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…

Avoiding extinction

VAQUITA FINAL WITH BORDERThis article originally appeared in Hakai Magazine Sept. 20, 2017

Giving Mexico’s rarest porpoise, the vaquita, a fighting chance in the face of poverty, corruption, and greed.

In April, Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California is a place of light. Nothing blocks the sun on its arc across the sky. It glares from the green water, and beams off the pale desert and buckled mountain ranges to the west. It foils wide hat brims, burns through shirts, sears the insides of nostrils. It bleaches the very air.

And on this still day, its bright fingers wring the color from several carcasses tangled in a drifting net. The MV Farley Mowat, a 34-meter ship that belongs to the environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, turned up the mess while on a special patrol for the Mexican government. Crew members watch their grim find twist in the water for three hours before a Mexican Navy boat arrives to take over. A half dozen military and environment officials mill on its foredeck and roof. Another man, his face wrapped in a camouflage bandana and his arm cradling a machine gun, stands watch in the stern—like a period at the end of a sentence of warning.

At last, two of the officials tangle their fists in the mesh.

What they heave from the sea is so dead it’s almost spectral: boluses of white flesh dangle from backbones thick as arms, and gaping jaws tear away as if attached with wet toilet paper. As the men discard rotten parts and slowly haul in the net, three fresher, silver bodies surface, revealing the carcasses’ identity: totoaba, a species of endangered fish that can grow to be the size of a large man.

Mexican officials aboard a navy boat haul in an illegal gill net containing about 20 totoabas in varying stages of decay. Sea Shepherd’s MV Farley Mowat found the net drifting in the Upper Gulf of California after the rotting fish swelled with gas and raised it to the surface. Photo by Sarah Gilman

In the early 1900s, totoabas were so plentiful here that they helped spawn the primary fishing communities of the Upper Gulf, including San Felipe, a sprawl of buildings and potholed roads that lines the nearshore. By 1975, though, damming on the Colorado River had irrevocably altered totoaba spawning habitat, and fishermen had nearly obliterated the species for its meat and its swim bladder, which fetched a premium for its use in Chinese medicinal soup. That year, Mexico made it illegal to catch the fish, followed soon after by international and US law. But today’s net is a hint that the trade has surged back to ravenous life. It’s not yet clear what that means for totoabas: the first survey of recovering stocks is only now underway.

What is clear is that the nets destroy much more than their intended catch. And their reappearance has made stark the fatal cracks in a longstanding effort to save another creature, one that is much harder to see, and getting more difficult to find every day: the vaquita marina. More…

 

The ritual: When science feels like elegy in advance

Red legged kittiwake clean Small

This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on Aug. 31, 2017

Each morning, when the fog was thin enough to see, I went to the cliffs.

I’d park the white pickup down a grassy ATV trail. Or off the main dirt road on a pullout. Or in the turnaround at the island’s southwesternmost point, where, when the wind was up at sea, waves coming from the south and west slapped together in explosions of spray and sound that I could feel like thunder in my chest.

At most of the sites, I walked below the cliffs, tracing the strip of cobbles between their toes and the surf, watching carefully for fur seals. When asleep, the giant pinnipeds look just like wet, sea-rounded stones; it would not be hard to step on one. More than once I nearly did. The startled seal would heave its fat-rolled body up on its improbably long flippers, arc its improbably small hedgehog head forward, and roar. Startled me would levitate backwards, moving faster than I thought possible across rocks slick with algae.

At a place called High Bluffs, I walked the cliff tops, staring 600 feet down their faces. Hills rolled inland from the island’s steep margins, like their own slow ocean swell, and my pants soaked as I pushed through the waist-high grass that covered them.

Arctic foxes, dark brown with summer, sometimes watched my progress. Their ears poked above the flowers and seedheads, and they coughed out an eerie metronome of barks if I got too close to pups concealed nearby in a den. I loved them best of all, but I didn’t come for the foxes. I didn’t come for the seals, either. I came to Saint Paul for the birds. More…