Life is what happens when you are making other plans.
In the end, it had to have been the breakfast tacos. They and the good-natured bantering with the young fellow who made them had become an essential part of my morning, six days a week. There were other factors, of course, and it was a long time coming. But those nuggets of pure flavor from the busy little trailer on South First, equal parts lard, refried beans, bacon, and more lard, were almost certainly what pushed me, finally, over the edge. They were, mind you, really really good, though, and for this reason it is easy to suppose that it might almost have been worth it.
As is usually the case, the notification that Things Had Changed arrived uninvited and without warning. One early December afternoon I was unhurriedly carrying out a routine task, thinking about nothing in particular, when suddenly I became aware of a sharp pain emanating from both calf muscles. It was the sort of pain you might normally get after a period of endurance-taxing exertion, which signaled that the demand for oxygen had temporarily outstripped the supply, and by the way would you please stop. And if I had been running or lifting weights or pushing something heavy or engaged in any type of hard physical task it might not have even gotten my attention. But in fact I was just walking to the mailbox, and the effort of transporting this body, not particularly heavy, a mere two hundred feet was enough to bring on a pain that was impossible to ignore.
Denial is a many-splendored thing, and mine began working overtime almost instantly, conjuring up all manner of reasons as to why this was no big deal. You’re just run-down; you’re probably coming down with something; you probably got a mild case of carbon monoxide-poisoning from the fireplace; your potassium level must be off. I figured it would go away in a few days.
This insouciant assessment suffered a pretty big hit, though, when a couple of days later, a second, much more alarming round of symptoms descended. It was toward the end of Sunday-morning breakfast with mom, a weekly ritual of many years, when at some point I became aware of a shimmering at the far edge of my peripheral vision. This odd effect, similar to the visual noise you see when you press your fists against your eyeballs for a few seconds, rapidly spread inward until only the central cone of my visual field remained unaffected. The visual weirdness was accompanied by a buzzy light-headedness. Near panic, I realized that I might be having a stroke, and rose quickly to leave, thinking that if I was going to have a stroke, by god it wasn’t going to happen it in front of all these strangers.
But within seconds of standing, the frightful symptoms simply vanished. And everything returned to normal, but for a lingering jittery weakness that faded gradually away over the next day or so.
The visual weirdness did not recur, and over the next couple of months the thing with the legs didn’t get any worse, so I relaxed a little. But it didn’t get any better either, and one by one the excuses I had fashioned fell by the wayside as they became increasingly improbable. With a little research it became clear that I was likely experiencing some kind of arterial blockage of the legs, “peripheral arterial disease,” as it is called.
The leg issues were potentially just the tip of the iceberg, though. If the legs were blocked, there was at least a chance that other vessels, including really important ones like the arteries supplying the heart or the head, were similarly blocked. Was my stroke-like episode a sign of such blockage? More worrisome, was there a ticking time bomb lurking somewhere in my cardiovascular system? a chunk of plaque with my name on it, so to speak, waiting to break loose and lodge in a critical spot, killing or crippling me?
It wasn’t as though I was a physical wreck. For a guy in his mid-fifties who didn’t exercise, ate what he wanted when he wanted, and drank like a fish I was doing really, really well. Sure I had a few extra pounds around the middle, but not even the beginnings of a gut. Resting heart rate of sixty-four, blood pressure one twenty-something over seventy-something. Decent wind. It could have been a lot worse.
My relative healthiness despite years of bad habits was not totally unexpected because I had had the good sense to pick most excellent parents, and for this reason had been blessed with very good genes. But for a couple of accidental deaths, my immediate forebears all lived exceptionally long and healthy lives, and I had always had every reason to expect the same.
The scope of the problem became clear, though, when my girlfriend and I went away for a long weekend to a favorite place deep in the woods of East Texas. The land behind our rented cabin sloped steeply down to a pretty little creek a short distance away, which beckoned invitingly. One afternoon I answered the invitation. Getting down was easy enough. But less than ten steps into the return trip, it became apparent that something was wrong. It was a pretty steep slope, so if you walked directly up it, every step forward also carried you a couple of feet upward. And not too long ago this would have been no big deal. But at this particular moment it was in fact a very big deal. With every step, daggers of extraordinarily intense pain shot through my legs. I gasped from the shock of it. This was not normal. Houston, we have a problem.
Now at this point you might be wondering if maybe it had occurred to me to, you know, see a doctor. And in posing this very reasonable question you demonstrate that you do not fully grasp the power of the Guy Code, which forbids such foolishness if there is any alternative. And there is always an alternative. “I can fix this,” I thought.
Clearly, there was a lot of room for improvement, starting with a laundry list of rather bad habits. Happy hours four or five times a week usually featuring tankards of margaritas and piles of greasy, cheesy nachos. A carelessly indulgent, fat-rich diet. A drinking habit, rooted in pure boredom, that was starting to get seriously out of control. Being under more or less constant stress and doing almost nothing to counter it. No regimen of physical activity whatsoever. A once-active lifestyle gone sedentary.
Ultimately there was no defending these behaviors. The eating and drinking and happy-houring provided some enjoyment, for sure, but if the cost of this minor bit of pleasure was going to be a big hit to my lifespan, it seemed a poor bargain. So I instantly cut way back on the Mexican food and the margaritas, banished hard liquor from the house, and began a program of moderate exercise. Very moderate because that was all I could handle at first.
I began walking laps at a local track every evening. At first, I could only go a hundred yards or so at a time before intense pain would force me to pause. Which was pretty embarrassing, but also excellent motivation to improve. So I ignored the pain as much as possible, kept after it, and within a couple of weeks was able to circumnavigate the four hundred-meter track without absolutely having to stop, which seemed like a major milestone at the time. Though it hurt like bloody hell, it was bearable.
But that’s when the fun really started, because this disruption of corporeal equilibrium came with a cost. I was visited with a wave of new and disturbing secondary symptoms. The visual weirdness of December came back with a vengeance, much worse than before, striking frequently and unpredictably. Hot and cold sensations rippled though my legs and feet. I experienced episodes of numbness in my face and hands. At odd intervals a strangely metallic taste would settle in my mouth. It was a festival of sensory glitchiness.
Much more concerning, though, were the perceptual and cognitive effects. For extended periods I endured the hallucinatory, unsettling sensation of not really “being there,” accompanied at times by the equally hallucinatory, equally disturbing sensation of experiencing the world at a great distance, as though from the center of a deep and dark, enormously expanded self. Light and sounds came at me from odd angles, filtered and distorted. My hands felt clumsy and slow to respond, as though mounted at the end of comically long, spindly arms. Floaters and spots by the dozen skittered like water striders across my visual field. If I turned my head too fast I saw flashes of light. Tasks I had performed routinely many times I simply forgot how to do. At times words, even simple ones, would not come. People would speak and it would take a moment or two to comprehend them. There were attacks of heart-pounding anxiety that froze me in my tracks. Worst of all, but for a fitful sleep there was no escape from the malaise, parked as it was at the center of my consciousness.
I adapted to this new normal as best as I could, developing assorted coping strategies. Out of necessity I also developed a palette of excuses for deflecting the growing number of questions from friends, employees and customers, who sensed that something was wrong and were concerned, even alarmed.
It is at such times that you are unpleasantly reminded of your fragile, entirely organic nature. When everything is working normally it becomes possible to imagine yourself as a kind of idealized being, independent of natural laws, blending seamlessly with the larger world, whose physical manifestations pass straight into you, as light and sound pass through an open doorway into an interior space. Only when your systems start to malfunction do you remember that you are, in essence, a machine, and that you experience the world by way of imperfect and fallible biological mechanisms, which render the physicality of the world into a form that your brain, likewise imperfect and fallible, may understand.
The conclusion seemed inescapable that something was seriously wrong, and it dawned on me that I might not be alive for much longer. The future, once comfortably indefinite, simply evaporated, leaving only the present moment. Of whatever gods controlled my fate I mutely requested one simple favor: Please make it quick. I did not want to linger in some awful twilight state, a burden to family and loved ones, my life over but not yet ended.
Only after the initial shock had passed and the self-pity ran its course was I able to see the thing in perspective. It occurred to me that I really had no right to complain. Because, logically, I should not have been alive anyway, having survived, improbably and by only the narrowest of margins, a close brush with death at a very young age. So every moment since had been a gift. Having never married, I did not have a wife or kids to worry about. There was no long-term plan. Really, I was just marking time. It seemed fair somehow, maybe even right. I had never liked the idea of growing old anyway.
I wondered about the exact mechanism of it. Would it take me in mid-stride or in my sleep? Would I understand what was happening and have a moment or two to reflect, or would I suddenly just not be there anymore, as though a plug had been abruptly pulled?
I told not one single person about any of this, of course. No need to cause a fuss. I composed a farewell note with my final instructions and placed it where I knew it would be found. I settled a couple of seriously lingering accounts and mended a few fences. And I waited for the inevitable. For several weeks running, I went to bed each night fully expecting not to awaken.
But a funny thing happened: nothing. The other shoe never fell, and to my utter amazement I continued to exist. After a time it began to look like maybe I wasn’t going anywhere after all. And since the new program of diet and exercise and semi-clean living seemed to be working out pretty well I kept it going, even taking it up a notch. And gradually, very gradually, the frightful apparitions that had taken up residence in my head began to withdraw. In a matter of weeks I lost twenty five pounds. People commented on this obvious change in appearance. Gee Scott, you get a young girlfriend or something, ha ha?
When you make a major change in your life, people notice. So you have to be prepared to deal with their questions. Most of the time I would meet such queries with a forced smile and a throwaway line. Had to get ready for that centerfold photo shoot, you know. Most people correctly interpreted the obvious bullshit as a signal that I did not wish to discuss the matter, and would let it drop. Those who persisted usually got a terse fallback answer: I had a health scare. Period. But every now and again the look in someone’s eye says “Please let me in.” And in the face of such sincerity you are completely powerless. So you tell them everything.
When you open up about some life-altering event, people almost always take it very seriously. They recognize that in sharing such a personal experience you are expressing trust in them, and likely as not they will reciprocate with some revelation of their own. In mere moments a barrier is breached. A bond forms between you, and from then on you regard each other a little differently. You might even become close friends.
In a typical life there are a handful of truly important dates: the day you enter this world, the day you get married, the day your first child is born, the day a parent dies, the day you die. Today marks the third anniversary of the day I made the decision to fight back against encroaching darkness, and it is every bit as important to me as my birth anniversary because it signifies, in a way, a re-birth. Had I not realized what was happening and made some changes, I do not believe that I would be alive now.
For the time being life has returned, more or less, to normal. A qualified normal, because I am not exactly the same person as before. The vector sum of neural interactions that makes me, me, has been altered, perhaps irreversibly. Though mostly recovered, my memory and thinking have clearly been affected. The physical symptoms, though greatly abated, have not yet gone entirely away. Every once in awhile I catch a faint echo of the scary sensory strangeness.
I am alright with it though, because these things are useful reminders that I am indeed mortal, and can no longer simply take good health for granted. Providence was kind enough to grant me a warning and I have heeded it, gratefully. You do not need to tell me twice.
I never returned to the little taco stand on South First Street. He has probably long since forgotten by now, but for a time Primo must have wondered whatever happened to that friendly and talkative guy who used to stop by every day, reliable as a clock. If I ever see him again I plan to thank him, though, because he did me a huge favor. In a roundabout way, he might actually have saved my life.
My first encounter with the little chow-mix dog did not exactly go as planned. Aloof to the point of chilly, unresponsive to all invitations, skinny and filthy beyond belief, Paris, as she was then known, seemed at first blush to be pretty much a dud.
And this was a problem. The girlfriend had talked her up as the perfect choice for my mom, heartbroken after the recent, unexpected loss of her own dog of many years. So on the strength of this personal recommendation we made the four-hour trek to her mother’s place in East Texas, where Paris had been deposited by some well-meaning acquaintance. At the time Carolyn and I had not known each other very long, and her apparently serious lapse of judgement had put us all in a very awkward position. What in the world have you gotten me into? was all I could think.
The backstory on the grubby little cur was mostly unknown. For at least a few months she had lived as a wild animal, surviving on whatever she could kill or scavenge. A series of good-hearted strangers had taken stabs at domesticating her, but the stubborn beast would have none of it. A consummate escape artist, she could exploit the tiniest opening, and always managed to get away. And after two or three escapes her would-be rescuers would, quite sensibly, lose interest and let her go. But if the yard where Paris now found herself had any weak spots, she had not yet uncovered them. So for the moment she was trapped. And most definitely not in a cooperative frame of mind.
Not wanting to give up without a fight, I persisted with the sullen little she-dog. Eventually, I made the right gestures or said the right words in the right tone of voice, and something in her clicked. With very obvious deliberation, Paris made the decision that I was worth a shot, and let herself be approached. After a few minutes of introduction, she submitted without complaint to a thorough washing, no minor thing given that her thick and heavy fur was so thoroughly caked with layers of grime that there was probably more dirt than dog. After an hour or so of sustained effort, in the process exhausting the contents of a jumbo-sized bottle of shampoo, a completely different animal emerged. Something about the act of washing Paris had rekindled her dormant sociability, and in an instant all of my reservations about her simply vanished.
With minimal urging she hopped into the back seat, and immediately made herself right at home. After a few minutes absorbing the novelty of this new situation she settled down and went to sleep. And for the the entire ride home she scarcely moved. I half-seriously wondered once or twice if she had quietly expired.
Mom had stubbornly insisted that she wanted no further part of any dog after the agony of losing the last one. But I know her well enough to accurately assess when an emphatic “No” actually means “Yes please,” a judgement that was unambiguously vindicated when, upon meeting Paris for the first time, Mom lit up in a way I hadn’t seen in years. No dummy, the curious little canine figured out double quick who was who and what was what. And that was that. “I’m home,” Paris must have thought, in whatever way dogs conceptualize such things.
In a way they were meant for each other, Mom and Paris. Both were survivors, both would have struck you as rather distant, even cold, until eventually you understood that their aloofness was actually a form of emotional armor. Both were highly intelligent, sensitive creatures who had been rather roughly treated by life, and when this happens you tend to erect defenses.
As a symbolic break with the old discarded life, Mom ruled that the name “Paris” had to go. For a day or two she struggled to find just the right handle, finally defaulting to “Princess,” mostly because of its audible similarity to the old name. This seemed trite to me, if not downright cringeworthy, and I said so. But trite or not the name stuck, and Paris became Princess with the same ease with which her old, feral life had fallen away.
It didn’t take very long at all to figure out how she had managed to survive on her own. Silent, stealthy, and lethally quick, Princess was a ferocious little hunter who could dispatch and consume a squirrel in about the length of time it takes to read this sentence. And thanks to years of lackadaisical wildlife management by the yard’s previous occupant, a thoroughly domesticated, prissy little layabout named Ginger, there were lots of them roaming about, fat and unwary, very much accustomed to treating Mom’s yard as their own private domain. They probably never even knew what hit them.
After a period of settling in, Princess began escaping again. For months, night and day, with obsessive regularity she would embark on some fresh exploit. She was sneaky and cunning about it, so you usually didn’t see it coming. It would suddenly occur to you that you hadn’t seen her for a while, think oh shit, and sure enough, she’d be gone. For a time, whenever I saw a call incoming from “Mom,” I knew there was a pretty good chance that the subject would be “Princess got out again.” And of course I would drop whatever I was doing to tend to this important filial responsibility.
The first step would always be to walk the fenceline to locate her escape route, so that I would know roughly which way she was headed. Often this required a pretty keen eye, and more than once I had to retrace my steps a couple of times before finally spotting it, some barely visible, impossibly tiny opening. And each time I would think No way, and shake my head with a mixture of disbelief and grudging admiration.
Mom’s yard was surrounded by other fenced yards so Princess typically didn’t get very far. She could easily have kept on going, but never did, being perfectly content to tarry wherever she found herself until somebody, almost always me, came and got her. She never resisted recapture, and received each exasperated scolding mildly, her face invariably bearing an expression that seemed to say I win ha ha. My patience had worn pretty thin when, after a restless year or so, she apparently decided that the point had been made and abruptly quit trying.
The defining physical trait of the odd little chow dog was, perhaps, her absurdly prodigious furriness. It seemed overkill, not to mention a pointless waste of metabolic energy, considering that she lived in a place not exactly known for arctic cold. Being excessively supplied with insulation, overheating was a very real possibility. So to keep Princess within proper thermal bounds we treated her to regular trimmings, usually about once a quarter. It was like shearing sheep. You could have knitted a sweater, maybe two, from the product of an average harvest.
But her defining behavioral trait was stubbornness. Hang-tough, not-gonna-you-can’t-make-me stubbornness. If you approached her the wrong way, that is. If you engaged her as a lord does a serf, you got nothing but attitude. But if you met her a respectful halfway, she could be all yours.
This stubbornness was more blessing than curse in her later years. Because like a lot of overbred dogs, Princess did not age very well. As the years went by she piled up more than her share of aches, pains, and infirmities. But the little chow never complained, and always powered through the pain like it wasn’t even there.
Like a lot of chow types, Princess effected a more or less permanent squint. So it was probably a couple of years or more after their initial onset that I actually noticed the cataracts. I suspected something might be up when she started ignoring, seemingly, the wildlife on her turf, something that at one time would have been unthinkable. By the time she began bumping into things it was clear there was a problem. These were not the garden-variety cataracts, either, the kind that every mammal gets if it lives long enough. These were Hollywood-grade beauties. It looked as though she was wearing opaque contact lenses. I was reminded of the nameless Master in Kung Fu, the cheesy 1970s television series.
True to form, Princess ignored this new normal. With alarming regularity she would charge head-first into walls and furniture, each time yelping with pain and surprise, only to do it again moments later, as though she expected these permanent fixtures of her world to yield, somehow, to stubborn persistence.
Somewhere along the way she developed a limp in one of her hind legs. The limp spread to her other hind leg and worsened, and in a very short time Princess lost the ability to stand or walk unaided. Mystified, her vet offered up a series of remedies, all unsuccessful.
Bloodied but unbowed, the little dog struggled valiantly against this unaccustomed inability, day after day, week after week, the textbook definition of “grit.” Like a fuzzy Terminator, she would not give up. It was inspiring and heartbreaking all at once. As a last-ditch effort, I hired a pet physical therapist, who despite intense effort made only minor headway. It had to hurt like bloody hell, yet the little chow never complained.
Eventually and with the utmost reluctance, I admitted defeat, and surrendered to the apparent reality that the tough little chow dog had reached the end of the road. All that remained was the final, terrible trek to that place of no return, where the somber man with the needle would be waiting.
And then something quite unexpected happened. One day, after months of immobility, after a thousand failed attempts, at the very threshold of her execution, the little dog simply willed herself to walk again. I was there when it happened. And if I live to be a thousand I will never forget it.
Somehow, after months of trying and failing, she had a breakthrough. With a herculean effort, she crested that insurmountable hump, found her feet, and stood on her own, wobbly as a newborn calf yet triumphant. Slowly, carefully, systematically, Princess mastered all over again the mechanics of quadruped locomotion: right front, left rear, left front, right rear; repeat. There were some kinks at first, and for a time she seemed to have trouble plotting a proper course. But within a few days the little chow dog had it all figured out, and was able to move about on her own once again. It was marvelous to behold, and every one of us who watched it happen felt as though we had witnessed some kind of miracle.
But these stories always end the same way. Sooner or later our beloved companions depart from us. They share our space and our lives for a time and then are gone, leaving an aching void. It always comes too soon. And if I ever get the chance to meet God, I’m going to ask Him: Why? Why a hundred and fifty years for a tortoise, a charmless lump, but only fifteen or so–if we’re lucky–for our dogs, these nearly perfect beings, so joyful, so intensely aware, and so very, very alive?
After a mercifully brief final decline, with her favorite persons lingering nearby, Princess quietly left this life and went to wherever it is that sentient beings in this Universe go at the end of their physical run. I returned her to the earth at a favorite backyard spot, a place shady in summer, sunny in winter, with a good breeze most days. As dreadful tasks go, it went tolerably well. Recent soaking rains had softened the usually brick-hard ground so that it yielded easily to my labors.
I have become unreasonably good at burying dogs. This is a skill I would very much rather not have. I blame my handyman Steve and his brother Ernest, who years ago taught me the proper technique: Loosen first with the pick, come in after with the shovel, swing high and follow through on the roots. I finished the grim deed in record time, and they would have been proud of me. Would have been because both are gone now themselves, Steve succumbing to a dumb-luck freak accident, Ernest following a few months later. Broken heart, near as anyone could tell. I wonder sometimes if, perhaps, from some infinitely distant yet close-by vantage point they, and a certain tough and resilient little chow, watched it all with approval.
Or: Global Warming, Meet Lysenkoism; You Two Have a Lot in Common!
While wallowing in the bloom of online post-election bloviation the other day, I chanced across this entrancing article on Salon. Being a reliable voice of the American Left, Salon can be counted on to deliver the party line on whatever issue has momentarily captured the zeitgeist. And being the sort of person who likes to keep his finger on the pulse of our culture, for this reason I read it regularly. Though Salon is not exactly known for balanced, careful coverage, this hyperbolic, absurdly self-important piece was over the top by even its rather squishy standards.
Herewith an open letter to Salon and its readers:
The hysterical, apocalyptic tone of this article perfectly illustrates what is wrong with the Green movement and the larger Progressive movement from which it springs. Not content merely to conjecture, the opening paragraph states that glaciers WILL melt, sea levels WILL rise, crops WILL fail, water availability WILL decrease, hurricanes WILL proliferate, and life WILL become a difficult proposition if Donald Trump gets his way. This absurdly specific, completely insupportable certainty, suggesting omniscience, undermines the entire piece, and in a larger sense, the entire narrative of imminent Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW), also known as Climate Alarmism.
If you are a thinking person, the certainty of these statements should unnerve you. Certainty is the province of faith, not science. The Spanish Inquisition was plenty certain. Persons with agendas and who know better than you do, dammit, are certain. Zealots and fanatics are certain. Science is not. There is no place for absolute certainty in science because by definition, that which is not falsifiable is dogmatic, not scientific.
At the heart of this apocalyptic vision is a great deal of misinformation and some really sloppy science. Take, for example, the oft-repeated claim that “97 percent” of scientists accept that global warming is real, caused by humans, and likely to cause serious harm. This claim, probably the most frequently cited talking point of the Alarmist doctrine, has been thoroughly debunked, yet it continues to be cited with undiminished enthusiasm. In reality, the actual percentage of scientists who subscribe to this view is pretty close to zero.
Not that it would matter in any case, because science is not conducted by “consensus,” and for good reasons. After all, not too long ago the consensus among scientists was that you could judge a person’s intelligence, their character, even their propensity for criminal behavior by the pattern of bumps on their skulls.
It is also often claimed by activists that the “excess” CO2 released by human activities remains in the atmosphere for centuries. Which is a big deal because it implies that the effects of anthropogenic (“made by humans”) CO2 are long-lasting. However, abundant evidence clearly suggests otherwise. Dozens of studies place the mean residence time of CO2 somewhere in the vicinity of 10 years, with the UN-sponsored IPCC assessment being the lone, highly conspicuous outlier. Thirty seven studies to choose from, with thirty six more or less in agreement, but guess which one is cited by Greens and the mainstream media.
In reality, CO2 does not linger in the atmosphere because there so many available carbon sinks, starting with the vegetation that surrounds us, which avidly uses all the CO2 the environment may provide. The oceans absorb CO2 voraciously as well. At any given time there will be about about 50 times as much CO2 dissolved in the oceans as in the atmosphere. There it is put to good use as the “carbonate” in calcium carbonate, which forms the shells and skeletal features of countless marine organisms great and small.
These are not mere quibbles. These are what are technically known as “lies.” Big, black whoppers. And their exposure as such punches a hole right through the heart of the Alarmist doctrine. Yet for some reason these and other equally bold, equally untrue claims are never, ever, questioned by our credulous, incurious mainstream press.
Most readers of Salon are blissfully unaware of these, um, discrepancies because they receive their information exclusively from the echo chamber. This is the same echo chamber that told them that Hillary Clinton could not possibly lose.
If you want to get a proper grip on this issue, you have to look at the Big Picture. Our planet has been generally warming for upwards of 20,000 years, ever since the most recent glacial outbreak reached its peak and began to recede. But in that geologically brief time there have also been numerous ups and downs.
Note that I did not say “generally warming since the end of the Ice Age.” This is because we are, in fact, still in it. The warm spell we currently are in is what is known as an “interglacial period.” Historically, such periods tend to be rather brief. The last 700,000 years alone have seen at least 14 glacial episodes and a like number of interglacial periods, and there could well be a hundred more before the ice recedes for good. Don’t hold your breath, though, because it’s likely to be a while before this happens. For the current Ice Age to be truly, finally done the continents are going to have to shift around a good bit to allow better heat distribution between the equator and the poles.
In the last 5000 years there have been at least four major warm periods. We happen to be in one right now. Our current warm spell began about 350 years ago when the Little Ice Age, as it is known, began to abate.
Despite our obsession with it, there is nothing unique about the current warming phase. The Medieval Warm Period, the Roman Optimum, and the Holocene Optimum, 1000, 2000, and 4000 years ago respectively, all brought global temperatures significantly warmer than we currently enjoy, emphasis on “enjoy.”
Within this recent period of general warming there have also been minor ups and downs, typically lasting a few decades each. The period 1975-2000 was an “up” phase, but the forty or so years before that were distinctly downward-trending. For the moment we appear to be in a period of stasis, but don’t be surprised if a noticeable “down” trend begins sometime in the next few years.
Since the onset of the current warm period, sea levels have risen at a consistent, modest rate of eight-ish inches per century. Despite all the alarming rhetoric, this rate has not changed significantly in recent decades. Florida is not going to disappear any time soon.
We are not entirely blameless, though. The infusion of anthropogenic carbon has almost certainly had some effect. But given that the current warming cycle began well before industrialization, the human contribution is, statistically speaking, most likely minor.
If you are ever in a mood to count your blessings you might start with the fact that you happen to be alive now, during a period of hospitable warmth, rather than during one of the many prolonged cold spells that have been the rule for the last few million years. A mere twenty thousand years ago two-thirds of North America, much of Eurasia, and highland areas throughout the world were buried under thick sheets of ice. What few humans there were had a very hard time of it.
The Little Ice Age, which straddled the Middle Ages, gives us an idea of what it might be like to live in a colder world. Harsh, lengthy winters, cool, damp summers, unreliable weather in general, and frequent crop-killing frosts were the norm. Frequent lethal famines were the result. There was conflict on every scale as humans competed desperately for scarce resources.
So enjoy this little warm spell while it lasts because if natural history is a guide, it won’t. Our pleasant interglacial interlude could come to an end at any time with startling suddenness. And when the ice does return, a lifetime or five or fifty from now, what humans are still around will look back on this balmy time with envy.
The problem with the Alarmist movement is that it is basically a cult, albeit one with great power and influence, and with many high-profile members. Sort of like Scientology. And like every cult, Alarmism warps reality as needed to further its agenda.
In the 1930s, an obscure Russian scientist by the name of Trofim Lysenko advanced the hypothesis that traits acquired by organisms during their lifetime would pass onto their offspring. Basically Lamarckism redux, the hypothesis was complete bullshit without a shred of supporting evidence. But it served the Marxist ideology of the “perfectible man,” and so Lysenkoism came to dominate Soviet science, in the process nearly destroying it. The parallels with CAGW are eye-opening.
Using methods of which Lysenkoists would have heartily approved, Climate Alarmists have infiltrated government and science, thoroughly corrupting both. In government, fact-based pragmatism has been replaced with stonewalling and politically correct dogma. In science, informed skeptical inquiry has been replaced with rigid, toe-the-line ideological conformity, ruthlessly enforced. For those who get with the program there are goodies, grants and awards aplenty. But anyone who strays from the party line is bullied into silence, or if foolish enough to persist, simply destroyed. Prominent Greens have actually called for the imprisonment of climate skeptics. This should scare the hell out of you.
For years, so great was the influence of the Alarmists that only a dedicated few had the temerity to publicly oppose the Green juggernaut, mostly emeritus types with impeccable credentials and relatively little to lose. They are not quite as lonely as used to be, though, as the rank-and-file of science, government, and academia push back in growing numbers. Principled, accomplished people who resent the corruption of their chosen profession are summoning the will to fight the Big Green Machine as they sense its grip beginning to loosen.
I urge the readers of Salon to take a walk on the wild side and visit a Skeptical website. There are lots of them and many are quite good, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that they are run almost entirely by volunteers on shoestring budgets. In such places you will find a great deal of scholarly, well-informed, data-driven discussion in a civil, collegial climate (no pun intended.) Please ignore the many Alarmists who drop in to hurl anonymous insults.
Most of you won’t take that walk, though, I suspect, because you don’t like it when your views are challenged. It hurts your feelings and makes you want to retreat into your safe spaces. It’s so much easier just to call anyone who disagrees with you nasty names, like “denier.”
Since we’re on the subject, interesting, isn’t it, how “denier,” a deliberately inflammatory, politically loaded term, sounds an awful lot like “heretic.” Interesting also how frequently and eagerly this epithet is employed by Alarmists to shame their opponents into silence. I see it used multiple times in this article and in the comments that follow.
Public shaming has no place in science, nor in any form of civil discourse. The fact that Alarmists so frequently default to it is telling. This readiness to attack personally any who disagree starkly reveals the underlying cultlike mentality that animates Alarmism, slavishly devoted to a dogma that must be defended at all costs.
Here’s the deal: Atmospheric carbon dioxide is only one of literally thousands of interacting variables that produce this thing we call climate. It is, despite what you have been told, of only median importance, and its effect on climate has been drastically overstated and oversimplified by devotees of climate Alarmism.
In actuality the climate is an extraordinarily complex and dynamic thing, a system so vast and so intricate that it is understood in only the most general sense. And because of its nearly incomprehensible complexity, even small pieces of the overall puzzle remain highly resistant to accurate mathematical modeling.
A couple of crucial, insurmountable uncertainties dog the Alarmist narrative. For example, there is the very basic question of which came first: the elevated CO2 or the warming. Although it is undeniably true that a higher level of CO2 would on its own cause some warming, it is also true that a warmer world would naturally have a higher concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Because a warmer world would be one with more biological activity, hence more respiration, hence more CO2 being released due to normal metabolic activity. In addition, the solubility of CO2 in water varies inversely with temperature, so that warming oceans would naturally release some of their massive stores of dissolved CO2 back to the atmosphere, elevating its concentration therein. What looks like a cause might actually only be an effect. Statistically speaking, this is the more likely case, as this exact scenario has been documented on multiple prior occasions via data from ice cores.
Furthermore, when there have been surges in CO2 due to external sources, such as large-scale volcanism, they invariably have produced a warming effect only after a lag of several centuries, presumably due to the massive thermal inertia of the oceans. We do not see the lockstep relationship Alarmists claim has lately occurred.
But even dedicated Alarmists accept that elevated CO2 on its own can only cause a limited amount of warming; the generally agreed estimate is a 1.1 degree C increase for a doubling of CO2 over the historical average. To reach the estimates of five or six degrees of warming–catastrophe territory–theorists rely on certain assumptions. They assume, for example, that this modest increase would be amplified through a feedback loop, in which higher temperatures lead to more humidity, which leads to more heat-trapping cloud cover. However this assumption downplays two key physical realities. First, more clouds means increased reflectivity, which means less sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface because a greater proportion of it simply bounces off the cloud tops and back into space. Second, the process of evaporation at the surface absorbs heat. And condensation of water vapor as clouds releases it, with most of the heat escaping into space.
Thus far, the positive feedback loop proposed by Alarmists has failed to materialize, and observations from multiple sources indicate that the modest temperature increase attributable to elevated CO2 is actually reduced by additional cloud formation, not amplified. So 1.1 or so degrees of potential warming end up being trimmed to about .5 degrees, which most people would agree is not exactly catastrophic.
Furthermore, the idea that elevated CO2 spells doom for the planet is simply fatuous. For most of our planet’s history CO2 was much more abundant in the atmosphere than now. During the Eocene epoch, 55 million years ago, CO2 was ten to twenty times as abundant. Note that the Eocene was a time of extraordinary fecundity, during which the Earth teemed with life from pole to pole.
If plants could speak they would scoff at the idea that there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere, and would likely thank us, profusely, for our recent modest contribution of this scarce yet indispensable gas. Because from a plant’s perspective, CO2, which they require to build tissue, has been in seriously short supply for at least the last several hundred thousand years. It is by definition a trace gas, with a current concentration in the atmosphere of only around four parts in every ten thousand, or .04 percent, by volume.
As a point of reference, consider that at this moment in history the atmosphere contains about 800 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Of that number, roughly 29 gigatons are from human sources, four percent of the total. And of that number roughly 17 gigatons will be consumed by vegetation, leaving a net contribution of only 12 gigatons, or 1.5 percent of the total.
A recurrent motif of Alarmist doctrine is that the price of inaction is certain, imminent destruction. There is a cynical purpose to this intentionally terrifying scenario. If you are frightened out of your wits you cannot think straight. You don’t stop to analyze the message and pick up on its flaws and omissions. Fear subverts reason. And so you unthinkingly do as you are told. You submit meekly to higher taxes and gobs of new and opaquely named fees. You nod your head agreeably–Seems like a good idea!–when a humongous new Federal agency is created to administer a blizzard of onerous new regulations. You don’t question it when a handful of well-connected players come to monopolize the world’s energy markets, becoming obscenely rich in the process. You hide your disappointment–I suppose it’s for the best–when, in spite of all the sacrifices you and millions of others make, nothing really changes. Except the quality of your life, that is, which changes very much for the worse. In the end, you passively accept the new reality of lower living standards, higher prices, and restricted freedoms as the cost of Saving The Planet.
Like peddlers of Doomsday scenarios throughout history, Climate Alarmists have learned to take unfair advantage of our innate existential paranoia. In the struggle for survival, one of the most important challenges facing any organism is distinguishing threat from non-threat. Millions of generations of evolutionary history have endowed humans with an exquisite sensitivity to threats, real or perceived. Tell us it’s going to be a lovely day and we go Gee that’s nice, savor the idea for a moment, and then forget all about it. But tell us that the Huns are headed this way, whether they are or not, and suddenly you have our full attention. We go into vigilance mode, we gird for battle, and we don’t relax until a trusted authority gives the all-clear. And if that all-clear never comes, we remain in a state of persistent anxiety, unable to relax, for a long, long time.
The back-and-forth over climate change is more than just an academic exercise. The future of our civilization is potentially at stake. But not for the reasons you probably think.
We are incredibly fortunate to be living at this particular moment in history, surrounded by comforts, in an advanced, safe society with a standard of living our ancestors would have found miraculous. Yet there are persons, lots of them, who would, were they given the power, eagerly bring it all crashing down.
They mean well, of course, in much the same way the Khmer Rouge meant well when it turned cities into ghost towns, and a nation into a graveyard in the pursuit of a mythical agrarian ideal.
You see, the hard kernel of the Green movement consists of people who really don’t like their fellow humans very much. From this group’s point of view humanity is basically a cancer, and the surest way to control this pesky, invasive species is to knock it so far down that its societies collapse, and it becomes just another life form struggling to survive. The logical first step in in this process is to take away its energy source, i.e. fossil fuels. Sure, billions would die in abject misery, but the planet would be saved so it’s a fair trade. These people care not one little bit for you or your loved ones, they do not have your best interest at heart, and to give them what they want would be an act of historic, irreversible stupidity.
The Green misanthropes miss the larger point, though. This idea that humans hold the fate of the Earth in their hands is arrogant nonsense, Exhibit A of the hubris that is characteristic of our species. Even at our worst we are but a minor irritant to the planet, nothing more. In the long run, we humans simply aren’t that important, and won’t be around for all that long. Because like every other species, Homo sapiens has a life span.
But if we want our time here to be of good quality, then we ought to be making some changes. First of all, we should get our numbers down, way down. Because when you think about it, every single one of our really large problems is due to the fact that seven-plus billion humans is too many, never mind the ten or twelve billion we are likely to have before the century is over. No drastic measures, mind you, just a few generations of sub-replacement reproduction until we reach a reasonable number, maybe two billion or so. In the meantime it wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to be less wasteful and more mindful. And we should all try to leave the place a little better than we found it.
With a few changes here and there we can all have a decent standard of living while living within our means, and at the same time minimizing the fouling of the collective nest. With a little enlightened effort we may all enjoy happy, safe, and comfortable lives, and in general make the best of the short time we have in this Universe.
I am no fan of Donald Trump, but I admire that he has the guts to call “bullshit” on this shakedown masquerading as science. I wish him all the luck in the world in putting an end to the reign of terror that is Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming.
Just another ignorant “denier”
Finally, after a grinding, seemingly endless couple of years, the 2016 election is at last upon us. The end. Billions of dollars and hundreds of millions of man-hours expended, and it comes down to this. For one side exultant triumph awaits; for the other, bitter defeat. For all of us, winners and losers alike, there is utter exhaustion with a contentious, ugly contest that dragged on way too long.
As Election Day has neared, there has been a rising chorus of voices importuning us to vote, vote, vote, FOR GODSAKES VOTE! Perform your sacred civic duty! Whether you favor the wildly inappropriate, thin-skinned, has-no-filters, Tasmanian Devil with confusing hair or the bitter, secretive, robotic harridan with an infallibility complex, just get out there and vote damn you!
Heeding this call to action, millions have done exactly that. By all accounts Americans voted early (and in some locales, perhaps, often) in record numbers, thus exciting to the point of hysterics the professional entrail-reading class, who suspect that this Means Something Big, though exactly what is unclear. Personally I think it is just a convenience thing. Stand in line for three hours on a workday when you didn’t have to, even once, and you are loath to repeat the experience.
Many of our fellow citizens, surveying the available choices, have reacted approximately thus:
And in keeping with this general distaste, they wonder, quite sensibly, why they should even consider gracing either of these two profoundly unappealing characters with their precious vote. And so they choose option C. They opt to sit this one out. Which, we are told, is the one the one thing you should never do. Citizenship demands participation.
But don’t let them guilt you. If there was ever a time to recuse yourself, this is it. Shame on this horrid system for foisting such unpalatable choices upon us. The right to do something also implies the right not to. You very much have the right not to participate in the democratic process if you so choose. And if you are a certain type of person, I strongly encourage you to exercise that right.
If, for example, you are the type of person who believes that your side unfailingly stands for pureness and light, while those other guys are, well, simply deplorable, then please don’t vote. If you are the type of person who frequently uses the N-word or the C-word, or sneeringly refers to white people as “crackers,” please don’t vote. If you have lived in these United States for fifteen or twenty years or maybe all your life but have never bothered to learn the English language, then please don’t vote. If you get all of your information from one or two slanted media outlets and don’t even care what the other side has to say, then please don’t vote.
If you believe that society owes you a living, please don’t vote. If your idea of hardship is when the barista at Starbucks messes up your Triple Venti Soy No Foam Latte, then please don’t vote. If you are the kind of person whose first instinct, when confronted with an opposing viewpoint, is to shout down the other party, insult their intelligence, or diminish their humanity, then please don’t vote. If you are the sort of person who thinks that this or that group deserves special treatment in perpetuity because, well, just because, then please don’t vote. If you have ever, without intentional irony, referred to the “flyover states,” please don’t vote.
If “I know I’m right, don’t confuse me with facts” summarizes your approach to life, if you could never, ever change your mind about an important issue, regardless of the evidence, or if you cannot imagine ever voting for a person of the other political party, even if they are clearly the better candidate, then please don’t vote.
If “feelings” not policy, facts, or logic, determine how you vote, if you think it’s OK to let others tell you how to vote, or if you habitually vote the straight party ticket, please don’t. If you don’t believe in fair play and equality before the law, please don’t vote. If your ideological opponents are all “morons,” if you frequently use terms like “rethuglican” or “sheeple” or “libtard,” or if your inclination is to label anyone who disagrees with you a “hater,” then please don’t vote.
If you believe that civility is overrated, reject the idea of a social contract, or believe that might always makes right, then please don’t vote. If you think that kindness is a form of weakness, or think that ethics are for losers, please don’t vote.
If you are the sort of person who thinks in sound bites, or who sees a binary world in which everything is either midnight-black or iceberg-white, please don’t vote. If you are the sort of person who thinks that you are right and everybody else is just plain wrong, please don’t vote. And, finally, if you just don’t give a damn, put your money where your mouth is and sit this one out.
Happy Election Day!
Now get out there and vote.
A few months back, a neighbor at my business park had a garage sale. Their space had been the warehouse for a well-known local retailer, but the business was about to change hands, so some housekeeping was in order.
I dropped by an hour or so before the sale was to begin. You could see right away that it was shaping up to be a big event, with lots of individual items. As they were laying out the offerings, I browsed through the selection, hoping to get first crack at any bargains. This hope was quickly dashed, though, as it became apparent that even were I interested, the cheapest items were well beyond what my wallet would tolerate.
There were probably two or three hundred items in total: furniture, appliances, art items, and knick-knacks, almost all of it thrift-store grade, but at ten times thrift store prices. A battered foot stool, one leg noticeably shorter than the others, looking for all the world like it had sat in the sun and rain for five years, and for which I would not give fifty cents, was priced at $50. A pair of utterly unremarkable, bile-colored Naugahyde love seats, almost laughably uncomfortable, going for $450. Apiece. That sort of thing. With this kind of pricing I figured my neighbors would be selling a whole lot of nothing.
I figured wrong. Before the opening bell had even rung they were lined up to get at the loot. By 10 a.m. mobs of customers prowled the makeshift storefront, wearing determined expressions, AMEX cards in hand, eager to snap up the bounty. It was quite a crowd.
You couldn’t help but notice, though, that there were two distinct types of attendee. One type was dressed almost uniformly in Weekend Austin Casual attire. These folks came, assessed, and left pretty quickly. You got the impression that they had just sort of happened by, following the crowd. And finding nothing to their liking, they moved on straightaway. This type was a distinct minority.
But the dominant type was not of your typical typical garage-sale demographic. This was a well-heeled crowd, chicly clad in the latest styles. This group might have been right at home at a Sotheby’s auction. An unusually high percentage were botoxed and flaunted personal-trainer bodies. At its peak, there could easily have been a couple of million dollars worth of plastic surgery strolling about. I felt like an alien in my own zip code.
Making light of the situation, my crew and I began to play an impromptu game we called “Spot the Californian.” But we had to cancel the fun after only a little while because it was just too easy. It was fairly apparent that anyone who spent more than a minute or two at this sale was probably from the Left Coast. If their manner of dress and comportment, their accents, and the plates on their expensive automobiles were any indication, that is.
The sale had been scheduled to run from 9 to 4, Saturday and Sunday. But by 3 pm on Saturday they had already called it a day. They had to because there nothing was left to sell. Every last item, even the bedraggled little eyesore of a footstool, had been sold. All that was left were a couple of display shelves, which themselves disappeared shortly after being hung with “Free” signs.
In my business, you also tend to see two types of customers. One type knows that you are doing them a service and is thankful for any help you may be able to provide. They approach you very respectfully, almost as a supplicant. They say things like “I’m at your mercy” or “My life is in your hands,” smiling as they do so, but they’re really only half-joking. They look you directly in the eye. They make an effort to engage you. And if while you are talking with them their phone sounds off, they will ignore it, choosing instead to give you their full attention. You notice all this, of course, and it affects you. You are reminded that you have a responsibility, as a professional and as a fellow human, to reward their trust in you. And so you make a mental note to give them the best service you possibly can. Older people, working-class persons, natives of the Midwest or the South, and long-time Austinites tend to fall into this category.
The other type of customer has a very different approach. From the beginning they make it clear that they, not you, are in charge; you are just the hired help. You get the distinct impression that they think they are doing you a favor. They do not maintain eye contact for very long, and tend to elevate their gaze a little as they speak to you, so that they are quite literally looking down at you. If, while you are explaining the process to them, their smart phone should sound off, they will without hesitation suspend your conversation to attend to it. In the course of your transaction this may happen several times. And if while you are waiting for them to ring off you take a moment to attend to some other task, they will react with visible irritation. They are likely to demand an estimate before you even know what the problem is, and haggle with you over your very reasonable pricing. They will expect you to put their job before others, but will balk at paying extra for this special consideration. And if things are not exactly to their liking, there is a good chance they will punish you with a bad review.
They are not the friendliest people, and tend to be rather terse with you, but being the sociable type you try to engage them anyway. So to make conversation, you ask them where they are from. Quite often they react to this very reasonable question as though it were an act of impertinence. So they say, vaguely and bit dismissively, “the West Coast,” or “the LA area.” Which confirms what you already knew because you had earlier noted their area code, which they provided when they wrote their contact info on the Request for Service form that every customer fills out.
For the first few years I was in business, customers of the second type were rare, and so I had the luxury of turning them away if I was so inclined. But over the last decade or so the proportion of this type of customer has crept steadily upward, and some weeks fully twenty or twenty five percent of the people who walk through the door might fall into this category. So turning them all away is no longer an easy option.
It is tempting to regard this explosion of entitlement as evidence of a larger societal shift. After all, rampant self-absorption seems to be on the uptick everywhere you look. But when I consider my very worst customers I cannot help but notice that the same area codes keep turning up again and again: 818, 323, 213, 562, 949.
By the time you reach middle age, your viewpoints and habits and ways of looking at the world have more or less crystallized, and a sort of stasis sets in. You muddle along, stuck in your routine of many years, perceiving that things are a certain way, meaning, more or less, as they were when you were young and at the height of your powers. Then one day something happens that shocks the hell out of you, and reminds you that the world has, in fact, changed, and that things are, in fact, very different than you had imagined. My neighbor’s sale was just such a reminder. Five years ago, such an event would have been almost unthinkable. But now I suspect that it is distressingly routine.
It sometimes seems that the depth of meaning of a word is inversely proportional to its length. All the really big concepts seem to fit into a single syllable: love, hate, good, bad, young, old, sex, life, death, time. You have to assume that as our distant forebears gained the power of speech, over thousands of generations, certain fundamental, universal, concepts would have been recognized and named first. And just as you must crawl before you can walk, our ancestors would have made simple words before more complex ones.
“Change” is also one of these words. We all understand what it means, even though we might struggle to define it precisely. We think of change as a force, and a purposeful one at that, almost like an entity, which operates with some sense of predetermination as though there were a master plan.
Change has something for everyone. Sometimes we welcome it, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we embrace it, sometimes we strive to keep it at bay. Sometimes we look forward to it, sometimes we regret what it has wrought. Always, we wonder whence it came, whither it goes, what may it hold for us.
It is trite, I suppose, to complain about change. We wonder, ruefully, why things cannot remain the same, which is to say to our liking. But by definition, life, the state of being animate, requires change. In the course of normal metabolic activity, every atom of which you are composed will be periodically exchanged for another, so that you are quite literally not the same person you were even ten years ago, in substance if not in form. Every living organism is the endpoint of an unbroken thread of continuous change dating to the condensation of our solar system from interstellar gas and dust. Wherever there is matter and energy, there is change. Change occurs because every last particle in the Universe, every quantum, is in motion, infused with energy, and interacts to a greater or lesser degree with every other. “Change” is the observed effect of this endless, inconceivably elaborate interaction.
I cannot escape reminders of a very particular type of change because they surround me wherever I go. As I write this from my home on Williamson Creek in South Austin, through closed and draped windows I can easily hear the rumble of heavy earth-moving machinery, punctuated at intervals by the warning beep beep beep of this or that piece of equipment backing up. Six hundred feet away in one direction, eight hundred feet in another, are giant complexes of luxury condominiums nearing completion. In total, they will house well over a thousand persons, where formerly there were none. Within a mile are probably ten more such developments in various stages of completion.
At my shop, less than three miles away, it is the same story. If I exit the front door there and turn to the right I can see a a pair of giant cranes looming above a line of trees a short distance to the west. If I walk a hundred feet toward the road and turn to my left, another massive crane towers a few blocks south. If I were to climb up on the roof, I would be able to spot several more. They are like giant hands, these mechanical beasts, assembling structures that will, when completed, tower above the handful of older buildings that somehow still remain, and will house thousands of new residents, nearly all from somewhere else.
Courtesy of well-paid consultants, these places will have clever marketing strategies and evocative names that promise just the right blend of status, ease, and urban sophistication. And having built it, they will come. Hipsters and hustlers from SoHo and Santa Monica will swarm to fill these vacancies. And each of these new arrivals will bring their own cultural DNA. And with each new arrival, those of us who were born or grew up here, who have spent our lives here, who carry the institutional memory that has made Austin, Austin, become a little less relevant.
Long-time Austinites have a vibe about them, almost like a pheromone. If you are one yourself you are able to detect this vibe right away in others, and in mere seconds you find yourselves talking about this or that shared experience. If the conversation continues for any length of time you are almost certain to find a friend or acquaintance or institution in common. But these new arrivals seem somehow different. There is something faintly foreign about them, and you find that you cannot properly tune in their wavelength. Their experience is a mirror, of course, but you often get the impression that to them we long-timers are something of a quaint curiosity. They regard us, I suspect, in much the same way as a colonial regards an aboriginal.
In many ways the new arrivals do, in fact, behave very much like colonials. They come here drawn by our city’s reputation as a “cool” destination, but they tend to be very selective in the ways that they interact with their new home. They overwhelmingly gravitate to places and people that fit a certain narrow profile. They don’t seem to be all that interested in blending in, making the acquaintance of locals, or partaking of anything that smacks of “old” Austin. You wonder how long it will take before this place wears on them and they set off in search of the next new “cool” destination.
But while they are here, the new arrivals seem not at all reluctant to remake the place in a way more to their liking, even if it means removing every last trace of what used to be. And this is understandable, because adapting to a new environment is rather a lot of trouble, and it’s just easier in the long run if it does the adapting instead.
Thirteen years ago, when I opened my shop in the dog-eared little business park on Thornton Road, one of the first things I noticed was the fantastic water pressure. If you attached a garden hose to the faucet out by the garage door and opened the tap you got a splendid fifteen-foot arc of laminar-flowing goodness. You could fill a five-gallon bucket in about forty seconds. Five or six years ago, this began to change. And by “change” I mean “decline in quality.” Now, years of non-stop development have taken their toll. With the finite resource that is our water supply now spread among many more users than before, there has been a corresponding reduction in the availability of that resource to each user. It now takes close to four minutes to fill that same five-gallon bucket. Every day for thirteen years, my route to and from work has taken me down a road that was lined with trees, almost like a country lane. Note the past tense. One by one, the many pleasant pockets of green that made this little part of the world so agreeable have been cleared and replaced with condos and mini-mansions. I may have to find another route.
Many other things have changed in thirteen years, including me. I am no longer youthful and eager. I am no longer unfazed by large challenges. I am closing fast on sixty years of age, very nearly an old man yet still slogging it out in a young man’s game, liking it a little less with every passing day. I feel the shadows lengthening.
When people who are of a certain age and who have lived here for a while get together, sooner or later the conversation always turns to “what happened to Austin?” To a certain extent this is to be expected: The old always carp about the new. Kids nowadays! Yet there is something altogether right and proper about this heartfelt lament. Because, you see, once upon a time Austin really was special, a thing most rare and precious. And from a very early age we all somehow knew it too. We knew that we had been blessed with the immensely good fortune of living in a golden time and place. The Austin of my youth was a tolerant, friendly, uncrowded, inexpensive, benignly eccentric yet deeply wholesome place. And it was our little secret. But the secret got out, and Austin was discovered. And now that happy, sleepy, grown-up small town, our oasis, a place we dearly loved, no longer exists.
Reluctantly and with much sorrow, I have come to accept that Austin, which has been my home since childhood, no longer has a place for people like me. Slowly but as surely as the Earth turns, we are being squeezed out. This town worships two things now: money and youth; the one I have never had, the other I have no longer.
Change is the evidence by which we know that time has passed, and a reminder that we continue to exist. To live is to experience change, at all times in all places. Bit by little bit, change alters or removes every trace of the world into which you were born. It takes the place where you entered this life; it takes the place where you grew up. It takes the places where you played and the places where you worked, where you went to school, where you hung out, where you shared your first kiss, where you learned the meaning of the word “heartbreak.” It takes your friends and rivals and loved ones without regard. It takes the persons whose union brought you into existence. One by one, change takes the places and the people and the things you knew and loved. And then one day, it takes you.
A few days ago, I was headed home after stopping at the dollar store to gather the usual sundries. As I passed through the busy parking lot, seeking the exit, something caught my eye. There, off to the left, a short distance away was a pair of male grackles, going hard at it, a small vortex of fury on a sea of asphalt, oblivious to everything around them.
As anybody who lives in River City already knows, grackles are a part of the landscape here. They are numerous, gregarious, demonstrative, loud, and everywhere. They camp in large numbers in seemingly odd locations: next to busy parking lots, around high-traffic intersections, on campus commons. Wherever you find humans, you also find these close relatives of the common crow. Mature male grackles are mid-sized birds, a handsome glossy, iridescent blue-black from head to toe. Females are a tad smaller, and as is usually the case, drably adorned by comparison, with matte brown bodies and slightly darker wings. Like other members of family corvidae, grackles are pretty sharp cookies, known for their high intelligence and adaptability. If captured early, they may even be taught to mimic human speech. And being so uncommonly well-equipped, they flourish over an exceptionally large and ever-expanding range, now covering most of North America.
It isn’t at all unusual to see individual grackles, always males, squaring off on occasion over the standard points of contention: food, territory, mating rights. But these conflicts, such as they are, are mostly just for show. And a fine show it is, avian high drama, a spectacle of sound and fury with much squawking and screeching and leaping and forceful flapping of wings, but little bite. After a suitable period of skirmishing, following some protocol only the grackles understand, one emerges as the winner. And the dispute having settled, the combatants go their separate ways, the victor’s status slightly elevated, the loser’s slightly diminished, but neither any worse for the wear. This is the way these things are supposed to work. But somehow this time the fail-safes had failed. And what I was seeing was something that is not supposed to happen.
What was surprising about the thing was its sheer intensity. This wasn’t the usual dustup, a second or three of noisy commotion and then done. It was an altogether different grade of conflict. It was vicious and dirty. It was personal. They really seemed to hate each other. This way and that they rolled across the asphalt, locked in a mutual death grip, pecking furiously, claws as sharp as ice picks lashing, a tiny savage struggle made somehow more acute by the nearly complete lack of sound. Instead of the usual loud and raucous vocalizing, all you heard was a peculiar “errrr” sound, waxing and waning with the struggle, so low that you had to lean close to even hear it.
Every vocalization has some kind of meaning: “I’m hungry,” “I’m horny,” “This is my turf,” “Here comes a threat.” Sometimes the meaning is clear to us humans, sometimes not. But any higher-order vertebrate would instantly have recognized the meaning of this sound. You would have, too. You would have recognized it as the signature of mortal combat. And if you’re ever in a really serious, life or death, struggle you’ll likely make a version of it yourself. There is no sound on earth quite like it: guttural, inarticulate, desperate, primal, issuing from the innermost core of a being in deadly peril and fully aware of it. There is no subtlety to the sound whatsoever, and its message is clear and unambiguous. If you are an endothermic vertebrate, this is the sound you emit when you are in a death struggle, and every fiber of your being is focused on surviving.
I stopped and stared, riveted to the minute display of raw fury, so incongruous in the blandly artificial setting. My initial reaction had been a sort of inarticulate exclamatory reflex, which had it actually congealed into words would have been something on the order of “Holy shit!” But my second reaction was a typically human one: I need to stop this! My inner schoolmarm recoiled at the brute display and aimed to put an end to the nonsense before somebody got hurt.
But I wasn’t quick enough. I had already slid the shift lever into “park” and was reaching for the door handle with the other hand when the conflict settled itself. Without warning, one of the combatants suddenly broke it off. It fluttered a short distance away and took up a station, where it strolled back and forth at a leisurely pace, tracing an elongated figure-8, all the while exuding what seemed like an exaggerated casual air, as if to say: No big deal, all the while pointedly pretending to ignore the other, who only seconds before had been its bitter enemy. And who now lay trembling upon the pavement, broken and bleeding, gasping for breath, in extremis, its life ebbing away.
Because we have the good fortune to possess large brains and supple, capable hands, and because we have the further good fortune to live at a certain point in history, at the apex of millennia of continuous learning and refinement, many of us humans now have the extraordinary luxury of going through life from beginning to end almost completely insulated from the natural world’s rougher edges. And because we live in this bubble we forget. We forget that Nature is not the warm and cuddly goddess of goodness and plenty that our privileged lives allow us to imagine.
From the safety and comfort of our bubble we personalize Nature, imagine that “she” welcomes and nurtures, and enfolds all in a warm motherly embrace. But in reality Nature would just as soon smite us with a lethal plague as look at us. She is neither warmth nor goodness. Indifferent to our struggles, immune to our blandishments, Nature is nothing if not coolly, cruelly efficient, utterly unsentimental, and deeply red in tooth and claw. And every now and again, whether we like it or not, she chooses to remind us of this.
A while back, I wrote an essay in this space in which I shared some views on gender-related issues. God knows why anyone would ever willingly stray into that minefield, but this is my forum and I can say what I want.
So often, works devoted to this rather touchy subject devolve into one of two extremes, being either rants or marvels of polite circumlocution. I had hoped to avoid either of those fates. And after much effort and many rewrites the product that finally emerged was, I think it fair to say, well-reasoned, relevant, decently written, strongly supported by credible citations, and forceful without being pointlessly inflammatory.
The purpose in tackling this thorny subject was twofold. On the one hand, as a concerned American I felt it was important to weigh in against the plague of Political Correctness, which I believe has done real and lasting damage to our society. But at the same time I had also hoped to persuade certain specific individuals I knew who were, I felt, in the throes of unclear thinking. And if the piece managed to reach others as well, then great. The reaction to that extended rumination has been interesting and distinctly bimodal, with the feedback split about fifty-fifty between commendation and condemnation. The target audience remained largely unmoved, however, so into the breach once again.
Recently I was having a lighthearted conversation with a member of that target audience, a woman I know. As is customary, our conversation followed no particular script, and meandered agreeably across a varied topical terrain. At some point the subject of female boxers came up. The human kind, not the canine. If I recall correctly, this subject entered the conversation because Ronda Rousey, the female MMA champ, happened to be in the news that day for some reason or another. I allowed that I found the idea of women beating the crap out of each other rather disturbing. I happen to find equally disturbing the hordes of fans who find such ugly displays titillating, if not downright erotic, but that’s another matter. This woman–I’ll call her Shana–said by way of rebuttal that she thought it was “great.” Which surprised me more than a little because Shana is a child of the 80s and as liberated as they come.
Somewhat taken aback, I said something like, Well I’ll take it seriously when a woman climbs into the ring with Mike Tyson. To which she said, and here I quote exactly, including emphasis, “I could see that happening soon, because there are plenty of women out there who can kick any man’s ass.” After a moment of befuddled, incredulous silence, I asked Shana if she really, seriously believed that to be true, to which she replied, forcefully, “Yes,” wide eyes and firmly set jaw underscoring her sincerity.
This was such a bizarre thing to say, and so completely at odds with reality as I understood it, that I did not quite know how to respond. It seemed right up there with “9/11 was an inside job,” or “the moon landings were faked.” In such situations good manners prevent you from saying what you really think, but neither can you just let a statement like that go. My mind churned as I considered how to respond.
In a manner of seconds, I felt my relationship with Shana change a little, perhaps irreversibly. I thought back to the time some years before when a woman I had been dating mentioned, quite casually and apropos of nothing, that she had been abducted by space aliens a few weeks previously. I thought at first that she was making some kind of droll joke, and so I played along. But within moments it became painfully clear that she was, in fact, completely serious. And in a split second our relationship simply dissolved. I lost all interest in her, and as quickly as was practical extricated myself from the situation and got the hell out of there. I never saw her again.
Now I do not in any way require friends or loved ones to share my opinions. For example, even though I am personally rather conservative politically, most of the people I know, and pretty much everyone I truly care about, are left of center–sometimes very left–and that’s OK. This is particularly true of the women in my life.
However, I do require that people I associate with not be flat-out delusional. That long-ago would-be girlfriend had said something that was so very Out There that it called her character, her stability, her very sanity into question, and I could not have anything to do with that. And here I was, facing a similar situation with Shana, someone I had known for years, and of whom I happened to be very fond. It was an awkward and uncomfortable spot to be in.
In my mind, this was a pretty serious breach, and it had to be dealt with one way or another. I played Shana’s statement over and over in my mind, trying to find an out that would save her from being downgraded to the “Take with grain of salt” category.
To be fair, I held out the possibility that she might have been exaggerating for the sake of argument. Yes, there certainly are some very fit women out there, some of whom could credibly challenge a fair number of men in a physical fight. This I could accept.
However, I also had to consider that Shana might have been stating a literally held conviction that some females could best any male physically, a truly reckless thing to say, which if extended to its logical end would inevitably mean that women were physically superior to men. Which would be a ridiculous, dangerously naive, completely nonsensical argument, supported by absolutely zero evidence. And by definition, anyone who actually believed this would have to be delusional. You see my problem.
But in talking to other people about this issue, it became clear that Shana was hardly alone in her thinking. Apparently her viewpoint is a fairly common one. This represents a pretty sharp shift in the zeitgeist, but if you think about it, you can kind of understand how it happened. After all, the mainstream media seethes with images of fit, toned, attractive women in full badass mode, strutting and preening for the adoring cameras, their to-die-for lats and ‘ceps on full display, while at the same time male counterparts are scarcely to be seen. And night after night, episode after episode, ultrafit, uber-sharp heroines with world-class fighting chops run rings around hapless male opponents in a host of popular television serials. This explosion of empowered womanhood has not gone unnoticed. It has seeped into the public consciousness and displaced the softer, more conventional image of women that once prevailed.
What people forget, though, is that this new version–Woman 2.0–is a fiction, created to entertain us, just as the superheroes, steely-eyed cowboys, hotshot detectives, and perfect moms and dads of yesteryear’s popular entertainment were fictions. This updated image of womanhood is as approximately real as a comic-book superhero.
At this exact moment, on many fronts, change is occurring faster than at any time in human history, and so it is natural for us to assume that humans themselves are changing at a similar pace. But we are not. Though our society and our technology evolve rapidly, our biology does not. We are effectively indistinguishable from our ancestors of a thousand, five thousand, or ten thousand years past.
Let’s be clear: Human males and females are not physically equal. No way, no how. On her very best day, with the stars and planets all in alignment and the wind at her back, Ronda Rousey could not kick Mike Tyson’s ass. The young one OR the old one. She probably wouldn’t last half a round. And there isn’t a woman on the planet who would fare much better. And it’s not as though Mike Tyson was a freak of nature, either. Guys like him are all over the place. This seems so incredibly obvious that it shouldn’t even be up for discussion. Yet somehow it is, because we live in a very strange time, in which inconvenient realities may safely be ignored in favor of obviously fictional, clearly irrational, yet politically correct narratives. A simple, fact-based statement such as “Women are not as strong as men” cannot be uttered in public without generating a storm of synthetic outrage. By the unwritten rules that now govern our society, such a declaration is forbidden because, even though it may be objectively true, to say it out loud enables repression, enforces the Patriarchy (whatever that is,) and promotes the myth of second-class status for women. It is, in effect, hate speech.
We males and females differ, deeply, in ways too numerous to list, and anyone with sense recognizes this. Though there is certainly much behavioral, physical, attitudinal, aptitudinal overlap, our respective bell curves are actually pretty far apart. Yet we are forbidden to acknowledge this reality because it contradicts the official fantasy that, but for some minor plumbing issues, we are all exactly alike and wholly equal in every way.
Shana didn’t arrive at her opinion all by herself; she had lots of encouragement. Three decades of nonstop “girl power” propaganda have borne abundant fruit in the form of confident, assertive young women by the millions who are convinced that they can do no wrong, and who feel in their bones that it is their right to do anything they set their minds to. And who also feel just as certainly that they are not merely the equals of males, but their actual superiors. Hear and read slogans like “Girls rule, boys drool” and “The best man for the job is a woman” a few thousand times and you start to believe it.
Note that there is no equivalent movement stirring in the y-chromosome community. Which is probably a good thing because one can imagine the deafening howls of outrage that would ensue, from sea to shining sea, were any males ever so impudent as to assert their supremacy. Imagine the strained vocal chords, the epidemic of apoplexy, the barrels of ink spilled in anger, that would follow such effrontery. The hypocrisy is staggering.
There’s no denying that women have made significant strides in carving out a larger role in American society. This is right and reasonable, and a natural evolution congruent with our changing times. America has shifted from a manufacturing economy, which favors physical strengths and skills–a male domain–to a service economy, which favors people skills–a female forte. At the same time, it has become fashionable among a certain class of women, mostly young and ambitious, to mimic certain traditionally male behaviors strongly associated with what we call “success.”
However, you could credibly argue that this expansion of female roles has occurred largely because our peaceful, prosperous, society, freed of serious existential threats by the sustained labors of many anonymous men over many generations, has the luxury of allowing it.
In some ways this is a zero-sum game. We cannot all be winners. To a certain extent, the ascendance of women has come at the expense of men. Females are being lifted up as males are being held down. It starts early. In their formative years, boys are given over to a feminized education system that really doesn’t like them all that much. This system, owned and managed almost entirely by women, regards boys’ natural boisterousness as a form of deviance, and represses their instinctive competitiveness in favor of feel-good, everybody-wins pablum. At this system’s behest, unruly (i.e. normal) boys are routinely pacified with powerful psychotropic drugs to make them more like their compliant female cohorts.
Males of all ages are the principal targets of a regressive and puritanical code of conduct that criminalizes normal behavior. Hard-working men at every stage of their careers are demonized by zealots in perpetual pursuit of a chimerical “equity,” who have sacralized the pernicious myth of the woman-hostile workplace. The entire male gender is marginalized by a shallow, gossipy, gynocentric, popular culture that trivializes the enormous contributions and challenges of males as it grossly exaggerates and glamorizes those of the other, pampered, gender.
A common complaint you hear from men is that they feel unappreciated. They have a point. The idea seems to have taken hold among many of the female gender that males are somehow obsolete, like an archaic form of human whose remains you might find in a Pleistocene cave. We don’t need you any more, is the message many men are getting.
And this is a problem. The thing so many people fail to understand is this: Males require a sense of purpose. They want to provide and to protect; they want to be respected and respectable. They need to be needed. But without a purpose there is simply no point. And so one by one they drift over to the dark side.
You’d think that the gender responsible for creating science, technology, mathematics, literature, art, philosophy, medicine, music, finance, and a host of other disciplines too numerous to mention would get a little more respect. Instead, so many females seem to think that this society of ours–highly evolved, technologically advanced, safe, comfortable, interconnected–just kind of sprang into being. But the reality is that almost everything of importance in this world was conceived, designed, built, and maintained by men. And without males, your cushy little world would implode faster than you can say “woman needs man like fish needs bicycle.” I think Camille Paglia, leading intellectual and lifelong feminist, says it best: “If women ran the world we would still be living in grass huts.”
Certainly there are negatives to male behavior, and we all know what they are. But the better angels of male nature make the world go around. Intellectual curiosity, love of competition, an appreciation for rigor, inventiveness, persistence, adventurousness–these are profoundly male traits. They scarcely exist in the average female. You may say, oh pish posh, what a load of crap, but history tells a different tale.
But females embody much of what is beneficent about humanity. Empathy, nurturing, inclusiveness, caring, cooperativeness; these are, overwhelmingly, female traits. Females allow the perpetuation of our species. Why do so many women rush to disown these critical, life-affirming attributes, as though they were an embarrassment? Why do so many women strive to emulate the very worst traits of men and think that this is, somehow, an improvement? Why are so many blind to the reality that yin without yang is a world completely out of balance?
Years ago, when I was young and idealistic and still thought I could make a difference, I wanted to be a teacher. So off I went to graduate school with the goal of becoming certified in Science and Math instruction. The final phase of that process is a year of student-teaching, which I performed at a suburban middle school.
As a semester project my 8th-grade earth-science class was assigned the task of creating and videotaping a “weather broadcast.” It was a different, simpler, era, and the teachers had the odd idea that the kids ought to be able to figure it out on their own. And so students were given some rough guidelines and then left to their own devices. No caring adults hovered, minutely monitoring their progress. The large class was also allowed to self-select into working groups, something else that would never be allowed now, and as a result every single group was either entirely female or entirely male. Remember, this was middle school.
The difference in output between the girls and the boys was striking. The girls produced, without exception, solid and workmanlike results, but with few surprises and only occasional hints of cleverness. Sober and colorless yet perfectly adequate. By sharp contrast, the boys’ work was all over the place. A couple of projects righteously stunk, and a couple others were so-so, but for the most part they were really good: clever, daring, inventive, funny, and smart, even a little risque, if somewhat rough around the edges. In competing with each other, the boys had pushed themselves to excel. Right then and there I learned a powerful lesson about the basic, enduring differences between the sexes, a lesson I have never forgotten. The girls played it safe, the boys went for broke, and it wasn’t even close.
For centuries it has been understood that young males require the companionship and tutelage of other males in order to reach full maturity. But in recent years this entirely wholesome and sensible arrangement has been upended by the juggernaut of Political Correctness. The few refuges boys once had where they could gather with others of their kind in friendly, constructive settings–the YMCA, the Boys Club, the Boy Scouts to name a few–are either under assault or have been harassed out of existence by the gender-equity warriors. As clueless as they are vindictive, consumed with unreasoning holy zeal, the gender jihadis destroy that which they do not understand. And like Vandals beholding the wreckage of Rome, they gaze upon their work, uncomprehending of the damage they have wrought, and feel only the warm glow of victory.
In my hometown of Austin, Texas, there are two public girls-only schools, with a third almost completed. They have upbeat names like “Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders,” which sounds so very inspiring that you really want to hang an exclamation point on the end. Yet there is no boys-only academy. There was a plan for one, sort of, but it languished, as afterthoughts usually do, and faded slowly away until eventually it was forgotten. So the gender that really, really could use a little help right now is getting none. And nobody even pretends to care. Perhaps George Orwell was right: We are all equal, only some are more equal than others.
As long as there have been humans, there have been myths. Every culture has them, and they serve a multitude of useful purposes. A myth can center you in time and space, provide an appealing backstory, project an uplifting and heroic ideal, conceal a checkered past, mask a drab reality. Many of us even have our own personal myths.
Most of the time, at the conscious level we understand that our myths are just that. But sometimes, in endlessly retelling a favorite story we come to confuse it with reality. And so we begin to lose our way. We make a decision based on a faulty premise, and then we make another and then another. By slow degrees we create an alternate reality divorced from any solid factual foundation. And we continue in this fashion for a time until, eventually, the realization dawns that something is terribly off here. But by then we’re in too deep, the vested interests have gotten their hooks in, and it’s too late to fix the thing.
In the end, I decided to cut Shana a little slack. She is an excellent person who means well, and it is for very good reasons that I am fond of her. Like millions of others, she has been taken in by a myth. But who can blame her? The myth is shiny and audacious and captivating. It makes you stand a little straighter, puts a spring in your step. By comparison stodgy old reality is so very boring, so commonplace, so yesterday. And who needs that?
The pitch is about as direct as you can imagine, the causal chain unambiguous and damning. There is, we are told, a place called the Marshall Islands, a collection of coral islets straddling the equator a few hundred miles northeast of Australia. A little slice of paradise, it is an idyllic place of waving palm trees, warm ocean breezes, and happy, innocent natives. And now it is is doomed, shortly to be inundated by rising waters, thanks to melting polar icecaps caused by global warming. Triggered, of course, by an increasing amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Which is caused by YOU, dear user of carbon-based fuels.
And that’s just the opening salvo. What follows is an epic guilt-fest with all the subtlety of a tire iron to the solar plexus. In tones by turns elegiac and insinuating, we are confronted with all that will be irretrievably lost when–not if–these islands are flooded. The implication is left hanging there, like a badge of shame: This is YOUR fault. Your gluttony, your greed, your shortsightedness are causing innocents to suffer. Nice going, First World.
If after reading the article your first inclination was to reach for a shovel, for to dig a hole, therein to crawl, you can hardly be faulted. This was precisely the intent. Indeed, in the face of such an obvious, monstrous crime it seems almost in poor taste to raise even a peep of protest. But even murderers get their day in court, and since an accusation has been leveled, it is only fair to respond to it with facts and reason, just as if a legal action had been brought against us. Does the accusation holds up to close analysis? Or does it evaporate like a rain puddle in the bright summer sun?
If you look at a map of the western part of the Pacific Ocean, you cannot help but notice how very many islands litter its watery vastness. There are thousands of them, scattered like stars across the night sky. Big ones, little ones, in-between ones. Of this collection, a hefty percentage are atolls, low-lying, ring-shaped coral islands enclosing a central lagoon, barely reaching above the waves. The Marshall Islands are of this type.
How improbable, you think, that there would be so many thousands of such islands, scattered all over the place, all lying right at sea level. What are the odds? And how unfortunate for their inhabitants, what with sea levels galloping upward, so we are told, about to erase a whole bunch of place names from the map.
But if you are a thinking person, it might occur to you to wonder how so many thousands of separate geographic entities could have independently come to be at exactly the same existential juncture, all lying precisely at sea level, presumably facing inundation, at the same moment in history. Had this happened by chance, it would be one hell of a coincidence. And if that seems like an awfully tall order to you, you are trending in the right direction.
In actuality, this is not a chance occurrence. Rather, this proliferation of like landforms is the end result of natural processes that have played out over countless millennia. And which will continue to play out far into the future. If the last six hundred million years or so of geologic history are any guide, that is.
The western rim of the Pacific Ocean is a geologically active region, with lots of tectonic plates moving every which way. There are many zones of tectonic convergence, in which adjacent plates move toward one another, with one typically sliding under the other. With tectonic convergence comes volcanic activity and mountain-building. The mountains thus built jut above the water, forming islands. The islands that comprise Japan, the Philippines, the Marianas, the Ryukus, and the Marshall Islands were all formed by this process.
But as with most things natural, a life cycle appertains. From the first moments of their existence these mountainous islands are subject to relentless erosion, which works to wear them down. At the same time, as the forces that built these mountains subside, they begin to sink naturally under their own weight, and even without erosion most would eventually drop into the sea.
The sunlit zone of warm, tropical waters teems with all manner of corals, symbiotic organisms that form large colonies–“reefs”–that cover every square meter of habitable sea bottom. Corals have the very useful ability to secrete calcium carbonate, also known as limestone. Each individual coral polyp constructs its own protective enclosure from this durable material. When the individual coral dies, its enclosure remains, to form the foundation for the next generation.
Corals tend to be very prolific, and spread rapidly in all directions, including upward. Corals will grow right up to the surface, into the tidal zone, and can even survive brief exposure to air. Under favorable conditions, certain common corals may generate a foot or more of vertical growth in a year, blazing fast in geologic terms.
From the surf zone down to a depth of 70 meters or so, the flanks of every tropical island are covered with a fringe of living coral. As time passes and the mountain-islands sink into the sea, the coral builds continuously upward and inward, stopping only when it reaches the atmosphere. Eventually, the coral covers the mountaintop when finally it slips underwater. But even as its foundation descends into the depths, the coral continues growing endlessly upward, piling up layer upon innumerable layer. The end result is a coral atoll, whose ring-shaped form echoes the reef that once fringed the submerged slopes of the mountain.
Pick any atoll and drill into it and you are likely to find thousands of meters of fossilized corals, representing millions of years of history, layered atop a submerged peak. The part above water, what we call an island, is made of ground-up pieces of reef, piled up by waves and currents and reworked by the wind, generally topping out no more than a meter or two above sea level. The atoll is the end stage of a natural process, and will persist indefinitely as long as the corals that comprise it continue to grow.
Only when the water turns too cold to support it does the coral stop growing. Which happens regularly, geologically speaking, as most of the tectonic plates that make up the Pacific seafloor are moving generally northward at a rate of a few centimeters per year. Between latitude 25 degrees north and 25 south, you find thousands of living atolls, flourishing in the relative warmth of tropical waters. Outside that zone, you find many seamounts, submerged mountains capped by dead coral colonies that succumbed when their tectonic plates carried them into chilly waters.
But unless and until that happens, coral will naturally replenish itself indefinitely. So in reality all the guilt-tripping is for naught. We needn’t worry about the Marshall Islands, the Marquesas, the Maldives, or any of the thousands of other tropical isles supposedly facing imminent inundation. Not for the foreseeable future anyway. These island-nations are not in any way threatened by seas that continue to rise at the very modest rate of 7 or 8 inches per century because the coral of which they are formed can grow much faster than that, and will easily keep pace. Undoubtedly, these places can and will on occasion experience flooding, though, as would any low-lying landform sitting in the middle of an ocean periodically swept by strong storms and large waves.
The mass media is perennially atwitter with alarming bulletins about this or that impending catastrophe. And almost always, the promised apocalypse fails to materialize. This time will be no different. You’d think that we would learn after so many false alarms. Yet somehow we fall for it every time.
There is a common thread that runs though each of these stories. Someone takes little bit of data, usually collected over a very short term, and divines a trend. This trend is then projected unrealistically far into the future, as though it existed in a vacuum, unaffected by any other factors. Using such simplistic logic, we can confidently predict that there will upwards of 500 trillion humans on this planet a thousand years from now, based on the current rate of population growth. This is an obviously absurd projection. Yet there it is, in black and white. Numbers don’t lie.
I find it noteworthy that CNN, supposedly an objective news organization, seems to have no qualms about hosting a story that is so obviously a work of advocacy journalism. And it is, apparently, of no concern that this high-profile piece is based on sloppy science, is factually unsound, emotionally manipulative, and intentionally misleading. All that matters is that it generates lots of buzz, hence ad dollars. Comments for the story have been disabled, so we can assume that critiques are unwelcome. Which is understandable, because as any propagandist can tell you: You should never, ever let pesky old facts get in the way of a good narrative.
“Two oh two: Come to the door with your hands in the air” said the man in uniform, his amplified voice echoing up and down the quiet streets. After a short pause, the command was repeated exactly, then repeated again. For the next three hours, this scene played over and over, every fifteen minutes, until someone up the chain of command ruled “enough,” and they went in in force.
When twelve police cars, three ambulances, and two fire trucks show up in your front yard, sirens blaring, it gets your attention. Naturally curious about what was happening, I walked over to the nearest patrol car, one of those newer SUVs they assign to shift supervisors, to ask what the fuss was all about. At my approach, the officer behind the wheel, a mild-looking blonde fellow in his early thirties, put down his smart phone and slipped into command mode. He informed me, not all that convincingly, that he didn’t have any information and that I needed to remain in my house. I considered his instructions momentarily before ignoring them, choosing instead to approach a neighbor standing nearby to ask if she had heard anything. She said she wasn’t really sure, but something someone yelling shots fired this or that or the other somebody something standoff.
In such a situation you immediately start going over all the possibilities. Your thoughts automatically veer straight to the dark side, where they they dwell on the worst scenarios imaginable. Home invasion, robbery gone wrong, hostage situation. You imagine wild-eyed desperadoes raving madly as their captives cower or lay dead in their own blood. Alternatively you consider that maybe some poor guy had a meltdown after a rotten day, and that now, after an ill-fated outburst, things had gone from bad to much, much worse.
Naturally, I was concerned, but my more immediate preoccupation was with the fact that my driveway was completely blocked, potentially derailing my plans for this Sunday evening. As I considered this inconvenience, in response to some kind of change in the situation the police tightened their cordon a little, condensing around the house that was the focus of their attention, unseen around the corner. This development left me almost but not quite enough room to squeeze out should I decide to leave.
At this point there seemed to be some very mixed signals being given. On the one hand there was an awful lot of hardware assembled, which suggested that something big was happening. But on the other hand there was also a very visible lack of urgency. Lots of milling around, standing with hands in pockets, waiting. Nobody seemed all that concerned.
After a few more minutes, the blockage around my driveway cleared completely as the security cordon condensed even further, so now I had a decision to make: Go as scheduled for Sunday beer and burgers with my old friend Tom, or wait around to see what happened. There seemed to be some kind of pause in the action so I opted for “go.” Whatever this was, it was big enough that I would probably hear about it on the news or read about it in the paper the following morning.
The road was no longer blocked, so I decided to turn right, toward the commotion, to see what I could. Ground Zero turned out to be the Ensle’s old house, a few doors down from mine, recently sold and now occupied by people I had never met or even knowingly seen. A ribbon of crime scene tape enclosed the yard, bathed in the glare of very powerful floodlights. A full-sized fiberglass buffalo sculpture, somebody’s droll joke, sat stolidly in the middle of it all, staring at nothing.
I had actually been in the house a few times. The last time, in October of 1998, it happened to be filled with waist-high floodwaters from nearby Williamson Creek, through which I waded as I helped the Ensles carry a few of their belongings to higher ground.
Returning home about three hours later, it was obvious that there had been some kind of resolution. Police and individuals in labcoats came and went through the front door. An SUV labeled “Crime Scene” was parked in front. A crew from one of the local TV stations stood on the nearest corner, preparing for a live broadcast. A van bearing the logo of another local news station sat parked in front of my house, a young woman behind the wheel taking notes. I rapped on the passenger-side window to get her attention. Looking up, she met my gaze and smiled wanly, a hint of sadness in her expression, as though she had recently received some rather unfortunate news. After a brief pause to collect her thoughts she said something like “The police aren’t saying much, but evidently they found the bodies of two people and a dog.” Murder-suicide. Double murder-suicide. I winced at the inevitable visualization of it. Why did he have to kill the dog? was all I could think. Without even knowing exactly what had happened, I hated the weak, cowardly bastard who had committed the atrocity.
The investigation took the better part of the night, and official vehicles were still parked in front of the house at five-thirty the following morning when I went to check. But by the time I headed out for work around nine they had wrapped it up. From the outside, you couldn’t tell that anything at all had happened; the crime scene tape had been removed, the porch light was on as always, the doors closed and latched, the cars in their usual places, fiberglass buffalo placidly enduring.
As I was about to leave, I spotted a neighbor from across the street out walking her dog. We exchanged “hellos” and segued into the usual pleasantries, pointedly avoiding any talk about the crime in our midst. But when her gaze drifted for a moment in the direction of the house, I took it as a cue to push the conversation to that painful but unavoidable subject. She confirmed that it had been a murder-suicide. Man, woman, dog. And then she said what everybody who knew about it must have hoped: “I hold it in my heart that maybe she was really sick and ready to go.” I nodded agreement, and said yes, maybe it had been a mercy killing. I did not say out loud what I was thinking: A mercy killer wouldn’t also have shot the dog.
By early in the afternoon the details had come out and had been reported in the local news media. There were interviews with neighbors and police, fleshed out with background from other sources. The man and woman turned out to have been a long-married couple, both in their 80s. He was a retired University professor, she a homemaker. She was gravely ill with a terminal cancer. He had been deeply depressed. Their dog was very old and in failing health.
They were, by all accounts, the very paragon of a close couple. In the few months they had lived in the neighborhood they had become a fixture, known for their frequent walkabouts, always holding hands, faithful dog always in tow. For a while before the fatal event no one had seen her at all, and him only sporadically. During one such rare appearance the husband let slip to a neighbor that his wife was no longer able to walk and was in a very bad way.
I realized that I had actually glimpsed them once, a few months before, as I was driving past one day. They were getting out of their car and their backs were turned to me, but it was obvious that they were quite old. I assessed them and instantly judged that they were probably there to visit whoever now lived in the house. I had imagined the new residents to be a young professionals from one of the Coasts, as newcomers to the neighborhood usually are these days.
Thoughtfully, he had called the emergency number. He told them that he had killed his wife and dog and was about to kill himself; “you’ll need to send someone over,” he said in a quavering, indescribably weary voice thick with sorrow. The 911 operator tried to engage him, keep him on the line, but he was done. There were a couple seconds of fumbling as he jostled the phone back onto its cradle, followed by the click of disconnection.
He left the front door unlocked, as he told them he would, so when they finally decided it was time to go in, all it took to gain entry was a turn of the knob and a little push.
The police had done their homework, checked the databases, talked with neighbors, read between the lines. So by the time they went in they had a pretty good idea what they would find. They followed the protocol, as they had to, but with a certain informed nonchalance. They carried their guns loosely in relaxed hands, almost like props. They shouted commands, but didn’t really expect any answer. They moved through the house at an unhurried pace, calling out “clear” as each room was passed without resistance, tone of voice neutral, betraying no urgency. It didn’t take long to find them. Even though they were obviously gone, life-saving measures were attempted anyway, but in the sort of perfunctory way people have when they are merely going through the motions.
Friends and neighbors all attested that he was a decent and thoughtful man. Loved his wife. Loved their dog. Judging from the care with which it was all carried out, you knew that he had thought it through. And in doing so he would have had to realize how very, very hard it would actually be. And so you wonder, as you must, how he summoned the terrible resolve.
Their dog would have had to go first. Come here, girl. A long lingering look, a last gentle rubbing of the beloved companion’s ears–she always liked that. You were such a good dog. Gazing for the last time into her eyes, cloudy with age now, trusting as always, yet full of questions because she knew, as dogs always do, that something was terribly wrong. Look over there, girl. The smallest movement of a finger, a tiny voluntary motion requiring every bit of will. A deafening report, startlingly loud in the confined space. The little being, loved and cared for her entire life, transformed in an instant to a mere thing, a heap on the floor. A bell rung that no force in the universe could un-ring.
In shock, head swimming, ears ringing. This is not a drill! A few paces to the wife’s bedside, each step its own unique agony. Beholding her, his beloved helpmate and lover, mother of their children, a lifetime’s companion, now a wasted, empty shell, moaning in a pain beyond the reach of any drug. We were quite a pair, weren’t we? Another final lingering look, emotions and memories flooding his mind. Stroking her hair for the last time; gazing at her face, once lovely but now a mask of torment; murmuring words of comfort and farewell. Goodbye sweetheart; I’ll see you very soon. A second minuscule, annihilating flick of a finger, a second terrible report followed by deafening silence.
Ears really ringing now, horrific lingering images crowding away all other thoughts. Stay focused! Make the call to 911–wouldn’t want the kids to find all this two weeks later. The door will be unlocked. Clock ticking for real now. Can’t quit! Can’t quit!
In only a couple of minutes the sound of sirens in the distance. Time to go. For a few seconds he must have considered the macabre practicality of his final task, felt the pressure of having to get it right, harder than you might imagine; flinch at the fateful moment and you are worse than dead. A last look around, a deep breath, eyes squeezed tightly shut, barrel placed just so against the skull, finger taut on the trigger, mind suddenly ablaze with unexpected, exquisite awareness. What happens now? Would he simply dissolve into nothingness? Or would he awaken a timeless instant later to find her waiting?
From my kitchen window I can see the light of the entryway still burning like a beacon for those who will never return. Somebody came and got the cars, cancelled the newspaper, picked up the last bit of litter from that night. The fiberglass buffalo still stands, stolid and unruffled, on its small patch of earth. To look at the place you would never know.
They don’t seem to be in a hurry to do anything. Which is probably as it should be, because a house afflicted by tragedy becomes a kind of pariah, a thing cursed, irreversibly tainted by the blood spilled within. People avert their gaze as they pass, mutter under their breath, or cross themselves. It would be nearly impossible to sell.
In the end it won’t matter, though. The house and a couple dozen others also in the flood plain are scheduled to be purchased by the City and demolished. Most likely it will be torn down before the year is out. Its every trace will be removed and the land allowed to return to its natural state. There will be no monument, no marker for those who lived and died there; only the faint rustling of leaves in the wind to remind passers-by of the frail but determined man, who through a fog of pain and grief somehow summoned the strength to grant to those he loved the last full measure of pure devotion.
With nearly imperceptible slowness, the black of night gives way to a featureless, colorless predawn. A faint dull red glow limns the eastern horizon, grading upward into gray nothingness. Little by little, sea and shore emerge from the formless void.
The bright disk of the sun lies hidden for now below the horizon, but if all goes as planned the Earth’s spin will shortly bring it into view. Exactly where is unclear, though, as a high wall of cloud far to sea makes the point of its emergence an object of some guesswork. Anticipation builds as the minutes tick by. As I watch and wait, a high tendril of cloud, invisible a moment before, begins to glow like a thin wire in a hot flame. In seconds the fire spreads until the cloud tops are aglow along twenty degrees of horizon. Moments later, at the exact center of this luminous swath, a white-hot sliver, so dazzlingly bright it seems to pulse, crests the cloud tops and blasts the world with pure light. Sunrise. If life came with a soundtrack there would be a swelling orchestral chorus of Thus Spake Zarathustra right about now.
When on a trip to the shore, it is more or less mandatory to witness at least one sunrise over the ocean. I’m not entirely sure why, but there is clearly no sense in fighting it. Of course for it to count you have to be there from beginning to end. You cannot pop in on the process halfway through or, god forbid, once the sun has already risen, even partially, and call it a win. Because of persistent inclement weather, it had not been at all certain that I would be able to accomplish this modest yet curiously compelling goal, and I savor, in a small way, having successfully done so.
Many people find the idea of sunrise at the beach appealing in the abstract but lack the will to follow through. I regard this as a character flaw. Sadly, my girlfriend is in this category; she slumbers through the entire show, oblivious. But I know her to have many offsetting positive qualities, so she is forgiven this particular weakness.
It seems to be connected to our fascination with boundaries. We are drawn to boundaries, we humans. Over here we have one thing, over there, something else, just beyond our reach, and it is that other thing that calls to us. We want to observe it, walk up to it if we can, stand on its very outermost edge, sample its essence. So it is with sunrise, the boundary between darkness and daylight. No matter how many times we will have witnessed it before, we never tire of the spectacle of night becoming day. And if the opportunity presents itself, we simply must stop what we are doing and behold it in all its transfixing glory, exactly as our forebears had done for ten thousand generations. And so it is with the shore, the boundary between land and sea. Without even understanding why, we feel compelled to stand wonderingly at the edge of our world, gazing toward that other, liquid, world, which our distant ancestors once inhabited, and which, perhaps, in some vestigial way we still dimly recall.
Thanks to days of hard southeast winds, the shore is a maelstrom of raging surf. Even at a distance of more than a hundred yards, the continuous roar is loud enough to discourage conversation. The inshore waters, normally a pleasing greenish hue, are presently the color of mud. From our perch nine stories up you can see that this discolored zone stretches far out to sea. Anyone walking the beach is guaranteed to get their feet wet, as waves frequently wash completely across it. In places the first row of dunes are crumbling under the assault, like sand castles left to their fate. Here and there a handful of surfers try their luck. But good, clean waves are few and far between so mostly the surfers bob like corks in the churning waters, paddling furiously to stay upright and pointed in the right direction.
The fierce, unrelenting wind renders flight nearly impossible for the avian multitudes inhabiting the shore. As if in defiance, a squadron of pelicans attempts to fly directly into the gale, barely making headway at great effort before giving up and peeling off downwind. Smaller seabirds don’t even bother; they hunker down and settle in, make themselves as small as possible, heads toward the wind, uniformly aligned like so many animate weather vanes.
For the first couple of days we were here a thick foglike haze hugged land and sea as the wind howled and heavy clouds streamed low overhead. The world shrank down to a circle just a few hundred yards across, dissolving into the mist at the edges. Some time in the night, though, the wind shifted a full 180 degrees to blow equally hard offshore, lifting the curtain. So the view now stretches unimpeded to infinity.
A previously unseen fleet of tankers and container ships clusters offshore, scattered across many square miles of Gulf. I do a quick naked-eye count and come up with fifteen. Raising binoculars I repeat the procedure and discover three more, missed on the previous count because they are so far away that only their very topmost parts peek over the horizon; the rest lies hidden by the curvature of the Earth, easily discernible now. I experience a pang of satisfaction in confirming the roundness of the planet.
These vessels wait patiently for their berths on the Ship Channel in Corpus Christi to become available. Even under optimal conditions it can take days for a ship’s number to be called. And traffic moves slowly always because only one large vessel at a time may be in the Channel. But high winds and poor visibility had halted traffic for a while, so now there is something of a backlog. You imagine the boredom that must attend this seemingly endless waiting.
Sooner or later, though, the radio always crackles to life, and the boredom evaporates in an instant as the crew springs into action to carry out the thousand and one tasks necessary to put a large vessel into motion. Valves are turned, switches are thrown, buttons are pushed, motors whir, gears mesh, circuits pulse with electrical current. The ship shudders from one end to the other as its massive diesel engine, the size of a tractor-trailer, springs to life with a rush of black smoke.
Within seconds the engine settles at a throbbing low idle, warming up, as the helmsman runs through his checklist. Checking vital functions, he turns the wheel from lock to lock, and in less than a second giant pumps push barrels of hydraulic fluid through conduits the size of man’s leg to servos that obediently swing the rudder, twenty five feet tall and weighing twenty tons, first one way and then the other, through eighty degrees of arc, swirling the water as it goes.
A massive tanker prepares to make the transit. Eight hundred feet and then some from end to end and a hundred abeam, it rides low, almost down to the waterline, so when it reaches its destination it will obviously be offloading at least a portion of whatever hydrocarbon product it happens to be carrying. This ship, like all vessels of its class, will be guided into port by a licensed Pilot, who has been ferried to the ship by a small boat. From the moment the ship enters the Channel until it slides into its berth, the Pilot is, by law and tradition, the Captain. Which is as it should be because he–it is almost always a he–has passed a series of arduous exams in order to legally guide ships through these local waters, which he knows to a level of precision an order of magnitude better than most of us know our own back yards. Right about now he is settling in, beginning the process of safely guiding fifty-plus thousand tons of ship bearing millions of dollars worth of cargo down twenty-plus miles of narrow channel, across waters congested with boats of every size and description. No pressure there.
The Pilot will stand next to the helmsman on the bridge, calling out orders Ahead slow, left full rudder, right rudder fifteen degrees, which are immediately, unfailingly obeyed. At his direction the forward drivetrain is engaged, and a deep, percussive ka-chunk that is felt as much as heard reverberates throughout the ship. The speed of the engine drops noticeably as it adjusts to the load, and a low rumble-whir joins the chorus of sounds as the massive propeller begins to spin. With every rotation, the propeller’s three blades displace hundreds of tons of seawater, and by the third law of motion the force of this displacement thrusts the giant vessel forward with a detectable rush of acceleration.
In minutes the tanker slides between the jetties lining the mouth of Aransas Pass, occupied on this windy and chilly day only by seabirds and a few hardy humans. From the vantage point of the bridge, six stories above the water, an observant person would notice the shore on both sides of the pass curving seaward to meet each jetty. He would also notice the shoreline on the south side of the Pass lying a good two hundred yards farther to sea than on the north side. Observing such a scene, an insightful person might infer, correctly, that the jetties have successfully blocked the predominantly north-flowing longshore currents, as they are meant to, which would otherwise fill the Pass with sand in a very short while.
The going is a little slower than usual as the tanker battles a swift outgoing current. Days of strong onshore winds pushed millions of tons of water through the Pass into the maze of bays, tidal channels, and estuaries that lie between the outer islands and the mainland. But the onshore wind has ceased for the time being, and with the loss of its propulsive energy the enormous fluid mass drains seaward, helped along by the gale now blowing from the opposite direction.
A mile or so into the passage comes the first significant challenge, a sharp left turn where Aransas Pass joins the Intracoastal Canal. The Intracoastal Canal is a very busy waterway, but in the world of navigation might makes right, so smaller vessels are required to yield to the larger. And if any should miss the point they will be met with a warning blast of the ship’s very loud horn.
Because of its great mass, the ship is slow to change direction, so the turn must be initiated well in advance. And with its heavy load the tanker is drafting close to forty feet, only a few feet less than the nominal depth of the channel, so the margin of error is greatly reduced. If the turn is not precisely executed the ship runs the risk of grounding, or worse, colliding with the deep-water docks on the far side of the channel. The Pilot, cool, experienced professional that he is, will betray no hint of stress during this difficult, high-stakes maneuver.
Almost immediately after completing this turn, the ship must negotiate the busy ferry crossing, which runs anywhere from two to six boats, depending on traffic, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Even though it looks like a collision waiting to happen, in actuality the Pilot has little to worry about. The ferry captains are, as he is, careful professionals, and keep a safe distance until the big ship is well past. Seeing the heavy traffic, people often wonder, quite reasonably, why a bridge has not been built to replace the ferries, not realizing that such a bridge would have to be so very tall, to accommodate the largest ships, that there would not be enough room on the Port Aransas side to provide a proper approach. You’d need a wider island.
Shortly after the ferry crossing, if the Pilot glances left, he might notice a knot of surfers gathered, inexplicably, along the eastern side of the channel. Clad in brightly colored wet suits, they slouch astride their boards, casual but alert, paddling intermittently to maintain position, casting expectant glances over their shoulders toward the big ship. The surfers knew it was coming and have been waiting for it. Because as the ship moves, its enormous bulk displaces thousands of tons of water every second, which generates a massive shock wave three or four feet high that precedes the ship and persists for as long as it is in motion. Conveniently, this wave breaks quite nicely as it strikes the shallows along the edge of the channel. The surfers see the wave coming and paddle to match its speed. Some fail to connect and fall by the wayside right away. One or two manage to catch it and struggle to their feet, only to lose their balance within moments. But there is almost always at least one who finds the groove and keeps it. A skilled surfer may ride this endless, perfect wave for miles, and some do, unconsciously mimicking, perhaps, the bottlenose dolphins that continuously leap and play in the ship’s bow wave, mere feet ahead of the giant vessel.
After a long straightaway a slight right turn redirects the tanker toward the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, twelve miles away across Corpus Christi Bay. Even though the really tricky part is past, the Pilot cannot relax just yet because the channel is quite narrow, and should the ship stray even slightly it will run hard aground in the surrounding shallow waters, which rarely reach even fifteen feet of depth. He will know he is almost home when he reaches Harbor Bridge, an elegant span arcing a hundred and forty feet above the water. If he glances up as he passes beneath it, the Pilot will see the silhouettes of cars and trucks passing like fleeting shadows over the transparent steel-mesh decking of the roadway. Immediately beyond lies the Ship Channel, seven miles of artificial waterway dredged from the muck of Nueces Bay, lined with industrial facilities and docks, one of which is this vessel’s destination.
If any of crew was thinking about going ashore, they will be sorely disappointed. Unless they are American or Canadian and have the documents to prove it they will be restricted to the area immediately around the ship, an unappealing industrial zone with few if any creature comforts. Since the attacks of 9/11 every major port facility in the United States has enacted heightened security measures. So almost alone among the nations of the world, overturning centuries of tradition, the United States no longer grants shore privileges to foreign sailors.
In a day or so, after the cargo is offloaded, the Pilot will climb back aboard. After he settles in he will direct the crew to activate the ship’s side-thrusters, which will push it gently away from the dock. With the engine at the slowest possible speed, the ship will idle up the channel for a few hundred yards until it reaches one of several turning basins, where it will execute a slow turnaround until it is pointed in the opposite direction, toward the Gulf from whence it came. Departure will be the reverse of arrival. Once the ship reaches open water, the Pilot will officially hand command of the vessel back to its Captain, a small boat will pull aside, the Pilot will take his leave, and the ship will continue onward to its next port of call, waiting somewhere over the horizon.
The fierce winds of the last few days have tapered overnight to almost nothing. The once-raging surf now laps gently, waves just barely breaking as they roll languidly ashore and dissolve into the sand with a sibilant whisper. A strip of beach a hundred feet wide, hidden yesterday beneath roiling waters, now lies exposed to the sun. The water is once again a suitable translucent green. Seabirds wheel and soar in their thousands, clamoring noisily, free once again after after days of forced grounding.
Toward dusk a ship emerges from the Pass and heads out to sea. A couple of miles beyond the jetties it finds deep water and turns to a south-by-southeast heading. The engine surges as the helmsman pushes the throttle to “full ahead,” releasing a cloud of black smoke that hangs for a time like a marker before slowly dissipating. The ship climbs to the edge of the Earth and then over it, settling little by little into the sea until only the light at the very tip of its mast is visible. It blinks once, twice, three times, and then is gone.
Recently, a small item surfaced in Google News that caught my attention. This article was about a group of scientists from Yale who had just completed what amounts to a census of the world’s trees. After several years of work involving researchers from around the world, the team came up with an estimate of just over three trillion, or about 420 trees for every living human.
By any measure that’s a lot of trees. It’s also a eight-fold increase over the previous best guess of around four hundred billion. The new estimate results from a refined method. Previous estimates were largely derived from aerial images, which turn out not to be not all that good for estimating actual numbers. So for this latest effort, scientists relied on a host of independent studies in which researchers actually went into the wild all over the world and counted trees by hand. This manual method, combined with an improved system for estimating aerial images, led to the higher number.
Of the total, about 1.39 trillion trees are estimated to grow in the tropics and sub-tropics, 0.61 trillion in temperate regions, and 0.74 trillion in the boreal regions, the high-latitude forests that circle the north polar region just below the tundra.
Experts in the field rush to point out that there are many uncertainties in this tally, however. The official estimate is on the low end of the probable range; the actual number could be anywhere from three to ten times higher. The study’s authors acknowledge that this latest effort is hardly the last word on the matter.
And we thank them for their refreshing candor. Because so often we encounter the opposite, in which experts or those who purport to speak for them deliver gravely and improbably precise projections with the assurance that there is little if any room for doubt as to their accuracy.
This finding is yet another example of the uncertainties inherent in understanding the natural world. The idea seems to have taken hold that we humans pretty much have things all figured out, that there is nothing new, there are no surprises, and so now it’s just down to hashing out fine details. And then something like this comes along and blows that certainty right out of the water.
What’s interesting about this result is that as large scientific problems go, this one is relatively straightforward and ought to generate minimal uncertainty. By definition your objectives are completely visible, they don’t move around and muck up your count, their numbers don’t change significantly over time, and their magnitude is not influenced by any other interlinked variables. It’s just a bunch of static objects spread out over a large area. How hard can it be just to count them?
Yet somehow it is. Think about it: The best efforts of capable, dedicated, highly trained individuals using the best methods available produced an estimate that overturns by a factor of eight the previous official best estimate, which was itself achieved by trained and capable individuals using the best and most current methods available. And this new figure may be in error by as much as a factor of ten, by the authors’ own admission.
Keep this in mind the next time some self-proclaimed expert body claims to be able to accurately predict, far into the future, the behavior of natural systems, for example our planet’s climate, that are vastly more complex and less well-understood.
With the passing of the autumnal equinox yesterday, the calendar officially turns from Summer to Fall, as is customary this time of year. And so even as we continue to perspire we begin to consider, faintly, the possibility, of open windows, long sleeves, and–dare we think it–sweaters and jackets.
On the strength of a cold winter followed by epic spring rainfall, experts and common folk alike had predicted a mild summer. But the climate gods had other ideas, so the summer that was supposed to happen did not. The rains, so generous in late spring, came to an abrupt halt, as though the tap had simply been turned off, and there followed many unbroken weeks of unrelenting, historic dry, which have yet to end as of this writing. By August the gains of spring had been all but erased, and we were once again fully in the grip of drought. The parched earth baked under a withering sun, and the mercury soared above a hundred for days on end.
The turn was late this year. As everyone knows, Autumn begins every year on September 21. Except that it doesn’t. Tugged this way and that by countless tendrils of gravity both slender and stout reaching to the stars and beyond, the Earth never traces twice exactly the same path in its journey about the sun. Our planet also wobbles a bit as it rotates. And so the sun stands exactly vertically above the Earth’s equator at a different measured moment every seasonal cycle. And there is something of a paradox in this because our calendars and our clocks both derive from the sun’s apparent motion, whose stubborn imprecision has caused no end of vexation for those wishing to keep close track of this thing we call “time.”
The solar zenith will cross the planet’s midline again, of course, in six months give or take a few hours, tracking in the other direction as it shuttles endlessly between twenty three point five north latitude and twenty three point five south. And as this reliable solar cycle defines the seasons, it also defines in ways both large and small the rhythms of life for this planet’s inhabitants.
Our eyes and our experience tell us that the sun moves while we stand still. It “rises” and “sets.” It crosses the sky daily, moving steadily and unerringly from one horizon to the other, always east to west. It moves yearly, climbing over the months to its apex, pausing briefly, receding to its nadir, and pausing again. But all of this motion is an illusion, albeit a very good one. Because by the implacable logic of Occam’s Razor, it is the smaller body, the Earth, that moves, and the larger, the Sun, that does not.
Illusory or not, from the human viewpoint, these cycles are themselves invariant and forever, reassuring absolutes in a world full of relative. Except that they aren’t. In the same way as a spinning top, the Earth’s rotational axis traces a wobbly circle–“precesses” in the argot of physics–completing a circuit every twenty-two thousand years or so. The change caused by this motion occurs slowly enough that it would take a half-dozen normal lifetimes laid end-to-end to even begin to notice. Nevertheless, in eleven thousand years, give or take, any humans still around will be celebrating the beginning of Fall in March. But in another eleven thousand, again give or take, this season will once again arrive at the “right” time, in the last quarter of September.
Even the familiar twenty-four hour day is a temporary arrangement. The tight gravitational bond of Earth and Moon act as a brake on the rotation of both. A billion years ago our planet spun much faster than now, completing three or four rotations in the same length of time now required to complete just one. Over the next billion or so it will continue to slow, gradually winding down until it and the moon are locked in a synchronous embrace. The moon, being a much smaller body, fulfilled its end of the deal long ago, so that from our viewpoint it has a bright side, familiar to us from its “full” phase, and a dark side, which we never, ever see fully illuminated.
Here at latitude thirty degrees, seasonal change is a subtle affair. This far south, not all that far from the tropics, the warm season dominates, lasting some years from late April to early October. And as if reluctant to depart, is almost always slow to release its grip. But change is happening, and if you pay attention, the signs of it are legion.
Well off the vertical now, the midday sun, still hot, is no longer painfully so. The mornings have lost their former enervating heaviness, and while not exactly crisp yet, are beginning to hint in that direction. The days grow rapidly shorter; today we will have two minutes less daylight than yesterday and tomorrow we will have two minutes less than today. The light now has a slanting, golden quality to it unique to this time of year. Cicadas, white noise makers of summer, have ceased their endless hypnotic droning, having either mated or died trying. Pecans and acorns are ripening, and here and there a few outliers have already fallen. Squirrels, foraging with a manic energy, are visibly putting on weight.
If Summer is a brass marching band, big and bright, loud and glorious, then Fall is a solitary woodwind: wistful with a hint of melancholy, yet so beautiful it breaks your heart. The word itself, “autumnal,” in three short syllables captures almost perfectly the piercing ambiguity of the human condition.
With the arrival of Fall we welcome and celebrate the change, revel in the colorful turning of the leaves, enjoy the rediscovered, nearly forgotten pleasure of cool air on flesh. Without quite realizing why, our step quickens and we scurry about with renewed and welcome vigor. Yet beneath it all is an insistent and vaguely troubling sense of loss, which darkens what ought to be be a time of joy. And we are not sure why.
And then we remember. We remember that Autumn is the time of slow dying, the withering away of fullness and plenty, light and life. And as the light leaves us and Winter draws near, that ancient primordial awareness, older than our species, is reawakened. Suddenly, somehow we know, without even being told, that it is time to gather, time to reap, time to prepare. Because darkness soon falls.
When a great man dies, it is as though a library has burned
I was saddened to learn of the death of Oliver Sacks, the great author and neurologist, by cancer on August 30. He was eighty-one. Saddened but not surprised, as he had been ill for some time and had rapidly weakened in recent weeks. Dr. Sacks foreshadowed his impending death with a moving and eloquent essay on the meaning of Sabbath, published in the New York Times on August 15.
Two of humanity’s greatest gifts are: the ability to reason, and the ability to empathize. As they are very nearly opposing qualities, you rarely find advanced forms of both coexisting comfortably within a single individual. Oliver Sacks was that rare exception, and this made him a uniquely compelling personality.
A doctor by trade, an author by choice, Dr. Sacks made his mark in the world of popular literature with series of fascinating, often stirring accounts of neurological oddities he had encountered in his practice. The most well-known of these, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, became an instant best-seller when it was published in 1985, and made Sacks a household name. He is also known as the inspiration for the movie Awakenings, a somewhat fictionalized version of his 1973 book of the same name.
A lesser person would simply have regarded these unusual cases as clinically interesting, but having no larger meaning. Sensing a deeper story, Dr. Sacks used them as vehicles for sensitive and insightful explorations of the human condition.
Though not without a certain scholarly quality, Sacks’ writings reveal a person who was more philosopher than clinician, as empathetic as he was analytical, and a consummate humanitarian. His wide-ranging, disarmingly unselfconscious ruminations at times have an almost metaphysical feel. In Musicophilia, one of his later works, Sacks repeatedly uses the word “ensoulment,” a term probably of his own coinage, to describe the process by which the brain comes to be fully human. It is the sort of wooly-headed sentiment that might have diminished the reputation of a scientist of lesser stature. But to his many admiring peers, this was just another example of Oliver being Oliver. Dr. Sacks was so enamored of life, which he saw as a splendid, transcendent, and unspeakably marvelous thing, that he couldn’t help the poetic digressions. He reveled in the simple fact of existence. To his way of thinking, to be a living, sentient being in the world was an extraordinary gift.
To arrive at this enlightened outlook, Sacks had to forget an awful lot of training. Neurology is the study of the brain as a biological object. Everything about it pushes the practitioner toward a coldly mechanistic view, in which the brain is simply a machine constructed from interacting parts, a biological mechanism behaving in accordance with physical principles, without mystery or deeper meaning. To the neurologist, what we call “humanity” is simply a coordinated neuronal discharge. And consciousness, that unique, amazing, and mysterious thing that only the brain does, is essentially irrelevant, as it cannot be properly quantified.
As in much of academia, there is a certain embedded rigidity in the practice of science, an institutionalized stickler mentality that reflexively frowns upon the very idea that this Very Serious Pursuit could ever be enjoyable. This face of science wears a rather grim expression and behaves as though wonder and intellectual rigor were mortal enemies. Sacks recognized this as a flawed model and rebelled against it. Rejecting the confining formality of his chosen vocation, Sacks’ writings brim with gee-whiz enthusiasm, humor, and wit.
Like most of his millions of readers, I never met Dr. Sacks. Even though in a way it felt like I had, having read several of his books, and many of his columns. Such is the nature of fame that we feel we “know” someone in the public eye because we experience their thoughts by way of their words and find some connection in them, or because we see images of them on our televisions and computers. We get a mental picture of this person we think we know, develop a profile of them, and are surprised when we find out certain things about them that do not conform to that model. We looked at Oliver Sacks and saw a burly, affable, avuncular, bearded bear of a man and assumed much based on this presentation, most of it probably wrong. When we learn about the other Oliver Sacks, the details surprise us because they do not in any way fit the profile. Who knew, for example, that he was British? or that he was gay? that he had been a top-notch athlete and a body-builder? or that he had neurological issues of his own? We would never have guessed that at one time he was a hot-dogging, tough-guy motorcyclist, or that for much of the middle part of his life he battled serious addiction. The picture emerges of a complex, flawed but highly competent, remarkably well-rounded person who wanted to absolutely do life, and was, in fact, pretty good at it.
Both as a scientist and as a good sport up for an adventure, Sacks claimed to be looking forward to death, and to appreciate the opportunity to experience it from the inside. It is tempting to think of this declaration as so much brave nonsense. But I think he really meant it, and very purposely did death with the same verve with which he did life. It isn’t hard to imagine him paying microscopically close attention as death enveloped him, noting every little detail, every unanticipated wrinkle, wryly aware of the supreme irony that the ultimate human experience, quite literally, is one that can never be shared. You imagine him gamely holding on to consciousness for as long as possible, but at the very end, surrendering gracefully.
Dr. Sacks was solidly a scientist, nominally an atheist, but enough of a natural spiritualist, I suspect, to have pondered as seriously as anyone the question that crosses all our minds at some point: Where do we go when we die? His scientist self would have been more or less obligated to respond that we don’t “go” anywhere. Rather, we stop, quite suddenly. But his spiritual self might have opined that in this magnificent universe, of which we know so very, very little, much happens that cannot be observed or measured, so who knows?
In one of his last essays, Sacks wrote of his desire to die at his country house in upstate New York, eyes fixed upon the stars. Regrettably, this did not happen. The end came a little sooner than expected, and Oliver Sacks slipped away at his apartment, in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by hastily summoned friends and loved ones, beneath a washed-out city sky.
In cinema, a major transition is commonly signaled with a fadeout. There are two types. Fade-to-black signifies an ending: This story, or at least this chapter of it, is over. Finito. Fade-to-white is more ambiguous. It isn’t really an ending, and it kind of leaves you hanging, uncertain. Something obviously happens next, but exactly what is unclear.
And when you get right down to it, this really is the ultimate question: When our time is up, do we fade to black or to white?
Well Dr. Sacks, which is it?
There was plenty of room. In fact, the whole eastern side of the island would have made a good anchorage. But the lobster boat from Yarmouth wanted that spot, right there, less than thirty feet away to port. Why was anyone’s guess. It was a much larger boat than ours, and had it swung at anchor on this windy day would have struck our little cabin cruiser and damaged it. Our host, guide, and boat captain, a voluble and good-natured forty-something by the name of Andrew, tried gamely to downplay the breathtaking display of rudeness, but his astonished expression said everything.
We had arrived maybe ten minutes earlier. Andrew had been giving us the rundown about what we were going to see and do. Our small group was just about to board the dinghy that would take us ashore when the Canadian boat pulled up. Speaking not a word, faces set in stony grimaces, the lobstermen pointedly ignored us as they went about their work, and but for their semi-hostile sidelong glances you would have thought that they didn’t even know we were there.
It’s not as though there was a language barrier. And it wasn’t as though we were in their way, either. They could have anchored anywhere else. As far as we could tell there was no good reason whatsoever for this little showdown. But the lobstermen from Yarmouth had to make a point, which you would assume was something other than “Welcome to Canada.”
Machias Seal Island is only about ten miles as the gull flies from the rugged coast of Maine, USA. The island is known for its colony of Atlantic Puffins, which in fact we are here to see. But perhaps its chief distinction is that it is the focus of an ongoing territorial dispute between the United States and Canada.
If you were to visit the place, you would almost certainly be tempted to ask “why.” Machias is less than twenty acres in size, there’s not one tree, and there is no fresh water. It’s damp, chilly, windswept, and desolate. There is no harbor and only one tiny inlet where a small boat can land. You could walk the length of it in probably four minutes, the width in a lot less. Other than a couple of seriously weathered buildings and a lighthouse, there’s no real estate. Nobody lives there permanently. A pair of lighthouse keepers, flown in by helicopter from Saint John, trade four-week shifts.
Inconsequential as it is, though, Machias Seal Island has somehow become a source of contention between the two neighboring countries and one of the very few strains in an otherwise remarkably cordial relationship. It is not, as territorial disputes go, a particularly acrid case. The US claim on Machias is not pressed all that strenuously, and no official American presence is maintained there. And if the US were to renounce its claim, as it probably will someday, few would notice and fewer still would care.
As with most disputes, there are tangible interests at stake, in this case access to the valuable lobster fisheries surrounding the island. But you get the sense that this justification is kind of a red herring because the entire Gulf of Maine is a pretty good fishery and the waters around Machias are nothing special. Even though no one can remember anymore how the dispute began, it has lately taken on a life of its own, and in such cases practical considerations take a back seat to emotional ones.
From the living room of the house we are renting in Eastport, Maine, you can see a lot more of Canada than of the United States. Which is not surprising considering that the imaginary line between them lies a very short distance away, running up the middle of West Passage, of which we have a commanding view. The panorama also includes Deer Island and Indian Island right across the Passage, Passamoquoddy Bay to the northwest, and Campobello Island to the northeast. About fifteen miles away, just a shade to the right of due north, lie Black’s Harbour and Back Bay, on the Canadian mainland. The view from the widows’ walk out back is even better; you can actually see over Campobello to the Bay of Fundy beyond. Through binoculars I spy the mammoth car ferries making the run from Black’s Harbour to Grand Manan Island and back, every other hour, on the hour. And if the day happens to be clear and the light just right, you can make out, just barely, the coastline of Nova Scotia some sixty miles distant.
From here, the other side looks a whole lot like this one. Same landscape, same vegetation, same everything. A flagpole bears a different-looking standard than the one flown on this side, but the people wandering about beneath look just like you and me. The parking lot of the little campground across the way teems with Chevys and Fords and Dodges and GMCs. If you were somehow dropped over there without warning, it might actually take you a little while to figure out that you weren’t in Kansas anymore. You’d probably know something was up when you heard your first “a-boat.” Or saw signs reading “Centre,” kilometre,” “Queen’s” this, or “Royal” that.
In fact nobody seems all that exercised about the bright, invisible line running nearby. The wildlife ignores it. Boats cross it right and left at will. In downtown Eastport there is a Coast Guard facility standing ready to defend with a couple of fast watercraft, but the boats rarely leave port. The young men who staff the place seem pretty relaxed, and go about their duties with minimal urgency, apparently unconcerned. A sign at water’s edge says “Persons entering from Canada must report to Customs.” But there are no directions to the Customs Office, a couple blocks away, which is sparely staffed and closes early and on weekends.
The concept of “border,” in the sense of a division between contrasting domains, doesn’t really describe what you find here. Whatever gradation exists across the invisible boundary is so slight as to be effectively nonexistent. There is no contrast to speak of, hence no tension. There are innumerable connections of shared blood and history spanning the line as well, blurring it even further. Around here, the border has approximately same meaning as the fence that separates your yard from a neighbor’s. It is not in any real way a barrier, simply a marker: This side is mine, that side is yours. And everyone seems fine with it.
Invisible or not, when you cross the line you notice a pretty sharp contrast in the way you are greeted, depending on which way you happen to be heading. Likely as not, the person who officially welcomes you to Canada will be female, middle-aged and matronly. She will be dressed in a uniform that looks like it could have been borrowed from a park ranger. She will be unarmed. She will remain a respectful distance away, seated in her glass booth. She will be alone, with no backup lingering imposingly nearby. She will ask you a brief series of routine questions, smiling as she does so. She will take your passport but hand it back in just a few seconds, never letting it leave your sight. She will chat affably with you if you choose to engage her. And then she will send you on your way with a friendly wave.
Coming back, you get a very different reception. You will be greeted by a young male in what looks like military garb. He will be well-armed with handgun, baton, and taser. Some kind of armored vehicle will be parked close by. The young man will wear mirrored sunglasses and a stern, no-nonsense expression. He will emerge from his booth to stand inches away from you, and look you over in a manner clearly intended to intimidate. In a tone of voice that could never be confused with friendly he will instruct you to place the transmission in “Park” and turn off the engine. He will snatch your passport with a brusqueness that makes you wonder if you are going to get it back. Returning to his booth, the young uniformed man will peer intently at a computer screen, his face the very picture of vigilant concentration. After an unnervingly long delay, he will return to ask you a series of pointed questions about your activities. He will want details: where and when you went, what you did, why you did. When, to defuse the tension, you make a joke, and a pretty good one at that, he will not smile or laugh. After a lingering, wordless stare, he will return your passport and say, with unwitting irony, “Welcome home.”
You get the impression that in many ways the United States and its neighbor to the north are like siblings who went separate ways early in life. One sibling, traditional, patient, respectful of authority, decided not to rock a pretty solid boat. This sibling chose a gentle and civilized path, letting the slow drift of history carry it naturally away from the parent, much-honored and fondly remembered. The other sibling, impatient, rebellious, fast-living, more passionate than sensible, chose to roughly cast off its velvet yoke so that it could be “free,” whatever that meant. Free to make its way, alone and unaided, confined to the margins of a hostile and little-known continent, with few resources and fewer prospects.
Having far more luck than sense, by improbably good fortune the rebellious sibling came to outshine the complacent one for a good long while. It became prosperous, then rich. It accomplished much and symbolized much more. For a time, it was quite something. The rebellious sibling has not aged well, though, and its fortunes have faded as its many vices begin to exact their toll. And the complacent one, bland, steady, and unremarkable by comparison, now fares better by most measures, being markedly freer, prosperous but sustainably so, and socially healthier.
If you come to Eastport from any American city, you notice as soon as you step from your vehicle that something is missing, though it takes you a few seconds to put your finger on it. Ears accustomed to constant background noise find the omnipresent silence at first confusing, then fascinating, and finally luxuriant. If you are like most people, the place where you come from there are so many sounds, all the time, that they just kind of merge into a continuous, meaningless babble. But this place is different. You find yourself scanning hard for familiar sounds, and sure enough you catch them, faintly. A dog barks many blocks away, a car door closes somewhere over yonder, a snatch of conversation drifts by from down the lane.
For a few seconds you hear another sound, barely audible yet familiar, which seems to come from everywhere, and you look up to see a jet aircraft, a speck in the blue vastness, cruising high above on a northeast-bearing track that will carry it across the water. In five minutes it will be over Nova Scotia, across the Bay of Fundy. In fifteen it will be over the open Atlantic. Seven or eight hours from now it will touch down a quarter of the planet’s circumference away, and it’s passengers will emerge, blinking, into an early afternoon that feels to them like dawn. Gazing from one horizon to its opposite, you can see that this plane is but one in a steady stratospheric procession passing, inaudible and nearly invisible, high overhead, contrails overlapping briefly before dissipating.
Something else you hear, so rare where you come from that you had all but forgotten it, is the sound of children in unscripted outdoor play, making it up as they go along. Later, when you actually see it, you notice that no adult hovers watchfully nearby. Though it takes only a few seconds to come to your senses, the initial, conditioned, reaction to this very wholesome thing is momentary concern.
It takes no time at all to get used to the new sonic reality. You notice yourself listening more, talking less. And when you do speak it is with your “inside” voice, wherever you happen to be. Not once do you hear a car horn, a blaring stereo, voices shouting. When one afternoon a car alarm goes off suddenly it is like a rifle shot. Every head turns in the direction of the sound. The owner rushes to silence the blaring contraption, flustered and embarrassed. You are momentarily annoyed, but relent when you realize that the offending party is probably mortified, and will almost certainly not make that mistake again. You notice that this quiet place has affected you much more deeply than you would ever have imagined. You arrived here tense, harried, and irritable, the walking, talking definition of “stress.” But by the time you leave, Webster’s will have to put a picture of someone else next to that entry.
Since we were last here a new cell tower has been installed on Moose Island, so the phone service is actually not bad now. I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I really hated to be out of contact, but on the other hand it was a novel, welcome kind of liberation to be free of that distracting damnable device for a while, even if involuntarily. I notice, though, that few take advantage of the improved coverage. Cell phones are used only sparingly, they sound off hardly at all, and they remain mostly tucked out of sight. And everywhere we are treated to the spectacle of people actually socializing and enjoying it, not staring intently at little electronic screens, as is the norm where we come from.
There are basically two schools of thought about vacations. One holds that the purpose of a holiday is to pack as much activity as possible into your limited time. Which leads to such absurdities as the one-week excursion to Europe or Southeast Asia that has you dashing from country to country, lingering nowhere for more than a few hours. And from which you return exhausted and disoriented, head swimming with fragmentary, disconnected recollections. Only young people and Americans do this sort of thing. People of a certain age mostly hew to the other school of thought, which maintains that the purpose of holidays is to relax, and that it is perfectly OK to do little or nothing in service of this goal. Eastport happens to be a most excellent place to do very little, and for this reason I hold it in especially high regard.
Not that it is a boring place. There is much to hold your interest here if you are willing to embrace an alternate frame of reference. It is blueberry season, and even a short walk in the woods will provide you with all you can carry of the tiny, syrupy-sweet fruit. The spectacularly large, world-class tides, truly a force of nature, are endlessly fascinating. It is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with a dizzying array of species both terrestrial and aquatic wherever you look. The place is made for hikers and bikers, with quiet streets winding through quaintly pretty neighborhoods, scenic back-country lanes, and many wooded trails. The nearby waters have plentiful populations of porpoises and seals and pilot whales and, frequently, humpbacks, and if you are patient and observant, you can almost always spot some swimming about. There is a steady flow of visitors to the small but appealing downtown district down on the waterfront, which makes for good people-watching, if you don’t happen to mind boring old white folks, that is.
Demographically speaking, this part of the world is pretty dull, a more or less homogeneous monoculture of Caucasians of middling means, skewed a bit older than the norm. It is the opposite of diverse and I am perfectly OK with that. I am at a point in life–naturally I hesitate to say “old”–where I crave the familiar, the predictable, the compatible. And this place and these people are all of that. Though it would curl the hair of many a good liberal to hear it, I have come lately to the conclusion that diversity, in the demographic sense, is very much overrated. Frankly, I find the current national fixation with it to be tediously pretentious and appallingly naive. Diversity is like cilantro, excellent in small doses but ruinous when overdone. Too much diversity and you have Babel. Probably the worst thing you could say about this place and its un-diverse people is that it and they are bland. But to these aging eyes bland is beautiful.
After a day or two here, you notice another demographic wrinkle. Although Eastport is crawling with apparently single women, most of them on the shady side of fifty, other than a few tourists there appear to be hardly any men. I see these women in abundance on my daily walks, strolling alone or in pairs, with nary a male in tow. They are hard to miss because they practically throw themselves at you in their friendliness. Restaurants, shops, and businesses are likewise uniformly bereft of the masculine gender, even the hardware store, that stalwart bastion of the endangered male.
I evaluate a range of possible explanations for this odd phenomenon. I consider the possibility that some kind of black widow cult might have set up shop here, and the men have all been lured to grisly deaths. This theory initially looks quite promising because stylistically, at least, it makes perfect sense. You could hardly find a better locale for such an enterprise, what with the dramatic seaside setting and Gothic feel of the place–eerie fogs, storms, crashy waves, all of that. But disposing of bodies is hard, grubby work of the sort women sensibly avoid, so for that reason I must reject this scenario as unlikely. I consider further that perhaps an androcidal plague has recently ravaged Moose Island. This would also explain things. But I must ultimately discard this theory as well on the grounds that such a unique calamity would probably have generated headlines. Which leaves me to reach, reluctantly, the disappointingly mundane conclusion that women simply like this place, while men, by and large, do not. And with a little reflection you can see the logic of it: Eastport is a very quiet, very safe, very pretty place with a strong sense of community, which are all qualities that appeal strongly to women. Plus, real estate is extremely cheap and the cost of living is low. If you can get past the harsh winters, and somehow make a living, it’s not a bad deal at all. Although most men would be bored to tears here, it’s easy to see Eastport as as a nearly perfect place for a recently divorced or widowed woman on a budget to get a fresh start.
This year, for some reason, jellyfish are especially abundant in the coastal waters. Predictably, some blame global warming, but the water is a chilly as it ever is this time of year, so you are tempted to chalk it up instead to natural fluctuation. These jellyfish, oddly beautiful, move with captivating grace, their bell-shaped, nearly transparent bodies beating like slow-motion wings as waves of contraction and release ripple rhythmically through them. When the light strikes just right, their inner parts shine with brilliantly iridescent rainbow hues, as though illuminated from within. The coastal waters also teem with Siphonophores, strange and primordial-looking, like strands of protoplasmic twine. They drift everywhere with the current, twisting this way and that as they float by. Resembling no living thing you have ever seen before, these primitive creatures strike you as bizarrely anachronistic, Precambrian oddities completely out of place in this biologic era of complex body plans and large brains. And it occurs to you to wonder if perhaps nature, in some little-understood way, keeps such simple organisms around for a reason.
When you tell people you are going to Maine, there is always at least one wise guy who asks, comically, if you are “going to Bang-uh or Baah Haabbah to eat Lahb-stuh?” And playing along, you answer with something like “A-yup; gonna pahk mah caah right they-uh on Baah Haabbah squay-uh.” And everybody has a good yuk. So it is a little disappointing to find that most Mainers don’t really talk like that. You are tempted to blame the homogenizing influence of television. There are exceptions, of course, and after a while you detect a pattern. The hardworking fiftyish redheaded waitress at the local diner, the plumber who comes to swap out your pressure tank, and the weather-beaten fellow behind the counter at the bait shack all sound like they could have been sent over by Central Casting. But the banker, the shopkeeper who doubles as the mayor, and lady who runs that new, sort-of upscale restaurant downtown–native Mainers all–speak as though they might have hailed from Anytown, USA.
The big excitement of the week is the long-awaited unveiling of the new mermaid statue down on the waterfront. She is is most definitely not your storybook mermaid, all stylized features and strategically placed hair. And she is anything but demure, sporting a modern hairdo, a saucy, come-hither expression, and lifelike breasts. Very lifelike breasts. Water must be cold. There is a definite split in the receptiveness of the population to this, um, naturalistic, rendering, mostly along gender lines. Men flock to her, and strike funny, cheeky poses. Women mostly look mildly uncomfortable, swallow hard, and mutter to themselves. Oh dear.
This time of year, Moose Island is a riot of floral color. Every house and shop, it seems, has a well-tended garden. Even as a non-gardener, you envy the sheer profusion of brilliantly colored blossoms, which outclass what you see back home in every possible way. It is like a chromatic exclamation point emphasizing the transient, perishable beauty of the summer season. A timely reminder, because even though it is only the first week of August, you can already detect the first faint harbingers of seasonal change, inevitable and implacable. A month hence, these many bright blossoms will be a fading memory. Three months from now the vibrant hues of summer will all have drained away and a chill north wind will whistle through bare branches. Six months from now the land will sleep, silent and still, beneath a deep blanket of white.
The fields, meadows, and roadsides are also flush with wildflowers of every natural hue. One variety catches my eye because it is like a scaled-up version of the familiar bluebonnets of home, to which it is clearly related. These wild lupines are at their peak now, forming picturesque, waist-high stands that sometimes cover many acres. Each individual plant is graced with dozens of delicately variegated bluish-reddish blossoms, arranged in ascending, symmetric, serried ranks around the central stem. The blossoms ripen from the bottom up so that the flower tapers upward and resembles, sometimes strikingly so, a vividly colored Christmas tree. The very top, if still green, bends a little like a finger crooked. The low spots along roadways are the favored habitat of irises and lilies offering orange and yellow counterpoints. Asters and daisies and phlox are scattered abundantly throughout, following no identifiable plan.
Wild roses grow all over the place, forming, wherever unattended, thick hedges that double as fences. There are two varieties of these, a red one–the more common–and a white. The blossoms of these wild roses are like half-scale miniatures of the domesticated variety you might give your sweetheart for her birthday or on Valentine’s Day. But what the blossoms lack in size they make up in sheer numbers; a good-sized bush may have hundreds. There is a substantial rosebush in the front yard of our rental house. Its blossoms, white this summer, were red two years ago, and I wonder what has happened to trigger the change–too little rainfall, too much, a minute change in the chemistry of the soil, an especially mild or cold winter. I clamp my hand around a blossom to draw it closer for a good sniff, only to recoil instantly in pain. Thinking at first that I might have been stung by a bee, such was the pain, I peer very carefully closer, only to see that every square centimeter of every branch is covered with a dense forest of formidably sharp spines.
By Americans standards, Eastport is an old town. There was a small but permanent settlement here by around 1770. Things picked up over the years, and by the late 19th century, Eastport was a happening place. The year 1887 must have been the high-water mark, you realize, because so many of the buildings downtown display it, emphatically incised into stone in numbers two feet high. But it has been pretty much all downhill since then. First the fishing boats sailed away one by one, then the canneries closed, finally the once-busy port ceased operating altogether. All that remains of the boom years is the faint lingering scent of faded glory. Today, the population has dwindled to a little over a thousand, a tenth what it once was.
In many ways this place seems frozen in time. Almost every building here dates to the 19th century. Most are kept up with pride, but you see a lot of slippage, too. Many could use a good coat of paint, some a bit more than that. More than a few are in pretty sad shape, their aging or infirm or apathetic occupants having long ago given up. Across the street and down a little from our rented house is a once-stately three-story Victorian, now abandoned. It stands forlorn and forgotten, gaping holes in the roof, every window broken, visibly sagging in the middle, an eyesore or a poignant symbol of loss depending on your mood. A faded “For Sale” sign stands out front, nearly invisible in the tall grass. Dozens of people must have called this place home over the years, and it occurs to me to wonder if even a single one of them is left to care.
We aren’t going to make it in time; I’m sure of it. Departure time crept up on us, it took longer to get going than it should have, and now we are running seriously behind. The convoy departs at eight am, sharp, we have been informed, and we are further advised to be at least 30 minutes early. This is a problem because it is already seven thirty-five, we still have another few miles to go, and we know only the approximate location of our destination, a parking lot on the grounds of Tularosa High School. Missing this window will be a real problem, and will force a lengthy, time-consuming detour.
Luckily, there are signs pointing the way, and at seven forty-one we arrive, finally, at the rendezvous point. At the entrance to the parking lot we bear right and come to a halt in front of a pair of bright young volunteers, who proffer pamphlets and helpfully point us in the right direction. Moments later, another volunteer guides us into position in the middle of a rapidly growing line of vehicles. Within seconds, an SUV has pulled in behind us, and more vehicles quickly follow. Fully expecting to be late, I had pushed it hard the last few miles, hoping not to be the last through the gate. But such haste turns out to have been unnecessary. Although a couple of hundred have already arrived, another couple hundred will follow, and we are safely in the middle of the pack.
The local Kiwanis Club has set up a booth selling coffee and snacks, and business is brisk. With a few minutes to kill, people emerge from their vehicles and roam about, stretching their legs, scoping out the growing throng. The mood is pretty buoyant overall, as though some lighthearted outing is in the offing. Which seems a little odd, in my mind at least, because this is a serious thing we are about to do. Along with everyone else, my two companions and I have come, on the one day of the year our government allows, to visit the Trinity Site, location of the world’s first nuclear detonation, on July 16, 1945.
Our emotions are mixed about this. On the one hand we are delighted to be in this place of stunning vistas and magical light, having driven up from Austin two days before. And going to this exotic place in the middle of nowhere is certainly an adventure. But there are dark undertones. For my companions and I this isn’t a lark. We aren’t here as thrill seekers. We are very clear on the historical significance of Trinity, and respect its powerful symbolism. Each of us knows that at this place, on that day, the hinge of history irrevocably turned, and the world would never again be the same.
The official website for all things Trinity informs you, in a paragraph dotted with all caps for emphasis, that to get onto the White Sands Missile Range you must have a valid picture ID, proof of insurance, and plenty of gas. Roving volunteers repeat this to you in person as you wait in line. This puts me in a rather worried frame of mind. The gas and the ID are no problem, but the insurance part might just be a deal breaker because the car is a rental and there’s no indemnity card. I begin mentally rehearsing the argument I will use should this become an issue. There turns out to be plenty of slack, though, as only one of our trio is queried, and she not all that closely. And so I tuck the rental contract safely away, stow the driver license, and take a few deep breaths to drop my blood pressure back into the normal range again.
Men in uniform walk the lines of vehicles, handing each driver a numbered pass printed on bright pink paper, to be placed on the dash. Eight o’clock blows by, then eight-fifteen, without a flicker of urgency. Finally, at about eight twenty-five, there is a stirring at the far end of the parking lot, and the exodus begins. Led by an official escort, the mass of vehicles unravels from right to left, one line at a time, and heads out of the parking lot toward White Sands Missile Range.
As we exit the parking lot, we pass through a knot of of protesters lining both sides of the road. There were rumors that some kind of group with a grievance would be here, so this is not a surprise. They hold crudely hand-lettered signs lamenting loss of land, loss of health, general unjust treatment at the hands of the government. “Trinity failed us,” reads one such banner. You expect them to be angry, but mostly they wear pleading, downtrodden expressions. They are, literally, a sad-looking lot. Please listen to us, they seem to be saying, striving to make eye contact as we hurry past.
We turn right, onto a country lane leading out of town. Perhaps we are behind schedule, as our escort quickly accelerates to around twice the posted speed limit, his drawn-out entourage struggling to keep pace close behind. In only a couple of minutes we are at the gate. Every car slows to to the speed of a fast walk to allow the sentry to check off, one by one, each pink pass as it goes by.
The phrase “Missile Range” conjures up some pretty exotic imagery, but the transition is completely unmemorable. As it turns out, White Sands Missile Range looks pretty much like the rest of the country hereabouts. The vegetation is sparse, the land gently rolling, the scenery unremarkable in every way but for its sheer emptiness. Facilities are very few, judging from the signage, and very far between. Not one vehicle passes us going the other direction. Good place to put a missile range, you think.
At one point a line of dunes become visible low on the horizon some miles away to the southwest, glowing brilliant white in the sun, and you understand suddenly how this place got its name. For a mile or two, stray drifts of the sugar-white, powdery stuff dot the landscape close by. Every so often you pass a forlorn-looking collection of nondescript buildings, their locations marked by acronyms or cryptic milspeak shorthand. A few familiar terms pop out: “test bed,” “proving ground,” “firing range.” But the rest of it might as well be written in a foreign tongue. Secret facility or not, it is a pretty dull scene, and the romance fades quickly.
A few miles in, the convoy comes to an unexplained halt. Five, ten, fifteen minutes go by without any forward movement. Looking up and down the line of cars you can see drivers and passengers alike getting fidgety, their body language broadcasting impatience. Although we have been warned, albeit not all that sternly, against either taking pictures or exiting our vehicles along the route to the Trinity site, plenty of both begins to happen after about twenty minutes of unexplained stoppage. People clamber onto the roofs of their vehicles and peer into the distance, hoping to spot whatever is causing the delay. Vainly, as the head of the convoy is invisible, somewhere beyond a gentle rise maybe a mile ahead.
After about thirty minutes, the convoy once again resumes moving without explanation, and soon the miles are ticking rapidly by. Ignoring the posted limit of fifty-five, our convoy settles in at around seventy, with occasional spikes up to eighty or so. Cresting a rise at one point, we are able to see the entire parade, stretching a couple of miles or more ahead and a like distance behind.
White Sands Missile Range comprises a rough rectangle, thirty to forty-five miles wide and about a hundred and fifty miles from top to bottom, a little left of center in the southern part of New Mexico. The terrain is mostly classic Chihuahan desert throughout, cobbly hardpan crowned by a veneer of creosote bush, sagebrush, and ocotillo. The desolation is broken here and there by lonely mountains with names you’ve never heard: Oscura, Silver Top, Skillet Knob, Hardscrabble, Big Gyp. Apparently the Department of Defense would just as soon keep it that way.
If you’ve ever used Google Earth, you have probably noticed the photographs that appear as if by magic along the bottom of the screen. It’s a feature Google calls, sensibly, Tour Guide. Wherever you go, you are guaranteed a steady stream of relevant photos submitted by users. The selection of photos depends, more or less, on the center of your field of view, and as you scroll across the landscape, the selection changes to match the terrain. In preparing for this trip I decided to review the route we would take through the Missile Range itself. On a moderately close-up view, as you scroll east to west you have the usual parade of images, right up edge of the Range. And then nothing. The last image is of the West Gate itself. Fortunately, the aerial views remained unimpeded. So I was easily able to deduce the route we were likely to take.
After an unimpressive start, about halfway to Trinity the backdrop shifts into scenic mode as a series of lonely mesas and rugged mountains pass into and out of view. The vista stretches for miles in every direction, and you have the sense of being at the exact center of a vast space lacking precise borders. At times you can see easily a hundred miles or more into the distance.
Immersed in so much emptiness, it is natural to feel alone and exposed, so the company of all these strangers is welcome. You realize how lucky you are to be safely ensconced in your speeding conveyance of glass and steel, accompanied by many others. Were you by yourself and your vehicle were suddenly to cease operation it could be a cause for serious worry. You imagine how forbidding this terrain must have been to travelers of a couple of centuries ago, who would have known this place as el Jornada del muerto–Dead Man’s Journey–a name derived from the fate that often awaited those who did not carry enough water.
The convoy slows to a crawl as its leading edge nears the Trinity site. We are not the only ones here. In the distance you can see a steady stream of vehicles incoming from the Mustang Gate, on the far north end of the Range. The turnout is impressively large, especially given the remoteness of the location, and the spacious parking lot is filled almost to capacity. At any given moment, there appear to be at least a couple of thousand people in attendance.
The gravel parking lot is a maze of cars, buses, RVs, and meandering pedestrians, but there is not even a moment of confusion. With brisk, military efficiency, a series of fatigues-clad young men guide you through the labyrinth. There are no decisions to make as each specialist unambiguously directs you another, who does the same, until at last you are handed off to the young man who guides you into your parking space, which turns out to be pretty tight on account of the large crowds. So for a moment this fellow necessarily has your full attention Keep coming keep coming a little to the left keep coming STOP! before turning abruptly to the next vehicle in line. It is impressively well-organized, and flows so smoothly that you experience a surge of respect for whoever it is that happens to be in charge of it. If this were a combat operation, that person would probably earn a medal. But it isn’t, and so he probably won’t.
Trinity is, by any objective measure, a memorial, and hence, in theory at least, a place for solemn behavior. Although no one died at Trinity, the place and the thing that happened there are massively symbolic. The Atomic Age, that twin-edged sword of golden promise and instant Armageddon, began right here, in a single blinding moment. Trinity’s successful execution gave the green light to the bombing of Nagasaki, which killed tens of thousands and left tens of thousands more with grievous, gruesome injuries. Everybody remembers Hiroshima, but the bombing of Nagasaki was arguably the more important event. It is generally agreed that Nagasaki was the final devastating blow that pushed a tottering but suicidally resolute nation over the edge, into the abyss of once-inconceivable surrender. And with the Japanese surrender, World War II, the single most destructive event in human history, came mercifully to an end. With this much history surrounding it, Trinity ought to inspire respect, hushed voices, reverent manners, quiet reflection.
Or so you would think. But the cognitive dissonance begins before you even get out of your car because little such decorum is on display. The prevailing behavioral protocol seems more like what you might expect of a visit to Vegas, or perhaps the Jungle Room at Graceland. People are laughing and joking, cutting up, carrying on, acting out. A few stroll about sporting kitschy fake alien antennas with jiggling eyes on the ends. A few others wear costumes, as though play-acting some scenario. Out-of-control kids race about, screaming. A group of coeds, incongruous and bored-looking, hold exaggerated fake smiles for a few seconds as they pose for a group photo in front of Jumbo, an enormous steel vessel built to contain the bomb but never actually used. All over the place people yell loudly into cellphones, attempting to compensate for poor reception. A line fifteen deep forms to the t-shirt kiosk, which is doing a banner business. Vendors hawk sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps, books, trinkets. I immediately lose sight of my companions in the throng.
At least the weather is cooperating, though. The sun has disappeared behind a wall of low, gray cloud, and a chilly gale-force wind howls out of the the southeast, imparting the requisite somber and desolate feel. As the wind whips across the desert, it picks up much dust along with small broken pieces of vegetation, and after a time my fleece jacket looks as though I have rolled around on the ground. A few sensitive types cover their mouth and nose with mufflers or scarves, giving them a Bedouin look.
A number of journalists conspicuously roam the grounds, hunting for stories, one eye on deadline. Some, obviously pushing the “character” angle, interview every offbeat-looking person they can find. Others go the conventional route, and pick thoughtful-looking attendees as interview subjects. The young ladies who accompany me on this excursion have chosen to carry out a private, personal healing ritual, and they immediately draw the attention of a reporter from the New York Times, who reveals though his line of questioning that he is working the “flake” angle. This irritates my companions very much, and they spend the next half-hour impatiently explaining themselves.
There are also several film crews, including at least one from Japan. The Japanese crew is not happy. They look bewildered, hurt, maybe even a little angry. And honestly, I can’t blame them. Were I in their shoes I would take the appalling lack of manners very personally. We lost the war to THIS? I imagine them thinking. The crew appears to consist of a camera operator, a sound man, two on-screen presenters, and a fixer. The fixer speaks good English, and for a few minutes I shadow him, trying to engineer an encounter that would allow me to convey my apologies. In this I am unsuccessful, and so I mutter an unheard sorry-about-that as they load up and depart.
There are, however, at least a couple of groups who do not share in the general amusement. A substantial number of Pacific War veterans are in attendance. To a man they do not smile or laugh. They stare fixedly toward the memorial and move with purpose. Many are too frail to walk the short distance to the monument and are ferried by golf carts provided by the organizers. This being the seventieth anniversary, even the youngest would have to be nearing ninety. This is their last hurrah, and they know it. It occurs to me that these men are probably here to pay their respects, a right and proper thing given that were it not for Trinity, many of them would not be alive.
There is also a sizable contingent of Japanese visitors, including a number of elderly persons bearing visible burn scars. I half-expect an ugly confrontation between the two groups, but no such unpleasantness occurs. At one point I see a young Japanese man spontaneously offer a helping hand to a veteran slowly and painfully making his way. There is surprise, a moment of hesitation, then acceptance.
People are often disappointed to find that there is no crater at Trinity. They come expecting a ruined wasteland and instead find a place that is almost indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. But if you step back a bit and view the site from just the right angle, you can actually see the imprint of the explosion. Because the bomb was detonated on a 100-foot tower, the impact of the blast was blunted by the cushion of air surrounding the fireball. Even so, the enormous force of the blast compressed the ground beneath by as much as ten feet, leaving a clear indentation, in the same way that a block of wood bears the imprint of a hammer blow. The indentation was partially filled in in the 1950s for reasons nobody can remember anymore, but the imprint remains.
The first observers to arrive at Ground Zero after the blast rode in special tanks lined with lead to protect them from the intense radioactivity. The observers were astounded to find that the ground was paved with a strange green glassy-looking material. Trinitite, as it came to be called, was formed from the fusing of desert sand and soil by the intense heat of the explosion. After years of unregulated collecting, the government banned the further removal of trinitite in the early 1970s. Over the years, erosion and renegade souvenir hunters have buried or removed much of what remained. But if you pay attention, you can still find plenty of it, hiding in plain sight. Everybody looks for it and few are disappointed.
Websites and pamphlets all warn you that removing trinitite is a federal offense, and this is reinforced by signs posted at prominent locations throughout the site. Yet few seem concerned. All over the place, you see people picking up pieces, inspecting them, passing them around. Testing the boundaries, I pointedly pick up a few pieces and openly carry them about to see if it draws an official reaction. It does not, and I conclude that the warnings are probably just for effect. But after a few minutes of internal debate, I decide not to pocket my pieces after all, and unceremoniously toss them back onto the ground for someone else to find.
Despite official assurances that Trinity is safe, people often express concerns about radioactivity, concerns hardly allayed by the ominous-looking signs at the entrance to the site. But in reality very little radiation remains. Dozens of radioactive compounds were generated by the blast, but most were very unstable forms that decayed in seconds or minutes, quickly reduced to irrelevance by the inexorable law of the half life. What little plutonium survived the blast was vaporized, scattered to negligible thinness over many square miles, and further dispersed or buried by erosion. Trinitite is still slightly radioactive and will activate a hand-held detector placed close by. But it, too, fades slowly away, surrendering year by year to sun and wind and rain, returning to the soil from whence it came.
The heart of the the Trinity site lies about a quarter-mile walk from the parking lot, between low fences labeled, every fifty feet or so, Keep Out. Not that there is any serious temptation to stray, as the land beyond the fence is desolate and uninviting. A high fence encloses the site, forming a circle perhaps 200 yards across, the dimensions, more or less, of the fireball created by the explosion. It is, overall, a very austere place, with little to engage the eye.
At the exact center of the circle stands a simple stone obelisk marking Ground Zero, the point directly beneath the bomb when it was detonated, atop the hundred-foot tower built specifically for the test. All that remains of this tower is a small piece of one of the four concrete and steel footings that supported it; the rest was vaporized in the explosion. A low steel railing, rusted with years of exposure to the elements, surrounds this remnant. It is there as much to keep the unwary from tripping over the footing, one suspects, as to protect the footing itself. It seems to be obligatory to inspect this otherwise unremarkable hunk of rubble, and pretty much everyone does, myself included. Presently, I feel the urge to reach out and touch it. This seems like a violation, somehow, and I notice that no one else is doing it. But there is no sign that says Don’t, so I do. Tentatively at first, as though afraid of what might occur, and then with firmness, I touch the rough concrete and inch-thick rebar, which has been cut close but still bears unmistakable signs of having been bent by a titanic force.
The act of making contact with this remnant of history brings forth an unexpected surge of emotion. And for a moment I fully appreciate the pressure that every single participant must have felt that summer, seventy short years ago. It must have seemed to them as though the fate of the world hung in the balance. And in a way it did. A successful test raised dramatically the odds that Japan would surrender, and that the years-long bloodbath would be over. A failure would likely have meant that the war would have to be carried to the Japanese mainland, all but ensuring the death of a million or more Americans and many, many millions of Japanese. And setting the stage for a very different post-war world.
Along with everyone else, I pause to study the obelisk marking Ground Zero. It is simple and austere, an elongated pyramid of dark volcanic rock bearing the legend:
Where the world’s first nuclear device was exploded
July 16, 1945
The starkness of this setting seems to have a calming effect, and for a few moments, at least, the crowd is mostly subdued. Nevertheless, few can resist the impulse to pose for a picture with the obelisk. Photographing it by itself turns out to be a waiting game, and a good ten minutes passes before there is a momentary break in the parade of grinning tourists snapping selfies.
Considering what happened here that day gives me an involuntary shudder. You cannot help but imagine the indescribably violent event. In an instant, an unremarkable hunk of dull gray trans-uranic metal the size of a softball was transformed into a seething plasma hotter than the center of the sun, so violently energetic that anything it touched would have been instantly disaggregated into its constituent atoms. For a moment blazed a light of astronomically rare brilliance, never before seen on this planet. You imagine the Universe sitting up and taking notice, flinching a little at this sudden and unexpected release of primordial energy in a formerly quiet sector. At the moment of the explosion, J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the Father of the Bomb, is supposed to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, shatterer of worlds.” I choose a less erudite selection for my imagined reenactment, recalling instead the fictional words of Obi Wan Kenobi: “I feel a great disturbance in the Force.”
A short shuttle bus ride from the parking lot is the Johnson family ranch house, which served as headquarters for the Trinity project after its inhabitants were sent packing. Except for some minor maintenance, the house has been left exactly as it was when the last workers departed. In the days leading up to the test the house also served as an impromptu clean room for the final assembly of the bomb’s plutonium core, a fact driven home by the sign reading “Plutonium Assembly Room” which still hangs, helpfully, in the middle of the front room. Along every wall of the tiny room, maybe fifteen by fifteen, are wooden benches where the dicey, delicate work was carried out. A series of rare, once-classified photos hanging above the workbenches document the process. To reduce the threat of contamination by ever-present dust, the doors and windows were shut tight and every crack and seam in the house was completely sealed, and so the house became unbearably hot in the intense summer sun.
It occurs to me that every principal in the Manhattan Project must have passed through these doors in the days leading up to the test. Oppenheimer, Groves, Szilard, von Neumann, Teller. They were all here. It is a weird and unsettling experience to be in a place of so much concentrated history, and the hairs on the back of my neck involuntarily stand up at the eeriness of it. It is almost as though the energy of those who stood at this juncture of history somehow lingers. I notice the younger of my two companions wearing what might almost qualify as a stricken look, which concerns me a little because after knowing her only two days I have developed quite a crush. She says “I swear I can feel their presence.” Which might ordinarily strike me as kind of flaky, except it happens to be exactly what I am also thinking.
Trinity was the fruit of the Manhattan Project, the massive, ultra-secret program to develop the atomic bomb. The idea of a powerful new weapon was first brought to the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt in a letter written by Albert Einstein in August of 1939, which drew on discoveries that had been made by scientists working in–ironically–Nazi Germany, the previous year.
The theory, in its broad outlines, was simple. Certain elements are fundamentally unstable, and under the right conditions, their constituent atoms could be made made to split apart. Breaking the atomic nucleus apart instantly released the tremendous binding energy that held the atom together. At the same time the broken nucleus would eject additional neutrons (a type of sub-nuclear particle) which would strike other atoms, causing them, in turn, to split and release energy and additional neutrons, and so on. If the unstable element could be made sufficiently dense, it would become “supercritical,” causing the chain reaction to unfold very quickly and explosively.
The energy released by the fission process was phenomenal. It was calculated that the energy released by a single splitting atom of Uranium 235, for example, could cause a grain of sand to jump. To put it in perspective, this is roughly equivalent to something the size of a paramecium causing Long Island to leap several meters into the air.
Roosevelt was sufficiently impressed that he authorized the formation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium. The project advanced slowly at first. The Advisory Committee on Uranium was replaced by the National Defense Research Committee, which in turn morphed into the Office of Scientific Research and Development. In June of 1942 the project was taken over by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Manhattan District, and suddenly things began to pop. Brigadier General Leslie Groves, a sharp-elbowed, short-tempered, blunt-speaking man not known for tact or gentle manners, was chosen as overall director of the Project. But what Groves lacked in finesse he made up for in sheer organizational virtuosity and unsurpassed ability to get things done.
A remote mesa at the edge of the Jemez Mountains in north-central New Mexico was chosen as the headquarters of the Project. Los Alamos had been the site of an exclusive prep school for boys. This school and the surrounding 9000 acres were purchased by the government in 1942. Initially planned to hold working facilities and housing for 30 or so physicists and their families, Los Alamos grew rapidly as the Project advanced, eventually becoming a self-contained city of about 6000.
The Manhattan Project actually developed two separate bomb designs. One, a relatively simple design that came to be called Little Boy, used a core of uranium 235. This design was considered to be so reliable that a full-scale test was determined to be unnecessary. Work on this design was completed in only a few months. However, plutonium turned out to be unusable in this configuration, and under even the most optimistic scenarios there would only be enough U-235 for one bomb of this type. So an alternate design became necessary.
This alternate design, which came to be known as Fat Man, was much more complex, and relied on a relatively small core of plutonium-239, a non-naturally occurring element created by bombarding U-238 with neutrons. U-235 and P-239 have the rare quality of being fissile, meaning that they could support a chain reaction. Problem was, neither of these elements was available in more than trace quantities at the start of the Project. And procuring them using available methods was extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. And so two gigantic facilities were constructed to supply the precious materials, one at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and one at Hanford, Washington. The scale of operations at these plants was staggering. At peak production, the Oak Ridge facility alone employed 75,000 workers and consumed one-seventh of the the total electrical output of the entire United States.
The Manhattan Project tested the limits of mathematics and physics, metallurgy, explosives, machine technology, engineering, and human endurance. A frenetic, insanely workaholic pace became the norm, and it was not uncommon for people to work nonstop until they simply dropped of exhaustion. Even by the epic standards of World War II–the greatest organized expenditure of human effort in history–the Manhattan Project was an undertaking of breathtaking scope, involving hundreds of thousands of individuals working at dozens of locations across the lower 48, all in strict secrecy. It was, in fact, one of the greatest organizational feats of all time. And at the tip of its spear was the greatest gathering of brainpower the world had ever seen.
The Manhattan Project was a Who’s Who of mathematical, scientific, and technical talent. At its peak, many of the most brilliant people on the planet were in its employ, a group of such stellar intellect that Albert Einstein himself would have been of middling rank among them. Los Alamos teemed with extraordinary individuals, prodigies such as Jon Von Neumann, a Hungarian mathematician who could read, write, and speak half a dozen languages with ease, could effortlessly recall in perfect detail everything he had ever read or heard, and could instantly perform in his head calculations that would take others hours to complete by hand. Fifteen past and future Nobel Prize winners were part of the Los Alamos crew.
Presiding over the disparate crew of geniuses was the brilliant and charismatic J. Robert Oppenheimer. Personally selected by General Groves, Oppenheimer seemed a most unlikely candidate for the grueling job of Science Director. Though acknowledged as a top-flight physicist, Oppenheimer was also a polarizing figure with a reputation. Tall and painfully thin with piercing blue eyes, Oppenheimer was the sort of man people either adored or loathed. Many serious persons with no axe to grind saw him as an arrogant flake, and sharply questioned the wisdom of his selection for such a critical role.
General Groves had an intuition about Oppenheimer, though. He had seen something in the man from Berkeley that others had not, and Oppenheimer rewarded Groves’ confidence by rising to the challenge with a deftness that even his most ardent admirers would not have anticipated. Oppenheimer’s towering intelligence, energy, political acumen, and skill in managing difficult, high-maintenance talent were indispensable in pushing the Manhattan Project to completion. Despite having vastly different personalities, Groves and Oppenheimer forged a colossally successful partnership based on mutual respect, a commitment to hard work, and the fact that they “got” each other in ways that no one else ever did.
The Gadget, they called it, once it was far enough along to have a name. Even some of its designers doubted that it would work. General Groves gave it no more than a 50 percent chance of success. The doubts were understandable, given that the Gadget was perhaps the most complicated technical feat ever attempted. A successful detonation would require an intricate series of ultra high-energy events to unfold in exact order, to a precision of less than one ten-thousandth of an inch, with a margin of error of less than ten-millionths of a second.
Three observation bunkers were constructed to monitor the blast, 10,000 yards north, south, and west, respectively, of Ground Zero. Based on predicted favorable weather conditions, planners selected the early morning hours of July 16 to carry out the test. As the zero hour approached, activity reached a fever pitch. At three a.m., two and a half hours before the test, a dozen workers still scurried about Ground Zero, carrying out last-minute tasks. By four-thirty, only three remained. At four fifty-five, they set the last switches, coupled the last electrical connections and headed for the safety of South 10,000, where all the principals had gathered. Thirty-five minutes to go. A warning siren sounded.
At ten minutes after five, a voice came over the loudspeaker and announced Twenty minutes, beginning the world’s first countdown. The radio, tuned to the Los Alamos frequency, crackled every few seconds with terse updates. Technicians checked and re-checked their instruments. Oppenheimer drummed his fingers nervously and looked at his watch every few seconds. Groves fiddled with his tie and paced. No one spoke. Sweat and tension filled the small room. At T minus five minutes, a warning rocket was fired and the countdown escalated to thirty-second intervals. Time slowed to a crawl as the critical moment approached. At T minus two minutes another warning rocket fired. The radio crackled a little and went silent. At T minus one minute, the last set of switches was thrown, triggering the automated final countdown sequence. There was nothing left to to do but wait. Another warning rocket was fired as the final sixty-second countdown began. With about ten seconds to go, a local radio station suddenly came on line, overlapping the Los Alamos frequency, and for a few moments the opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite could be clearly heard over the countdown.
At time Zero, the automated timer tripped a relay, closing a circuit and sending a powerful surge of current from a bank of capacitors to detonators mounted in each of thirty-two precisely machined, hexagonal lenses of Composition B high explosive, arranged in a spherical, soccer-ball pattern around the bomb core. In a microsecond, the thin gold wire at the heart of each detonator heated to several thousand degrees Fahrenheit and vaporized, igniting its enclosing cylinder of PETN high explosive, which in turn ignited the explosive lens in which it was embedded. All thirty-two lenses ignited within a hundred-millionth of a second of each other, sending thirty-two powerful, perfectly aligned shock waves racing toward the core at over twenty-five thousand feet per second. The shock waves ignited a second, inner, layer of precisely shaped lenses of baratol, a slower-burning type of high explosive. The slightly concave shock waves from the baratol lenses combined with the slightly convex waves of the composition B to form a nearly perfect imploding sphere of crushing compressive force, which ignited yet another precisely machined layer of composition B. Three shock waves joined into one, exerting a combined force of tens of millions of pounds per square inch upon a hollow aluminum sphere, which collapsed symmetrically upon the hollow sphere of Uranium-238 contained within, which in turn collapsed upon the plutonium core, the heart of the bomb and the source of its enormous power.
At the center of the the plutonium core, which consisted of two matching halves separated by a thin gold gasket, was a hollow space containing the initiator, a spheroidal device housing two cavities separated by a foil membrane. One cavity was filled with polonium 210, the other with pure beryllium. The imploding layer of U-238 compressed the plutonium sphere to about forty percent of its original diameter and crushed the initiator. The instantaneous blending of polonium and beryllium released a shower of neutrons into the newly supercritical plutonium, jump-starting the chain reaction. For the tiniest fraction of a second the apparatus hung together as a million billion quadrillion atoms split apart in incomprehensibly rapid succession. But at some point the gargantuan pressure generated by the fissioning mass ripped the device apart, and the superhot froth of neutrons, atomic fragments, and elementary particles spilled forth with the energy of forty million pounds of exploding TNT.
At the instant of the explosion, for two hundred miles around, virtually everyone awake and moving about noticed and understood instinctively that Something Had Happened. The explosion released energy locked within the atomic nucleus since before the birth of the Solar System, creating a fireball that expanded outward at an initial velocity of a hundred thousand feet per second. Everything within three hundred meters was simply vaporized; anything organic within a mile was burned to cinders. Six miles from Ground Zero, human observers suffered instant sunburn from the burst of radiant energy, and were hurled to the ground by the force of the shock wave seconds later. Anyone within ten miles who happened to look directly at the explosion–but how could you not?–was blinded. Fifteen miles away, a sleeping shepherd was rudely awakened when the expanding shock wave upended his cot. Georgia Green, a music student being driven to Albuquerque when the bomb went off, asked “What was that?” Which might not have been remarkable but for the fact that she was blind.
After the successful test at Trinity, the sheer destructive power of the bomb was no longer a mere abstraction, and many of its builders began to experience acute buyers’ remorse. A heated debate raged about the morality of using such a powerful weapon against, inevitably, a mostly civilian population. It was proposed that the bomb be detonated on an uninhabited island off the coast of Japan as a demonstration. Surely, went the logic, the Japanese would come to their senses and surrender when faced with the certainty of complete annihilation. But after serious consideration, this approach was rejected. The Japanese would only be persuaded by a psychologically devastating blow, it was decided.
A little after eight in the morning local time, the Enola Gay, an American B-29 piloted by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, entered the airspace above Hiroshima. The plane and its companion, another B-29 bearing measuring instruments and observers, were immediately spotted by Japanese radar. For a few minutes the air raid sirens sounded until it was officially determined that the pair were merely reconnaissance craft, at which point the alert was cancelled and the order for fighters to intercept rescinded. At eight-twelve local time, with the distinctive Aioi Bridge squarely centered in the Norden bombsight, the bay doors were opened, and the single bomb within released upon the unsuspecting city below. After three and a half minutes of freefall, Little Boy detonated at a preset altitude of 1900 feet over the city center. In a fraction of a second, the city lay in ruins and thousands lay dead: vaporized, cremated, crushed, or asphyxiated. Thousands more suffered grievous, gruesome injuries from heat or radiation.
An official Allied ultimatum to surrender went unanswered, so three days later, Fat Man number two was dropped over Nagasaki. The following day, August 10, 1945, Japan formally signaled its intention to honor the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. But the announcement came with a query: Would the sovereignty of the Emperor be preserved? The US rejected the offer, saying, essentially, “what part of ‘unconditional’ don’t you understand?”
To a nation steeped in the code of Bushido, surrender was literally unthinkable, and it took the personal intervention of Emperor Hirohito to render it thinkable. Hardly a standard-issue monarch, Hirohito, like all Japanese Emperors, was revered as a living divinity and the embodiment of Japanese history and culture. His word was, quite literally, law. In a four-minute radio address at noon on August 15, 1945 Emperor Hirohito spoke to the Japanese nation for the very first time. Using a stilted, medieval form of Japanese that was hard to understand, the unfamiliar high-pitched voice intoned that “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.”
The surrender was officially ratified on September 1 1945, in a ceremony aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Supreme Allied Commander General Douglas MacArthur presided over the somber and dignified event, in which top-hatted Imperial representatives, delegates of the Allied Powers, and MacArthur himself came forward, one-by-one, to sign the formal Instrument of Surrender. And with MacArthur’s concluding words “These Proceedings are closed” ringing in everyone’s ears, the terrible war came to an end.
Seventy years after, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to be the hottest of hot-button issues. Absolutely everyone has an opinion, and they come in as many flavors as there are individuals. And as with any complex subject having strong moral overtones, there is a mix of serious and well-considered opinions along with a great deal of facile and simplistic thinking about the only use of nuclear weapons in wartime. We shoulda bombed ’em back to the stone age. The bombings were a war crime.
I have myself wrestled with the issue since first becoming aware of it in childhood. Once firmly in the Moral Outrage camp, after careful re-consideration I have come to the conclusion that the bombings were a classic necessary evil. An atomic holocaust was the price that had to be paid in order for Japan to be delivered from its apocalyptic psychosis, so all-consuming that the “glorious” suicide of a hundred million Japanese, “beautiful in its tragedy, like shattered jewels,” was considered infinitely preferable to the ignominy of capitulation. The ghastly one-two punch was precisely the psychic jolt needed to bring Japan to its senses. And so millions lived who otherwise would have died, the Japanese nation was spared complete destruction, and the stage was set for perhaps the greatest turnaround of all time.
In the history of warfare, no people have ever been as gently treated in defeat as the Japanese after World War II. And just as Robert Oppenheimer, the airy idealist, was the perfect man to lead the creation of the atomic bomb, Douglas MacArthur, the born warrior, was the perfect man to wage peace upon the vanquished foe. Vain and self-important, cultured, imperious, steeped in history, keenly intelligent, politically astute, shrewd, and flamboyantly self-promoting, MacArthur deftly engineered the ultimate Extreme Makeover of an entire society.
With a restrained, humane, and pragmatic approach, MacArthur gradually earned the trust and respect of the wary Japanese, who had been conditioned by years of ugly propaganda to think of Americans as subhuman savages. And in conspicuously demonstrating to the Japanese that they had been lied to about their American enemies, MacArthur subtly conveyed to them that their leaders had also lied about pretty much everything else. And thus was set in motion a profound societal shift.
Seizing the historic opportunity, MacArthur skillfully redirected the ancient society away from its martial, feudal past toward a modern, civil, future. It was not a hard sell; after twenty years of endless, ultimately pointless war and sacrifice the Japanese were more than ready. It is no accident that Douglas MacArthur was universally revered among the wartime generation of Japanese, now mostly gone. Thanks to an enlightened Occupation, Japan arose from the ashes of total defeat to become a modern and democratic nation, an economic powerhouse, and a reliable American ally.
I am reminded of this most unlikely of outcomes as I survey the Trinity parking lot, overflowing with Toyota after Honda after Nissan after Subaru. How odd, I think, that from an event of such singular violence was born something so indisputably, powerfully, positive. Because of what happened at Trinity, we live in a new and different world, intertwined, interdependent, and unprecedentedly peaceful. And this new world has moved so far away from the old in thought and action that the greatest conflict in human history, concluded less than a lifetime ago, is now little more than a memory, almost a myth, and so very foreign as to be nearly incomprehensible.