An article in the February 2010, SA, highlights research on whale falls.
Archive for the ‘Modern living’ Category
Here’s the text of my talk at BoBo (Asheville Green Drinks) tonight. I wandered from this here and there, but this is the gist. It was an expansion on Chapter 18 of Whale Falls.
Over the river and through the woods.
Or—to state our trajectory more accurately—through the woods and over the river; we hung a left past the bridge; then a right; a left; a zig; a zag; another right; and there we were at grandma’s house—just 515 miles from transom to transom. Twenty hours total driving time there and back again, divided in half by a two-week visit to the home place.
That this sort of casual travel is possible is one of the miracles of 20th century technological civilization. Mobility has blessed and cursed us, enabling an endless diaspora while chaining us to our machines. In the process our dispersal may well have become the biggest psychological obstacle to creation of a sustainable society.
And while I’m pointing a finger I’m not afraid to admit my own guilt.
Between April 2 and April 11 this year I traveled more than 10,000 miles and I have to admit to feeling more than a little carbon guilt. I flew to Newark to give a speech and then to Hawaii. My best buddy from high school lives there and had a plethora of frequent flier miles that were due to expire. He gave me a ticket to visit his home there. I assuaged myself in part by attending a symposium on alternative fuels hosted by the U.S. Navy which announced plans to derive 70 percent of its fuel from renewables by 2030. They’ve even figured out how to distill jet fuel from switchgrass. The state of Hawaii has made the same commitment to 70 percent renewables by 2030.
But my carbon guilt is deeper and wider than that. Up to the turn of the millennium I spent a great deal of time on the road, for pleasure. Cheap oil let me visit the Grand Canyon and the Badlands, New Mexican mesas and Aztec ruins, Big Sur and the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver and Fairbanks and Anchorage, the Yukon, New Orleans and Chicago, San Franciso and Washington, DC, Tijuana and Newfoundland, the Little Big Horn and the Saw Tooth range, the Okefenokee and the Louisiana bayou. I’ve canoed in every Great Lake and many of North America’s river systems. I’ve hiked in Yellowstone and the Snake River Canyon and the Chiricahuas and the White Mountains and the Green Mountains and the Cascades, the Catskills and the Sierra Nevada and the Sand Hills and the Ozarks, of course the Southern Applachians and too many more places to easily catalog. It was a grand adventure and it was cheap.
Taking the long view—disastrously cheap.
In addition to my former partner’s inclination toward travel and my own willingness, there’s a longer-term picture to consider as well. My parents met and married in Florida, though Dad was born in Chicago (as was I). The introduction occurred because my Mom had worked in New York City for a couple of years, where she met Dad’s cousin (also from the Chicago area) who suggested the two get together after Mom returned to her high school home town, Orlando, where Dad was building homes and breeding Shetland sheep dogs. Mom was born and half-way raised in Pittsburgh. I had moved to New Hampshire and then North Carolina with a year-long stop-over in Arizona. But my trajectory had included junior high in Long Island, New York, and high school in Florida, with a couple of years of college in Atlanta.
My partner’s parents settled on her grandmother’s farm-turned-suburbia in Ohio, and her aunts, uncles, cousins and two siblings stayed close to home, but her other brother moved to Tucson, then Portland, Oregon. A niece and nephews spun out to Washington, DC, Knoxville and Salt Lake City/Dallas and then Atlanta, respectively. Neither of our families was particularly atypical for the post-WWII years. We spread out and dissolved the extended families of past generations. We did so because we could—often for better job prospects, sometimes on whims, for love, or, pretty often, simply to shake off the past. My buddy in Hawaii held jobs in, Florida, Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania before he headed west and his wife, from Pennsylvania who he met and married in Virginia, met her first husband in Maryland.
Cheap energy made cost no real object, and that same cheap energy made family visits, shared holidays, weddings and funerals and graduations and other base-touching reasonably affordable.
But the families were fragmented despite phone calls and (increasingly rare) written letters. (E-mail has lately abetted better and more frequent contact for many.) The easy distancing could engender real difficulty when a physically remote mother or father needed nursing care and the lack of nearby grandparents shifted more children into daycare.
Whether this social fracturing has been, on the whole, good or bad is open to debate, but the fact that cheap oil had social consequences is not.
That holiday journey over the river and through the woods traversed a landscape in transition. Farmland was sprouting subdivisions as thick and fast as springtime weeds, particularly along the Interstate arteries. The previous week, one of Susan’s brothers went to an auction of the farm which he (and their father before him) worked on as a young man. The gavel came down to the tune of one and a half million bucks, paid by a developer hell-bent on suburbia.
We have painted ourselves into a very difficult corner as cities metastasize into surrounding healthy tissue. The sprawl enabled by fossil fuel combustion has built us into a dependence on that technology that becomes harder and harder to break.
Look at the conundrum: Cheap mobility facilitates both commuting and distribution of goods. Easy commuting drives up the use-value of land far outside the cities, a change which also raises property taxes. At the same time, the distribution network permits import of food from lower valued land (usually with lower priced labor). Beleaguered farmers facing underpriced competition and overpriced land are understandably tempted to liquidate. The whole scheme floats on cut-rate oil.
Each new home on former farm land further entrenches political support for the status quo. People who have invested their savings in a home and who are dependent on a distant job to keep up mortgage payments are vested in the present cheap-oil economy. Adding insult to the internal combustion injury of the biosphere, the average size of new homes in the U.S. has grown enormously over the past five decades. More heated space will require more heat for decades into the future. Even construction methods are affected, as when cost/benefit considerations dictate the return on insulation or insulating windows vis-a-vis cheap energy.
At the same time, inexpensive oil encourages investment in inefficient vehicles, and—via conversion to electricity—in inefficient appliances of all sorts. Each consumer decision against conservation results in further stasis. A new auto which uses twice as much fuel as an alternative model locks that demand into our energy equation for twenty years or more. Ditto for refrigerators, freezers, ranges, water heaters and a host of smaller gadgets.
The chief obstacles to creation of more efficient, more frequent, more user-friendly public transit are low population density and cheap gas — and really, those are two sides of the same coin. During the oil price spike which some authorities believe precipitated the Great Recession, ridership on Asheville’s transit system kicked up significantly. The drop in ridership since that time is partly due to the drop in fuel prices and partly due to elevated unemployment.
And while I’m on the subject of transit, I’d like to point out that subsidy for a transit system is a direct subsidy of employers in the community who hire low wage workers. Dish washers and bussers and other low-wage jobs frequently don’t pay enough to support automobile ownership and use. So many businesses are completely dependent on the transit system to enable their employment of those workers, at least at the wages generally offered. The subsidy would be lower if ridership were higher, so once again, cheap gas skews the equation.
Meanwhile the supply lines for food grow ever longer, and more and more of the fertilizer supply comes directly from what Thom Hartmann aptly referred to as “ancient sunlight”—fossil fuels stored up over millennia.
The U.S. has created one of the least efficient technological societies on the planet. While it’s true that we have improved efficiency over time, other countries have pushed fuel prices up through taxation to encourage conservation and made far greater strides. We have intentionally kept fuel prices low—an intentional subsidy to drivers, industry and agriculture, which, as I just mentioned, also creates demand for collateral subsidy of transit. With oil prices kept down, farm labor is devalued as well, and because chemical nitrogen fertilizer comes from underpriced natural gas, we tilt the market toward chemical agriculture and away from organic. The price differential between organic and non-organic food is largely created by low priced fossil fuel supplies. It has the additional effect of depressing farm labor wages, since workers compete with cheaply fueled engines.
Moreover, we subsidize oil with tax money for military intervention as well as funding health care costs incurred by pollution victims. Our inefficient vehicles and high reliance on automobile use has created a childhood asthma epidemic, directly attributable to auto exhaust. Imagine how different our economic choices might be if we paid for wars and health care with taxes on the fossil fuels that create the need in the first place.
More subtly, oil costs are externalized in the form of forest and agricultural decline resulting from acid deposition, nitrous oxides and low-level ozone. As I wrote this sentence on January 15, 2010, citizens of Asheville were being warned not to engage in overmuch outdoor activity because we were Code Yellow.
This in a city once famous for it’s healthful air.
When I spoke earlier of mothers and fathers and children, I was, of course, actually talking about sex, and modern sexuality is, for all practical purposes , a petrochemical product even before you include condoms … which you should, because today’s safe sex practices are at least partly necessary because global transportation greatly increased the dispersal of sexually transmitted diseases.
I’m of the generation that obtained its first lessons in practical anatomy at drive-in movie theaters. The motel, another augmentation for close personal relationships, was invented to serve travelers on the highway system developed by the Eisenhower administration to help General Motors sell cars. The car and the motor-hotel provided the means to find privacy and anonymity that was rare in less energy intensive times.
After going to movies or ball games, my crowd in high school used to drive to a Methodist Church parking lot that was surrounded by dense shrubs and fronted on a lake. The town police knew we were basically good kids and left us alone, our parents hoped we were good kids and didn’t much complain, we all felt entirely safe because we were surrounded by friends’ in their own cars, and we were pretty much left to our own devices. My device was a 1948 Plymouth Special Deluxe, with suicide doors in the rear that opened on a rear seat that looked like a living room sofa. I bought it from the original owner when I was 17 and it was 20 years old and paid $75. I saw one online the other day offered for $35,000, ah the mistakes of youth.
Some of my friends even dated people from other high schools on the far side of town! They didn’t walk or ride bicycles to each other’s football games. Later most of us spread out and went away to college or the military or to Woodstock or Haight Ashbury. We all depended on cheap gas or thumbing rides with others lucky enough to have cars.
I mentioned a quiet church parking lot, and note that religion has been changed by cheap energy too. Megachurches are commuter churches in the same way that sports stadiums and big civic centers and big golf tournaments are commuter entertainment venues. The reason sports stars garner such huge salaries is a phenomenon largely driven by cheap fuel. The only way NFL and NBA games and baseball pennant races are possible is because it’s cheap to fly thousands of players all over the country to perform in venues accessed by millions of fans who rely on cheap energy to attend the games. I suppose we could get around that by creating a sports city somewhere, where all the players lived and then just televise all the games, but I think the excitement would drain out pretty fast.
Then too, many of us dance when we date, or go to concerts. Look at what cheap gas has done to music! Before WWII, if you lived in a big city, the fancy dance clubs and restaurants had resident orchestras and dance bands. If you lived in a small town, you were lucky if a couple of local folks played banjos or fiddles or guitars, and you’d go to barn dances and church socials to sing or dance. Then came the boom in recorded music, electrified instruments, radio and TV, and the interstate highway system. Now three or four musicians could make more noise than Count Basie’s whole orchestra and repeated air play made new songs more popular than classic folk tunes. The four musicians pile into a van with their gear and start touring. Suddenly you could hear the newest pop song from the actual band that recorded it and as those bands grew in wealth they could afford to produce shows that left local bands in the dust. Shows moved from dance clubs to stadiums and civic centers, and they too became commuter events. Superstars were born.
Connecting sports and music stardom with religion, we saw the rise of Billy Graham and the mass revival. When he was a boy the touring superstars in the Bible belt were preachers who set up tent meetings for weeks at a time. Graham’s boyhood hero was Mordecai Ham, an anti-semitic fire and brimstone character who was sort of the Chuck Norris of the tent circuit. Graham built on that model with the new technology of pop music and worked the sports stadiums and civic centers to create huge commuter events that lasted just a day or a few. The economy of cheap gasoline made moving the show much more affordable. So whereas Ham would fleece the same few hundred townfolk for a month or more, Graham could fleece hundreds of thousands all around the world in the same time period.
The existence of superstars in sports, entertainment, and religion has had a collateral effect on society that is widespread and, in my view, pernicious. A lot of kids growing up in this superstar society believe that the same success and wealth is available to them. That idea tends to devalue education and everyday jobs and puts the focus on talent and luck. The fact that a kid from the projects has a much better chance of being a heart surgeon than a basketball star is lost. The fact that study and hard work can let you fashion a satisfying and productive life is set aside. Instant wealth seems possible just around the corner, as near as a winning lottery ticket.
And far beyond the immediate effect on one child, is the effect on many adults. Cheap energy has been at the core of a modern mindset that anything is possible, that everyone has a shot at the gold ring. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who wants to dance with the stars? Who wants to be a survivor and make a killing on Wall Street? That has infected our politics. Many people, imagining that they too will soon be rich, cast their lot with the the rich. They then vote for policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They complain about tax hikes for the rich, even when there are tax cuts for the poor, unwilling to accept that they are and will almost to a person, always be among the 95 percent who are relatively poor. They buy into political viewpoints that teach them that it’s poor immigrants who are keeping them down, not their own choices in the voting booth. Cheap gas has fueled both the machines and the machine politics that has created the widest wealth gap in the history of the world.
And the machines include poker machines and other forms of gaming. In a world where luck is considered to be more the arbiter of success than work, gambling makes perfect sense. Lottery tickets, limos to Harrahs, weekends in Las Vegas and Bobby Medford’s video poker racketeering are all part of that mindset. It’s really kind of boggling when you consider the popularity of gambling these days, where everyone knows that the house always wins and it’s considered to be great good fun to give more than you can afford to corporations which are richer than you can imagine.
In order to move toward true sustainability we must—by definition—decouple our lives from dependence on non-renewable resources, but the political will for such sweeping change is conspicuously rare.
Though I treasure the chance to spend some holiday time with distant family members and friends, it is impossible to shake a sense of foreboding. The policies that made that Thanksgiving visit possible will make our entire economic structure impossible in the not-too-distant future as the oil runs out. We are building toward a crash of monumental proportions, on a scale that could easily dwarf the experience of the Great Depression or the current Great Recession. At least in the 1930s most of us lived closer to the farm, to our work, and to our families.
We chose to believe that low fuel prices were a social good. Our elected officials made sure that continued, at least in part because it was an easy issue. People notice how much it costs to fill their tanks and fill their grocery bags and if those prices jump up an opposition candidate can promise to knock things back down. So incumbents keep the lid on. The larger costs are hidden and spread out as hospital bills, acidified lakes, military intervention, and more [PAUSE]—invisible in plain sight because they are diffuse and the dots haven’t been well connected in the public mind.
Scattered to the wind, we are, and living amidst strangers. We have been fooled by cheap energy into choices we might soon regret. I fear it may be a very, very long journey home.
“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
- From “Notes on the State of Virginia,” by Thomas Jefferson, 1781
In the booming mountain town of Asheville, City Councilman Cecil Bothwell (critics say he) may have to step down. His crime?
Serving the public while being an atheist.
Susan owned a Supervan. She and her husband had outfitted the 1968 Ford truck as a camper with built-in cabinets, a bed and dining table, a roof rack with storage compartment and room for the canoe. The interior shelving, floor, walls and roof unit were built with 3/4 inch marine plywood, assembled with stainless screws and fitted out with indoor/outdoor carpet. The thing was built like a tank and weighed half again what a stripped vehicle would run. It was solid and quiet and comfortable and had been their home for a year or more of travel around the country. Somewhere along the way it became known as The Mother Van.
In the summer of 1977 The Mother Van spun a bearing. Fortunately we were renting a century-old farmhouse with a big flat gravel parking area perfect for pulling engines and other intravehicular frivolity. The spread included a big garden space, ducks and a pond. The ducks belonged to the home-owners and part of our rental agreement included duck feeding—the food consisting of several crates of army surplus cookie-cracker rations in olive drab tins. Vietnam War leftovers, I suppose.
By this point I had already been T-boned and totaled in my orange VW Beetle in a snowstorm (no fault, no foul, no insurance payout) and then traded my incredibly beautiful Gibson Les Paul low-impedance electric guitar for a Toyota Stout pick-up. The Stout was an early Toyota contraption which pretty thoroughly sucked. Bad move, I still wish I had kept the guitar and found some other way to buy a truck, a different truck … but stupid mistakes are free.
At least we had a second vehicle, and a truck to boot. So we rented an engine hoist, bought a Chilton’s Guide and pulled The Mother Van’s motor up and out via the passenger-side door.
Taking an engine apart is the best way to understand how engines are put together—in the same way that dissecting a frog or disassembling a laptop computer engender insight into structure. We did a pretty decent job, for beginners, with only a small handful of parts left over (internal combustion engines are way more forgiving than computers on that score).
Theretofore my mechanical experience had been limited to peripheral matters: water pumps, alternators, clutches, brakes, U-joints, tune-ups and the like. The main thing is to keep everything organized and clean. A machine shop turned the crank shaft (that is, ground it down so the bearing surfaces were true and smooth again), bored the cylinders and did a valve job on the head. Then we bought new bearings, rings, valve lifters and gaskets, torqued it all together and planted it back on the engine mounts. It ran so well we decided The Mother Van deserved a paint job too, and a friend with a spray rig helped me paint it a lovely shade of maroon.
That first year in the farmhouse is memorable for many reasons beyond zen and the art of mothervan maintenance, and though the flying saucer incident and the airborne giant ice cube from hell undoubtedly made the second year a little weirder, it is 1977 that mattered more in the long run. To wit:
• I read R. Buckminster Fuller’s magnum opus, Synergetics, cover-to-cover for the first time, understood some of it, and was totally blown away.
• Snook, the calico cat, had nine kittens, and I kept the runt, naming him Brave Ulysses to give him courage. He was the best cat I ever shared my life with—except for the time he pissed on me from inside a backpack which wasn’t entirely his fault—and he was always extraordinarily brave except for that night we saw a lynx near the campsite, in Alaska. A gun-toting bastard shot him dead when he was only ten years old.
• A 4×4 driver intentionally flattened Cochica.
• A gun-toting bastard shot Tom.
• A bullfrog tried to swallow a duckling.
Yes, that’s right. One morning there arose a calamitous tumult out at the duck pond with the adults squawking and honking and flapping and the dozen or more ducklings squeaking and dashing in every direction.
I ran out to the pond to discover a frog trying to eat a duckling about its own size, perhaps mistaking the bird’s head for a large bug. The frog couldn’t swallow the bird and the bird couldn’t extricate its head. It was flapping its tiny yellow wings and kicking it’s feet, while the frog kicked in the other direction, gap-mouthed and wide-eyed and unable (unwilling?) to spit out its prize.
I picked the pair up and slowly drew the duckling out, which pulled much of the frog’s esophagus inside-out as well. The duck went scooting back to join its nestmates and parents while I stuffed the frog’s innards back down its throat. It composed itself a moment on the bank, then jumped into the pond and swam away.
The frog became our stand-in for “a great sea creature” and the duckling was henceforth and obviously known as Jonah.
During his days inside the great fish—or whale, depending on your preferred version of the tale—the Biblical Jonah repents and obeys the call to prophesy against Nineveh, the Ninevites repent in turn and God forgives them for being recalcitrant Ninnies.
Our Jonah may or may not have repented, but he prophesied pretty well. His neck was twisted a little toward the right, and permanently bent, and when his adult plumage came in he had a wild feather that grew upward on that side of his head. It made him look like he was wearing a kid’s costume Indian headband and he tended to walk very fast, often in circles and squawk nonstop. So as the flock would cross the yard from the pond toward the house where we scattered K-rations, Jonah would initially race ahead but curve back into the gang, preaching like mad, then curve some more and race to catch up.
Whether Jonah’s flock heeded the call remains somewhat a mystery. But with unfenced land the birds had an unfortunate tendency to traipse into the road and most of them were ultimately hit by cars. Jonah was a survivor, avoiding the traffic through dumb luck or, who knows, foresight?
The Jonah story offers one of those odd tests of faith that populate religious faith. No one with any understanding of physiology could imagine that a human could survive three days in the digestive tract of a beast, and of course that’s the point—it could only have been a miracle that permitted the prophet a chance to reconsider his wayward path and be delivered intact to a beach. But, then, whose word do we have on that score? Why, the word of a raving prophet who claimed to have been swallowed and spit up on a spit.
Seems, um, a little fishy to me.
When I came to write a biography of the evangelist Billy Graham many years later I was startled to learn that while he had rejected a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story and allowed that the seven days could be read as an allegory for the billions of years over which our solar system and planet evolved into existence, Graham in his penultimate decade still held to his belief that Jonah had actually spent three days inside a whale.
Embracing faith seems ultimately a matter of choosing to believe in the putative benefits of having faith, and where one chooses to draw one’s lines seems as arbitrary as taste in music or art or literature. We seem to say, “This set of rules speaks to my need for mystery or inspiration. That set does not.”
Of course, the faithful generally assure others that lack of faith in their version of reality will result in an eternal journey through hell, or reincarnation for another shot at enlightenment, or conquest by heathen enemies, or crop failure, or bewitchment, or disappearance of the sun from the sky … there are warnings aplenty for the apostate. As I was editing this passage, the Christian talk-show poobah Pat Robertson announced that the 2010 Haitian earthquake is punishment for a supposed pact with the devil made by the denizens of that sad nation— just as he previously opined that Hurricane Katrina was God’s vengeance on sinful New Orleans and 9/11 God’s reaction to sodomites in the Big Apple. Okay, Pat. Whatever.
In the early days of whaling, Nantucketers are said to have upgraded their techniques in 1690 with the expertise of a Cape Codder named Ichabod Paddock. Paddock’s claim to fame was to have been swallowed by a whale in whose belly he found a mermaid and the Devil playing cards for his soul. What Nantucketers thought of their instructor’s elaborate history is less than clear, but his hunting expertise was deemed a boon to industry.
Cochica the retriever cat, faithful as the day was long, was flattened by a truck along that New Hampshire by-way too, just like the unrepentant ducks. But she was asleep in her usual nest about fifteen feet from the pavement and telltale tread marks made it pretty clear that someone swerved a long way to do the deed. Some people don’t believe in living cats.
Toward winter we adopted (or had foisted on us) our neighbor’s cats—Moxie, a fluffy red tabby, and a grey short-hair tabby, decidedly outdoor, feline named Tom. He was scruffy from numerous cat fights in the way that unneutered toms usually are, with a tattered ear and missing tufts of fur. But he was quite sweet to people and purred like mad when anyone found time to scratch his head.
Tom showed up one evening, dragging a leg, the bone shattered by a bullet that was still lodged in his chest. The vet said he might recover after amputation and surgery but would need to be kept indoors for months as he mended and learned to walk on three legs. Given that he had no experience with use of a litter box and was a persistent scent-sprayer we couldn’t see our way clear to taking on his troubles. We had him euthanized.
That decision set us up for a far more painful experience just a few months later when, worn down by the New England winter, we loaded The Mother Van and headed south to visit family and friends in Florida.
Excerpted from Whale Falls: An exploration of belief and its consequences (Brave Ulysses Books, ©2010 All rights reserved.)
I am not a real birder.
I’ve kept no “life list” of myriad species observed. There have been no journeys around the world to spy endangered rarities. And I am terrible at remembering calls—barring a few blatantly distinctive exceptions, most of the twitters, whistles and clicks that birds utter leave me clueless.
But I love to watch, floating downriver in a canoe—beer in one hand, binoculars in the other, steering-paddle tucked under my arm—keenly alert to the wild things all about.
There’s a red-shouldered hawk perched atop a dead palm trunk, tearing at the unseen prey pinned in its claws. Chunks of wet, red something, ripped and swallowed. A white-spotted brown limpkin wails like a banshee, then resumes poking its long, downturned beak between weeds, in search of apple snails. Now a dull grey eastern phoebe zooms overhead, stalls for two beats and veers to a nearby branch, its twitching breakfast bug briefly visible. And gone.
Unless you spot birds engaged in courtship or building nests, their primary interesting activity is eating. Birdseed is big business, no? Not so different from us, really: We woo. We find housing. We eat. And, having our three squares passably covered in the winter of 1997, Susan and I were back in the canoe again, watching.
We were paddling the Ocklawaha River in the northern portion of the Ocala National Forest in central Florida. This particular journey was more than usually colored by death—always there, to be sure, but this time not easily ignored. An American alligator floating upside down in the weeds, and a river otter similarly positioned against a drifting log, attested to someone’s able, if misguided, marksmanship. A young grey fox showing no apparent fatal wound lay stiff amid pine needles, which still bore the imprint of its final contortions. And, strangest of all, beneath four feet of clear, flowing water, a white-tailed doe.
We paddled back over her, waited for ripples to flatten, and looked again. Completely intact: Two forelegs hooked around a submerged branch kicked languidly in the current. Her head was thrown back, and she lay belly up, little teats attesting to her gender. We guessed she had not been dead long, else the gators and turtles would have parted her out.
But there were other shadows, too: Each of us had a mother’s sister enduring untender cancer therapy. We are all terminal. Some of us are led to believe that we’ve been more specifically informed, but no matter. We each owe the earth one body—our tuppence for the piper who has favored us with this lovely tune, this wondrous dance.
Soon enough both aunts would succumb amid whispered goodbyes and morphine-induced dreams.
Geologist Vladimir Ivanovitch Vernadsky referred to life as a “disperse of rock.” We are not separate from the earth’s crust, Vernadsky observed, we are just the parts that visibly wiggle. Agitated molecules whirling into dervishes, CEOs, peasant farmers and canoe paddlers. Moving, always moving.
And what motion! Vultures, both black and turkey, soared together overhead. Up and up into the yonder, till binoculars were insufficient to follow their flight. Searching for leftovers and riding the wind. Nice work if you can get it—perfect players in the recycling loop, probate jurists in this mineral disperse.
Apart from the buzzards (and headed higher), an adult bald eagle, wings stiff as twin ironing boards, circled above a juvenile baldy practicing her moves. I once met a woman who hang-glides for sport; she recalled rising impossibly high on an updraft above Mount Shasta—wingtip to wingtip with our national bird. She said the eagle first seemed curious about the Dacron-fledged interloper in its airspace, but presently grew bored and moved on. Up.
I looked up. There, atop a bleached pine snag, sat a vigilant osprey, black talons biting into pale wood. I aimed my binoculars and was startled by the view. Above the feathered shoulder hung the waxing, gibbous moon, a semicircular mirage set in aching blue. Wondering under my gaze, the bird’s head pivoted, and together, we considered the familiar lunar image.
The osprey turned back with a shrug. “Oh, that.” Nothing there but dust. No water there for dancers to drink. The party never even got started.
Here on terra firma, though, the party never ends. I ate another boiled peanut, sipped my beer, and watched four eastern painted sliders plop off a log. Miracle after miracle, we celebrate, we whirl.
Three years later it was Susan’s turn to confront a cancer diagnosis, and it turned our world upside down.
“Don’t count on tomorrow,” it said. “Do it today.”
Death is necessary to life, it seems. In his exquisite treatment of life in Sex (Science Writers Books, 2009), Dorion Sagan quotes the character Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), “As a sexual being, Agent Starling, ‘we’ must die.”
Sagan observes that we exist in a Red Queen’s race, where, like the Queen and Alice running in Wonderland we have to constantly evolve to maintain our status quo. Sexual reproduction lets parents shuffle the genetic deck creating small variations that (with luck) inure offspring to the ever-evolving parasites, viruses and bacteria nipping at our collective heels. Then the parents succumb, and the cycle repeats.
In the time between we celebrate and whirl.
Excerpted from Whale Falls: An exploration of belief and its consequences (Brave Ulysses Books, ©2010 All rights reserved.)
Here’s a draft of Chapter 1. Recent edits in bold.
Some species of whale are utterly enormous.
One can’t help but wonder what a one hundred and ninety ton creature feels. What feedback do they receive from the distal portions of their vast epidermal sheath? They are inured to cold, surely, or at minimum less sensitive to extreme cold than you and me. We know they tend to be well insulated with blubber, of course, but that is interior to the skin. While it may serve to keep their innards warm in the frigid, heat sucking sea, there is still that outer layer of whaleness that interfaces with the aquatic realm from the tropics to the poles. Skin is the sensory organ that collects data about the air-ocean puddle in which we earth-folk swim or walk or fly.
In our own skins we have nerves that react to temperature, to the tiny needley tube inserted by a mosquito, to a lover’s touch, to a bucket of ice water in the night.
How sensitive is whale hide by comparison? Is the rush of water across her skin as pleasurable as my warm shower or your sitting beneath a cascade in a mountain stream? Is the penetration of a harpoon into a cetacean more akin to a mosquito bite on one’s arm, or a spear in the gut? Fat doesn’t contain a wealth of nerves, so if the skin is relatively numb, how far in does the barbed weapon have to go before she feels pain?
Or is the pain of violence really more about violation of one’s envelope than it is about sensation? It’s hard enough to claim certainty about how or what other human beings feel. The basis for interspecies empathy is largely conjectural.
Not that most humans have thought long or hard about whales’ pain. Before the last years of the last century, most who considered whales at all were chiefly interested in converting them to cash. At one point whaling was the fifth-largest industry in America. Collateral damage has never much mattered where it stands between men and wealth—whether it’s cancer and black lung in coal mine communities, children blasted by cluster bombs and land mines laid in oil fields, or gang victims in the misguided and fraudulent war on drugs. The pain of whales, poor children and those defined as criminals rarely affects public policy, no matter how they might climb our heart charts.
When the discovery that whale blubber could be rendered to useful fuel was combined with improved navigation and the construction of large ships, we started on the road to Exxon-Mobil, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and global climate change.
“Thar she blows,” indeed.
It all started with beached whales.
For reasons largely conjectural, whales beach themselves but there’s strong anecdotal evidence that human technologies trigger some beaching. For example, the U.S. Navy’s new high powered sonar is a particularly potent source of intense sound waves. Cetacean’s are a sonically attuned, auditorily nuanced family. Think classical music aficionado plunked into a heavy metal concert, times ten. Who knows, really? Times a thousand? Times ten thousand?
Leave the concert?
Leave the ocean?
But “natural” whale beaching far predates intrusive human technologies. Recall Jonah, whose myth could easily have been swallowed by humans familiar with great “fish” on their beaches. There’s some evidence that whales in poor health run themselves aground and perhaps that’s not much different than the practice of Inuit elders who go out on the ice when their time arrives.
In any event, the arrival of huge mammals on the shore was a great windfall for our ancestors who ate the flesh, used the bone for tools and rendered the fat. Whale oil became an important but unpredictable and rare source of energy.
In the 1630s, the Dutch became the first Europeans to successfully conduct commercial whaling in U.S. waters. (While Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest apparently hunted the giants starting ten thousand years ago, their use of whale products on a subsistence level didn’t contribute to the evolution of our industrial and petroleum economy. About which more, later.)
The financial reward for successful whaling was enormous. A single right whale carcass towed to shore in Rhode Island in 1662 reportedly garnered more cash than a whole farm could earn in a year. In addition to the oil, right whales were “right” because their bodies floated when they died, making them easier to haul, and because their feeding apparatus was comprised of baleen, formed in a mesh with which the mammal strains sea water to sift out morsels of food.
Baleen becomes malleable when heated and then keeps whatever shape it is cooled into, and became the equivalent of today’s plastic in early manufacturing. Its primary use was for corsets, but it found use in numerous other applications, from combs to shoehorns to umbrella ribs and fishing rods.
In a 16th century version of “The Graduate,” we’d hear the following exchange:
Capt. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Deckhand Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Capt. McGuire: Are you listening?
Deckhand Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Capt. McGuire: Baleen
Deckhand Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?
Capt. McGuire: There’s a great future in baleen. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Deckhand Benjamin: Yes sir.
Nantucket soon became the epicenter of global whaling due to it’s geographic location—and offshore whaling was dominated by Nantucket until the early nineteenth century.
As related by Caleb Crane in a book review in the New Yorker (July 23, 2007):
This involved the island in a certain amount of un-American activity. War interfered with profits, so, when conflict with Britain loomed, Nantucket tried to stay out of it. In 1775, when Britain moved to restrict New England s trade and fishing rights, Nantucket won a special exemption by pleading pacifism and loyalty to the Crown. The neighbors on the mainland took note, and, once the Revolutionary War broke out, rebels seized flour and whaleboats from Nantucket and put the islanders under an embargo, suspecting them of trading with the enemy British. Some Nantucketers did indeed intend to trade with the British, and a few went so far as to base their whaleships in the Falkland Islands. Others, who stayed, won permission from Massachusetts authorities, in 1779, to ask British military officials not to raid them, a bit of diplomacy that, as an American general pointed out, was traitorous.
By this time, the street lights of London and Paris were fueled with whale oil, creating an enormous demand for the stuff. The British, anxious to build their own whaling fleet, consequently imposed high tariffs when trade with America resumed after the war although it was far from clear that their own production was sufficient. In response, as noted above, some Nantucketers declared neutrality (essentially seceding from the U.S.), others moved operations to Nova Scotia or the Falkland Islands, and a few settled in Dunkirk, welcomed by the French with their own market to appease.
During the War of 1812, Nantucket formally declared neutrality in order to maintain trade with the nation’s enemy.
Oil money, then as now, superceded patriotism for many of those with a big stake in the trade. Halliburton’s sub rosa trade with Iraq during Dick Cheney’s tenure as CEO comes to mind—sales conducted in express violation of an international trade embargo. When Halliburton moved its corporate headquarters to Abu Dhabi in 2008 the corporation was simply, like Nantucketers of old, declaring it’s true allegiance.
There’s a great future in traitorousness.
Excerpted from Whale Falls: An exploration of belief and its consequences (Brave Ulysses Books, ©2010 All rights reserved.)
Whale Falls: An examination of belief and its consequences (Brave Ulysses Books, 2010) will be out in a couple of months. Here’s the foreword one of several interposed asides from the draft for those interested. The book is about whales and travel and diet and consciousness and mummies and theory of mind and post-theism and how we constantly fool ourselves. (I know, the blurb needs work.) New material below is bolded.
Owls conversed after nightfall.