Brian Jay Stanley

Dec 31, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

The Electric Present

Nothing is clear, but everything is significant.
-Martin Heidegger

I open my eyes to a flash of lightning: colors and forms filling the room, a sensory explosion of matter and elements. Nightstand, dresser, curtain, window. And through the window: earth, air, ocean water, fire of the sun. Light meeting eye, world meeting sensation in perfect complementarity. I sit up in bed. The ancients said that light was made for the eye and the eye for light: the doctrine of teleology. Today we say that light came first and the eye caught up with it later: the doctrine of evolution. In the deep primeval past, as sluggish organisms groped for their environment, the first eye opened and beheld the never seen world. Morning was streaming through my window while I slept in darkness, but I lifted my lids and shook away sleep so I too could glimpse this blazing incandescence.

A walk on the beach begins my day. Down the hillside path I send my two feet and five senses, past creaking, wind-gnarled trees with moss-draped limbs, amid verdant ferns and glistening rocks and blooming wildflowers whose names I do not know. Better that I do not know them, for if I knew I would say foxglove or lupine and think I knew what flowers were, whereas, untricked by names, I see stalk-shapes and leaf-shapes and purple-and-pink-dappled-greenness rising wildly and unaccountably from the ground. Stalks sucking dirt up their roots and sending delicate pink petals out their buds—a magic chemistry. The ground is growing green stalks and pretty petals in woods no path cuts through. So beauty, like light, does not await the appreciative eye. But if not mine, whose world have I stumbled into? Did God abandon creation to me? Did blind chance splatter matter into this miracle? I’d unfurl the flowers’ petals and uncoil their stems to know, for they seem like signs, but no signatures are engraved within, not in characters I can read.

The gravel crunches under my feet. Weeds wet with fog-drip overhang the path. They brush my pants leg, I feel the dampness there, begin to feel it seeping through my shoes, through my socks, between my toes. I stop for a snail in the path. Its toes would be wet too, if its foot had toes. Careful I don’t crunch you like the gravel, loitering in the path like that. Crunch and squish in the same step.

My guidebook calls the beach here a strip of desert between the ocean and coastal forest—a strip of barrenness between two zones of teeming life. Once on the beach, act and sensation: I pull off my shoes and socks, feel my wet feet sink in the dry, cool sand. I suck salt-air hard through my nostrils, close my eyes to feed on it in my brain. The flowers were silent: what will this shell say? I press it to my ear but hear only huuummmmmmmmmm. I press harder, and seem to catch a faint word in the hum: I come from across the sea. I throw the cryptic oracle down, and turn from sensation and feckless interpretation back to action: onward. Crossing a desert is toilsome, this thick sand sucks at your feet, like running in a dream. A wonder camels ever make it across Arabia. Human feet do better on this sea-packed sand. The tide covered this spot a few hours ago: hence look at me, I am standing on the bottom of the ocean.

These clouds and fog will burn off soon. Sunlight already breaking through. Portholes of blue in a steel-gray sky. Splashes of glitter on a slate-gray sea. Over the beach, mist ascending and descending. Shafts of sunlight slicing the mist sideways. Fog concentrates perception—I see better in fog. It is a veil wrapped around this moment in space and time. It tells me, there is more out there, but I am here.

Who else is here with me? I peek in a tide pool to see. Mostly anemones in this one. A strange animal to share the earth with: a slimy hole rimmed with tentacles. Fools search the skies for alien life when they could look in tide pools. Yet, if it had eyes and a slimy brain down its tentacled hole, might not this anemone say: fools search in tide pools for aliens when they could look in mirrors. Look down at these naked, knuckled, pore-pocked hands cleft into nailed fingers, at these bony, knee-capped legs bent and flattened at the bottom into feet then split at the end into stubby toes. Is this forked form any norm for measuring weirdness? Everything is weird if you look at it. In high school I would stare at my friends’ faces until their eyes, nose, and mouth seemed to unfix themselves and hover freely in place, so that I could move them around in imagination and realized how arbitrary their actual arrangement was. If an anemone did have consciousness, it would be conscious of an intolerably boring existence—an animal living a plant’s life. Waving your tentacles, waiting to see what crumbs the sea will throw you. And what if mother sea threw you nothing? You would starve upon her dry teat. We finned and winged and legged creatures deceive ourselves, thinking us masters of our fate because we have movement. Where can we move but within the world’s four walls? What can we chase but the crumbs mother fate throws in?

Nevertheless, I am glad for legs, and would be gladder for wings. If I had them you wouldn’t catch me lounging on the shore like these gulls, acquiescing to gravity. A huge gathering of them. What will they do if I run at them? They look at me lazily, assess me, begin to waddle, now flap, flap, flap, a commotion of wings, and now hundreds taking flight!—and I am running with outspread arms, I am flying with them, I am laughing and ecstatic! Already they land so close by? Foolish gulls. I will run at you again: and again waddle, wings, flight, ecstasy. Is it wrong to bother them? No matter: look at their faces, they’ve already forgotten.

No footprints in the sand. I must be the first on the beach this morning. I made footprints yesterday, but the tide washed them away. I was here yesterday, but time washed yesterday away, swapped it with today while I was sleeping. See this driftwood where it lies in the sand. It was once a proud tree. Rains felled it, rivers carried it to the sea, the sea spat it back on the shore—puppet of the water cycle. Time makes something into nothing and nothing into something, for it destroys the tree on the riverbank and creates the driftwood on the beach. It destroys and creates me too. Like the driftwood, I did not exist yesterday, for I was the tree on the river, which is to say I was another me, was that whoever-I-was that I was yesterday, not this whoever-I-am that I am today. And the world blathers and talks stupidly of time, saying “time flies” and “time is money” and hasn’t a clue what time is, this invisible medium enfolding the visible world.

I am walking forward through time as well as through space, along the beach and into the future. I can see the ground ahead but not the moment ahead. The next moment does not exist until I get there. Every second I stand at the edge of a precipice and blindly step forward, and new reality appears below me as I walk.

I cannot see where I go, while behind me I see but cannot go where I went. This present moment is malleable: I could walk north up the shore or south; put a pebble in my pocket or throw it in the sea; step on a sand flea or let it live: I hold the power of life and death over different options. Yesterday I squashed a flea for sport, saying Thus it shall be and it was, and now I cannot revoke the deed of death. Every choice I make, I am pouring possibility into actuality, and it instantly hardens.

The past is solid, the future is air, the present is liquid. I cannot move through solid; it is impervious; I am not a ghost. I cannot move through air; it does not hold up my weight; I am not a bird. I am a fish; I swim in the liquid present.

Thales of Miletus, the first philosopher, believed that everything is composed of water. Heraclitus similarly taught that everything flows. Not only earth’s oceans are liquid, but its solid parts too. Look at the wave-beaten, time-smoothed rocks: they are flowing like slow lava, they are pouring their sharp corners and rough edges into silt.

I too am liquid, both my body and mind. My cells are compartments of saline. (Try to feel them sloshing as you walk.) My consciousness dances like the whitecaps from one day to the next. I pop my crest up here, now here, now here, and I only know is, not was, for memory is not the past but merely another part of the present—an idea in the present mind-state labeled “past.” So then, I am not a fish, for a fish has bones and structure: phylum Chordata. I am a drop of oil in this world of water (or else a drop of water in this world of oil). I float on the water, I try to walk on water, but the water is slippery and so mainly I squirt about, as fate or God or the gods tilt and spin the container.

This shore crab scuttling past me is a drop of oil too. In search of a meal or a mate or safety, I presume—what other instincts are there? Noticing me, the crab pauses nervously, waiting to see what I will do, wondering am I friend or foe. At ease, I am friend. Do we not share something rare in common—this moment of existence? One by one, earth’s days fell from heaven’s hand since time’s beginning. Days accumulated into years, years into eons. Throughout the ages, you and I were but the shadow of a dream, two wisps of smoke in the phantom future. Other crabs scoured the beach, other mortals pondered the waves’ meaning. The shells of your ancestors are seafloor sediment now, and the bones of mine are humus under their graves. The present is a current of electricity flowing through the wire of time, and the current is passing here, and we are charged and glowing. Only briefly, for the current keeps flowing, the ancestral lines wind onward to raise from dust and sediment other crabs, other sea-visitors.

The crab, no longer anxious of me, scuttles off. A pelican lands on a salt-sprayed rock. A wave breaks. Look around, eyes, everything is on fire with existence. Say the date. This day has never before appeared in the history of the world nor will again. There is no such thing as an ordinary day.

~~~~~~~~

Brian’s essays have appeared in The Antioch Review, North American Review, The Hudson Review, Pleiades, The Dalhousie Review, The Laurel Review, and others. They were selected as notable essays in Best American Essays 2006 and Best American Essays 2010, and have been anthologized in The Writer’s Presence (7th ed., forthcoming) and America Now(9th ed.), from Bedford/St. Martin’s Press. He holds a master’s degree in theology from Duke University and a master’s in library and information science from the University of Illinois. Brian lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Adrift, Hibernal 2012 Read more

Carl Safina

Sep 30, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

For Seabirds As For The Graduate, One Word: Plastics.

If something can be neither fish nor fowl, for seabirds this is neither feast nor famine: scientists are discovering more species eating more—plastic.

An article in the Ottawa Citizen reports that in the Canadian Arctic, startled scientists “are pulling remarkable amounts of trash from birds in some of the remotest spots on Earth.”

Pacific albatrosses are famous for eating plastic. Now Canadian scientists are finding plastics in sturdy cousins of albatrosses called Fulmars; 85 percent of Canadian Fulmars now have plastic in their bodies. “I find these plastic pieces packed up around the bottom of the stomach and around the sphincter that leads into the intestine,” said Jennifer Provencher, who had been doing dissections. One gull-sized Fulmar, for example, had what looked like a red Coke cap and 20 other plastic pieces in it. Provencher called the amount of plastic she discovered in Arctic Canadian seabirds, “hard to believe.”

But in European waters, it’s worse: Fulmars there are now loaded with an average of 40 pieces of plastic. Virtually all European Fulmars now fly around with plastic in their bodies.

And, it’s increasing. Biologist Stephanie Avery-Gomm, opened stomachs of 36 Fulmars that washed up on Vancouver Island after a storm. One contained several dozen pieces of plastic, including industrial pellets, a chunk of sponge, fishing line and a bristle from a hairbrush. In a study of bird diets done back in the 1970s, Fulmar stomachs had contained no plastic.

“Every time we sample we are surprised by the amount of plastics we find,” said Provencher.

Another surprise: more species now contain plastics, including the normally non-scavening Thick-billed Murre. Fulmars were already known plastic swallowers, but “What was shocking was to open up the murres and find plastics,” Provencher said. Eleven percent of 186 Thick-billed murres examined carried plastics.

The plastics are coming not just from boats. They’re from us all. In North America and Western Europe the average person is now using around 220 pounds of plastic a year. Needless to say, that’s expected to increase. In Asia the average person uses around 80 pounds of plastic per year, and that’s expected to nearly double by 2015.

Read what the United Nations Environment Program’s 2011 Yearbook has to say about plastics in the ocean.

It’s a nightmare.

So my question is: Why do we use an eternal material to package items intended for one-time use? No one expects such items like yogurt and salad to stay in the distribution chain for more than a couple of weeks. Why don’t we package things like perishable food—and everything else not intended to last forever—in plant-based plastic that will break down in a year?

It could easily be done. The materials already exist. For instance: http://www.metabolix.com/

~~~~~~~~

Carl Safina’s writing explores the scientific, moral, and social dimensions of our relationship with nature.

His writing has been awarded such distinctions as: New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Los Angeles Times “Best Nonfiction,” Library Journal’s “Best Science Book,” Lannan Literary Award, John Burroughs Medal, the National Academies’ “Year’s Best Book for communicating science.”

Safina is a recipient of the Pew Scholar’s Award in Conservation and the Environment, Chicago¹s Brookfield Zoo¹s Rabb Medal, and a MacArthur prize, among many other honors.

He is an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, and founding president of Blue Ocean Institute.

http://carlsafina.org/

http://www.blueocean.org/home

Adrift, Autumnal 2011 Read more

Katie Metz de Martínez

Jun 27, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

Lighthouses of Argentina & Uruguay

A few years ago I began developing an interest in lighthouses. They have a certain charm and nostalgia about them that I find very appealing, and they make great subjects for photography (as if I needed another excuse to take pictures!). So far, I have logged visits to nine lighthouses, four of which are located in Argentina and Uruguay.

There are lots of opportunities to visit lighthouses here in Argentina, as the country’s extensive coastline is dotted with nearly 60 of them. In fact, there’s even one just a few minutes from my home – the Faro Quequén. Neighboring Uruguay, which is roughly the size of Washington State, has its fair share of lighthouses as well.

Here are some photos and information about the lighthouses I’ve visited thus far below the equator.

Argentina
Faro Quequén – Quequén, Province of Buenos Aires

After climbing the 163 steps of the Faro Quequén’s spiral staircase, you’ll be treated to an aerial view of the port, the expansive beaches of Necochea and Quequén, and even the shipwrecked Pesuarsa II, one of the most photographed sights in the area (in addition to the lighthouse, of course).

Faro Punta Mogotes – Mar del Plata, Province of Buenos Aires

This colorful red-and-white-striped lighthouse located in the lively beach resort of Mar del Plata was prefabricated in France. The pieces were then shipped to Argentina and assembled on-site. At nighttime, Faro Punta Mogotes casts a beam of light that can be seen at a distance of up to 42 nautical miles. Visitors must be content with just a peek from the outside, as the lighthouse is not currently open to the public.

Faro Claromecó – Claromecó, Province of Buenos Aires

Faro Claromecó is the second tallest lighthouse in all of Argentina. The lighthouse is open to visitors, and the long climb to the top will reward you with splendid views of the Atlantic coast. Another special feature of this lighthouse is the enormous whale skeleton that has been preserved and put on display at the bottom of the lighthouse’s winding staircase.

Uruguay
Faro de Colonia – Colonia del Sacramento

This 19th-century lighthouse is unique in that it was built adjacent to the ruins of the Convento de San Francisco, a Franciscan convent that dates from the late 1600s. A climb to the upper gallery affords views of Colonia’s historic quarter and the Río de la Plata, the expansive river that divides Argentina and Uruguay.

Come springtime, I’m hoping to add the Faro Recalada a Bahía Blanca in Monte Hermoso, Argentina to my list. With 327 steps leading to the top, it’s not only the tallest lighthouse in Argentina but in all of South America.

[Nautical chart courtesy of Servicio de Hidrografía Naval]

Additional information about the lighthouses of Argentina and Uruguay:

Official List of Lighthouses in Argentina [Spanish]
Lighthouses of Northern Argentina [English]
Lighthouses of Southern Argentina [English]
Interactive Map of Argentine Lighthouses [Spanish]
List of Lighthouses in Uruguay [English, Spanish & Portuguese]
Lighthouses of Uruguay [English]

If you’re a lighthouse photo junkie, visit my complete lighthouse set on Flickr.

~~~~~~~~

Katie welcomes readers to her expat journey from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the seaside city of Necochea, Argentina. Join her as she discover the joys, difficulties and frustrations of picking up and moving a world away. Katie will also share her musings and reflections on Argentine culture, food and current events from the perspective of an extranjera.

Read her blog here. http://www.seashellsandsunflowers.com/

Adrift, Estival 2011 Read more

Jean-Marie J. Crocker

Mar 31, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

Nahant Remembered

Rimming the lawn where I ran in the sunlight of my childhood summers was the ocean, sparkling, murmuring, tossing its foam as it crashed against the rocks below.  I was at my grandparents’ summer home in Nahant, Massachusetts, my kingdom, the site of the idyll that formed my first sense of place.

Jutting into the Atlantic Ocean some fourteen miles northeast of Boston, the larger part of the rocky peninsula, known as “Big Nahant,” has long been famous for its spectacular views and magnificent estates.  However, it was the smaller knob of the peninsula, the simple, sun washed village of “Little Nahant” that formed my early and lasting love of the sea and its surrounding shore.

Each summer, while my father’s business kept him in the hot Midwest, he sent my mother and me back East to escape the heat.  As we drove away from the hiss and steam of the Pullman trains in Boston’s South Station and settled into the comfort of my grandparents’ Packard sedan, I peered out the car window with anticipation while we headed to the North Shore.  The ride seemed long, past industrial Chelsea and Everett, the marshes of Revere and Saugus, and eventually through the city of Lynn.   There at the outskirts a narrow, two mile neck, bordered by beach and ocean on one side and Lynn Harbor on the other, connected the mainland to Nahant, our long awaited destination.   Through the rolled down car windows came our first tangy whiff of the prevailing East wind.

The first turn off the neck led up a hill past closely set, two-family summer cottages, then curved around the highest point with its wide flung view of the ocean before continuing downhill on Little Nahant Road to the larger homes and lots that bordered Nahant Bay.

At 191, behind the white painted gate and high bridal wreath hedges, stood my maternal grandparents’ home, a gray, shingled house with cream trim and green shutters, its windows and welcoming porches open to the sea breeze.  Here each day’s routine proceeded as certainly and gradually as the turning of the tide.  Slowly the sea withdrew, exposing the rocks festooned with sea weed; slowly it returned, filling natural pools and coves.

From the dormer window in my small nursery I could look across the lawn and gardens, along the continuing rocky shore and sea wall, to the beach that joined Big Nahant and to the white Coast Guard Station with its lookout tower and big gray row boats; always ready to rescue someone, the adults explained.  That shadow of unknown danger gave me a little shiver of awe, as did the moan of the fog horn on days when mist rolled in to enclose us.    However, those were brief, passing clouds in my sunny existence and I accepted the power of the sea long before I understood it.

On the wide, glassed-in sun porch that faced the bay, I invariably found “Garmie,” my youthful grandmother with her titian blonde hair and her cigarettes, seated in one of the gray wicker chairs, keeping an alert vigil with her binoculars. She watched the local fishing dories set forth, stared out beyond the island of Egg Rock, once the site of a light house that guided schooners away from treacherous rocks.   On the distant horizon an occasional large ship slid past; perhaps an ocean liner heading to Europe, she told me, and I began to dream of travel to romantic places.

While I stood at her side watching the sun-spangled ocean, Garmie drew me within the circle of her arm.

“Those are sunbeams dancing on the water,” she said.  I became .permanently enchanted by the image.

For my mother and me the days centered on our outings to nearby Short Beach.

My royal blue wool Jantzen bathing suit, which covered my chest modestly, had a white webbed belt with a silvery metal buckle that I liked to click into place.  A multicolored soft straw hat shaded my face from the sun and white rubber swim shoes protected my feet.  Reaching up to hold my mother’s hand, I walked past the summer houses ornamented with shutters and striped awnings, through a field of tall yellow buttercups, then along the boardwalk at the base of the sea wall.  Through the cracks in the gray, weathered walk I could see masses of gold and brown sea weed left by the receding tide and I wrinkled my nose at the pungent smell.

Between the warm rubble of smooth rocks at the top of the beach and the ridged sand darkened by the lap of the waves, my mother would find an uncrowded space among the scattered groups of beach goers where she spread our blanket and belongings on the soft dry sand.   Soon I would move to the expanse of damp, hard packed sand nearer to the ocean and with my shiny red pail, matching shovel, and fluted molds become totally absorbed in digging, lifting, and carrying sand and water to build cakes and castles.  Whether looking along the length of the beach dotted with umbrellas and chairs, or staring out to the wide horizon, I felt myself contentedly alone, part of a limitless world of blue ocean and sky.  It was a marvelous freedom from the strictures of childhood discipline and obedience.

On days when the tide brought in calm water warmed by the sand I settled in at water’s edge, enjoying the small ripples that slid over me, feeling the push of the salt water lift my legs slightly, turning onto my stomach and pretending to swim.  I had begun to realize that going to the beach meant more than merely playing.  It also meant learning to swim.  I watched the adults, including my energetic girlish mother, pull on their bathing caps, plunge into the rolling waves and come back to stand dripping and sniffling, toweling and shaking out their hair, exclaiming how invigorating it was.  I watched them with puzzled curiosity and returned to my sand projects.

However, my mother, an expert swimmer, was eager for me to learn what she considered a basic skill.  She would come to me with a pair of grayish canvas water wings, a device meant to give confidence to the most reluctant beginner.  Having blown into them until the two ovals were firmly inflated, she would coax me to go with her into water perhaps up to my waist, then place the connecting band across my chest so that a wing extended on either side.  Smiling optimistically, she would persuade me to lie on my stomach and feel the buoyancy of the water while she held the back of my suit. Craning my neck above the lap of the waves, I bobbed along cooperatively with her at my side.

“You can’t sink in salt water,” she assured me.

Yet whenever she convinced me to try paddling without her reassuring hold or the support of the water wings, I would stiffen and indeed sink like a stone, further insulted by the splash of salty water in my nose, mouth, and eyes.

These tentative encounters challenged severely my wish to swim.  I would rather walk along the beach looking for the spiraled shells of periwinkles, the pearly lined blue shells of mussels, oddly shaped stones, or bits of glass, blue, amber, and green, ground and shaped by the sea.

When I did finally learn to swim it was in the natural, rock walled pool below my grandmother’s house.  At the lower edge of the lawn the boundary of the sea wall dropped precipitously some thirty feet to a jumble of rocks, then extended further into massive shelvings of tan, gray, and rose colored rock that jutted into the ocean.  Long forbidden to even approach the lower edge of the lawn, at the age of eight I was permitted to join Garmie as she maneuvered nimbly over the rocks with her fishing gear.

She had tamed the rocks for descent with occasional flat steps of cement

that eased the path to and from the water.  With typical zest and imagination she had a wide natural curve in the rocks below enlarged and smoothed with more cement, creating a sheltered pool for friends and family to enjoy.  There under her guidance on a sunny afternoon I finally realized the combination of surrender and control that constitutes the act of swimming.  Imitating her simple breast stroke and frog kick, I moved through the water for a couple of yards.  I was triumphant.

From that time on it was part of growing up to swim a little further each time, to march out uncomplainingly beyond the occasional influx of clinging brown sea weed at the beach in order to reach the deep, clearer water, to plunge into 62 degree water and assure less hardy summer visitors that it was not even cold.  This was pride, an integral trait, I think, among those who grow up by the ocean, even those for whom the shore is simply recreation.

Soon I was learning the crawl and the back stroke, diving into the surf, floating on my back while the waves rocked me gently and I watched the clouds move across the summer sky.  Now I was not just an observer.  I could feel myself a creature of the sea, comfortable in the embrace of silken water, supported and swayed by its buoyancy.

By my teens the implications of the beach-going rite changed, as I left the guarding eyes of my parents and went in the company of friends.  That early immersion in weather, water, and space bred a certain confidence in our physical selves, a delicious vanity over the glow of our suntans and our figures, trim enough in tight wool or satiny swim suits to survive the stares of less ambitious sunbathers when we walked up the beach.  With eyes alternately shy or coy we watched the groups of exuberant young men on the beach, and the free pleasure of swimming palled in comparison with the   exhilaration of those first slight flirtations.

After a swim I stretched my towel across the sand and lay on my stomach, lulled by the heat of the sun and the pulse of the sea.  Cradling my face against the curve of my arm, I could smell the warmth of my skin brightened by the lingering traces of salt.

As a young bride I followed my husband inland to the enclosed spaces of upstate New York, western Massachusetts, and central Maine.  Eagerly we returned each summer to the North Shore for family visits in the setting where we both had grown up.  The house at Little Nahant had been sold, but my in-laws’ home was within sound and smell of the ocean.  With renewed pleasure we explored the beach and tide pools with our children, breathed in the salt air, and were refreshed again by the everlasting power of the sea.

Now I am old, fated to live happily inland, but still I wait eagerly for my yearly return to the shore.  I walk along a seemingly endless stretch of beach, inhaling the fresh sea air.  Cormorants labor across the sky, gulls swoop low, sandpipers etch the sand at water’s edge.  I gaze out at the cobalt sea, to the clear line of the horizon with its invitation to the unknown.

Some nights the soft splash of the waves at low tide lulls me to sleep.  On nights of high tide I listen to the rush of the sea as it withdraws over the rubble of rocks beneath my window.

I wake to a calm morning. The ocean is smooth, its shallow waves unfurling in narrow bands of white foam.  Sunlight spangles the surface.  Once again I am at Little Nahant, watching the sunbeams dance on the water.

~~~~~~~~

Jean-Marie J. Crocker’s poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary publications, including Off the Coast, Blueline, The North Atlantic Review, The Aurorean, and The Hartford Courant.  Having lived on the North Shore of Boston for the first twenty three years of her life, Jean Marie attributes her appreciation of the environment to her early familiarity with the sea and its surroundings.  A graduate of Simmons College, Jean Marie lives in Wilton, New York with her husband.

Adrift, Vernal 2011 Read more

Save Osa Rivers

Dec 30, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

As you may know, late last year we heard it was not only the Río Tigre that was under threat of environmentally damaging in‐stream gravel mining. In January, a volunteer went to San Jose on a fact‐finding mission and we learned that the problem was much larger than we imagined. There was a potential for 14 sand and gravel extraction concessions—approximately 24 kilometers (14.9 miles)—on Mive of Osa’s rivers! The Río Rincón, Río Barrigones, Río Agujas, Río Tigre and Río Piro all have their headwaters in the Corcovado National Park or the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve. All have river mining concessions going through the approval process.

We acted immediately by sending out notices nationwide, attending meetings with other environmental organizations, talking with researchers, collecting Miles, and visiting the pertinent government ofMices in San Jose. The campaign has expanded and we now have a national team of lawyers, biologists and engineers, as well as a few other conservation organizations joining in, signing legal documents, and donating time and money.

To view photographs and read more of this riveting newsletter, click here.

To read exciting new developments in the Save Osa’s Rivers project, click here.

~~~~~~~~

Liz Jones discovered the Osa and its incredible biodiversity in 1993. In 1995 she purchased a piece of property in the remote village of Dos Brazos, on the Rio Tigre and in 1998, with her Costa Rican husband, opened a Bosque del Rio Tigre, a small eco-lodge specializing in birding and natural history guiding.

Throughout her life, Liz has had a passionate connection to the forest and its rivers with her childhood spent roaming the New Jersey Pine Barrens looking for rare plants and animals with her mother, an avid naturalist and biologist.

In 2001, Liz attempted unsuccessfully to get support for an environmentally sound approach to the acquisition of gravel and rock for roads and building materials, which were being taken from the local rivers. Few people, even hard-core environmentalists, truly understood the dynamics and ecosystems of rivers and their connection with the surrounding forests, mangroves and ocean. Fortunately now things have changed and with more information available, many local people are joining the campaign, started in 2009, to preserve the rivers of the Osa. Between 2007-2009, she and her husband, Abraham Gallo, conducted the first serious studies on three of the most endangered, range-restricted birds of the Osa.

Steve Prchal began his career at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum where he served as Assistant Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates for 16 years. In the early ’80s his growing interest in insects and other arthropods led to his leaving ASDM in 1986 to found the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute whose mission was to “turn the world onto bugs.”  As its Director, SASI soon became well known in the museum and zoo industries, especially because of its Invertebrates in Captivity Conference initiated in 1993.

In 2001, Steve took a three month sabbatical to work with Costa Rican butterfly farmers exploring other species of insects which might be produced in captivity for live export to exhibitions in North America and Europe. That led to a year-long grant in 2003 from the Smithsonian Insect Zoo to continue the efforts of bringing non-butterfly species to market. Steve soon fell in love with Costa Rica, its people, and especially its biodiversity. With 50 years as a desert rat exploring and working to conserve the Sonoran Desert region, he decided it was time for a new chapter in his life, in a totally different environment. He left SASI on its 20th birthday in 2006 and founded Ventanas en Corcovado Foundations, whose mission was to develop a research and education center to promote sustainable insect farming on the Osa Peninsula. Insect farming and facility development has had its ups and downs, but protecting Osa’s rivers serves his need to be involved in local conservation efforts.

Adrift, Hibernal 2011 Read more

Wade Tarzia

Dec 30, 2010 1 Comment by Sea Stories

The Small Atlantis

I have rowed over Atlantis, a small, local one, but Atlantis just the same.  I was 17 and teaching myself to row because I had been humiliated in front of cute girls.  Some sea societies declare women to be unlucky on a boat.  Few folklore scholars will admit the reason, fearing what men will say.  But the truth—a boat can make a fool out of a man so quickly and in so many ways, that we fear to have a woman present when the moment happens.  We just have to bear up now that women are flocking to the boating life.

My mother, bless her, was partly to blame for my humiliation as she was always trying to increase my survival odds.  Generally she began by insisting that a moldy, silly-looking (back in the day before stylish life vests) orange lifejacket be tied on, the kind that cry out “big orange mommy’s sissy boy off the starboard bow!” Later she simply made sure I was tied to the shore.  My family was once invited to visit Misery Island just off Cape Ann.  Invited by a friendly boat owner to row his pram around a friendly, enclosed cove, my mother insisted I be moored to shore on a 20 foot line.  I traversed the breaking ripples many times, in and out, as rhythmical as the reciprocating arm of a dumb machine.  A few years later, dad has a ChrisCraft 26, and we are rafted up with the same crowd at the Isles of Shoals, and I’m 15 years old and this time am allowed to take a pram out, but I do so clumsily—not a good time to train myself in manly tasks in front of the daughters of the group.  My friend Bobby, raised on boats, is elected to take my place, and on the whole it’s a miserable weekend.

But take heart!  A messy divorce looms on the horizon, which will be a man-making thing.  Within two years I will have to learn to care for the yard, do the laundry, and get a job to pay for my own clothes, school lunches, and motorcycle repairs.  My mother will move to an apartment on Arlington Lake and her boyfriend, eager to please, will loan me a 14-foot aluminum pram and a caulking gun to fix its leak.  There will be no question of emasculating lines to shore, or feminine witnesses.

Oh blessed time on the lake, plenty of time to practice rowing, helped along by new muscles courtesy of the Haverhill Judo Club.  I live amidst new social conditions, and new anger from whatever can make a 17-year-old boy angry.  I made that pram plane. I heaved for hours and hours on that lake, learning the alternating method, the crack-your-back method, the front-facing row, the feathered oar.  And I learned to glide in the twilight, pulling on the moon and stars, making Milky Ways in my wake.  The only trusty thing in this life is hard work (and that is only half-trusty, but never mind), and I was repaid with a vision of Atlantis.

I was beginning to learn that a shoreline pull is far more interesting than the dull “deep” water of mid-lake (here is ancient wisdom; the edges of things are always most interesting).  And of course, as the bird flies is 3 miles but as the shore goes is many more.  I learned about reasonable backyard peering.  If you have a yard fronting the water, then you must expect study from seaward.  Endless ripples are mesmerizing, but the ways people arrange lawn chairs are endlessly fascinating.  Here’s what it is—we know nothing without a baseline, a Greenwich Meridian, a comparison.  A 17-year-old is especially a thing of definitions and baselines—how do others design their lives?  What have they done within the boundaries life set for them?  What is good?  What is normal?

I know what you’re thinking, especially you (we) the “horizons are boundless!”  American—but let’s chuckle at that ideology.  You are thinking, “Some great sea adventurer such as Tim Severin wouldn’t look into backyards from an aluminum pram, and he wouldn’t feel constrained by imposed boundaries.”  I don’t know what he would think, but I saw lawn chairs in a circle, awaiting a King Arthur’s scene of egalitarian sociability, and barbecues smoking, and decorative whirligigs, a faux lighthouse, towels hanging to dry (in Three Bears arrangements), sailboats I envied, motorboats I did not, badminton, volleyball, sirens in bikinis, people who looked like my parents, my sister, my friends, corralled in fences, hedges, and even agreed upon invisible boundaries—lawn, patios, fine stonework or gray cement, waters lapping at glacier-rounded stones, wet and shining like newly laid dinosaur eggs.

What did I learn?  I can’t frame it in words—writing is only a half-model at best.  I guess it was all Atlantis, if you will—a pretty place, arrogant in its taken-for-granted acceptability (which is a kind of imperial power), ultimately doomed.  But another Atlantis awaited.

One day my prow glided over shallow water, and the sun bore down, and the windless day allowed that plate glass condition.  It was the kind of day when a child drapes over a gunwale, stares into the water to explore the undersea world.  I baked in the sun blessedly ignorant of the equation, “sun = radiation damage.”  The pram drifted…. right over sudden angularities, gliding soundlessly into my gaze.  I didn’t know then that weak math skills in a couple of years would kill my poorly laid college-plans to be an oceanographer—I would study archaeology, and this is one reason why:

What were these ruins?  Even then I had some foggy idea of 19th-century industry to be found under brown leaves, squirrel hoards, and secondary forests, or under the shallows of the dammed lake—such woods had been my playground, the naturally reclaimed land between urban centers and the old zones of arable land.  That didn’t stop me from flashes of imaginative “suspension of disbelief.”  What is Atlantis, anyway but a passed away dream of satisfying illogic?  I floated over an old millwork, perhaps a farmer’s outbuildings, or small textile mill, an icehouse, a cider press, smithy.  Anyway, someone had once stood there before the dam was built, may have spent 20 years of a life rolling, banging, tapping, pushing, pressing—dreaming to say the least, and now another dream moved on, as real as the circled lawn chairs, and a prophet to them.

What fancies from some slime coated foundation two feet under a lake!  I know, somehow, that floating over the real Atlantis would be a little more interesting—but an eye can frame only a little at a time.  These stones might well have been a piece of the fabled city—perhaps the high priest’s toilet, the study of the famous poet Ta-Ashlon, Lady Crykia’s potting shed, farmer Tritonn’s chicken coop, a jail where the odd Greek or Egyptian smuggler awaited sacrifice to Ava-Tar.

And then the glorious fall, all gone in a day and a night.  Our more mundane falls are usually dragged out for an agonizing period, full of survivable daily indignities, which is another good thing about Atlantis – it is a fine fantasy for just getting the bad news over with.  No slow disorder of the lawn chairs, invading post-divorce weeds, paint flaking from the little lighthouse granddad made, where once your greatest worry was keeping the kid from being sunburned, the kid now stealing your creaking family van to buy substances from a guy named Ice Pick in the brutally honest side of town.  No — Atlantis was all cataclysm, great cracks opening beneath the shining marble.  The mountain-tall tsunamis were not there to be pleaded with, but accepted, with just a moment to perhaps run if you must affirm reflexive life, or turn and face to compose a final haiku, or at least a time give one futile but inspiring obscene gesture (the ultimate affirmation of life-force).

But do I over-value Atlantis?  Was it ever any good?  If it was all vanity, did anything ever get better after Atlantis sank?  Yes—antibiotics and anesthesia, not too bad, though they can keep global warming, automatic firearms, and the H-bomb.  In fact, someone said all these things had to come together, that the invention of one thing would lead to unforeseen other things – the refrigerator would lead to social status, convenience, fewer cases of food poisoning, liquid oxygen, rocket motors, the ICBM and the rocket that delivered stuff to make your GPS and TV work.  So the painted idols of Atlantis and the carnival backyards of Arlington Lake had to come with all sorts of consequences.  So be it.

But I will hear no critiques against my own Atlantis of Arlington Lake.  Sure, a cyclopean fallen column or the palace steps where Mymondes fought 700 warriors to rescue Princess Sremeda (making this up as I go) would be pretty cool—but it wouldn’t be mine, wouldn’t be possible or reasonable.  My little Atlantis left behind ruins to be pondered, real foundations that birthed ghostly superstructures of imagined lives.  My boat passed over them just within reach, just out of reach.  Mystical lines of thought connected the living backyards with their smoke wafting from barbecues and their sunning girls and bloody-kneed toddlers, connected these to the quiet squares of brick and fieldstone where a fish hid in the shade.

Atlantis is the border, the far away thing that lets us measure time and difference and here and what-if and even-so.  And if that makes little sense, I can say at least what counts, that this Atlantis was mine, this little adventure is the one I had and it still delights me.  It lacks the million dollar submarine filming the depths in its spearing spotlights, but I can report that the tinny slap of the dented aluminum pram did not detract from my life in any way.

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Wade is a teacher of literature and philosophy at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Connecticut.  He’s published variously in the fields of fiction, poetry, essay, and anthropology/folklore. Wade published his poem “Letter to my Daughter” in the first issue of Sea Stories.

Adrift, Hibernal 2011 Read more

Nick Jans

Oct 04, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

Breathing

“We’ve got whales,” said Mark Kelley, as we rounded the point, my little cabin cruiser Chance cutting through the slick, glass-green swell. “Two there, four or five more across the way, off to the left, behind us…holy mackerel, look at ‘em. They’re everywhere.” As I throttled down, he dug in his camera pack. Sherrie dialed in her binoculars, and our dogs—Gus, the retired Seeing Eye Lab and Chase, the Blue Heeler, tested the air, nostrils quivering at the strange, wild scent.

It was one of those early September days that come between the rains in Southeast Alaska, when the world seems to hold its breath. Light, sometimes silver, sometimes golden, spilled through rafted clouds, casting sea and land in spot-lit, shifting patterns. And before us, the mountain-rimmed, tide-swept bay, several miles long and two wide at the mouth,  was so full of humpback whales—dozens of them blowing, rolling and diving in their unhurried, timeless rhythms—that I imagined the water bulging upward, displaced by the sheer volume of their bodies. Even though I was on full alert and at minimum planing speed headed in, I had to heel over hard once to avoid an equally startled whale who’d surfaced off our bow. As Mark had said, they were everywhere.

At the end of each summer—the last two weeks of August and into mid-September—most of the thousand or so humpbacks in Southeast gather at such places, scattered along the coast. Is it concentrated food that brings them? Is it a social occasion? Or is each area a staging point from which to launch their annual southward migration? While we can only guess at their collective purpose, the loose, milling congregations mark the shifting of the seasons, regular enough to circle on the calendar. By October most of the whales will be gone, off on their 3,000-mile journey across the North Pacific to their wintering and breeding grounds off Hawaii. Others will aim near Mexico and Japan, and a few toward Costa Rica. Moving at an average pace of five miles an hour, pausing only for brief rests, some will make the trip in as little as five weeks. Through the winter, they’ll eat little or nothing for several months, preoccupied with breeding the following season’s calves, or giving birth to and nurturing this year’s. Their fast won’t end until they return to Alaska waters in May. To put that metabolic feat into perspective, imagine grizzlies that, instead of entering their dens, migrated across a continent and back, breeding along the way–all without eating. Only the whale’s 25 to 35-ton bulk, along with its prodigious ability to feed and store energy, allows for such excess.

Despite the huge distances involved, humpbacks are creatures of habit, retracing routes learned from their mothers and imprinted on memory. How they navigate the trackless expanse of the sea is a mystery; theories include navigation by the stars or sensing the magnetic field of the earth itself through iron deposits in their brains’ frontal lobes. Perhaps they can sense currents and wave patterns, smell their way, or use land forms as guides when they rise above the surface to glimpse our world through grapefruit-sized eyes. The whales, as usual, keep their own counsel, the details of their lives hidden by the chill, swirling darkness through which they move, a world as foreign to us as the chasms between stars. We may lower hydrophones to record their complex vocalizations, make shallow, brief dives among them, and pore over the massive, blubber-sheathed bulk of dead specimens; but most of our observations are limited to the scant moments when these mammals—sixth-largest and most acrobatic among the large whales—brush against the atmosphere that we call home. It’s here that we meet, linked by our shared dependency on straining oxygen from the air.

Imagine, though, a pair of lungs large enough when inflated to fill my 21-foot boat stem to stern, channeled through twin nostrils each the diameter of a fist, and the currents of cold air surging to fill the tremendous vacuum, held long minutes through a dive (five or eight, occasionally much longer), then exhaled in a vaporous, pluming burst. Of course I’d heard the sound of that release a thousand times over the whale-rich waters of Southeast; even under normal conditions, it can carry a mile or more. But there, in the confines of that bay, in the glowing stillness of that afternoon, the flat sea and close-leaning mountains forming a sounding-board, the explosive sigh of so many whales breathing—Huuuunnnhh….Aaaaahhhhh…Ooohaaaa—vibrated in the air, overlapping like strange breaking waves. One particular whale’s exhalation resembled a ship’s foghorn–an incredible, Jurassic trumpeting that seemed to reverberate from everywhere. And, for the sheer size and numbers of great beasts around us, the largest old females over 60 thousand pounds each, their calves the equivalent of a paltry elephant or two, we might as well have been floating on some ancient, monster-filled sea.

One thing was clear;  whatever other reasons the whales had to congregate at this spot, just now they were preoccupied with the main business of the season: inhaling the endless buffet in the nutrient-laden currents of the Inside Passage. While in Alaska waters, humpbacks forage up to 20 hours a day, gulping great maws of seawater and straining out hundreds of pounds of herring, candlefish, or shrimp-like krill through the rows of baleen that line their toothless jaws. They pause only to bask and nap on the surface for a few minutes at a time. On this particular day, feed was so dense that the depth finder, bouncing its sonar pulse toward the bottom far below, often showed a solid band of black just below the keel. Though humpbacks are noted for their wide range of photogenic, above-the-surface behaviors—lob-tailing, fin-slapping, spy-ho

pping, and spectacular, gravity-defying breaches—these whales were too busy cramming their gullets to bother with such displays. Apparently conditions were so good they didn’t need to engage in lunge-feeding or bubble netting, tactics which often send groups of whales crashing through the surface head-first, jaws agape. This day it was every whale for itself, swimming and diving and gorging at will.

Good news for them, but bad for pictures, it turned out. With so many whales milling around—a dozen spouts, backs, or tails sometimes visible at once, spread out at all points of the compass, a fraction of the total number actually there (40 whales? 60?)—we found ourselves almost dazed, like lions awash in a sea of zebras, unable to focus down on one group. The whales’ movements were unpredictable and disconnected; two would dive a hundred yards away, headed toward us, then rise, long minutes later, a quarter mile farther out. Cows and calves, single animals, and pods of up to a half dozen appeared and disappeared as we drifted on the outgoing tide, sometimes rising so close and suddenly that we instinctively leaned back from the enormous, water-parting bulk of their passing. At times, the overpowering fish-reek of their vaporized breath washed over us, clinging in our nostrils. Periods of intense, too-close to focus-and-frame activity, burning through rolls of film while struggling to match lenses to changing conditions, merged with periods with too little water and sky, bad lighting, and not enough whale in the viewfinder. “So many,” I heard Mark mutter. “Why is it so tough?” While I perched on the cabin roof, he ranged the back deck, and Sherrie, an intent dog under each arm, sat by the forward hatch. At one point, faced with a humpback 20 feet off our bow, Chase, like any good cattle dog,  sprang to the boat’s defense, hackles up and stiff-legged, an edge of abject panic in her bark. As the unconcerned whale dove, she settled back with a triumphant, relieved growl. Gus, being a Lab, was more copasetic; what he wanted most was to trade a little friendly end-sniffing with that big, weird thing.

The light inevitably faded along with the day, and we headed home. In the end, I came away with a small handful of images; I kept a dozen or so slides, while most spiraled into the trash after a quick glance. Most weren’t bad, but nothing captured the experience or was particularly useful from a professional point of view. Mark, more picky still, told me he kept just a couple. Somehow, the spectacle of the day, like the lives of the whales themselves, had eluded our attempts at capture in a formal, visual sense. But sound imprinted on memory is another matter. All I have to do is turn inward for a moment, late at night, and the world is filled with the breathing of whales, huge in the silence.

Breathing first appeared in Alaska Magazine, followed by The Glacier Wolf.
All writing and photographs are copyright of Nick Jans 2010

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Nick Jans is one of Alaska’s most recognized and prolific writers. A contributing editor to Alaska Magazine and a member of USA Today’s board of editorial contributors, he’s written 9 books and hundreds of magazine articles, and contributed to many anthologies. His range includes poetry, short fiction, literary essays, natural history, outdoor adventure, fishing, and political commentary. In addition, Jans is a professional nature photographer, specializing in wildlife and landscapes in remote locations. He has been the recipient of numerous writing awards, most recently the co-winner of two Ben Franklin Medals (2007 and 2008) and a Rasmuson Foundation artist grant (2009). He currently lives in Juneau with his wife, Sherrie, and travels widely in Alaska. He returns each year to Ambler, the arctic Inupiaq Eskimo village in which he lived for 20 years, and the place he still calls “home.”   For more information, please visit Nick’s website, http://www.nickjans.com/

Adrift, Autumnal 2010 Read more