Thursday, March 17

Rathskill stood at the front of the lecture hall, looking anywhere but at the old man sitting third row center. The old man was naked except for a deerskin cape. There were patches of hair still clinging to the hide.

“Please take your seats,” Rathskill told his class.

The old man sat as if sculpted in stone, sharp edges and hard angles, his skin weathered almost black and deeply eroded. He looked like the photograph of a Siberian shaman published by the Franz Boas’ North Pacific Expedition of 1894. Rathskill was pretty sure he didn’t exist.

His students continued to mill about like wildebeests at a watering hole. He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Now would be an appropriate time,” he said. “Phones down, heads up.”

He didn’t know why a non-existent old shaman was auditing his introductory class in Cultural Anthropology. Sometimes he saw things that didn’t make sense: visual noise, information without meaning. Those things were largely responsible for him teaching community college in Port Angeles, Washington, after a long and bloody retreat from the Ivy League of Harvard, Princeton, and Vassar.

He delivered his last lecture at Vassar on the Dani, a tribe of New Guinea highlanders who still practiced ritual cannibalism, dressed only in a traditional penis sheath made from a gourd. It had been wildly popular with the undergraduates, less so with the administration.

Rathskill clasped his hands behind his back as the class settled. His wild hair and unruly mustache resembled Samuel Clemens or Friedrich Nietzsche. It was a cultivated likeness.

He dimmed the lights remotely. The opening slide appeared on the screen behind him, a photo of an oblong object the color of sandstone with a hole in the middle. The caption read: “Spindle whorl made from a whale vertebra.”

“Everyone living in Port Angeles is keenly aware of the Klallam graves found at Tse-whit-zen during the construction of the graving dock,” he began. A cell phone rang near the back of the class. He took a deep breath and glowered at the offender. “Please silence your cell phones and sit upright in your seats.” He deplored bad posture.

The next slide was a panorama of the excavation site at Tse-whit-zen. Massive earth moving equipment sat idle. Holes in the ground were ringed with yellow tape as if a crime scene. People in hard hats and bright safety vests clustered around the holes.

The next photo zoomed in on the hard hats and orange vests bending over a long trough, sifting through dirt and gravel with trowels and brushes.

“Construction unearthed 335 intact bodies and countless bone fragments,” Rathskill said. “The discovery of so many artifacts eventually halted construction.”

“And 200 jobs.” It was a young man near the back of the class. “Two-hundred families could have lived on those wages.”

Rathskill stopped and pivoted. “You have an opinion, Mr. Broadcutt?”

“It’s hard enough to find work these days but to lose jobs because of some bones?” Martin Broadcutt said. “The Indians didn’t even know those bones were there. If no one told them, they still wouldn’t know and the rest of us would be better off. We should be making decisions that benefit the living, not the dead.”

“It’s a valid point, Mr. Broadcutt, but a narrow perspective,” Rathskill said and resumed pacing. “The Klallam may not have known the location of the graves because they abandoned the village abruptly. So few were left alive after first contact with Europeans that transmission of the knowledge from generation to generation was broken. Having lost something doesn’t make it less important when you find it again.”

He paused for a rebuttal. The young man remained silent.

The slide changed to a litter of bones and broken skulls on a rough wooden table. His students studied their laptops and tablets and cell phones. He doubted they were taking notes.

“The burials at Tse-whit-zen are anomalous. Can anyone identify why?” There were no replies. “Extra credit for the person who can answer correctly.”

Heads snapped back. Faces brightened with sudden interest, then clouded with uncertainty. He suspected they were trying to remember the question.

Finally, a girl with a pitted face in the 12th row braved his ridicule. “They seem haphazard?”

“Exactly. They were buried without ceremony. A gold star to Miss…”

“Avery,” she mumbled to her desk.

“There’s a story told by the bones,” he continued. “Traditionally the Klallam buried their dead in cedar boxes or wrapped in cedar mats, accompanied by their most valued possessions to use in the spirit world.”

“When the dead began multiplying at Tse-whit-zen, corpses were piled layer upon layer, without ceremony, without possessions. Bodies were left on refuse heaps. There were so many dead the living couldn’t cope.

“Some bodies were decapitated, buried on their stomach. They may have been shaman or healers held responsible for not stopping the devastation.”

Rathskill looked directly at the shaman in the third row for the first time. Was that why he was auditing the class, representing the failure of his profession to stop the apocalypse at Tse-whit-zen?

“Skeletons and burial boxes were found dusted with red ochre. Since the Neolithic ochre has been used in funeral rites. It’s thought to symbolize a return to the earth or rebirth. It was also used as spiritual protection against ghosts.”

Martin Broadcutt folded his arms and laughed.

“Don’t be too smug, Mr. Broadcutt. We still bury our dead in sealed caskets to slow decomposition because we expect them to rise from the grave when called by God. The Klallam were trying to keep their dead from rising uncalled.

“Over 80 percent of the indigenous population in the Pacific Northwest were dead within 100 years of first contact with Europeans. Smallpox, influenza, measles—it was near genocide. Imagine the impact on their culture. It took Europe 150 years to recover from the Black Death and that killed less than half the population.”

 “Over 80 percent.” He stopped pacing and looked intently at his students. “There are maybe 100 of you in class today. Look around. If disaster struck again on the same scale, only 20 of you would survive. Everyone else?” He shrugged his shoulders.

“Tse-whit-zen is the physical record of a culture in collapse. The Klallam lived here for 27 centuries, before Christ was even a gleam in God’s eye. Then they were gone. We’ve been here only a few hundred. How much more permanent do you think we are?”

He paused for breath. His students had mostly returned to their laptops and tablets and cell phones. Some were nodding off in their seats.

Pointless. It was pointless trying to teach kids who were only occupying a seat for transfer credits. He finished the hour talking about tools found at the gravesite. When the bell rang his students rose like Pavlov’s dogs and emptied the classroom. The old shaman waited until they were alone, then stepped into the aisle, turned his back on Rathskill, bent over and bared his ass. It was an old ass, boney and wrinkled.

Culturally, it was an ancient form of insult. Still effective, Rathskill thought. In 80 A.D. a Roman soldier bared his naked ass and farted at a crowd of Jews celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. The resulting riots killed ten thousand according to Yosef ben Matityahu. The Abenaki tribe of Maine mooned the Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano in 1524. And in 1983, a Maori exposed his tattooed buttocks to Charles, Prince of Wales, in a classic gesture of contempt they called whakapohane.

“Dr. Rathskill. Dr. Rathskill?” He felt someone’s hand on his shoulder.

“What?” he snapped and turned sharply. He was alone in the classroom except for a man with a chin sharp enough to break ice.

“Are you alright? You seemed in a trance,” the man said.

“And who are you?”

“I’m Detective Vanoy, Port Angeles Police Department.” Detective Vanoy wore a generic brown suit too broad for his shoulders.

“I’m fine,” Rathskill said gruffly. “I was simply following a train of thought. Did you see an old man in a cape when you came in?”

“What kind of an old man?”

The naked kind, Rathskill thought. “Never mind. What can I do for you, detective?”

“We need your expert opinion,” Vanoy said.

Vanoy pulled a piece of polished obsidian from his pocket. Rathskill thought it might be a piece of evidence until Vanoy began rubbing it between thumb and forefinger. A pacifier.

“It’s not an official investigation of the Port Angeles Police Department. I’m unofficially representing the Makah Tribal Police. You’d be working as a consultant for them. I can’t provide you with any details until you sign a non-disclosure agreement, but I can say you’re the most qualified.”

“An expert opinion on what, detective?”

Vanoy rubbed the black stone hard enough to spark tinder. “It’s a sensitive situation. The information needs to be contained. There can’t be any leaks.” He removed several sheets of creased paper from his breast pocket. “You’ll need to sign a confidentiality agreement. You won’t be able to talk about this to anyone outside of the investigation.”

“Secrecy isn’t a selling point to an academic, detective. Is there anything you can say that would interest me?”

“It’s on the Makah reservation and it might have a significant impact on the tribe’s future. I know of your professional interest in the Makah.”

“Anything more specific?”

“Not until you sign.” Vanoy laid the papers on the podium. “Here and here.”

“You know I’m not a credible witness, detective. I can’t take the stand.”

“I’m aware of your…” Detective Vanoy hesitated “…medical history, Doctor Rathskill. We want your expertise, not your testimony.”

“If I was a more circumspect man I’d have my lawyer review this first,” Rathskill said. “But then I’d have to have a lawyer. And some circumspection.” He signed with only a cursory reading.

“We’ll need to leave immediately if we’re to reach the reservation before dark.”

“Now? I still have an afternoon class to teach.”

“Can you make excuses?”

Rathskill left a note on the door. “On an adventure.” He was fairly sure the dean of Peninsula Community College wasn’t a fan of whimsy.


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

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.


In a circular clearing among the trees a naked man danced in the dirt.

His dark hair was tied at the nape of his neck and fell to his shoulders. His arms and legs were corded with muscle. His dance was long and undulating as if diving through air, then rising to breathe. With each rising he beat himself with a scourge made of twisted thistles. Drops of blood fell into the dust.

A dry gale drove clouds across the face of a full moon and bent tall trees—hemlock, Douglas-fir, and red cedar. Broken moonlight illuminated a landscape of black mountains that rose abruptly from the sea like stone waves breaking against the shore. A thin ribbon of water threaded between the hills. A rock fall formed a narrow lake.

He circled the clearing, dancing and singing in a language remembered by only a few. The forest danced and sang around him. Among the trees the bones also danced.

Human bones—skulls, femurs, ribs, long bones and short bones threaded together and hung from tree limbs, bones yellowed like old ivory, bones clean and white. They circled the clearing and danced like the dead, disjointed.

The man stood upright and cast aside his flail. His back was wet with blood. From the shadows he retrieved a pack made with deerskin and sinew and settled it on his back without flinching. He carried the pack to the water’s edge. Small waves broke against the shore. The lake darkened with cloud shadow as he plunged into the cold water.

He surfaced, blowing water out of his mouth, breathing loudly. Wind waves broke over the pack on his back. He dove again and again, a sinuous progression around the lake, rhythmically breathing.The flap on his pack loosened with successive waves. As he rose from a dive,breaching the surface like a whale, the moon sailed clear of the clouds and awave opened the pack to reveal the face of a boy. He had died recently. Theskin was only beginning to decompose. One eye was open,staring blindly at the sky.

The water closed over his face.


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

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

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.)


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.


Growing old or aging?

I’m closer now to 70 than 60 and the end of my life is looming like a winter moon over an empty field. I’m not frightened of my death but thankful I still have some time to make sense of my life.

I’ve rushed headlong through my life, rarely taking time to look at the patterns that recur, again and again, like the turning of a screw or the ascent of a spiral. I suppose reflection is the purpose of old age, if there is a purpose, and there must be. Everything born will die. In Robinson Jeffers brutal phrase, “lopped at the ends by death and conception,” which makes death no less important than birth. They are events entangled like particles, defying the distance between.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said. What then of the unexamined death?

Most people don’t grow into their old age, they fall into it while obstinately looking the other way. They live as if they’ll never die; death always takes them by surprise.

I think old age is a gift not given to everyone. For those of us fortunate to live long enough, it can be a quiet place before nightfall where we can look across the span of years at the pieces of our lives, turn them this way and that and puzzle out the patterns. It’s a time to remember what was forgotten in the rush to grow up, a time to reconcile the harm done to us and the harm we’ve done others. And somewhere find forgiveness.

The Japanese have an aesthetic, wabi-sabi, that values the beauty of imperfection, the old, broken, and worn down. It’s an aesthetic shadowed by a sense of melancholy for the flawed beauty of life. But melancholy isn’t pathological. It’s an appreciation of the beautiful transience of the wind through the pines. Old age can be wabi-sabi or it can be ignored, denied, resisted, and terrifying.

In Leonard Cohen’s lyric, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Death is the crack that allows the light into life.

Growing old requires paying attention. It requires acknowledging our mortality, our finiteness, our frailty. And it requires living with a pensive sadness for what is no longer, what never should have been, what never was. And in the lengthening shadows, to recognize there never was a need for forgiveness, only understanding.


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!

The Mud Fleet: Memories of the Coastwise Trade

[First published in Bay & Delta Yachtsman, San Francisco.]

On a winter’s day between the world wars, the fog lay heavily upon the Oakland Estuary, the narrow water between the Oakland waterfront and Alameda Island. The fog obscured a fleet of wooden ships stranded upon the mudflats, the plumb bows of stream schooners driven hard against the shore. Paint peeled in patches from their hulls and ironwork corroded in the salt air.

Old men attended them, dawdled with their broken gear, and pumped the bilges dry. They talked to themselves or an obliging stranger about the days when the steam schooners dominated the coastwise trade, hauling lumber, passengers, and livestock from the dog holes and outside ports along the West Coast. And sometimes they hauled a more clandestine cargo, cases of liquor concealed between double bulkheads during Prohibition.

The old men recalled the likes of Midnight Olsen and Hog Aleck, Saturday-night Jack and Whispering Winkle, captains of the coastwise fleet, men as old as themselves or dead already. They recited ships’ names like a litany:  Celilo and Bee, Chehalis and Svea, Idaho and Oregon, Wapama, Hanalei and the historic Lakme. There were at least 27 ships intimately associated with the Estuary where they first launched or finally came to rot.

A Graveyard of Ships

The Oakland Estuary first served as a graveyard of ships when the captains and crew of square-riggers abandoned their berths in the Gold Rush of 1849 and left their ships anchored in Yerba Buena Cove or the San Francisco waterfront. Eventually, many of the hulks that hampered navigation were grounded on the shore of Yerba Buena Cove and to serve as warehouses and hostelries, jails and bordellos. Those with hulls and rigging still sound were towed up San Antonio Creek, the original name of the Estuary, and laid-up for better times. The same fate later awaited the steam schooners but better times never came, only teredo worms and dry rot, steel ships and diesel engines.

Unlike steel hulls that retain some value as scrap, not much could be salvaged from an old wooden ship, but it was wood that had given the steam schooners a purpose, wood for their hulls and lumber for their cargoes. Lumber was the primary product of the dog hole ports along the coasts of California and Oregon, named perhaps because they offered hardly enough room for a dog to chase its tail. Milled boards were loaded by a wooden chute led to the deck or a wire sling. The dog holes offered only a dangerous anchorage and often a lee shore upon which many a sailing schooner had wrecked. The introduction of the steam engine as an auxiliary provided greater maneuverability and independence to the coastwise fleet. The Lakme was among the first of the sailing schooner converted to steam in the 1880s. Her wooden bones probably still lay buried in the mud along the Estuary’s shore.

In command of the mud fleet was Captain Karl Rohberg who had served the Wilson Brothers as mate and captain for 35-years, 15 of those years as caretaker of the Svea, Idaho, and Oregon, all hard aground on the mudflats. He had been captain of the Svea, once towed through the Golden Gate bottom-side up. She had also earned the distinction of having 100 quarts of whiskey seized from her cargo in Grays Harbor, Washington.

The Oregon rotted near the hulk of the Svea. She had also sailed under the Wilson Brothers’ flag and was one of the coasting fleet that survived the night of February 4, 1921, when a gale, spawned among the Aleutians, battered the west coast with winds clocked at 75 miles per hour. The steam schooner Klamath wasn’t so fortunate. She stranded on the beach near Point Arena and broke apart.

Hull Full of Coffee Beans, Full Head of Steam

Another among the mud fleet was the Bee. She had also once capsized and towed to port. Returning with a cargo of Mexican coffee, with a full head of steam and coal smoke trailing from her stack, she labored heavily in a full gale on her return passage, shipping green water over her bows. She took water in her hold and the coffee beans swelled until they burst her decks. Eventually, she was salvaged and towed to San Francisco where she was condemned to the mudflats and never sailed again but remembered for an odd episode in her history when she hauled reindeer in the Alaskan territory.

In 1892, the Hay and Wright shipyard of Alameda, across the estuary from Oakland, launched the tiny Albion of 214 gross tons. Intended for the lumber trade, she was pressed into service as a passenger and cargo carrier in 1898 when the rush was on again for gold in Alaska. Overladen with passengers and freight, wallowing in the swells and with seas sometimes breaking on deck, the Albion steamed from San Francisco to Alaska and returned with a strongbox full of gold. That such a small wooden ship survived the hard passage was remarkable. That she even attempted it was foolish but the profits realized from the Alaskan trade tempted the more adventurous as well as the more acquisitive. The steam schooner Luella reportedly paid for herself on a single voyage north. The doughty Albion eventually stranded on Stewarts Point, March 21, 1913.

The Hay & Wright shipyard also produced the Phoenix which ended her days on the mud near the yard where she was built, and the Hanalei, which was not so fortunate.

Wreck of the steam schooner Fifield, Bandon, Oregon, February 21, 1916.


Wreck of the Hanalei

On November 23, 1914, the Hanalei was steaming down the coast from Eureka, bound for San Francisco. She carried 34 passengers, 26 officers and crew, and a cargo of lumber, cattle, sheep, and hogs. A heavy sea was running. Visibility was obscured by fog and rain when the watch on deck suddenly saw breakers directly ahead. The engine was backed hard astern and the Hanalei steamed clear but her position was uncertain. She circled in the fog, sounded her whistle, occasionally stopped her engine, drifting and listening and sometimes hearing surf breaking perilously close. Then she stranded with her stern on a reef off Duxbury Point. Her bow was only 300 yards from the shore but she was surrounded by surf boiling in a cauldron of shoals. The Hanalei carried no radio to call for help but the staff of the Marconi Wireless Station at Duxbury Point heard her distress signals. They alerted San Francisco.

The tugs Hercules and Defiance, the Navy transport U.S.S. Rainbow, and the steam Richmond all went to her aid but couldn’t press close enough to the reefs to be of assistance. Lifesaving crews from the Golden Gate and Fort Point Stations had their boats swamped in the attempt, their crews either drowned or washed ashore. Frustrated rescuers lit bonfires on the beach, their haggard faces colored by the fire, their hair damp from the fog, as the surf beat against the shoreline. They were helpless to aid the dying ship.

After 16 hours, debris and bodies began to wash up in the surf. Only 16 passengers of 34 survived.

Most of the steam schooners were fitted to carry passengers although secondary in importance to freight. The 200-foot Celilo was equipped to carry as many as 60 passengers, 20 officers, and a million board feet of lumber, no small accomplishment considering her small size.

On that winter’s day between the wars, the Celilo was among the best preserved of the mud fleet. The electric piano still stood in her main salon. The circular companionway leading to the dining room was still intact and the chairs remained, fastened to the deck, where 38 passengers could be accommodated at a single seating. The curtains still hung over the square ports, smelling of mold. The brass lamp was still secured to the bulkhead above the captain’s bunk, green with verdigris. The Celilo was kept ready to return to service when the shipping rates became more profitable but the Depression descended and the water level in her bilges continued to rise.

Of all the steam schooners that once sailed from San Francisco Bay, loaded redwood from a wire chute in some dog hole on the Mendocino coast, or stood across the Humboldt Bar, only the Wapama remains. She lies crippled upon the stocks at Pacific Drydock, her final disposition uncertain, but it seems appropriate that she is still only a stone’s throw from the Oakland Estuary which witnessed the beginning of so many of the coastwise fleet, and their ending.

Passenger dining salon, steam schooner Wapama.

Inarticulable as Lust

“…a man climbs on dangerous paths in the highest mountains so as to mock his fear and trembling knees.” Nietzsche

“The obvious question is why,” Maggie Shipstead wrote in an Outside Magazine article about the Golden Globe Race. “Why choose to sail alone in a small boat through the world’s most furious seas, far from comfort or help, guided by the stars? Why attempt such a journey knowing full well that at times you will be horribly lonely, at others frustrated beyond measure, sometimes bored, sometimes afraid, that death by drowning out in the middle of big blue will be a constant possibility?”

It’s a good question. In fact, it’s the question but her answer was no answer at all. “If you have to ask, you’ll never really understand the answer.” In fact, she denied the possibility of an answer. “In a way, there is no answer.”

The sailors themselves are no better at articulating their reasons, their explanations no more satisfying than George Mallory’s reason for attempting to summit Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.” He sacrificed his life in the attempt despite his inability to explain himself to others.

Shipstead does make a salient comment. “All the sailors seemed to have decided more or less instantaneously to enter the race as soon as they heard about it, as though the idea had broken a pane of glass inside them, releasing an implacable spirit.”

The immediacy of the decision, without thought or conscious deliberation, is suggestive.

“Fundamentally, the desire to be in the race was just that,” she observes, “a desire as instinctive and unpredictable and inarticulable as lust.”

Instinctive and inarticulable, perhaps, but unpredictable?

While there’s not much research on the motivation of long-distance solo sailors, there’s a fair amount on expeditionary mountaineers. The two extreme sports share a lot in common; the extensive preparation, comprehensive skill sets, and the experience of extended periods of grinding tedium punctuated by bouts of blood-thinning fear.

Agency & Emotion

Extreme sports have a high probability that something will go wrong and a high chance of death as the outcome. In the past participation in such sports has been explained as a means to live out a deviant personality trait, a pathological narcissism, or sensation seeking.

But don’t mistake mountain climbers with bungee jumpers and skydivers. The later, driven by sensation seeking, are addicted to the rush of adrenalin. It’s a quick fix. Sensation seekers are averse to routine work or repetitive experience. They become restless when things don’t continually change.

Expeditionary mountaineers often spend weeks hauling their gear to the base of a mountain. The ascent, one tedious step after another, may take more weeks on a major summit, and then the long return to civilization. Any pleasure is largely retrospective.

A circumnavigation of the globe in the old boats stipulated by the Golden Globe rules will likely take 10 months or more. Something other than adrenaline drives them.

Climbing Mt. Everest
Climbing Mt. Everest

James Lester, a psychologist, accompanied the first American Mt. Everest Expedition in 1963. He described several characteristics prevalent among the mountaineers; desire for agency, lack of interest in social interaction for its own sake, high need for independence and achievement but a low need for intimacy and affection. Personal relationships and domestic life “were more stressful to the average team member than were the icy conditions in a fragile tent in a high wind with inadequate oxygen.”

Additional research based upon Lester’s foundational work (Woodman, Hardy, Barlow & Le Scanff 2010) identified emotional regulation and agency underpinning the motives of participants in expeditionary extreme sports.

Emotional regulation refers to which emotions we have, when we have them, how we experience them and how we express them. Agency is fundamentally an individuals’ beliefs regarding their ability to exercise control over events that affect their lives. Research revealed mountaineers and trans-Atlantic rowers had greater difficulty regulating their emotions than most people and a diminished sense of agency in their everyday lives. At the same time, they had  greater expectations of their own agency. They expected to be more in control of their lives than most people. The discrepancy between what they feel and what they expect of themselves drives some people to climb mountains or cross oceans.

Difficulty managing emotions may result in a constant, low-level anxiety, “a kind of background radiation saturating existence.” People aren’t likely to recognize the source of their anxiety or control it, but they feel it. In the mountains, climbers can trade their ambiguous, internal anxiety for a clearly identifiable emotion driven by external events: fear. Where anxiety has no source or defense, fear is a response to a definite threat. It’s a known enemy.

Extreme environments provide simple, stark challenges where there is no room and no time for anxiety. Failure to control your fear on the pitch of a major peak or a storm at sea diminishes your ability, efficiency, and chances of survival. It becomes a simple calculation. Control your fear or die.

Storm waves
Photo credit: www.coastalliving.com

Where mountaineers struggle with agency most and feel least in control is emotional relationships.

There are metaphorical similarities between the mountains and romance. (The same metaphors apply to the ocean.) Both are perceived as difficult and stressful, a prolonged emotional struggle. The ability to control emotions and master fear while summiting a mountain may transfer positively to managing romantic relationships.

It turns out to be true. Mountaineers returning from an expedition have a significantly heightened sense of agentic emotion regulation (control over their emotional life) compared to skydivers or ordinary folk.


Mountaineers and, by extension, ocean racers, have exaggerated expectations for their experiences and achievements in their everyday lives. Characteristic is their continual striving to push their limits., whatever they do. And because of their frustrations achieving those goals in the ambiguous muddle of everyday affairs where they perceive a lack control over their lives, they push themselves to achieve in extreme environments where the rules are simple but the cost of failure catastrophic. They tend to be intolerant of vulnerability and weakness in others because they are intolerant of it in themselves. Their own anxieties provoke a counter-phobic reaction, conquering their fear in high-risk scenarios to overcome their anxiety in common life. It is a complex of emotions and behaviors that has produced spectacular achievements, sometimes at great personal cost.

In a culture that has become increasingly risk-averse, whittling away the personal freedoms to ensure safety and conformity, the high mountains and the open oceans are among the few simple, deadly places where an individual’s survival is largely dependent upon their own agency. We tend to think of sports where the participants risk their lives as pathological but there are benefits as well as risks. We act in ways that enhance our survival, even if the behavior is profoundly paradoxical.

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