Tag Archives: water

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.

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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.

The Environment is Not A Luxury Cause

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

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

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

So what do we do now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bless the Harbor Seals

The Magic of the Town Run

The tide is ebbing, and the boat is stuck, like some hauled out metallic sea lion. An expletive escapes my lips and with one final push the boat slides over the rock and floats again. The vertical rock face seems to have just enough of these little ledges, and like some magnetic force, always seems to suck the boat right to them.
With the boat free, the loading begins. Empty gas cans, dead batteries, and garbage bag filled to burst with pungent clothes. Brittney appears, laden with more black hefty bags filled with trash and tied securely. The Hanson Island rule is: bags with garbage are tied, bags with laundry are left untied, an important step. Just ask the volunteer who tied his laundry bag, sentencing it to doom in the landfill.
By the time everything is piled in, there’s precious little room to reach the seats. The boat already makes me feel like Gandalf in a hobbit hole, but filled to the brim makes it feel like crawling through a cole mine. Finally I manage to pretzel my legs behind the wheel and the boat floats free, drifting into the middle of the cove.
The engine roars to life on the first turn and we idle slowly past the kelp bed and into Blackney Pass. Free of kelp and rock, the engine roars to life, struggling to break free of the water and get on step with the heavy load. But the water is a flat calm this morning and we hang a left, bound for Blackfish Sound, Weynton Pass, Pearse Passage, and finally Alert Bay.
It is the most magical of days, the town run. An afternoon of hot baths, Paul’s sandwiches, and people. So many people. Just up the street from the dock is a tiny lot where the beloved pathfinder has sat patiently all winter. Ever week and a half she resignedly comes to life so that we can drive the one mile along the shoreline to Paul and Helena’s house.
I feel like a kid coming home from college. A massive bag of laundry in hand, anticipating food, beer, and canned goods. After months of taps producing nothing but frigid water, feeling hot water spew into the tub makes me flinch. We had eschewed baths in favor of pouring hot water over ourselves a couple times a week on the deck. Scrubbing frantically while we shivered in the wind and the rain. So when it’s my turn, I nearly fall asleep, the hot water lapping at my face.
From the house you can see Johnstone Strait, the Hanson Island shoreline appears merged with the trees of Cracroft and the Plumper Islands. The water stays flat, but the sun is already beginning to set.
Alert Bay is far from bustling, but feels as congested as a city as we squeeze along the narrow road.
“So many people,” Brittney says as we wait for two cars to go by.
The grocery store is nearly sensory overload. For days we’d talked about the things that we’ve been craving but unable to reach. Now we just stare blankly at the shelves, a crumpled list in hand. Overwhelmed we pile heads of lettuce, carrots, potatoes, tortillas, and of course coffee into the quickly growing pile. Tragedy strikes when we reach the popcorn and find the shelves barren.  For a minute we’re too stunned to speak, mouth open in shock and horror. No popcorn? Why did we even come into town? Sadly we head for the checkout our overflowing cart suddenly feeling empty.
Loading the minuscule boat becomes a cramped game of tetris. Anything that can fit into the tiny hold in the bow is shoved unceremoniously in. Filled gas tanks and charged batteries bring the water’s surface a couple inches closer to the window. Bags of food, lettuce leafs poking curiously out the top are stacked as gently as possible on top of the clean laundry.
After some coaxing, the boat obediently gets up on plane and sends us rocketing home on the flooding tide. We reach the lab just as the light begins to fade but the slowly flooding tide has left us well short of the cove. Grabbing as much as we can, we walk and stumble up the rocks, dumping groceries and water jugs on the deck, leaving the batteries and fuel tanks for a higher tide.
Opening the door of our house, a white and brown blur shoots past as the cat sprints for freedom, incensed at his day long imprisonment inside. The rabbit is even more excited and wastes no time inspecting every bag until she finds the apples and attacks with the ferocity of a Great White Shark. By the time the boat is tied and the groceries stored, it’s dark, the fire slowly warming the house once again.
We collapse on the couch, town days always seem to wear us out, probably all the hot water. Now if only we could find a pizza place that delivered.

Our Greatest Fears

My first memory is knives. Millions of them, cutting through my body through every angle. My body sinking and air replaced by water before my life jacket pulls me back to the surface. The current carries me and I glance back toward the canoe, a snapshot burned into my memory. The leaves contrasted with the dark gray of the rocks and river, the mountains with their yearly dusting of termination dust. And the canoe, millions of miles away, my mother clutching the side, her eyes wide with a fear I should feel but don’t. All I feel is a numb detachment, as if I’m watching my body get swept down the Eagle River, my spirit already hovering above, ready to depart.

A splash interrupts my serene drift downstream, the sound comes closer and closer intermixed with the rush of the river and the gurgle of my breath as water and air combine in my mouth and lungs. Seconds later Dad has me in a vice like grip, holding me as high above the water as he can calling for mom and the canoe. Unceremoniously I am dumped, shivering and shaking into the boat, Dad gasping for breath and Mom paddling for the shore as hard as she can.

Years later, my first memory is still the closest I’ve been to my last. Perhaps my free fall down the mountain could qualify, though it likely would have resulted in just shattered limbs and intensive physical therapy. Now, decades removed, I still remember the knives, the frigid water immobilizing my arms and legs, and my mothers face, the look of terror and loss as I drifted away, and Dad’s courageous breaststroke, holding me above the water while he sank deeper.

All that has changed is my own fear and terror. The memory forms a pit in my stomach, my legs weak and mouth dry and drowning has become my greatest fear. Because at some point your body gives in, you stop fighting the current, you stop treading water. Your fatigue becomes greater than your desire to live, and you give in to the unrelenting attack of the ocean. Sinking below the surface your lungs begin to burn, millennia of evolution, screaming at you to open your mouth, to inhale, and eventually, you succumb. But there is no salvation, no relief, just gallons of water rushing in, pulling you deeper and deeper into the dark.

And yet I love the water, live on it, and follow at a fanatical level, the animals that have mastered the medium. I am an oxymoron, drawn to what I fear. As if I believe if I spend my life on it, in it, beneath it, that I will somehow master my fear. But perhaps it’s best if I never do, if I, for the rest of my life, had something holding me back just a little bit. That sensation of terror, for fear often fosters with it, a respect for that which also terrifies us. Reminds us to never underestimate it, take it for granted, or abuse it.

And yet I have seen mans fear of the of the world turned, not into respect, but into anger and violence. Fear the bear? Kill it, for you cannot fear what is exterminated. But with no bears a walk in the woods is no different than a walk down the street. Yet another disconnect from a past that we have already forgotten. Do not fear the wild, or what you don’t understand. Instead see it as an opportunity to grow, expand, change. Shooting a bear with a camera is infinitely more rewarding than with a gun. Killing one from 300 yards and putting it on your wall doesn’t make you a man, an Alaskan, or a bad ass. At least, it shouldn’t.

If we have nothing to fear we have nothing to respect, and if we have nothing to respect we have nothing to hold in awe. And if we have nothing to hold in awe, than what the hell are we doing out here anyway? We may as well move to the city, get real jobs, and refer to the local park as the great outdoors. Yet where is the excitement? The adrenaline? Our connection with the world that had been essential to our survival until just a couple brief centuries ago. It has been replaced by the 800 channel television, 3G networks, and quarter pounders with cheese.

Yet what is more dangerous, the brown bear in the forest or the type two diabetes, high blood pressure, and inevitable heart attack that awaits our constantly growing species. No one is picketing or protesting the quarter pounders or corn syrup laden drinks, calling them murders or killing machines. Perhaps we should implement fast food control much the way we have predator control. Helicopters circling over the golden arches, rifles poised, shooting carryout bags out of the hands of customers. Or for those that insist on fair chase methods, we can just run up behind them and grab the bags from their hands, throwing them to the ground.