Saturday, January 12, 2008

The other day I read the quirkiest book. It was called Washed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam, by Skye Moody. It was so fascinating, filled with stories of messages in bottles, sunken treasures, ambergris (expensive whale vomit used in perfumerie), cargo containers ejecting Nikes and BMWs into the ocean…. But it was also really disturbing. The picture on the cover of the book is of a Hawaiian beach completely covered in plastic jetsam. One story was about a shipment of rubber bath toys (28,000 ducks, frogs, turtles, and beavers packaged for The First Years company) that washed overboard somewhere near the international dateline while enroute from China to the US. The first toys washed ashore late that year (1992) in Alaska. They continued washing ashore there for many months. Computer models predicted that currents would take them through iceberg-infested waters to Greenland and then to the Atlantic Ocean. To date they’ve been found in Washington state (meaning some went south), but also in Maine and Scotland. The problem with plastics is that they never biodegrade. They crumble into smaller and smaller bits, are ingested by sea critters, release dioxins into the body and move up and up the food chain.

I think the most disturbing (but fascinating) part of the book was the description of gyres, the great big circular ocean currents in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans which are like “toilets in which the water constantly whirls but never flushes”. The centers of the gyres have virtually no wind, so they are a sailor’s worst nightmare. One guy, with a diesel-powered catamaran, intentionally sailed through the North Pacific subtropical gyre, which is about the size of Africa—empty of islands and other boats. He discovered in the center (actually it has two centers) what is now called The Great Garbage Patch. The gyres suck in garbage and hold it there for hundreds of years, the garbage circling around and around, with each circuit taking several years. Eventually each piece of garbage might be spit back out into the current again, but not for a very long time. The guy (Charles Moore) calculated the garbage to weigh roughly three million tons. And that’s just in one of the world’s gyres!

On the drive to school yesterday (going over Wiggins hill, of course—where I always do my most insightful thinking) I began to imagine watching the earth and its processes from outer space, as if time were condensed and I could see air and water currents that wouldn’t actually be visible to the eye. I saw how the air currents created and interacted with the ocean currents, how the ocean currents influenced the air and therefore the weather patterns on land, how when weather patterns shifted, places like the Sahara dried out. I saw the dust of the Sahara moving on air currents to the Amazon where the minerals and micronutrients nourished the rainforest. In places where I saw green turning to brown I saw war and conflict almost like an infection, particularly around the edges of the brown. I got impressions of initially vast migrations of species, wide distributions of animals, that eventually shriveled up and became small pockets here and there, very isolated.

I’ve always known that most wars are about scarce resources (even when they may seem to be about religious or ideological differences). But this meditation tweaked my understanding. In another fascinating book I’m reading (The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, by Paul Shepard) there was one sentence talking about sky gods and how in ancient times the skies ruled human destiny. Reading that sentence following the earth meditation it flashed in my mind: the seas, the skies, and the land rule human destiny.

Culture rises and declines in response to the confluence of sea, sky, and land—how they interact and cause shifting conditions. To that you could also add the geophysical forces, earth’s magnetic field, its molten core, its plate tectonics and volcanism. This image in my mind could not make it any clearer to me that we are products of all of these forces, that we appear and disappear in exactly the same manner as the Sahara blossoms in green abundance and then browns. Wars and suffering in the brown spots—that’s an organic process, a part of desertification, inseparable from it so long as humans are part of that ecosystem.

Indigenous cultures that honor the wind really understand that the wind gives us life. As weather patterns change, life can dry up in places that were formerly lush and abundant. The earth, the sky, the wind, and the water have given us life.

The horror of being alive in this moment is watching everyone behave as if we’re independent of these things. As if we’re immune to withering and drying up. We act as if we have the option of divorcing ourselves from the land—what a ludicrous notion! We are emanations of the land, a phenomenon of the land. The land houses our soul.

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