Oahu Hawaii, Waikiki Beach
Seventy-seven degrees in the direct sun with perhaps a five knot north wind blowing from the South here, the direction is uncertain in the canyon lands of the giant hotels.
We are staying in an old Japanese hotel where we have stayed before, it is two stories and about sixty rooms surrounding a swimming pool, on Beachwalk drive. It caters to Japanese tourists, the rooms are simple and clean. One building has traditional Japanese style rooms with rattan mats only and no shoes, staff waters the rock garden from wooden buckets and wooden ladles. The office has no walls and is open twenty-four hours where you leave your metal key with the kind woman whenever you leave. The motel cat has a long leash and lounges by the pool. Beyond the hotel, the whoosh of traffic mingles with the sound of the ocean. Birdsong blends with backup horns and sirens, it is not silent but it is serene in this little oasis. Each room has tropical flowers in bloom by the door, patrons sun themselves in the day, and in the evening bring their ice buckets with a cooling bottle of wine to enjoy as the night sounds of speeding motorcycles rise with the moon. Last night we drank a wonderful bottle of sake I had never tried before which was recommended to us in the little café tucked behind the pool. The wine list suggested that it was recommended, “for drinking over a long period of time,” and we found that to be true.
Jan is here for a meeting of North Pacific researchers to discuss the declining numbers of Humpback Whales in the Alaska-Hawaii stock. These are the whales that feed in Alaska and breed in Hawaii. If you see a whale in Alaskan waters there is a ninety-five percent chance that whale is part of that genetic stock. Scientists believe that mothers teach their offspring where to go to feed and breed. In the last five years or so Jan and her colleagues who keep track of these things noticed they were seeing far fewer moms and calves coming back in the spring. They also noticed lots more really skinny whales. Then they started noticing whales who seemed both skinny and seemed to be carrying more parasites, then old friends they had seen year after year stopped showing up in Alaska, then lower numbers. How much lower? That’s what this meeting is about. What is going on? Getting a picture of a population is like a bunch of blind men getting a good description of an elephant… or a whale for that matter. It’s a big picture. Our home town seemingly has a lot of whales… but we also have a lot of herring. Other places that used to have a lot of whales, have no whales. Whales are gathering where there is food. Of course. They have always done that. Is this another crisis caused by global warming? The blob of warm water, ocean acidification? Advocates of their own political cause want to shout out “Of course… Yes, Yes,” but really it’s hard to say and it needs to be studied carefully because to shout out one certain cause and have it proved wrong does a disservice to the whole process of science in this day and age of skepticism. Particularly in this time when everybody wants to wrap science into our make believe political rhetoric so that science will serve the purpose of the energy extractors exclusively. If there is one thing I’ve noticed as a plus one in the scientific world, it is that good science is deliberate and slow and it only serves itself.
I am thankful that there are good field biologists out there who monitor changes in the world, who can sound the alarm to convene meetings such as these to make sure that attention can be paid while there is still time to act.
This trip we packed for Anchorage where I taught a class and gave a reading at a new place called the Writers Block which was a welcoming space in Anchorage. I taught a class through 49 writers on working on a book length project and getting it positioned for publication. I tried to stay away from the usual clichés but the hardest part of writing a book is actually sitting down and writing it. There is just no getting away from that, and the only way of making it any good is in the revision. The only secrete to publishing is in creating something that other people want to read. It sounds straightforward but nothing in that is easy. The mind lays traps for the writer all the time. Reading and understanding how books work is a great gift, but not if it cows you into submission. If you are afraid of sounding like some other writer then you can barely begin using sentences at all. Writing what you know, of course is great advice but not if you are petrified that someone is going to recognize them selves in your book. Writing an important history is worthy goal but not if you are paralyzed by the inability to make every single detail exactly accurate. History like science relies on peer review. How can I say this? A lot of getting a first draft done is learning how to let go and explore your research and what you already know. Revision is about relaxing and making it better and better every day.
The next stop was northern California where the fires were burning until the rains started the day before Thanksgiving. We stayed with good friends for two nights then went to our son’s future in- laws for Thanksgiving dinner in the hills above Monterrey. It is beautiful country and when the rain fell it felt like the whole state breathed a sigh of relief. Where we were the air was amazingly fragrant: rain on dry sage, and lavender. Songbirds I could not identify. Finn is going to marry a beautiful and smart woman from a very emotionally available family. They were so kind and generous to us. I come from a family of mostly alcoholic smart alecks who thought we were each one funnier than the next, I couldn’t believe how kind and sincere her family was to us. I didn’t make a single crass joke all weekend. The food her parents made was spectacular and the love vibe was sincere and not at all too sweet. Jan and I were so happy that our cheeks hurt when we left.
Now Hawaii. We stopped at the Goodwill surplus store and all four of us bought all new beach wear and swim suits for seventeen bucks total. Then to the hotel. Jan has talked about living in Hawaii, but we have become too Alaskan I think. My vision is too bad for the traffic and I love the local culture there but I’m afraid we are too old to assimilate at this point, also there are just too many cars. The heat does not agree with Jan’s Parkinson’s disease, and the real estate prices can’t compete with what we have in Sitka. But still, in the morning when the birds are coming awake and the swell is smooth, I would love to get to the break as the sun rises and surf some sets before the day goes crazy. I would be happy to swim in those inland rivers and listen to those raucous birds and feel that warm sun bake into my bones, then to cool off one more time at sunset as life calms down before supper. I would love to get into the rhythm of this place just one more time before I die.
the early cardinal singing
before tourists rise.