All posts by Mark Mardon

Mark Curtis Mardon, a former associate editor of Sierra Magazine and assistant editor of the Bay Area Reporter, is a writer/editor with a wide range of interests, from natural history and environmental issues, to LGBTQ culture and history, to the healing arts, to the yoga of sound. Mark is a master of improvisation on the tenor recorder, and on occasion plays old standards and show tunes for residents of Assisted Living and Memory Care centers. Mark worked part-time for eight years as an editor for Forests Forever, a nonprofit organization focusing attention on California's fight against deforestation and clearcutting. He has been long inspired by mountaineering and wilderness travel. He lived for more than 30 years in San Francisco, California, and four years in New York state's Hudson Valley region. A native of Arizona, he is currently back in his home state, writing a book about his adventures in permaculture.

Webcasting from the Galápagos

Author Mark Mardon with Earth Island Institute Chairman David R. Brower at the Brower home in Berkeley, California, circa 1996.

The following dispatches were uploaded via satellite onto the Web in the spring of 1996 from aboard the Alta, a three-masted schooner chartered by Mountain Travel-Sobek’s TerraQuest expedition to the Galápagos Islands. Reportedly this was one of the first-ever satellite transmissions of content posted to a Website.

I was aboard the Alta as a nature writer courtesy of my good friend David Brower, Chairman of Earth Island Institute, who alas was unable to undertake the journey himself. Dave graciously asked me to go in his place! It was the wildlife-viewing adventure of a lifetime. Thanks Dave! I’ll always remember you for your warmth, generosity, and fighting spirit!

Route of the Alta, TerraQuest Virtual Galápagos Expedition, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, 1996.

Homage to Quito

Quito, Ecuador

FEW CITIES OCCUPY A LANDSCAPE AS OPERATIC AS QUITO’S. Her volcanic peaks pierce the ever-present storm clouds like daggers, while her valleys plunge to rivers rushing tempestuously in their eternal quest for Mother Ocean. The colonial buildings in the Old City look so gloomy and exhausted, you’d think romance was born here. Or that mysteries always resolve themselves here. No city in the Americas can claim a richer pre-Columbian history—though many often try—and none is more sensuous, temperamental, or possessed of as many lovers. Quito is to the world’s cities what Tosca is to music—beauty and tragedy played out on the grandest stage.

The grande dame still pushes my buttons, still gives me a thrill. Though no doubt she’s an aging diva, her faded charms still manage to stir up my emotions. She’s the heartbeat of adventure, the soul of wanderlust. She entered my life first in 1976 when, at 22, I embarked on my maiden voyage to the middle of the world, the jeweled equatorial beltway crossing the Andean crest. Quito’s cobblestone streets and musical street vendors bewitched me, saturated as they were (and are) with pachas and paquos—friendly and evil spirits—the benefactors and bane of ancient Incas and modern Quechua-speaking Indians alike. Kay Pacha herself, Mother Earth, keeps house here. So, too, was I smitten by Quito’s blend of Spanish and Indian heritages. Many a time since then I’ve taxied her modern skyscrapered boulevards, squeezed into her chaotic buses, navigated her byzantine marketplaces, and always found her a gracious hostess.

But the fact is, I just couldn’t keep my mind on dear, luscious Quito during my one day there prior to departing for the Galápagos Islands—and the last thing I wanted was make her jealous. When riled, I’m told, she can put on quite a terremoto, shaking things up considerably till her anger is exhausted and she calms down for another few decades.

My thoughts settled firmly on those islands, and in my impatience to reach them, even Quito seemed an impediment to my desire. The Galápagos archipelago, my ultimate quest, was the only thing I cared about. I kept running images of them through my mind, picturing them dotting azure waters, populated by strange, otherworldly creatures, reptilian and avian, mammalian and otherwise. All the fancy, finicky finches; the predatory, soaring frigate birds; the languid, indifferent ground iguanas–all the bizarre and wonderful wildlife that had gripped my imagination since I was a kid kept calling me.

But, then again, there I was in Quito, waiting to embark on my Virtual Galápagos adventure. And there she was, gorgeous and horrible, waiting for me to come calling, and we had no choice but to spend a whole day together. So, at last, I relented. Putting down my Galápagos natural-history book, I joined the others in my party—the multimedia specialists, video artists, photographers, writer-naturalists, and others—and strode determinedly out the hotel’s front doors, intent on greeting and embracing Quito once more, letting her shower me with her many charms.

Little did I know I’d end up acting like a monkey. It was hot-shot photographer Scott Highton’s fault. His bulky backpack, which he kept reminding us weighed a ton, held a fancy array of camera equipment, including a digital Kodak DC50 and a Nikon F3 fixed, first, with a 15 mm lens, then with and razzle-dazzle, panaramic fish-eye 8 mm lens. The day was warm, with plenty of blue sky, but ominous cumulus clouds drifted around Quito’s mountainous perimiter.

All-in-all, it was a nice day for shooting pictures. But what did Scott have in mind when he slipped off his backpack, unzipped the back panel, pulled out a camera mount, then squeezed himself through an opening in the outer rebar sphere? His purpose became apparent when he clambered up to the top of the inner sphere and affixed the camera mount at its top point. So he was going to take a photo from inside the sphere, I nodded approvingly to myself. That’s nice.

But why, then, did Scott want the rest of us, plus a bunch of local kids, to clamber up on the outer sphere, arraying ourselves around its circumference? The reason had better be pretty good, I thought, since I was feeling pretty self conscious on display in front of puzzled parents on park benches, no doubt more used to watching their kids play on the structure than a bunch of grown-up gringos.

Then I realized how ingenius Scott was. He’d affixed his cameras on a rotating axis, so that it would take a sequence of shots as he turned it 360 degrees, taking in the entire vista, with us hanging on rebar in the foreground, and the panarama of Quito in the background. Suddenly I felt like a super fashion model, posed in the hippest setup. If only I were wearing something trendier, I mused, as I happily monkeyed around on the structure.

After that bit of fun, the rest of the afternoon was all uphill—literally. We climbed up to the old city, carefully avoiding getting run over by crazed bus drivers as we crossed streets. I guided the lot of us, being the only one of our group familiar with the city or conversant in the local language. Being a guide got to my head, apparently–or maybe it was the altitude, at more than 8,000 feet, but I kept taking us higher and higher up the hillsides, into the more colonial sections of town, where cobblestones had yet to be paved over for the benefit of cars.

Scott was huffing and puffing with his camera pack weighing him down, but the rest of us eagerly scaled the heights, to the apparent curiosity of the locals, who seemed unused to gringos going out of their way to visit the neighborhood.

By and by, we wandered up and down steep streets, meandered through marketplaces, gazed in awe at cathedrals in various states of decay, and generally amused ourselves. We spent the usual amount of time oohing and aahing over the city’s grand geographic setting, snug amid peaks and precipitous valleys, while bemoaning the traffic with its smog and honking, the runaway development of skyscrapers, and the often tacky public sculptures. Of course, I could just as easily have ticked off a dozen flaws of North American urban settings–the hamburgurization of main streets, the strip-mall-itis, the barricaded communities, and so on. Nonetheless, we came through the day feeling perhaps a bit overly impressed with ourselves for having made our way around town without getting hopelessly lost, and without having anyone look at us as though we were aliens from outer space–an accomplishment not to be belittled.

For me, the defining moment of our group’s day in Quito came not on the streets of the city, but over a late-evening brew in the posh Hotel Sebastian restaurant. Sitting across the neatly-set table from me was Deva Fera, the 26-year-old multi-media specialist I’d met only a couple days before in northern California, at the Mountain Travel-Sobek headquarters. The rest of our crew—including Scott and his cameras—had either turned in for the night, or were off on who-knows-what adventures. Except for the waiter and one other unobtrusive party, Deva and I had the room to ourselves. Between us stood two tall bottles of ice-cold Pilsner, and two sparkling-clean glasses from which we quaffed our golden truth serum.

“After walking around this city and seeing how poor the people are,” confessed Deva (pronounced Day vuh), taking another slug of beer and looking a bit too glum for someone on his first venture outside of the United States, “I realize now just how well off I am back in the United States. I mean, in that market place in the old city, mothers had their ragged little kids working beside them, sitting on the sidewalk, selling junk food and other stuff, and I’ll bet they earned next to nothing all day.”

Deva Ferar records blue-footed boobies.

Ah, the lost innocence of youth. Its raw display in Deva touched me. Undoubtedly, when I was Deva’s age, back in 1978 when my now-20-year-long, on-again, off-again affair with Latin America still bloomed afresh—before the process of becoming jaded had settled in and helped me develop a protective layer of callousness—undoubtedly I muttered words very similar to Deva’s. And no doubt whoever listened to me thought me wet behind the ears, too ready—eager, even—to assume the mantle of guilt over other people’s plight.

But, of course, Deva is right: Most North Americans live in far greater comfort than most South Americans, and the inequality in living standards shows most starkly in the teeming market places of Quito, Guayaquil, Bogota, Lima, and other sprawling metropolises that in recent decades have swollen beyond their capacity to adequately accommodate newcomers. The contrast becomes all the more acute when gringos such as ourselves check into elegant hotels in the more upscale districts of these bloated cities. In such circumstances, one tends to become conscious of one’s privileges.

At the same time, if one is met face-to-face over a frothy glass of beer by an idealistic, impressionable youth, one can be made conscious of one’s responsibilities. That’s just what happened to me: Deva reminded me that my presence on this well-funded, high-tech expedition to Western civilization’s cradle of evolutionary thinking required that I pay attention not only to the natural history of the Galapagos—which though already well known to all the world are justly deserving of further paens—but to the plight of people whose less-fortunate circumstances leave them precious little time to appreciate their country’s natural wonders.

I would soon find out for myself how wonderful those wonders truly are, and how much they need protecting. In only about six short hours, I’d be on my way out over the Pacific, leaving behind warm-hearted, smothering, unpredictable Quito and rushing headlong into the welcome embrace of my archepeligo come true.

Downtime in the Galápagos

The Alta

SIX HUNDRED MILES OFF THE COAST OF ECUADOR, our sleek, three-masted schooner, the Alta, plies the Pacific through an archipelago now bathed in darkness. It’s a starry night, dominated by the Southern Cross. Behind us lies Espanola Island, where we spent the day observing sea lions, blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and lava lizards. There, too, we photographed several of the finch species described by Charles Darwin in his revolutionary theory of evolution.

Ahead of us lies Santa Maria Island, where we expect to see pink flamingoes and a snow-white beach where green sea turtles nest. It’s warm outside, with a salt breeze wafting over the bow as the ship cuts through shallow waves. Yet as much as we’d like to be relaxing on deck, inhaling the briny air, we can’t: We have too much work to do. We’re the team that’s putting together “Virtual Galápagos,” a 10-day Web “event” being followed by tens of thousands of people tuning into TerraQuest, the ultimate adventure-travel Website. We’re crowded into the dining room, now converted into a computer operations center. We’ve got a Website to put together, and a live Internet chat to conduct with people online around the world.

We’re working with a sense of the world watching over our shoulders. Whatever we accomplish—or fail to achieve—during our journey will help define what’s possible (or not) on the Web. By traveling thousands of miles from home, bringing with us the ultimate in high-tech gear, and putting together a Web site via satellite, we’re conducting a grand experiment. We’re also conveying an important message to the world: that the Galápagos Islands’ native animals are imperiled by goats, dogs, and pigs set free by settlers, and by a huge influx of immigrants from the South American mainland.

Yet in the marriage of Internet technology and wildlife conservation aboard the Alta, the honeymoon period is proving to be rocky.

Members of the TerraQuest team prepare their dispatches aboard the Alta.

On our first attempt at a live Internet chat from the Alta, Kevin Twidle, our resident computer whiz (he’s a senior research fellow at London’s prestigious Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine), and Jonathan Chester, our jolly Aussie leader, attempt to link our PowerBooks to the PowerPC using ethernet. It’s a procedure they never tried on last year’s Virtual Antarctica expedition. This year, for our Virtual Galápagos adventure, Kevin hopes to put more than one computer at a time into use, enabling several of us to get online at once. To link them to TerraQuest’s Web site, based in northern California, he has brought along a high-speed LAN system which must be re-oriented to the Atlantic West satellite each time the boat drifts, because the satellite remains stationary above the equator and the transmitter has no automatic tracking capability.

All this has something to do with protecting the Galápagos, ostensibly one of TerraQuest’s main objectives as an environmentally progressive outfit—but unless you’re a computer whiz, you’d have a hard time knowing what.

Getting the system connected to the Internet, so that our onboard naturalists can communicate in real time with Internet chatters worldwide, is trickier than getting it to transmit voice communications. While voice connections could operate even with static, Internet connections must be static-free. Achieving such perfection presents Kevin with a challenge, but not, he thinks, an insuperable one.

Now all the tech people are hunkered around my PowerBook, which I’m expecting to get on to “talk” about the Galápagos when the chat is up and running, but which promptly crashes. When it comes up again, Kevin looks for proper protocols. But he’s not finding them. Something’s amiss. He’s not getting connected. There’s a glitch somewhere, and he has to find out where it is.

“The link seems to be down out of London,” says Kevin matter-of-factly, after further futile attempts to get a connection. “The router must’ve fallen over—could be an IRA bombing,” he quips, “or maybe someone has broken in and run off with the equipment.”

To find out for sure if the problem is in London, Kevin uses telnet to dial up the computer directly, rather than going through the Internet. He gets back only messages telling him that the server is failing to respond. “It’s very, very unusual that the server’s down,” he adds. “It’s a major site in the UK”

The only alternative now is using the slow-speed satellite transmitter and using a dial-up account via a server in Holland. While Kevin switches the equipment, Jonathan attempts to contact Christian Kallen at TerraQuest headquarters in California, but can’t dial through the voice mailbox. He scrambles to get through on the emergency telephone line, but he can’t locate the number. It’s on a printout somewhere.

“Who’s got it?” Jonathan barks.

“I’ve got it in my cabin downstairs,” replies naturalist Alison Hill, dashing for her room to get the number.

Meanwhile, various onlookers are making jokes about how this scene resembles the bridge of the USS Enterprise. “It’s like Kirk calling for Scotty to give him more power,” says Norman, our videographer and resident comic.

“‘But Captain,’ Scotty says: ‘I’m already giving you all she’s got!'”

Over in one corner of the boat, Gary Young, our digital imaging specialist from Eastman Kodak Company, waits patiently for time on the main computer. Before retiring to his cabin for the night, he has to upload images from the two Kodak Professional DCS 460 Digital Cameras he took with him to the islands today. The photos must be sent to Christian for use on the Web site, but it’s looking like they won’t go out tonight.

Finally Jonathan gets in touch with Christian, who says he’s online, running the chat from California. He’s telling everyone logged on that the Virtual Adventurers are experiencing technical difficulties. He hopes they’ll be up and running soon.

“Oops,” says multimedia specialist Deva Ferar, looking at the main computer monitor. “We have a bomb.”

A fuse has blown on the high-speed transmitter. But that doesn’t matter now, since the London server is down. Now they’re going to use the slow transmitter to connect with a server in Berkeley. This limits data speed to 2,400 baud–too slow for images, but adequate for typing responses to chat questions.

Norman, pipes up from the sidelines again: “You can tell this is a government job–two guys running around doing all the work while everybody else looks on.”

As if to remind everyone that the focus of this adventure is on nature, not technology, Diane MacEachern, one of our nature writers, starts reading a literary passage she’s discovered from William Beebe, describing the Galápagos environment. It’s a gorgeous piece of writing, Diane keeps exclaiming, doing her best to write another dispatch amid the hubbub around her.

Kevin and Jonathan are beginning to look defeated. The slow-speed connection to the U.S. isn’t working, either. Maybe flow control is the problem, Kevin speculates. “Let’s look at the log-in sequence,” he mutters. “Yes, that’s it.” He’d been trying DNAI in the U.S., but the connection failed every time.

“Who wants to go up to the ship’s control room,” asks Jonathan, “to call Christian and tell him what we did today? That way Christian will be able to relay the information to people on-line.”

Alison volunteers, and scurries out onto the deck.

But as technical glitches continue to frustrate Jonathan and Kevin, the atmosphere in the room is turning somber. Norman and his wife, Gail, who’d been prepared to videotape the chat in progress, now turn off and pack up their equipment for the night.

Kevin tries getting into the chat through America OnLine, but realizes the boat has shifted. “The signal’s right on the edge. . . . There! It’s connecting! We’re coming down in America at the moment with Comsat.”

Alison comes back down and says that she spoke only a few minutes with Christian before voice contact failed. Kevin says that occurred because of the boat shifting. But even if they get into the chat through America OnLine, which is taking forever because of AOL’s painfully slow graphic interface, there may no longer be anyone online to chat with. In the brief time they spoke, Christian told Alison that people had dropped out of the chat because nobody from the Alta was online.

Finally both Jonathan and Kevin reluctantly concede defeat. But only for the moment. Tomorrow, Kevin says brightly, everything should be back in smooth running order. No doubt the London satellite link will be up and running.

And sure enough, all is in order the next day. Everything proceeds without a hitch, getting the Virtual Galápagos message out to the Internet world in good order. It’s as though all the computer glitches destined to occur during the expedition were deemed by the gods to occur on one night. From here on out, all is smooth sailing. Ultimately, the joining of Internet technology and conservation aboard the Alta proves to be a happy union.

Sea Cucumbers

and other endangered species

I CAME TO THESE ISLANDS expecting—knowing—that I would see extraordinary wildlife, and I haven’t been disappointed. Just today, on Hood Island, I walked with my companions from the Alta among a dazzling landscape inhabited by thousands of blue-footed boobies tending their eggs and hatchlings or engaging in elaborate mating rites. I watched marine iguanas snaking through the tide to clamber aboard algae-covered rocks, and inadvertantly induced a bull sealion to growl threateningly at me because I dared wander among the lounging members of his harem. Such experiences, common among visitors to the Galápagos, are worth a fortune in good karma. If everybody could see these sights for themselves, we might all experience nirvana.

I’ve seen so many television documentaries about the Galápagos, and read so many books on the islands, that I hardly needed a guidebook to know what species inhabit which nooks and crannies here. I’m thankful for those PBS shows and coffee-table books, because they’ve done much over the years to encourage people to care for the animals and plants I’m now seeing first hand. The media may fail miserably in promoting conservation in some places, such as in areas of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest (way up there in the northern hemisphere), but it has gone all out to encourage people to protect the natural heritage of the Galapagos.

So far so good. We—conservationists in general, and Ecuadorian conservationists in particular—have accomplished a great feat in keeping the Galapagos wild, almost as wild as the islands were when Darwin first set foot on them.

Once you set foot on one the Galápagos Islands and encounter its wildlife face to face, you understand the truth of David Brower’s oft-repeated dictum, that the Earth needs CPR—Conservation, Protection, and Restoration. When wild animals—like the sealions, ground iguanas, and Galápagos hawks I saw yesterday on the northeast shore of Santa Fe Island–can be approached by humans and show no hint of fear, humans must be doing something right. Sometimes doing right means doing nothing at all. For millions of years, ignoring the Galápagos and letting them fend for themselves was our policy by default. Not knowing that they existed made doing right easy. Of course, we were busy doing some evolving ourselves.

Then we discovered the islands—or at least the Bishop of Panama did—after which doing right became harder. The idea of protecting the islands didn’t occur to the whalers, pirates, and early colonists who subsequently visited the islands. Fortunately it occurred to Charles Darwin, who managed to conceive some use for the island’s creatures besides slaughter and profit.

Amazingly, for a species that so often manages to dismiss good ideas, ours embraced Darwin’s revolutionary notion of species evolution. We set to work preserving the Galápagos as a living laboratory in which evolutionary ideas could be studied. Thanks to such diligence, today the islands are a World Heritage Site, and therefore a world-class monument to human reason.

Yet, as I learned yesterday in visiting Galápagos National Park and the Darwin Research Station, all is not paradise in the Galápagos Islands. While we humans, and Ecuadorian conservationists in particular, have done a better job of preserving the Galápagos than we’ve done in most other wildlife-rich areas of the world, we still face serious problems here. Solving them will be the ultimate test of our ability to achieve our conservation ideals.

Sea cucumbers

For example, when people think of Charles Darwin and the Galápagos, they don’t generally think of sea cucumbers. Yet they should, because until recently, the islands gave safe harbor to the sluggish animals, kin to sea urchins and starfishes. Now fishermen are harvesting as many as 600,000 to 1-million sea cucumbers each month to satisfy the culinary tastes of Asian connoisseurs. As a result, one of the Galápagos’ fourteen indigenous sea-cucumber species now faces extinction.

If that were the only threat to the archipelago’s biodiversity, we’d probably be able to rectify the matter in short order. Unfortunately, other matters consume the resources and energies of Galápagos National Park authorities and conservationists. There’s the continuing matter of wild goats and pigs devastating giant tortoise habitat and consuming tortoise eggs. Along with the rest of my party, and perhaps everyone who’s ever visited Galápagos National Park since the early 1970s, I saw Lonesome George, the last of his giant-tortoise subspecies, living out his final years in captivity, his kind destroyed by the pigs and goats our kind introduced to his island long ago. The same fate awaits other tortoise subspecies if the remaining goats and pigs aren’t eradicated, a task that Park Service officials estimate will require another $5 million in funds and several years of effort.

But back to the marine habitat around the Galápagos: It’s under siege as never before, and not just by those with a yen for sea cucumbers. Large international fishing vessels, mainly from Asian countries, are plying the waters around the islands, illegally hauling in huge catches of fish by means of large seines and long-lining. Meanwhile Ecuadorian fleets fish these waters, and while their activity is allowed by Ecuadorian law, some observers question whether the home fleets are observing the regulations promulgated by their government to preserve fish stocks and ensure a healthy marine environment. On top of these pressures, local fishermen in the Galápagos increasingly sell lobsters, sea urchins, shark fins, sea horses, and pipefish to Asian buyers. Some are killing sea lions to use as bait. The numbers of fishermen on the islands has increased substantially in recent years, to more than 800, further pressuring the marine life. In response to conservationists’ concerns about the fishing industry’s impacts on Galapagos resources, the Ecuadorian government issued various decrees. These set up oversight agencies to monitor the fishing problems, and set a limit on the number of sea cucumbers that could be harvested legally.The effects of these decrees, however, has been less than satisfactory. Reliable reports indicate that sea cucumbers are still being harvested illegally, by clandestine means, in excess of the decreed limit.

What all of this means, I’ve quickly realized, is that conservationists in Ecuador and world-wide have to work harder to instill conservationist thinking in our fellow bipeds. It’s inconceivable that we’ll be able to practice effective CPR anywhere on our continents if we can’t do it right in the Galápagos. So while it’s good to appreciate the Galápagos’ wildlife diversity, to dive with her sealions, walk among her boobies, gaze upon her iguanas, and ponder the immense age of her giant tortoises, it’s essential to keep in mind that none of these species is yet assured a bright future. And that’s a crying shame, because the Galápagos should be a showcase for our species’ ability to respect other species. We should be raising an outcry at any depradations on the islands, and putting up money to help the Galápagos National Park Service effectively patrol its turf. It’s the world’s turf, too, if not by legal title, then by virtue of our common interests in living in harmony with all creatures, be they giant, blue-footed, scaly, algae-eating, soaring, diving, or otherwise adapted to their world. It’s time for boldness, as Dave Brower would say. It’s time to show how well we Galápagos lovers can practice CPR.


Multicolored Spectacle

A green sea turtle spotted off the side of the Alta. Photo by DJ Young.

OFFSHORE OF FLOREANA ISLAND, it’s just after dinner on the Alta, and the live satellite chat is underway at the computer set-up in the dining room. There’s a commotion from outside as voices exclaim over baby green sea turtles off the side of the boat. On deck, I find Kevin shining his video spotlight on the water, and can plainly see the tiny creatures struggling to gain their freedom. Their main goal now is to keep from being eaten, not an easy task since a bunch of sealions are cruising around among them. Once, then twice, I see sealions scoop up the baby morsels.

It’s been another of those mind-boggling days in the archipelago. We landed on Floreana in the morning, and were instantly agog at the beach’s green sand, produced by bits of olivine crystals. Then we went bananas over the first couple of penguins we saw fishing in the surf, along with some dive-bombing boobies. 

This island gave me my best idea yet of the differences between the various types of mangroves in the archipelago. I took notes as fast as I could as Reina, our naturalist, pointed out things she thought we should take note of. The first species we came to, she noted–the one on the beach where the pelicans were perching–was the black mangrove. Reina said that if you touch its shiny leaves, then lick your finger tip, you’ll taste the salt exuded by the plant. The white mangrove, by contrast, gets rid of its salt by means of two tiny glands at the base of each leaf. 

On Floreana there’s another beach that’s perfectly white, with the finest, softest sand I’ve ever set foot on. It sloped gently down to an azure surf, in which we could see the shadowy forms of giant rays gently flapping along. It was easy to tell where green sea turtles had laid their eggs, because you could see the tracks where they’d crawled up the beach and back, and you could see the pit where they’d deposited the eggs. Frigate birds overhead could also see the egg stashes, and were waiting for signs of movement, at which, it was clear, they’d swoop down.

As someone who was born and raised in the heart of the Arizona-Sonora Desert, I find a lot to relate to here in the Galápagos Islands.

 Not until I came here did it occur to me how much the Sonoran Desert and the Galápagos’ habitats have in common. I knew, of course, that I’d find cactus on the islands, and that desert conditions prevail across most of the archipelago. But somehow I never imagined myself hiking along on, say, Floreana Island–where we visited this morning–and saying to myself: “Hey, this seems familiar; it feels like home.”

I realise anybody who’s been to Floreana Island will probably think I’m crazy to say that, because the habitat differences between the Sonoran Desert and the island are greater than the similarities. On Floreana, for instance, you find pink flamingos in land-locked, salt-water lagoons sweeping up and devouring tiny shrimp. In the Sonoran Desert, on the other hand, the only pink flamingos you see are the plastic ones people in mobile-home parks stick in the front yards.

One thing the Sonoran Desert and Floreana Island have in common, though, is palo verde trees. They’re not the most exotic plants around, but if you’re from Arizona, and you visit a place far away and see palo verdes, you get kind of excited. It’s like running into someone you know in an airport halfway around the world.

In both locales, palo verdes look like a dry-climate version of a weeping willow, with their long, thin leaves, covered with leaflets, drooping like pom pons, gently swaying in hot breezes. I always loved palo verdes because, in the depth of summer, when the earth seemed scorched and almost everything turned brown and brittle, they remained green–even their trunks and branches–and their long, supple leaves appeared soft and somehow comforting amid the desert’s harshness.

Appearances in the desert can be deceptive, and usually are. From a distance palo verdes look cool and inviting under the summer sun, but up close they prove as inhospitable to humans as any desert plant. Hooked spines jut from their branches, ready to rip into the flesh of any hand that attempts to grab them, or, perhaps, any hoofed, fanged, or clawed creature that tries to munch them.

When I was a kid in desert country, the discrepancy between the palo verdes’ inviting look from afar and repelling defences up close both fascinated and troubled me. Whenever I was hiking in the desert, wilting under the sun and feeling parched, I’d see the palo verdes in the distance projecting a cool image, but I knew it was a mirage. The trees weren’t my friends. They weren’t my enemies, either. They just stood aloof, as innocently inhospitable to humans as the cacti and other spiked flora in their neighborhood. Sometimes they taunted me by remaining green and cool while I suffered sunburn and glare. They didn’t even offer significant shade, though they looked like they ought to. And yet I admired them, maybe because they seemed so resolutely self sufficient, like sturdy, stubborn homesteaders in a harsh environment, eking out a living, gradually improving their land. They were as cool as any of the thorny things in the desert–except barbed wire, a loathsome species.

Thank goodness there’s no barbed wire on these islands, at least not that I know of. I may not get to every part of the archipelago, but I’m getting to see more than I can easily process. It’s wildlife overload here in the Galápagos. At the end of each day, I’m exhausted but exhilarated. I haven’t even told you about the day’s snorkeling. I’ve skipped lots of details. I mean, people write books about this place. I’m just hitting some highlights. I’ve gotta tell you, this is fun. This is a lot like heaven.


The Black Volcano

The author on Isabella Island.

AT THE ‘PORT’ OF VILLAMIL, Isabella Island‘s one pueblo, we board a rickety bus and head up to Sierra Negro volcano. After passing through the sleepy village, we travel for a few miles through a desert landscape. This side of the island faces south, getting the brunt of the trade winds and the bulk of the moisture. The area is thickly vegetated with a jumble of ragged looking plants, including cacti, palo verde, many shrubs, and what looks like ocotillo. Higher up the road, the desert gives way to fenced-in farmlands. Along the roadside, we see many introduced cedar and other deciduous trees. We skirt banana plantations, citrus groves, and grazing cattle before coming to an area bordering the edge of an ancient lava flow–a ragged jumble of black rock spread across the terrain like pancake batter, surrounded by cacti and thorn bushes.

Kevin keeps sticking a device, looking much like a cellular telephone, out the bus window as we speed along.

“I’m trying to determine our location, altitude, and speed,” he says when asked what he’s doing. The gizmo he holds is a Global Satellite Positioning device, designed to transmit and receive satellite signals to determine precise geographic position (we’re at 50 minutes south and 91 degrees west), altitude, and speed of travel. Kevin and Jonathan explain that the instrument, developed by the U.S. military, is useful for, say, Antarctic explorers caught in white-outs, or tourists lost on the streets of London.

While some of the crew talk about such hardware, other exclaim over such non-high-tech oddities as vermillion flycatchers, which once or twice appear as brilliant flashes of color among the greenery along the road..

By and by we arrive at the end of the bus ride and the beginning of the horseback adventure. It’s a motley lot of equestrians that mount steeds and head up to the crest of Sierra Negra volcano on Isabella Island. For that matter, it’s a motley lot of steeds. Mangy beasts is more like it. Their flanks are all skin and bone, their hides are dull, and some sport flourescent-purple spots where medicine has been applied to treat bug bites or saddle sores or some such thing. Nor is this bunch of skinny caballos particularly keen to haul a bunch of tenderfeet and their equipment up the hill. In fact, the idea seems to bore them teriffically.

Expedition leader Jonathan Chester with an array of electronic gear on Isabella Island. Photo by Kevin Twidle.

Obviously somebody needs to make clear to them how unusual our little expedition is, and how they’re helping to make Internet history. From the looks of them, though, they don’t have a clue about computers. Nonetheless, this crew of horses hauls not only the Virtual Galapagos crew, but our e-mail equipment as well. We’ll be the first to send digital dispatches from the top of Sierra Negra and have them posted on the TerraQuest Web site the same day.

The going is slow, and not without hitches. A couple of our riders take spills that bruise their egos but not their bodies. In one case, a saddle came uncinched, and the rider came down on the trail in a cloud of dust, laughing as though it were the funniest joke ever played on him. Jonathan and I, perhaps having offended one of the mountain gods (or, more likely, one of the horse gods), get stuck with the slowest horses, ones that lack motivation to go faster than a plod. I end up playing the harmonica to amuse myself while bringing up the distant rear of the pack. Jonathan takes photos of the scenery.

But what scenery it is! We skirt the caldera, a vast sunken hole in the top of the mountain, perfectly circular and about three miles in diameter. Its floor is a mass of hardened lava, not smooth but jumbled, twisted, and cracked, occasionally overgrown with vegetation.

We dismount under a huge “jaboncillo” tree adorned with lichens, orchids, and bromeliads. Kevin set up his briefcase satellite telephone, while two of our group grab PowerBooks and start clacking away on the keys, composing instant Internet dispatches that no doubt some (though not us) will say rank with Edison’s first recorded words, or first telephone conversation.

After the dispatches are done, Gary calls his office, but the person he wants to speak to is out of the office. “Can you put me through to his voice mailbox?” he asks the receptionist. No, she replies, because voicemail is out of order. “Wouldn’t you know it?” replies Gary. “I can call from the top of a volcano in the Galapagos, but the voice mail in the United States doesn’t work.” .

Meanwhile everybody’s photographing or videotaping everybody else. I’m struck by the absurdity of it. But I’ve got to admit it’s fun. And, besides, it’s peaceful under the tree, where we eat our lunches. I listen to the birds, the wind, and Gary calling his office, and gaze off into the panaramic distance, to the cinder-cone dotted landscape stretching off for mile after hazy mile, to the ocean.

We hike off to the leeward side of the mountain, leaving our horses to enjoy the shade and striking out into the blazing sun. The heat is made more intense by the black lava under our feet. Little plant life relieves the stark, volcanic landscape here. With every crunch of my boot on the lava, I grind cinders together. Looking closely at the bits of basalt, I see that some sides of them have shiny manganese sides, making them glisten as though they were moist.

But it’s incredibly dry here. We all consume copious quantities of water, lather on extra sun screen, protect our eyes behind sun shades, and make sure our wide-brimmed hats shade our faces and necks.

Reyna leads us across the folded, layered, swirling, cracked, and broken terrain–which varies in color from rust red (iron) to purple (copper and iron) to black (basalt)–to the edge of a fumarole, a fern-lined vent in the earth emitting sulfuric steam and heat. Pure sulfur colors some of the surrounding rocks a vivid yellow, in swirls amid crystalline rocks colored white, rose, purple, green, orange, brown, and black. It’s a Dead Head’s dream come true, to venture to one of the planet’s remotest places and find a natural tie-die design.

I’ve been to a lot of volcanos in a lot of places, but none struck me as so primordial as this one. I imagined it in its heyday, when it was bubbling over and running in rivers down to the steaming ocean. At some time or other, it would have been laced with streams of fire amid pitch-black islands where the rock was already beginning to cool. The light show would have put any rock concert’s to shame. What a high. What a trip. I didn’t even mind that my thighs were already sore, and I’d soon be going back downhill astride old slowpoke.


We Human Animals

Galapagos_CactiTHIS EVENING I’ve been out on ship’s deck, lying in the dark in the warm, moist air, looking up at the cloudy sky, feeling a million miles from home. This may be the best moment of my journey on the Alta. That’s not to say the wildlife I’ve seen so far, or the landscapes I’ve traversed, or the ocean I’ve swum haven’t impressed me. On the contrary, they’ve overwhelmed me with their grandeur, their timelessness. I appreciate them in ways I can’t express in a single dispatch, or even a multitude of dispatches. Whatever paeans I write to the wonders of these islands during the twelve short days of my visit may turn out to be shallow words colored by the blush of giddy discovery, but empty of serious reflection, of hard-earned understanding. To know these islands well would require a lifetime of study, and I’ve barely cracked the textbook.

So lying here on the deck, looking at the dimly lit masts swaying against the nimbus clouds, I’ve gained something I had lacked so far during the hectic days of this trip: perspective. The Galápagos appreciation I’m gaining on this trip is like poetry, a slender thread unraveled from an enormous multicolored tapestry. I’ve been collecting such threads for more than forty years, weaving them into a fabric of my own imagining. The thread I gather in this archipelago may prove to be among the richest in my collection.

For some reason, out here alone under the vastness of the sky, rocked by the sway of the boat, serenaded by the hum of the engine below and the continual surge of the waves against the distant shore of Isabela Island, I’m reminded of how ancient civilization is. I want to remember this because the Galapagos is all about evolution over eons of time, and it gives me a profound sense of peace to remember that civilizations evolve much like species, that we adapt to our environments, thrive when conditions are favorable, decline when times are hard. And while I’m drifting through such thoughts, the words of an old poem by O’Shaughnessy come into my head, as if spirited to me from the past :


We are the music makers
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by the lone sea breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.


World movers and world forsakers
On whom the pale moon gleams,
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever it seems.


With wonderful deathless ditties,
And out of a fabulous story,
We build up the world’s great cities.
We fashion an empire’s glory.


One man with a dream, at leasure,
May go forth and conquer a crown.
But three with a new song’s measure,
Can trample an empire down.


We in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth
Built Ninevah with our sighing
And Babel itself with our mirth.
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth.
For each age is a dream that is dying
Or one that is coming to birth.

When confronted with giant tortoises and finches that have dapted over millions of years to particular habitats, I want to reflect on our own development. I want to remember that for all of the layers of civilization piled up in archaeological mounds, in ruins and temples, tombs and crypts, we have evolved relatively little. In evolutionary terms, we are a young, upstart species. We’re still curious about all the other animals with whom we share the earth, but we’ve yet to mature enough to grant them their dignity by leaving them alone, to mind our own business and not interfere in their llives.

Here in the Galápagos, we’re trying hard to behave responsibly. This may be the place where we best demonstrate our maturity. Rather than juveniles running amock, hunting and trapping wildlife to satisfy our selfish whims, here we observe with restraint and respect. Perhaps the Galápagos wildlife are unable to appreciate the lengths we go to in “granting” them freedom, for they haven’t seen the whole world and can’t know how other species have suffered and perished under our rule. Perhaps they’re not even aware that we rule them at all, that we are lords with the power to destroy them at whim–a power we have, fortunately, held in check. But even if the animals don’t know of our beneficence, don’t understand that they’ve been singled out for special treatment, they can perhaps sense our good will. This is why they tolerate us, let us observe them at our leisure. Perhaps they even like us. That would be a nice reward in return for our diligence. But whether they like us or not—and it would be a fantasy writer’s affectation to presume they feel one way or the other—we should give ourselves a pat on the back for doing the right thing here, for demonstrating that our civilization has come of age, that we’re ready to fulfill our obligations, to come in from playing our games and take our place in the great hall of the animal kingdom.


The Iguana Chase

Land Iguana. Photo by Mark Mardon.

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE LAND IGUANAS ever working up enough energy to defend their turf against interlopers. The lumbering creatures look like they’re never in a rush. They seem to laze around a lot, their chicken legs stretched out behind and in front of them, their over-extended bellies flat against the earth. When they move at all, it’s often just to drag themselves over to a prickly-pear-cactus pad that falls within convenient eating range. Or to raise themselves up on their forelegs so that finches can clean their scaly bodies of parasites.

The reptiles adopt a plodding gait, putting first this foot forward, then that foot, their whole torso twisting in what looks like a supreme effort to accomplish the feat. More often than not, they let their tails drag in the dirt as they move, leaving behind conspicuous trails. But since the adults have no natural predators, they don’t bother trying to cover their tracks.

And getting anywhere takes the armored beasts almost forever, as they’re continually having second thoughts about where they’re going. They’ll be plodding steadily forward, testing the ground here and there with their tongues, then they’ll suddenly stop, blink, and look dumbly ahead, apparently having forgotten where they were going or why. Then they’ll turn to the right to see if maybe they should go that way, or to the left, in case that’s where they ought to be headed. If neither right nor left grabs them, they may turn all the way back around, seemingly possessing no memory of having just come down that path. As likely as not, they’ll finally decide that forward was not such a bad idea after all, and will continue lumbering straight ahead.

So what does a land iguana do when it gets riled? Given its usual lethargy, you’d think it would have trouble even working up to a good hiss. When I was assured by our ever-so-knowledgeable naturalist, Reyna, that land iguanas, like most other animals in the Galapagos, defend their nesting and foraging territories, I imagined the lazy creatures relying on posturing, standing up tall, sucking in a lot of air, and making themselves up to look as intimidating as possible to any intruder. What better reason to have a lot of spines than to look fierce from afar? But then, any reasonably perceptive land iguana (an apparent oxymoron) would know better than to flee at mere posturing by one of his kind.

So far on these islands, I’ve seen territorial aggrression by sea lions (the bulls bellowing loudly and throwing around their immense weight to dissuade outsiders from trespassing among their harems), boobies (the blue-footed kind pecking at the masked ones, forcing the latter to retreat to nesting grounds on rocky ledges, and the masked ones getting their revenge by forcing the red-footed ones to high-tail it to nests in trees), and marine iguanas (two of the males butting each other head-to-head, biting each other’s lips, and generally behaving atrociously).

But the land iguanas seemed so utterly docile that I was unprepared for an actual encounter between two rivals yesterday afternoon at Urbina Bay on Isabela Island. One of the creatures either unwittingly or knowingly intruded onto the turf of another, and—much to the stunned surprise of several camera-wielding onlookers—a high-speed chase ensued. It all happened so suddenly, it’s hard to say precisely what was going on, but the two creatures were both of impressive size and stature. One may have been testing the resolve of the other, or perhaps just sauntered in assuming he’d meet with no resistance. But if so, he was dead wrong: the defender leapt up and charged at the trespasser with such speed that he was all blur. It seemed as though he’d been transformed into another species, one that actually knows how to get up on all fours and exercise its muscles.

The chase lasted but a few seconds, but it dazzled the spectators. When he saw the defender barreling down on him, the intruder spun around and retreated in great haste, borne down upon by his angry attacker. The two beasts stirred up a trail of dust as they scrambled through brush, one in pursuit of the other, the intruder barely escaping having its tail nipped.

Fortunately, the entire scene was captured on video by our intrepid documentarian, Norman Bonney, had his camera trained on the showdown between the two reptiles. To see a land iguana run, and thereby dispel any notion you may have had that the animals spent all their lives dragging themselves on their bellies, all you need do is take a gander at Norman’s film.


The Buzz Aboard the Alta

We have too many coffee connoisseurs aboard the Alta, where espresso madness has taken hold. To understand how this outbreak occurred requires a bit of historical background.

While none of the Alta team hails from Seattle, the home of Starbucks and the place where specialty-coffee fanaticism took off in the United States, many of us dwell in the San Francisco Bay Area, where coffee snobbism caught on like cholera after traveling down the west coast and finding a ready host population in North Beach. There, in long-established Bohemian cafes—where formerly poetry had been people’s prime preoccupation—the coffee-as-art affliction incubated until it burst forth full-force and spread through other neighborhoods and nearby cities, especially Berkeley, where coffee and Zen exist in happy harmony.

Eventually, select beans from such disparate places as Ethiopia and Colombia made their way from laid-back California to bustling cities in the East and South, such as Washington, DC and Atlanta. There the rest of the Alta team caught the bean fervor—except those among us from Australia and the UK, where hard-core coffee snobbism first developed among effete tea drinkers. All of us (except a few teetotalers) then carried our coffee passion with us to the Galapagos, after making a quick espresso stop in Quito.

The Alta, fortunately, is equipped with lots of high-tech gear, including fax, radiophone, satellite transmitters, computers, and an espresso machine. Oddly enough, while most of the equipment was put in use from the very start of our sojourn among the islands, the latter item went untouched for two or three days, because none of our engineers, photographers, or nature writers could figure out how to use it.

Under pressure to spend 25 hours each day exploring wildlife habitats and sending off digital photos and dispatches to TerraQuest command post in California, something had to be done. The ordinary coffee served at breakfast and dinner each day simply wouldn’t do to keep our team operating at peak efficiency.

That’s when Deva Ferar, our multimedia whiz kid from Marin, threw up his hands one day and said: “Enough! I’m dying for a latte!”

Deva tore himself away from the computer screen long enough to examine the espresso machine in detail. After he was sure he had mastered its mechanics, he packed it with fine-ground espresso beans (thoughtfully supplied by the boat’s galley staff), filled it with water, prepared the milk for steaming, and turned it on.

Suddenly all the computer equipment flickered and shut down. The latte machine had blown a fuse. Several thousands of dollars worth of equipment had ceased operating to produce a hot drink worth, at most, $2.50 in the States.

Once a new fuse was located and installed, a choice had to be made: computer or latte. Of course the latter won out, and Deva prepared lattes for anybody who wanted one. He proved a master of the technique, serving up tall glass-fulls of kick-ass coffee and steamed milk, topped with a creamy foam.

Now, Deva’s role as multimedia master has taken second place to his position as latte chief. And the exclamations keep pouring out:

“Excellent latte,” attests Kevin, appraising Deva’s work.

“The latte-pooh is scrummy,” coos Alison, interrupting her online school chat for a sip of the foamy energiser.

And nobody can make lattes like Deva, as cyber-guru Kevin learns when he attempts to make one on his own. Grappling with the espresso machine, Kevin fiddles and fusses, attempting to measure the precise amount of grounds, fill the contraption with water, and produce steam to froth the milk. Nothing is going right. Deva, editing a QuickTime video on the computer right behind Kevin, keeps having to turn around to coach Kevin through the process.

Without Deva’s latte expertise, the dispatches and photos you’re seeing on this site might have been delayed for hours or days as the Alta team dozed through potentially productive middle-of-the-night hours. We may be crazy about coffee, but we’re mad about producing a great Web site. Now, if only we could get lattes while snorkeling…


The Newest Sea Lion

baby_sea_lionFOR A NEWLY BORN SEA LION, water is a scary element. A pup doesn’t just slide out of its mother’s chute and start swimming around. It has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the shallows.  The mother sea lion on Santiago Island, in the Galápagos archipelago, nudged, cajoled, dragged, and sweetly urged on her infant, just an hour or two old. The baby, full of energy but stunned by his arrival into the world, dragged his umbilical cord behind him, not quite realizing he’d been physically separated from his mother. Mom, having just gone through the exhausting process of giving birth, eagerly sought a place to stretch out and relax. She wanted to take her new-born across a shallow inlet, to nap on the flatter rocks on the opposite side. But the pup kept yowling, demanding attention, expressing fear of everything new around him. He had new sights, sounds, and sensations to absorb and contend with–skittish sally lightfoot crabs scurrying nervously along the rocks; fierce looking marine iguanas orienting themselves to the sun, crawling one on top of the other; camera-wielding photographers producing strange clicks and whirs and uttering strange, distinctly non-sea-lion noises.

The baby sea lion looked around with his eyes wide open, taking everything in all at once, curious to a fault. He started to waddle over to a photographer, but mom held him back with a growl. She wasn’t about to let him get too close, because he might become confused and mistake the human for his mother. At this crucial stage in the baby’s life, it was important that he imprint his mother’s smell on his memory. Any confusion in the baby’s mind about who he belonged to could lead to tragic consequences in the unforgiving, predatory marine world surrounding them. To demonstrate that the human was an intruder, the mother swept back her baby with her front flipper and lunged a few paces forward at the photographer, stretching out her neck and snapping at him with her sharp teeth. The man backed off, and the mother, satisfied she had made her point, returned to licking her child’s rumpled fur.

Now the mother decided it was time to nudge baby toward the water, but he wanted nothing to do with it. The waves’ surges between two rock flanks frightened him. He yowled and yowled, and resisted moving forward. When the salt spray splashed across his face, he flinched and withdrew. Why did he have to immerse himself in this strange, cold environment? He’d been born on solid rock, and young as he was, that’s where he felt secure. Somehow the pup instinctively sensed the water’s power and potential to do harm. He hadn’t yet experienced the freedom it would allow him to maneuver gracefully, fluidly. He didn’t know that he’d eventually find his food in the ocean depths. The idea of being a marine animal had yet to occur to him, and he would gladly remain on solid ground forever, as long as mom stayed around.

But mom wasn’t about to put off baby’s education. For her, the ocean was safety, the source of food, and her child must get to know it and trust it even in his first hours of life. She saw that he was afraid, and his constant bleating triggered her motherly, protective instincts. She sang and talked to him in her low-pitched, growling way to reassure him. Nonetheless, he was going to have to get into the water, whether he liked it or not.

With a gentle bite, mother lifted son by the scruff of the neck and dragged him half way into the surf. He yelped and tried to wriggle out of her grasp, but she held firm. The water lapped at his head, chest, and front flippers, then surged up the channel, lifting the front part of his small body. For a moment he felt as though he was being snatched away from mom. He feared being flushed out to that big wet place where the waves came from. But mom knew the waves at this spot weren’t strong enough to drag away her child. Baby’s panic would cease once he became familiar with the rocking sensation. So she tugged him again, harder, and he slid completely into the water, howling all the while. Mom let go of him, to give him a chance to accustom himself to his new element.

When the pup felt his whole body drenched by the surf, he momentarily forgot his desire to be close to mom. He attempted to bolt, to get as far away as fast as possible from the surf. But mom anticipated his reaction, and once more grabbed him by the back of his neck, pulling him backward. But the force of her pull threw baby off balance, and he flipped onto his back over momma’s flippers. Now he was upside-down in the water, and his panic increased. He wriggled up to the surface and bellowed in his high-pitched, childish way. But what he didn’t realize is that he’d already made it to the other side of the narrow channel. All he had to do now was waddle up a slight embankment to be in a solid place where he could nuzzle mom all he wanted.

The two animals, mother and infant, now ambled onto shore. While baby tagged along, scrambling over and around his mother, mom looked for a nice resting position. She wanted to relax now, for soon she’d complete the birthing process by expelling her placenta. She kept sniffing at her birth canal, rubbing her flanks, knowing what was to come and attempting to hurry up the process. Once the placenta was expelled, she would leave it behind for the gulls and other carrion eaters to devour.

The baby sea lion was hungry. He kept circling around mom, looking for a teat to suckle, but mom made no effort to help him find what he wanted. She let him sniff her, getting to know her smell so that he’d never forget it, never mistake some other sea lioness for his mother. So baby worked his nose all around mom’s body, for ten, twenty, thirty minutes. Finally, at long last, he found his food source. He suckled loudly, slurping up the rich milk. At last, when he was full, he became tired. Mom was tired too, and the two of them quieted down as the surf gently serenaded them to sleep, and the humans who’d been watching moved on for other sights, other sensations, on the wild Galápagos shore.




Read it and weep: Clearcut

Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry.

Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, edited by Bill Devall, published by Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, conceived by Doug Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

As readers of Sierra magazine know well, opinions on how to protect public and private forests in the United States are at least as numerous as the conservation organizations that hold them — and no such group, small or large, is shy about articulating its position. The result has been a cacophony of voices conveying an often-muddled message to policymakers in Washington, D.C.

This spring, however, 100 forest activists, brought together by the Sierra Club and representing a broad array of conservation groups, both small and large, convened in the capital to deliver a unified message to key members of Congress and Clinton administration officials: clearcutting is ripping the heart out of America.

The catalyst for this gathering was the publication of Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, a landmark volume from Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, conceived by Douglas Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. (See “At a Glance,” May/June, page 84.) Activists rallied to hand-deliver copies of the book to decision-makers in the belief that its combination of photographs of clearcuts and essays on forest ecology and politics would show them the folly of forest mismanagement.

Clearcut comes 30 years after The Last Redwoods (Sierra Club Books, 1964), the first book to use images of clearcuts to focus attention on threatened forests. That “exhibit format” book, which used such pictures sparingly, was subdued and traditional compared to Clearcut, a brash, in-your-face display of denuded landscapes that testifies to the spread of industrial forestry across the continent. It stands alone as the first avowedly ugly collectable book.

The 150 photos in Clearcut show a small part of the millions of acres that have been deforested, from British Columbia (where shots depict the wasting of Vancouver Island) to the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park (with clearcuts up to its boundaries) to North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama (landscapes that only General Sherman’s ghost could admire).

The reaction to the book on Capitol Hill was encouraging. Representative Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.) expressed delight with it, saying its analysis of the issues and its deliberately unattractive photographs “make beautifully clear statements.” Representative John Bryant (D-Texas) averred that the book would make a substantial contribution to forestry reform. Even Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), not known for undue sympathy toward environmental causes, seemed “excited and disturbed” by the book, according to Lee Stanfield and Don Duerr of the Sierra Club. “Clearcutting was a mistake of history,” the senator told them. “It’s archaic and ugly. Most people don’t want it.”

Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, however, preferred not to comment on or be seen in public with Clearcut, contending that the Forest Service is already shifting away from clearcutting, so he didn’t need to see any more pictures of it. Yet according to Sierra Club forestry expert Ned Fritz, who was in Washington for the event, Thomas has still not adequately explained what alternative method his agency is embracing. The fact is, says Fritz, unsustainable logging is still the rule on public lands.

Most enthused by the book were the anti-clearcut activists themselves, because it served to unite them on the issue. Too often in the past they have argued over policies. Organizations such as Earth First!, for example, want to ban all logging on public lands, an approach that alienates those who fear this might stimulate increased cutting of private and foreign forests. The Sierra Club prefers a more discriminating approach, opposing all timber cutting in old-growth and roadless areas, but allowing for limited, ecologically sound harvesting on previously logged public and private lands.

Dave Foreman, cofounder of Earth First! and now executive editor of the journal Wild Earth, welcomed the chance to cooperate with people from many organizations, and found the Clearcut education week to be constructive. “We’ve been a dysfunctional family of late,” he says of bickering environmental groups. “But there was a real willingness among everyone in D.C. to make a new start.”

Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council, a “zero-cut” proponent and outspoken critic of the Sierra Club’s position, agreed. “The event was good,” he says. “It brought me face-to-face with some of the activists I’ve reviled in the past. I found common ground with them.”

Tensions will no doubt resurface among conservation groups as they continue working on many different ideological and political fronts to reform forestry practices. “But during the Clearcut exercise,” says Sierra Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton, “a lot of disagreements were put aside. We realized how much we have in common, and how much we stand to gain by working together.”


This article appeared in Sierra, July-August, 1994.




High Hopes: A World of Mountains Worth Saving

As vulnerable as tropical rainforests and just as endangered, the mountains of the world have received inadequate protection. Our mountains are crumbling, scientists say, and it’s high time we shore them up.

Summit Strategies

Hutchings Creek, Mt. Lyell, Sierra Nevada.
Photo by Peter Alpert.

FEW OF EARTH’S FEATURES APPEAR MORE ENDURING and immutable than its mountains. A relief map of Asia conveys how solidly they define the world: the Caucasus and the Urals form borders between Asia and Europe; the Himalaya isolate Tibet from India; the Tian Shan divide China from Kirghizia; the Altai stand guard at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, and China. From adventure-travel accounts one gains the impression that the Andes, the Rockies, and other great ranges are fortresses all but impervious to assault. Unlike lowlands, where rainforests, rivers, marshes, and grasslands can be easily reached and destroyed, highlands seem aloof, secure in their immensity and sacrosanct in their beauty, mystery, and power.

But conservationists’ long experience in defending the Sierra Nevada and other North American ranges against the onslaught of irresponsible developers has taught us that the uplands are indeed vulnerable. While our species once feared and revered the Olympian heights, today we arrogantly and ignorantly reshape the gods’ former abodes. The “conquest of mountains” no longer signifies women and men striving to reach difficult summits. It now connotes the reckless human bent for blasting and molding mountainsides to accommodate resorts and egos; for removing a mountain’s insides and leaving tailings to poison streams; for stripping forested slopes of their trees and their dignity.

Though what’s happening to mountains under the crush of expanding populations is alarming, the damage isn’t yet irreversible. Hopeful voices were raised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where scientists from the International Mountain Society put forth a plan to save the highlands: they called for intensive alpine research and a vast array of conservation projects, and convinced all 178 governments in attendance to sign on to the program.

For the plan to succeed, the world’s mountains need a large and dedicated constituency. Brilliant dreamers and zealous defenders must give the peaks a voice. To that end I present a portfolio of words and images, some portraying enduring grandeur, others depicting tragic decline. My hope is to inspire not just sighs (whether of admiration or despair), but commitment.

Prosperity’s Price

Dorje Lakpa, Himalaya, Népal

THEY ARRIVE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD — vacationers in ever-increasing numbers on pilgrimages to the mountains. Often in search of respite from urban ills, these sojourners are finding more and more that the troubles they hoped to leave behind shadow them up the slopes.

Mass tourism boomed after World War II as industrial economies recovered their strength and low-cost, long-distance international travel became readily available. Mountain areas closest to population centers have borne the brunt of this onslaught. Perhaps hardest hit have been the European Alps, where a persistent rash of ski resorts has spread across the landscape.

Nor are the highlands of developing nations immune to such infections, brought on by international-lending banks and aid agencies (such as the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development) that cheerily help convert rural economies into ones that depend on cash from tourists. The resulting shift often disrupts  the cultural habits of centuries. Populations may boom, and the people may abandon their traditional stewardship of forests, water supplies, and wildlife to chase after vacationers’ dollars, marks, and

Unfortunately, thoughtless trekkers from well-heeled countries too  often generate not only currency but crises. They discard trash willy-nilly, encourage their guides to burn scarce firewood, and overwhelm local cultures, particularly at the height of the tourist season. At those times, the First World meets the Third in an all-too-obvious clash of lifestyles.

The Wellsprings of Life

Wedgemount Lake, Whistler Mountain, Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada

THE WATER THAT MOUNTAINS CAPTURE, STORE, AND DELIVER to the lowlands has historically been the lifeblood of much of humanity. The first tribes migrating to North America flourished in Rocky Mountain valleys, supported by abundant streams and lakes. In the Old World, cultures thrived for millennia along Egypt’s Nile River Delta, depending on water that originally fell as rain in mountains as far away as present-day Ethopia and Burundi. Mediterranean civilizations developed rapidly where the Apennine, Atlas, Pindus, Taurus, and other ranges collected ample moisture.

Yet communities and whole regions can come to harm when timber-cutting and grazing denude the highlands, as has happened with disastrous results in Madagascar, Haiti, the Philippines, and other countries where populations have burgeoned. Rain pelting barren hills is shed quickly, gathering force and generating floods with greater destructiveness than natural circumstances would provoke. Topsoil may erode and wash out to sea. Silt may clog irrigation systems and foul drinking-water supplies. In dry seasons the lack of vegetation can aggravate water shortages, and streams and wells may run dry.

In the Himalaya and other ranges in the developing world, the main threat to watersheds is not from those living traditional lifestyles at subsistence level. Rather, it is from megaprojects pushed by the World Bank, or various regional development agencies, or both. Schemes involving heavy earth-moving equipment — roads, commercial logging, and mining — can exacerbate erosion and other disturbances, sometimes disrupting entire watersheds. Dams can drown rivers. The toll of human misery these projects exact can be equally severe as they force villagers from their valley homelands, in some cases driving them to till unproductive lands high on the slopes.

Abundant Losses

Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo

BY VIRTUE OF THEIR HEIGHT AND EXPOSURE TO THE ELEMENTS, mountains support an array of life zones that harbor remarkably diverse flora and fauna. The dramatic mix of habitats on many tropical mountains varies from pastureland and deciduous forest to rainforest, coniferous forest, tundra, and icefields. A single mountain in northern Borneo — Kinabalu — is home to as many as 4,500 plant species, nearly a quarter of the number found in all of the United States.

While lowland tropical forests rank as the most biologically diverse places on the planet, all mountain habitats sustain a treasure trove of endemic plants and animals. Countless montane species may be lost before biologists fully investigate their genetic material or determine how they might be used for producing new drugs or foods. In some areas, the intricate interweaving of plants, andimals, soils, and climate may unravel altogether.

Mass extinctions are sweeping across mountain ranges world-wide like Biblical plagues. Among the most threatened habitats are those of Madagascar, eastern Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, along with the forests of India’s Western Ghats, the Eastern Himalaya, and the lower slopes of the Andes stretching to western Amazonia. In North America, the ugly swaths being cut through wildlife habitat by irresponsible logging practices have left many species with no place to call home.

The Sacred Profaned

Mt. Ngaruahoe, New Zealand

A VEIL OF MYTH AND LEGEND HAS LONG SHROUDED MANY of the world’s mountains, adding mystery to their features while obscuring them from trespassers. Centuries ago on New Zealand’s North Island, Maori warriors crossing the high plateau at the base of Mt. Tongariro avoided looking directly at the volcanic cone. They feared insulting the peak’s spirit and being punished with a blinding snowstorm.

For many devout millions, mountains continue to signify far more than agglomerations of stone or mere recreation sites. They are the dwelling places of supernatural beings either benevolent or malign, or are gods themselves. The traditional Quechua people of the Andes commune daily with mysterious apus who reside in even the smallest hillocks. The larger an apu’s domain, the more formidable its power. Many of the world’s 600 million Hindus regard an entire, might range as one god: Himalaya, father of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. In the Xishuangbanna Mountains of Yunnan, China, the forests are considered holy, and are protected from disturbance

These traditions crumble as industrial society fosters a technocratic attitude toward mountains that is far from reverential. It is difficult to imagine any mining engineer invoking the gods, or asking for forgiveness before blasting away a hillside.

The Dispossessed

Mountain-Top Removal in Appalachia, U.S.

MOST TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN CULTURES REGARD AS ALIEN THE modern Western concept of nature as something apart from and subservient to humans. They see the natural world as encompassing and supporting them while demanding their respect. Given the freedom to live as they have for many hundreds or even thousands of years, highland societies typically exact only minimal toll from the land, farming on terraces to minimize erosion, practicing shifting cultivation to preserve soil fertility, collecting medicinal plants, cutting trees selectively, and utilizing animal dung for fuel.

Topography often combines with traditional feelings of kinship with the land to promote conservation practices. Before the Spanish conquest of western South America in the 1500s, natives of the Andes had successfully adapted to their vertical world by developing a highly specialized form of agriculture in which varied crops — including the first potatoes — were grown on small parcels of land spaced out up the slopes like patches on a quilt.

Today the vast majority of native Andean people — like indigenous mountain people in developing countries around the world — live in abject poverty. They have little choice but to work on large plantations given over to cash crops. The imposition of foreign land-tenure and farming systems has proved disastrous for the Andean environment. Indian families produce as many as a dozen children in desperate hope of extra hands to provide for the table. The population crush has forced a mass migration of campesinos from the highlands to such sprawling coastal cities as Lima and Santiago. There millions live in squalid shantytowns, breathing the fouled air that piles up against the mountainsides like trash against a curb.

In Appalachia, communities suffer as the landscape around them is scarred irreparably through mountain-top removal, a pernicious affront to the sensibilities of the people, not to mention a travesty for wildlife.


Towering Monuments

Mt. Huascarán, Cordillera Blanca, Andes, Peru.

IN 1972, MOST COUNTRIES ATTENDING A UNITED NATIONS conference in Paris agreed to identify their outstanding geographical areas and nominate them for consideration as World Heritage Sites. Once approved by an international committee, the delegates decreed, the places os designated would be safeguarded in perpetuity through the cooperative efforts of the world community.

To date, 25 mountain areas in 15 countries have been inscribed on the World Heritage List. Such designation has helped to modify road proposals for Mt. Huascarán in Peru, discourage mining on Mt. Nimba on the border between Guinea and the Ivory Coast, and limit ski-resort development on Bulgaria’s Mt. Pirin.

Many spectacular areas nominated for the list still await approval; of even greater concern are those areas not yet nominated but eminently deserving of protection. Though an urgent case can be made for protecting all mountains — even those celebrated only by the people who dwell in their shadows — it is heartening that the nations of the world have concluded that some peaks and ranges, at least, are so distinctive that preserving them is clearly in the interest of all.

Cultural Revival: The Ladakh Project

IF I HADN’T WOKEN UP WITH A SPLITTING HIGH-ALTITUDE HEADACHE in northern India one morning, I could now claim to have met the Queen of Ladakh. This royal personage occupies a mud-brick palace in the village of Stok, not far from the Indus River in Ladakh (la-DOC ), a stark, arid land that lies between the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges on the western edge of the Tibetan plateau, in the department of Jammu and Kashmir. My traveling companions had arranged an audience, but I was suffering from mild altitude sickness and had to opt out.

I stayed in my hotel bed in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and amused myself by reading a guidebook history of the region. I began wondering how her majesty must feel being the figurehead of a Tibetan Buddhist dynasty whose 400-year rule ended when the Hindu Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir “acquired” Ladakh in the 1840s. With 25 servants, and an 80-room palace to wander in, the queen couldn’t feel too bad, though she might well harbor some lingering resentment: When the Maharajah’s troops invaded, her royal ancestors had to flee the eight-story, 16th-century Leh Palace. From my window I could see the old, abandoned building, wrapped in an aura of grandeur and mystery.

But what did the Hindu invaders capture? As any visitor soon learns, Ladakh is a land of barren, gray mountains laced by glacier-fed rivers and dotted by monasteries and villages. Its most valuable natural resource may well be yak manure. If you walk downwind of a traditional Ladakhi home at mealtime or when the temperature drops (it can reach minus 40 degrees in winter), the sweet scent of dung-burning stoves and heaters wafts your way like incense.

Just such an odor was drifting through my hotel-room window. Soon came the added smell of baking wheat bread, at which point the lure of Leh proved stronger than my will to lie down. I ventured out to find a breakfast of warm bread, jam, and local green tea churned with salt, soda, and butter before winding through a confusing maze of narrow streets toward The Ladakh Project, an environmental and cultural-survival institute headquartered in town.

En route, though, I was distracted by Muslim traders who wanted to haggle over the prices of bronze Buddhas and bracelets inscribed in Tibetan with the sacred mantra om mani padme hum (“Oh, thou jewel in the lotus”). Tranquil, red-robed lamas nodded in pasing, and excited children shouted “Jullay!” — Ladakhi for “hello.” From various rooftops, strings of prayer flags flapped like handkerchiefs hung out to dry.

The Ladakh Project’s ecology center was easy to identify by its big sign advertising a restaurant, a library, and a solar-power demonstration. The project was the brainstorm of Swedish linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge, who came to Ladakh in 1975, shortly after the Indian government opened the region to foreigners. She soon noticed that the influx of Westerners — with their cameras, clothes, wads of cash, Walkmans, and notions of industrial progress — was rapidly altering Ladakhi culture. Ladakhis had formerly regarded themselves as rich; after comparing themselves to the newcomers, however, they began to feel ashamed of having no blue jeans or nylon backpacks (like mine) and of having to plow fields rather than push buttons on a computer keyboard (like the one on my laptop).

Norberg-Hodge founded the Ladakh Project to teach local people how to counter large-scale development with locally controlled enterprises. Eventually a group of Ladakhis formed the wholly indigenous Ladakh Ecological Development Group, which runs the center. I saw their accomplishments as I toured the facility: One south-facing wall, painted black and fronted with a double layer of glass panes, heated the space year-round, and a workshop provided craftspeople with tools for designing gravity-driven water pumps and small-scale hydro-generators.

Norberg-Hodge told me that about 100 tourists a day make their way to the Ladakh Project. They’re welcomed with open arms, tips on how to respect traditional Ladakhi culture, and solar-baked muffins — which, by the way, my traveling companions did not get while chatting with Her Majesty the Queen.


This article appeared in Sierra Magazine, March/April 1992.

Redefining Progress: A Time to Repair the Earth

Earth Island Institute Chairman David R. Brower. Photo by Mark Mardon.

David Brower, the grand old man of conservation — the man author John McPhee once dubbed The Archdruid — sips a martini at Sinbad’s, his favorite lunch spot, overlooking San Francisco Bay. He looks out through the plate-glass window, scanning the air just above the water, hoping — expecting — to spot brown pelicans in flight as they pass under the Oakland Bay Bridge.

“There, three of them!” he points excitedly to some specks near the water’s surface, just forward of the bow of an immense, slow-moving container ship. “Do you know,” he boasts a moment later, “just a few days ago I counted 25 while I was sitting here having lunch?”

Brower’s enthusiasm for counting brown pelicans is understandable. Twenty years ago, their numbers had dwindled so drastically along the West Coast that they appeared to be on the verge of extinction. The culprit was DDT, an insecticide that became popular following World War II and that earned its developer, Swiss scientist Paul Mller, the 1948 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

What the Nobel committee did not foresee when it bestowed the prize was that huge quantities of DDT would soon be leaching off farms into rivers, lakes, and oceans. The chemical would break down into DDE, which would steadily accumulate in the flesh of fish. Those fish would be consumed by raptors and sea birds. And those unfortunate creatures would lay eggs with shells so thin they couldn’t hold up during incubation. So insidious would DDE’s effects become, in fact, that by the spring of 1969, bird watchers on Anacapa Island near Santa Barbara, California, would count 320 new pelican nests–only 19 of which would contain eggs.

In the 1960s, when environmental activists like David Brower (who then ran the Sierra Club) called for a sweeping ban on the use of DDT, the pesticide industry accused them of being “antitechnology.”

What that vague but deliberately unflattering epithet implied was that anyone opposed to DDT was anti-progress. And to be against progress, as any high school history student learns, is to be not merely anti-American, but anti-Western Civilization.


Shifting paradigm

Our Western culture — if not every civilization — has long nurtured a sense of time-continuum, a moving forward, a reaching out to explore new ideas and frontiers. In this respect, human beings have been optimists, never recognizing limits to the space available to them. Wherever and whenever we have perceived a void, we have rushed in to fill it in what historian Daniel J. Boorstin calls “the spirit of exploration.” Behind this spirit, always, lies the sense that something waits to be discovered.The Magellans, Amerigo Vespuccis, and Captain Cooks of our Western history revealed our ignorance of the physical world; the Darwins, Adam Smiths, and Sigmund Freuds of our heritage revealed the dark continents of genetics, economics, and the subconscious. Each plunge into these alien territories brought us greater understanding of ourselves and our universe, while strengthening our resolve to explore further.

And so, continually, we raise ourselves to new plateaus, only to discover vast, unexplored areas ahead of us. “We cannot assure the future,” reads a poster tacked to a mud wall in a Colombian farming village, “we can only risk the present.” Risk it for what? The farmer might ask. And comes the unfailing answer: Progress, to move forward. To push on. We dare not retreat. Retreat is inimical to our collective sense of destiny.

But as Thomas S. Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, our movement forward will always be nonlinear. We try numerous paths, only to discover that many lead us astray. Clues that we are on the wrong track begin to mount up. Finally, assuming we do not wish to perish in the wilderness, we heed them, retracing our steps in order to scout a better route.


A host of troubles

The environmental ills we confront today indicate that our “advanced” technological path is leading us not out of, but ever farther into the jungle (and certainly our course is no better charted than Columbus’ prior to his first expedition to the Indies). Yet despite all the gadgetry we carry on our backs, we’re hopelessly ill-equipped to avoid the jungle’s pitfalls. Technology, for all its promise, is landing us in quicksand.

So familiar are the troubles besetting our environment that the list of them reads like a litany, recalling the Biblical plagues:

•  human reproduction has spun out of control, with 5.2 billion of us [in 1990] now overloading the planet, creating unmanageable wastes, widespread poverty, and overwhelming demands on scarce, nonrenewable resources;

• quietude is being eroded and scenery obstructed, especially by automobiles and airplanes, frustrating our chances for reflection and rejuvenation;

• vast swaths of tropical rainforest the world over are being clearcut and burned, largely to make way for temporary farms and cattle grazing; temperate old-growth forests are being ravaged for fuel and lumber, often as export commodities;

• aquatic ecosystems, including commercially-vital fisheries, are succumbing to the ravages of oil spills and pesticide runoffs;

• fertile soils are turning to dust, victimized by overgrazing and excessive tillage, contributing to the inexorable spread of desert-like conditions around the world;

• the air surrounding us becomes fouler each day, with pollutants drifting on currents, causing acid rain, ozone-layer destruction, global warming, and a host of health problems;

• wildlife habitats are being demolished by bulldozers and their kin, with the consequent extinction of plant and animal species at a rate unprecedented in Earth’s history;

• toxic chemical and nuclear-energy-production wastes have been silently, steadily seeping into aquifers, threatening all animals’ lives;

• nuclear weapons proliferate around the globe, manipulated by capricious politicians and warriors, threatening to decimate all animal and plant ecosystems, leading many, perhaps most of us, to a profound pessimism and uncaring about the well-being of the Earth.

No question about it: These are mighty unpleasant happenings, which is why a great many people would like to ignore them — for peace of mind’s sake. But not looking at one’s compass is a sure way to wind up in a morass.

Practical people lost in the woods like to read maps — as opposed to tea leaves — in order to find trails to follow. Environmentalists have many times been accused (usually by those who think technology offers solutions to all ills) of being pessimists. But all they are doing, really, is plotting landmarks on maps, hoping to discover where they are heading.

That is what biologists Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren do in their textbook, Ecoscience. Having plotted various environmental stress signs on their map of civilization, they conclude that a realistic path for the future includes continuing worldwide inflation, a widening of the gap between rich and poor, increased incidence of famine, heightened social unrest characterized by strikes, riots, and terrorism, more frequent international confrontations over resources, and a probability of nuclear war that increases “in some (perhaps nonlinear) relation with the growing number of possessors of nuclear weapons.”

This is where we appear to be heading with our so-called progress.


Down to Earth

“The Big Party,” says David Brower, “otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution, is reaching its end.”

And what will take its place? Chaos? A colonization of outer space?

Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill and science writer Isaac Asimov believe the latter is necessary to avoid the former. They propose that humans leave their crowded countries and stretch out in the wide-open expanses beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

“Once we break out from the confines of this planet,” wrote O’Neill in 1976, in The High Frontier, “we can begin building new lands from the limitless resources of our solar system.” But, he added,the most important benefits of space colonization are neither physical nor economic, but “the opening of new human options, the possibility of a new degree of freedom.”

These are the very notions that set sailors voyaging across the oceans in the 15th century, that have motivated explorers throughout the ages. They epitomize our society’s long-held concept of progress.

But people adhering to such ideas today ignore every blinking red warning indicator on the map of civilization. They take comfort in the notion that, if we soil our planet — even make it unlivable — we needn’t worry because we have rockets to facilitate our escape.

Consider this: By the time we mass our resources to put even a few handfuls of people into space stations, the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life will have eroded beyond repair; we will have permanently lost the strength to make our odyssey among the asteroids. Perhaps a small population of moon humans will serve as the seed for a new civilization hundreds of years hence, but that, as Asimov knows, is speculative fodder for science fiction.

What we really need to be strong, David Brower says, is to take a very different course. We must put all of our energies into undoing the damage we have done to our planet.

“We need to take whichever word we like best,” he says, “— renew, rehabilitate, regenerate, repair, replace, restore — and go to work with it, rebuilding our own life-support system.”

“In the Franklin Roosevelt administration,” Brower says, “we had the RFC and NRA — the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the National Recovery Administration — to get us out of a deep economic depression. We are entering a much deeper ecological depression.” Brower believes the time has come for a new Restoration Era. In the way that the Industrial Revolution began putting people to work in the late 1700s, the Restoration Era would see us working to undo the damage done by our hardworking forebears. He endorses the call by California environmentalist John J. Berger for the creation of a “Restoration Corps,” loosely modeled after the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In Restoring the Earth, Berger asks that the world’s peoples commit themselves to replanting forests, restoring streams and prairies, renovating and expanding public transit systems, and reintroducing native species to carefully reconstructed habitats.

Restoration work has long been done — is still being done — on a piecemeal basis. Much of the know-how exists. One much-acclaimed project is Daniel Janzen’s effort to re-create a dry tropical forest in Costa Rica, a habitat that had been reduced to “scattered biotic debris.” Janzen pays local people to assist him in reassembling the forest from its remnants. “He depends on help from the people who were making a living by taking the ecosystem apart,” Brower says. Today the Society for Ecological Restoration and Management in Madison, Wisconsin, documents countless restoration projects.

As David Brower contemplates a piece of chocolate cake for dessert, musing that he’s no longer the lithe young man who once climbed peak after rugged peak in the Sierra Nevada, he repeatedly turns to look out the window, in the direction of Oakland.

“San Francisco Bay could be restored, too,” he muses, sharing the hope of all the area’s environmentalists. For decades the Bay has been subjected to dredging, landfilling, and industrial pollution. And the fresh water that feeds the Bay, nourishing its extraordinary ecosystem, now trickles in at less half its former volume; most of it is now diverted to housing and industrial farms to the south. Environmentalists would like to see most of that water brought back home to rejuvenate an estuary that development-crazed people have allowed to decay.

Progress, for David Brower and for all those who advocate a Restoration Era, means abandoning the industrial path that leads to ruin, repairing the earth we tore up in our forward rush, scouting a new path, and starting all over again.

NATIONAL_FORUMThis essay originally appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of National Forum, the Phi Kappa Phi Journal. It was commissioned by the editor for a special issue devoted to “preserving the global commons.”


In Search of Elusive Metaphors

 The Art of Travel Writing

Gulf of California

TRAVEL WRITING IS JOURNALISM WITH AN EMPHASIS ON PLACE rather than events. It may or may not aim for objectivity, but almost inevitably it explores states of mind– that of the writer, and of the people who dwell along the path the writer wanders. It may even presume to convey the attitude of the land, on the assumption that nature speaks a language humans can interpret.

Apart from when it serves a utilitarian function– such as guiding tourists to exotic locales– the travel narrative stands alongside the novel, biography, poem, history, and essay as a genre aspiring to high art. As such, it requires of the author meticulous attention to detail and mood, an ability to vividly convey fleeting events, sensations, and thoughts, the capacity to sort out myriad impressions, to eliminate tedium, and to interpret information by placing it in various contexts, be they historical, environmental, or personal. Far more than news reporting, where the focus is on an issue, travel writing involves recreating an atmosphere, crafting a story imbued with dramatic tension and rendered in such a way that readers come away from it exhilarated, dreamy, despondent, amused, philosophical, or otherwise engaged.

Accomplished travel writing reveals emotions and behaviors, catching its subjects in intimate, unguarded moments. In this it resembles lovemaking. Readers will note whether the author’s attempts are adept or clumsy, sensitive or callous.

Revealed emotion is travel writing’s key. A journey’s essence must be unlocked, be it through astonishment at glimpsing a snow leopard, reverie induced by the discovery of scattered potsherds, or frustration and fear welling up from having to stop and dole out a bribe at yet another rebel checkpoint.

The critical element in each travel story is the writer’s thoughts, not the plodding details of how one gets from airport, to taxi, to hotel, to restaurant, to mosque, to moonlit shore– then back through winding streets to bed. Whole days of such monotony are better left as blurs across the writer’s canvas, while select moments stand out as flashes of color. Each detail rendered must be purposeful, an element in a scheme designed to surprise, delight, captivate, illuminate, sadden, or confound. Though the trip itself may have been random, nothing in the manuscript is left to chance. Every word is plotted, subtle phrasings are employed, humor is injected, glimpses of familiar places are afforded– all with the aim of seducing readers, enticing them to abandon their egos, follow a certain route, lose themselves to other ways of thinking and perceiving. Success is achieved when readers let their minds wander at ease through a landscape their bodies may never know, or when they eagerly revisit a known site, only too glad to see it in a new light, or from a different angle.

A fresh viewpoint is critical, for not a single castle, village, river bend, rock formation, back-alley brothel, wind-swept plain, temple, gorge, bridge, or slum has escaped being visited by English-language writers. An author seeking to publish a manuscript about, say, trekking to Machu Picchu must convince an editor (especially a jaded one, the most common kind) that their account is novel–even though it follows upon hundreds of other articles and books by writers who traversed the same trail.

To eschew banality, to somehow rise above the literary pack, is the travel writer’s greatest challenge. But in the effort to be original, the author must be wary of stretching too far, of becoming a poseur. Truth is essential. If any word in any account breathes insincerity, readers will turn suspicious, even hostile. They’ll reject a writer they suspect of posturing. Readers have no sympathy for adventurers who boast of facing danger when the thrills described seem cheap, the bravado contrived, and the threats unreal.

Certainly, though, the writer who tosses humor and cockiness into an account can afford to flavor it with a bit of braggadocio. But even in this mixture, at its base, there must be honesty, the most fundamental ingredient.


Travel writing with an emphasis on natural history:

Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, by Mark Mardon and Stephen Lyman

The Mysterious Lands, by Ann Zwinger

The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, by Henry Beston

Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat

In the Country of Grasses, by Terry Tempest Williams

Pieces of White Shell, by Terry Tempest Williams



— John Muir

Travels in Alaska

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf


— Colin Fletcher

The Thousand-Mile Summer



— John McPhee

Encounters With the Archdruid

Coming Into the Country


— Catherine Caufield

In the Rainforest

(the Amazon basin)


— Alex Shoumatoff

The Rivers Amazon


— Debbie S. Miller

Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge


— Sam Wright




— Dean Krakel II

Downriver: A Yellowstone Journey


— Peter Matthiessen

The Cloud Forest


. . . with an emphasis on culture or human habitat.


— Gretel Ehrlich

The Solace of Open Spaces



— Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

(Blue Ridge Mountains)


— N. Scott Momaday

The Way to Rainy Mountain



— Isak Dinesen

Out of Africa


— Peter Matthiessen

Indian Country



— V.S. Naipaul

An Area in Darkness


A Bend in the River



— Thomas Bass

Camping With the Prince



— Mary Morris

Nothing to Declare

(Latin America)


— Rosemary Mahoney

The Early Arrival of Dreams



— Jan Morris


(essays from Rolling Stone)


— Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia


— Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar


— Marian Botsford Fraser

Walking the Line: Travels Along the Canadian/American Border


— Joanna McIntyre Varawa

Changes in Latitude



— Jeff Greenwald

Shopping for Buddhas



— Brigid Keenan

Travels in Kashmir


— Richard Shelton

Going Back to Bisbee

(southern Arizona)



. . . with a biographical or autobiographical emphasis


— Mark Mardon

Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (with painter Stephen Lyman)

(Yosemite National Park)


— John McPhee

Encounters With the Archdruid

(environmentalist David Brower)


— Curee Miller

On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet


— Timothy Egan

The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest


— Caroline Alexander

One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley

(West Africa)


— Stuart Stevens

Night Train to Turkistan



. . . with an emphasis on daring and hardship

— Tim Cahill

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh

(South America)


— Joe Kane

Running the Amazon


— David Smith and Franklin Russell

The Odyssey of an Uncommon Athlete

(North Africa)


— David Halsey with Diana Landau

Magnetic North: A Trek Across Canada


— Arlene Blum

Annapurna: A Woman’s Place


— Julie Tullis

Clouds from Both Sides



— Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen

Islands of Fire, Islands of Spice



— Galen Rowell

Mountains of the Middle Kingdom: Exploring the High Peaks of China and Tibet


— Eric Hansen

Stranger in the Forest




This essay appeared on the website of the South American Explorers Club —a geographical and outdoor adventure society — as part of its writing guidelines for contributors to South American Explorer magazine.


Garrin Benfield: This Side of Nowhere

“It could be that the nowhere place is the brighter place.” — Garrin Benfield.
Photo by Mark Mardon
Garrin Benfield. Photo by Mark Mardon

“There have been times in the last couple of years,” says Garrin Benfield, the bluesy young San Francisco singer/songwriter, “when I’ve felt like there couldn’t be one more thing that was up in the air that was ambiguous, that was undecided or ungrounded. I was just floating around in all of these elements.”

It’s a classic blues sentiment, and goes a long way toward explaining the dark beauty of Benfield’s bitter-sweet new album, Nowhere is Brighter (Eighth Note Records), a semi-thematic work born out of the tensions of love and life in the urban gay world. Benfield gives vent to a lot of the hard knots of being in a relationship where boundaries are ever dissolving and reforming.

“I’ll be really angry, really dark,” Benfield says in anticipation of his CD release concert at the Great American Music Hall on Thursday, May 9. “That’s generally the space I’m in when I’m writing.” He hopes the end product doesn’t come across as bitter or jaded, “but that’s sort of what inspires me to create, getting into those spaces.”

When he stops writing and starts playing, it’s a whole different tune. To hear Benfield play live is to rise above petty cares, to float dreamily on the waves of his voice, sweetly seductive even as it cries of loneliness. That voice’s distinctive, plaintive quality is what draws people into Benfield’s musical world of introspective pop songs and urban folk narratives.

NowhereIsBrighterThe collected songs are masterfully performed by Benfield and his core band members, Ricky Fataar on drums and James “Hutch” Hutchison on bass, along with a star-studded line-up of contributing musicians, including Benfield’s famous pal Boz Scaggs on guitar, and long-time collaborator Michael Rodriguez on keyboards, plus Julie Wolf of Ani DiFranco fame on B-3 Organ and vocals, Bonnie Rait collaborator John Cleary on honky-tonk piano, and Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows on B-3 Organ, among others. The results are seamlessly presented in an album of great stylistic variety, with zero glitches either in artistry or engineering, demonstrating the truth of the old adage that the best art is created not in times of contentment or elation, but in the down times.

“I just feel so much I’ve lost my sense of you,” Benfield sings in “Lonely Journey,” a lush, bassy, guitar-driven lament at not being able to extract from love all its possibilities. Benfield’s voice sweeps across plains like the wind rolling tumbleweeds. “Won’t you take me away from here,” he pleads, and when the voice rises into a peak of country-western wailing, in the distance you can almost hear coyotes howling.

The album, engineered and mixed by Rodriguez, takes Benfield’s bluesy vocals and masterful guitar playing, adds a country twang, brightens it all up with infectious pop melodies, gives it extra oomph with the classy line-up of collaborating musicians, and sends it cascading one glorious song after another down a waterfall of deep soulful regrets.

“Nothing that I saw on your face/Told me which way to go,” Benfield sings in “To Know,” the inscrutability of his lover gnawing at him, driving him crazy. But the beat and catchy tune, plus the vocal harmonies with Wolf, give the song a happy-go-lucky air. If love gets you down, sing a happy tune and all is well, at least on the outside.

In “I Swear,” Benfield says he’s looking for “the kind of love that dares speak my name.” This snappy Beatles-esque number, which employs Charlie Gillingham on B-3 Organ, fades out gracefully, leaving us pondering a key phrase: “What I’m looking for/Is someone to receive me.”

In “The Sense That I Get,” a straight-up blues number, Benfield employs both acoustic and electric guitar riffs to urge his indecisive lover to “hurry up and make up your mind/Before the door closes on us both.” Boz Scaggs sits in on this one, playing a mean second guitar solo.

What most distinguishes “Home” – another of Benfield’s wind-swept songs, evoking rocky shores far, far from home – is its resonating percussion, a deeply reverberating drone, like rumbling thunder. “When we recorded it, we set up a timed delay,” says Benfield, so that drummer Ricky Fataar “is actually hitting one note and it’s reverberating.”

The saddest-sounding, most gorgeous song on the album is also the simplest: “Nowhere,” the title song, the lyrics of which consist of only those few words: “Nowhere is brighter,” hauntingly sung to the strains of Benfield’s mesmerizing fingerpicking. What he likes about the song is its darkness and lightness colliding: “It could be,” he says, that “the nowhere place is the brighter place, and that’s sort of where I choose to reside.”

Some of the fairy-tale glow that has enveloped Benfield’s life and career up to now – scores of friends and fans have taken inspiration from Benfield’s long-term relationship with photo-artist Joshua Smith, because flowers seem to spring up everywhere the couple steps – some of that brightness has given way to a less carefree, more guarded spirit. While lovers’ bliss was the hallmark of Benfield’s debut album, Living A Dream, with Nowhere is Brighter, you get more of the struggle and estrangement. The overall impact is positive: The blush of innocent youth has faded, leaving a more confident, subtly expressive artist.

“I don’t really have a sense of who my audience is,” says Benfield, but clearly he’s touching a universal chord. On tour with blues-master Scaggs last fall, playing to large crowds at Napa Valley wineries, Benfield found much appreciation from members of the gray-haired set, but he finds just as much enthusiasm from college and nightclub crowds, either on tour or here at home. Certainly he’s popular in San Francisco among fellow gay and lesbian singer/songwriters, as he’s had a slew of artists play at the “GLBT Songwriters Series” he hosts monthly at Bazaar Cafe, a bastion of folk music in the Richmond District.

garrininmarin7-1“Before I die,” says Benfield, having just come from a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert at the giant Compaq Center in San Jose, “I want the experience of playing to 30,000 people.” As he stood in the midst of the audience, he kept looking at the stage and saying to himself, “I could do that.”

Indeed he could, as anyone who has experienced Benfield in concert understands. He’s a shoe-in for the big time. And who does he most want to play with before those 30,000 people?

“Well,” Benfield replies in a blink, “I’m just looking forward to playing with the guys on this record, you know, because that’d be great. With these guys I know we’re going to get out there and it’s going to totally be good.”


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This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, May 2, 2002

Outsider moves

FreshMeat_Outsider Moves_Cinderbutte
Sean Dorsey and Mair Culbreth in “The OutsiderChronicles.” Photo: Max Ferman.

When a dance production comes along that involves beauty and imagination to the nth degree, and I’m lucky enough to be there to witness it, I feel incalculably grateful. In the midst of fractured times, for a choreographer/dancer to pull together a full-length evening of flawless dance and story telling is immeasurably wonderful and healing. The boundlessly gifted Sean Dorsey and his Fresh Meat crew performed perfectly this past Friday, November 18, at that jewel of a dance space, ODC Theater, and when it was over, a packed house gave the dancers, musicians and tech crew a much deserved, prolonged standing ovation. No one wanted to leave. Everyone was smitten.

“The Outsider Chronicles”, billed as “a dance theater journey into the world of the gender outsider,” stripped off layers of confusion surrounding the transgender experience, baring a simple, spare, sublime representation of otherness, while retaining that certain mysteriousness that makes transgendered people so alluring. Five dances encompassed a lifetime of experience, mostly told in duets with super handsome Sean and exquisitely beautiful Mair Culbreth, or by Sean solo. In the opening piece “Second Kiss,” Sean and Mair represented two school girls, nine year olds, exploring romance and reeling from confusion. Mair was the cute, pushy girly girl who wanted her first taste of boy lips. She looked over her options, and mistaking Sean for a boy, chose him. Sean, realizing he’d be taking part in a deception, dragged Mair away from his playmates, who knew his true gender, to indulge in the desire he and Mair both shared, albeit with different levels of awareness. They kissed, just once, and rolled around, and found their limbs entwined, then they were lying side by side, breathless. Her passion aroused, Mair then wanted to have a look “down there,” and Sean knew the gig was up. “Oh gross!” reeled Mair, confronted with the evidence. She fled, but soon edged back, taking Sean’s hand. There would be no second kiss. The first kiss, however, was unforgettable.

By the second dance, Sean was all man, androgynous to be sure, but male without a doubt. There was no question he had transitioned. “Red Tie, Red Lipstick” opened with him dressing at a sink, fixing his pressed, starched white shirt and dark suit jacket, arranging his red tie, as Mair, the seductive woman in a red dress, circled slowly around him, dancing to sophisticated electronic lounge music, closing in on her man, the two of them preparing to embark on a night on the town. In a voice-over by hip hop poet/writer Marcus Van, we heard of the couple’s brutal queer-bashing by thugs posing as cops. It was a gritty, gut-wrenching urban tale. The faux-cops spat out the word lesbian as a slur, and dragged the one with the red dress and red lipstick into the shadows. Sean and Mair, danced exquisitely, reflecting all the punches and insults, even as the red dress became irreparably soiled. The dance continued after the physical violence was over, but clearly the saga of the red dress would always be with them.

The other dances were equally affecting, “Six Hours” involved a road trip by car to meet Sean’s dad, who didn’t know Sean now identifies as a man. Mair and Sean in the car bickered endlessly, employing passive aggression and other tricks to work out some of their relationship kinks. In “Creative,” Sean solo danced a hilarious piece about a teenager in school sent to a Guidance Counselor to discuss gender inappropriateness. That piece was about courage, how a teenager wants it and needs it, and how it can fail at crucial times.

Bansuri Meets Recorder

Rana Mahal Ghat, Varanasi.
Photo by Mark Mardon.

Varanasi, India
January 2007.

The thin, wavering, reedy, warbling sound of a bansuri, the genuine sound of India, wafted up from the river’s edge every night for the eleven nights I slept in Varanasi, in a guest house overlooking Rana Mahal Ghat.

After the ceremonial fires of the big puja at nearby Dasaswamedh Ghat had been extinguished, the crush of onlookers had gone home or to their hotels. The ghats emptied and the din turned to silence. The boatmen had tied up their boats until morning, settling into the bottoms with their blankets. The masseurs, haircutters, vendors and other denizens of the Main Ghat had rolled out their mats to sleep. All the water buffalo herders had settled their beasts and rolled into corners with their thin blankets pulled over them. The burning ghat in the distance heaved a perfume of wood fire and charred corpses into the dark — then the flute player came out.

He would sit on a platform, under a lamppost, surrounded by his acolytes, gently playing. I couldn’t see him clearly. Sometimes I couldn’t see him at all. On the far side of his platform, steps descended to the Ganga, the water lapping the stone, inviting prayer as it had for centuries. He and his troupe sometimes occupied the steps, out of my view. Yet hear him I could. The flute-playing sadhu, holy man, chillum smoker, musical guru sent sweet strains floating into the night, echoing across the river and back. Ma Ganga herself rode that sound, a goddess on a swan.

For several nights without leaving my room or its old, crumbling stone balcony, without seeing the face of this flute player on the ghat, or knowing anything about him, without knowing for sure where the sound was coming from, I played concerts with him. For, as clearly as I could hear his flute, he could hear mine. He led the dance. I gently followed. He created the melody; I offered accents. The way I play recorder, alternating different rates of vibrato with pure tone, bending some notes, as well as the deeper sound of the tenor, creates a sensuous voice, the plaintive sound I brought back from the Andes decades before. It’s non-Indian, but worshipful, full of power and emotion appropriate for Shiva, the patron god of Varanasi.

Finally I went to meet him. We became fast friends. He treated me as if I were another sadhu, a respected spiritual elder. His group crowded around us to watch and hear us play and talk about music. We played the Peruvian Andean song “El Condor Pasa” together. Most of all he wanted to hear me play “A Few of My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and when I did he exclaimed with delight. I played my tenor recorder, which everyone admired and handed around to examine, its beautiful African blackwood turned in classic English recorder fashion. We discussed its monetary value and decided it was worth a great deal. I gifted him a plastic alto recorder, nice quality, good sound, and he treated the gift as an honor worthy of a king. He in turn gave me one of the bansuris he sells to tourists. I tried to play it but as always found the transverse flute defied my puckering ability. I’ve never been able to get such a transverse flute to sing. He helped me, though. He turned the flute just so against my lips, and for that instant I found I could make the instrument soar.

About that time some young girls came by offering little leafy bowls bearing flowers and flaming votive candles to be set afloat on the Ganga, another way to worship Shiva. I took a few and offered silent prayers for peace, harmony and healing as I watched them bob and drift onto the current. The flute player and his acolytes watched and applauded.

Gen’s tale

Gen Fujikawa

He was just 18 when he died accidentally on December 23, 2005, while skin diving for ulua off the southeast tip of O’ahu, a long way out from Sandy Beach, the famed Hawaiian surfing spot. His name was Gen Daniel Enga Fujikawa, but after his death, with the blessing of Gen’s Japanese-American/Hawaiian parents — Linda, who is Buddhist, and Robin, a Christian — the family’s Buddhist minister honored Gen with the name Kikai Genshin. As Linda Fujikawa writes in Gen’s Book: A Guide to A Good Life, the memoir she is assembling to honor her son’s spirit, “Ki means to return. Kai is the ocean. Gen is the source. Shin is sincerity and truth.”

Gen Fujikawa was a hugely popular skin diver, fisher, surfer and good Samaritan on O’ahu, and his mother — a dear friend from college (The School for International Training in Vermont), whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years until last week when I visited O’ahu to pay respects to the family — says at least a thousand people showed up for Gen’s memorial in January; condolences came from as far away as Uzbekhistan and Bulgaria. Gen was known as a humble spirit, but his dedication to fishing and his compassion for others stretched far beyond his hometown.


Gen’s academy was the ocean. It’s where he learned all he needed to know, and it enabled him to feed others.


For many people — fishers, divers, surfers, schoolmates, neighbors and especially a large extended family — Gen embodied pure love, generosity, hard work, and good cheer, even if he did keep a room overflowing with fishing gear and photos. He was and still is a hero to the homeless population along the southwest coast, where Gen frequently distributed fish he caught to people dispossessed by the island’s fast changing economy. Gen believed passionately in sharing and unconditional love; Gen’s parents, his younger brother, Sho, and friends continue to honor that spirit, preparing and delivering food to the homeless and advocating for their well-being.

Most of Gen’s ashes reside in a beautiful koa wood urn masterfully shaped by Grandpa Kahalahoe, who shared Gen’s love of the sea. Family and friends distributed some of Gen’s ashes on the island of Molokai, Gen’s personal paradise; some ashes went to Japan, to Obachan’s house, to Toyama Bay, to Asano River, and to Miyagi, places where Gen grew his love for fishing; Gen’s diving and fishing friends scattered a portion of Gen’s ashes at Kaena Point, which had long been Gen and Sho’s favorite diving and fishing spot, located at the western-most tip of O’ahu. There, friendly spirits protected Gen. Alas, Gen died away from his home territory, in waters where the spirits turned hungry.

Linda wanted me to know her son’s story, starting at the Fujikawas’ humble, warm house in Kapolei, the island’s newly developing “second city,” which is taking over land formerly given over to sugar cane and pineapples. Linda, Robin, Sho, Kupipi (the dog) and Gen’s everlasting spirit (embodied by the altar holding the urn and many offerings) continue to thrive in this “out of the way” location, away from Honolulu, Waikiki Beach and the more stately neighborhoods of the eastern seaboard. Robin and Linda both teach on the east coast, at lovely Kapi’olani Community College overlooking the sea near Diamond Head. Robin, a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, has lived with the effects of polio since age four, yet his gentle manner and sharply inquisitive mind have distinguished him far and wide, on O’ahu and beyond. Linda is an Assistant Professor of Japanese, serving on the faculty of the Honda International Center. Both are highly regarded by their colleagues, embraced by their neighbors, and loved and admired by their huge family. They chose to be teachers, not fishers.

Gen’s academy was the ocean. It’s where he learned all he needed to know, and it enabled him to feed others. Linda drove me around the island to the spots where she and Robin had introduced Gen and Sho to the ocean, from the public-access coves at Ko Olina Beach (site of a Marriott resort development) to Wai’anae, Makaha and Makua along the southwest shore, to Waimea Bay and a beach house on the north shore, where the sand sweeps in a huge arc and green sea turtles are making a comeback, sunning themselves mid-day; to a scenic journey down the lush east coast, with a stop at Kahana Bay, a beautiful tropical park from which Sho derives his middle name; and finally to Sandy Beach itself, the site of Gen’s rescue efforts. As I looked on, Linda delivered freshly made granola to the lifeguards there, to thank them for their efforts at retrieving her son from the ocean.

The ocean claimed Gen’s life gently, quickly and painlessly through Shallow Water Blackout, an all-too-common loss of consciousness among surfacing divers. Gen had been a strong, self-confident diver, well-trained by skilled teachers; he had earned the respect of kupunas (wise elders) around the island. He faced the perils with eyes wide open. He was prepared to die, but lived life so immensely no one imagined the ocean would claim him so soon. Now everyone knows he gave his life doing what he most loved. His is the perfect example of a life well lived.