Tag Archives: environmentalism

Keep Paddling

The clothes are unfamiliar. Gone is the soothing feeling of my Patagonia base layers and the whisper of Grunden rain pants. Instead I’m in stiff dress pants and a collared shirt. I can’t recall the last time I wore a shirt that buttoned, much less one that had a collar. I’m out of my element. The interior of the country club is beautiful and immaculate. But as I walk to the microphone I wryly think that I would take an erratic covered beach over this anytime. I take a deep breath and remind myself that my belittling thoughts are nothing more than a weak cover for my own insecurities. Besides, this day has nothing to do with me. It’s my brother’s wedding. And I wouldn’t miss it if they held it on the surface of the sun.

It’s impractical to be mad at a bay. But dang it all, I’m sick of the wind. Even more, I’m sick of the National Weather Service promising ten knot winds when twenty knots gusts are pounding the dock. But despite the wind, the waves haven’t begun to build so I send a pair of double kayaks out from the beach and follow in my single. Two children, James and Caroline man the bow, their parents in the stern. They’re hardy and determined. Every year their father John and mother Laurie take them on a tour of the national parks. Last year Yosemite, this year Glacier Bay. The young son James can barely reach the water with his paddle but he pushes forward resolutely, head up, eyes unblinking, not daring to risk missing a thing. After adding an extra layer, his older sister Caroline pushes forward with the same resiliency, their mother relieved to be secured in the boat laughs with an easy grace.

The wedding was an open bar. Generally it’s a luxury I would abuse. But not today. Not with my toast still to come. I sip at an IPA and down water, unsure of when my brief moment on Jonathan’s day will come. The moment comes and I cross the ball room and grab the mic, a glass of water in my hand. I speak to total strangers every day, but this is as nervous as I’ve felt in front of a crowd. I can feel the the trio of notecards in my front pocket. Can practically feel the ink bleeding across the pages. I hope I don’t need them.

“Did my Dad tell you what he does?”

The question is so random and unexpected I stop paddling. Caroline stares across the gap towards my kayak, awaiting my answer. In the stern her mother continues paddling. I can’t tell if she’s listening or simply blotting out our conversation.

“No,” I answer, “but I haven’t asked.”

“He works for the EPA.”

It was a mark of how fast the world had changed. Just eight months ago this information would been little more than a punctuation point on the day. But now… it sends tidal waves of emotion through our conversation and our fleeting interaction. Suddenly the lines are drawn, the horrible reminder that we are at war for clean water, clean air, and a habitable planet. And her Father was one of the persecuted.

I don’t know what to say. I’m just a kayaker. But didn’t I say I was going to war too? Didn’t I say that if the park service was going rogue then I should too? But what am I doing? What have I done to combat the denial and anger and hatred and ambivalence that plagues our world? I feel a seed of guilt grow in my stomach. I look into Caroline’s eyes and wonder what that November night must have been like in their house. How many times they had wondered and feared for their father’s job and their livelihood.

I look ahead where John paddles with his son. James’ paddle barely reaches the water. But he’s still paddling. He’s still going, pushing the ocean behind him, bucking the wind and the current. Those big innocent eyes are opened wide. In the moment he looks fearless.

“How’s everybody doing?” The wedding guest’s indulge me with polite applause, a couple of the groomsmen give me a whoop. I smile and feel the knot loosen. I tell stories. Always tell a story when you can Kim Heacox once told me. I talk about spending time with Jonathan right after he met his bride, Lisa. How it was all he could talk about. How I could see the love in his eyes.

I look across the room to where they sit. Lisa’s hands are wrapped in his and she’s smiling. Lisa’s always smiling. I consider their future. They want kids. Probably sooner rather than later. I think about the world that awaits my nieces and/or nephews and in this moment of celebration, I feel a twinge of anxiety.

“Caroline told me what you do for work.”

I don’t know why I brought it up. But for some reason I needed him to know that I know and that I care. I care not just for his paycheck but for the world his kids will inherit. Would James one day have the honor of placing his young son in the bow of a kayak in Bartlett Cove? I’m sure John thought about it. I want him to know I do too.

John laughs. “It’s funny, I’ve had more people come up to me for the last few months when they found out what I do and assure me that they like me. That they think what I do is important.”

What does he do? He cleans up superfund sites. He was in the Gulf of Mexico for the oil spill, he makes place habitable again. And his department is looking at a forty percent cut. I’m about to ask him if he’s worried but stop. He’s here to escape. He’s here to savor the solitude and revel in the places that are wild and free. The last thing he wants to do is talk shop. But as we discuss superfund sites, Pebble Mine, and the Arctic Refuge he doesn’t sound like a man whose life is a risk. He sounds determined, even hopeful. Like his son he’s moving forward. One paddle stroke at a time, head up, eyes never blinking. Because life is like kayaking. There’s only one thing you can do. Keep paddling.

I finish my speech and set the mic down on the table. I take a swig of water and wipe the tears from my eyes. My brother’s are wet too and somehow that makes me feel better. I cross the room and wrap him in the biggest hug of his life. Somehow this has become my world. Incalculable highs and unfathomable moments where I fear all is lost. Like the wedding, like that day on the water with John and his family, they’re often within minutes of each other. An otter brings joy, the absence of the whales bring fear. The look on my brother’s face brings tears of gratitude, the thought of what could lay ahead anxiety.

But like John and James, there’s nothing to do but keep paddling. Keep fighting the current, keep bucking the wind. Just don’t let the boat go backwards. Because the day is coming when the tide will turn, the wind will shift, and the paddle will feel light. It may not be in my lifetime, but if it does for James, Caroline, and my unborn nephews and nieces, then it will all be worth it.

The Final Ride

Six days. That’s how much longer we have here. Six more quiet mornings with the sounds of Thrushes and squirrels in the woods. Six more nights of boat noise as tugs and fishing boats crawl up and down Blackfish Sound. I am acutely aware that I’m doing things for the last time. A final round with the chainsaw, a final walk through the woods, a final trip down the strait.

My last boat ride to the lab was yesterday. A moderate westerly beat me up as I went into Alert Bay. So instead of taking my usual trail that weaves through the Pearce and Plumper Islands, I took the more exposed route through Johnstone Strait. The sun shone from a brilliant blue sky, the strait’s southern side turned a deep green as the forests of Vancouver Island reflected across the waves. Looking down the strait there was no sign of human life. No boats, no houses, no cell towers. Just mountains, water, and trees. As it had been for centuries. May it always look the same.

It may seem weird to have a nostalgic stretch of water. But this run from Alert Bay along the strait and to the lab does for me. It’s the route I took the first time I came here. I was packed on the June Cove with four other volunteers and Paul. As the June Cove notoriously does whenever I arrive, it wasn’t working too well. We puttered along the strait at six knots, anything faster and the engine would cut out. I had no idea where we were going or how long it was supposed to take. So I put my trust in the cranky engine and sat atop the the cabin to watch the mountains of Robson Bight slowly grow taller.

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I moved faster yesterday, whipping across the south end of Weyton, dodging driftwood and willing one more dorsal fin to break the water. I came here hoping, maybe even expecting my dedication and effort to be rewarded with magical and unforgettable Orca encounters. After nearly 24 cumulative months here I’m still waiting for my “Free Willy” moment. But now I don’t expect it to happen. And just as important, I don’t need it to. Proximity doesn’t equal intimacy. Three years on a whale watching boat will teach you that.

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During that first boat ride in 2008 I rode through the world oblivious. I had no concept of Climate Change, no understanding that Canada was in the cruel grip of the Harper Administration, a manifestation of the, “if it can’t be grown it must be mined,” ideology. All I knew were Orcas and that captivity was bad. As far as I was concerned, that was the only environmental movement that mattered. Now the uncut portions of Hanson Island feel like a miracle. The thousand year old Cedars a symbol of hope instead of a novelty. I love this place fiercely with some protective parental instinct. It’s hard not to take every threat and oil spill personally.

The boat flashes along the Hanson shore. Somewhere on the beach are First Nations artifacts. According to Walrus, the anthropologist who lives in the woods near us, there is a rock carving of Raven the creator hidden somewhere on the beach. It aligns perfectly with the sunrise on the winter solstice. I’d considered trying to find it. But what is man’s insatiable desire to see and touch everything? To literally leave no stone unturned? I like the idea of just a few people knowing where it is. The knowledge that it exists is enough for me. In an age where we move with such haste to smother the world with concrete and progress, some mystery is a good thing.

At the east end of Hanson is a pair of tiny islands. Coveted by kayakers, the pass between them is plenty deep for a small boat. Protected by both the east and west winds, the channel is the perfect hovel for sea birds. Harlequin’s adore it, as do the Mergansers and Herons. An eagle’s nest adorns a Cedar tree on the northernmost tip and offers a view of Blackfish, Blackney, and Johnstone. This confluence brings life. The mixing and upwelling of currents traps food and brings cold, nutrient rich water to the surface. It draws herring, salmon, eagles, gulls, ravens, crows, humpbacks, salmon, seals, sea lions, Orcas, and Me. It’s a powerful stretch of water with the ability to change lives and send them careening off the tracks into the unknown. It threatens our existence, and makes us question why we’re here and what matters. Anyone who does not feel their heartbeat quicken as a Humpback roars through a bait ball while gulls circle overhead has no spirit.

The boat turns left and for the first and last time, I lay eyes on the lab. Smoke curls out the chimneys and wraps their wispy fingers around the trees like the fingers of a lover. The lab deck hovers over the water on the high tide. Here one can learn to love without intruding. You have to let go, be contented with watching those black fins disappear around the corner, accept that there are more important things than getting as close as possible. The trees mute the sun and the cove shines like a sapphire in the evening light. Harlequin’s scoot across the bow with indignant squeaks. The engine dies and I step onto the beach for the first and last time, eyes wide and mind open.

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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

The Murres, the Blob, and Saving the World

I love Common Murres. Those plucky little diving birds sporting smart black and white tuxedos. The delightful little Alcids that help fill the same ecological niche penguins do in the southern hemisphere. You can have your puffins, the darlings of the Alaskan traveler. I’ll take the understated Murre. When you paddle near them you hear adorable little grunts and growls. A mob of muttering Murres is a delightful conversation to eavesdrop on. Like a group of well dressed attendants at a posh dinner party. Until they scream. An outrageous warbling, an exasperated yell completely out of character with their dignified attire and dialect. Last August hundreds of Murres filled Bartlett Cove. At times it seemed impossible to paddle through without disturbing them. I gave their presence little thought as I paddled past. Enjoying their quiet talks and unexpected yelps.

But this winter was not an easy one for them. As Brittney and I traveled south, a mass of warm water moved north into the Gulf of Alaska. Scientists watched it with skepticism and interest, unsure of what to call it or how to diagnose its presence. “The Blob,” everyone called it until an intrepid blogger coined the term “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR).” While it still didn’t sound scientific, at least the word “blob” wasn’t in there anymore.

The Murres didn’t care what it was called. Murres are divers. Able to swim hundreds of feet below the surface to feed on herring, capelin, and juvenile pollock. The warm waters of the RRR sent their food sources deep beneath the waves, seeking the colder water. But as the fish dove, they left the Murres behind, devoid of their winter food source. Murres spend most of the winter offshore, so when they appeared by the thousands in Icy Strait and Glacier Bay, everyone noticed.

Murres lack storage space. They don’t put on layers of fat to help sustain them for the lean times. They need to eat, and just a few days of fasting can rob them of their strength. Last winter, there was no food to be had. And Murres showed up in the most bizarre places. They were sighted in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from the nearest coast, blown north and inland in their weakened condition. Thousands of them landed on frozen Lake Illiamna in western Alaska.

Throughout southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and the Aleutian chain, dead Murres washed ashore by the thousands. Malnourished and lost, betrayed by a belt of warm water that had no business being there. With thousands of miles of unmonitored coastline, it’s impossible to know how many of these darling birds perished this winter. Estimates are in the hundreds of thousands.

“Are you worried?”

I take my time before answering. Measuring what sort of response I may get. I try really hard not to assume people’s political or environmental views based on where they’re from. I hesitate and admonish myself. Who cares where they’re from? They’re here, in Glacier Bay. They’re kayaking, they clearly care enough to hear what I really think.
The question was not about Murres, but climate change and if I was concerned. But my tuxedo clad friends swim in my mind as I answer.

“Yes,” I respond. And I’m off. Talking about J.B. McKibbon’s sliding scale. How one generation perceives nature as “normal,” slides the scale some, and the next generation perceives this new environment as the new normal. It’s a slippery slope that we’re on.

What if in a hundred years Miami has more canals than Venice and we just consider that normal? What about a world without whales or Murres or wolves or national parks? We scoff but brown bears in California used to be normal. Wolves in Arizona was a given. So many cod off Cape Cod we thought the harvest would never end. This is nothing new. Homo sapiens have been shaping the world around them since forever. Does that justify what we’re doing today?

“It’s not just climate change.” I say, “that gets most of the attention, but it’s so much more. It’s ocean acidity, mercury in the fish. The deck is stacked.”

Hell, we can’t stop killing each other. How can we be expected to care about the rest of the world when we treat our fellow man the way we do? If we’re going to fight, let’s fight for the protection of what the earth still has, not who knows where we go when we die.

The two of them look at me with concern. Nothing like a light conversation about the end of the natural world on a gorgeous day in Glacier Bay. I think about the Murres again. How hard it was to watch, learn, and read about their struggles all winter. How I could have just closed my computer, looked away, pretended like it wasn’t happening. As if that would change anything.

If we can’t talk about it, how will we ever begin to repair the damage?

“I think the natural world will survive,” I continue. “Maybe not the way we see it now, but it’ll recover one way or the other. But that could be hundreds of years from now. It’s not the end of the world, but it could be the end of what makes this a world we love.” I don’t want to live in a world without whales, Murres, wolves, or national parks.

“What do we do?” Their faces are anxious, and I wish I had the magic words. The snappy one liner of the salesmen and TV commercial. The thirty minute sitcom, everything tied together and back to normal before the evening news.

What do I say?

I remember Kim Heacox’s answer to a lady last summer. A mama grizzly, a mighty matriarch, asking what they were supposed to do. Daring him to answer, to tell her she was living wrong.

“Change everything.” He answered simply.
“So do we stop flying? Driving?”
“Maybe.”

I parrot his line, with a small modification. “Change everything you can.” I answer. “Make sacrifices. They should hurt, they should be hard. Or they wouldn’t be sacrifices. Walk to work, eat meat once every other day instead of with every meal. Vote in politicians that put the environment at the top of their to do list.”

70% of Americans say they support more conservation policies. Yet we’ve elected a congress that hasn’t passed such a bill in years. That’s on us. We want to save the world as long as it’s convenient. As long as it comes with a tax break. As long as it doesn’t tread on us.

“Thank you for asking about this.” I tell them. “It’s hard to hear, and difficult to discuss and think about. But it’s the only way that we can change and put the pieces back together.”

A bird comes to the surface. I’d know that silhouette anywhere. Know that dark bill, that white underbelly. I break into a smile. It’s so good to see them. A reminder that many of them made it. They’re not called Common Murres for nothing. There’s boatloads of them. May there always be. In its bill is a little wriggling fish. Probably herring. It’s impossible to tell from here. The Murre gulps it down in two swallows, floats at the surface half a second more, and dives back beneath the waves. Looking for more. Happy hunting little friend.

Cover Photo Credit: wsl.ch