“Sit in your cell as in paradise,” St. Romuald tells monks in his brief rule. My desk may be the closest thing I have to a monastic cell.
I loved it from the beginning, the ample size and solid feel of it, the sensuous curved corner that saves it from being stodgy or businesslike. In a concession to technology a discreet hole in the top allows power cords to pass through, but it is otherwise entirely organic. Waves and whorls in the grain of the cherry wood surface hint at a tree’s life story. Water stains tell of use, twenty years of a writer working (and eating and drinking) on this silky surface.
My ex-husband, an amateur woodworker, built it for me when I got tired of writing at the kitchen table. If I couldn’t have a room of my own in the apartment we shared, I wanted at least a desk of my own, and he designed it to my specifications: 66 inches wide and 32 inches deep with two drawers and built-in shelves. Since he was a self-taught furniture maker, he had to think through each step as he went, and the way he figured out to make the desk stand up was to build it into a corner, screwed to the walls to form two of its sides and give it stability.
Not long after the desk was finished, I put away the loosely autobiographical novel I’d written about navigating infertility as an expat in the Netherlands and started an adventure love story that I hoped might actually be publishable. When we divorced, I got to keep the desk and luckily the apartment of which it had become part and parcel. When my new sweetheart and I bought a house together eight years ago, I didn’t see how I could bring the desk with me, but he carefully detached it, marveling at the ingenuity of its construction, and brought it to the corner where I’m writing today at a window looking out on the garden.
In a marriage of the quotidian with the sublime, my laptop and to-do list sit surrounded by candles and icons, feathers and stones, succulents in a handmade ceramic vase. A turkey feather lies atop the letters my grandfather wrote home from World War II, the addresses he scrawled in pencil unfaded after seventy years though the once-white envelopes are ivory now. Behind them are two black-and-white photos of my parents when they were small, and on opposite ends of the desk are photos of me with my sisters and my sweetheart. A painted wooden owl reminds me of my writing teacher and the other beloved women who gathered for a ritual to celebrate my fiftieth birthday.
My desk, I see, has become a sort of altar. Like Joan Didion,”I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means,” and this piece of furniture is a home for that thinking and meaning making. I sit here as in paradise.
What is your favorite spot for thinking? If you’re a writer, where do you like to write? Please reply in the comments!
From trellises and branches the gray-haired woman hangs bells shaped like birds throughout the garden – not because she wanted to cross an item off her to-do list, but because the breeze on this foggy June afternoon called her outdoors, because the boysenberry vine craved an ornament, and the bower flower wanted company.
It took her a long time to learn that you don’t need a spreadsheet of garden chores or a master calendar of when to fertilize and mulch, that it’s better to study leaf color, light, and rain. Yet she has a compassionate fondness for the younger self that planted those roses by the book and nourished that baby bougainvillea after a rough transplanting. Who knew roots could be so delicate, so fragile?
The woman’s hands know the soil in her garden now, the clay where the oxalis thrives and the soft earth under the old bougainvillea fed by its own fuschia-colored bracts fallen year after year. She has dug deep, so she knows the roots and burrows too. She abandoned her spreadsheet long ago, for the calendar is in her head now, in the angle of sunlight and the arrival of shadow.
“America is broken,” a Canadian visitor observed four years ago on a trip to California, and I bristled. Wasn’t that an overreaction? In spite of everything – homelessness, school shootings, racism, and all our other problems – the comment seemed harsh to me. We had come through the great recession, we had a black president, I felt hopeful.
Then 46% of my fellow voting citizens chose a man we all knew to be an egomaniacal, lying, cheating, racist bully to be our president. More homeless people appeared on the streets of my town. A gunman with a semi-automatic rifle shot and killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and injured 17 more. Botham Jean was shot and killed in his own home by a white police officer, and then Atatiana Jefferson was too. The pandemic hit, and African-American and Latinx citizens are getting sick and dying at rates higher than their proportion of the population. Our national government failed to respond to the coronavirus like leaders of a first-world country with access to science, but even if they had, our brothers and sisters of color would still have been disproportionately affected. The pandemic merely exposed a racial divide that existed long before coronavirus arrived on our shores.
And then on Memorial Day a white police officer knelt on the neck of a black man named George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he was dead. I’m finally ready to concede what I couldn’t four years ago.
America is broken.
This week I turned to poetry, as I often do when I’m trying to counter the specters of panic and despair that lurk at my side since the 2016 election, and I found my way to a poem by Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again.” The poem walks a lyrical line between “the dream the dreamers dreamed” and “the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies” that were a reality in our country in 1935 when it was written and still are, the title itself a retort from the past to “make America great again.” It is a powerful poem, but it is more about economic oppression than racism, and there’s a danger in conflating the two, in not acknowledging the ongoing injustice rooted in our history of slavery, segregation, and oppression of black people. As a privileged white woman I appreciate Hughes’ inclusiveness: “I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shores,” he wrote. But the fact is, I am not affected by the misery my Irish ancestors suffered under the English the way that African Americans today are affected by their brutal history in this country. To pretend that the past is over and done with is worse than naïve. It’s dangerous. Ask any black man who goes out of his way to seem non-threatening when he’s among white people.
Langston Hughes reminded me that there are two separate evils to confront: one is the corruption in American government that has dismantled whatever checks we had on capitalism and allowed wealth and power to accumulate in the hands of a few, and the other is racism. To fight the first evil, we must work for campaign finance reform to restore some semblance of representative government. Then we can tackle climate change, equitable opportunities for education, affordable housing, jobs with a living wage and health care for all.
But at the very same time that we’re recovering from a pandemic and trying to save our planet and bring about economic justice, we also have to fight the scourge of racism. Enough is enough. Why did Americans take to the streets this week? One by one we must root out and remove the reasons for their righteous rage. As President Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
So what can I, one white American woman, do right now?
First, I can examine my conscience for my own racism, a legacy of the culture I grew up in. But how do I recognize what is hidden from myself? This work will no doubt take the rest of my life, but to begin I will take a hidden bias test and read How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. (It has to be an ebook, though, if I want to read it now. This title and several others on racism are backordered at Bookshop Santa Cruz and on Amazon, thank God.) Second, I will welcome opportunities for conversation about racism wherever I find them. Third, I will donate to Black Lives Matter. Fourth, I will create a guide for students at Foothill College (where I am a librarian) on antiracism and civil disobedience.
This is just a start, and I welcome your suggestions. America didn’t break in 2016. Genocide of the indigenous people and slavery broke it before it even began. What can we do to repair it?
It’s true, the hush that has fallen over the world is wrought of disease and splintered by anguish, but with no competition from cars, the neighborhood birds take extravagant delight in their morning song, and the oxalis says thank you to the sun and late winter rain with a carpet of yellow blossoms.
Already vowed through their roots to this particular plot of earth, the roses and the redwood continue to shelter in place with equanimity, while the squirrels show flagrant disregard for the order of the public health officer, racing along their private highline. Of this I am privileged to know a small segment – the piece that runs along our roof, five feet through the air to the tips of the privet, through its leafy thicket, and onto a limb of the redwood, possibly with a quick game of chase around its trunk, before disappearing into the neighbor’s backyard.
Each day the persimmon tree takes another step in her dance with the seasons. The crone who presided through the winter now wreathes her bare limbs with maiden leaves and drinks her fill of sunlight and the mycorrhizal ambrosia twined round her roots, already dreaming of the bees she will seduce – but not yet of the luscious fruit she will birth. Those golden orbs, a feast for humans, squirrels, and crows, are seasons away in an uncertain future.
In this time of plague we knit our hearts to the sorrow and fear that now unite us, but let us join too with the humble psalm of the oxalis. Thank you for the rain, the sun, this greening. Thank you.
I was living in southern California in 1989, but many of my loved ones were in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area when the earthquake hit. So was Alice Wentworth, the female protagonist of my novel-in-progress, Schatz. On the 30th anniversary of the earthquake, I’m honored to offer the first chapter for you to read.
Santa Cruz – October 1989
Closed for the Battle of the Bay. Alice capped the black marker and admired the baseball she had sketched on a sheet of paper below the hand-lettered words. She shooed her last customer out of the Daily Grind, then grabbed the sign and the slim paperback under the counter that she had reached for a dozen times this afternoon. Her coffee house was running smoothly enough that she could finally take a few weeks off next summer, and during her lunch break she’d walked over to Bookshop Santa Cruz to buy a guidebook to the John Muir Trail. Although she was itching to pore through it, the one thing that could deter her was about to start: Game 3 of the World Series. The A’s had won the first two in Oakland, but now the San Francisco Giants were coming home to Candlestick. She planned to watch the game tonight with her cousins Will and Liana. and they were all certain the home field advantage would turn the tide.
Alice taped her sign on the door and stepped out into a golden Indian summer afternoon. She had just enough time to walk over to Zanotto’s to pick up sausages and potato salad and still get home by game time. Liana and Will would meet her there as soon as they could. In her jeans and Giants tee shirt, trail guide tucked in the purse over her shoulder, Alice strode down the block and then slowed when she turned right onto the Pacific Garden Mall. Its flower-filled planter boxes and leafy trees made Pacific Avenue feel more like an oasis than a street, and the warm sunshine made her dreamy. The thought of Will Clark hitting a home run mingled with images of the Sierras, craggy peaks and alpine —
A heavy truck suddenly rumbled up behind her, and Alice whirled around, but there was nothing there. She could feel the reverberation in her feet, yet all she could see was a car parked in front of Shockley’s Jewelers and a woman jogger also looking around for the noise. Then it magnified. Like tumbling boulders, thunder pounded up from the ground and threw Alice off balance. Earthquake! If she were inside, she would dive under a table or race inside a door jamb, but —
The pavement began to ripple, and panic swept through Alice. The street was actually rising and falling like ocean waves rolling towards her, the monster from the deep that haunted childhood dreams, and there was nowhere to duck and cover, nothing to hang onto. Alice froze in place, hands out to keep her balance. “It’s a big one,” a man near her yelled. Screams rose from all around and more rumbling; people came running out of buildings; the sound of breaking glass filled the air. Something caught the corner of Alice’s eye — the flagpole in front of the post office was whipping back and forth in an arc so wide it nearly touched the ground with each swoop. Was she losing her mind, or was this suddenly elastic pole for real? It almost transfixed her, but then bricks tumbled down from a nearby store. A long creak pierced the sounds of grinding stone, and a few yards away the roots of a tree began to undulate beneath the ground like a living creature. As if in slow motion the tree began to topple, and Alice backed away as it crashed into a car in front of her.
Then the shaking stopped; the ground seemed solid once more. But was it really? Alice’s heart pounded, her whole body trembling. Instinctively, she drew a deep breath, held it for a count of five, then released it, the trick her grandmother had taught her for coping with acrophobia. Maybe it worked for earthquakes too. No, not really. Her heart was still thumping like a drum in her chest.
It seemed like forever since she had been daydreaming about Will Clark. A cloud of gray dust hung over the Pacific Garden Mall, and Alice wasn’t even sure which direction she was facing. Up and down the street littered with bricks and chunks of masonry, people stood looking as dazed as she felt. She thought she heard wind chimes, then realized it was more bricks falling off a building across the street. A man in a business suit came towards her, picking his way through the rubble.
“Alice, is that you?”
She peered into the dusty face and recognized Sean, the lawyer who came into the Daily Grind every morning for a depth charge. She nodded as they stepped into each other’s arms. This morning he’d been a customer she barely knew, and now he felt like family. She hugged him tight and felt her heart rate slow just a little. In this tiny island of comfort, tears sprang to her eyes, they would flood her in a minute. Get a grip, she told herself and pulled away. “Are you all right?”
Alice glanced down at her shirt and jeans covered in gray dust, amazed to realize that her purse was still slung over her shoulder. Her legs were shaky, but she seemed unhurt. “I’m okay.”
Together, she and Sean took in the uprooted tree in front of them and the crushed car beneath it, the broken windows and crumbled facade of the jewelry store. As far as they could see, the mall looked the same: torn branches, collapsed storefronts, bricks everywhere. She smelled gas.
“Oh no.” Sean pointed, then headed down the street. A block away several people were digging through a pile of debris in front of a building. Alice started after him, scrambling among the bricks and crumbled concrete, then suddenly remembered Will and Liana.
“Purple Moon!” She tapped Sean’s shoulder. “I have to go!” With a reluctant look at the panicked activity in front of them she turned back and down the first side street she came to, trying to dismiss the image of her cousins and all the children in the daycare center trapped inside a wrecked building. And what about her dad? Her aunt and uncle?
Just a block from Pacific the streets were clear, and Alice ran as fast as she could, grateful for the sneakers she wore at work. Within a minute she jogged up to the Purple Moon InfoShop. Its sign dangled by one corner, but the building itself looked intact. A scribbled note was taped to the front door: We’re in back. Watch your step. Alice slipped into the entryway and could hardly believe her ears. From a distance, through the open door with the purple sickle moon painted on it, came the chatter and laughter of children. Alice stopped to let her eyes adjust to the dim light. Loose ceiling tiles swayed overhead, and the photos of Ghandi and Martin Luther King and the Maurice Sendak prints had flown from the walls, but somewhere down the hall children were playing. Alice followed the improbable sound through the playroom, where crayons and toys were scattered across the floor, and out the back door to the small playground.
Although it was starting to get dark outside, it was still brighter than indoors, and compared to the devastation on the mall, the normalcy of the scene made it look like heaven. Will, Giants cap on backwards, was pushing a toddler in one of the swings, while Liana talked to a mother cradling a child on one hip and holding the hand of another. The rest of the kids clamored around a student intern Alice didn’t recognize who was passing out sandwich quarters dripping with peanut butter and grape jelly. Well, actually it wasn’t normal to hand out snacks at the end of the day, but what could be more comforting than a PB&J? And now that she thought about it, she’d never seen Will on the daycare side of the building. Amidst the prattle of the children Alice made out words like terremoto and aventura.
“Alice!” Liana had just noticed her and came running to hug her, Will right behind her. Quickly they filled her in: the power was out, their parents were okay, so was their sister Julie and her family, but the phone line went dead before they could reach Alice’s father.
“I’ll go to his house,” Alice said. Jonathan was either there or at the university, and the house was closer. It made sense to start there first.
“I’ll go with you,” Will said. “Might as well walk. Traffic will be a mess.”
“Grab a flashlight from the playroom,” Liana instructed. “Let’s rendezvous at Mom and Dad’s. I’ll head over as soon as all the kids are picked up.”
Sometimes Liana’s bossy teacher mode drove Alice crazy, but at the moment she couldn’t think about anything except making sure her father was okay, and she was glad to have a plan. She started to go, then stopped, put a hand on Liana’s arm.
“What about Scott?”
“He’s on duty.” Liana’s fiancé was a paramedic. “I don’t expect …” She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“He’s a tough nut,” Will said. “Don’t worry.”
Typical male, Alice thought. How could Liana not worry? She hugged Liana. “See you soon.”
She and Will strode into the playroom and then stopped short in the near darkness.
“We’ll never find it,” Will muttered as they crunched over legos and game pieces.
A moment later Liana followed them in, walked across the room to where a drawer had spilled its contents, and picked up something from the floor. A circle of light filled the room. “Here you go.” She handed the flashlight to Alice and disappeared back out to the playground.
Alice and Will looked at each other with a grin, and Alice led the way back out to the entrance, trying to avoid the pictures on the floor in their little pools of shattered glass. Will gestured towards the InfoShop as they passed, and Alice pointed the flashlight in that direction. The door to the radical reading room Will managed was closed, but through the windows she could see empty shelves and toppled filing cabinets.
“Every single thing is on the floor,” Will commented.
“It could be worse.” She hadn’t even told him about the mall yet. A siren spiraled through the twilight, but they hurried in the opposite direction, away from downtown and towards her father’s house.
The old oak, benevolent sentinel on the road to New Camaldoli, seemed like the tree of life to me. Since before I was born, it has offered shelter to birds and shade to pilgrims. For many years now I have been one of those pilgrims, and coming for retreat season after season, I developed an arrival ritual. As soon as I can, I walk down the road and press my forehead to the oak’s rough bark in silent greeting from me and from the redwoods of my native place. In return it welcomes me to the land, this Big Sur mountain above the Pacific.
When my selfishness threatens to prevail over loving kindness, I like to sit beneath its leafy branches to inquire about generosity and fortitude. A tree gives glory to God by being a tree comes the wind-sifted answer.
It was suffering, I realized when I was here in June, and I wondered if I had failed last winter to notice the brown leaves covering entire sections or if the disease had attacked that quickly. Today, on the brink of autumn, most of those limbs have been lopped off, and the arborist’s work truck stands ready to take more, now adorned only with lichen. A few neighboring oaks are beginning to succumb.
The oak seems like half the tree it was, no longer beautiful, except in art and memory, no longer magnificent. Yet who am I to judge? Surely below ground its roots sink as deeply as ever into the earth. They still commune in fruitful friendship with mycrorrhizal fungi, a crown to mirror the canopy that once was, above.
When I am a crone, white-haired and wizened, may I find sanctuary beside the snag the tree of life is on its way to becoming. May we sit heart to heart with a secret no one else can see – grounded, glowing beauty.
Did you have a favorite tree as a child? Mine was the pine tree in our backyard, a bit of the wild in our tract house neighborhood where my sisters and I could climb, build a clubhouse, or imagine elves and fairies. The green needle canopy of that single pine, its sappy branches, duff carpet, and unique scent formed an entire arboreal world, Sherwood, Narnia, Fangorn Forest. And when I tired of company and play, it became a place to hide out, just the pine tree and me, my first hermitage.
Nicholas Hoel, a character in The Overstory by Richard Powers, also grows up with a special tree. For him it’s the chestnut on his grandparents’ farm in Iowa. Readers meet that tree as a nut gathered by a young Norwegian on Prospect Hill in Brooklyn in the 1850s and carried across the country when Jorgen Hoel and his bride move west to homestead. By the time Nick is born, it has become a landmark sentinel in the prairie, its growth improbably recorded in a series of monthly photographs taken by generations of Hoel men.
Mimi Ma’s childhood tree is the mulberry planted by her immigrant father in their Wheaton, Illinois backyard, “the Tree of Renewal, the tree at the universe’s center, the hollow tree housing the sacred Tao.” In this language you can hear the author’s reverence for trees, one of the many reasons I adored this book.
Nick and Mimi are just two of nine characters spread across the country, all survivors in one way or another (shot down from a plane in Vietnam, electrocuted, paralyzed after falling from a tree) with completely separate, fully realized stories, and it’s astonishing to watch the way trees bring them together. For trees are the stars of this book, the trees that connect the human characters and speak to the reader too: Listen, there’s something you need to hear.
Some of the trees I loved as a child are long gone. The weeping willow that dripped long fronds over our neighbor’s driveway was the perfect backdrop for Halloween when Mrs. Brookman dressed as a witch and – unrecognized in her theatrical makeup – passed out candy to the neighborhood children, but one weekend when the family was out of town the neighbor on the other side chopped it down because the roots were forcing their way up through his driveway. Gone too is the little grove of eucalyptus that grew in the field behind our house, taken down to make room for more houses. Perhaps the most painful loss of all was the liquidamber in the middle of our backyard lawn with its big leafy branches that turned red and orange in autumn – who says we don’t have seasons in California? One winter a storm knocked it down, and we were devastated to see it lying on its side, massive roots ripped from the earth. My father and uncle rigged ropes to hoist it upright and replant it, but the wounds had gone too deep, and the tree could not be saved. It was like losing a loved one.
An epic novel about deforestation and activism, The Overstory is inevitably also about such loss. Powers is such an effecting writer the reader can’t help feel grief when blight takes out all the chestnuts on the eastern seaboard and western forests are clear-cut, but attachment to a particular tree becomes personal and deep when two characters take up residence in a towering old-growth redwood called Mimas in an attempt to save it from loggers (think Julia Butterfly Hill but with a boyfriend). In the face of corporations that view forests as money and loggers on the ground trying to earn a living, how else can one protest and protect? But what kind of activism is ultimately effective? And when does it go too far?
One of my favorite characters is Patricia Westerford, whose speech and hearing impediments have made her feel more at home with trees than people. After studying botany in college, she finds “an animist’s heaven” in forestry school, but quickly realizes that there’s something mistaken about a field in which the men in charge “speak of thrifty young forests and decadent old ones, of mean annual increment and economic maturity.” Ahead of her time she understands the forest as an ecosystem and sets out to prove that trees are social creatures.
The book she eventually writes, The Secret Forest, finds its way to the treehouse in Mimas where the young activists known as Maidenhair and Watchman read it during their long sojourn. It reminded me of a book in real life, The Hidden Life of Trees, by a German forester. Peter Wohlleben draws on scientific research and his own experience to show how trees are indeed social creatures with friends and families.
Nonfiction is generally where I turn for information about the environment, but fiction – with its possibilities for emotional engagement and spiritual resonance – may have a role to play too. Didn’t J.R.R. Tolkien offer his own powerful plea for the earth in The Lord of the Rings as the wizard Saruman cuts down Fangorn Forest and then despoils the Shire? More recently Deena Metzger’s novel A Rain of Night Birds tells a love story while also advocating that we reclaim TEK, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, to combat climate change. What do you think about environmental fiction? Any novels you’d like to suggest?
“I can hardly wait to have a drink,” a fellow churchgoer told me with a grin as we walked out of the Easter Vigil a few years ago. Ah yes, the bliss when you finally partake of a delight you’ve abstained from for forty days (alcochol! chocolate!), but that was the year I gave up social media, and I had no burning desire to rush home and check Facebook. In a relatively short time I’d gotten out of the habit of even thinking about it. Plastic, on the other hand, I have obsessed about like no other Lenten sacrifice of my life, yet there can be no blissful anticipation at returning to its use.
“How’s your plastic challenge going?” friends often asked me over the last six weeks, and the answer was always some variation of humbling – because I kept failing. Early on I imposed my own penance and promised to give 50¢ to charity for every piece of plastic I put in a trashcan and 25¢ for every piece I recycled. Any guesses on my donation to Save Our Shores? My transgressions add up to a shocking $25! The biggest culprits were trash bags, tamper-proof seals, and takeout containers. There’s not much I can do about those plastic seals, but I’m learning which restaurants use compostable containers and try to remember to take my own “doggie bag” with me when I go out for a meal. Despite my failure to completely eliminate single-use plastics, I have reduced, which means less garbage and fewer trash bags. If you’re contemplating reducing your plastic use, consider other side benefits. Eating less processed food is good for your body as well as the planet. By not shopping online, you will support local businesses and maybe even buy less stuff.
Which habits will stick now that Lent is over? To be honest, the ones that don’t require much of a sacrifice like using mesh produce bags and shopping bulk bins. Avoiding clamshell containers is much harder because I love fresh berries and those Trader Joe’s salads that are perfect to take for lunch at work, but I’m going to try. I’ll definitely keep relying on my Kleen Kanteen and Zojirushi coffee cup and plan to switch from liquid to bar soap, but I might not keep making my own yogurt (yogurt tubs can be recycled though!).
After forty days of considering environmental action as spiritual practice, I’m delighted that Easter and Earth Day almost coincide this year. At this double celebration of life and hope, I’d like to end with a poem in honor of the gray whale I wrote about last week.
In 1995 I was traveling down the length of Baja in a 26-foot motorhome with my ex-husband. In the village of San Ignacio we heard tell of a lagoon many miles down a dirt track where gray whales came every year to mate and bear their young. Although it was late in the season, well into April, we signed up for a tour. A fisherman who spoke only Spanish drove us in an old pick-up down the long bumpy road to Laguna San Ignacio and helped us aboard his little panga. It was just Marcus and me and the fisherman, and we motored out into the lagoon.
We soon spotted dolphins leaping in buoyant, graceful arcs out of the water, but most of the whales had already headed north. When we finally came upon a mother/baby pair, the few other boats carrying tourists zeroed in on the same spot. Later I would learn that the lagoon is a sanctuary and that there are rules about approaching whales there – you’re not allowed to, must wait for them to come to you – but on this day there was a dearth of whales, so the boats with Norteamericano tourists to please swooped in on the pair and followed them. Very soon, though, Marcus and I asked our boatman to abandon the chase; we didn’t have the heart for it.
Back on shore, the fisherman’s wife cooked us a lunch of deep-fried fish and beans and tortillas. While we ate with the family in their small hut near the sea, they showed us photos to prove the stories they’d told of friendly whales, pictures of people leaning over the sides of pangas to pet whales that swam right up to the little boat. You had to come earlier in the year, we were told; by now most had departed the lagoon for their long migration up the Pacific coast to Alaska.
Two years later Marcus and I returned to Baja, in March this time, and made a beeline down to San Ignacio. The village was as we remembered –women patting out the most delicious tortillas in the world at the same little tortilleriaand children selling dates underneath the oasis palms shading the village square. We drove our motorhome down the long dirt road and slept on the shore of the lagoon where the sounds of whale spouts floated out to us on the sea breeze. “I can hear Whale breathing,” I said.
We had arrived at the height of the season, and when the wind died down the next morning, we joined seven other people in a panga. This year there was no skulking about in sly pursuit. Before long a mother and baby swam up to us. The fisherman cut the engine, and the mama sidled next to the boat. We stretched out our hands to touch her back, covered with barnacles, and I marveled. In a place where my kind had once hunted her kind, a wild sea creature weighing ten tons was choosing to visit us, not coerced nor tempted by food, but choosing of her own free will. What could her reason have been? Curiosity? The allure of connection? I only know that after a while she dove back underwater and nudged her baby up to the surface for the same attention, as if saying, there are some interesting little creatures up there. Go on, check them out.
I treasure this photo of the mother whale and me in Laguna San Ignacio and the memory of that contact with a magnificent creature from another realm. She could easily have tipped our boat over, but she was polite and gentle – unlike the humans in the boat. In that profound moment the panga almost did capsize as we all strained over the edge of the boat at the same time, fighting for the prize of having our picture taken with a whale.
I thought about that moment when I heard last month about a Cuvier’s beaked whale that washed up on shore in the Philippines. It was not a diseased or shark-bitten carcass, but a young animal that had starved to death – from eating plastic.
More than eighty pounds of plastic bags, rice sacks, and other garbage in its stomach made it feel so full it stopped eating. “It’s disgusting,” the biologist who conducted the necropsy said. This story made the international news, but like the human calamities that fill our headlines, it is not uncommon. In Thailand alone 300 marine mammals die each year from ingesting plastic. For those of us who eat seafood (with apologies to my vegetarian friends), it doesn’t take a marine biologist to figure out where microplastics in the ocean food chain end up.
“But the plastic I throw away or recycle doesn’t end up in the ocean, does it?” a friend asked me recently. “No, no,” I assured her, but privately I wondered, where does all the plastic swirling around the Pacific Gyre come from? Cruise ships maybe? Or countries that can’t afford to recycle? Surely not from my eco-conscious town!
My guesses were not far off. A recent report by Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment found that 20 percent of ocean plastic debris “originates from ocean-based sources like fisheries and fishing vessels.” The rest comes from land-based sources, and over half of that comes from “just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam … These countries … are at a stage of economic growth in which consumer demand for safe and disposable products is growing much more rapidly than local waste-management infrastructure.”
In my part of the world this infrastructure is robust, and like me you have probably been dutifully recycling for decades. In the last year, though, I’ve learned that there are limits to what plastic can be tossed in the blue recycle bin. What exactly these limits are was a little vague for me, but after just watching the YouTube video Recycle Right! Santa Cruz, I’m starting to get a handle on it. First, everything must be clean. “Stretchy” plastic (e.g. produce bags, plastic wrap, bubble wrap) is okay if bagged and so are most containers (jars, bottles, jugs, and tubs), but “crinkly” plastic (e.g. potato chip bags), hinged food containers, plastic containers that can’t be cleaned (think lotion tubes or motor oil jugs), and other items like hangers, toys, buckets and nursery pots belong in the trash. To make matters even more complicated, every community has different rules, so check with your local waste management to know for certain what you can put in your blue bin.
Where does all this plastic end up? “For the past three decades, almost half of the entire world’s used plastic has been sent to China,” where small factories employing cheap labor converted it into “inexpensive, plastic exports like shoes, bottles, hoses, and gadgets,” but suddenly the Chinese don’t want our garbage any more. They are turning to more lucrative industries like tech, plus they want to cut down on the pollution that came with all that plastic. The New York Times reports that “While there remains a viable market in the United States for scrap like soda bottles and cardboard, it is not large enough to soak up all of the plastics and paper that Americans try to recycle.” American cities (and airports and parks) are scrambling to figure out what to do.
Does this mean we should quit recycling? Definitely not! Technology may make it feasible to burn recyclables and convert them into energy, or recycling may simply become more expensive. There are options and possibilities, but as Lent began last month, the news stories about the dead whale in the Philippines and about China stopping the import of trash had one thing in common: we must rethink our use of plastic.
Change has to occur at the global level, but it starts with individuals, you and I taking our reusable shopping bags to the grocery store and drinking water from our refillable bottles. Locally it heartens me that students at Foothill College drove the change to equip water fountains with bottle filling stations and that more and more restaurants are using compostable takeout containers and utensils.
And even at the global level change is possible. Gray whales were hunted almost to extinction, but by 1994 the population had recovered enough that they were removed from the endangered species list, and in Laguna San Ignacio these giant, gentle creatures make friends with humans. In a place where harpoons once flew, a mother who would have been prey let me pat her back and watch her baby play.
What do a carton of Ben & Jerry’s, a greeting card, and a pack of chewing gum have in common? I wish I had a funny punch line in response, but I don’t. These three objects are simply the sacrifices I didn’t anticipate when I decided to give up single-use plastic for Lent. Today is Laetare Sunday, taken from the Latin word for “rejoice” in the entrance antiphon at today’s Mass, and we are halfway through Lent, a good time for me to take stock of my plastic challenge.
Because I’d considered this for a year, I really thought I was prepared. I had braced myself for forty days of no online shopping, knew I would have to give up flower bouquets and salads from Trader Joe’s, but the first week of Lent I bought ice cream to go with the brownies I was baking for company and didn’t notice until I opened the carton that the lid was covered with a plastic seal. A package of gum was likewise wrapped in cellophane. Later in the week when I reached into my desk drawer for one of the birthday cards I keep there, I was horrified to realize that most of them are covered in protective plastic! How had I not noticed it before?
My response to these surprises offer two options for reducing plastic use. One is to look for workarounds. For example, in Santa Cruz I can buy hand-packed pints at Marianne’s or Penny Ice Creamery, and it’s possible to find plastic-free greeting cards; I just have to be mindful about selecting them. The second option is less appealing, to do without, and that’s what I’m trying with gum. The third option is to admit defeat, and now it’s time for a confession.
When I planned for this challenge, I was relieved that my most cherished food group would not be a problem. Alter Eco chocolate bars are wrapped in foil and packaged in cardboard with the motto “enlightened indulgence,” and Dagoba cocoa, the key ingredient in my morning mocha, comes in a can. Phew. Except that like Ben & Jerry’s, that can has a tamper-proof seal. Sigh. I can and do rationalize that the piece of plastic is small and that a single can of cocoa makes about twenty servings, but it is, in fact, only one in a category of items I can’t find a hack for and am not willing to give up. Sometimes, even when I’m trying to do the right thing, I can get in trouble. Last week I contributed compostable plates, cups, and utensils for a party at work, but guess what the plates and cups were packaged in?
To compensate I have imposed my own penance. In the Lenten spirit of almsgiving, I plan to donate 50¢ to charity for every piece of plastic I put in a trashcan and 25¢ for every piece that goes in the recycling. This also helps me account for plastic I acquired before Lent and am using now.
To be fair, I also want to congratulate myself and the friends who have joined me for what we are attempting. The plastic we’re not using is invisible, but it makes a difference.