The Bird of Two Seas

Ringed petrel banner (2)This article and my original illustrations appeared in The Atlantic’s Life Up Close series on July 20, 2018

To save the tiny seabird, scientists are venturing to its secret home in the Atacama Desert—and sticking their noses into a lot of stinky holes in the ground.

The peninsula northwest of the industrial city of Antofagasta, on Chile’s northern desert coast, is haloed with seabirds in flight. Pelicans lumber past wheeling gulls. Flocks of boobies cut the haze around Punta Tetas—Tits Point—like an avian punch line.

Farther from shore, where the inappropriately named Pacific begins its wild pitch and yaw, is the domain of the order Procellariiformes: birds with long, hooked bills and tubular nostrils that spend most of their lives above the open ocean. The largest of these are the albatrosses, soarers with severe brows and stiff, straight wings that span several feet. The smallest—small enough to hold in one hand—are the storm petrels. Most of the storm petrels that ply the air off this coast are brownish black, with crescents of lighter feathers across their shoulders and the erratic flight patterns of a bat. When they drop to the water’s surface to dip mouthfuls of food, they seem to run across it. This habit inspired the name of the birds’ original taxonomic family, recently split into two: Hydrobatidae, meaning “water walkers.”

The Spanish name for storm petrels is golondrinas de mar, or golondrinas de la tempestad—“swallows of sea,” “swallows of storm.” Sailors of old thought they heralded bad weather, and called them “Mother Carey’s chickens,” emissaries carrying warnings from the Virgin Mary or ship-sinking gales from darker spirits.

Among these far-flying little birds, one can be particularly difficult to find: the ringed storm petrel, or Oceanodroma hornbyi. It has dark wings with white half-moons, like the other petrels here, but its face and belly flicker bright white, and it sports a collar and a rakish masked cap of dark gray. While the other storm petrels seem abundant, the ringed arrives alone, and is gone quickly: a dipping turn like a wink, then away. It rarely appears less than 30 miles from shore, and ranges 300 miles farther out, where gossamer flying fish launch from wave faces like butterflies and the seafloor plunges thousands of feet.

To a storm petrel, the U.S. naturalist and author Louis J. Halle once wrote, the continents are a “mere rim for the once great ocean that envelops the globe.” This ocean is its own landscape, divided by changes in temperature, salinity, wind, and other factors into different habitats. Ringed petrels find theirs in the cold, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current that flows north from the southern tip of South America along the Chilean and Peruvian coasts. They spend so much of their lives over the Humboldt that they’re considered endemic to the current: more native to moving water than to earth.

Even so, the birds must eventually alight on solid ground to raise their young, and on land they’re even harder to find. Like most seabirds, storm petrels often nest in extreme terrains, such as remote islands and seaside cliffs, which protect brooding adults, eggs, and chicks from mammalian predators. They tend to travel overland only at night, and hide in crevices by day.

For more than 150 years, the ringed storm petrel’s breeding grounds remained a mystery. Then, in April of 2017, a group of volunteer naturalists found the world’s first documented nests. They were 45 miles inland from the Chilean coast, deep in the driest nonpolar region on Earth: the Atacama Desert. More…

 

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Critical Mass: Strapping it together

13691056_10153740303176463_3640257484084638429_oThis article appeared on Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line blog on July 26, 2018:

If you flip through early issues of the American Whitewater Journal, published quarterly by the nonprofit American Whitewater since its founding in 1954, you’ll discover several things. One is that boaters in the ’50s and ’60s did insane things, like surf canoes on breaking ocean waves or build spray decks out of a couple of ponchos and some branches before paddling canyons previously deemed unrunnable.

Another is that, in the ’60s, American Whitewater (AW) members helped do the field reconnaissance that made the National Wild and Scenic River System possible. AW co-founder Oscar “Oz” Hawksley was among a group of World War II vets who repurposed Army surplus rafts for wilderness exploration. He co-led the first modern descent of the upper Selway in Idaho, one of the rivers that made it into the original Wild and Scenic Rivers Act when it finally passed in 1968. (The expedition ran 6-foot falls in a canoe. Hawksley rowed a raft over water so rough on an unmapped rapid that, in one photo, the only part of him visible above the foam is his hat.)

You’ll also see that though AW has morphed from a loose affiliation of river-lovers to a professional environmental organization, it’s got the same scrappy DNA. At its core, it’s still a bunch of people so devoted to rivers that they’re as willing to throw themselves into plodding bureaucratic processes and decades-long fights as they are to drop into a good whitewater line. More…

The ocean mummies

IMG_5999This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on May 3, 2018

The Atacama Desert is country that wears quiet like a skin. Stretching through the top 600 miles of Chile, it is so spare of all save earth and rock that it calls to mind bone stripped of flesh by sun, wind, teeth. It is a place that makes you understand why the painter Georgia O’Keeffe saw in pelvises and skulls the curves of desert hills. But the Atacama is more naked still than the Southwestern deserts she loved. When you think of desert, probably you think of Sonora or Chihuahua,” a Chilean biologist recently told me—the vast, brutal deserts of northern Mexico. “They are forests compared to Atacama.”

Pause and listen for a moment: Where does the sound you hear arise? In most places, it comes from life and water. Voices and the growl of cars. The burble of rain and rivers. The rustle of leaves. In the Atacama, what sound there is comes from wind. What life there is goes underground: Spiders lizards birds, finding homes in the cool dark of holes. When Rudulfo Amando Philippi, a German naturalist, made a famous expedition across this desert in the mid-19th century, he improvised by sheltering in the shadow of his mule.

But at night, the Atacama does have a song, and it comes from the sea to the west, on the other side of the mountains. More…

The Screamers of Artist Point

27999702_10155351500531463_356455228_oThis post originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on February 18, 2018

It starts quietly enough. At around 9:30 a.m., I strap snowshoes to my feet and part ways with some friends bound for a backcountry ski. While they skin over a nearby saddle, my dog Taiga and I shuff our way into the stream of snowshoers along the boundary of the Mt, Baker Ski Area, headed for Artist Point. It’s not a long hike, nor an extreme one, but the hordes jostle and slip like drunks. One guy slides on his side in slow motion down the steep hill, parallel to the trail, unsure how to get his snowshoes back under him.

“You could dig in your ski pole to self arrest,” I suggest gently. “I am!” he exclaims, continuing to slide past, his poles dragging unused across the slope.

Maybe he’s overwhelmed, I muse, continuing on.

“What happens all winter; the wind driving snow; clouds, wind, and mountains repeating—this is what always happens here,” the poet Gary Snyder wrote of this place one long-gone August, looking towards the edifice of Mount Shuksan from his post at the Crater Mountain Fire Lookout. Today, though, is the first truly sunny day of the year.

The hanging glaciers of Shuksan gleam blindingly above us. Thick snow spackles every surface, like lavishly applied frosting on a carrot cake. A short, huffing climb farther on, the ridge is all smooth, luscious rises and swooping depressions—not baked goods now, but hips and shoulders and bent knees. Cornices hang bluely from the rocky clifftops; dark conifers wink out from sculpted carapaces of white.

I walk around in my sweat-damp clothes, stunned by this vision that is at once food and flesh and neither of those things. More…

In Visibility

Polar Bear

This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on Dec. 7, 2017

On Tuesday, I texted my friend Michelle a brief video clip of a polar bear.

The bear is starving, all jutting hips and elbows, its fur sparse except for a thatch along its spine and Clydesdale tufts around its plate-sized paws. As with any bear, there is something disturbingly human about the shape of its body, about its movements and mannerisms. It staggers along on a green mat of tundra, foam dripping from its mouth. Dips its face into a rusty barrel and pulls out what appears to be a hunk of rotten meat. Sprawls on the ground, nose to earth, defeated by the visibly difficult work of breathing.

Watching the bear, I covered my mouth with one hand, suppressing tears. This perfect summary of unchecked climate change was like a knife to the kidney. Without sea ice, polar bears can’t hunt seals. And we are to blame.

“I honestly don’t think I can watch that,” Michelle replied. “I can’t get down with the voyeurism of photography generally.”

Michelle—an artist who’s been thinking a lot about polar bears and the Arctic these days—does not shy from engaging tough topics. What bothered Michelle was the lack of direct agency. The doing nothing in the face of such obvious suffering and then using the suffering to convey a message. Some key step had been skipped. More…

No Happy Ending for the Vaquita

IMG_9809This article originally appeared in Hakai Magazine in November, 2017.

The little porpoise seemed perfect. She had been lifted from the ocean onto a boat, but her breathing and heart rate were regular. She was plump and well over a meter long. She looked old enough and healthy enough to bear young. When Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho joined the veterinarians alongside her around dusk on November 4, he bent to peer into her face. “It was one of the most beautiful sensations of my life,” he remembers. “Finally, I can see those beautiful eyes.”

At last, he thought, he was looking at a glimmer of hope in the otherwise grim future of the vaquita marina—the little cow of the sea—the world’s smallest and rarest cetacean.

Rojas-Bracho, a marine mammal expert at Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, has studied the vaquita since the early 1990s. In that time, the species, found exclusively in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California, has plunged from just under 600 individuals to fewer than 30. They are the unintended victims of fishers setting gill nets for shrimp and other creatures, and of poachers illegally netting a fish called the totoaba for their swim bladder, a product worth thousands of US dollars on the Chinese black market.

Vaquitas are famously elusive and shun the noise of boats. Rojas-Bracho, like others who study them, learned much of what he knows about the vaquita from a great distance, or by examining carcasses found adrift at sea or washed up on the beach.

Now here was a living one, the first adult caught during a desperate, meticulously planned effort to stave off the species’ extinction. More…

Unintentional treevotee

This post originally appeared at the Last Word on Nothing on November 20, 2017

Larry and treeI never meant for this to happen.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest from arid Colorado three years ago, I was one of those people who insisted on horizons.

The town where I was born is a place where the foothills of the Rockies stand like a cliffy coastline overlooking a dry sea of plains. From their height, you can watch the change of light roll through the day like surf, can see storms so far away that lightning comes without sound—a flicker on the dark edge of awareness.

Even now, if you asked me what landscape makes me feel so big and free that I might crack right in half, I would say alpine tundra—the naked, velvet crowns of our sky islands, with their pikas and marmots and ptarmigan, with their cushion plants smaller than mixing bowls but older than I’ll ever be.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I worried that all this lush and green would make me soft. My friend Ben told me that the first thing I’d notice was how nice everyone’s skin is, compared to the weathered hide that passes for such on we Coloradans. Western Oregon, after all, is a place insulated from the UV glare of the sun by a few thousand extra feet of atmosphere, by dozens of extra days of cloudcover, by air so thick with moisture that it’s practically water. Indeed, as soon as I arrived, I spent a lot less money on lotion. My blood pressure mysteriously dropped 20 points and stayed there. More…