Deb Goeb

Jan 18, 2012 No Comments by Sea Stories

Casey R. Schulke Interviews Deb Goeb, 2011 United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Refuge Officer of the Year for the Mountain-Prairie Region

CRS: Deb, first of all, thank you for being a part of Sea Stories. This is sure to be one of the most unique interviews for the journal! Let’s start by talking about your job, as I think it might surprise our readers a little bit!

DG: I am a full time Law Enforcement Officer for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Montana.  Thankfully, I can’t describe an average day, as my job is anything but routine.  Depending on the season, I’m a game warden dealing with poachers or a cop handling drug and alcohol related issues.  I also serve as an Engine Boss on fire assignments and as a Use of Force instructor for a variety of law enforcement applications.  I’m a member of the Service Honor Guard as well as on the Service Dive Team.  Basically, I never know where I’m going to be asked to go or what I’ll be asked to do – from taking horses into the back country, a two week assignment in Guam, a three week assignment in Alaska, teaching at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center or diving in Puerto Rico surveying coral reefs.

CRS: You’re based in rural Montana? So, what brings you to the ocean?

DG: I have not always been stationed in Montana, but I have always loved being in, on, or around the water.  Being on the ocean, I get sea sick, but put me in the ocean and I’m as comfortable there as I am on land.  I’m drawn to the ocean because it’s a whole other world on our world that still holds secrets and mysteries yet to be discovered and understood.  I feel fortunate that my personal fascination with the ocean now crosses paths with my professional opportunities.

CRS: Let’s start at the beginning.Where did your love of diving start?

DG: My father was a diver. One day when I was a kid, using his tank and regulator, he let me sit on the bottom of a lake in northern Wisconsin. That was it!  Running out of air was the only thing that got me out of the water that day.

CRS: How long have you been diving?

DG: Since I was 12 years old.Off and on, as finances, employment, and location have permitted.

CRS: Wow! With all those years of experience, you must have some amazing stories. Tell me about your most exhilarating experience underwater?

DG: It’s hard to choose just one. It’s more of a tie between each “first”.  The first time stingrays surrounded me at Stingray City in the Cayman, the first time a barracuda came nose-to-mask to check me out, the first time I caught a lobster in the Florida Keys, the first time I descended over a sunken ship in St. Thomas and it slowly took shape out of the darkness. All of these experiences made my heart beat a little faster and pound a little louder in my ears.

CRS: You’ve also probably seen some amazing animals during your diving experiences.  What has been your favorite?

DG: I have seen and swam alongside most of the creatures that all divers dream of seeing and swimming with – dolphins, sharks , rays, and sea turtles. But, believe it or not, one of my favorite sea creature experiences is with a group little critters called cleaner shrimp.  While exploring a ship wreck, I put my ungloved hand in the sand on the ocean floor and suddenly out marched a troop of cleaner shrimp. Theyimmediately went to work on my fingers. I’d never even had a manicure before!

CRS: Here’s a tough question. If you could only dive one more time, where would it be and why?

DG: The first place that comes to mind is Pearl Harbor on the USS Arizona.  I am a huge history geek and to be able to touch that piece of history before the ocean consumes it and its lost forever would be the thrill of a lifetime.

CRS: Getting back to your work for a moment, how does your job directly relate to ocean conservation?

DG: The work I do with the dive team impacts ocean conservation on two fronts. First, through law enforcement and protection. Second, through biological survey and research.  In a law enforcement capacity, the dive team has been instrumental in stopping and prosecuting illegal commercial and private harvesting of lobster throughout the Florida Keys.  Such large scale illegal take of a single species has not only immediate and obvious consequences, but also untold repercussions for generations to come.  Other protection efforts have included investigating and stopping the illegal take of fish and marine life for both commercial and personal use as well as the illegal introduction of invasive species.  Biological research has included coral reef and fish surveys and transplanting coral to create new, healthy reefs.  With biological research, law enforcement can better understand how to protect the natural resources in the ocean.  In turn, biologists will continue to have the rich biodiversity on which their research and understanding of our oceans so greatly rely.

CRS: Tell me a little bit more about the ocean-related biological studies you’ve been a part of.

DG: The only biological work that I’ve contributed to so far has been a coral reef survey in Puerto Rico in 2010.  The ongoing concerns for the health of our world’s ocean reefs has recently turned to alarm because of how quickly they are dying.  We dove on several reefs near Culebra Puerto Rico and using specific parameters set by the biologists, surveyed and inventoried the type and variety of both living and dead coral.  This data will be used to track the health of these reefs over the next decade.  Several other biological surveys have been planned such as transplanting coral, recovering fish survey equipment, fish surveys, and invasive mussel work.  Unfortunately,  due to a variety of environmental conditions, all have been postponed or rescheduled.  A lot of factors have to come together to enable us to safely and successfully conduct these ocean studies, so I’m hoping 2012 will be more cooperative than 2011 was.

CRS: Deb, you seem like a very brave woman. I’m not a swimmer or a diver, so I have to ask. Have you ever been scared while in the ocean?

DG: I’ve been, among other things, nervous, anxious, excited, startled, apprehensive, and uneasy, but never actually scared while in the ocean.  I’ve never had anything go terribly wrong while diving and I think that as long as you respect your environment, know your limitations, and maintain awareness to your surroundings, there is little to be truly afraid of.

CRS: Thank you so much for allowing me to speak with you and thank you for the work you do to protect our oceans.

Hibernal 2012, Hinterland Read more

Wade Tarzia

Sep 30, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

K.R. Copeland Interviews Educator/Sailing Enthusiast, Wade Tarzia

K.R. Thanks for being with us, Wade. Most people attribute their lifelong passion for the ocean to early childhood experiences. Tell me, at what age did your passion begin, and could you describe your first recollected oceanic experience.

W.T. Sorry, long answer, because things are complex! My first experience of the sea is almost my first recollection of anything.  It is an image of horror. My father took me with some of his friends to fish off a bridge somewhere on the coast north of Cape Ann and south of Maine.  I leaned over to indulge my first study of the sea.  I am watching someone’s fishing line disappear into the water below, and he is reeling it back to check his bait.  And then ….a horrific creature leaps out of the water and grabs the bait. It must have been a scalpin, and in fact that may be the earliest word I recall ever hearing, in someone’s rough male voice.  It has cartoon teeth, the sawtooth kind, and the bulging eyes of nightmare.  It took that bait and hook in one snip of its teeth and was gone, but since time slows down in such moments as the memory records in faster increments, its face hung there staring at me for the longest moment.   Someone cried out in amused disgust.  I had no words at all.  I don’t think I have ever since looked into the sea with unalloyed joy.  And that’s good, it’s realistic.

Now, as for the ‘lifelong passion’ part, hmmm. My father grew up on the banks of the Merrimack River in Haverhill, MA, a starving Italian Huck Finn.  So all his childhood tales were about building crude rafts and boats from lumber discarded behind the shoe factories, and having adventures on the river with his deaf cousin Dante (with whom he had to invent a language of home-signs and semi-articulated grunts and hoots that only he and my dad understood — sailors must be inventive, or inventive people become sailors when they can, who knows?).  Back then “you could walk over the Merrimack on lumps of shit; it’s miracle I’m still alive,” he told me.  He also left home at age 16 (he and my granddad did not get along) and sometimes made his living sailing rich men’s sailboats for them (“while they went below with their women”), and that’s how poor kids get great sailing experience, subsidized by the rich.  My childhood was much more regulated and protected, though.  I heard his stories without being allowed to mimic any of them.

But the seed started growing with the TV documentaries of Jacques Cousteau, and his book, The Living Sea. I loved that man and his life (and when from a radio announcement I heard he’d died, I shocked myself by suddenly crying in my car driving home from work).  My father briefly tried Scuba diving at that time.  I got to breathe from his air tank during my severe asthma attacks, when my parents reasoned if I breathed purified air it would help. Imagine the odd romance of that, lying in bed gasping for breath, turning blue, seeking relief from Jacques Cousteau’s invention!  I would try to be an oceanography major briefly in college because of him, until the calculus course killed that.

Eventually dad bought an old cabin cruiser for weekend jaunts with other families who had small power cruisers, but by then I was 15, had a motorcycle, and a lot of independence.  Powerboats had no romance for me — not the things of passion.  But when my parents divorced, my mother rented an apartment on a New Hampshire lake, and then I started rowing for hours, day and night (as better explained in my Sea Stories essay, “The Small Atlantis”). At the same time I was reading the heroic fantasy adventures of Fritz Leiber and Robert Howard, many of which put their heroes sailing the seas, so I can peg the date of the real sea passion to the age of 17, in 1975.  It was then I wanted a sailboat, but had not the means or the imagination (I’m so sorry to say) to get one or build one.  Then came college, and all my scant resources had to focus there.

K.R. So, if not at age 17, when did your sailing adventures (bought, built or otherwise) begin?

W.T. My step-father had a Maine lobsterboat and as a kind of hobby (I hesitate to use the word for an obsession) a charter-boat and commercial fishing license when he wasn’t building houses.  I was the “first mate” for one summer after grad school, and my duties were to help with the boat operation, gaff fish for the customers, clean the fish, and mop up customer vomit.  We also fished for Bluefin Tuna, and then my duty was to cut up chum (sometimes crate-loads of rotting fish) for bait to drop overboard to lure the tuna to the hook.  I spent the summer of ’83 doing that, and I made enough money to pay for the gas to see my girlfriend.

But I never regretted it — I learned I could handle a bad storm and long rolling vomit-inducing days without adding to the steaming heap myself. I loved cruising standing over the waves on the tuna pulpit with a harpoon in hand for hours (The one time I was near a school the captain was saying, “Throw!  Throw now!”  And I was saying, “Just a little closer!” and the tuna sort of gave me the finger and slid slowly under the surface.)  I learned I enjoyed taking care of “my boat,” putting her right and clean at day’s end.  And I learned I could feel so dirty with sweat and rotten fish guts splattered all over me that I could revert to priorities, stripping naked on a Gloucester dock and showering off with a hose — only the dim light of dusk between me and the tourists promenading. (I like to think I added my bit to Gloucester folklore).  These were all good things to know besides lovely scenes: the good clichés such as sunrise at sea and dolphins playing around in our wake, of course, and the surprise of whales surfacing all around us one day and blowing when the engine needed repair and we were drifting quietly with our heads stuck in the bilge.

I also had a first-hand encounter with ecological issues.  I listened to the sports fishermen talk about the loss of the haddock fishery (which has now returned) and the declining size of cod over the years.  They spoke of the draggers cleaning out the sea (a common accusation standing between the different “ethnic groups” of sea-users).  Bluefin tuna were still to be had, but the sheer enormity of the commercial operation was an eye-opener and led to the sad situation we have today.  I mean, here we were, a small operation, and our competitors had airplanes circling around spotting tuna from the sky.  And yet all of us had sonar fish-finders, an ultimately destructive technology, I now think, second only to the draggers (whose steel nets can alter the very morphology of the sea bottom, irreparable for perhaps a million years).  And the Japanese, waiting at the dock, paying by the pound by the temperature of the carcass, relieving it of head and tail with a chainsaw, trucking right to the airport, and in 24 hours it is sushi in Tokyo.  I’m not blaming anyone for liking fish, but even when I was naive it was clear what industrial technology was doing to this resource.

After that summer I taught a year as slave-faculty (adjunct) at a community college, and then I had a career job as a technical writer for Pratt & Whitney Aircraft –proving that things could be done with degrees in anthropology and English — I ordered my first boat in the heady days of my first middle-class salary.

I had Lowells Boat Shop, a 200 year old dory shop in Amesbury, MA, make me a small sailing dory-skiff.  Its lapstrake construction (overlapping riveted planks) harkened back to ancient Norse ships, and I finally I owned a piece of the romance!  I had thirsted after a boat with lapstrake construction ever since I started the post-divorce routine.  Get out of high school on Friday, work a couple of hours at my part-time job in a curtain store (with no interior decorating genes, I believe I was hired as a quasi-body guard for the female manager, as I had nothing to do but vacuum the floor 5 times a night  and eat donuts).  The nice old woman safely in her Buick at closing, get on my beat denim jacket, pull a helmet over my shoulder-length hair, and ride my motorcycle to where every wild teen should go on Friday night — the library.  There pull out books on medieval history and Viking ship construction and just leave the world of the living (I spent long hours with the dead, as Mr. Casaubon realizes too late in the novel Middlemarch.)  Then drive to my mother’s and sister’s apartment for the weekend, hang out, and pick up where I left off in Swords of Mars.

That routine led to straight to the Lowell dory as soon as I had a few paychecks from Pratt & Whitney behind me. My father visited the shop frequently during its construction and gammed with the boat builder, and he welded me up a trailer for it.  He had a mast and sail from his ex-boss’s boat (dad was a little vague about that), so we cut it to fit.  Now, for sailing lessons all I had were a handful of fantasy stories and a head full of notions.  Dad told me a few things, but teaching was not his great skill; he thought all you need do is show a boy some tools, or a boat, make him watch you work and hand him wrenches and screws, and it would all come together eventually.  He did give me an old sailing manual Learn How to Sail! with a photo of author Commodore O’Day in his elite white yachting clothes standing in his race boat, and a bunch of diagrams of wind and sail angles.  So to close the circle I dropped the boat in the lake where my mother had had her divorce apartment a decade ago, where I had learned to row, and I sailed with my then-wife aboard.  I know now all the hideous assumptions and mistakes I made, and would make for years, but with the stories of Fritz Leiber’s fantasy heroes in their sea adventures, and Mr. O’Day’s advice, I brought the boat out and back again somehow, and that was that, I have not gotten sailboats out my system since.

Someone invented a proverb that resonates in the small-boat world: the boat that you use is the best boat.  An awful lot of people are discovering that they did not use their 35 footer as they had imagined, but a 15 or 20 footer kept on a trailer ultimately turns out to have been the best boat, used often, and some people have had real adventures in them, adventures attainable by us common folk, when we can escape the narcotics of couch and TV.  I am happy that Swan brought me a little way into that world — a world of relative quiet, of efficient wind power, a need to develop some skills, and also a world of required patience since sometimes Nature says, “Sorry, no, you can’t go there as you had planned, not unless you turn on a motor.  Are you going to turn on a motor?  Is that what you are made of?  Go ahead, my dear, make a decision, tell me who you are.”  The decision to buy a motor (sometimes good for safety) and if bought, when to use it, is a subtle crisis for the sailor and the modern environment!

My sailing life turned to outrigger canoes at one crisis point (another story), and I could not pay attention to that 24 year old wooden dory.  I donated her back to Lowells Boat Shop, which became a nonprofit heritage organization from which you can still order a dory or rent one on a Sunday.  The Swan floats there now at her mooring where she was born — all’s right in that little world.

K.R. You mention utilizing motors for safety purposes, in spite of environmental concerns. Have you ever been in a situation that required you to do so?

W.T.   Well, a sailboat over a certain size usually needs a motor to maneuver in tight spaces or get home if the wind dies, (and some sailors are not able to do extended athletic rowing because of age or illness) but it can be small and efficient (4 cycle or even electric, but electricity is made somewhere and usually by fossil fuels).  A five-horsepower motor can move an efficient sailboat hull, even a pretty large boat.  And if you intend to go up a river or past a tidal race, you need some power (for a comparison, a human rower in top condition can generate at most one-half horsepower, and for long stretches 0.2 horsepower is more likely.)  But the need for a motor is as much a function of our modern life of weekends, Monday mornings, and clocks in general. If you only have a weekend free, you must to be back Sunday night, and so the most dedicated-to-wind sailor will sometimes have to use a motor (my sailing day is set by sunset — if I do not leave Lighthouse Point parking lot by sunset, they will tow my vehicle).  Otherwise, you could do as sailors used to do: anchor to wait for the tide to turn or the wind to shift or freshen, and do some chores, catch a nap, or spin some yarns in the meantime. The social reality is otherwise.

My complaint is with our crazy American way of thinking, with its focus on BIG and FAST and NOISY.  A planing powerboat lifted off its wave to break its “hull speed” limitation uses about ten times the fuel per unit time of a power boat content to motor slowly within its hull wave.  It is a problem in philosophy and ideology that becomes a problem for the environment.  (Look at the car commercials — we are hardly out of the American car manufacturer crisis, and they are already back to extolling SUVs and fast cars again?  Oh, come now!) The small sail/paddle/row boat represents the opposite philosophy. You do not go as far, but then, what does it matter if it takes you a day to go 40 miles — your speed creates your world, and 40 miles passed slowly is in a way the same as 120 miles done quickly.  (During my folklore fieldwork trips to Ireland I have traveled by bicycle for over 3,000 miles, and have also tried rental cars.  Guess which method provides the most complete experience?)

I’ve never been in situation where a motor was needed for safety, though I could imagine some situations — a squall line is approaching and you could reach a safe place with a motor, etc.  Or your sailing rig is damaged and motor is needed to get home before dark.  But the technology on a sailboat often can be negotiated with. The other day my deck gear tore out and I fixed it temporarily with a piece of rope — one of the joys of simple technology!

But lots can happen that a motor is no protection against. For example, the boom can smack you in a windshift.  If you treated your boom like a beloved family member who sometimes loses his mind and does crazy things, that would be OK.  A veteran sailor I know tells the story of hearing something odd, and his instinct was to duck whenever that happens, and the huge boom on his boat swept by in a near-decapitating stroke after some hardware broke.

Once my whole boat hit me on the head, and I suppose motors have some stake in this story (I wrote humorously about in an essay still available on-line at Proafile magazine, “My Bloody First Day with a Crabclaw”).  A power boater towing a water skier cut me off rather rudely, and I stood up to douse my sail just as a gust caught us and knocked my outrigger canoe down.  The outrigger float swung 180 degrees across the sky and hammered me on the head as I bobbed up from the water. That was the first day I had worn my life vest instead of sitting on it, so now I always wear it.  I woke up in a pool of blood, floating with my foot crushed between some gear.  (For such a “slow” sport, bad things happen terribly quickly and all at once)  The guy who had gotten in the way brought me aboard, and I scared the crap out of one of his passengers, a 3 year old boy, who thought his dad had hauled the living dead out of the lake. The fellow’s boat wouldn’t start, so these other guys motored up and offered to take me to shore.  I had to swim to their boat because of the wind, and they kept throwing me a rope and missing me, so I had to swim some more.  The wind then brought the two boats together with me as the sandwich meat.   (The Monty Python guys could have done this as a Coast Guard training film).  Finally the second rescue boat drives off, they failed to raise their outdrive soon enough and rammed it on the lake floor, damaging it, so again I had to leap overboard and swim to shore throwing thanks and apologies behind like cheap candy.  By the time I met the ambulance ashore, I was tired of being helped so they had to trick me inside and slam the doors.  The EMT suffered motion sickness when the AC was not turned on, so I traded puke for a touch of hypothermia by the time we came to the ER.  So, the afternoon left many people’s wreckage in my wake, my blood deposited on all our vehicles (the waterline of my boat was stained brown until I repainted).  The day was sunny and beautiful, and though the water does not suffer fools gladly, it gladly accepts our holiday sacrifices!

K.R. Wow. You’d think having one’s head smashed between two boats might sway a person away from sailing. So, what keeps you going back for more?

W.T.  Luckily, most days are not like the ones that make tragi-comical anecdotes!  But a more satisfactory answer is this: this small-boat hobby is ill-described by the word ‘hobby’.  Even when not lived 24/7, it sure seems to engage a lot of life.  Though many people have been doing-it-themselves (as the venerable Popular Mechanics Magazine suggests), the DIY (do-it-yourself) movement has been getting some attention recently through events such as Burning Man, journals such as Make Magazine, and sites such as Instructables.Com.  These are all great things but are just the outward symbols — I think — of a resistance to and sickness from an industrially produced world which for all its wonders seems to subtract inventive/problem-solving qualities from the general human.  The DIYers are trying to get it back, or to go down fighting, I don’t know which.   I feel strongly that the small-boat micro-culture is an expression of this movement.

I recently got to a true veteran of boat design and living, Jim Brown, and he said it best while we were chatting. It went something like this as I was showing him my little craft when passing by his Virginia homestead: “It’s just a small boat, Jim, but I cannot adequately explain what it means to me. The word ‘hobby’ isn’t right.”  He smiles because I need explain nothing. “No, Wade, it’s not a hobby, it’s a life.  There’s nothing to compare to designing your own boat, building it, and going to sea in it.”  He was kind to attach my little experience to that of the deeply involved, but I certainly feel that way.

And that’s just what it is.  No matter the size, your whole body is involved — and I include the mind when I say the body.  The dreams, the imagination — these lead to the classic ‘napkin sketches’, the notes and illustrations you draw during interminable committees whose results will be forgotten in a few months.  The basement workshop and its smell, its controlled chaos, and things that start forming into the pieces that might last for years.  Don’t forget the blood split, always a little.  The sketches represent hypotheses, and those tested, the parts become theories.  I learned as much science in my workshop as I did in university — that is not to blame my educators but rather reflects my personal failure to learn science through lecture and text — in that area I am a physical learner and it came late, but not too late.

Then that day you pull the car and trailer back into the parking lot, and walk down to the launch site zipping on your lifejacket.  You cannot help seeing the whole picture now — the boat is waiting, and it is you and yours like no other thing in your life is, except for your children.  Brown in his memoir Among the Multihulls tells the story of his friend who felt that birthing a boat was a man’s attempt of doing what only a woman can do.  Maybe there’s something in that.

So you stop and look at your boat, and yes the cliché is true, it is so small against the panorama of just a bay, never mind an ocean.  But the seagulls are small, too; there they are, evolved for what they do, confident and beautiful.  Small does not mean insignificant, and if the boat is not as evolved as a sea creature, the laws of physics and engineering insure that the kinship is evident.  The lines of bird and fish, you’ll find them on a sailboat.  When traditional waterfolk in Indonesia and the Pacific decorate their canoes, you often find the motifs of birds and fish on them.  I think of birds and fish when I think of the small sailboat/canoe/kayak community.  These people are amazing.  You don’t notice them so much because they make so little noise and take up so little space, use so little energy (wind and muscles, though I confess we burn some gas towing to and from the shore!), and they are some of the most capable and interesting people I’ve met.  Go pick up a periodical like Small Craft Advisor to get a feel for the philosophy of this micro-culture — it has a bit in common with environmentalism, and since they pass relatively slowly along the coasts, they certainly witness much in the world (the on-going, self-supported documentary of British coastal culture and habitat, Keep Turning Left, by sailor and video journalist, Dylan Winter, must be seen in this regard).

And then there is the personal experience of humanity, hard to explain.  When I brought my first boat to the salt water, I will never forget the feeling of leaving earth. I know how silly that sounds, but if the next cliché is ‘the sea as outer space,’ then so be it.  We humans are not adapted to either, but we are beautiful like the seagulls in our technical adaptations, and there we go, where our bodies are not adapted.  I hope it is not all arrogance and desire to conquer (I dislike those “The Right Stuff” allusions), but rather delight and curiosity.  The space-suit or the boat becomes our skin, and the skin does divide out from in.  That’s OK, the here/not here helps us self-define.  When I pushed my boat off that day — despite my previous experience as a fisherman’s mate — I felt a little scared. The wind tightened the sail, we/I moved away, and only my own creation, the wind, and what little I knew about the wind would bring us back.  Just a little bay cruise, no ‘conquest’ but a survived experience (ha, ha), a sense of, “I was there, I saw the world, and I had a hand in that moment.”  There is nothing else like it except …. the other things like it.

The ‘safe cozy home’ themes in some popular science fiction come to mind as an analogy, particularly the TV SF series, Firefly.  Here are a bunch of collected characters living aboard their ramshackle spaceship, and yes the adventures are fun, but some of the most touching moments on the show are when the crew are gathered around the (wooden!) table in the little galley, eating and talking, all that is good in the human condition collected in that little bit of enveloping metal, with a scary space to cross and sudden death outside to define this life.  Being on a small exposed boat can participate a little in that feeling.  Hard to explain — maybe you just have to be there….?  There are some great events out there that will help you feel that way.  The Everglades Challenge race (, six days, 300 miles, Tampa to Key Largo), The Texas 200…. small boats, great people (many DIYers), and just enough organization and deadline to inspire you to get out and DO.  (I failed the Everglades Challenge twice — it can be, er, challenging–  but what the hell, I’m going back when I can, and I’ll meet there others who also failed, fixed what didn’t work, and came back to test yet another hypothesis.)

Our lives are too short to not live the world by imagining, building, and doing. I wish someone reading this, who has not done so, could get the idea they can and ought to.  Who am I?   I built that first boat in my post-divorce apartment bedroom with low hopes for a lot of things, no money, no workshop,  and few tools (I had a few power tools but the real workhorses were a simple drill, a handsaw, a jack-plane, a hammer, a screwdriver), and no great carpentry skills (two simple blanket chests and a few children’s toys behind me before that boat). It was really crude, but ….it worked.  I went out and came back with it on wind power for 4 years until I built a better one.  Forgive yourself, repeat (as I learned from Richard Feynman) “What do you care what other people think?”, resist the forces overt and covert that will try to keep you in the conventional environment too much.   Do something!  A few weeks ago a guy asked me a how much I had spent on my outrigger sailing canoe.  I had recently estimated the costs for building and using both of my tiny boats over a dozen years to be around $10,000.  Amortized over a dozen years, not too bad, I thought, and very cheap therapy.  His eyes widened. “Damn, why not just buy a jetski?”  I was speechless.  I was like Uncle Toby in the novel Tristram Shandy, who could explain his war-wound only by bringing out military texts and maps of the old battlefield — I blush to say I needed some time, a word-processor, and an interview just to begin to say what keeps bringing me back to slow rides in simple boats.  — W.T.


Wade Tarzia is a professor in Arts & Humanities at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, CT.  His academic interests are anthropology and folklore, he writes essays and speculative fiction when laziness is surmounted, and his little adventures consist of bicycle-touring/folklore-interviewing in Ireland, and farting around among small (usually wooden) sailcraft.

Autumnal 2011, Hinterland Read more

Howard Ferren

Jun 27, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

Casey R. Schulke Interviews Howard Ferren, Director of Conservation at the Alaska SeaLife Center

CRS: I’ve heard two of your passions are conservation and marine debris. You’re currently using both to communicate environmental issues.  What first inspired you to do this?

HF: More appropriately, not what…but who.  My wife, Dyan.

But let me tell you the full story.  For 25 years, Dyan and I (me more the object sherpa than the collector) have collected “found objects” in various areas we have lived including Alaska, Oregon and South Carolina, and where ever we travel.  The “found objects” took on a marine focus perhaps 20 years ago. Since we lived on the coast and the marine environment tends to accumulate objects to be found (better known as marine debris), it provided a wear and patina factor to objects telling a tale of their journey in the marine environment, and objects of various geographic origins offers a visual and interpretive narrative about our global cultures and waste.  Dyan is an artist and found objectives offer important compositional elements and material for interpretive design and messages.  My background happens to be oceanography and having spent a lifetime involved in various conservation efforts I find myself at this point in life directing a conservation program in an institution offering outreach and education. The Alaska SeaLife Center’s mission is to “generate scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems.”

Well, marine debris of local and global origins has direct impact on our marine ecosystems from mammal, fish and bird entanglement, to plastic ingestion and subsequent injury or death, to accumulation of debris on our “pristine” beaches degrading the habitat and imposing unsightly wastes on our natural landscapes.

I have found as a scientist, translating science to broader public audiences rather than another group of scientists can be quite difficult.  But, art is a universal language and offers a medium for communicating messages to wide audiences.  I think it was about 5 years ago we began discussing hosting a marine expedition with a team of artists to explore and interpret the problem of marine debris.

CRS: Tell me more about your marine debris project.

HF: The project we are developing includes a June 2012 expedition with a team of notable artists and scientists.  The expedition will be aboard the vessel Norseman and journey from Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Island chain eastward along the Alaska Peninsula, Katmai National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park and terminate in Resurrection Bay where the Alaska SeaLife Center is located in the community of Seward.

Aboard the expedition will be a team of 6 artists including Pam Longobardi, Mark Dion, Alexis Rockman, Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Andy Hughes.  Our 6th artist seat remains open and we are evaluating the selection of this artist from among 30 we have identified globally whose history and works fit the project mission.  To provide the scientific and conservation content, we have invited Dr. Carl Safina who offers also his literary art.

We are also collaborating with the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center in Anchorage, Alaska and curator Dr. Julie Decker.  Julie will also accompany the expedition.

Julie is also charged with curating the marine debris art exhibition (GYREx) scheduled to debut in January 2014.  Various works of our team artists are pictured below.

After a 12 week exhibition in Anchorage the exhibition will travel throughout the United States and possibly globally.  We have been consulting with the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES) about this possibility and continue to have dialogue with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) staff about global exhibition prospects.   In addition, we are working with a film team lead by JJ Kelly and photographer Kip Evans as we hope to produce a film about the expedition and global problem of marine debris, and publish a book about the expedition, artists and marine debris.  The focus of our work is to inform new audiences about the problem of marine debris using art and visual mediums for communicating the problem.  We intend through this to influence personal awareness and behaviors about waste and enhance marine debris policy discussions so we see greater global traction on reducing marine debris and mitigating the current problems.

CRS: How does the Alaska SeaLife Center fit into this mission.

HF: I am happy to have the second opportunity to emphasize what I previous said.  The Alaska SeaLife Center’s mission is to “generate scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems.”  Well, marine debris of local and global origins has direct impact on our marine ecosystems from mammal, fish and bird entanglement, to plastic ingestion and subsequent injury or death, to accumulation of debris on our “pristine” beaches degrading the habitat and imposing unsightly wastes on our natural landscapes.  The problem has a direct link to our mission and our mission enables us to take on this global problem.  Our oceans are connected and Alaska’s marine ecosystems are subject to waste from globally distributed sources.

CRS: What do you hope this project offers to Seward?  Beyond Seward?

HF: Many people in the community of Seward as across coastal Alaska have a great awareness of marine debris and its impacts.  We have local marine debris cleanup activities annually along the coast of Resurrection Bay and along nearby shores of the Gulf of Alaska.  These activities are a continuum of other cleanup activities by concerned residents of other Alaska coastal communities.  In fact, the Ocean Conservancy sponsors the annual global marine debris beach cleanup action.

What we hope to do with the project is not only help express the problem to Alaska audiences within and beyond coastal communities, but use the GYREx exhibition, film and book to provide a compelling narrative to audiences that may have no connection with coasts and marine debris except as they may be associated with watersheds and waste streams that eventuate in our seas.  Marine debris is an ugly and impacting factor that needs greater awareness and attention.  Also, most marine debris can be defined largely as “PLASTIC”.  And, plastics are relatively recent inventions of man that have the unfortunate characteristics of being among disposable items, they are durable in the environment, they are light weight and float.  Adding up the characteristics of plastic, it becomes the basis for so many manufactured products that end up in the marine environment.  If you want some graphic evidence of this, just view some of Chris Jordan’s photographs of albatross and without my offering any further description, you will be significantly influenced in your thinking about marine debris and plastic wastes entering the marine environment.

CRS: What sort of response have you gotten so far?

HF: Important, widespread and motivating.  Our art and scientific team is excited to be able to see first-hand debris accumulations and help address the problem with their art and global reputations.  The Anchorage Museum staff and curator Dr. Julie Decker are enthusiastic about the opportunity and see the importance of the topic and relevancy to their mission.  We are currently sponsored by the North America Marine Environment Protection Association (NAMEPA) and have interest from among foundations to support the project.  We introduced the project at the 5th Internal Marine Debris Conference (5imdc) and more recently at the Georgia State University CENCIA Symposium focused on “The Nature of Waste”.  We are pressing forward on numerous tasks lining out the project that will carry forward through 2017.

CRS: What’s next?

The action list is long!  Among the challenges, raising money to meet all project costs.  And on this topic, I welcome suggestions……..and contributions!

CRS: Well, thank you so much for spending a few moments with me Howard.  This is truly an inspiring project.

HF: The pleasure is all mine.


Howard was named Director of Conservation after six years serving ASLC as Assistant Director for Research Operations.  In his current role Howard is responsible for establishing the Conservation mission within the Center including funding sources, staffing and program development.

Howard has served for-profit and non-profit businesses in executive and operational capacities.  He has contributed to natural resource planning and regional development, and companies specializing in energy efficient building design and innovative fuel combustion technologies to reduce hydrocarbon emissions.

Howard holds a Master of Science degree in biological oceanography from the University of Alaska, Institute of Marine Science where he studied diving physiology in marine mammals.

Estival 2011, Hinterland Read more

C.J. Sage

Mar 27, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

K.R. Copeland Interviews California Poet/Animal Rights Supporter C.J. Sage

K.R.: Thanks for being with us, CJ.  We’ve got quite a bit of territory to cover, so, let’s get right to it.  How has being a native Californian influenced your written work?

C.J.: You bring up a good point. While I have not really thought of myself that way before—‘native Californian writer C. J. Sage’—it’s certainly true that caring about animals and nature is so much of who I am that it must be accurate. Yet I am also the only vegetarian in my native Californian family and the only animal rights advocate. How did that happen?—I’m not quite sure. It probably had something to do with TV documentaries and other programs I viewed as a child. One documentary that stayed with me was about the fishing industry and dolphins. Though I cannot recall the name of the program— and I have looked for it over the years—I still remember vividly the content and the live footage: scores of dolphins pulled up in and killed by nets, and beached by fishing boats’ endeavors, the fisherman walking among the dolphins, stomping on them with their feet and kicking them as the helpless dolphins screamed and bucked. (I’ve written and rewritten a poem about it over the years; I’m still not happy with it.) I’ve been called oversensitive, so maybe it’s simply that things like this laid a ground for (in) me.

K.R.: I guess I’m oversensitive as well, then. You mention television as an early inspirational/educational vector. Tell me, what role do you feel literature plays in raising animal rights awareness?

C.J.: There is a commonly held notion that poetry should not be political. Of course it often is political, but overtly so, it can inadvertently relegate itself to the margins by singing only to its choir. This is why I believe that a poem should first and foremost be beautiful; after that, brains, brawn, et cetera can be successfully interjected. In this way the message may subtly, even at a subconscious level, reach audiences who would otherwise be defensive to the topic and maybe never even read the piece. Horace says “delight and instruct”; Frost professes starting in delight and ending in wisdom. Many college textbooks outline that the functions of literature are to first entertain, then to inform, persuade, or express. Lit is different than reportage in that way; literature’s method of delivery must somehow entertain the reader whereas reportage must get to the facts. Thus it is conceivable that literature could even be more effective—for example, because of its subtly, an anti-trawling poem that is first and foremost art, witha subtle anti-trawling message, won’t necessarily be snubbed by people who are against the deepermessage, since one has to first read the entire piece before realizing the message. But a news article oreditorial piece with an obvious, direct anti-trawling message might just be crumpled up and tossed in the trash can. How’s that for a complex answer?

K.R.: Excellent answer, CJ! I concur with your assessment of the subtly of poetry. I’d much rather be clubbed with a feather than a hammer, any day of the week! And, speaking of effective literature, you’ve written numerous poems revolving around the natural world and the interconnections between species. What is the primary message you wish to convey to your readers?

C.J.: I think my message is that we, humans, are nothing more than one of the many animal species on the planet, not better than the other species. This is how I see my metaphor poems working on more than one level. Most of my poems about animals are also, at a deeper level, about the behavior of the human animal. It’s not too much different even though we like to intellectualize that it is. Furthermore, we are the most culpable animal. We cannot blame other species for, e.g., hunting in order to survive since that is their only option. We human animals do have other options yet often choose to ignore them. Since we can choose other options but do not, we are the big problem. If we are a ‘higher order’ animal, part of that higher order includes our responsibility to protect other animals, beyond our immediate family, rather than abuse or neglect them. The human animal is required by law to report, for example, child abuse whether that human animal is related to us or not; this is because we acknowledge that a child is helpless to protect itself. Why shouldn’t this requirement apply to abuse of ALL animals who cannot dial 911?  If we have the ability to use our critical thinking skills and tools to base our decisions and actions on logic and fairness to all sentient life rather than on greed or survival, there is no excuse for us not to do so.

K.R.: Absolutely! Your passion for our planet and particularly its inhabitants is apparent in your answers as well as your art. That said, what do you feel to be your most significant contribution (literary or otherwise) to conservation thus far?

C.J.: I wish I could say I’ve made significant contributions. But mine so far are insignificant when compared with the level of need. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was old enough to object to meat and refuse it. I’m an animal rights supporter, donating to groups like PETA when I am able. I am involved in racetrack dog rescue via adoption and ambassadorship. Mostly, though, I never pass up a chance to speak to those who otherwise would not have thought twice about their actions: I have asked co-workers whom I’ve seen wearing fur to reconsider; I tell anyone who will listen about the horrors of the aquarium trade and hobby; I’ll share videos of how sheep are tortured for our wool items; I like to point out to those good-hearted people who are against hunting that fishing is also hunting, and that a captive whale who kills a trainer is not the one at fault. These types of conversations are among the most important in my life—I accept making a few enemies along the way for an important cause. (I sound so preachy. See, this is how literature can be a better vehicle for the message, at least for someone like me who would not speak in a particularly inviting way otherwise.) Even the shells on my paintings I am careful about: My first shell paintings were created before I realized where the shells might be coming from, but now I will not buy them from anyone who takes them from the ocean. I only want those that are collected from the beach, not taken alive. It means fake starfish, but I’m okay with that, and I hope the buyers of my paintings feel the same way.

Rereading this to myself, I realize that I should do more.  My American Dream is to someday have as part of my home an animal sanctuary. But that alone is not enough as it only treats rather than prevents. One of my greatest hopes for all of us is that animal rights education becomes a required part of grade school and college curricula. I also hope to see more animal rights regulation across the board.

KR: Required curricula and stringent regulations would be great. Thanks for bringing up your environmentally friendly paintings, too (which I love) and for allowing us to include them with the interview. And, now, would you care to share some sample poems with us?

CJ: It would be my pleasure.

Landscapes with Elephant
Seals and Umbrellas

In the water solitary creatures,
the elephant seals gather close on land
to mate and molt. They slough their skin,

then off they go again into the sea
alone. Upon the sand one wonders
why they huddle together so.

In the city I once saw a herd
of quick umbrellas open all at once—
all the owners purposely not touching—

and scuttle down the street en masse,
the black nylon and the taupe nylon
and all the rest bumped and bounced

off each other in the rain, like the rain
bounding off umbrellas, like molecules.
Like molecules every contact was followed,

as every contact must be, by estrangement.
There was once a man and woman
whose ribs collided—

neither one was ever seen again.
When the seals accidentally touch they bellow
and fuss, they throw their heads to the sky,

they wave and writhe and moan
the other away until again each feels
itself owner of the shoreline.

To either side of the rows they make
lined up along each other there is a mile
of empty beach. Only a child makes use of it.

What kind of creature dares to stretch itself,
naked and warm-skinned, where no one else
has been? Only a child. Only a brilliant child.

A man I met, he was on the bus and humming
to himself, turned to me and said You look familiar.
Between his ribs and arm, a closed umbrella

licked his clothes with rain. He moved
a little closer to make a place for another.
I tell you, the ride was short!

There is a family entering the beach,
verily against the rules. There is a ranger,
she is kind, who moves to shoo them off.

Down the road there is a dune where scores
of nudes may paint themselves with sun.
Rarely, one of them brushes another.

Originally published  in The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010)

Landscape with Beach and Dead Buck

It must have rolled there,
down the drowned hill behind the rowedup
beachfront houses.

What aim something had had!—
for it to squeeze between the tightknit
lots and then

through a narrow fence-break
to the flooded sand.
There are these stranger things.

Lines of ducklings cross a 6 lane speedway.
A bath of seals basks amidst the wine-drunk
Sunday walkers and their dogs.

Aligned just so across the storm-soaked plane:
the buck’s thick rack of antlers
with the wrack of washed up palm bark.

It was a stunning volta, a tour
of second homes become a morbid wake.
Volt of corpus mortuus, it went quickly,

the encounter of it. Tens and tens
more bids have passed since then,
buyer’s market turning like the undertowing sea.

Lookers marked it a sort of driftwood:
the overwrought surf having brought it in
and, as naturally drift would,

taken it out again.

Original publication for Sea Stories (Vernal, 2011)

Sea Canaries

The small white whales in packs of pods
keep their pacts with us, the fated beasts.
They wail their songs and the water wavers,
and we who signed them waive our rights
to have them. Here is where they belong,
all right, and here is where I leave them:
their pale, bountiful bodies to the sea.
I see a pail of fish and I would rather
feed on palm wood than palm one up
to shed it to those seabirds. To bate the brink
of bygone beauty, I bring no bait. A thatch shed
on the shore would keep me closer. O idol
of the gulls and wingèd seagirls and idle guitar
players, paddle deep and far off from my kind
who peddle our wares like love-me-kindly petals.

Originally published  in The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010)

The Dark Pelican

Her nest is crude (though on the shore it rests,
it rests on stone). Her nest: a twiggy hole, the crib
from which she watches water as it crests

the seawall. Between hard and arching ribs
of rock around her home she spans her wings—
on a foggy screen of saltspray how they scribble!

Her neck a spliny thread stretched and swinging,
back she throws her head to throat the little fish
she’d kept in close, the fish she’d saved for evening.

O just a swish of bony flesh against the falling dish
of sunset, she has found her food the hard way;
she has cast herself head-first into her wishes

while in their circles, lighter sisters sway
and wait together—they watch and drive the catch,
they snatch it up in turns; like rose-tint dawn their days

are easy. The one who works alone must patch
together what she can. For friends there is no match.

Originally published  in The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010)

KR: Lovely work, CJ. Thank you so much for being with us today.

CJ: You’re welcome, and thank you for all you do.


C. J. Sage edits The National Poetry Review and press.  Her poems have appeared and are forthcoming in American Poetry Journal, Antioch Review, Barn Owl Review, Barrow Street, Bateau, Black Warrior Review,  Boston Review, Cave Wall, Copper Nickel, Folio, The Journal, New Orleans Review, North American Review, Orion, Ploughshares, POOL, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southeast Review, The Threepenny Review, and many others.   Her latest book is The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010).  CJ resides in the Monterey Bay area of California.  For information on her paintings, contact her at [email protected] or visit her gallery at

Hinterland, Vernal 2011 Read more

David Rothenberg

Dec 30, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

Casey R. Schulke Interviews musician David Rothenberg

CRS: David, I’m thrilled you’ve agreed to be a part of Sea Stories!  In fact, you’re the first musician we’ve interviewed.  That being said, what role has music has played in your life, specifically in regards to your connection with nature?

DR: Music has always allowed people to communicate more than we can possibly explain, to get beyond the logic of words and into the raw patterns of emotion.  Nature is both ordered and unplanned, random and exact, logical and mysterious. Music is a human kind of communication that can evoke what nature means, and communicate sometimes with the other beings and intelligences that live there.  We can sing with birds, whales, and insects, while we cannot talk with them.

CRS: In your past interviews as well as on your website, you talk about the connection humans have with nature.  How do you see music and art facilitating that connection?

DR: Music communicates important things that are very difficult to explain.  Sometimes they cross species lines.  Music seems utterly and perfectly human, but ordered patterns of sound are sung by animals as well.  They need music as much as we do.

CRS: Speaking of animal songs, tell me about the first time you heard a whale sing.  Did you immediately reach for your clarinet?

DR: The first time I heard a recording of a whale song must have been in elementary school in the seventies, just after humpback whale songs were first released on recordings and when schools thought such newly found mysteries were worthy of class time. I’m sure I listened with wonder and surprise, but didn’t think much about it until I heard Paul Winter’s Common Ground record when I was sixteen.  Then I thought I might like to make music together with nature, but I didn’t get around to doing it seriously for twenty years.  It is easy enough to play with birds, they are singing all around us, but later I became intrigued with the possibility of playing music live with whales, which involves reaching from the human world above the sea down into the depths below.  In my book THOUSAND MILE SONG I tell the whole story of my quest to play such interspecies music, and on the CD  WHALE MUSIC you can hear the results.  They are somewhere in between human music and whale music, a new world of sound where such different species can musically meet.  The results are a bit unusual, and maybe you have to be part-human and part-whale to like them.  And maybe listening to a track like “Never Satisfied,” live with clarinet and humpback whale from the waters off the coast of Maui, will help you become just a bit more like a whale.  You’ll listen at a slower pace, knowing your place in the world, knowing why you need to sing a single, repeating, long but simple song that changes ever so slightly from week to week, month to month, and year to year.

CRS: Along that note, what does it feel like to play music with a whale?

DR: I’ve been asked this question many times in interviews all over the world, and it’s the one question my answer never seems to satisfy.  I clam up and don’t know what to say, retreating into cautious defense.  “Of course I don’t know what the whale is feeling, so how can I know what I feel…”  I’m immediately suspicious of people who claim a deep connection with whales the minute they look into the giant animal’s eye, or feel his deep chant reverberate through sound waves under the sea.  “I knew,” they say, “the animal had something deeply important to say to me,” and they sigh with reverence.

When I’m playing with whales I’m never sure of anything, being so wrapped up in the music and trying to play in a unique way halfway between human and cetacean.  First of all it’s a strange technological process.  I’m playing my clarinet on board a boat into a microphone that’s plugged into an underwater speaker, so the notes I play are being broadcast out into the sound world of the whales.  Then I’m wearing headphones which are attached to an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, which is listening live to the underwater sound environment, which includes the singing whale and my deep sea burbling clarinet, altogether.  [see attached picture]  It’s kind of like a recording studio where each player is isolated in a separate booth, except one booth is the whole ocean with a forty foot whale in it, singing the one song he needs to know.

CRS: David, why even try something like this?

DR: To make music that can be made no other way. As a jazz musician I know how exciting it is to jam with a musician who can’t speak my language, but can make sense of my music as I play along with theirs.  It’s astonishing to realize this can also work with other species—from birds, to bugs, and even to humpback whales, the animal with the longest, most moving music in the natural world, a sound that can be heard underwater from ten miles away, a song with clear melodies, phrases, rhythms and parts that takes the whale twenty minutes to sing before he starts the cycle over again, in performances that last up to twenty three hours.

Playing along with a whale, wearing headphones and listening to the strange reverberations of underwater sound where you can’t tell where any sound is coming from because there is no sense of stereo space, is a kind of out-of-body experience, thrusting the human sound of a clarinet into a world where it doesn’t really belong, because there’s no way a clarinet could be blown underwater.  What use is a whale song in our human world?  It reminds us that we are not the only musicians on Earth, and that if we want to understand the natural world beyond our narrow human concerns, we have to listen to and appreciate the full range of animal musics that have been on this planet for millions of years before humans ever got here.  It’s a very humbling feeling.

So I don’t jam along with whales to make me feel special, but to make music that is special.  Half-human and half-whale?  Perhaps no one’s gonna like it!

Maybe not at first.  Most of the time the whales are not interested.  But every once in a while, when the sea is calm and one great beast is right under the boat, so close that his moans can be felt right through the hull, then sometimes he changes his song when he hears what I play.  At those moments I feel a true sense of awe, that music is something really big. Bigger than our whole species, something written right into the fabric of all life whose beauty is far beyond our ability to explain, or even feel its purpose.  Touching a piece of the melody of the universe, it’s no longer about me at all, but something I feel privileged to be a tiny part of.

CRS: So, what’s next for you on your musical journey with nature?

DR: Bugs of course. How insects taught us to dance. They’re the original sources of rhythm…

CRS: David, again, thank you for speaking with me.  It was a pleasure getting to know you.

DR: You’re welcome and thank you.

To hear the music of David Rothenberg, click here.

David Rothenberg, professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, was recently given that institution’s President and Trustees Research Medal for his unusual kind of research—making music with birds and whales.  Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing, published in six languages and turned into a feature length BBC TV documentary.   His latest book is Thousand Mile Song, about making music with whales.  It is being developed into three feature-length TV documentaries.  His first CD on ECM Records, with pianist Marilyn Crispell, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House was released in June 2010. Check out his website,  For more information about his friends who broadcast humpback whales songs live from Hawaii, visit

Hibernal 2011, Hinterland Read more

John Dahlsen

Oct 04, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

K.R. Copeland Interviews Environmental Artist, John Dahlsen:

KRC: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, John. Your impressive body of work, which spans twenty some years — and includes various mediums from oil paint to debris, features numerous sea-themed pieces, suggesting an inherent love of the ocean. That said; please describe your earliest seaside memory.

JD: I’ve always loved the ocean since I was a boy. My mum and dad used to take us kids to the beach each weekend to enjoy swimming in the ocean walking along the beach and just generally exploring. We used to go to very remote locations because my dad is a bit of an adventurer, and later in my life this became something that was very inherent in my system.

I remember most of our trips to the beach generally began with us lying about getting the deepest darkest suntan as possible. Not such a great idea these days with scares about melanomas etc, but in those days it was not uncommon to see us literally pealing great sheets of skin from our backs when it was ready to finally shed. This sounds a bit morose, however it is just very true, and you will find if you ask many Australian children from my generation whether this was their experience, they will most probably agree.

So rather than being a negative memory for me, we were all actually very excited about all of these aspects of early days on the beach in Australia, which included fishing, gathering oysters and abalone etc.

It was in these early days that I first began to surf. Beginning with body surfing, this was a natural extension of my being a competitive swimmer for many years. The great surf, which occurred in the southern part of Australia, had me naturally take up surfboard riding at an early age. It would have been about the age of 12 or 13 when I got my first surfboard and within six months or so I had made the first steps towards standing up on a surfboard, a sport which I do to this day.

We used to go to our childhood holiday home in a very remote part of Australia, which is on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. It was here that my father took us on long walks along four-wheel drive only tracks, to visit untouched beaches, which always filled me with awe. Many years later, I was to visit these beaches with my wife, and collect copious amounts of driftwood, washed up plastics, buoys, ropes and other variables.

KRC: Ah, so, just as I’d suspected, your early childhood experiences infused you with exuberance for the sea, and appreciation for its splendor. That said when did this affinity begin manifesting itself into artwork?

JD: In between all of this, (that what was mentioned prior) I went away to Melbourne to be educated and ended up finding myself at art school in the late 70s. It was during these years at art school in Australia, at the end of the seventies that I first began collecting driftwood to make into furniture; and it was this experience that 20 years later I remembered and returned to the very same coastline to collect driftwood once again.

My creative medium shifted from abstract painting to working as an environmental artist, as a result of an artistic accident during the mid 1990’s. I was collecting driftwood, on a remote Victorian Coastline, with the intention of making furniture and stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris.

The initial collection of these objects consisted of approximately 80 jumbo garden bags full of beach-found litter. When I first piled this collection up in my studio, I had friends drop by asking if I was okay! However I knew that an unseen intelligence was at work and soon realized the potential of a giant palate. Then I began the selections of yellow coloured plastics to make up its own pile in the studio, then the red, then the blues, the rope & strings, the plastic coke bottles, the thongs etc. Soon the floor of the studio did resemble a giant painter’s palate.

Seeing all this develop had the effect of sewing the seed, for, I later had the notion of making assemblages of each of these objects once sorted this occurred to me as a natural extension of the process I was undergoing in the studio. This whole new palette of colour and shape revealing itself to me immediately affected me; I had never seen such hues and forms before which enabled me to make new environmental art.

Since then – for approximately 10 years, I scoured Australian beaches for found objects, much of which I found as washed up ‘ocean litter’. I have since discovered this is a worldwide phenomenon, affecting beaches on a global level.

I bought these plastics back to my studio to sift, sort, and colour-code for my assemblages, sculptures and installations. As I worked with these objects, I became even more fascinated by the way they had been modified and weathered by the ocean and nature’s elements. My challenge as an artist was to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they spoke and told their story, which included those underlying environmental messages inherent in the use of this kind of medium.

KRC: And your messages are what I find so beguiling. That and of course your perpetual shift in artistic mediums; driftwood, paint, found objects, single objects, installations. With all this variety, where does the artistic process begin, and, how do you determine the final destination and or message point?

JD: My work is in a constant state of evolution. I see this largely as alchemical. It is the process of nature’s elements redefining the man-made that created the initial alchemy in working with these found objects, taking the objects beyond the mundane. The second step was achieved through the transportation of these plastics to my studio and the process of sorting and assembling. A further and more vital transformation took place as I assembled them. These found objects then started to tell their story and become transformed into artworks.

I see that by making this art, it is a way of sharing my messages for the need to care for our environment with a broad audience. I feel that even if just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, through being exposed to this artwork then it would be worth it. This stems from the fact that I believe presently humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard of changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get.

This is my way of making a difference, and at the same time I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating art, as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways. These artworks exemplify my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. By presenting this art, to the public, will hopefully have people thinking about the deeper meaning of the work, in particular the environmental issues we currently face. I hope these works will act as a constant reminder to people about awareness. I would like them to enjoy the work on many levels and find themselves becoming identified in various ways with each of the artworks they see. I also look forward to the possible discussion that these works may generate as a result. I say these things as being possibilities, bearing in mind as well that comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks, similarly with seeing my recycled plastic bag series, people have marveled at the creative way I am presenting the recycling theme in an aesthetic way.

With this in mind, I have trusted leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer with the possibility they may experience deep perceptual shifts and have a positive aesthetic experience as they interact with my art.

KRC: I believe your take on our global situation is (sadly) spot on, John, and the vehicle you use to create awareness and elicit change is an effective one. In regards to interacting with your art, is there a particular piece or installation in your collection that you interact with on a more personal or emotional level than the others?

JD: The answer to this would have to involve my public art projects. In terms of their success, I would most likely look towards two larger ones as being standouts. In this regard the ‘Absolut Dahlsen’ commission alongside the ‘Guardian’ commission are the two of my most favourite projects.

Both of these projects were significant major public art pieces and both were very successful on all levels. There is never really much of a buffer when it comes to financial rewards when you make public art. This is a simple fact about that type of work.

Once in awhile you hear of some artists being commissioned to do large public art pieces and walking away with large amounts of money in their bank for reasonably small amounts of work being undertaken but that is very rare.

With the projects I’ve mentioned here it was also a case of love of the project being far superior for me the love of the money I was making from either of these two projects. I did okay, as you would expect to with projects like these that take up ultimately six months or so of your time, however neither of those projects was about the money.

The ‘Absolut Dahlsen’ commission was a really wonderful experience, mainly due to the team I was working with throughout the whole project. This included the executives from Absolut who worked with me most surprisingly, in a very lateral manner. This really helped keep an exciting flavour from the beginning through to its completion.

The advertising designer team Whybyn Lawrence, were all fantastic which included Stuart Clark and his assistant Lara Wolski, who also came to Byron Bay to my studio on a number of occasions to see the development of the work and to give input into the project, which was always welcome.

I had some excellent professionals lined up to help with this project. This began initially with my engineer, through to the fabrication companies which helped me put together the core structure of the sculpture upon which I attached the thousands of flip-flops or as we call them here in Australia ‘thongs’.

The real beauty of the found object work that I create, especially when I use thongs, is that most people who view it have owned a pair and will enthusiastically scan this sculpture with the romantic and genuine notion that somewhere is an old pair of their thongs that they lost on the beach!

Because of the images thongs conjure up like the great outdoors and beaches, you will most likely find that the public will interact very intimately and humorously with this sculpture, experiencing a fond and genuine sense of ownership of the work.

This is art sending out an environmental message. In 2000 following my being awarded the Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of NSW with the “Thong Totems”, I was appointed the official artist of the new millennium for the environmental organizations, Clean up Australia and Clean up the World.

I am proud of this association, as well as being proud of my association with the Australian Conservation Foundation through Peter Garrett, who was kind enough to open my “Renewed” Melbourne solo exhibition, a percentage of any opening night sales was offered to the Australian Conservation Foundation Marine campaign.

Having the whole project filmed and made into a DVD was another bonus, which I instigated because I knew it would be an exciting project worth recording for posterity and for the use of the general public.

This filming continued all away through to the launch, which was held at the sculpture by the sea outdoor art exhibition in Sydney. This launch turned out to become an “A” list event on the Sydney social scene and was a very interesting experience.

Another really exciting result of this whole exercise, apart from the enormous amount of media and positive response that the work garnered, was the fact that I was able to negotiate with the executives at Absolut and the Gold Coast City Art Gallery, to have this work placed on semi-permanent loan outside the front of the gallery in a prominent position. It is still there to this day.

In fact, the team at Absolut agreed to foot the bill for any further updates that I may need to make to this sculpture as the years go by, and as some of those flip-flops are ceremoniously pulled from the surface via the expected vandals who can’t help themselves. I imagine I will probably do this after a five or 10 year period when necessary.

KRC: Fascinating! I’m glad Absolute Dahlsen has received such widespread recognition and accolades. It’s quite ingenious.  And, if I’m ever in Australia, I’ll be sure to stop by and snag a thong! Care to tell us a bit more about your second favorite?

JD: The other work which I would like to discuss as a favourite project, which I believe really runs in parallel to the Absolut commission, is the Guardian commission.

This particular work was in response to a brief from the Brisbane City Council, who decided that a public artwork would be appropriate for the entrance to Kangaroo Point, which is a small suburb in inner-city Brisbane. It was to receive a new traffic intersection and entrance without the traffic lights that had been slowing down this particular entrance for a number of years.

The successful artist who received his commission was to use any left over roadside materials and recreate it into a large public artwork that would act as an entrance statement. I devised the design, which included the use of a large number of leftover roadside guardrails and also concrete pipes of various sizes to make this particular work.

I designed a work in the shape of a spiral with the guardrails twisting around and reaching towards the sky extending from the concrete pillars. The overall effect ended up looking quite like an industrial tree formation, which reflected the green grass at its base, or a huge wind chime.

I was very fortunate to win the commission to do this particular sculpture as I was an out-of-state artist and I believe I was one of the first artists from another state to receive a commission in Queensland at the time. I was also known for my professionalism and to the fact that I could deliver on time and I also specialized in working with environmental themes and with found and recycled objects. Once again, together with a great team assembled, this project took on a life of its own.

I arranged meetings with the local Kangaroo Point community group to establish a clear dialogue with them and to the gauge the required level of community support, which ended up being overwhelming. I made presentations, answered all questions that came my way and received a very pleasing response and got the go-ahead.

This is very important to me, knowing that the community is behind a project, which essentially means, they are behind what I am creating as an entrance statement to their suburb. It’s a very important milestone to pass, as the work would be ‘in situ’ for at least 10 years and possibly between 50 and 100.

In fact I built it into my contract that the community should be given the right to reassess this public artwork a ten-year intervals and have it either relocated or disassembled if they so wished.

I’m a firm believer that as times changes, as people change, they should also have the right to keep whatever contemporary statement they wish as the entrance statement. Even if this means my particular work may not be there forever.

It is only because of the huge amount of ‘in-kind’ support that I received from both the Brisbane City Council and the road making company Barclay Mowlem, that I was able to make such a significant work for the payment that I received, even though that was in itself quite significant. As a result, I was able to make a work that was probably twice the size than I had originally planned, as a result of all of this ‘in-kind’ support I received in the form of the use of Crane’s and bulldozers, concrete specialists and semitrailers.

The support was enormous and some of the staff including project manager and on site administrator were really instigators of this support and ensured that it would be the resounding success it became.

This artwork will serve as a creative reminder of the reconstruction and improvement of the road safety and accessibility for this community. The local community, by their own daily to-ins and fro-ins in and out of the area have long interacted with the elements that make up this new art piece.

I want the members of the local community as well as all who pass, to experience a sense of real interest, delight or at the very least, amusement on seeing the ‘boring’ and ‘functional’ objects of road infrastructure that they have subconsciously interacted with daily, recreated into a substantial art form – that they will now consciously acknowledge.

For people who walk, ride or drive by this space on a daily basis, it is possible that my installation will involve new discoveries at each passing, or at the very least arouse amusement, that such ordinary and functional items have been recreated into an artwork. By using recycled old road infrastructure from road works -the artwork will convey a subtle environmental message of re-use to those who view it.

Despite the use of strong, robust and long lasting materials reflecting and heralding the masculine nature of roads, bridges and city engineering, the totemic structure will have a tree like quality which will give it an interesting empathy with the landscaped environment.

My aim is that this piece will create a sense of community ownership, whether amused, grateful, bewildered or confronted, most will appreciate that the towns’ engineers and planners have made a serious effort, to install artwork between a major thoroughfare and an inner city community.

The intention, as I see it, of this totemic structure is not to try and soften any image of roads and traffic, but to bring it to an artistic conclusion, where the artwork meets the challenges of its surroundings, reinterpreting it and not trying to digress from the very nature of roads, traffic and engineering with a contrasting message.

Having developed this kind of in-depth rationale in my presentation to the community it really wasn’t that surprising that I received their full support.

Since the sculpture has been in position, it has received wide praise by both the community and also the various media.

This particular work was featured in a virgin in-flight magazine for example and was brought to my attention by many people who saw it.

These are two of my favourite public art commission projects, because they were highly successful and immensely enjoyable throughout the whole process. I trust there will be more in the future like both of these talked about above.

KRC: Ah, the future…that brings me to my final question: What’s next for John Dahlsen; anything specific in the works or on the horizon?

JD: I am open to surprises, and they just keep coming. Teaching others about the importance of the environment through delivering more lectures about my art in public speaking engagements does interest me, particularly as you can see from my web site that I have been a hugely prolific artist over the years, and I have lots to lecture about with heaps of visuals. I think this will go hand in hand with creating new work, as I’m also really enjoying the possibilities I see in my re-entry into painting and making sculptures. These all excite me to no end at the moment.

I remember saying in interviews with the media during the late 90’s, that I hoped that one day I would see less and less litter washing up on our beaches, so that quite naturally my work would find a new direction. This has now happened – on a local level at least.  The situation on a global level has worsened considerably.

After more than 10 years of collecting beach found objects and subsequently making art out of them, I’ve naturally come now to a new form of expression, which was brought on significantly as a result of the decrease in litter either washing up or being left behind on our beaches, as well as a result of my purge painting series and exploration.

Painting the Byron Bay local seascapes and landscapes, mostly images seen by me on my daily walk around the lighthouse and beaches, are painted somewhat with a sense of urgency, due to my ever growing concerns about global warming and its impact.

The viewer can see these works have a certain unmistakable mood within each piece, which has been written about by Dr Jacqueline Millner from the University of Western Sydney: “This play between abstraction and figuration, between synthetic/organic matter and immateriality in the purge paintings, has been applied in Dahlsen’s most recent works to landscapes — dark works whose subtle references to environmental degradation all but disappear before forcefully catching you unawares. This tension between inorganic abstraction and emotionally charged organism lends these works particular resonance, given their inception in the politics of environmental art. They play out, in elegant and economical aesthetics, the unstable boundaries between the natural and the artificial, reminding us of Wendell Berry’s paradox that ‘the only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity’

In the immediate future I am exhibiting a major series of Paintings, prints and sculptures in Beijing, which opens on the 18th September 2010 at the Hanmo Art Gallery in the “798” Contemporary Art Region.

Apart from the above, I am also in the process of writing 2 books. One of these is on Environmental art and on my work in particular, which will come with many colour plates of the work. It will be titled, “The Environmental Art of John Dahlsen” and the other is a more practical guide for those in the arts.

It is called “Artist’s Business and Career Strategies.” In this book I have compiled the most pressing issues and answered the most common questions faced by artists and those involved with the arts, from an insider’s viewpoint.

KRC: Excellent. I’ll certainly keep my eyes peeled for your seascapes and publications. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have. I’d like to thank you John, once again, for giving us a glimpse into the methodology and intent of your inspirational artworks. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

JD: The pleasure was mine, K.R.


To learn more about John Dahlsen, check out his website:

Autumnal 2010, Hinterland Read more