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 The few pedestrians trudge about their business with heads withdrawn into their shells.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.
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 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.
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.
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 sap, the old tree, ready to drop, to lift from the rotting bed of leaves, the old crumbling pine tree stock. The Dancer Hilda Doolittle
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.
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
On a recent holiday we went for a walk in the woods, Linda and I, up the Little Mount Si trail. It’s not an exceptionally rigorous trail. It peaks at 1576 feet but most of that elevation is gained in the last half mile on a staircase made of gnarled root and worn stone. Nor is it especially remote, only a half hour drive from our home in Pleasant Valley, through Fall City and Snoqualmie to North Bend, and less than a hour from the streets of Seattle along Interstate 90.
An amazing photo of Mount Si from the Snoqualmie Valley. One (or the other) of the most climbed mountains in the US. Photo attribution: papalars.
We walked loaded down with 20 pound day packs—a gallon of water, maps, compass, handheld GPS, spare socks, jacket, hat, first aid kit, poncho, emergency survival suit, binoculars, a Brunton barometer, my old Gerber sheath knife. Few people on the trail carried even a coat. One woman carried a Pomeranian. I felt substantially overdressed.
We often walk in the Cascade wilderness where inattention, bad luck, or misjudgment can be disastrous. I once heard that the third in a sequence of mistakes is the one likely to kill you. The first or the second may not be harmless but the third can be be fatal. Like three on a match. My guess is that by the third mistake death has time enough to accurately gauge your range.
The first mistake is underestimating your environment. The second is overestimating your resources.
We carried our packs past the sheer cliff face where the technical climbers practice their skill, past the bench dedicated to a climber who never returned from the summit of Mount Everest. You can see the various pitches by the tracing of pitons and carabineers left in the rock. I wondered if climbers trusted themselves to pitons driven by a stranger. I doubt I would.
I learned to practice distrust as a sailor on a coast that invites shipwreck. It was my job to cultivate negativity, to imagine the disastrous, to embrace the darkness and never be surprised. It is a skill fallen upon hard times lately, disreputed by a generation raised on positive thoughts and benign expectations. But even with practice I’m still surprised, as surprised as the day David Koch went missing.
I met him Tuesday afternoon. He was making a promotional tour for his magazine, DM Review. I was the marketing manager of a small software company that bought his advertising space.
“I was likely the last person to see David alive and know him by name.”
He had a boyish face and thinning hair. His smile seemed expectant, as if someone were about to deliver a punch line. His conversation was softly spoken and hesitant or perhaps merely polite, paced to encourage interruption. He was, after all, from Wisconsin where time flows like glacial ice.
The rock face on Little Mount Si. Photo attribution: tarnalberry.
The Vancouver Sun reported the contents of his rental car left at the base of Grouse Mountain. There was the stuff typical of a business trip—dress shoes, white shirt, black suit, laptop, Blackberry—and the embarrassingly human details—a receipt for a Butterfingers and a nail file. It’s rather startling, like peering from the window of an elevated train into someone’s apartment and witnessing an unguarded moment, a candid gesture or expression that is utterly unimportant and completely human. He liked Butterfingers. It’s simply not something you expect to know about a dead man you met only once.
I was likely one of the last people to see David alive and know him by name. He left my office in Pioneer Square and drove north to Vancouver, British Columbia. He crossed the Canadian border at 6:30 pm. Before checking into his hotel he stopped and bought a ticket for the tram to the top of Grouse Mountain. (The summer day’s are long in these latitudes, lasting until 10:00 pm, and Grouse Mountain is a place to hike convenient to Vancouver.) He didn’t return with the last tram of the day. He was never again seen alive.
“I doubt a day pack would have saved David but it might have made him walk more cautiously.”
They found him eventually. A hiker followed the descending spiral of a bald eagle. The body had apparently been pinned underwater for some time. He had apparently fallen from the steep path above into a river in flood.
I doubt that a day pack would have saved David but it might have made him walk more cautiously, weighted by the gravity of each step. And despite the extra work required to carry all that stuff, despite the complaining joints and stone-bruised heels, I think I’ll continue to carry my pack even on casual hikes, if only as a memento mori.
In a recent edition of Shavings (May/June 2007), the newsletter of Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats, Dick Wagner wrote about Gas Works Park, the Duck Dodge race across Lake Union on summer nights when the daylight lingers, and the 1909 international exposition.
The fair was burdened with the name Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The shore of Portage Bay, where the university now stands, was picked for the site. The citizens of Seattle were eager to promote their new city. They planned exhibits of a Tokyo tea house and an Igorrate tribal village. They launched a transcontinental automobile race from New York to Seattle. (In 1900, Seattle had only one motor car.)
I first sailed the Caribbean with friends on a Christmas holiday twenty years ago. We chartered several boats out of Marigot Bay, St Lucia, and sailed down the Leeward Islands to the Tobaggo Keys, then back again.
Our first night was spent at anchor off the village of Soufriere, in the shadow of The Pitons–a pair of extinct volcanoes that rise abruptly from the sea– with our stern line secured to a palm tree.
I later learned, in a bar built of rough planks that sprawled across the sand almost to high water, that an elephant had once freely wandered the beach at Soufriere. The elephant had a history involving a bankrupt zoo and a local plantation owner and it was allowed to wander freely until it realized where the bananas went at night, the same bananas that sailors fed it during the day. The elephant developed the disconcerting habit of hauling the sailors and their boats ashore using the stern lines tied to palm trees. I’m told it was very gentle but insistent.
That first night at Soufriere we were still sailors escaped from a cold, wet San Francisco winter. It was impossible that we wouldn’t go ashore immediately in search of a bar.
It was dark by the time we rowed ashore, a moon-dark night filled with stars broadcast like sand across the sky. We beached the dingy beneath a copse of palm trees illuminated by fire flies. I had never seen fire flies and chased them through the dark until I almost tripped over a headstone. We had landed in the local graveyard. Within our first five minutes ashore we had managed to desecrate the dead.
There were no street lamps in Soufriere, no neon, not even a naked light bulb suspended from a frayed cord. Apparently the local power utility closed at 9 pm to conserve fuel. Lantern light spilled from an open doorway.
Town square, Soufriere, St Lucia.
There wasn’t a white face among the men who sat at scarred tables with mismatched chairs but there wasn’t a sense of threat, either. The bar tender stood behind a kitchen counter that was once painted bright red. He served us rum in water glasses, no two alike, and ice chipped from a monolithic block. The Caribbean heat dripped from us all, black and white, and puddled on the table tops. Occasionally someone would laugh at another man’s joke and his face would split like the sun splitting clouds—brilliant white teeth and laughter.
From Soufriere we sailed south along the Grenadines to the Tobaggo Keys, sheltered behind a fringing reef from waves that fetched all the way from Africa, and competed with the two other boats in our flotilla to make the best cocktail from ingredients at hand. Who knew you could mix tea with almost anything alcoholic?
On our return to Marigot Bay we stopped again at Soufriere. I had money enough to eat or drink but not both. Like a good sailor, I drank. By the time the rest of the crew found me in the beach bar, I was well advanced.
I’m not sure who first mentioned the elephant but it was a young local who offered: Would you like to see the elephant? Even in my less than sober state it sounded dubious but asking a drunken sailor if he’d like to meet an elephant is like asking the Pope if he’s Catholic. Only one answer is possible.
Following a kerosene lantern through a moonless night across broken ground is a challenge when you’re three sheets to the wind. It was like running down a steep hill, head-butting gravity. I smelled the elephant before I could see the dark stone barn where it lived. It was a pungent, earthy smell but inoffensive, like the smell of the African savannah, I imagine.
Our young man led us to a stone wall and a corbelled window without any glass. Inside it was utterly dark. (Pretty damned dark outside, too.) I could hear the rush of air from the elephant’s breath, smell straw and musk and rotting vegetation, but I could see nothing. Emboldened by rum, I offered my hand to the darkness. I hadn’t expected a response.
The elephant’s trunk seemed simply to materialize. It twined around my wrist like a snake and held me firmly but gently. I’m sure I would have jumped ten feet if I weren’t held in place. It sampled my smell and found, yes, I had no bananas, then lost interest.
I could easily imagine the caption from an article on page 56 of the San Francisco Chronicle: “Drunken sailor mauled by elephant on Caribbean island.” Of course, the animal rights activists would be outraged. The rest would probably wonder if elephants were indigenous to the Caribbean, then quickly move on to the sports section.
We regained the beach unharmed but broke. We launched the dinghy on an ocean full of stars but halfway back to the boat someone noticed the water level rising rapidly. We had failed to reseat the plug after draining the dinghy ashore and were knee deep in seawater. After a great deal of laughter and more than a few scurrilous comments about our seamanship, we were rescued by our mates.
Recently I read an excerpt from Singing to the Sound about a man who spent three days in the crown of a red cedar tree in a forest on the Olympic Peninsula trying to defend an old growth forest from harvesting. “Every evening at dusk there is this surprising shiver that runs through all the trees. You don’t just sense it, you can see the trees tremble like with wind. Then someone told me it is the trees themselves going through their daily change-from breathing out to breathing in.”
What a remarkable world where even the trees breathe in the slow cadence of daylight and dark.