James Howard Kunstler’s new book The Long Emergency has been getting considerable play recently, partly because of an excellent marketing effort, mostly because of the book’s incendiary subject matter. That subject, simplified, is that we stand at the peak of our material culture. In another year—maybe five—we’ll begin the descent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
David Koch is missing on Grouse Mountain. He has been missing since Wednesday, five nights now, and there remains only a slim probability of his survival.
I met him Tuesday afternoon. He was making a promotional tour for his magazine, DM Review. 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.
only road that accesses our community runs hard against our neighbors’
property, land thickly wooded with madrone, pine, western hemlock and
Douglas-fir. In a breeze the woodlot sounds
like a vast musical instrument—a woodwind, a living voice, the sound of the
earth entangled with the sky. The sunlight among the bending branches is liquid.
Crows tumble down the wind like children playing among piles of October leaves.
The existence of rogue waves has been common knowledge among sailors for centuries but the staggering size of the waves reported by mariners didn’t fit the statistical models endorsed by oceanographers. Scientists scoffed at sea stories of mountainous waves until satellites began sweeping the open ocean with radar. Now it seems waves of uncommon size are more common than the statistical models anticipated. According to several Brazilian scientists, they may not even be rare at all. And they are sinking ships at an alarming rate.
“To see! to see!—this is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”
Joseph Conrad, Mirror of the Sea
The Pacific Northwest is painted in seemingly infinite variations of a single color—the gray shadow of land rising in rough peaks above gray water beneath a sky of broken gray clouds. Like a Chinese landscape, distance becomes intimate. Far and near alike are softened and obscured and the familiar becomes inexplicably mysterious. A few spare strokes capture entire landscapes and histories.
Twenty-five years ago I started my first job as a sailor, working the docks as operations manager for Club Nautique, a sailing school and charter company on the Oakland Estuary, San Francisco Bay. We had several stout little sloops—Pearson 26’s—which club members sailed without charge, sometimes sailing after the office closed and returning the boat to the slip before we opened again next morning. One undistinguished Thursday morning a Pearson was missing.