Dr. Dolittle vs. the Oil Spill: A Fantasy


The news is so unremittingly grim from the Gulf oil disaster—I think that BP is up to Plan F in its attempts to plug the gushing oil– that I’m going to share a poetic fantasy about ending it.  Maybe it will help keep you from hardening over and becoming fatalistic.  The poem was written by my father in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day.

A word of explanation: I owe my love of books to this man, who read aloud to my brothers and me every night until we were teenagers (we didn’t have a television).  Among our nightly reading were Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle books, most of them written in the 1920’s when my father was a boy.  My father is also noted in Sewanee for his annual Christmas poems, which frequently tap into the joy that children feel around fantasy literature.  Therefore, when he imagines Dr. Doolittle taking on a massive oil spill on Christmas Day, he invokes a world of innocence and hope.  The poem appeared in An ABC of Radical Ecology (1980).  

Here’s the poem:

D Is for Dr. Dolittle’s Christmas Blowout

A Bird’s Christmas on Whales 

by Scott Bates

When John Dolittle
who had been quietly celebrating
Christmas Day in the company of his numerous family
Dab-Dab the Duck Gub-Gub the Pig
Jip Toby Polynesia Tommy Too-Too and all the others
in his comfortable old house at Puddleby-on-the-Marsh
learned of the terrible off-shore oil blowout
from an exhausted Stormy Petrel
of the Petrel Petrol Patrol
falling against the kitchen window
with oil on her wings
(two million gallons of oil a day
spreading black death over the South Atlantic)
he immediately mobilized the Seagull Post
sending messages to the vast colonies of seals on
the rocks cliffs islands promontories and headlands
from the Tierra del Fuego to the Rio de Oro
to spread the word and begin Rescue Operation Oil Spill
and he made arrangements to embark himself
on the Great Glass Sea Snail summoned
post haste from the bottom of the Deep Hole
by a Jabizri Beetle and the Silver Fidget
in order to be on hand and direct the proceedings

The disaster was far worse
than ever he could have imagined.  A veritable volcano
an enormous column of oil 500 feet deep and no one could cap it . . .

As he was meditating upon the problem
the first squadrons of Harp and Harbor Seals
began to arrive with flotillas of Dolphins
Sharks Giant Turtles Manatees and Killer Whales
plus all the larger species of Atlantic Sea Eagles
and began to sea- and air-lift the thousands of bogged-down
Phalaropes Shearwaters Terns Ducks Penguins and Petrels
by wing fin and flipper up to the coast of England
where his unique formula of Pollution Protection Emulsion
soon set them right as a trivet and
winging back to sea again
–over the heads of the startled puddlebeans
who however had learned to expect almost anything
out of the neighborhood of Dr. John Dolittle

Who meanwhile back at the rig
had moved into action
Standing like a little admiral on the top of the Great Sea Snail
in his battered top hand and his ancient waistcoat
he was busily directing an armada of fifteen hundred whales:
They had broken off a small cliff from the nearby coast
and were carefully maneuvering it into place with the help
of long chains of Giant Squid keeping it delicately in balance
spiraling heroically down and around the boiling maelstrom

with a whoosh and a great schloop
the huge plug was in place
and the oil spill was stopped!

Whereupon all the Whales
Seals Dolphins Eagles Walruses Tortoises Sharks and Giant Squid
threw a Christmas blowout in honor of Dr. John Dolittle
dancing an ancient and marvelous sea dance around the platform
which the grateful seabirds had adorned with seaweed shells and
till it looked like a beautiful coral Christmas Tree
in the middle of the sea
After which they wished him Godspeed as
he rode back on the Snail
and they returned peacefully to their affairs

Without neglecting first however
to remove all the rest of the off-shore oil wells
from all the coasts of the North and South Atlantic Oceans
leaving only Christmas Tree Oil Rig Island
(also called Oil Well That Ends Well)
as a monument to the good Doctor
as an historical marker of the greatest sea lift in oceanic history
and as a continual reminder of the everpresent danger
of people
like you and me
who tend to consider ourselves the biggest catfish in the sea

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  1. Barbara
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 4:18 am | Permalink


    I love this poem. If only. I’ve been avoiding reading or watching too much because the news is all so depressing. Thank you for lifting my spirits.


  2. John Morrow
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Robin, for sharing your father’s wonderful and encouraging poem.
    How wonderful that he read to you boys each night for I am sure that it is as a result of his wonderful gifts that you are who you are! If only this dreadful disaster in the Gulf would be resolved. I cannot imagine what is going to happen to God’s creatures
    in the next weeks and months. With gratitude, John

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted June 3, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s vital to touch base with our playful sides in the midst of tragedy. Otherwise, we get pulled into the thick black goo. I am reminded of stories about how Lincoln, during the Civil War, would occasionally burst into laughter–and when queried about why, said, “I laugh to keep from crying.” Writers of comic verse like my father aren’t taken as seriously as other poets but they give us something of inestimable value.

7 Trackbacks

  1. […] Dr. Dolittle vs. a Oil Spill: A Fantasy […]

  2. […] Dr. Dolittle vs. the Oil Spill: A Fantasy […]

  3. By When Nature Wreaks Its Revenge on June 22, 2010 at 8:13 am

    […] Doctor Dolittle vs. the Oil Spill: A Fantasy […]

  4. […] Dr. Dolittle vs. the Oil Spill: A Fantasy […]

  5. By Laugh Out Loud Collection | Movie City Online on July 22, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    […] Dr. Dolittle vs. the Oil Spill: A Fantasy […]

  6. By Mama Grizzly vs. Real Grizzlies on July 27, 2010 at 1:02 am

    […] Whether through calling for drilling in the Alaskan National Reserve, denying the global warming that is melting the ice, pushing aggressively for more development (including Alaskan roads to nowhere), or hunting wolves by airplane, Palin is no friend to the grizzly habitat.  I therefore offer up an ecological version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” that my father Scott Bates wrote in 1982.  Some of the topical allusions may be dated but it is scarily prescient and almost seems to have the former Alaska governor in mind.  It appeared in his ABC of Radical Ecology.  (Earlier we ran a poem from the same collection about Doctor Dolittle taking on an oil spill, which you can read here.) […]

  7. By What Lemming Migrations Mean on March 16, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    […] Dr. Doolittle vs. the Oil Spill […]


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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