Category Archives: The Shore

Shelter From the Storm

Most osprey nests are built high in the forks of cypress snags, ideally one rooted in the water to avoid snakes and raccoons from raiding the nest. A moat is an adequate defense from terrestrial enemies but the water itself can become an enemy.

This nest was built less than six feet above Chocowinity Bay’s normal level. From its size, the nest had been occupied for successive years. Then the storm came, driving the water before it. 

Osprey nest before Hurricane Florence.
Osprey nest before Hurricane Florence.

After Hurricane Florence, nothing remained but the bitter end of some roots.

The nest after the storm.

The osprey that inhabited the nest had already migrated south for the winter. If they return, they’ll have to begin again…or steal another bird’s nest.

Salt Marsh

I live now on the shore of Chocowinity Bay beneath Bald Cypress and Longleaf Pine. From my garret window I can see through the trees across the bay to the far shore and Whichard Beach.

The bay is a shallow dint in the land that empties into the Pamlico River which empties into the Pamlico Sound. The Sound itself is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Chart of Chocowinity Bay, NC. Sidney Creek is the heart of the salt marsh.
Chart of Chocowinity Bay, NC. Sidney Creek is the heart of the salt marsh.

The Japanese have a word for the reason you get out of bed in the morning: ikigai. In the wonderful economy of the Japanese language, ikigai refers to the source of value in your life, the things that make your life worthwhile. It includes the mental and spiritual circumstances you feel makes your life valuable. Whatever your ikigai, it’s personal and specific and faithfully reflects your inner self.

The salt march at the head of Chocowinity Bay is my ikigai, the place where I return time and again. It’s miniscule, bounded by a perimeter of less than 3 miles containing 3/10 of a square mile of surface area, and yet it feels infinite. The Bald Cypress standing like congregants beside the water, the morning light filtered through tendrils of Spanish moss, and the meadows of saltgrass carved into islands seem to exist outside of hectic, human time. The whistle of the Norfolk Southern locomotive approaching the railroad bridge at the head of the bay feels unstuck in time.

Sunlight filtered through Spanish moss, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Sunlight filtered through Spanish moss, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC

I paddle to the salt march each morning, sometimes before first light. It’s a short distance, half a mile, but a world apart.

There is a boundary to the marsh. Beyond a vaguely defined edge there is a deepening quiet and sense of reverence. Certainly, I may be guilty of projecting my internal landscape but maybe I’m perceiving something projected by the landscape itself. It’s arrogant to think we stand apart from the ground beneath our feet. Our rationality was always a thin disguise.

Islands of salt grass, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Islands of salt grass, Chocowinity Bay, NC

The light is always changing within the marsh. There are moments of stunning beauty as the bones of a ghost forest are silhouetted by the rising sun or clouds plunge the marsh into a patchwork quilt of sunlight and shadow. Then the light changes, the moment passes, and I’m distracted by the skirling cry of an eagle or the indignant squawk of blue heron.

Bald eagle, cypress tree snag, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Bald eagle, cypress tree snag, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Great Blue Heron, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC
Great Blue Heron, salt marsh, Chocowinity Bay, NC

The Deadly Storm

[Originally published as “A History of Hurricanes” in the Waterway Times.]

Galveston, 1900

It was a day of sullen heat and stillness, the sky colored with iridescent scales. Ships steaming through the Gulf of Mexico rolled on an oily swell, their crews sprawled in the scant shade of bulwarks and ventilator cowls. Smoke hung around the ships’ stacks and rained soot on the upper decks. Below decks the engine room gangs worked stripped to the waist, their bodies oiled and sweating in heat approaching 120 degrees. It was September 8, 1900.

The swells broke heavily against the beach at Galveston. Through the morning many of the city’s residents had gathered to watch the thundering surf. They were like spectators at a stranger’s funeral, curious but uninvolved, as the pier crumpled into driftwood. Then the waves climbed the shore, splintering bathhouses and the boardwalk. Several onlookers weren’t quick enough to escape the advancing storm surge. They were the first to die in the Galveston hurricane. Within 18 hours the dead would number more than 6,000.

The surge was the precursor of the storm. The water advanced relentlessly, rapidly, as much as 2.5-feet per hour, until it stood 15 feet above mean sea level. The whole city of Galveston, built upon a barrier island, was nowhere more than 10 feet above the normal height of the sea. The entire city was soon wave-swept.

Surf 10 to 12 feet high battered beachfront houses whose residents had climbed into attics to escape the flooding. Currents generated by the storm surge scoured the sand from around the foundations. Debris—timbers, beams, entire walls—became rams driven by the weight of the storm. Their houses collapsed beneath them.

There was no accurate measurement of the wind strength. Measuring devices were carried away by the storm. Dr. Isaac Cline, meteorologist for the Army Signal Corps stationed at Galveston, estimated the wind more than 100 miles per hour. Terracotta tiles ripped from roofs were fired like shrapnel into the streets. Many of the dead were later found decapitated.

Heavy debris collided with those struggling to stay afloat—to stay alive—in flooded streets where the dead were more numerous than the living. Weakened from exposure, injury, and the relentless hammering of waves, people lost strength, lost hope, and finally lost their grip on whatever piece of flotsam kept them alive. Children were torn from their parents’ grasp. Wives sank from the view of their husbands. An entire orphanage drowned. The bodies of the nuns and children were afterward found still tied together in a futile effort to save themselves.

In the darkness and the driving rain, it wasn’t possible for the suffering to see their own outstretched hand until the lighting illuminated the devastation in fierce and unforgiving detail. Beneath the caterwauling of the wind was another sound like Arctic ice fields breaking in a spring thaw. Entire blocks of houses were splintered stumps. Timbers were grinding in the waves.

After 10 hours the wind began to ease and the storm surge, driven inland, turned back toward the sea. Tons of water hurtled like a freight train into buildings already weakened by wind, waves and battering from the opposite direction. Many of those who had survived the worst of the storm and thought themselves spared died in the final surge of destruction.

Aftermath of Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)
Aftermath of Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In the days following the storm, rescuers found 3,000 bodies in the wreckage of buildings, 1,000 scattered in streets and yards, 500 on the bay shores. Another 500 may have been carried out to sea. On the railroad bridge between Galveston and the mainland, 48 corpses were counted, the bodies embedded like buckshot in the girders. Farther down the barrier island another 1,200 may have died. Almost 18% of Galveston’s population didn’t survive the night.

When the water receded, the dead weren’t only human. Rotting fish littered the streets. The bodies of drowned rats, dogs and cats were piled in windrows. The stench became unbearable in the oppressive heat. To avoid epidemic disease, disposal of the dead was imperative. Anyone capable of working, willing or not, was impressed into service collecting the dead for mass burial at sea, (there was no place ashore to accommodate so many graves), the bodies loaded onto a barge and stacked like cordwood. Many of the corpses were stripped of clothing by the force of the storm. They were counted but never named.

When the barge had put to sea the crew discovered there weren’t enough links of chain and scrap iron onboard to weight each of the bodies individually. Some 700 were thrown overboard tied two and three together. Others weren’t weighted at all. The incoming tide washed many of them ashore again.

Men carrying a body on a stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, 1900. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Men carrying a body on a stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, 1900. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The grisly work of collecting the dead continued by torchlight. Generous rations of bourbon and strong cigars were issued to the workers. They breathed through handkerchiefs soaked in alcohol and smoked cigars to mask the smell. In the sweltering heat that followed the storm, decomposition was rapid. The bodies soon lost the rigidity of rigor mortis and had to be shoveled into carts. The fixed bayonets of the militia were all that kept many of the men at their work. Superintendents of the work gangs finally gave permission to torch the wreckage wherever they found bodies rather than extricate them.

“It was like living in a battlefield. The fuel-oil smoke hung over the city, day and night, and the heavy air was never free of the smell of carbolic acid, of line, of putrefaction.” (Death from the Sea: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr.) despite the presence of so much death, there were no vultures. The carrion eaters were also victims of the storm.

Looters found despoiling the dead were summarily executed by the militia—stood against the nearest wall or pile of debris if no wall was handy and shot without the hindrance of a trial. The same brutal justice was delivered to amateur photographers. “Word received from Galveston today indicates that Kodak fiends were being shot down like thieves. Two, it was stated, were killed yesterday while taking pictures of nude female bodies.” (Dallas News, September 14, 1900.)

Flight

Today the osprey are gone from Chocowinity Bay, abruptly, as if compelled. Their nests are empty as are the branches of dead cypress trees standing like stones beside the water. There are no osprey circling overhead or flitting between the wetland foliage and no sound but the indignant crows. The osprey have left, the adults and the newly fledged, driven south for the winter by unrelenting instinct. I’ll miss them.

Osprey nest, Chocowinity Bay, NC.
Osprey nest, Chocowinity Bay, NC.

Chocowinity Bay is full of osprey nests, great piles of sticks and twigs, padded with Spanish moss, bark, and grass, layered with the detritus of successive generations. Fish offal mostly. Bones and scales. The young soon learn to stream their feces over the side of their nests like sailors pissing over the gunwale.

The osprey mate for life and return to the same nest, year after year. And year after year, the nest, usually high in the fork of a dead cypress tree, grows more massive. After years of patient building, the nests can be 10 to 13 feet deep and 3 to 6 feet in diameter. A man could sit comfortably in such a nest if he wasn’t too fastidious about the smell.

There are exceptions, nests built on navigational markers or pilings or the ruin of a cypress tree that looks like a shipwreck, shattered timbers encrusted with barnacles, raised only a few feet above high water. That nest is draped with Spanish moss. It’s on my route to the head of the bay. I gave it a wide berth while the parents were busy bringing fish to feed chicks insistently chirping but now the nest is empty, like the others.

Osprey nest in drowned tree stump, Chocowinity, NC.
Not all Osprey nests are inaccessibly high in trees. Chocowinity Bay, NC.

The birds aren’t territorial except for their nests and then there’s no telling what might set them off. Bald Eagles, certainly, but there’s nothing that likes an eagle. The crows relentlessly mob any eagle that strays into the wetlands. Sometimes osprey take offense at fishing birds like cormorants, and sometimes not, but they always defend their nest against another osprey that isn’t their mate. They’ve been seen locking talons with an interloper and falling from the air into the water.

Osprey evolved to prey upon fish. They eat almost nothing else. One of their three forward facing toes can turn backward, becoming opposable. Their nostrils close when diving. And they have sharp spicules on the underside of their feet to help grip slippery fish.

Osprey diving with talons extended.
Osprey diving with talons extended.

Once in contact, the spicules weld predator to prey. Even a healthy osprey can deadlift only a 1 or 2-pound fish. The fish instinctively dive for the safety of deeper water. There are stories of large fish dragging osprey to the bottom.

Osprey skim the surface and pluck unwary fish from shallow water or plunge after wary fish swimming in deeper water. On Chocowinity Bay I’ve seen them dive from a height of 50 feet, tucking their wings as they plummet, at the last moment extending their talons and striking the water with an explosion of spray. More often than not they’re unsuccessful but often enough to thrive.

Osprey following a plunging dive. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey following a plunging dive. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.

Osprey rising from water with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.
Osprey rising from water with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.

Osprey gaining altitude with fish. Photo credit: Steve McClaren.

 

Advent

Chocowinity, North Carolina, has ever been a village, since before the revolution and now, but not without its small tragedies. September 22, 1711, the first house to burn in the Tuscarora Indian War was owned by John Porter, Chocowinity.

It’s small, even by the measure of villages. Chocowinity had a population of 820 in the last census. It sits near a bay by the same name. People find both difficult to spell. Without consulting the villagers, in 1917 the Norfolk Southern Railroad decided to rename the place Marsden. Easier to spell on a telegraph line, apparently, and toadied to one of the railroad’s investors, Marsden J. Perry. The railroad didn’t return the proper name to its place until 1970 when 2-way radios replaced the telegraph.

The fact that a railroad could arbitrarily change an historic place name says something about the callous use of power. That the Norfolk Southern Railroad was still using Morse code and a telegraph in 1969 says something about the loss of power.

Sitting in an attic room overlooking Chocowinity Bay, I can hear the Norfolk Southern locomotive as it snakes through the wetlands, whistling at bridges and railroad crossings. Eventually, the sound of the train’s diesel-electric engine drifts across the water like the churning of boulders in distant surf.

I came to Chocowinity as a refugee, although I didn’t know it. I’ve lived my entire life in the United States, never realizing it was a foreign country.

I’ve long since abandoned the religion of my parents and grandparents and generations before them. And now I’ve lost faith in politics and progress, even human rationality. Where is there left to stand?

Perhaps there has always been only one place to stand. On the earth, feet planted in the dirt, enveloped by an ocean of air. I’ve thought too much and felt too little. I’ve lived inside my head, staging endless dramas and bloody retributions, all no more significant than a tempest in a teacup.

Joseph Conrad had it right in The Mirror of the Sea. “To see! To see!—that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”

To see the sun rise like thunder over the Pamlico Sound or the sawgrass wreathed in fog, to see still water stippled by the tail flips of bass feeding on insects, to see the tide rise and fall in a rhythm older than time—those are things that help me feel less competitive, less belligerent, less human.

I’m not certain being human continues to carry an evolutionary advantage. What served us well in small, naked bands on the savannah may not serve on a planetary scale. And I don’t think technology will be our deus ex machina, plucking us from the inevitable consequences of a bad script. This is who we are, who we’ve always been. Unless we can become something else.

What comes next?

To see! To see!

Birdsong

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.

Vultures

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!

Afloat

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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