Category Archives: The Shore


There is a bird that sings at the edge of night when the sky is first faintly colored by light. It sings among the tall trees—cedar and fir—beside the driveway. It sings alone, before the rest of the world wakes and begins making noise, while I’m sitting in meditation beside the Christmas three that should have been boxed and stored in the garage months ago.

I don’t know the name of the bird or it’s life history, whether it’s programmed to sing in solitude, whether its behavior is soldered in place like a circuit board. I suspect something different or there would be more birds singing in chorus. Certainly it’s not the only one of its kind in these woods.

It matters less to me why it’s singing—attracting a mate or marking its territory—than its choice to forgo silence. Perhaps there’s a competitive advantage in announcing itself first  but there’s also a distinct risk. These woods are hunted by owls, foxes, coyotes and bobcats. Occasionally cougar follow the wooded ravines into our neighborhood and wander the backyards and unlit streets. Broadcasting its position to every predator pressed by hunger to still hunt at the end of night is a bold move for a small bird. I wonder how often boldness profits birds of its kind? That may speak to why it sings alone.

Silence would be safer. Silence would be the norm. There’s safety in normality. It’s the reason hunted creatures flock and school and herd together. Statistically, anonymity safeguards. It takes something approaching courage to stand alone when you’re potentially a predator’s meal—or whatever passes for courage among birds.

I’m at risk myself of anthropomorphism, projecting human concepts on the non-human, but the greater risk might be the opposite, assuming ourselves separate and apart from the rest of life, removed from the reality of a small bird singing alone at the edge of night. I don’t know if there’s a word for that, something more pompous and scientific-sounding than simple arrogance.

We carry the genetic memory of troupes of apes who descended from trees to the savannah, becoming more predator than prey but still comforted by anonymity. The ancient resentment of the hunted may bare relevance on why we’ve become such ruthless and undiscerning predators. But to stand alone and sing, surrounded by silence and risk, is admirable among both birds and people.

Postscript: The Christmas tree remains three months after the winter solstice as a symbol, I suppose; evergreen branches and bright lights to ward off the darkness of my wife’s cancer. It’s a promise of renewal after loss. It will remain lit every day until her chemotherapy and radiation treatments end in another four months. It may be an ancient pagan symbol but this one is made of metal and powered by electricity.


Late in September the sun rises over the Glacier Peak Wilderness and strikes the Strait of Juan de Fuca like a temple bell. The morning resonates with light. The evening mist lifts from the water and the vultures crowding Beachey Head and Rocky Point meet the rising sun with wings outstretched, waiting for their blood to regain the warmth surrendered to the night.

They roost singly on fence posts or shoulder one another on split rails. They roost in dead trees, on the roofs of ruined barns, on water towers or barren rock at the southernmost end of Vancouver Island. They are waiting for the day to warm enough to cross the open water of the Strait and continue south.

In late September turkey vultures begin to mass at the southern edge of island like a river current against a log jam. If delayed by the weather they may cross 400, 500, or 600 a day when the log jam breaks. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is only 12 miles wide between Beachey Head and Salt Creek, between Canada and the United States, but those are 12 miles of cold water and sinking air. Vultures have evolved to soar and glide rather than beat their wings against gravity. They are not strong swimmers.

A turkey vulture may glide at 45 miles per hour,  requiring only 20 minutes to cross 12 miles, but they lose 2 feet of altitude for every second of glide. That’s an elegant glide path but it doesn’t annul gravity. Their flight must begin with at least 2,400 feet of altitude in order to make the far shore or regain altitude in flight. The cost of failure is death.

As the sun rises the air heats unevenly over the land, over freshly tilled fields, roads and towns. Warm air rises, cold air sinks. Convection cells form as localized heating increases. The vultures begin rising from their roosts, rising with the heated air, banking steeply to remain in the core of the thermals, grazing the cell walls where cooler air descends. From a distance they appear like debris carried aloft in a tornado. The behavior is called kettling, perhaps because it resembles roiling steam rising from an iron pot. Their flight is a thing of exceptional grace.

Turkey vultures are much maligned. Some of their behaviors are wonderfully practical but hardly endearing to humans. Obviously they eat carrion, sufficient reason for most people to disdain them, but the fact that they kill nothing is usually overlooked. Farmers sometimes shoot them for fear of infecting their pigs without realizing that no bacteria can survive the caustic hell of a vulture’s gut. As well most people don’t know that vultures coat their legs with their own guano or vomit in self-defense.

They gather at fish kills, on the spawning ground of salmon, on fields of harvested hay where small animals have been mangled by machinery. They forage in the cleared path of high tension power lines, on farmland, rangeland, in pastures and estuaries and tide flats, along roadsides and sewage lagoons, marshes and landfills and slaughter houses. They eat beaver and black bear, ground squirrels, muskrats, coyotes, deer, domestic cats, cows, goats, rabbits and sheep, harbor seal placenta and harbor seals themselves, voles, sea lions, opossum, porcupine, skunks and marmots, garter snakes, gopher snakes, even rattle snakes, wigeons and geese, chickens and chicken droppings, double-breasted cormorants, glaucous-winged gulls, great blue herons, swans and scooters and turkeys. There’s almost nothing dead they won’t eat but they are most drawn by the smell of the freshly dead.

Ethyl mercaptan is a chemical compound with a distinctive smell that humans can recognize in concentrations as low as one in 2.8 billion parts of air. The Guinness Book of World Records listed it as the “smelliest substance” on earth. It’s added to odorless butane and propane to alert people to a hazardous gas leak. It’s also generated in the first stages of organic decay.

Few birds have a sense of smell. Turkey vultures are an exception, adept at smelling ethyl mercaptan from miles away. They can locate carrion concealed beneath the forest canopy or a shallow grave by smell alone, providing competitive advantage over eagles, ravens and crows. Union Oil engineers supposedly abused their keen sense of smell by adding mercaptan to their pipelines, using the circling vultures like short-haired pointers to locate leaks.

Unlike raptors who kill their prey, turkey vultures are more willing to share. For a vulture, all food is a windfall. They hunt alone but are attentive to the flight patterns of others. When a vulture abandons its pattern of listless circling and becomes more purposeful in its flight, others take notice. The behavior of the others is in turn noticed. Within a short time newly discovered carrion can attract vultures from beyond the horizon. A venue of vultures (the proper name for a group of vultures on the ground) are surprisingly well behaved. They don’t haggle over scraps like gulls.

A turkey vulture’s beak is adapted for tearing flesh; it’s not strong enough to rend the tough hide of a large animal like a deer, a cow, or a bear. In the northwest they can sometimes be seen on fence posts, white legs and red heads in line abreast, patiently waiting their turn while ravens or eagles breech the hide.

Their red heads are featherless. Baldness is an advantage when thrusting your head inside the bloating belly of a goat three days dead. Feathers would trap bacteria and require constant preening. Long intestines, an industrial immune system, stomach acid that would peel the chrome off a trailer hitch, and a low pH also defend them against infection. Their naked legs are stained with guano for a similar reason and another benefit: cooling.

It’s called urohidrosis, an almost unpronounceable name for a behavior shared by storks and new world vultures. They use their feces and urine for evaporative cooling, lifting one leg at a time to precisely apply a coating of guano that dries like whitewash. The feces of a turkey vulture is sufficiently caustic to kill most bacteria acquired while walking on corpses.

Vultures aren’t aggressive but neither are they well suited for defense. Weak and clumsy on the ground and slow to take flight, they are easy prey. Their only defense is projectile vomiting. Within a six foot range they are supposedly quite accurate. It’s hard to imagine the emotional impact of a vulture’s stomach contents smack in the face. If the viability of the species is any indication, it’s an effective deterrent.

There are more reasons to admire than disdain vultures if we can disassociate them from mythology and our own mortality. They are an elegant solution to the problem of recycling resources and limiting contagion. The Cherokee called them the peace eagle because they killed nothing themselves. Perhaps they would make a better national symbol that than the thieving bald eagle. Long live the eaters of the dead!


Someone whose house is firmly aground doesn’t know the experience of living afloat unless at some point they’ve abandoned the shore and sailed across oceans, day after day, weeks between landfall. Living afloat has an intimacy and an immediacy missing ashore, a contradictory sense of shelter and exposure much like a mollusk inhabiting its shell in the turbulent tidal zone.


A houseboat is alive in a way not possible for something fixed to concrete foundations. It dances in the rising wind and strains against its moorings in a storm. It feels the pull of the sun and moon and the centrifugal force of the turning earth. Life afloat is about life in motion—the isolated impact of the wake from a passing boat or the riotous force of a winter storm. A boat is a thing that moves even if it moves only in place. The floor of a houseboat may not be as lively as the pitching deck of a boat in a seaway but more than one resident has unexpectedly fallen ass over tea kettle because their assumption of immobility proved mistaken.

The certainty of the unmoving earth is something we take for granted since childhood. Every motion we make, every step we take is dependent upon the simple premise that ground won’t rise or fall beneath our feet. In those moments when our expectations are undone and the earth moves we find even the simple act of walking impossible.

A sailor—or the resident of a houseboat—surrenders that assumption of stability. The deck beneath their feet is continuously moving, whether a barely perceptible tremor or energetic enough to create a tempest in a coffee cup. The perception of motion is always present, asleep or awake, a kinetic awareness that orientates them in space. It’s the reason sailors stagger ashore after a long ocean passage, lurching down the street from one handhold to the next. Their bodies have learned to live in constant, unpredictable motion.

The experience of fluidity has ramifications like ripples radiating from a stone dropped in still water. I suspect it removes some of the certainty so characteristic of the middle class. Maybe houseboats attract a bohemian type or maybe it makes them. The truth is all of us are walking on water, we just don’t know it.

Houseboats are wonderfully eccentric, neither one thing nor another, wholly belonging neither to the sea or the shore. Like a foreign embassy, they are sovereign soil transposed on another country. They are the shore afloat, an impossible transposition of land and water. Heart and soul, they are anomaly harboring communities of eccentrics.

They are floating shells, exteriors weathered and roughened but the inside worn smooth by intimacy and the passage of life through chambered cells. Unlike houses anchored to the soil, houseboats can’t afford the luxury of space, the extravagant waste of empty rooms piled one on top another like packing crates. Every inch must be economized, every corner rounded, everything secured. Even a well found house ashore isn’t built to be buffeted by waves, corroded by salt water, or encrusted by barnacles.

Houseboats by preference and construction are ephemeral creations. There are houses hundreds of years old but no houseboats. Nor are they built with the stubborn sturdiness of a wooden boat intended to survive the casual violence of the open ocean, passage after passage. They are vulnerable to hazards both common and uncommon to houses ashore—fire and flood, foundering, parting their moorings, grounding, collision, tsunamis, disdain, envy and bigotry. They are marginal creations that inhabit the edge, a characteristic that is both their strength and weakness.

There were once over 2,000 houseboats on the Seattle waterfront, Lake Union and Lake Washington. Now there are less than 500 sequestered in waterfront ghettos on Lake Union. Their vulnerabilities are less relevant to the decline than the rancor of homeowners who look down upon the ramshackle communities from the Seattle hills and complain about property values, sewage, lawlessness, tax evasion, and moral turpitude. The floating communities have always attracted both derision and envy, the envy of the bourgeois for the bohemian. There’s nothing more rancorous than success.

The houseboat ghettos have created a sense of embattled community. Nothing defines a community more clearly than the struggle to survive against land developers, city commissioners, zoning authorities and citizen committees. The community is further defined by narrow docks that thread together individual homes and anchor them to shore. Walking the dock each day, passing within a few feet of your neighbors’ kitchen or bedroom windows, living in such close proximity doesn’t allow the anonymity of a middle class suburb. When you know your neighbors’ name and the visible details of their lives it’s harder to ignore their distress when their house begins listing or breaks free of its moorings and drifts across the bay.

A Dream of Place

I woke from a dream this morning. We were kids throwing a baseball in an empty lot. Each time it was my turn I was hesitant, apprehensive, unsure how hard to throw, how much force to exert, and each time I threw the ball it fell short, rolling on the ground in front of the catcher. Each time I threw I felt more embarrassed and inept.

Then something changed — I’m not sure what — but I no longer wanted to restrain myself, exactly measure the force of each throw, hesitantly attempt perfection and always fail. Something in me no longer cared whether I tried and failed nor how obvious my failure might be to others. I just wanted to throw the ball for all I was worth.

I cocked my arm back so far my front foot cleared the ground. I was balanced on a single foot, pivoting, utterly committed, focused only on the throw. I put everything I was into that throw, conscious of nothing else. My body uncoiled, my arm whipped forward, and my wrist snapped the ball as it left my hand.

The ball burned past the catcher and broke the windshield of a car parked on the street. The car alarm blared as we stood and looked at the shattered glass.

“Jeez, the cops” some kid said (in my dreams kids still say things like that) and we all ran as if it spooked by a Halloween wind.

I suppose some context is needed. I’ve been wondering about my place in the world and more so, the world in which I have my place. I’ve spent the last year trying to convince other people to do the right thing, the thing I thought right, with predictable results. Even if the right thing was apparent, it remains a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma.


I don’t have the passion to be an evangelist however secular the cause. I wore myself out for little purpose. Questions haunted me. What was my enduring passion? What sustained me through the bleak times? What made me whole?

I suspect we live our lives in spirals, returning to common themes and familiar places but at different levels, different perspectives. I’ve come ‘round again to this familiar need, to understand the world in which I have my place.

The stories that linger on the land aren’t divorced from our own. They shape our days and measure our nights. They frame our lives with daylight and night, with mythic images, with fire and ice. This place especially, at the edge of the world, between the mountains and the sea, this mythic place obscured by cloud.

We weren’t the first ones here. There are stories older than ours. And older still, the stories told in rock and water, restless mountains and glacial ice. Those are the stories I want to learn.

We are so deeply rooted in the earth that our disdain for it wounds us immeasurably. Without knowing the stories of a place we can’t know where we belong. We become like ghosts driven by the wind.

Floating Houses

Living in a houseboat is like inhabiting a shell, like a nautilus moving through chambered rooms worn smooth by use and bathed by water music. An empty houseboat, like an empty shell, inspires daydreams of refuge.

Snow on Lake Washington houseboats. Photo attribution: Cap’n Surly on flickr

There is something about water that compels us to dream. I’ve dreamed of a house where the kitchen floor remains partially unplanked and a stream flows through it. On crisp mornings fog would rise from the water and condense on the window glass; frogs would croak; the kitchen would be full of water music. I’ve seen a house on Bainbridge Island made from a covered bridge that spanned a creek. Transparent panels were set in the floor. It must have been like walking on water. And at Point No Point on the Kitsap Peninsula the bridge of a tramp freighter has been made into a house with running lights. I wonder if the steel still smells of salt.


The community of houseboats on Lake Washington is like a dream in bright colors. Photo attribution: Ambrosia apples on flickr

Perhaps there is a lingering, molecular memory of the time before we crawled out of the sea onto the shore, surrendered weightlessness and succumbed to unconscionable gravity. Perhaps the sound of water invokes that ancient memory. We have no adequate words; the memory precedes language. Even poets describe only its shadow.

Fish nor Fowl

A houseboat is neither one nor the other, neither house nor boat. A house isn’t meant to float; a boat isn’t meant to remain fixed to the shore. A houseboat doesn’t wholly belong to concrete earth or mutable water. Instead, it occupies the borderland, the crack between worlds where it is possible to dream without constraint. What more perfect shell for dreams is imaginable than waves lapping against the hull, fog rising from the water, a fire burning behind the grate and shadows polishing the walls?

Houseboats are populated by lawyers, doctors, dentists, tax accountants but are still considered bohemian by most of us. We look askance at the impracticality, the impermanence, the lack of real estate or resale value. Communities of houseboats occupy the periphery, the edge of respectability, like trailer parks. Marin County redefined them as landfill in order to remove them from Sausalito’s waterfront view.

Perspective of a houseboat sailor. Photo attribution: Bev and Steve on flickr

In The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard mentions a mollusk called the Grand Benitier (Great Baptismal Font) so large each bi-valve weighs 500 to 500 pounds. Wealthy Chinese mandarins made bathtubs from the shells. Such a bathtub would perfectly furnish a houseboat.

I’ve lived onboard boats and I suspect my dreams have been more compact, more seaworthy. A houseboat allows more room to dream. And what dreams might be imaginable immersed in a Mandarin’s bathtub floating on the water?

Houseboats reflected on Lake Washington. Photo attribution: Jonathan Hanlon on flickr.

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Late Snow

This morning snow fell on Puget Sound, a late winter storm in February. Mottled storm clouds raced low across the horizon. In the sulfurous light each limb of each barren tree was outlined with delicate precision as if the world were redrawn with a finer point, a sharper lead, and care taken to remove the smudges.

Now another squall eclipses the horizon and the evergreens bend beneath its weight. The few pedestrians trudge about their business with heads withdrawn into their shells. Their footprints evaporate like their clouded breath.

Hope remains in a world that can remake itself overnight.

Standing Waves and Cloud Caps

 Mt. Rainier puts on a show! | KOMO News – Seattle, Washington | Weather Blog

KOMO News published a series of wondrous photographs of lenticular clouds forming over Mt. Rainer on December 5. The clouds look surreal as if the work of Salvador Dali.

Lenticular clouds form when moist, warm air strike the flanks of Rainier and are deflected upward where it cools and condenses into cloud like the cap of a mushroom.

The air forms a standing wave as it streams over the mountain’s peak and descends the far side into the trough, warming and drying as it falls. The cloud remains stationary at the crest of the wave, continually resupplied by the moist air drawn from the westerly wind and the sea.

Lenticular cloud, Mt. Rainier. Photo attribution: Tim Thompson.  Photo attribution: Tim Thompson.

Lenticular clouds form over Mt. Rainier several times each year but rarely are they this spectacular. Because of the turbulence associated with the formation of lenticular clouds, the pilots of powered planes avoid them but sailplanes ride the wave lift to great heights and distances. Imagine riding a sailplane through such a cloud!

The only named wind in the British Isles, the Helm Wind, forms similar clouds above Cross Fell. The clouds are called the Helm Bar.

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To Break Dead Things

 USGS Release: Tree Deaths Have Doubled Across the Western U.S. — Regional Warming May be the Cause (1/22/2009 2:00:00 PM)

The trees are dying, their mortality rate doubling across the western forests in the last few handful of years. It doesn’t seem to matter—young or old trees growing at elevations high and low, pines and firs and hemlocks.

Deadwood_OlympicPeninsula  Photo attribution: Majorcascadia.

US Geological Survey scientists believe the cause of death is the warming climate—1 degree Fahrenheit over the last few decades. Only 1 degree but enough to trigger cascading consequences. New growth isn’t replacing the loss quickly enough to maintain equilibrium. Winter snowpack is less, snowmelt comes sooner, summer drought lasts longer. The longer, hotter summers invite insect that burrow into bark or browse on leaves.

“A doubling of death rates eventually could reduce average tree age in a forest by half, thus reducing average tree size,” said Nate Stephenson with the US Geological Survey and co-leader of the research team that documented their work in the article “Widespread increase of tree mortality rates in the western United States” recently published in Science magazine.

What does it mean when the forests die? I can’t imagine the loss of living in a world forested by naked snags and skeletal branches.

Strong to break dead things,
the young tree, drained of
the old tree, ready to drop,
to lift from the rotting
of leaves, the old
crumbling pine tree stock.
The Dancer
Hilda Doolittle

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Sea of Fog

When thermal inversions settle upon Puget Sound, the fog settles as well. The view from Tiger Mountain in the late afternoon was captured by Stephen Van Dyck and featured on Cliff Mass Weather Blog. The clouds streaming from the west are a nice touch.


Cliff is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington and the author of The Weather of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve just received my copy and I’m dying to know why weather forecasters on Puget Sound so often get it wrong.

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Darkening Days

The mornings are becoming chill with the Fall. The deciduous trees burn with color. The season of fog and storm is coming.

This year I’m more leery of winter than last. This year I remember the sound of a gale among the Douglas-fir and Western red cedar, the gusts that roared like a north-bound freight, stout timber shattering beneath the weight of wind, the thunder of huge trees striking the ground. The sound of a gale in darkness—whether ashore or at sea—is always more terrifying than in daylight.

That winter storm felled trees that had stood several hundred years, trees that had likely been saplings before the Battle of Bunker Hill. They lay across the road in windrows, isolating our neighborhood. Houses were crushed. Fortunately, no one was killed.

The electricity in our neighborhood failed early in the storm. During that week a cold front settled on Puget Sound. The ground froze hard. There was no heat in the house but the fireplace. It snowed.

We dragged the mattress downstairs and slept in front of the fire, Linda, me and the dogs. Every few hours through successive nights I woke to stoke the fire and keep the cold at bay. Power wasn’t restored for more than a week.

Climatologists tell us the storms will become more powerful and frequent. As the sea level rises places like Bangladesh will be inundated. Pacific atolls and the Gulf Coast may become uninhabitable. Wars will be fought over fresh water and arable land. Millions will become climate refugees. People will die, many people.

Is it avoidable? I suppose the answer is yes, even now we could at least ameliorate the effects, if we could take concerted action based upon enlightened self-interest, if we could surrender short-term advantage for the lasting benefit of all. But we have always been better at responding to disaster than avoiding it.

Perhaps I’m just becoming more dour with age but I find the inhumanism of Robinson Jeffers—or Lao Tzu—the only point of calm within the approaching storm.

“To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the
   whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars
   and his history…for contemplation or in fact. . .
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine
   beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
   or drown in despair when his days darken.”
Robinson Jeffers, The Answer