Monday, July 30, 2012

So look!

Midnight sun, Toolik Lake, Alaska.  Photo by Diane Walsh
...see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning

Monday, July 9, 2012

Why I couldn't sleep

On Sunday afternoon around 4 PM I was upstairs looking for something when I heard a loud bang, and realized that a bird had hit the window. Gingerly I opened the balcony door a crack, in case I was met with a disoriented bird trying to dart inside. Instead I saw a young robin on its back, its feet up in the classic pose of death. As I opened the door it turned its head towards me and opened its beak wide, once, then again, but no sound came out, and after flexing its body it lay still. I closed the door softly, hoping it would right itself and recover, as I've seen many birds do, and after a few moments I opened the door again. This time it didn't move, but I put on leather gloves and got a clean plastic waste paper basket, figuring that an unconscious bird waking up inside a container it would remain calmer during the short trip down the stairs and out the front door to freedom. I stood over it, talking to it, half expecting a sudden burst of movement, but it moved not a muscle. Gently I picked it up by the feet and slid my other gloved hand under its body.

I have disposed of dead birds before, but always much after the fact, quickly flinging the dried up little things into the bushes. This bird was surprisingly heavy, and limp like a rag doll, its little head slumping to the side as I placed it in the container. After bringing it out the front door I took it in both hands and went down the path that leads to a little duck pond. It was still warm and showed no outward sign of injury, its yam colored breast marked with juvenile speckles. Not a dried up little thing at all but a creature that had been throbbing with life just a few short minutes ago.  I chose a spot under some bushes and laid it in a little depression on the ground. Its body draped limply in the depression, as if the little birdie was fast asleep, except that sleeping birds don't lie comatose on the ground.  I said goodbye and walked back to the house.

It bothered me for the rest of the day.  The heave of its body I now realize was the moment of death. I have never watched a person or an animal die, but I will never forget the way it opened its beak, as if to say: it hurts! It hurts!

Later on the balcony I examined the window and found the tiniest smudge of gray down stuck to the glass. The window was caked with dust, and around the smudge I took my finger and drew an outline of a hawk, not because I thought it would help but because I felt it was my fault that the poor bird flew into the window. If I had put a hawk sticker on the window this would never have happened, and I would not be remembering so vividly a bird experiencing its final moments in unmistakeable pain and surprise and terror.

This morning, rather than stew over how many more bodies would be waiting for me this evening, I got out the windex and paints and brushes, and did three windows before leaving for work.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Climate change is on a lot of people's minds these days. It's one of the hottest summers on record--upper 90's in the midwest and atlantic states, and dry as a bone from the west coast to the heartland. In Fairbanks this July it has been relatively dry and warm compared with a rainy May and June, with temps in the mid to upper 70's. Two weeks ago during the longest days of summer we had a week in the mid to upper 80's, the week of Matt and Stephanie's visit. And not just hot but humid too. The previous two summers were warm early and cool and wet by midsummer. Hot and humid is not what I've come to expect up here.

Joe and I have only been here three summers. The climate change skeptics (as opposed to the deniers, who don't look at the science at all but simply deny the existence of anything that would mean no more drive-through Starbucks) cite 'inter-annual variation' as a reasonable contradiction to the idea that the planet is warming, because inter-annual variation--patterns of hot or cold, wet or dry, stormy or calm weather that may characterize a season as 'unseasonal'--throws a certain amount of noise into the records, and thus the predictions.

Climate skepticism is fine, but it doesn't explain drastic things, like disappearing glaciers, shrinking sea ice, and gullies and cracks opening up in ground riddled with permafrost—it's a bit like those rich people aboard the Titanic who felt nothing more than a bump that sloshed the brandy in their snifters, so they went back to their card game. This is why animal lovers are freaking out about polar bears, people who live in the North are getting nervous, and the entities who brought you Exxon Valdez, Prudhoe Bay, and Halliburton are casting their evil eyes upon the Arctic coast and tenting their fingers like Mr. Burns. The sea ice is melting faster and forming later, the oil companies and their political cronies stand to make billions out of it, and polar bears, fisherman, and coastal Native communities are being forced to get to the back of the economic bus.

As I consider what to study up here and how to study it, and to understand its relative importance against the larger ecological and sociopolitical background, I wonder how long before the world as we know it--the world with its budding springs, lazy summers, and cold, stable winters--becomes a very different, and very harsh place to live? Many ecosystems have been wrecked at our hands, over and over. It starts with the wild things that are tasty to humans and progresses to things most sensitive to disruption, things that live in water or are rare and dependent upon specialized habitat--orchids, amphibians, birds, insects. We don't perceive these changes until the link directly impacting human survival is affected, and by then the damage has magnified like a huge wave looming into view. How long before the standard of living we so heedlessly enjoy is swept away? Two generations? One? Half a generation? When will people stop driving gasoline-powered engines? Until the oil runs out, or before then? How long is that?

I really want to know. Because it's not just about orchids and frogs now, or even weather.

At 52, I've had a pretty good run, but it will be a very different world twenty years from now, if I live to see it. If I die of old age before that, that's perhaps luckiest of all. There is no sense in pretending we will ever be able to engineer our way out of this predicament. Humanity has gone global for better or worse. There is a last-ditch plan being worked on as we speak by “climate engineers,” a way of spewing enough aerosol particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from earth and cool it down a bit (cool it down?! How god-awful and Doctor Strangelovian!). And where did such a 1950's sci-fi horror flick of an idea come from? I think scientists have been tinkering with this idea for the past couple of centuries, but current research was inspired by Mt. Pinatubo. Its eruption in 1991 was just cataclysmic enough to reduce sunlight hitting the earth by ten percent—but not to extinguish life. Thus inspired, these geniuses still need to: A) find a suitable type of material in an amount that won't poison us too much or wreck the biosphere (sulfur dioxide is a serious candidate); and B) figure out how to get it up there. I'd be curious to know if the first powerpoint lecture on this was shown at TED.

Unlike the rest of the country, our summer in the Alaskan interior has been lovely, and I am trying to soak up every minute. The hills are clad in bright green birch and poplar, the fields and meadows are glowing fuschia with fireweed, the air is fragrant with flowers and alive with winged creatures great and small. Will we ever remember a summer like this again?

Tour of Fairbanks, one month ago. Joe is just behind Tyson, at start line of last stage (over Wickersham Dome to Globe Creek).  Nothing like a bunch of racer boys in tights--

Went to Moose Mountain to look for morels. This was the third of five attempts to find any. Found none :-(

Solstice tree

Midsummer here has a living, dripping juicy quality. Summer is full-on summer. Hard to explain, best felt. Sorry about the mosquitoes this year, Steph and Matt!

Joe and I enjoyed some hot summer weather before he headed North to Toolik for a long summer shift. I will be joining him in a couple of weeks.

Stephanie and Matt came from Chicago to experience the Midnight Sun. Stephanie on alpine tundra on top of Murphy Dome.