Thorough the fog it came
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge
On a typically cool, overcast summer afternoon on California’s North Coast, I steer our rented Sentra across a misty spit of dunes toward the south jetty, one of a matched pair ushering the open Pacific into roughly hourglass-shaped Humboldt Bay, the state’s second-largest ocean inlet. Dodging potholes requires careful attention; under a constant barrage of windswept sand and salt spray, the narrow road has deteriorated in the twenty-seven years since I’ve been here. Finally, the road ends, the dunes grudgingly ceding a small parking lot, the bay’s channel before us.
During the mid-1980s, my wife and I spent a year in Eureka, on the inland side at the hourglass’s narrow waist. We were recently married, having met in a Louisiana Master of Fine Arts program from which, disillusioned, neither of us had graduated. Our plan, such as it was, called for me to finish an incomplete or two that stood between me and a Masters Degree that predated Louisiana; Cara, after establishing residency, would take up wildlife management at Humboldt State University, just up the bay in Arcata. Meanwhile, we’d piece together a living as best we could. It would be an adventure.
That’s not exactly how it worked out. I did finish my incompletes, and even did a little teaching—my class was “Personal Editing”—for the university’s extension program. Making a living on the North Coast, however, proved a challenge. I shuttled between part time jobs, resurrecting an adolescent career selling shoes at Montgomery Ward’s by night after manning the store for a hot-tub and greenhouse dealership. These pricey items appealed to Humboldt County’s backwoods marijuana farmers, who’d show up in downtown Eureka at harvest time with wads of illegal but welcome cash. On Sundays, I put in a few hours at a tobacco shop, mostly handing out free sample cigarettes to the small city’s transient population. Cara, meanwhile, did office work for Mid-County Truck until, like so many North Coast businesses, the concern folded. After that, she kept the often-alarming books for a lumberyard’s unprofitable Eureka outlet.
The North Coast economy was traditionally centered on extractive industries, particularly redwood logging. As explained to me by an employment counselor at the Eureka Job Service office, for decades timber companies had been liquidating labor-intensive groves of ancient giants so they could streamline operations in automation-friendly second growth. When the “save the redwoods” movement succeeded in preserving most of the remaining pockets of mature trees, about 4% of the original forest, the corporations blamed the environmentalists for losing the very jobs they themselves had been striving to commit to obsolescence. Though the Humboldt area is well-known as a liberal bastion—locals talk about living “behind the redwood curtain”—there’s still an undercurrent of resentment against tree-huggers. The anger may be misplaced but it is understandable; the scarcity of good jobs in this neglected corner of California has become chronic, if not permanent.
An unexpected pregnancy and the birth of our son broke our tenuous Northern California hold. After a year in Humboldt County, we knew virtually no one. We were pretty independent, I suppose, and the fog-wrapped North Coast tends to cocoon residents in a gentle if vaguely survivalist isolation. A family, we knew, meant a whole new level of responsibility and care. In short, it was time to grow up. I applied and was admitted as a Ph.D. student at Purdue University. Pending the start of the next fall semester, we moved to Cara’s hometown, Salt Lake City, where our son, named Thomas for relatives on both sides, could be welcomed into the world by grandparents and cousins.
A quarter century later, that same son is a graduate student at Humboldt, returning to the first home he knew only for a brief few weeks of babyhood. In his application letter, he compared himself to a salmon; the metaphor, or maybe the undergraduate degree from Caltech, worked. Here we are, then, just a few days after his wedding, with a dim midday sun holding off the fog, setting out into the Pacific on the south jetty.
I grew up by Lake Ontario, deep and mysterious but, unlike the standoffish ocean, right below your feet. The Pacific, on the other hand, churns distant and aloof behind long skirts of foam. When we lived in Eureka, I enjoyed walking the jetty; like my familiar Ontario Beach Park pier, it offered a way to penetrate the deep waters, at least a little, without a boat. Even the world’s biggest ocean was right there when you got out past the surf line. Of course, a walk into such a powerful, essentially foreign element as the sea can be treacherous. A bright red “Danger” sign cautions that the south jetty is “unsafe for walking,” which, in fact, is not far from the truth. Back then, the south side must have been recently rebuilt; it was the north jetty that had gaping washouts like those we find today. At a stormy high tide, this walk would indeed be unpleasant and maybe worse, the warning sign insisting that “deadly waves,” are possible “at any time.” No doubt. But we manage.
Along with the sense of being in the ocean’s midst, we used to come here for close encounters with marine life. I saw a gray whale once, actually inshore from where I stood about halfway out, and I remember on another occasion a huge bull sea lion, probably a Steller’s, tilting its head toward me for a moment like a human swimmer while forging a powerful, effortless course out of the bay. The life-list I’ve maintained since I was in my twenties includes several new bird sightings from 1984 and 5 attributed to this jetty—snowy plover, common murre, wandering tattler, ruddy turnstone. Today there will be one more.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At the outset of our maritime saunter, we stop to watch a flight of shorebirds—western sandpipers with a few semipalmated plovers—collapse onto the beach only to swirl up and settle again like a blanket in almost the same spot. Beyond the surf, under the grating calls of elegant terns, starfish cling to the jetty rocks. Sea palms, absent from the bay, clump the ocean side. Seals surface in the channel, perhaps drawn by the hubbub of Heerman’s gulls harassing the fishing pelicans. A harbor porpoise arcs, and again, this time a bit farther out.
Small flotillas of scoters and duos of murres—usually an adult and a juvenile—ride the crests closer to the jetty’s end. Here, the rocks are supplemented by a rough framework of dolosse (from dolos, a South African term for a kind of game counter) pitched about like massive concrete jacks. In addition to shredding the waves, the jumble of blunt spikes offers handy perches for western and glaucous-winged gulls, brown pelicans, and Brandt’s cormorants, with surfbirds, maybe a black turnstone or two, decked along a lower prong.
I lag behind Cara and Tom on the way back, immersed, as it were, in the sea’s hollow rhythm, punctuated by the foghorn’s lifeless yet soulful pulse, a sound I seem to have always known. When I heard the Ontario Beach horn on cloudy nights through my childhood bedroom window, it meant that the big lake was just beyond our tame suburban neighborhood. Out there, intrepid sailors were making their way through all that darkness and wave.
What’s this, though?—my reverie interrupted by excited pointing and binocular waving coming from ahead. There, over the channel, a bizarre brown-and-white cross-shaped apparition hangs with head high for a long moment, now plunges forward, wings swept back, knifing bill-first into the water. It’s a brown booby, forsaking its tropic seas for this cool sun-deprived bay. None of us have ever seen one before, though we know its North Atlantic cousin, the gannet, well enough to surmise pretty quickly what sort of creature we’re looking at.
After a few minutes, the booby has had its fill of channel fishing, and turns west, straight out to sea. We will not see it again. And, as far as we know, neither will anyone else. There will be no corroborating reports on the Redwood Region Audubon telephone birding hotline or the California Birds internet list. A brown booby was observed near San Francisco in June, but that was over a month ago, and hundreds of miles to the south. As dramatic as it seems to us, our bird’s sudden appearance at Humboldt Bay will go as unremarked as our own brief tenure decades earlier.
Each summer, a current of pelicans and terns flows from warm but nutrient-poor breeding grounds to the rich wind-stirred waters of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. The same bounty draws an occasional booby, but these ocean vagabonds are not given to venturing close to shore. The brown is the most likely to turn up on the North Coast, but that only means the others are rarer still. A brown booby was recorded at the jetties in 2006, another in Mendocino County just south of Humboldt in 2003. One or two additional North Coast records note boobies of undetermined species, and a smattering of sightings has occurred farther north in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. That’s about it. Anecdotal evidence—not much more than speculation at this point—hints at an incipient northward shift of these tropical plunge-divers, perhaps in response to warming-driven changes affecting breeding islands. Whether climate refugees or simply off-course wanderers, North Coast boobies, like lone pioneers, are a long way from others of their kind. Birds seen so far from their usual haunts are labeled accidental. To be at the exact spot where one of these wanderers shows up, to be on hand for such an accident, is one of the amateur naturalist’s singular and memorable pleasures.
If the booby’s appearance was brief and obscure, the same can’t be said for another ocean denizen gracing the North Coast. On June 23, a gray whale and her calf entered the Klamath River. Migrating grays frequent the region’s inshore waters; an overlook at the Klamath’s mouth is a noted whale-watching perch. These marine journeyers might linger in the productive zone where river nutrients blend into the sea, but they usually stay in salt water. This particular cow and calf, however, caused something of a sensation, swimming upriver about three miles and settling right below the Highway 101 “Golden Bear” bridge. After weaning a month later, the calf abandoned its mother, who remained in the river. Concerned that she might run out of food or deep water as the summer progressed, local, state, and Yurok tribal authorities (the lower Klamath banks are reservation land) attempted to nudge her back to sea with everything from firehoses to taped orca songs. Packs of orcas prey on gray whales, and this one showed the scars of previous encounters. But hazing caused little more than momentary jitters, and her prospective benefactors stepped back, stumped, while she remained stubbornly in plain view of passers-by on California’s Redwood Highway, the major coastal route between the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco.
No one knows why she chose to stay in the river. Perhaps she suffered from the inner-ear disorder thought to lead to whale beachings. Maybe she was spooked by predators or simply confused. One theory held that the tsunami following last spring’s Japanese earthquake had swept an avalanche of crustaceans and other sea life into the river, leaving behind an easily-accessible banquet of quality whale chow. Grays are flexible in their diet and habits, including, research shows, their travels. The species is known for its long seasonal migrations between Mexico’s Baja lagoons and the Bering Sea. But several hundred whales, not necessarily the same ones each year, stick around at various places along the way, especially where food is plentiful. The Klamath animal, assigned number 604 in what the weekly Northcoast Journal calls “the official catalog of gray whales,” had not been previously documented in California waters, though she was well known farther north, from Washington to Alaska; she had spent considerable time around Vancouver Island, where Cara and I saw a gray whale, possibly even the same one, two summers before.
By the beginning of August, when we drove down the coast en route to Tom’s wedding, the Klamath River whale—a Redding blogger pegged her with the rather uninspired name Mama—had become a celebrity. A digital highway sign at Crescent City (and another, we later found, in Arcata) alerted drivers to “people on the bridge” without specifying what they might be doing there. Despite the highway department’s evasiveness, the pulloffs on each side of the Klamath, pressed into service as parking lots, were almost full when we joined the line of eager leviathan seekers snaking along the bridge’s narrow sidewalk. And there she was, not just a fleeting hump rising from ocean depths, but a complete, if cloudy, outline cruising right below the surface. When she came up to spout, we could see her face, narrower than I would have guessed, showing no particular inclination to explain her presence to humans. But no agitation or hostility either. If she objected to whining cameras and leaning shadows, she didn’t show it.
With their perceptive intelligence and uncanny long-distance communications, cetaceans have long fascinated a legion of admirers, and Mama chose, after all, New Agey Northern California for her entrada into the American interior. So it’s not surprising that she was soon sought out by pilgrims, a few serenading her with flutes and ukuleles. Unlike belugas or humpbacks, grays aren’t considered particularly gifted musically, and whether she liked the attention or found it a nuisance is anyone’s guess, although she didn’t attempt to avoid the performers and tourists who flocked to her. Eventually, one overly enthusiastic boatload of well-wishers got a bit too close and bumped her, thankfully without apparent harm to either party.
Yurok reactions to Mama’s presence were complex and ambivalent. Bolstering Redwood Coast tourism, she provided a short-term economic boost to this chronically strapped area, along with something like Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. “It was like a rock concert,” according to innkeeper Reweti Wiki, a Maori from New Zealand who had married into a Yurok family. Tribal people attempted to understand her appearance in the light of indigenous tradition. Recalling “The Inland Whale,” a story told by her ancestor Fannie Flounder to anthropologist Theodora Kroeber, Wiki’s mother-in-law and business partner Janet Wortman thought “When the whale is in the river, it means the world is out of balance . . . things aren’t the way they should be.” Yurok chairman Thomas O’Rourke concurred, but in true political style praised the community’s efforts, however ineffectual, to come to her aid. “It is acts like this that are going to happen if we are going to stabilize the environment,” he pronounced. Elder Walt Lara, Sr, offered a different perspective, asserting that “To us, a whale in the river is a good thing. It is a spiritual move that says, ‘You people are doing things right.’”
The stir turned out to be short lived, and, for the whale herself, the inland adventure ended badly. On a mid-August evening, just a few weeks after we saw her, Whale 604 beached herself on a gravel bank and succumbed. She had lived in the river for fifty-three days. Post-mortem sleuthing is ongoing, with no cause of death yet determined; she had shown no signs of illness or injury before respiratory distress set in that afternoon. Given the ordinary pressures associated with calf-rearing and migration, she did not appear undernourished or overly stressed; scientists trying to determine her physical condition kept concluding that it was just about normal.
The ebullient atmosphere abruptly dispelled, Mama was given a dignified memorial ceremony by tribe members. Her death saddened her many callers, from flute-bearing New Age acolytes to scientists like Humboldt State zoologist Dawn Goley, who valued the rare opportunity for herself and her students to get to know an individual whale so well. No doubt even anxious highway safety officials felt a melancholy emptiness when their warning signs were no longer required.
The day we stopped at the bridge, the obligatory self-appointed expert was explaining to whoever would listen that Mama and her calf were not the first of their kind to swim up the Klamath. During the 1980s, he said, another cow and calf passed beneath the highway. Other accounts of that 1981 visitation don’t mention a calf, perhaps an irresistible embellishment for the sake of narrative symmetry, carrying for us the delicious implication that Mama was retracing a route she had plied in her youth, returning like our son to a place where parental wanderlust had once brought her before.
Honeymooning up the coast, Tom and his bride were among the Klamath River whale’s final visitors.
This past summer was a time of restoring lost connections. On several occasions, circumstances reunited me with people and places I hadn’t seen for many years, the south jetty among the latter. These months also brought a spate of encounters with wild travelers. Not long before our California trip, Cara and I took in a pastel violet sunset from another spit, this one at the mouth of Braddock’s Bay, a Lake Ontario inlet in Rochester, New York, my hometown. On a still, almost windless July evening, rocky Manitou Beach offered a welcome asylum from the bay’s persistent deerflies and mosquitoes. Suddenly, however, the placid mood was split asunder as a dark inexplicable shape coursed purposefully across the mouth of the bay. Well out from shore, it looked darker than the darkest gull, but was not flying at all like a cormorant. It struck me as an anomaly, not anything I could easily place into a landscape I know as well as any in the world.
“Did you see it?” This from a breathless, binoculared pair that had materialized behind us. After asking if we were birding or just watching the sunset—not a distinction I had thought to make—they told us that a friend had called to report a long-tailed jaeger making its way toward our viewpoint. A jaeger makes a dramatic, even uncanny, impression. The minute they told us what they were looking for, I was sure it was the apparition we had just beheld moments before. Though it wasn’t close enough to count—I had never seen a long-tail—I’m just as certain today. The couple, whose names we never got, said that while a few of these birds show up on the lake each fall, July sightings are unheard of. Or so it seemed. Their friend’s posted pictures show, beyond s doubt, a long-tailed jaeger cruising the lake off Braddock’s Bay.
Once home to harbor seals, Lake Ontario is the closest Great Lake to the Atlantic. Gannets and other seabirds occasionally show up on the lake, cruising, along with ocean-going freighters and tankers, up the vast St. Lawrence estuary. I had previously encountered parasitic jaegers while whale-watching offshore from Rivière-du-loup, Quebec, on the Bas-St.-Laurent, where migratory finback and minke whales summer with an endangered population of belugas. It seems reasonable, then, to expect an occasional jaeger to track the great river all the way to the freshwater sea at its source. Decades of observational records, however, show that jaegers reach the Great Lakes by traveling overland from James Bay. Moreover, long-tails, the most pelagic of the three species found in North America, seem peculiarly drawn to Lake Ontario, the smallest of the five lakes.
Jaegers, like boobies, are solitary long-distance vagabonds, their travels understood by ornithologists and birders only as general patterns and tendencies. The sudden manifestation of one of these far-flung wanderers can seem portentous, almost metaphysical, like the albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Who can say what leads a jaeger across hundreds of miles of boreal forest while most return to sea after the tundra nesting season? Is Lake Ontario on an ancestral route passed down in some Lamarckian fashion from an original explorer? Scientific study might reveal and categorize advantages the rare inland migrants gain, but what can be made of the impulse that leads an individual bird to trade the open water for an ocean of trees?
Birds are built for mobility, and even those least inclined to wanderlust sometimes turn up in unexpected places. At first glance, Florida scrub-jays have little in common with roving jaegers and peripatetic boobies. Stay-at-home landlubbers loyal to small plots of relict scrubland, most jays are content with a few acres around the natal nest. An occasional adventurous sort, however, forsakes its homeland and heads for parts unknown. Like the Klamath whale, such brave souls lead risky lives, but, researchers surmise, “every once in a while, a jay heads over the horizon and hits the jackpot: an empty territory bursting with acorns and beautiful patches of white sand in which to bury them.” Small parcels of jay habitat dot interior Florida like a scattering of islands —many scrub patches were islands at one time. Scrub tends to give way to hammock or pine savannah, and the birds need wildfire—grown less dependable with the spread of orange groves, golf courses, and tract homes—to keep territories open.
In effect, the rare explorer jays may function as a “Hail Mary” safety-valve for the species. That’s what ornithologists conclude, based on a big picture analysis that can’t begin to explain what moves an individual jay to set out, acting against the weight of inclination and evolutionary heritage. Perhaps whatever drives the explorer jays may also move whales to swim up rivers, boobies and jaegers to penetrate strange regions of sky and shore. Roaming individuals may have no clearer sense of destination than, say, the early Polynesians, who followed migrant birds en route, as it turned out, to Hawaii. For some creatures, human and otherwise, the urge to seek out new places somehow simply overwhelms the desire to trust to proven ways.
Five years ago, we sold our house in Florida and resettled in Montana’s Yellowstone Valley. Our move to Billings landed us in more familiar surroundings than the North Coast ever was. We had lived in Wyoming, just across the Pryor Mountains, for four years rather than the one we spent in Eureka, and the time elapsed between leaving and returning was one decade instead of almost three. And we knew the city fairly well. In the wide open spaces of Wyoming, the two-hour drive to Billings was, essentially, just going to town, where doctors, children’s clothes, and tropical fish for Tom’s aquarium were more plentiful and varied than in the farm-supply hamlets of the Big Horn Basin.
I feel a deep affinity for the Yellowstone region. Though I will never be a native, this windswept land of prairies and mountains has become my home. But it’s not at all like the orchards and viney woods of the Lake Ontario plain or the coastal environs I seem naturally drawn to. Revisiting someplace like Humboldt County can be disorienting, and Rochester always is. This year, a few days camping on Big Pryor Mountain, lights of small Wyoming towns to the south and Billings to the north, brought me back, in short, to my world. A town edged against water, with gulls on pilings, knocking boats, and haunting foghorns, may be my kind of place, but this Montana-Wyoming borderland has become my place. At least for now.
When I left Upstate New York, my plans were open-ended, and for several years I considered myself a traveler, moving from home to home with only the vaguest of plans. Four states in four years. Tom’s arrival made us more future-conscious to be sure, but even then our wanderings weren’t at an end. Five years of graduate school in Indiana, followed by a series of jobs in Wyoming, Maine, Florida, now Montana. It hasn’t been the kind of life that, say, Wendell Berry would seek or approve of. But the way it has unfolded might have something in common with the travels of a wandering booby or Great Lakes jaeger. As must be the case for a windborne seabird, mine has been a life to ride rather than to inhabit.
I’m not sure that the ride is over yet. Scattered across the continent, our families pull us in various directions, and all the places we’ve lived exert a kind of obscure gravitational attraction as well. But our move to Billings was our most conscious relocation. It was, first off, a return to a place that had set hooks and called us back. Circling back is different from setting out to points unknown. Before 1984, when we moved to Eureka, Cara’s Humboldt County experience was limited to a couple of brief stops during childhood family vacations; for me the entire West Coast was terra incognita. When we visit now, that initial displacement is overlain with the aura of return, a harmony wrapped around a dissonance. Eureka has sprawled a bit at its edges, but fanciful Old Town facades still lure passing tourists. Downtown Arcata’s monumental William McKinley stands as stern as ever against the framing palms. And there, where we left them, are the wise redwoods, the soulful, inquisitive faces of harbor seals.
Unlike Montana, where the effects of today’s climate disruption are as obvious as a beetle-killed forest, the North Coast seems pretty much the same as it did three decades ago. Studies show redwood-nourishing sea fog gradually diminishing, and, more ominously, the ocean growing more acidic. Not exactly Shangri-la, then, but there is a sense of at least relative stability. Even the “plazmoids” hanging out in Arcata’s central square must surely be avatars of predecessors whose sixties garb and spacey mellowness were already anachronistic in 1984. Some of the older ones may, in fact, be the same people. One gets the impression that their society is loose, fluid, the square a gathering place for vagabonds who might be gone tomorrow, or who might stay, one day at a time, for thirty years. Like the North Coast as a whole, Arcata’s plaza retains a remarkably singular and durable identity as a haven both from spiraling out-of-control change and the dreary sameness that stifles contemporary life.
One of the things I like best about the North Coast is how it grips its eccentricity as tenaciously as a starfish clinging to a rock. The region emanates an unforced weirdness able, it seems, to incorporate cell phones, computers, and the university’s hydrogen-powered cars while keeping big box expansion in check. The new-to-us mall in Eureka has a hangdog look, as if it desperately wishes it had tried a less intransigent neighborhood. If not exactly vibrant, gilded age downtowns endure, odd boutiques offering Humboldt State Lumberjack sweatshirts alongside a few Bhutanese prayer flags. Generations past Woodstock, hippie vans still park in front of quirky Victorians on side streets. Humboldt County speaks to a capacity, perhaps inherent in place itself, to survive the steamroller of contemporary development, and even, possibly, the looming chaos of the future. We can hope.
I used to trace my leaving home to a rejection of the generic suburb—not exactly Wendell Berry’s family farm—where I grew up. But place, I now see, can only be suppressed by such so-called development, not eliminated altogether. I didn’t know this then, but I can recognize a Rochester neighborhood, maybe even my childhood tract, by the quality of light alone. At least I think I could. Looking back, I have to admit that my decision to take off was as much instinctive as intentional, and not, in and of itself, irrevocable. Plenty of Rochestarians, including a friend who went to Louisiana with me, have returned to the city from colleges, workplaces, or military hitches, presumably taking up their old associations as if they’d never left.
We might also have stayed in Florida, where in seven years we had found friends, accumulated belongings, and become conversant with the landscapes and wild inhabitants that defined the spirit of that place: The mysterious Red Red Silver, for example, named for her leg band colors, an outsider among our local scrub jays. Or the displaced Pacific Coast Heerman’s gull, known, inevitably, as Herman, who bothered pelicans up and down the Gulf from the Panhandle to Manasota Key, sharing the trade winds with tropical frigatebirds and wide-ranging winter gannets. But then something—the call of the Yellowstone if you will—came up, and there we were, well past youth, gearing up for one more cross-country move. “Way leads on to way,” as Robert Frost has it, making a life-defining pattern revealed only in retrospect, an idiosyncratic map that has brought us, unlike Frost’s famous man at the crossroads, back to a place where two roads diverged long ago.
A booby miraculously appearing out of the sea reminds us that we too have emerged out of personal, cultural, and evolutionary histories, our paths meshing with those of other journeyers like momentary alignments of planets—wanderers in Greek—bound for destinies and destinations not yet set and only dimly foreseen. As the climate warps, even those of us who are most rooted in one spot will in a sense become travelers, the known world shifting around us. A friend in Maine, a state noted for the pugnacious loyalty of its residents, once lamented to me that his native woods “will be somewhere up in Quebec fifty years from now.” How will we react to such a world-scale unmooring? Will we seek new habitat like explorer jays or hunker down and wait for restoring fires?
The Adirondack Mountains were, I think it’s safe to say, my father’s favorite place, and my family’s summer trips almost always landed in or at least managed to pass through the giant state park that encompasses them. Like Yellowstone a landmark of American environmental history, New York’s ancient, rising mountains may share something else with the first national park, current geology placing them atop a deeply buried volcanic hotspot. The ragged young uplifts on our Billings horizon are a far cry from the rounded contours of those eastern highlands. But every so often, say at Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone Park or maybe along Rock Creek in the Beartooth Mountains, I’m struck with an unmistakable if elusive sense of “Adirondackness.” It may be that something about a tumbling river or a wooded slope resonates with an eidetic memory. Perhaps the deeper regions of one’s consciousness seek out such ephemeral links in the process of composing the narrative that underlies our sense of who we are. Or maybe places really do partake of something like atmospheric connections, mountain calling to mountain, forest to forest, lake to ocean. Could it be that certain individuals, animal and human, might overhear their conversations? Following at best uncertain signals, a scrub jay explorer somehow knows or feels the presence of distant scrub, an outbound Polynesian the call of uninhabited islands thousands of miles away. Of course, it goes without saying that some travelers, maybe most, never find what they seek, or fail to recognize it, or find it only to lose it again, or find it too late. Or never even figure out what it was they sought in the first place. The world is big enough for even a whale to get lost in.
I have no quarrel with the Wendell Berrys of the world, and I’m well aware of the high cost inherent in the rootless depredations of what Raymond Dasmann calls “biosphere peoples”—cultures that consider the entire planet their rightful territory. We grow through close association with a place—from being in place—and places, now more than ever, need their familiar defenders. When Berry recently showed up on the Lexington capital steps to protest mountaintop removal coal mining, he was backed by generations-worth of loyalty to his Kentucky farmland. More power to him. There are things about a place that a non-native, let alone a traveler, may never be privy to. But Berry’s being hyperbolic and ethnocentric when he asserts, in The Unsettling of America, that European adventurers “invented the modern condition of being away from home.” Imagine how our distant ancestors felt, striking out from Africa, eventually, for better or worse, to people the planet. Like it or not, Berry’s European gadabouts were in line with a major feature of our species’s history.
Humboldt County, California, takes its name from a nineteenth century Prussian nobleman who never saw the North Coast. Embarking on a South American “plunge into a vast solitude” that would paradoxically make him a legend around the world, Baron Alexander von Humboldt sought “to study the great harmonies of nature,” in which, along with all “organic beings,” he was enmeshed. Aaron Sachs, in The Humboldt Current—my copy, a Christmas present from Tom, was purchased at an Arcata bookstore—credits Humboldt as a formative influence on American environmentalism. For Humboldt, to cast oneself adrift with a scientist’s careful eye and a mystic’s intuitive mind was to experience nature and all its connections anew. Out there in the numinous could be found the exact opposite of the arrogance Berry critiques. Quoting Humboldt, Sachs concludes that “the most important lesson of ‘communion with nature’ was an awareness of ‘the narrow limits of our own existence.’”
Human wanderings may not at this point represent the evolutionary safety valve that leads scrub jays to untapped acorns, whales to food-filled estuaries, and jaegers and boobies to distant shores, but it might feel the same for the individuals involved. No creature acts consciously, after all, in response to a deep evolutionary imperative. And even when a traveler’s goals are as simple as untapped acorns and virgin sand, the place where, in an apt phrase, one “finds oneself” is likely, whether one is human, whale, or bird, an unpredictable result of circumstance and blind choice. But not quite blind. The Klamath River whale stuck to her bridge as if she knew where she had to be. We might as well say that when a long-tailed jaeger forsakes the ocean or a brown booby swings into the Humboldt Bay channel, it’s heeding a guiding inner voice. Such awareness may not be conscious, but, for the individuals involved, it must be compelling.
Perhaps a wandering life is a necessary, or at least useful, counterpart to the settler’s way. It may not, after all, be such a large step from speaking from the center of a community to believing that one is that center, or from advocating for one “special” place to discounting the value of others. Already there when he or she arrives, remaining after he or she fades from local memory, places insinuate themselves into a traveler’s consciousness. The world is more used up now than in Humboldt’s day, all our “vast solitudes” marked by the footsteps of the baron and his compatriots and scarred by the unholy forces of exploitation that followed in their wake. Even space exploration is old hat, nothing out there but so much empty, soon, no doubt, to be sold to the highest bidder. Yet for all that wonder persists: leviathan appears beneath a highway bridge, a young man wakes up one day in the unfamiliar landscape of his birth. From time to time, in the face of the great mystery our lives take us through, the ego still gives way, if only for a fleeting instant, to something larger, as a continent might shape itself around a river-going whale or a seabird emerging from fog.
Notes and Sources
Page 6: Climate change may affect seabird post-breeding dispersal in various ways. Island flooding or disruption of food supplies due to shifting currents or weather patterns may result in wider dispersal, though loss of intermediate habitat may decrease a bird’s range. The terms casual, accidental, and vagrant are used to express degrees of rarity, but no consistent definition applies to all bird guides and checklists. The Klamath River whale is covered in “Whales. In A River” by Andrew Goff and Heidi Waters, published in Northcoast Journal’s July 28, 2011 issue. This is the source of as the “catalog” quote on page 7 and the Lara quote on page 9.
Page 8: The quotes from Wiki and Wortman are from “Wayward Whale Delighted Observers Before Her Death” an article by Associated Press reporters Jeff Barnard and Jason
Dearen, published in the online Native American Times, dated August 18, 2011.
Page 11: The information on Lake Ontario jaegers is from Dominic E. Sherony’s “The Fall Jaeger Migration on Lake Ontario” which appeared in the Journal of Field Ornithology 70.1 (1997): 33-41. Information on Florida scrub jay studies, including the “jackpot” quote, is taken from Hugh Powell’s “Scrubland Survivors” in the autumn 2008 issue of Living Bird, available at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.
Page 12: The association between Polynesians and migratory birds, especially the Pacific Golden Plover or Kolea, has been noted by, among others, aviator Harold Gatty and Rachel Carson. In “The Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands: A Case of Human-Bird Mutualism,” Tom Leskiw details the relationship, pointing out that it has long been acknowledged and celebrated by native Hawaiians. The essay can be found at tomleskiw.com.
Page 15: The Frost reference is to his well-known poem “The Road Not Taken,” line 14.
Page 16: Dasmann’s categorization of “biosphere” and “ecosystem” cultures is widely known, and appears, among other places, in “Notice: Unaware Citizens of Biogeographical Provinces” published in CoEvolution Quarterly’s fall 1976 issue.
Page 17: The Wendell Berry quote is from The Unsettling of America (1977, Sierra Club Books). Aaron Sachs’s The Humboldt Current was published by Viking in 2006. The quotes from Humboldt appear on pages 66 and 2, respectively. The Sachs quote on page 18 is from page 27.