Salutations to the Sun

Early morning along the shore, I passed this Blue Heron perched on a dead cypress limb as the sun rose over Chocowinity Bay.

The frayed feathers on the heron’s chest are called “powder down.” The bird can crush these feathers into a powder with a fringed claw on its middle toe and apply it to the feathers on its underbelly. The powder keeps those feathers from becoming fouled and oily wading in the swamps. The swamp slime clumps on the feathers and the heron brushes it off with its feet.

The heron also uses the powder to remove the slimy oil from fish.

Blue Heron, Chocowinity Bay
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Grandpap Island

Grandpap is an island sunk in the Pamlico River downstream of Washington, NC. The island has been eroded by storms. It’s only a name on the charts now, a shoal patch, and the bones of some cypress trees rooted in the water.

The trees stand isolated in the fog. A few sodden cormorants dry themselves on leafless limbs. The river flows past sluggishly on its way to the Pamlico Sound.

Dead trees are the island’s headstones.

Cormorants and sunken island
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Thunder

To paraphrase Kipling, the sun comes up like thunder over Chocowinity Bay. Cumulus clouds rise a thousand feet into the atmosphere and sink a thousand feet deep in reflection.

On summer nights thunder rolls across the bay like Barisal guns and blue herons squawk indignantly, alarmed by raccoons along the shore.

Thunderheads over Chocowinity Bay
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A Neighborhood War

There were African slaves in the early settlement of North Carolina but relatively few. White settlers compensated by raiding Tuscarora villages and enslaving natives to work their fields. The Tuscarora objected violently. In September 1711, the Tuscarora War began.

Oral history records the first Tuscarora attack was against John Porter’s homestead at the head of Chocowinity Bay. Porter and his guest, Patrick Maule, successfully defended themselves.

John Porter built his home near a landing on Sidney Creek. The creek winds itself through the wetlands near the head of the bay. The old wharf pictured is likely located near Porter’s homestead and the opening battle of the Tuscarora War.

Not everyone fared as well as John Porter. A neighbor, a man named Nevil, had a farmstead near the mouth of Blounts Creek.

Nevil, “after being shot, was laid on the house-floor, with a clean pillow under his head, his stockings turned over his shoes, and his body covered with new linen. His wife was set upon her knees, and her hands lifted up as if she was at prayers, leaning against a chair in the chimney corner, and her coats turned up over her head. A son of his was laid out in the yard with a pillow laid under his head and a bunch of rosemary laid to his nose.”

The Tuscarora had a creative way of celebrating death.

Sidney Creek, Chocowinity Bay
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Useful Dead

Osprey often take stand on branches of Bald Cypress trees. The trees grow and die at the edge of Chocowinity Bay, offering a good view of the water. The dead trees, stripped of their leaves, are no hindrance to their flight.

Many people value trees only as board feet. There is no profit in a dead snag. Osprey see it differently.  Dead trees are wondrously minimal. Nothing unneeded, nothing superfluous, a place for their talons to grip and their hunger to focus. The fish hawks wait with patience sharp as their talons and then fly.

Not all things dead are useless.

Osprey on bald cypress snag
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Perilous Nests

Osprey breed on Chocowinity Bay during the season. They prefer to build their nests on trees rooted in the water, bald cypress trees mostly, to keep raccoons from robbing their eggs. Sometimes they build their nests on channel markers. Sometimes they build too close to the water.

A breeding pair of osprey used this nest year after year, hatching and fledging their chicks until Hurrican Florence swept the bay with six-foot waves. Only a few cypress stumps remain.

Life is a perilous business.

Wetlands

Water flows sluggishly through the wetlands at the head of Chocowinity Bay. Spanish moss filters the sunlight and shadows recline on the water.

The wetlands at the head of the bay are less than a mile from home. I paddle the winding leads through bald cypress trees and sawgrass meadows several times each week, watching the seasons change, the foilage thin, then thicken, the storms come and go. It’s a place that grounds my sanity when the world seems insane and humanity seems intent upon its own destruction.

The world is written in light.

Brokenness

May 4, Greensboro, NC

Something is wrong, or about to go wrong. It’s a fundamental truth, the beginning of wisdom. Everything breaks. In our case, it was a shackle pin.

Who knew trailers had shackles? A lot of people, apparently. Just not me.

There are four shackles, each holding a wheel in place, keeping it from drifting out of alignment. Then suddenly there were three. It’s of academic interest unless your tires begin grinding against each other or an axle is torn free from its mounting.

No life is without adversity. Something is either broken or about to break. It’s not cause for despair, simply a fact built into our universe. Shit happens. Get used to it.

Except that we haven’t gotten used to it. We’re still expecting our plans, our lives, our civilization to last forever. We act without understanding the balance of brokenness.

Leonard Cohen wrote in Anthem, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Perhaps we would be a less arrogant species and less harmful if we acknowledged our own essential imperfection, our brokenness, and walked more lightly upon the earth. But maybe that inability is characteristic of our peculiar imperfection. It’s a conundrum.

Who am I to say? I’m towing a broken trailer across America celebrating the apocalypse.

Apocalypse Tour

Tomorrow the Apocalypse Tour begins. Hauling two Portuguese Water Dogs, a 16,000 pound trailer, and my wife across the country, coast to coast and return, like water sloshing in a bathtub, seems an ironic way of celebrating the end of the world, at least the impending collapse of human society, but the universe, from all appearances, has a wry sense of humor.

I’m not sure why I’m documenting the trip or why it matters. It’s intensely personal and may be of no interest to anyone else but it feels necessary, a nagging requirement of my humanity, to stand witness to what I don’t understand. And the end of the world is incomprehensible, totally.

The name came from a thread on Positive Deep Adaptation, an online community coiled around the recognition that severely disruptive effects of climate change are unavoidable and societal collapse now inevitable. It’s a surprisingly upbeat community despite the angst about the end of the world.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).

Of course, the end of the world is nothing new. Almost every significant human culture has had a myth about how the world ended. Mostly, it didn’t end well.

It’s not wild men prophesying in the desert or priests maniplating in their temples, not this time. It’s scientists measuring changes in the atmosphere and ice melting at the poles. It’s non-linear consequences accelerating beyond our ability to predict and effects cascading beyond our control. It’s our economy, built on a fragile infrastructure stretched across the globe, vulnerable to the impacts of the changing climate, a Ponzi scheme dependent upon unrestrained growth in a restrained ecosystem. And it’s the size of our population, only partially supported at the best of times and at extreme risk in the worst.

My point isn’t to write an apology for the apocalypse. It doesn’t matter why so much as what and the what is intensely personal.

The Apocalypse Tour is a long leave-taking across the country, riding remnants of the old Route 66, from Carolina to the Anasazi ruins in the desert to familiar places along the West Coast, acknowledging each visit may be the last. No different from any other day in the life, really, but magnified by the greater human tragedy impending.

We may be approaching the end of human history…or not. Jesus hasn’t returned but a lot of people are still waiting.

And me? It’s time to get on the road again, maybe one last not. Time to look at things again, take some pictures, drink some beer, see the world from an apocalyptic point of view.

The Dark Mountain

I first stumbled upon Robinson Jeffers in his own place, the precipitous headlands of the Sur coast, the tidelands of Point Lobos, and the long arc of sand at Carmel. He was already dead and I was at risk, an unwilling soldier training to fight an unwitting war.

It wasn’t a casual meeting or by chance. We were both drawn to the Sur coast by our individual trajectories like tides drawn by the moon. We were both compelled to stand on that shore and suffer the bone-deep grief for things already lost and things yet to lose. Jeffers understood the loss more than me. I was too young and self-absorbed to span the depth of it or carry its weight.

I would burn my hand in a slow fire
To change the future... I should do so foolishly. the beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.
Rearmament
Robinson Jeffers, 1940
Robinson Jeffers, 1940

He published the poem in 1934 but already felt the future’s foreshadow, endless wars, politicians retrenched behind walls of privilege, the forced migrations of the hungry and homeless, and border wars ignited like brush fires. He may not have anticipated the changing climate but he understood the mechanics of civilization and where it likely led.

“These grand and fatal movements toward death,” the opening line of Rearmament, is even more reflective of our times than his own. The grand movement we’ve begun is the Sixth Extinction where species are forced into the darkness like lemmings off a cliff.

I don’t know that we could have done otherwise. Humanity’s trajectory was set when we descended from the trees and survived by becoming the most vicious beast on the African savannah. We’ve changed the world too rapidly to accommodate ourselves.

We may survive the Sixth Extinction, diminished by violence, hunger, and disease, less arrogant, more cautious of our choices…or not. Why presume we’re immune? Life has always been a tentative balance between fitness and failure.

Jeffers was never a poet for determined optimists. His vision of humanity was dire and uncompromising and seems now likely, also true.

Men suffer want and become
Curiously ignoble; as prosperity
Made them curiously vile.
Life from the Lifeless

He is, however, a good companion for the descent down the dark mountain. I’ve carried The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers for years, my copy expropriated from the Marysville Public Library. The pages are yellowed and dogeared, the cover frayed, the verses underlined and highlighted. And when the grief for lost beauty threatens to overwhelm me, I find some comfort in The Answer.

...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.
The Answer

"To see! To see! -that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity."