Tag Archives: animals

The End of the Road

The Pathfinder reeks of burning oil when she runs too long. She’s had it, and I await one of life’s cruel ironies as we wait in line for the ferry. Four years ago I made a deal with whatever deity was on duty, promising many things I’ll never own in exchange for this plucky Nissan getting us to Canada and back. But as she’s always down she comes to life with the screech of belts and uncategorized clatters. There’s still time to back out. Still time to run another direction. A direction that will let us keep running. There’s no shame in it. We’re still in our twenties for crying out loud. No one would think less of us if we disappeared to Central America for a year or vanished to Thailand for a season. But how do you continue to run when you know where home is, when you know where the road ends?

The end of the final road doesn’t look like a road at all. And you’d excuse us for missing it completely. To be fair, cars have rarely been our dominant form of transportation and I’m not at my best behind the wheel. Boats and kayaks have kept our lives afloat. May they continue to do so until someone tells us we’re too old.

But as theatrical as it would be, this journey cannot end at a pier or sandy beach. Instead we take a dirt road overgrown with willow, cat tail, grass, and fern. The ruts are deep and the brush grates against the bumper. At a sharp left the car pivots neatly in the groves as if it’s on the skids of a poorly made Disneyland ride. And then it ends. With no apology or explanation the road simply disappears, giving way to the world that will eventually swallow us all. A world of Pine and Alder, Blueberry and high bush cranberry, marsh and forest. The road, like our rambling, is over. Neither one of us ever had to discuss it. We simply knew that it was time to stop. We didn’t want to do it anymore.

***

The sun is bright and the reflection off Icy Passage makes me squint. My pupils, like my heart, were made to live where the rain is frequent and the sun is scarce. We trace the outline of the shore, the glacial outwash that holds Gustavus behind, the ridges and mountains of Excursion Ridge and the Chilkat Mountains ahead of. Fresh snow sits on the peaks, but down here it feels like Spring. Myself, Brittney, Jen Gardner, and Patrick Hanson gallop like moose calves. We plunge through last years Reed Grass and it gives way with a satisfying crunch. Here the cynicism of the world isn’t just stripped away, it is torn from the soul, replaced by innocence and wonder.

We come out of the Reed Grass and onto the sandy beach. On the low tide the stories of the last six hours are exposed. Tracks trace back and forth, weaving between the sand and tidal mud that squishes with delight beneath our boots. We follow the moose, the deer, the river otter, and the wolf.

The wolf. We stop at the tracks, some as large as my outstretched hand and gaze upon the holy grail of Alaska prints. Patrick’s mind is already in overdrive. It’s always in overdrive. He is more excited over the first Rosy Twisted Stalk than most men are in a year. The prints are catnip to us, and Patrick is already talking about camping just above the tideline in the grass and sitting patiently for a day or two until they come back. I find it hard to imagine him sitting for two minutes. He’s a mover, but he’s staying put in Gustavus. So is Jen thank goodness. They’re staying for the same reason we are. Because they weighed the possessions of the world in one hand and wolf prints in the sand in the other and asked, “why?” Granted, we like microbrews, Disney movies, ice cream, and Parks and Rec. But darn it all if we could live without days like this with mountains above our heads and wolf tracks at our feet.

We reach the mountains where a stream splashes into the grass and a fence of Alder paves the way for Spruce and Hemlock. “True southeast rainforest,” says Patrick, and he dives in. We follow. Our cracking of branches punctuated with tenuous calls of, “hey bear.” We step into the clearing beneath the branches and into Narnia. Devil’s club is just beginning to bud and Fiddlehead Ferns are poking their heads out from their moss blanket. We pick some, leave others, and fantasize about what we can cook. We walk home with maybe a pound of greens, but from the looks on our faces you’d have thought we’d found a thousand dollars.

***

At the end of the road is the Shabin, occupying three hundred feet on 4.19 acres. We prune the willows that are invading the road and stare up at the Cottonwoods that bookend the clearing. And we talk. We talk a lot about what we want to do. And Brittney and I keep coming back to sharing it. What if we could make this the end of the road for someone else too? Brittney, Jen, and I walk through the stand of old Spruce behind the Shabin. It’s the driest spot on the property with a ditch on one side and and a Willow swail on the other. We’re going to have to take some of these big beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to think about it. Can man live without destroying it?

We step out of the Spruce and into the open light of the swail. The morning light glistens off the standing water and we talk about what a great place this would be for a bench. A place to come and watch the Chickadees, Juncos, and Moose ply their trades. What if this is where the four of us spend the rest of our lives? I imagine a bench on the edge of the woods, plopping down with these people, beers in hand, and watching a moose rooting for reeds.

I can see our cabins through the woods behind me. A garden in the clearing. Maybe a smoker and a writer’s studio. Maybe I should get the ruts out of the road and the clearing drained first.

Kim Heacox once asked me why I was ready to drop my roots. There’s no right or wrong answer. Kim galavanted around for years and has seen Antartica, Russia, the Galapagos, and has designs on spending time in Rome. Even now, when his demographic is scheming moves to Florida and weekend golf dates, the travel itch remains unscratched. I don’t feel it the way he does. I don’t feel the need to travel across Russia by train or disappear for months at a time. I want my roots to grow deep here until they’re planted so far down that nothing can move them.

I want to follow those wolf tracks into the mountains and trace every cove of Glacier Bay. I want to watch the Orcas crash through Icy Strait again and again and again. And I’m ready to do it now. I’ve sampled the world and loved it. I’ve had my trail mix stolen by raccoons in New Zealand and been lost in Costa Rica. I’ve been peed on by Howler Monkeys and dealt with more frumpy border guards than I can count. I’ve loved every single moment. I’ve cherished my rambling. But I’m ready to come home. I’m ready reach the end of the rambling road. I’m ready to turn off the ignition and plant 500 carrots.

Which doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier. In all likelihood it’s about to get a lot more difficult. My carpentry experience ends with making leaky garden boxes, and my landscaping knowledge is even more embarrassing. But if I’m going to fail, or at minimum screw up (and I will screw up) I want to do it here. I’d rather fail in Gustavus than succeed in Seattle. Because if I fall here there’ll be a dozen hands to pick me up, put the hammer back in my hand, and tell me to get back at it. Virtually every person in this town has been where we are right now. Each one of them arrived at the place where all the roads end and realized that was right where they needed to be.

With a Single Breath

Several years ago, Brittney and I were walking along a trail in Juneau. Like most of city’s trails, it wasn’t far from the ocean. We worked our way through muskeg, over bogs, and past Devils Club when I heard it. I’d reached a point in my life where breathing whales stopped me in my tracks. Even if I wasn’t sure at first why. I stopped at the top of a hill, the water visible through the trees below.

“Did you hear—?”

A sound like a gunshot rips through the trees.

“Go.” She answers.

We’re gone. Half running half falling down the hillside. I stop on the edge of a bluff, my arms cartwheeling. I turn left and run parallel to the beach, that seductive sound carrying my feet. A small depression levels the drop off the bluff and I leap into nothing, my feet skidding on the soft mulch. I land on the rocks below. I look back up into the trees and my bride to be.

“Turn right at the big Spruce!”

The water is still fifty feet away, a minefield of rock between me in the water. I trip and stumble with every step. But I don’t want to take my eyes off the water. A small thump behind me tells me Brittney’s found the “slide.” She looks up, eyes alight, face mirroring my own.

“Where are they?”

A female Orca breaks the surface, her breath echoing off the rocks, off my soul. I tear down the beach after her. an impossible race I have no chance of winning. But in the company of Orcas, everything seems possible.

***

For the first time this year, it feels like Spring. We sprawl in the sun just behind the lab. Blackney Pass is glass, the water vibrant, the sea lions noisy as ever. Harlequin’s in the cove, eagles in the trees, the cat hunting mice in the Heather bush. Heaven on earth.

And we hear it.

After three years here, we’ve created a silent language of sorts when it comes to Orcas, whether we’re watching them or listening for them. When something whispers through the speaker our first glance is at each other, as if confirming that it wasn’t in our head or the creak of a chair. A silent debate begins, “was that what I think it was?”

We look at each other, a quiet intensity passes between us. Without a word we rise to our feet and walk onto the deck. Spend some time looking for whales and you start to scan the water without thought. There’s a smooth circle of ripples off to my left, just beyond the cliff that marks the far side of the cove. On a day as calm as this nothing can touch the water in secret. Nothing can slip past. It could have been a loud Sea Lion, or a boat or—.

Hello beautiful.

The Orca breaks the surface 150 yards off the shoreline. We turn as one and dive for the lab door. I grab the camera. Brittney taps frantically on the keyboard, willing the computer to life. With the miracle of technology, the whole world is about to know there were Orcas heading for Johnstone Strait. I hit the lab deck again and try to take a deep breath. My body’s shaking with excitement and my first set of pictures come away blurry.

I’ve lost count of the number of Orcas I’ve seen in my life. But they still do this to me. Last summer we found Orcas on a kayaking tour and I left Brittney and the clients in the dust. They give me tunnel vision. They’re my drug. It’s been this way for ten years, I’ve given up expecting it to change. I don’t want it to ever change.

The scientist in me reigns in the euphoric teenager. I begin to count, estimate speed, run my eyes along the trailing edge of the dorsal, looking for nicks and scars in the saddle patch. They’re spread out and moving fast on the flooding tide. When they surface after a dive I turn back and yell at Brittney so she knows where to point the remote camera.

“Hump of Harbledown! First Bay! Mid gap!”

What will I do with all this Blackney Pass geography when we’re gone?

The Orcas swim in twos and fours. A pair of big males bring up the rear and disappear around the southern corner bound for the strait. The camera system is now so intricate that we can almost literally hand the Orcas off from one camera to another as they go down the strait. Brittney’s already found them on the next camera off of Cracroft Point. And they’re beginning to talk.

We hear a melodic pin and we both give a shout. We know these guys. Or at least recognize them. Pings are a signature of G clan. I11, I15, and the G pods. A few minutes and several excited calls later Helena sends us a message. It’s the I15s. They’re a Johnstone Strait staple in the summer time. But maybe they’re making a February pilgrimage a tradition. They came through almost exactly a year ago.

Whether this is significant to the I15s or not, they sound happy to be here. Their calls echo off the underwater canyons and swirl through our heads. They always sound so happy. For the next hour we watch them push deeper into Johnstone Strait. There’s one final camera we can find them on, the Critical Point or Robson Bight camera. Situated on a cliff at the east edge of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve we find half of the I15s mid channel.

But as I watch the calls intensify, they’re far too loud to be from the cluster I’m watching. I pull the camera back out and am rewarded with three Orcas breaking the surface just off the rocks. My body stiffens and I clumsily pan the camera from left to right, trying not to screw up the shot. Remotely it’s hard to track with them. Gauging distance is tough when you’re not in the flesh. It’s not the first time I’ve promised countless worldly possessions to spend a summer on the cliffs overlooking the Bight. Paul thinks I’m joking when I tell him I’m willing to spend a summer there as a “monitor.”

“That’s what the camera’s for.” He says.

“Yea… I know.”

Born too late. The wild west of Orca research has come and gone. No more hiding in the Salal at the Rubbing Beaches either. Passages of Erich Hoyt’s and Alex Morton’s books still make me green with jealousy.

The three Orcas—two females and a calf—are so loud the calls come through the headphones with static. But I don’t dare turn away for the few seconds it would take to turn it down. I grit my teeth and watch them break the surface again. I pan the camera further but can see nothing now but leaves and branches. End of the line. Two hours after sighting them, they’re out of sight.

The calls fade away as they leave the range of the hydrophone and I’m left with an empty expanse of water and the islands of Harbledown, Swanson, and Parson painted with a golden light that would make Midas envious. Snow still clings to the mountains on Vancouver Island, but with the warmth and the I15s, it feels like summer.

10463863_10153151080414852_7687963241185135048_n

Stop Talking About Polar Bears. Talk About Us.

The blog has been quiet lately. This hasn’t been intentional it’s just, well, I’ve always tried to keep this forum balanced. Too often I feel environmental writing gets dragged down into a “the end is neigh” rhetoric that beats the drum so often that the reader goes tone deaf. There is good out there, it’s just been hard to find. Sure, we can applaud Obama’s protection of the Arctic from drilling, but even that has a dark lining as many pundits have been quick to point out.

We’re so used to fighting a losing battle, that even victories are viewed through our pessimistic lens. I suppose I’ve been guilty of that too. It’s been easier to play fantasy basketball, read books, and watch silly TV shows than sink my teeth into anything. Which is dangerous. Apathy at this moment in history is a death blow and I cannot mobilize others to fight while I sit on my duff and drink my fifth cup of coffee this morning.

So lets talk about something that matters. Or more accurately, talk about not talking about something anymore.

We need to stop talking about Polar Bears.

“What?” I can hear you say. “But the polar ice caps are at a historic low! They’re starving and mating with Grizzly Bears! They’re the flagship species of climate change!”

Let me begin by saying that I agree with you. 100 percent. I have never seen a wild Polar Bear, I hope I have the opportunity someday (not too close if you please). And that’s the problem.

Let me remind you of America’s unfortunate waltz with insanity this year and that a man who prioritizes the Environment as highly as women’s vaginas and Russian hacking will soon be in office. We’ve been here before so I won’t bother with another 500 words on it. But as a refresher, the majority of American’s support three of Trump’s seven horcruxes: environmental policies, national parks, and lowering carbon emissions. These are opinions that span both sides of the aisle, though left leaning to be sure.

But it hasn’t mattered. The Polar Bear has been leading a movement that, well, isn’t moving. It’s not galvanizing public opinion or inspiring people to make drastic changes in their lives. This isn’t their fault of course. But scientists and well meaning people pointing feverishly at graphs of vanishing ice, rising carbon emissions, and photos of emaciated bears isn’t changing the minds of the suburban mid-westerner.

That sucks. It speaks to our self centered “out of sight out of mind” mentality. So we need to bring the flagship home. But I haven’t the faintest idea how to do that. Getting people outside is a common theme. “Coming home” as it were, getting in touch with our ancestral playground. But to the casual eye, the woods feel similar to how they were two decades ago.

I look over Blackney Pass and I don’t see the effects of climate change. My quality of life has not diminished. The grocery store is stocked with food, fresh water is everywhere, the jerry cans are full. The boat engine comes to life on the first pull. If someone who lives with his head to nature’s chest and can hear her heartbeat cannot easily see, how do we expect the suburbanite to recognize it? This is my fear. That each generation will experience these subtle changes, see them as normal, and move on.

There used to be toads on Hanson Island. Just twenty years ago Paul and Helena used to see them all over the place. I had no idea. It was a sobering realization that I could be so naive and immune to what the island should contain. It was much the same shock as when I stumbled across an old clear cut last year with the decapitated stumps of trees twenty feet in diameter. Imagine a century from now, some kid staring up at the skeleton of a blue whale and marveling that the world used to hold animals so grand.

If we’re going to wait until the quality of life is deteriorating in the suburbs of Cleveland, I fear it will be too late. It’s funny how environmentalists are viewed as tree huggers and hippies that would rather save a butterfly than a human life. The greatest twist in the tale of humanity is that we’re not trying to save the whales, we’re trying to save ourselves. I’m not learning about root cellars and gardening because I have a particular interest in being the next Samwise Gamgee, I’m learning because I believe there is the possibility that it will save my life.

It’s a scary and sobering realization. It’s something I wish more people thought about. Of course if more people thought about it we wouldn’t be here. Asking people to change for the Polar Bears or southern Resident Orcas is not enough. New cars, big houses, and the tidal waves of consumerism and manifest destiny drowns out their pleas with a deafening roar. This is the enemy. It’s easy to pin Exxon, Shell, the government, and other faceless entities to the cross. They’re not us. They’re the problem. We’re just along for the ride.

To steal our new commander in chief’s favorite phrase, “wrong.”

They exist because we allow them to exist. Our obsessive, “if you’re not growing you’re failing, American dream, more, more, more” mentality exists because of us. Stop believing you need everything nay, deserve everything, and it will disappear. Rip those shackles off. If these ideologies are defeated, the polar bears, Orcas, and us will be saved by default. Don’t save the Polar Bears, save humanity.

How I’m supposed to convince people of this I have not the faintest idea. So instead let me leave you with this final nugget.

I believe Orcas are smarter than humans. From the moment an Orca is born, it has everything it could ever want: family, food, security, shelter. It’s beautiful. After decades of research and millions of hours studying them, scientists have but a handful of instances in which Orcas were aggressive to each other. What they have, is a society with no in-fighting, violence, poverty, or hunger (except for the plummeting salmon stocks which is not their fault). If I told you that there was a place you could live without those hardships, you’d want to learn all you could about it. Take that into 2017. Hug your loved one, eat good food, watch out for another, settle conflict peacefully.

Be an Orca. Maybe they should be the flagship species.

Cover Photo Credit: Sylvain Cordier/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

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.

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.”

10659202_10153342628774852_4448842526100652252_n

(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.

1016914_10152076989579852_539427979_n

(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.

***

10857837_10153488489199852_5980215313637848356_n

(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.

common_murre_gr

(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.

45631_488778539851_6865631_n

(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.