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

Spike Africa

Friday, March 25

When Harry collected his money from Dietrich Hoffer at Fiddler’s Green, there was a glitch.

Sitting in his booth, Hoffer removed his antique glasses and cleaned them with intimidating deliberation. In the background, Marlene Dietrich was singing “Und steht sie noch davor …”

“I understand there were certain…irregularities…in your delivery, Mr. Wry.”

Harry wondered how the man managed to make such an ordinary word sharp enough to draw blood.

“There were challenges,” Harry said, squirming in the booth as Hoffer rebalanced his glasses on the bridge of his nose and stared at him. Harry had seen the same look in the eyes of a Komodo dragon. “We improvised. It all worked out.”

“My business succeeds by being unobtrusive. Are you familiar with the word, Mr. Wry?”

“Yeah. You like to stay in the shadows.” Like a Komodo dragon, Harry thought.

“Exactly. Anything that draws attention to my activities is undesirable.” Hoffer picked up his antique fountain pen, examined the nib dispassionately, and then drove the pen into the tabletop with a motion quick as a rattlesnake’s strike. The man’s expression didn’t change.

Harry sat looking at the pen quivering in the wood.

“Do I make myself clear, Mr. Wry?”

“Abundantly,” Harry said.

Hoffer removed an envelope from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table. “Excellent. I want no misunderstanding if this should happen again. I will have another job for you in a week. I will leave word with Herr Lidmann when the details are resolved. And Mr. Wry?”

Harry thought it was a rhetorical question but Hoffer waited for an answer. “Yes,” Harry said.

“Make no changes to your operation, nothing that would evidence your new financial status. Spend nothing more than usual. Do nothing other than usual.”

“I was going to have the boat hauled,” Harry said. “Scrap her bottom, replace some standing rigging. Basic maintenance.”

Hoffer shook his head slowly as if his patience was tried by a dull-witted child. “That would be ill-advised. Your success, and my anonymity depend upon you remaining utterly unremarkable. Hide in plain sight, Mr. Wry.”

Hoffer coughed into his kid glove. This time Harry recognized it as laughter.

Harry rowed back to the schooner riding at anchor and sat in the cockpit. The air was cold but the clouds had distanced themselves enough for the sun to warm his body. Gulls screeched and sea lions barked and the fog horn on Ediz Hook warned of impending bad weather. (Bad weather was always impending on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.) Spike Africa rose and fell gently on a groundswell born deep in the restless heart of the Pacific.

There was nothing Harry loved more than the schooner. She was the only thing in the world he owned, the only thing that made sense of the world. She was a creature of moods, grace, loyalty, stubbornness, joy, and a wicked sense of humor. He had lived with her longer than any woman and he intended to die with her.

He had joked that, when he died, he wanted a Viking ship funeral, his body laid on deck, sails hoisted, wheel lashed, and the old girl steering him to oblivion. It was more likely she would sink beneath his feet and be the cause of his death.

She was named for the President of the Pacific Ocean, a man who once signed proclamations with a flourish in the No Name Bar on the Sausalito waterfront. Spike Africa, the man, had come by his title honestly. He had shipped as crew on the K.V. Kruse, a five-masted lumber schooner built in 1906, wrecked in 1923, and as mate onboard Wanderer when Sterling Hayden, the actor, stole his kids and sailed to Tahiti in defiance of a court order.

Harry remembered a portrait of Spike hanging in a waterfront bar in Alameda. He was pictured standing in a meadow of yellow flowers on the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate in the background, wearing nothing but a Greek fisherman’s cap. His skin was wrinkled and leathery and his pose tastefully concealed the nasty bits.

Bob Sloan, a friend of Spike Africa, the man, built Spike Africa, the boat, in the late 1970s. She was designed as a working schooner, an anomaly even then. Sloan put a big diesel in the boat and made a business of towing plastic yachts back from Baja California at the end of the season. Scuttlebutt had it, Sloan would tow two or three boats at a time, strung one after the other, with a crewmember on each to steer a straight course. It took time so slow the schooner, bring the towed boats alongside, and change the watch, so Sloan kept his crew at the helm for 12 hours at a time, without slowing even to take a piss. The boat owners never suspected their cockpits were awash in urine.

There was no work left in the world for an old wooden schooner and no profit even in hauling a deckload of tourists around the Salish Sea. Both Harry and the schooner had outlived their legitimate usefulness.

He went below to make himself a meal of beans and stale bread when he heard an insistent call.

“Hello, the schooner! Hello, the schooner!”

Harry climbed the companionway ladder, balancing a slice of bread on his bowl of beans. Over the cockpit coaming appeared the head and shoulders of a man with hair the color of winter wheat and the blue eyes of an Arctic wolf. If he was standing flat-footed in a boat, Harry estimated he must have measured well over six feet.

“Hello to you,” Harry said around a mouthful of beans.

“Are you this vessel’s master?” the Norseman said. English didn’t seem his native language.

“Harry Wry, jack of all trades, master of none. If you mean the owner, then yes, I am.”

The Norseman didn’t smile. Harry suspected his expression was chiseled from ice.

“My name is Root Bergson. I am the mate onboard the Retribution. She is…”

“I know her,” Harry interrupted. “And her reputation.”

“You don’t agree with the mission of the Sea Defenders?” Root said.

“I don’t disagree,” Harry said, “and I’ve no love for factory ships killing whales for profit.”

“May I come onboard?” Root said. “I have a proposition.”

Harry carried his beans into the cockpit and looked over the schooner’s gunnel. Root Bergson was standing in a rigid inflatable powered by a massive outboard engine. A crash bar was bolted to the rigid frame and eyebolts fitted to the molded hull. The boat looked military grade. A young man, barely college age, sat at the center console.

“Come aboard,” Harry said, “but leave your weapons behind.”

“I have no weapons,” Root said, looking bewildered.

“A joke,” Harry said. “Beans?”

Standing beside Harry, Root looked at Harry’s bowl of beans. His smile looked more like a grimace. “No, thank you.”

“A tot of rum?” Harry asked, being hospitable.

“May I offer you some Linie?” Root pulled a hip flask from his pocket and offered it to Harry. His smile seemed less pained but still thinned lipped, like a pressure crack in old ice.

Harry knew the history of Linie, aquavit casked in sherry and carried twice across the equator in the hold of ships. The name meant “line” in Norwegian. He accepted the flask, a little too eagerly, almost snatching it from Root’s hand. It tasted of caraway, mustard blossom, and fennel. The 90-proof alcohol cut through the lingering taste of beans like stormwater through a field of ash.

“Damn,” Harry said and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He handed the flask back to Root who drank twice as deep. Harry waved Root to a seat in the cockpit. “This proposition…” Harry began and waited for Root to finish.

“You know the Makah will begin whaling again,” Root said.

Harry nodded. “You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to miss all the hoopla.”

“Allowing Native Americans to resume whaling will encourage the Japanese and others to expand commercial whaling,” Root said. “Once the door is opened, you can’t close it again. The Sea Defenders are opposed to killing whales, whatever the reason.”

“I gathered that,” Harry said. “Your point?”

Root offered the flask again. It took the edge off Harry’s impatience.

“We are planning a major demonstration in Neah Bay. Retribution will lead a fleet in protest. They are mostly small boats, yachts. What we need is a platform that can be seen from the shore.”

“A platform?” Harry said.

“We would like to hoist a banner between your boat’s masts that could be clearly seen by the camera crews on shore.”

“You want to use Spike Africa as a billboard?” Harry said.

“Yes, exactly. We would like to anchor bow and stern at a right angle to the shore so the banner would always be visible to the cameras. Whenever anyone takes a picture of Neah Bay, our message will be broadcast.”

“And why would I want to lay beam to the swell, rolling the old girl’s guts out, for the Sea Defenders?”

“We would pay you $300 a day, plus expenses,” Root said.

Harry grinned, exposing a chipped front tooth. “That’s my kind of protest.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Heyoka

Friday, March 25

An angry, restive crowd milled around the parking lot and a temporary bandstand. There were beads and feathers, plaids and overalls, and placards for every side—Native America treaty rights, animal rights, states rights, and every American’s inherent right to make a fool of themselves in public.

The Makah’s decision to go whaling again had become international news. There were photographers and camera crews and reporters interviewing people on the street. Several TV network affiliates had vans with microwave antennas.

The crowd surged and roiled like tide rips in Deception Pass. Someone shouted a racial slur, someone threw a punch. It was a scaled version of the scene he had left in the classroom with added riot police.

A big man climbed onto the stage and thumped the microphone. The sound of electronic feedback made Rathskill cringe.

“This thing on?” the big man said. “You folks hear me?” He was wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a tie loosened around his neck. Nice touch, Rathskill thought. Man of the people. A working man despite the 200-thread count Egyptian cotton shirt and $150 silk tie. Rathskill recognized Big Bob Reingold.

Big Bob raised his hands. “I won’t keep you long.” A groundswell of approval rippled through the crowd. “I know you’ve come to hear Captain Osgood. I’ll introduce him in a moment but I wanted to take the opportunity to remind you. We may have different opinions but we’re a community of civilized people.” He looked at a knot of Klallam and Makah that were standing to one side of the bandstand. “Some more civilized than others.” A few people snickered. The Klallam and Makah remained impassive.

“Sure, we’ve had hard times. Money’s tight, jobs are scarce, but Port Angeles is moving into a future of prosperity. Even if we have to drag some people kicking and screaming.” He looked again at the Klallam and Makah.

“And the future is…tourism.” Big Bob hit the last word hard. The feedback screeched. “That’s right. People who come to see the Olympic National Park and the rain forest and whales. People who pay our salaries, our dentist bills, our kid’s college tuition. Tourists are the perfect resource. Clean, renewable, and they go away once they’ve spent their money. So, I want you to listen to what Captain Osgood has to say not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the profitable thing to do.”

Big Bob left the stage to scattered applause and catcalls.

A man with thick white hair, fashionably mussed, and a white beard took the stage. He was wearing a blue serge jacket with four gold bands on the sleeve, a captain’s rank. He was shorter than Rathskill expected from the Sea Defender’s promotion photos. Osgood was head of the radical conservationist organization accused of sabotage by some countries. He wasn’t legally a captain, he just looked like one. He also looked like he owned the crowd.

“Some of you know me from the years I’ve spent at sea defending the defenseless—whales and dolphin and baby seals. Some of you don’t know me at all. Personally, I’m unimportant. What’s important is creating a world where all species, not just human beings, have rights.”

“Not all people are human,” someone in the crowd shouted. “Just look at the Makah.” There was widespread laughter.

Osgood raised his hand to quiet the crowd. “I know there’s a lot of passionate opposition to Makah whaling but we should remember, passion isn’t hate. Hell, I’ve placed myself in harm’s way more times than I can remember to prevent the Japanese and Norwegians and Portuguese from killing whales but I don’t hate the Japanese or the Norwegians or the Portuguese. And I don’t hate the Makah. I stand with Native Americans. I stood with them at Wounded Knee. I bled with them at Wounded Knee.”

“My father was at Wounded Knee,” a middle-aged man shouted at Osgood. “If you were there, he said you were well hidden.”

Osgood shook his head slowly as if wearied by the pettiness of people who disagreed with him. “I have complete sympathy for the Makah, those members of the tribe who are sincerely looking for a better way for their tribe. The tribe isn’t unified in their opinion of whaling. Many recognize it is the barbaric practice of an earlier age. We’ve evolved since then. Society has evolved. It’s time the Makah evolve.”

“What about the Treaty of Neah Bay?” Rathskill recognized McCarty, one of the tribal police who manned the roadblock when Detective Vanoy drove him to the reservation. McCarty was dressed in mufti. “We are a sovereign nation. The treaty granted us the right to hunt whales where we’ve always hunted. You took our land, then you broke your word.”

Rathskill had heard the arguments before. Each side was deeply entrenched and digging deeper. It never ended well. He began working his way back toward Cock-a-doodle Donuts.

On the edge of the crowd a man danced, his body and face painted white, a band of black across his eyes, wearing only buckskin pants, leather moccasins, and a raven. The stuffed raven sat on his head, looking in the direction he had come, its wings outstretched as if ready to take flight, its tail feathers draped over the man’s face, obscuring his eyes. He was dancing backward in a circle, singing to himself in an incomprehensible language, a tomahawk in one hand, a bone flute in the other. The tomahawk was turned toward the dancer.

“Heyoka,” Rathskill said aloud. The ceremonial fools of the Plains Indians, the contrarians, the holy clowns. Rathskill had read about the Heyoka but never seen one in the wild.

A policeman dressed in riot gear—body armor, helmet, and plastic face guard—pushed through the crowd. He was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun in port arms. “Drop the weapon,” he shouted at the Heyoka.

The Heyoka turned to look at the officer, dropped the bone flute on the ground, and raised the tomahawk above his head.

“Stay where you are and drop the weapon,” the cop shouted louder and lowered the shotgun into firing position. “Do it now.”

The Heyoka were contrarians. Their societal role required them to behave opposite of what was expected, to do the opposite of what was asked. A Heyoka warrior ordered to retreat would charge into battle alone, regardless of the risk.

The Heyoka stepped forward. The cop worked the slide of the shotgun and chambered a round. Rathskill was certain the cop knew nothing about the Heyoka or the culture of the Plains Indians. He stepped between them.

“You don’t understand,” Rathskill said.

“Get the hell out of the way,” the cop shouted.

The space around them widened as the crowd backed away.

Rathskill could see the cop’s jaw clenched even through the protective faceplate. The man’s nametag was covered with black electrician’s tape. “He’s not going to hurt you.”

“How the hell do you know what he’s not going to do?”

The cop shoved the butt of his shotgun into Rathskill’s chest, forcing him backward. He lost his balance and fell into the Heyoka. Together they collapsed in a tangle of limbs.

The cop towered above him, the shotgun still aimed at his chest. “Stay down,” the cop ordered. Rathskill could feel the Heyoka beneath him struggling to get up. “Stand up,” Rathskill told the Heyoka. “Get on your feet.” The Heyoka went limp.

“I told you to stay down,” the cop shouted. He put his boot on Rathskill’s chest. There was spittle flecked across the inside of his faceplate. “You move again and I’ll turn you into a greasy stain on the asphalt.”

The Heyoka began singing a song. Rathskill guessed it was his death song. He thought it was Lakota.

“Shut up and turn over,” the cop shouted. More spittle splashed his faceplate. “Now!”

“Sing,” Rathskill told the Heyoka. “Sing as loud as you can. And don’t turn on your belly. A warrior never turns his back on the enemy.”

“Are you fucking crazy?” the cop shouted.

The Heyoka fell silent. Rathskill felt him rolling over beneath him. “At least one of us is,” Rathskill muttered. “Probably more.”

The cop called for backup. They tied their hands behind their backs with plastic wire ties and shipped them to the Port Angeles Police Station in a black van. He was being processed in the police bullpen when he heard a familiar voice.

“Dr. Simon Rathskill.” Rathskill turned to face Detective Vanoy. “Why am I not surprised?”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

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