Joe Nick Patoski writes about water, music, Texas, and other subjects from his home near Wimberley. Texas Coast, his second collaborative book with photographer Laurence Parent is being published by the University of Texas this fall.