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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.

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The Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Southern Residents and Repeating History

Off the waters of Washington state live the most magnificent, beautiful, and intelligent creature on the planet. A species that has learned to exist without wars or visible disputes of any kind. They maintain a peaceful, complex, and intricate social structure with bonds that we cannot even begin to fathom. And it is all in danger, of vanishing forever. For many it’s already too late. Like Rhapsody, whose body has gone to science in the hope of finding out what ended her life.

It is all so chilling because it’s not the first time that this story’s been told. In the serene and beautiful waters of Prince William Sound, hundreds of miles to the north, the same tragedy is playing with a 20-year head start. The genetically unique AT1 Transient pod, that has lived, stalked, and hunted within the sound for generations is just years from extinction as it comes up on three decades without a successful birth. For AT1, the prognosis is simple and obvious. On good Friday, 1989, the whole pod swam, unknowingly through the lethal slick of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. They have not reproduced since as friends and researchers like Eva Saulitis watch the pod disappear one by one, a slow tear jerking countdown to zero.

For the southern Residents, it’s more complicated. For decades they’ve endured live captures, bullets, overfishing, and the toxic runoff of the increasingly urban Puget Sound. In many ways it’s miraculous they’ve persevered for so long. They can still lay claim to, “Granny.” An orca that was born the same year the Titantic sank and is still seen every year off the San Juan Islands, a talisman to the resilience of the community. And yet, Orcas are dying that shouldn’t be. When Plumper (A37 of the northern Residents) finally vanished from the lab’s view in August 2014, there was such a finality to what we were seeing. It was his wake. His time had come, and all of us, including him and his brother Kaikash seemed to know it. But sweet 18-year old Rhapsody shouldn’t be washing up in Comox. She should be with her mother, siblings, Grandmother, and Aunts, with one or perhaps two calves to her name. This wasn’t her time and it’s hard not to feel guilt, knowing that our species shoulders the blame for her demise and dozens just like her, whether from captivity or PCBs.

The southern Residents are at 77 individuals. The time has come for drastic action before the genetic bottleneck tightens anymore. So that in 20 years, we’re not watching the last of the pod fade into darkness, leaving the waters of the San Juans and Puget Sound in great silence. How empty and desolate it would feel. Imagine Orcas Island with no Orcas. It’s not impossible, the only place in California you can find a brown bear is on the state flag.

It may mean sacrifices on the part of us as human beings. To surrender the pleasure and joy that only comes from watching a line of dorsals materialize off the bow of your boat or kayak. Or perhaps going without Chinook salmon in the freezer this winter. Or maybe as simple as riding the bus to work and reducing the carbon exhaust pumped into the atmosphere.

These aren’t tigers or elephants, we can’t just start captive breeding programs and reintroduce them. But they do need help, and we have a chance, maybe not to make amends, but to right some of the wrongs that we’ve brought against them. To even the playing field as best we can for a species that doesn’t deserve the cards we have dealt. North American progress, american history as a whole, has been filled with extinctions, manipulations, and destruction. We’ve hunted the Gray whales, sea otters, wolves, and now the Orca. But today sea otters again bob in the waters off of Monterey Bay, wolves run through the forests of Yellowstone, and North Pacific gray whales represent one of the healthiest and strongest whale populations in the world as they continue their amazing recovery from industrial whaling.

I don’t think it’s too late for Rhapsody’s kin. But it is time to try something different, because whatever help we’re giving them clearly isn’t working. They need time, space, and most importantly, the salmon that make up more than 90 percent of their diet. Save the whales doesn’t have to just revoke memories of Greenpeace and the 70s. The war is not over, and it is our time to fight for the animals we love.