Category Archives: Hanson Island Winter 3

Winter Descriptions and Luxuries Disguised as Necessities

The days feel shorter here than up in Alaska. That shouldn’t seem possible, but the orientation of the lab makes dusk fall quickly. As we approach winter solstice, the sun must clear a pair of hurdles to reach our cabin. First the mountains that overlook Robson Bight and then the collection of Fir and Spruce trees on the southern side of the cove. So even when the sun shines, it only strikes directly for a few hours.

But some sun is better than none, and over the last week we’ve been serenaded by blue sky and sunshine. After the rains of November it’s a welcome change. With the sun comes the northeasterly outflow. A pocket of cold air that has enveloped much of Canada in a classic winter freeze. They are days that lend themselves to wool hats, wool sweaters, and walks through the forest.  The sun reaches down through the boughs like the fingers of Midas, turning all they touch into gold. The humpbacks have vanished. The geese and cranes have flown south, the Varied thrush inland. We are left with the heartiest of the temperate species. The Raven, crow, Harlequin, Scoter, deer, and mink. It’s a vocal and charming collection of neighbors. Some smell, some call with the rising sun, some quietly munch frozen kelp illuminated by the full moon.

Inside the cabin, it’s an hourly effort to keep the temperature comfortable. The weather lends itself to light, dry wood, the moisture of Fall sapped from its wooden tendons to burn hot and fast. But the greatest ally of the wood stove is bark from the Fir tree. It washes up in droves, waiting to be plucked and dried. After a few days out of the water, it super charges the stove and sends heat into even the chilliest corners of the room. Nevertheless, the cat and rabbit curl up at the stove’s base while Brittney and I wrap ourselves in blankets, sweaters, and long johns to take off the chill. We rise every two hours at night to stoke the fire and keep the cabin warm for the rabbit. Each time I rise I turn the tap. The water runs icy cold, but as long as water moves through the line every few hours it won’t freeze.

I love this clear, frozen world. A world that in many ways is not that different from the one inhabited by generations of people before me. The rustic hand loggers and fish packers that used to dot the coastline from Campbell River to Bella Bella. The sourdough and flapjack generation as it were. The Billy Procter all stars. It’s a universe of simplistically over convenience.

Today more people live in cities than ever before. We are urbanized, domesticated, house trained. Homo stationarious. We insist on electric heat, warm water, indoor plumbing, matching granite countertops, and auto start. So many necessities the sourdough people couldn’t have even fathomed fifty years ago. Imagine Billy tortured over the design of his countertops or balking at walking to his car in minus 20 weather. I’m closer to him than the coffee shop in Seattle. Born too late and raised too wild.

Why do we need these things? What are we looking for? A generation of beach combers picking up materialism, taking it home, placing it on the mantle to see how it looks. At what point do we say “enough?”

Don’t eat till you’re full. Eat until you’re no longer hungry.

A bath on Hanson Island, like it was for many years, requires time and effort. It’s an all day affair of collecting wood, feeding the fire, and tapping your foot. But when you sink into that tub with Blackney Pass splayed out in front of you. Oh my goodness. Blissful tub nirvana.

Perhaps that’s it. When the necessities aren’t simple you fall back in love with them. We linger a bit longer over what many would call the mundane, extracting more joy from a trickle of hot water than many will find in a shower with 5,000 PSI. It’s hard to know what warm is until you’ve been cold. Hanson Island has taught me that necessities are not necessities at all but luxuries. They are things that we have simply been told we cannot do without when in actuality we prefer our lives without them. After years of technological “progress” aimed at making our domestication more efficient, the average family still needs just as many hours to clean the house as they did in 1950. It’s a secret Roomba and Hoover don’t want you to know.

Perhaps some will always prefer the high rise apartment, insulated from the faintest breeze and sweetest bird song. But I will take the biting wind as I walk to the outhouse and the therapy of a cup of tea while the cold crawls through the cracks. I’ll take the star scattered night uninhibited by headlights and the songs of Humpbacks in my dreams. May my countertops be wooden, the car cold when it starts, and the days unencumbered by the trappings of modernity.

Blessings of the harbor seals be upon you.

This is Our Dunkirk

Let’s breath. All of us. Right now. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Look out the window and find something beautiful. Find something that makes you smile and lightens your heart. Find something that makes you feel good. I know it’s been a rough month. If you’re reading this I’m sure you’re like me. Every day we seem to be asking ourselves how ethics, humanity, and just plain old fashioned decency can be eclipsed by the cold blooded bottom line.

We’re watching protestors whose only crime is the desire for clean water and respect for burial grounds be sprayed with water in freezing temperatures.

We’ve watched as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stared unblinking into the camera and lied to the world. Fuck you and your coal free promises Minister. Your word means nothing when you green light a pair of pipelines. That’s like saying you’re going to quit drinking and then cracking a beer while saying what you really meant was you were only quitting whiskey.

As for the rest of America… well let’s just leave the rest of that screwed up Republic alone because I don’t have the energy to get into that right now.

Because believe it or not. This is about hope.

On November 9th I wrote my friend and mentor Kim Heacox. He’s a writer, photographer, and soon to be my next door neighbor. He’s one of the greatest guys you’ll ever meet. If the world is truly going to hell, I’m glad I’ll have his company on the way. I asked him, in not so many words, what the heck we do now.

“Read,” was his response. From a man that built a separate structure on his property to hold all his literature it was hardly a surprise. “Find a big heavy book, 500-600 pages long about a dark period of history that turned out brightly.”

So I did. I love history. I’ve inhaled World War II books since I was a kid. It’s my Dad’s fault. I could tell you the difference between a Spitfire, Hurricane, and Typhoon before I was 10. If you don’t know your Royal Air Force history that last sentence meant nothing to you. But that’s besides the point. I found a big old book about the early period of World War II in Europe.

Nazi Germany had annexed Austria, steamrolled through Poland, and improbably wiped the floor with France in a manner that no one had seen coming. Back in Berlin, Hitler was euphoric. But with tank divisions closing in on the last allied stronghold on the French coast at Dunkirk, he ordered a halt. The move was inexplicable. The British Army was routed and pinned to the coast. But he halted for 24 hours. It was all the allies needed. Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers were evacuated back to England. Beaten and discouraged, but alive to fight another day.

Over the next few months, the German and British Air Forces battled for air supremacy. The British, with the aide of Polish, French, Canadian, Kiwi, and Aussie pilots prevailed in what was later called The Battle of Britain. The tide slowly turned. A year later the U.S entered the war, and with their equally incredible victory in the Pacific at an island called Midway, saved the world from fascism and imperialism.

Now I knew these stories before I picked up the book. But it still amazes me when I consider how close we were to the world crashing down. All because a few thousand tanks plowing through the French countryside were ordered to stop. All because Hitler was an insecure man who loved playing his Generals off one another.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is our Dunkirk. We are in the French countryside, watching the Panzers of the German army steamroll towards us. We are the unsuspecting marines, sound asleep on December 7th, 1941. Things look bleak, I won’t deny that.

But you know what? This is nothing new. History is peppered with occasions when the prospects looked bleak. Many a soldier sat on the French beaches in June 1940, looking out over the ocean for a rescue he thought impossible. But it happened. Our rescue is coming.

“The arc of history will bend towards justice,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King. If ever there was a man who was justified in feeling his fight was lost, it’s the good Doctor. But he had faith. Faith that, in the end, the good heart wins, that the compassionate will be victorious, and the just will overcome.

I won’t sit here and blow sunshine up anyone’s butt and say everything is just fine. It ain’t. The good guys won World War II, but millions of lives (many of them civilians and of course Jews) were lost. Dr. King’s fight continues today, far from over. This is going to be hard. The right thing usually is. So be loud, be passionate, and above all, please don’t give up hope. Sacrifice. You don’t have to be in North Dakota or run for president to fight this.

You can install solar panels, go off the grid, give a homeless man your lunch, give up your seat on the bus, smile at someone who doesn’t deserve it. Just promise me that you will not sit in your home scrolling through Facebook and believe that the battle is lost or that there is nothing you can do. Because if we begin to think like that, we will indeed be defeated.

On Sunday morning I saw one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen since the election. It came to me via Twitter of all places (don’t bother following me, I never tweet). Someone had retweeted this picture of a man in front of Mosque:

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If you could describe a “Trumpeter” to a police sketch artist, he’d look like this. But look at this! Isn’t that amazing! Isn’t that fantastic! Don’t for a second think he doesn’t have friends, colleagues, or family members who gave him hell for this. He may have lost friends, he may have family members that will no longer talk to him, I don’t know. But he did an incredibly simple thing. He held a sign in front of a mosque. And he gave me hope. He made me feel good. And I’m neither Muslim nor Arabic. May he be inspiration to us all.

It’s dark out their my friends. Yet humanity has been here before. We have seen evil men and evil corporations infest and threaten us. But they cannot win as long as we have the courage to stand up and speak against it. We will lose battles yes. We’re losing several right now. Pipelines are being built, bigots are being elected, corporations are taking priority over human beings. But justice is on our side. The arc of history bends in our favor. Dark is the way but light is the place. Let us not despair just yet.

Bless the harbor seals.

The Environment is Not A Luxury Cause

I’ve struggled to write the past week and a half. Most of what came out was the equivalent of literary tourrets. In the past I’ve contributed to the independent website, Elephant Journal. I’d never had a submission rejected before. I’ve had two returned with, “Thanks but no thanks” since the election. Because somewhere along the way I became a ranter. I was spewing anger at everyone from Trump supporters to Clinton to Russia to myself.

I had, in other words, a case of the “guilts.” I wanted to reach out and change and impact everyone’s lives immediately. I walked into the labyrinth of Facebook comment threads. I tried to be rational, accepting, understanding. Three adjectives that Americans haven’t had a lot of opportunities to use this year. I felt myself stretched thin.

There is simply too many things to be concerned about right now. Sorry to bum you out. My liberal Facebook scrolling made it worse. Thanks Huffington Post, Occupy Democrats, and the Other 98%.

So what do we do now?

It’s one thing to read articles from the liberal media, comment on them and share them. I’ve done plenty of that. But this is not enough. It’s not enough to post status updates supporting those that are oppressed or attach a paperclip to your clothes. These are nice gestures, they’re great reminders, but in the long run, paperclips are not going to save us.

In the past Brittney has felt the way we’re all feeling right now, overwhelmed by the needs of the many. She wants to save the greyhounds, rid the world of plastic, and put an end to factory farming and animal testing. Even a genetically engineered combination of Michael Pollan, Edward Abbey, and Rachel Carson can’t do that. At some point we must accept that we cannot save everything. That doesn’t mean that we cannot show empathy or support the work of others, but we cannot allow ourselves to be bogged down and discouraged by every injustice. This is not meant to sound callous or dismissive, but time and energy wasted worrying about everything is time we could spend pouring ourselves into that which we are most passionate. Please don’t misinterpret passionate for more important. Protecting undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and the environment are all noble and worthy causes. This is not my attempt to rank levels of importance.

But I will be—as you may have guessed—dedicating myself to preserving and protecting what wild places remain. I’ve written before about the huge majority of Americans that support the preserving of National Parks, Refuges, and Forests. 80% of Americans say they’d even be  willing to pay additional taxes to keep these places healthy and undisturbed. How many other causes would four out of five Americans agree are worthy of taking more money out of their pockets?

But at the end of the day, these sentiments weren’t enough. We elected not just a president but a congress that not only is dismissive of public lands but are willing to explore the possibility of doing away with them. Now articles on these reports are somewhat convoluted and unclear and I hesitate to believe that even the majority of Republican senators would support such a drastic change in policy. Just this morning I received an email from an aide to Alaskan senator Dan Sullivan (R) in response to a letter I wrote last week. In it he assured me that Sullivan was committed to protecting Alaska’s national parks. We can take from this what we want, but I found it heartening and reassuring that Denali, Glacier Bay, Yosemite, and the rest of them are not in danger of being bulldozed over, at least for the moment. The Arctic Refuge and its promise of oil may be a different story, but we’ll explore that some other time.

The biggest problem environmentalists have in America, is the perception that most Americans seem to have of wild places environmental policy. It is my hunch that most of the population sees environmental issues as “luxury causes.” We’ll save the endangered species, the old growth forests, and the clean air and water when it’s convenient for us. This election cycle, none of that was convenient enough. There were other more pressing and selfish issues that took priority.

What’s lost is how important the natural world is to all of us. I can understand how that can be lost on a lot of people. We have become more and more urbanized and disconnected from the world around us. Despite the level of technology we enjoy, we are disconnected from an incredible amount. We’ve walled ourselves off from everything that doesn’t directly concern us and it is this that has contributed to the great political divide in the country.

But it has also separated us from nature, our life blood. And it is this that is even more disastrous. Most Americans can turn any tap and be rewarded with potable water. Food shelves are always stocked, heat is available at the turn of a knob. Our lives are so convenient that we don’t have to think about the sources of these necessities. They are simply always there. We’re so consumed with our jobs, families, and luxuries that the resources that serve as the foundation have been forgotten. It is my fear that this foundation is cracking and rotting. And if it fails, everything propped on top of it—civilization as we know it—will come crumbling down.

This is why we must stop looking at clean air and water as luxuries. It’s ludicrous to write that phrase, but it’s true. Perhaps if it was laid out in these obvious terms we’d understand it better. But no, we spent all of our time discussing Trump’s hand size, Hillary’s emails, and whether or not the media was “biased.” We completely forgot to discuss what the hell we were going to do after November 8th.

This starts with us. I stand with Bernie Sanders when he says that climate change, not ISIS or China or TPP is the greatest threat to America and the world. It will be difficult to fight for the rights of women and good paying American jobs if we can no longer grow food or find safe water to drink. The only thing more foolish than trying to eat your money is trying to drink it.

So I have a challenge for us. I want people to find where their foundation comes from. This is a closed system, it all must come from somewhere. Is your electricity via hydropower? Solar? Coal? Natural gas? A house elf hiding in the wall? What’s your fresh water reservoir? How about your food and heat? This is not meant to be a guilt trip or my elitist little rant because my water source is 200 yards away at the top of the hill. It’s to get people plugged in and connected to what supports us. I’m genuinely curious so please share your findings if you’re so inclined.

For a long time environmentalists have been warning of the dangers of climate change. That’s all well and good, it’s factually correct. The only problem is that it’s not working. If it was then a man who claims it is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese would have been laughed out of the room long ago. So here’s a different route. Let’s connect people with these resources so that they understand the impact the changing climate is having on them. Too many people have separated themselves from the consequences. Chalk it up to the “luxury causes” theory. It is tantamount that people recognize that climate change and environmental policy is not just something that affects Polar Bears and Common Murres but all of us, whether you live in Gustavus, Alaska or Atlanta, Georgia, the threat is real.

Let this be the start of a new revolution. The start of a more intimate connection between humanity and the resources that sustain us. Do not let another day of callously turning on the faucet or flicking on the lights go by. Research, educate, and teach. Do it with patience and love. Do not rise to baiting or sarcasm. And probably best not to utter the words climate change for a bit. Only when we understand what sustains, us we will be able to protect it.

Bless the Harbor Seals

The Death of Innocence

I was twelve when Bush “won” in 2000 and eighteen when the economy crashed. I was twenty-three when the Affordable Care Act passed and Osama Bin Laden was killed. But here’s the thing, every morning, no matter who was in the oval office, my day’s were the same. New York was on the other side of the country, so aside from long TSA lines 9/11 was but a shudder,  a TV show, separate from my suspended teenage reality.

When the market crashed I still got up and went to class. Because Dad had a good job and my parents had saved for my college tuition. I was privileged, and because of it, I was isolated and insulated from the tremors of the nation’s unrest. And when the Affordable Care Act was passed I was still on my parent’s health care, unable or incapable of wrapping my invincible young mind around the concept of not being able to afford the care I may need should my body fail me. I have been blessed enough to, up to this point, lead a sheltered, blessed, and innocent life.

But last night that life died.

I have spent much of my life doing things that don’t matter. On paper, that’s not a bad thing. “Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted” said John Lennon.

I spent time playing computer baseball games, watching basketball, and, when I was young, flying little metal airplanes throughout the house shooting down bad guys.

This is the death of my innocence.

On this side of the election, there seems to be little time remaining for such trivial things. For last night, war was declared. Like our latest wars, it’s not a war of geography, but ideology. And this time, it’s on our own ground. An ideological civil war that will pit Caucasians versus minorities, the LGBT community, the Muslim religion, and the environment. All of which now need your help.

Complacency has led us this far, I urge all of us to make sure it takes us no further. Many of you I am sure are already involved in causes or programs that work to make the world a better place. To which I say thank you. But we’re all going to need to do more. I woke up this morning as scared as I’ve ever been. But I also awoke to a mind swirling with ideas. Ideas that I hope to share in the coming days. There’s two ways to take this. We can lie down and say they’ve won. Or we can work even harder. Today we’re mourning, we’re in shock. I get it. There’s this weird haze around my head right now. This toxic fog whose noxious fumes are gripping my heart and making it pound.

What’s done is done. We must move forward. And when we do, we will inevitably encounter those that not only don’t care, but are ecstatic over how last night ended. We’re vulnerable, we’re afraid. So let me quote Yoda.

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Sound familiar? It should because that’s the platform a certain someone just rode to the presidential ticket. Let’s not follow his example. Let us embrace the victors with love. Fight their intolerance with tolerance, their hatred with forgiveness. So today, smile at a stranger on the street. Walk to work. Sit in the woods, give your lunch to a homeless man, tell the people you love how much they matter, count your blessings, hug your cat.

This is not end. It is the beginning.

Bless the Harbor Seals.

We Must Speak for Those That Can’t

A few days ago I was sitting in my usual spot. During the winter that’s at the table, squeezed in a chair between table and couch. To my left is a great bay window and ten feet (depending on the tide) beyond that is the ocean. On this day I wasn’t writing, reading, or even watching basketball. I was refreshing fivethirtyeight.com, waiting for their election model to update. Like the rest of the world, I was waiting with baited breath, watching in terror as the odds slowly shifted closer to Donald Trump. The thought of a Trump presidency was unimaginable, but as it became more possible, the scenarios amplified in my head. I sat with an iron fist clenched within my chest, encircling my heart and crushing my lungs. Brittney walks by and sees the webpage refresh, the odds moving imperceptibly closer to Trump. I’m living and dying with every decimal point fluctuation.

“It’s going to be ok,” she says. From the beginning she’s maintained faith that, when the chips are down, America will do the right thing. That we won’t completely lose our minds. I’m not as confident. I’m terrified. But not necessarily for what will happen to me.

Out the window a trio of Sea Lions surface. Their loud breaths like snorts rumble along the cabin walls and into my head. A harbor seal rides the swells just off the rocks, sad puppy dog eyes wide and alert. The cutest rubber ducky ever made.

“I’m not worried about me.” I gesture out the window to the quartet of pinnipeds. “I’m worried about them.”

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(Stellar Sea Lion, British Columbia)

***

I fell in love with Bernie Sanders not because he was offering free state college tuition (Brittney and I have both graduated), or because of his health care plans (I’m on state medicaid), but because he alone said what environmentalists and scientists have been saying for years.

“The biggest threat to the country is climate change.”

It got lost in his message that revolved around health care, millennials, and the top 1%. But he returned to that subject as often as he could. Every time I felt a wave of relief.

“Here,” I thought, “was how you change the system. No super pacs, no Washington bandwagon, just a man, his army of donors, and a message that this is bigger than us.”

And it almost worked. Just a few super delegates short.

***

America is full of contradictions. Contradiction is the nice word for it. Hypocrisy may be the more honest one. Recent surveys show around 64% of Americans are concerned about global warming (from here forward called climate change). Fifty-nine percent believe climate change is already occurring with another 31% believing that changes will occur. Ninety percent of Americans in other words see climate change as an issue that needs to be addressed.

Other polls find the majority of Americans in favor of politicians who want to uphold environmental pillars like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Sixty-six percent of respondents said they don’t believe that we have to choose between the economy and the environment, and that it is necessary to preserve species from going extinct.

And yet…

Yet we have a man inches from the white house who is on record saying climate change is a hoax. Who has made threats to do away with any and all federal renewable energy programs. Yet this is never discussed. We’ll spend endless time on Donald Trump’s (henceforth known as he-who-must-not-be-named) hand size, Hillary Clinton’s foundation, and which candidate we dislike more (we have no room to complain, we nominated the dingbats).

What this says to me is a shocking truth that could be the end of it all. For Americans, the environment is a convenience. Brown bears, Humpback Whales, Timberwolves, and Sandhill Cranes are a luxury. The cherry on the Sunday when everything else fits together. If the tax break is right, if the Muslims are oppressed, if my house is big enough.

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(Breaching humpback in North Pass near Juneau, AK. Humpbacks were removed from the Endangered list this summer).

I’m here to say it doesn’t work that way. As the North Dakota Pipeline Protestors have reminded us, “Water is life.” If we drill every well and level every tree, we’ll find that we haven’t just lost the charismatic megafauna we are privileged to share the earth with, we’ll have lost ourselves too. If we’re going to categorize wolves and cranes as conveniences, then we do the same to clean water, healthy food, and our quality of life.

***

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(OrcaLab, Hanson Island British Columbia)

Beyond the cabin, hidden in the trees, is a series of hills. Between two hills runs a creek. For me, Brittney, the cat, and the rabbit, that creek is life. A garden hose runs from the creek’s mouth to the cistern and supplies us with more water than we could ever use. A filter in the main house gives us the sweetest drinking water I’ve ever had (albeit with a bit of a Cedar aftertaste at times). When the flow from the tap turns to a trickle we climb the hill, find the clog, and clear it out. It’s a wonderful gift to know exactly where your water comes from.

How many others can say this?

Here is the disconnect, and here is the danger. When water comes from the tap, food from the store, and light from the switch, we remove ourselves from their sources. Trace them back far enough and you end up in the woods, a natural well, maybe a hydroplant if you’re lucky. But many will never trace the metaphorical garden hose all the way to the beginning. When we don’t see it, it’s easy not to care. When we don’t see it, it’s easy to forget. Until the lights go out, the pipes go dry, or the shelves go empty.

***

Seattle’s fine as far as cities go. But after two days here I can feel an invisible pressure pushing down on my spine. I need to get out. Too much concrete, too many people, not enough deer. As we sit at a stoplight, a man in tattered clothes staggers along the side of a convenience store. His eyes look in opposite directions and he walks as if one leg is an inch shorter than the other. His cheeks look shrunken, whatever life is in him is waining fast. Meth will do that to you.

We watch horrified as he stoops and grabs a piece of bread off the concrete. He shoves it in his mouth and gums it down.

In the car we discuss how sad it is. How horrible and unfortunate that this young man has fallen into such a sad and helpless life.

Someone should really do something.

The light turns green, the car turns left, and the addict disappears in the rearview mirror. Having had our sixty-seconds of sorrow we pull into a brew pub and have dinner.

***

We are in the sixth extinction. We may not see it, as separated from the green portions of the world the way we are, but it’s true. Remember those movies you watched as a kid about dinosaurs? The one with the meteors that came down from the sky and sent waves of ash across the globe? Temperatures skyrocketing, creatures dying. We’re in one of those right now. Maybe not as dramatic a collision, but it’s still happening. Except now it is man instead of meteors. Yes, we are the environmental equivalent of a meteor landing in the Gulf of Mexico with so much force that it empties.

Many of us have read the articles about extinction rates; about deforestations, shrinking habitats, skyrocketing ocean temperatures and acidity.

How horrible and unfortunate that this species has fallen into such a sad and helpless life.

Someone should really do something.

The light turns green, we turn left, and we buy the cheapest apple or bag of coffee we can find, the threatened species’ disappearing in the rearview mirror of our subconscious.

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(Common and Thick Billed Murres died in the hundreds of thousands last winter due to unusually warm waters in the Pacific. This winter is once again showing surface temperatures several degrees above normal).

***

I’ve stopped refreshing fivethirtyeight.com. Brittney gently pulled the computer away from me an hour ago, her eyes filled with alarm.

“When was the last time you laughed?” She asked.

I try to put Tuesday, November, 8th out of my mind. We make dinner, watch Friends, listen to John Mulaney’s stand up comedy. And I laugh. I laugh so hard I almost cry. Both hands on the counter, bent at the waist, nervous energy coming up as roaring barks of euphoria.

But inside I marinate. I still obsess with what the people of New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Nevada are thinking. And the knowledge that not many of them are thinking about the world the way I am is disheartening. I know that sounds elitist and arrogant. I’m a 28-year seasonal employee that plays jump rope with the poverty line. I have no right to get all holier than thou. But if we’re going to glorify a man who brags about sexual assault, I think I should have my say. Because what I want won’t benefit me monetarily. In fact it’ll probably lessen my income and raise my taxes. I don’t care.

I am here to speak for those that can’t. For the trees on the hill behind the cabin and the harbor seal in the kelp bed. They aren’t luxuries or conveniences or necessities. They are life. And if we lose them, we lose ourselves. Whether we see it or not right now, we need these places and the green and blue world to support the ever growing gray one we are sculpting out of concrete.

Which is why, on Tuesday, you must vote for Hillary Clinton.

“But she’s untrustworthy.”

“I don’t like her.”

“What’s in her emails?”

To which I answer:

“I know”

“I don’t really either.”

And “who knows? Hopefully just lots of cat videos.”

This is not the time for a “protest vote.” Gary Johnson supports fracking for crying out loud. Nor is it time to “shake up the system.”

I mean, it is, but Bernie Sanders is kind of busy trying to keep Emperor Palpatine/Sauron out of the white house.

No, it is time for America to put its vote where its mouth is. It’s time to end the hypocrisy and put the environment first. It is time to save ourselves before it’s too late. And if the harbor seals get to thrive along the way, I couldn’t be happier.

If you’re still on the fence. If you’re still struggling with the idea of graying in that little circle next to Hillary Clinton, think of it this way. Don’t do it for her. Do it for yourself. For the places you fell in love with as a child. For the places you want your children to fall in love with. For the national park your parents took you to, for the bird on the tree outside your window. For the wonder and spiritual healing you feel every time you step into the woods. Do it for clean water. A protest vote won’t save that, nor will it save you. Don’t vote just to speak your mind, vote to speak for those that can’t. Along the way we may just find a way to save ourselves.

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(Quiet places and open spaces).

Sources:

http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2015/new-national-poll-finds-90-percent-of-american-voters-support-the-endangered-species-act

http://www.gallup.com/poll/190010/concern-global-warming-eight-year-high.aspx

Common Murre Photo: wsl.ch

Midnight Humpbacks

Another year with no trick or treaters on Hanson Island. I shudder to imagine what we’d do if we heard a knock on the door right now. We’d glance terrified at one another, bodies taut, legs weak, hands shaking. What the hell? No one whose ever knocked on the door of a cabin on the rocks at 10:00 at night has ever done so with good intentions. But the night is calm and seems to be low on ghoulish or spiritual skullduggery. After a stormy month, it’s nice to hear the quiet. There’s not even boat traffic. All that comes out of the hydrophones is the occasional gurgle of water and the unexplained static like crackles.

But despite the quiet and despite the darkness, we’re not alone. Outside the door are sea lions and seals and mink and dolphins, and tonight, humpbacks. They never seem to favor the Hanson shore during the day. When they could be photographed and possibly identified. No, they wait until the sun disappears and the clouds devour what little moon there is. But in the pitch black, we can hear them. Their deep booming breaths shake the window as they surface somewhere out beyond the curtain of night.

And time and time again I rise from my seat and step out onto the porch. It’s not like I can’t hear them from inside. But somewhere embedded in my DNA is an instinct as natural as breathing. Go to the whales. I stand on the edge of the porch, my bare feet gripping the slippery wood. Out of habit I count the blows. One… two… three… Three!? When was the last time there was three humpbacks in front of the lab? In between their surfacings is the sound of sea lions. Their exhalations are minuscule next to their cetacean neighbors. They’re like flies. They zip and dive around the humpbacks, why no one really knows. Maybe their picking off stray fish, using the whales for protection from Transients, or maybe it’s a game. Some sort of Sea Lion chicken to see who can get closest to a 15-foot flipper and not get bludgeoned to death.

There’s something about whales at night. I love whales at night. Let’s be honest, I love them at all hours, but something about hearing them but not seeing them hits me hard. Humpback or Orca, hydrophone or above water makes no difference. I love to listen. It goes back to a night more than ten years ago, not far from where I live and write.

Eleven Years Ago:

It’s past midnight. The only dark stretch of this July night. I’m asleep in a two man tent with my Father when my eyes snap open. I sit upright in my sleeping bag, that DNA kicking on for the first time. I know what I heard, the only question is; was it in my dream. I only have to wait a few seconds when I hear it again.

Blows. Lots of them.

I spring out of my sleeping bag—Dad right behind—and step out onto the rocks. Johnstone Strait is ten feet away and five feet down. And somewhere in that eternal blackness, they’re swimming. Orcas. I hear them but can’t see them. It’s infuriating. We’ve traveled hear to see them, not hear them swim tantalizingly by just feet away. From my knees I stretch out into the nothingness above the water, eyes straining, heart praying. But they’re moving on. Going west.

Two days later I got my wish when the A36s, a trio of male Orcas swim past in the morning. From the seat of my kayak I watched Kaikash, Plumper, and Cracroft cruise by. If only I’d known their names that day. I would have paddled out and introduced myself.

Today I don’t mind. Let them approach in the dark and scurry across to the shadow of Harbledown Island in the sun. Even as I write the humpbacks continue to move back and forth in Blackney Pass. Sometimes close, sometimes further away. But in the stillness I can hear them, mixing with the sounds of the hydrophone, the crackling of the fire, and the snoring of the cat.

Home.

Somewhere along the way, this place became home. One of them at least. It can be easy to take some of the miracles of Hanson Island for granted when it’s at your feet 24-hours a day. But not tonight. Not when the humpbacks surface and reawaken the boy inside that fell in love with it all eleven years ago.

The Question

There’s not much in the way of trails around here. Not that it’s too important on this island. Enough old growth is still around that the undergrowth is open in a lot of places. It’s easy to get lost, easy to get carried away walking through those big old trees. Especially on days like today after a heavy rain last night. The afternoon sun slashes through the trees like a sword through fabric, illuminating the mist rising from the moss choked floor. Water droplets cling to cedar needles like diamonds on a necklace. An iridescent glow in each one holding a little flicker of the sun.

Today I’m poking along a stretch that’s part trail part tree root. I hop a stream threatening to be promoted to class five rapids after the downpour. Soon after the trail becomes more defined. I take a deep breath. It feels so good buried in the woods. In Japan they have what they call forest bathing. In simple terms it is nothing more complicated than being in the presence of trees. The idea is that the air doesn’t just taste better in the woods, it actually is better. Essential oils like phytoncide found in trees actually improve immune system function. The forest isn’t just a tonic for the soul like the apostles Muir and Thoreau wrote about. It’s like taking vitamins.

I’m walking this trail to see someone who knows that better than anyone. I’ve written about Walrus several times before. For those that don’t know who this incredible man is, here’s the cliff notes version. Walrus is a walking talking hybrid of Radagast and Dumbledore. He inhabits what he likes to call, “Canada’s longest active logging road block.” He settled on Hanson Island after years in Greenpeace and helped Hanson Island—Yukusam in the Namgis tongue—gain protection from logging. Today he has a long white beard, eyebrows as long and thick as caterpillars, and a high pitched laugh that is infectious.

In my backpack is ten pounds of dog food for his creme colored bear of a dog named Kessler and fruit, carrots, and granola for his master. I tighten the straps of the pack and dig in my boots on the muddy trail as the incline steepens. Walrus’ road block came to rest about a hundred feet shy of the highest point on the island. Every now and then I hike food up the hill to him. It became dire last week when Walrus walked down the hill to the series of rubber totes he keeps near Dong Chong bay to collect some food he’d left only to find that something had gotten to Kessler’s food. 10 pounds worth. Be it bear or wolves we still don’t know. But neither of us has seen a deer in weeks. And deer don’t disappear because of mischievous black bears. So we’d brought Kessler an emergency bag of dog food last week. And had restocked for him in Alert Bay a couple days ago.

As I climb my mind drifts, thoughts mixing with the ravens and Stellar’s Jay above me, my mind drifting to what I’d been reading before I left the lab. In the last week a tanker ran aground near Bella Bella. The support vehicle sent to assist swamped. The containment booms set out to minimize the impact were as useful as a fishing net. The spill was minimal, as minimal as one can be at least, an insult to the very phrase, “low impact.” A low impact oil spill is like minor surgery. It isn’t minor if you’re the one getting cut open.

I’d followed the stories through a guy named Mark Worthing. A Walrus disciple and friend of Orca Lab who has committed his life  to keeping the final stands of old trees in British Columbia standing. In his free time he fights back against the proposed oil tanker line that would cut through the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the pearls of world. The only region in North America where wolves were not almost exterminated. It’s a place where people find Spirit Bears in the woods and God in a sunset. It’s also a maze of islands, reefs, and rocks that gets hammered by 50 knot winds in the winter. All it takes is one tanker. One mistake. One gashed hull. And it’s gone. Ask Prince William Sound. And so Mark fights, because life would seem pointless if he wasn’t fighting for something much bigger than himself.

And then there’s Zack Brown back in Alaska, founding a research and education institute on the Inian Islands to the west of Gustavus. He hiked and paddled from San Francisco to Gustavus in a tidy three months. He’s a voice for climate activism, a voice for change, and he does so eloquently, something that doesn’t always happen when we speak passionately. I used to idolize athletes, now I idolize activists. If only they made trading cards.

My legs are shaking. I set the backpack down on a rock and plop down in the mud next to it. Sweat runs down my face, steam rises from my back. What am I doing? I gave some money to Bernie Sanders, ride my bike when I can, talk about saving the world. But is that enough? It’s a question every conservationist has asked themselves. We see a world that’s in danger. In danger of being steam rolled over by the great construction firm of progress. Lumber over woods. Oil over spirit bears. And we wonder if what we’re doing is adequate. It’s hard when our efforts aren’t visible. Riding your bike doesn’t correlate to a healthy calf in the southern Resident Orcas. Nor does eating vegetarian ensure a healthy salmon run.

I pull the pack back on and start back up the incline. It’s a question I’m still struggling with as my breathing becomes more and more ragged. I spend my summers representing the natural world from the seat of my kayak, and the winter writing about it. My audience is only a couple hundred people, maybe that’s a start. Maybe the people I show sea lions and humpbacks to in the summer are starting dominoes back home. Maybe they took something back from Glacier Bay besides pictures and cover photos.

I round a final corner and Walrus’ cabin comes into view. His area is ringed with a Salal fence, the flexible trunks of the bush intricately bent and woven together to keep the deer away from the garden. Does it work? It does not. You would think a 90 pound dog would keep them out. But Kessler has been known to watch deer amble by ten feet away with nothing more than a sniff. He jogs up to me as I approach, ears up, tail down. We go through this song and dance every time. He can never remember me. He gives a half bark, turns and runs. From the cabin I hear Walrus call out and I smile. The question still lingers, but for today I have a purpose. I’m bringing the caretaker of Hanson Island lunch. And for now, that’s enough.

Hanson Heartbeat

The windows creak and groan. The world outside them is pitch black but I know tree branches the shape of withered arms stretch their wood clad fingers toward the cabin’s walls. The ocean pounds. It sounds so close I expect the next wave to come barreling over the porch and set us adrift in the sound. It’s the first storm of many, I’ve spent the summer dreaming about them. There’s something in the forty knot winds and blasting rain that’s soothing, secure. Hunkered down with the fire roaring and the cat asleep on the back of the couch. Just as long as the boat’s ok where it’s tied up in the back of the cove. It is isn’t it? I should go check.

By morning it’s subsided. The low pressure monster taking a deep breath, preparing for the next exhale. Harlequin ducks poke their multi-colored heads out from behind the rocks, Sea Lions return to the haulout, Herons again perch on the worn out kelp that has been buffeted by waves for the last 12 hours. And like all the critters, we poke our heads out our door. All the roofs are still in place, the lab still humming along. All that’s changed is the growing collection of fallen branches and golden fingers of the Cedar trees that populate and soften the forest floor.
harlequin
If only the rest of the world was like this. Half a day of insanity and turmoil before everything returned to it’s relaxed state. Humpbacks in the pass, seals munching fish, deer scavenging for the kelp that just couldn’t hold on anymore. But human nature doesn’t work like this. Every day some new scandal flashes across the screen. It is the quintessential train wreck. I want to look away so bad but can’t. My stomach tightens as I scroll through article after article, my heart pounding against my ribs, eyes becoming glazed and unfocused.

How has it come to this?

Assault, repealing amendments, threats of political violence, the laundry list could go on for pages. Dear God, what century is this?

I step out onto the rocky face opposite the lab. The point here sticks out into Blackney Pass just a little further, but the difference is noticeable. Sea lions cruise by, calm and serene. They’re exhalations are like small explosions, as if there’s something stuck in their throat. After watching them gulp salmon whole it wouldn’t be a surprise. But it’s just business as usual for the pinnipeds. Eat salmon, have a nap, yell at your neighbor on the rocks.

Six big boys swim past not ten yards off the rocks. Even from the relative safety of the point I stiffen. I’ve spent enough time in a kayak to know these guys make me uneasy. I’ve been followed, growled at, and watched them zoom inches below my seat, feeling the kayak rise and fall as they passed. But they seem as unsure as I am. They stop off the rocks and we stare into each others eyes.

They’re a comical looking animal when you see them straight on, bobbing like corks. They have this perpetual look like they’re always surprised. Like the monster just jumped out of the shadows in a slasher movie. I wait for them to dive away and leave me be. But they stay. The curious magnetic quality of sea lion dynamics occurs, more and more appear out of nowhere. Appearing from their hidden trap door on the ocean floor. Seven, eight, nine, ten. We speak without making a sound.

There calmness unsettles me. I want to scream at them. “Do you realize what’s going on? Do you know what could happen on November 8th? Didn’t you read what he said now?”

The group blinks in polite puzzlement before disappearing beneath the waves. Thirty seconds later they’re back. My breathing is unsettled. I went for this walk for two reasons. To harvest mushrooms and leave the rest of the world behind for a bit. You’d think that’d be easy on Hanson Island, but it isn’t. There’s a sense of helplessness being so far away from it all in times like this. There’s nothing you can do but refresh the news and pray. I stare at the sea lions and they snort in my direction, nostrils flaring.

 I wish I could be more like you.

Wish I could be content with some salmon and a smooth rock to lay my head. Though I’m glad I don’t have to watch for a black pointed dorsal coming up behind me all the time.

    “So be like us,” they answer. “Just let go.”

    “I wish I could.”

    “It’s easy.”

    “I wish it was.”

    “Stop wishing and do. Control what you can control. Chop some wood, watch us swim, count the humpbacks. Be present.”

The sun streams in through the clouds. Vancouver Island is hidden but the clouds in front of it sparkle with late morning sun. There are chocolate pancakes in my belly. I write fifteen feet from the ocean. An ocean in which, right now there are two seals, a sea lion, and a humpback visible (who I should probably photograph and ID). I’m in control of our power, our fresh water, and some of our food supply. My heat comes not from propane but wood. I am in the most beautiful place on earth. If I cannot let go here, where can I?

I think of the miracles of this world, of this place. That humpback will soon leave for Hawaii. A 3,000 mile journey without a Lonely Planet book or compass. He or she will hit it square on the dot. No questions asked. Amazing. I memorize the beauty in the sad eyes of the harbor seal and the bouncing optimism of the Harlequins. The prehistoric cackle of the heron, the Pterodactyl incarnate.
heron
Breathe, be still, be present.

I smile, inhaling salt air and high tide. My hands run up and down the trunk of a Cedar tree. I close my eyes, and feel myself, at long last, let go. Surrendering to the pulse of the island.

Photos By Brittney Cannamore

Tumbleweeds, Home, and Root Vegetables

It hasn’t rained in days. The air has been crisp and cold. The window each day in which the shining sun brings substantial warmth is minimal. It’s fall in southeast Alaska. And when it’s not raining, there’s no more lovely time or place in the world. So this time when we leave, it’s hard. It’s never been hard before. Because for the first time we have a home. A home than can be measured in years instead of months.

And yet…

The island calls. That blissful, green, old growth island with Cedar and deer and mink. Our spot in Gustavus doesn’t have a wood stove. And there’s something about cracking cedar over your knee, the vapor of your breath floating above a knitted hat. Something about coffee on the porch, the ocean ten feet away, the sound of sea lions drifting on a growing wind. The promise of an afternoon gale. Hanson Island, Orca Lab, the promised land. I cannot bear to pull myself away from Gustavus, yet I’m giddy at the thought that I will be snug in that little cabin on the rocks in 72-hours, a fire roaring and the heat spreading to warm every crack and cranny. I wouldn’t be in Gustavus if it wasn’t for the island

For this is a place that changes lives. Starting with Paul Spong way back in 1970 and has continued for more than four decades. Hundreds, shoot, maybe thousands have made the pilgrimage to this place and had their lives rocked and upended. This place changes people the way glaciers change land. And I count myself as lucky to have spent two years of my life on Hanson. I would not be the man I am today without it. And it is that which will make the final goodbye so hard. It has sculpted me into someone that holds the final green and blue vestiges of this earth as valuable as any mineral man has ever valued. It is this lesson why I must someday let go.

Hank Lentfer is me in 20 years. Or maybe I’m Hank Lentfer 20 years ago. I’d like to think so. He’s the man I want to be in a couple decades at least, let’s leave it at that. The guy with the quick wit and busy hands that can build or fix anything. He built his house, starting with a 16×16 frame and turning it into a wooden work of art. In my non Hanson Island life I’d see someone driving a Ferrari or BMW down the street and feel an inkling of jealousy mixed with a desire to have one of my own. In the post Hanson Island life I have the same feeling when I see Hank’s garden and root cellar. Inside the cellar are two garbage cans (they’re clean) stuffed with carrots he grew. Another two garbage cans worth of potatoes are nearby. Mason jars are stacked like Jenga blocks on the shelves holding everything from Coho to cranberries. Call it root vegetable envy.

For years Hank and his wife Anya went without hot running water and still have no indoor plumbing to speak of. There’s an outhouse out back or you’re free to just let’er fly off the porch if you wish. Heat comes from a wood stove, the fridge in the arctic entryway is a new acquisition. All these choices were made not out of financial necessity but by choice. Because contrary to the modern world’s opinion, they aren’t necessities.

There’s something inspiring and beautiful about doing so much with so little. But even more, I think there’s something so beautiful about being so happy with so little. It’s a desire Brittney and I both have, all we have to do is learn how. And who better to teach us then Hank and Anya?

All of that however, means saying goodbye to where it all started. A tree’s roots cannot cover hundreds of miles, not matter how sweet the soil may be.

But not yet.

For tumbleweeds need no roots, they travel with the wind, blown south to that little halibut hook shaped island every fall. Where there’s no root cellar but humpbacks sing in the evening. No glaciers but dew clings to the boughs of Cedar branches like diamonds on a necklace. The very smell of Cedar will forever remind me of Paul, Helena, and the A30s calling in the dead of night. Hanson Island’s fingerprints are all over my heart and soul, and there they’ll stay until my final breath. Whatever my life may bring, whatever words are ever published and bound between two covers will be because of Paul’s smile and Helena’s cinnamon rolls. Every paddle stroke is because the A36s blessed me with a passion that will stand the test of time.

My heart feels light and my soul jitterbugs as the ferry cuts through Lynn Canal bound for Juneau. In 72 hours I’ll hear Paul’s laugh, see Helena’s face, and drag that infernal rabbit cage onto the rocks off the June Cove. Because we couldn’t have a dog like everyone else. Because we couldn’t sit still. Because Hanson Island will forever hold us under its spell.