Tag Archives: future

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.

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Trading in My Privilege

I will dispense with the alarmist phrases and horrifying -ists that we fear are going to fall in the days to come. For the last thing I want is to throw my own tinder into the blazing bonfire that is sensationalist news that lives for clickbait and scrolling ads at the bottom of the article.

“Answer this survey question to continue reading the article.”

No, this is about privilege.

“Really, David?” you ask. “Not Sea Lions or whales or trees or warming oceans?”

No, not today.  Today was a glorious, baby blue sky day in Blackfish Sound. For the first time in months the sun brought a warmth that sunk deep into the skin and made me smile. No biting wind made me tighten my jacket around me, no icy rain fell down my neck. I reveled in it, cutting wood, splitting wood, fixing water lines.

Meanwhile millions across the continent wept.

Privilege. My life overflows with it. White, male, straight. When we say all men are created equal, they’re talking about people like me. Hell, in a few months I’ll own property, which will make me legally able to vote in any election in American History.

That, is messed up.

Across America, gays, trans, minorities, those with pre-existing conditions, and many others watched in horror as a man who has declared war on them took an oath and set to work destroying their lives. I cut firewood.

Now this new administration threatens all of us, Republican or Democrat, gay or straight, black or white, Christian or Muslim. None can live without clean water or air. All of these are threatened  now more than ever. And if it all comes crashing down, there will be no regard for what boxes we put ourselves in.

But for the moment, I am as safe as an American can be. I live in a tiny hamlet that is accepting of everyone. All things considered, I live a blessed life. And so it’s people like me that must do more over the next four years.

The most disheartening backlash of Meryl Streep’s speech was those that told her not to worry. “Hollywood elites always do fine regardless of whose in office.”

Wait, what?

When did we start only caring about that which directly effected us? America is diseased. Modern Christianity has completely fallen off the wheels. We’re obsessed with the growth of our GDP. If we’re not expanding it must be a crisis. But it is our self centeredness that horrifies me most.

“Why do you care? You’re going to be fine.”

“We survived Obama. You can survive Trump.”

It’s how we got into this mess. We’re repealing health care for millions. Was the system perfect? No, but when you don’t have a pre-existing condition, why should you care? When did we become so selfish? When did the glitz and glamor of our privilege blind us from the basic empathy for our fellow man.

We call America the land of opportunity. We glorify the successful, the famous, and those on TV. And we’ve swallowed a horrible piece of propaganda. With the idea that America is the land of opportunity, we now assume that if someone fails they have no one to blame but themselves.

So now we demonize those on wellfare, we paint all those receiving government help as slackers, abusers of the system. We dismiss health care as a basic human right. Shit we dismiss basic human rights. We walk around with blinders, staring only where we are going. We stay in our lane and assume that if others are failing it is because of their own failures. They didn’t work hard enough, they don’t care, they have no one to blame but themselves.

This is how are empathy has corroded into nothing. When Donald Trump proposed registering Muslims, I thought it was over. When Donald Trump claimed he could kill someone in Times Square and get away with it, I thought it was over. When Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their pussies, I thought it was over. But it wasn’t. Because those words just bounced off the armor of our white privilege.

“I’m not Muslim, I don’t live in Times Square, I don’t know anyone whose been victimized by sexual assault.”

We screamed with our silence that we didn’t care.

So what am I going to do? What can a kid who lives in a predominately white town of 650 on the Alaska coast do about it? I can yell at the top of my voice that the persecuted matter. I can encourage those that enjoy the same privilege that I do to scream with me. Because we’re needed so badly. The face of this new America is dominated by the white male. Ok, that’s nothing new. But it’s been a long time since it was this blatant.

But if the straight white males stand on the side of equality and justice, it speaks volumes. It means we looked at the opportunities Trump’s America offered us and said no. It means that we’d rather do with less than live in a country where our brothers and sisters are squashed. It means we find these truths to be self evident, that all humans are created equal. I have been gifted, I have been blessed, and believe me when I say it wasn’t because I worked my butt off while some young African American born in L.A didn’t. So instead of taking what I have and trying to climb higher, I want to come back down to the level of the threatened. We may never climb that high, but if we do it’ll be all together.

“I might not be the same, but that’s not important. No freedom ‘till we’re equal. Damn right I support it.” – Macklemore

The Hemlock

The cabin shook. We watched the windows rattle and the walls accordion and had flashbacks of Alaska and earthquakes. But as quick as the tremor began, it ended. Throughout the winter we have been serenaded by the occasional blasts from Parson Bay as logging companies rip through the forests with dynamite to create logging roads. It’s a sobering reminder that we still live in the days of clear cuts and manifest destiny. When they blast with dynamite we feel the shock waves rolling across the water. But this one feels much closer, and instead of being directional, it seems to originate from within the house.

The next day I climb the hill behind the lab and into the labyrinth of saintly trees. The earth is saturated from two days of torrential downpour, the forest expelling the water as fast as it can. Every crevice and divot overflows. Water, there’s either too much of it or not enough. Shortages in California, flooding, erosion, and sea level rise on the north slope of Alaska. Every day Florida loses real estate. Florida, the state that literally has the most to lose from climate change voted for the one major political party that denies its existence.

I clamber over fallen trees that are rotting into the ground, their bark soft and squishy. Ahead of me is our water line. It snakes up the hillside to a stream that has turned into a roaring river. The line has been clogged more times than I can count this winter, and the walk up the hill is familiar and welcoming. But this time the solution is not as simple as digging river runoff out of the hose. I climb onto a ledge and stop, the explanation for the earth shattering concussion the day before in front of me. A massive Hemlock has fallen. Its body has cracked into three pieces, tumbling over the ledge to rest like a broken arm at twisted angles. The main piece has fallen at the perfect angle to bury the waterline for twenty feet, fluorescent green hose pokes meekly out at the bottom of the ledge.

With the Hemlock gone, light hits a forest floor that hasn’t seen the sun in decades. The patch of forest feels naked without the Hemlock. I sit down on the trunk and let the silence take me in. I think about the concussion the tree made when it fell, the sound of its death, the violence of it all. It doesn’t seem right, for a species that appears so peaceful and tranquil in life to die with such force. It is not an elegant farewell, but it is a noble one. There’s a lot of carbon in the forest, but it’s bottled up in the trees, squirreled away as bark and inaccessible to the life around it. For all the trees’ biomass, forests are comparatively empty when compared to transition zones like Alder thickets or Tundra. The trees dominate. So when one falls and begins to rot it is a gift. Organic matter slowly returns to the ecosystem after decades, sometimes centuries bottled up in the tree.

It’s a patience we either don’t have time for or can’t afford. This tree will still be rotting into the ground when I’m old, if mankind will allow it. Brittney returns with me the next day and we dig out the water line, repairing the punctures. It feels good to work in the forest. I considered bringing the chainsaw with me to cut the log up to make it easier to move, but the roar of destruction seems inappropriate in this cathedral. So we grunt and strain and finally move the tree to the side to rest and continue its noble work.

At the top of the water line I attach a new filter to keep the runoff out of the line. The water is icy cold and my forearms go numb as I fumble with clumsy fingers to secure the filter. I shiver as the rain begins again and sends icy tendrils down my back. It’s been a cold winter, and the constant freeze ups probably have a lot to do with the continuous clogs in the line. Most of North America seems to have been hit by the chilly outflows. It makes me wonder how the news that 2016 was the warmest on record will be taken. I doubt it will change much, if anything. If sea level rise and earthquakes in Oklahoma don’t raise alarm bells, I doubt more factual science will. Not when we can point out the window to the snow drift at the end of the driveway and boldly claim that there’s no way it can be true.

No patience to listen, no patience to learn. Like these trees we are rooted in place, unable or unwilling to move. But the day is coming, a day when we’ll be ripped free of those roots and sent to earth with a thundering crash. Perhaps then and we will see what we have reaped. What, I wonder, do Climate Change deniers think we have to gain from spouting falsehoods? What monetary kickback are we getting from wanting fewer Carbon emissions, more biodiversity, and a habitable world? How much of Florida has to disappear before they turn on their Conservative overlords? Or—as Kim Heacox theorizes—will we evolve and move forward.

“They’ll take their boats to the football stadium built on the highest ground.” He says only half in jest. “And cheer for their Dolphins, brought to you by Exxon Mobil.”

We walk back down the hill and past the fallen Hemlock. What kind of world will it be when she finally disappears into the forest. Will this still be a forest? God forbid they find a gold deposit in the creek. I wish I better understood mankind’s insatiable desire for growth and profit. It’s not like it’s a new phenomenon, our species has been driven by the thirst for more since time immemorial. But I just don’t get it. It has driven me into the forests and fjords of the world, searching for a place I understand. I suppose I should be grateful that I’ve found not one but two places that stare deep into my soul and hold me tight.

I want some idealistic and lost boy 60 years from now to find these places and love them the way I do. I want the next generation of Orca Lab to climb over that fallen Hemlock and feel its rot and age beneath their boots as she crumbles. I want them to walk into a clearing filled with saplings reaching for the sky to take the place of their predecessor. Some are born to live in the city. I won’t pretend to understand but I suppose I can respect it. All I want is for them to set aside places for us outliers to run to when we find we don’t belong on concrete.

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

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 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