I’ve changed the header image of this blog as a way to reference — and to remember — the Gulf oil spill. It’s a another postcard “slice” from my grandfather’s album, this time of Baku, currently capital and largest city of Azerbaijan, indeed of all the Caucasus, a port city on the Caspian Sea, which he travelled in and out of while serving as medic on the Russian troops trains during World War I. There are 11 scenes of Baku in the more than 80 postcards in his collection.
This one is of “Black City,” the industrial oil belt established in Baku. “The Black City was a cluttered landscape of oil rigs, metal storage tanks, refineries, heavy industrial manufacturing buildings and housing for workers,” says one source. The name came from “the heavy, black pall that hung above it and the smell of oil so thick that its taste lingered in your mouth.” Incidentally, the oil company that first came to prominence in Baku was founded by the Nobel brothers (one of them being Alfred, of Peace Prize fame). The Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company started extracting oil there in 1874 and dominated the European market until the Russian Revolution. Worldwide it was second largest after Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
I don’t know how much my grandfather, Heinrich Harder, actually got to see of the city. In an August 31, 1914 letter written from Baku he says,
Today we spent most of our day unloading, brought wounded men from Sharekamesh to this place and tomorrow at 8 in the morning, we begin to load again and take off to Derbent and Petrowsk Harbour. Thus it has been now for the last month — load, unload, disinfect, then load again…
On March 3, 1916, in another letter from Baku, he writes,
Today I watched three maneuvering birds, soon up in the air, then swimming on the sea — a beautiful picture! Too bad that inventions like that are used to destroy life and culture.
It was a coded message, it seems, about war planes.
These are just bits of trivia, but they bring me round to the Gulf oil spill, which for many of us seems far away. But we keep being reminded of it, and realize again it’s not a movie, and then it grieves, worries, angers us anew. This morning on CBC Radio I heard two photographers being interviewed about what they were seeing. They couldn’t help describing some of the scenes as beautiful. But it’s the beauty of destruction, like the “birds” on the Caspian Sea, and the reality, much like Baku’s Black City, beyond grim. (Baku, in fact, is still, according to 2008 data, the world’s “dirtiest” city in terms of pollution.)
Of Baku back in its Nobel oil-empire glory days, Fuad Akhundov writes,
At that time, the view of chimneys and pipes was a symbol of progress and mankind’s achievements. No one was concerned about environment and ecology.
It’s sometimes said we have a love affair with oil. Yes, and it’s a sordid one. And now, again, though hardly able to shake our oil dependency (I speak for myself), we mourn the failure, the terrible damage. I go about my daily tasks, and then I’ll remember the gallons of oil shooting from the ocean floor, and the suffering of humans and creatures in the Gulf states. Will today’s attempt, apparently risky, finally plug the spill? It finally occurred to me that I might keep this more deliberately in my prayers. Oh God, may it work!