Semantics: Survival by Story
The tide is way out, past the dock. Algae and seaweed cling to the slick wooden sides, to the mud, to the barnacled oysters that curtain the square of land in front of our cabin, to the buoy ropes, now exposed. My sister Annie and I, in canvas tennis shoes to protect our feet, wobble across sharp shells, try avoiding stepping on tiny purple shore crabs that dart under and around anything in their path, carry plastic buckets and walk further out to where the sea waits to return. Over night the water of Hood Canal pulled back farther than it would in two months. We are walking on the bottom of the sea. Orange starfish drape like outstretched fingers over oysters and mussels, some spanning a foot or so in diameter; purple sea cucumbers and pale green anenomes spread across rocks; empty Dungeness shells lay scattered along with blush-red Spot Shrimp casings. Sometimes at low tide, the ground is so densely blanketed with creatures, it is next to impossible to walk.
We fill our buckets, then sit cross-legged on the dock (that in a few hours will be floating in Puget Sound, a destination for swimming races from the cabin deck), and examine the invertebrates and compare sizes of limpets before returning them to where they were found. Occasionally we’ll sit there so long the tide will move in and with it Shiner Surfperch, silvery glints skirting the dock sides. We have only to lay on our stomachs and lean over the edge, dip our buckets in the water, thick with the palm-sized fish and easily catch at least a couple.
Once, a particularly fat perch swam around in our bucket. I reached in and pulled it out, held it between my two cupped hands, squinted and ran my thumb along its tarnished silver and yellow scales. Suddenly my sister hooted, “Babies!” And sure enough, squirting out from its underside were fully-intact centimeter-sized newborns. I recall something like 15 or 20 of them threading around and around the bucket. Annie and I scraped algae from the dock side with our fingernails and floated bits to feed the tiny fish. We named each of them before tipping the bucket and sending them back into the sea.
This is a memory. It stretches back 30 years. A few months ago, in August and September of 2010, low oxygen levels in Hood Canal resulted in thousands of dead fish and prawns piling up on the shorelines. And this isn’t an anomaly–in 2003 and 2006 staggering numbers of suffocated fish washed up on the rocky Washington beaches (Welch). The smell. The view, the stillness, the expanse of grey on grey.
It’s an election year, and the environment is a point of discussion. The newly-formed Tea Party appears to be a player. Outspoken and visible, they have raised the timbre of the conservative voice. Norman Dennison, founder of the Corydon Tea Party recently stated, “I read my Bible. He made this earth for us to utilize” (Broder A1). To a statement like this, does one respond to conscience? To aesthetic? To logic? The ethos, logos, pathos of any argument comes down to semantics. Or perhaps riddles: if the earth is used up, is there anything left to utilize?
The data is hard. And it is not just reflecting dropping numbers of water-dwelling creatures in the region. Concentrations of PCBs are elevated to “levels of concern” in eggs collected from bald eagle nests, and these environmental contaminants are considered contributing factors in reproductive failures in these Hood Canal birds (Mahaffy).
Each morning my dad would lower the crab pot and a few hours later he’d don rubber gloves and draw up the rope. Usually full of crab, he’d carefully pry apart the pinchers gripping the netting and turn the crab over on its back to check if female or male. The males over 6.25 inches across the shell would be tossed in a bucket, the rest returned to the sea. My dad would throw them over the side of the boat, and I’d watch them slow-motion-sway with the movement of the water, gently sink until they disappeared from view, a soft descent so remarkably different from their scuttle and scurry on the floor of the boat, the clipped snap-snap of their claws, all movements precise and quick, but in these moments they drifted like dandelion seed pods when blown off a palm with a wish. Back on land, my dad would crack the shells and clean the crabs, my mom would prepare her huge stainless steel boiler, and for meals we’d have broiled open-faced crab sandwiches, dripping with mayonnaise and parmesan cheese. My sister and I would collect oysters layering the stony beachfront like October leaves in a park, and then throw them against the concrete foundation slab to break the shells, otherwise pliers, a shucking knife, brute strength, and heavy gloves were needed to protect from the sharp barnacles while prying and pulling apart to harvest the slippery insides for breading and frying.
Wild Pacific oysters on Washington’s coast haven’t reproduced in six seasons. Fossil fuel emissions specifically and global warming generally are linked to ocean chemistry changes responsible for killing the shellfish (Welch). The presence of paralytic shellfish toxins forced the closure of shellfish harvesting in Hood Canal by the Kitsap County health department. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce conducted extensive research on algal blooms and toxicity levels, the findings of which prompted the closure of razor clam and Dungeness crab fisheries (Magnien).
If looking straight out from the deck of the cabin my parents rented each summer the still-snow-capped Olympic Mountains would hold back the sky and reach like arms around the peninsula. This was my “hill,” so to speak. The mountain outline was visible at night, it cocooned the bay from the wide world on the other side, it loomed, was ever-present and so much bigger than I, then and now. Its forested hillsides resonated green across the water, the crags cut into the blue. On early mornings dawn fog buffed the edges but didn’t soften the fact that day, night, rain, gloom, sun, mist, parents fighting throughout every vacation, the inevitable divorce–those mountains distinguished themselves as some sort of evidence that on this earth, some pieces of one’s landscape stay intact, hold their ground, are inexplicably, simply, beautifully there.
“No one will miss a hill or two,” said Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican Senate and Tea Party candidate (Rand). Hood Canal is a memory. It’s mine, it holds no relevance whatsoever to anyone reading this, politicians or otherswise. This was a piece of geography, a sliver of this planet that held my eyes and folded itself into my mind to carry forward, to a time of now when my landscape is often obscured by the walls of my home or office or hospital as I raise children, earn money, deal with my son’s medical issues. My parents were married, my sister and I got along, my hair wasn’t gray. There were fish in the Sound, oysters on the beach, crab in the traps, birds overhead. So why should anyone care?
At high tide the Sound would come all the way up to the foundation and from the overhanging deck we’d jump. Buoyed by the salt, we’d tread water and watch for seals to bob their heads up, disappear, and re-appear in another corner of the bay.
Annie and I would dare eachother to pet the sea cucumbers.
I’d put tiny one-inch shore crabs on her belly when she was sunbathing.
History is an accumulation of memories. The details vary for every single one of us, but we’re still composites of what we remember, of what we’ve seen and experienced.
Generations since mine, on summer vacations up at Puget Sound don’t see what I saw. The mountains are still there, and I imagine on summer dusks they still glow off the sky and reflect on the water like they always did. But the rest is diminished, the pictures in the memory banks of people I’ll never meet are less punctuated with details, with color, with tastes, and textures.
What am I persuading? To care. About minutae baby perch squirting into some wide-eyed kid’s hands; about lavender sky over mountains; about oysters; about family; about limpet shell trading on a small, square wooden dock in the middle of some inland water mass in western Washington. About memory, because we are all responsible for each other’s memories. Whether specifics are shared or not, we all play a hand in allowing for experience by use or disuse of this world we inhabit. Our eyes see particular hills, and then we tell each other or ourselves the stories of those particular hills, over and over. This call and response keeps us tethered–to ourselves, to our history to the ground we walk across– and is survival by story.
And the less of this earth that remains, the fewer the stories. And the fewer the stories, the less reason to listen. And the less reason to listen, the less reason to care–about the land, about each other, about ourselves. No one will miss a hill or two? Yes, actually they will. Because someone sat on that hill, any hill, anywhere, had a picnic on that hill, or someone, anyone, looked out their window every morning at that hill and that picture of grass and trees kept them at their desks all day earning money feeding an economy that funds this country, or some ant crawls in line with an uncountable number of other ants up and down that hill, doing what needs to be done to keep the food chain linked together. It all matters.
Hood Canal was a 3-hour car-ride from our home and I’d often fall asleep leaning against the backseat window on the way up. Annie would nudge my shoulder when we turned into the dirt road that led to the cabin in the cove. Before even opening my eyes I’d know we were close by the musty thickening of air from salt rising off the water, off the warming oyster shells on the beach mingling with the breezes blown down from the Olympic National Forest. Evolution implies forward momentum, but the death that fills these waters I used to swim in is not vibrant–it is brooding and lonely. Time passing implies change of some sort, it’s essential, and I would not expect Puget Sound to remain intact over the 30 years since my last visit. Preservation of imagery and impression is the function of memory. But when the sea echoes, that is indicative of a primal hollowness that reverberates with loss–of marine biology, yes, but also of the elements of story, ours as well as the earth’s.
Utilized and used up are not the same. And if politics has diverged to such vacancy of foresight, the vulgarity of such thinking repudiates consolation.