Occidental Park

There is no grass in Occidental Park. In fact, the paving stones—red brick, mostly—are so uneven that crossing them safely requires sensible shoes and close attention. They’re more like cobbles piled upon the foreshore by a high surf.

The park is only a block wide—an easy stone’s throw—wedged between the narrow streets of Seattle’s Pioneer Square district, hemmed by red brick Victorians constructed at the turn of the century before last.

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In The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, a sailor was cursed for killing an albatross. Fortunately, there is no penalty for merely startling one.

In fact, I’m not sure which of us was more startled. I was half asleep at the helm, alone on deck a thousand miles from shore. The light was failing. (Twilight comes quickly to the tropics.) A long, greasy swell was running after days of storm. The wind had followed the storm and we were becalmed, watch on watch, drifting without steerageway for days.

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Doing the Time Warp

Each workday I stand on the pier in queue for the foot ferry to Seattle in the company of other commuters, double-crested cormorants, gulls—western and glaucous-winged gulls mostly—and sometimes a river otter foraging among the tidal rocks of the breakwater. Each workday I shuttle the length of Admiralty Inlet in the company of oil tankers, cruise ships, container ships and warships, tugboats with barges, fishing boats, ferryboats and workboats, schooners, sloops, ketches and an occasional yawl. The channel is broad and deep with few obstructions. It was cut by ice through bedrock and basalt—chipped and gouged, crushed, pried, split, scaled,  shattered and scoured by ice. Everywhere the scars of ice are evident.

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Black Plague & Boatwrights

Fair warning: This post is about widely disparate subjects strung together by apprehension.

Port Townsend occupies the intersection of Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It has always been a haven for cranks and eccentrics, people who dreamed and failed greatly. Port Townsend hosts the annual Wooden Boat Festival, the perennial Wooden Boat Foundation, and arguably the highest density of wooden boatwrights found outside Mystic Seaport.

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Magnificent Indifference

The Army Corps of Engineers often find themselves in the unenviable position of defending the status quo against relentless change.  Twenty years ago the Corp dredged the Columbia River to accommodate ships of increasing draft. They piled the dredging spoils on Rice Island. Caspian terns, native to the Pacific Northwest, like nesting in soft sand and Rice Island had plenty of sand. It was also protected form predators. The terns were fruitful and multiplied. Eventually they numbered over 20,000—70% of the world’s population of Caspian terns.

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Frog Falls

The world is considerably more mysterious than priests and politicians would have us believe. How else explain frogs falling from the sky? Small toads, actually, bouncing off the taut skin of English umbrellas. Or common minnows sliding off the slate roofs and clogging the gutters of Aberdare, Wales? Waterspouts? Sure, you can trot out that swaybacked old excuse but it has no legs. Waterspouts don’t pluck only one kind of amphibian or small fish out of a pond, fastidiously ignoring all the surrounding muck and water plants. In fact, a waterspout is more likely to rain mud and sticks on your head than small fish.

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Missing, Presumed Lost

David Koch’s recent disappearance set me thinking about other losses. In the age of commercial sail when ships often went missing and word traveled only as fast as the wind there were formal hierarchies of loss defined by the underwriters, Lloyds of London predominantly. When a ship was late in arriving at her port of call, she was reported to Lloyds as overdue. When the length of time overdue became worrisome, she was reported missing. And finally, when the silence stretched into months and hope seemed naive, she was reported missing, presumed lost.

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Sense of Place

It was said of the old schoonermen who sailed out of Gloucester to fish the Grand Banks that they could place their position by tasting what clung to the bottom of the lead when it was heaved back onboard. They knew the texture, weight, and consistency of what lay fathoms beneath their keels as intimately as a farmer might know the dirt in his fields or an Inuit discern the subtleties of snow.

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