Turtles, time and something like silence

It’s almost one in the morning when I see my first turtle. She’s a leatherback, black and almost six feet long. She moves up the beach in the dark, slowly, as if carrying a great burden. Turning her massive body, back feet now facing us, she begins to dig. There’s sand flying everywhere, and we move to avoid it, trying to be quiet. There are six of us staring at her, but she seems almost oblivious to our presence. She’s focused on the task at hand. With the hole dug, she stands over it and lets her eggs drop in. They come in bursts, slimy and about the size of golf balls, falling into the sand, plopping into the nest she’s made. As she lets them go, tears stream down her face. Locals say that she’s crying at the thought of being separated from her babies. Science says she’s shedding salt from her body. There’s so much gravity in the air, so much at stake that I want to believe she feels what’s going on. In a world where fewer and fewer turtles are able to survive long enough to complete the cycle she’s beginning tonight, her presence here is beautiful, awe-inspiring, a tale of triumph. And yet the odds are stacked against her. I’m thirteen, only in eighth grade, but something in her eyes speaks to a much older part of me. I feel the emergency of the situation, the sad truth that the actions of my species are driving her kind to extinction. I see the same recognition in her tears, not directed at me, but a general sense of weariness, of someone who’s lived too long and watched the world grow less familiar, less safe. I’m afraid to move, afraid to disturb something much older and more profound than I will ever be. We all watch in silence as she covers her progeny in sand and heads back towards the ocean. And then the stillness of the moment is gone. Walkie-talkies crackle, informing others that we’ve got a turtle nest. And our work begins.
This night, I’m at a turtle station in Costa Rica. The station exists because leatherbacks and other sea turtles are under assault on multiple fronts. Habitat loss and pollution are disrupting their lives in the ocean. Human development and construction threaten the beaches where they lay their eggs. Hatchlings are confronted with a loud, confusing world upon their emergence from the safety of an eggshell, and too many of them head towards the glowing lights of civilization instead of into the water they should learn to call home. And as if all this weren’t enough, poaching of nests has become more common, turtle eggs having become a valuable black market delicacy. Our task, on this one stretch of beach, is simple. We find the nests, dig them up, and move the eggs to a fenced-off hatchery where they can be monitored and guarded against poachers. We take away their wildness in exchange for a higher survival rate because right now, the stakes are too high to sit by and let nature take its course. I’m on the late patrol, 12:30-4:30am. Since I’m thirteen, I’ve only stayed up this late once or twice in my life. The feeling that I’m awake well past my bedtime only adds to the gravity of the situation and makes the entire night feel surreal.
That week I spent in Costa Rica awakened something inside of me. I’d always known conservation was important, but that trip put that knowledge right in front of me. It’s so easy to rationalize away extinctions, to shrug and sigh and ask what we could have done differently. But spending a night watching turtles lay their eggs, and you start to see the stakes. You know in your head that their tears are just a process that’s evolved to allow them to live in salt water, but you still feel like you’re being initiated into the process of life and death, like the universe is giving you a glimpse behind the curtain.
Now, I’m in the Galapagos Islands. The air here is pregnant with environmental conflict and scientific importance.  This is where Charles Darwin himself discovered natural selection, for God’s sake. And after centuries of human interference and millions of tourists coming in and out, Galapagos is threatened too. There are introduced species threatening native birds. There’s trash building up from residents and from ever-increasing levels of tourists. I don’t need to see turtles laying eggs in the wee hours of the morning to feel that same imperative, the same sense that very real things are at stake. Today, we hiked around Santiago Island on lava flows, and we saw a species of plant that’s endemic to that island only. This tiny little succulent vine has managed to survive growing between the black cracks in the lava, and it’s found nowhere else on earth. Everywhere we’ve been in Ecuador is ecologically important, and everywhere has endemic species. But something about the Galapagos Island manages to capture that imperative better even than remote corners of the Amazon that are threatened by oil extraction. The blue waters and sun and geologically spectacular islands make me feel like I’ve come to the end of the world, or a close enough approximation to serve as a set for either Planet Earth or Pirates of the Caribbean. There are sea lions and marine iguanas everywhere, plus Darwin’s famous finches. And it’s beautiful. Spectacularly so.
Here too, there are turtles in the water. They’re green sea turtles, smaller than the leatherbacks I saw in Costa Rica, but they look similar enough that I get the same feeling. These are old animals, both individually and evolutionarily. They’re reptiles who would not look out of place alongside the dinosaurs, and each individual lives longer than most humans ever will. The nature writer Craig Childs told me last fall that you should never listen to anyone who tells you not to anthropomorphize animals, because assigning human emotions and motivations to animals is the only way we have to relate, empathize and care for them. So I watch these turtles, the way they move through the water with such slow grace and I think that they must feel the changes in their world. Maybe they’re largely insulated from the effects of civilization since they live in one of the most protected marine reserves on earth. But turtles have been known to migrate extraordinary distances, and I can’t help but think that they must notice the plastic building up in the oceans, the rising temperatures and sea levels, the way more and more two-legged creatures come in boats every year, pointing cameras at them and exclaiming in delight every time one of them sticks its head above the water to breathe. More than noticing, I look at these old sea creatures, and I think they must understand. They have to see how it’s connected, how the increased presence of humans is tied to the trash in their home, to the slow erosion of their slow way of life.
I want someone from the animal kingdom to hold us accountable, and these ancient reptiles seem like appropriate stewards of the place where life began in a primordial stew. Every single species of marine turtle is endangered on a global level, and I worry that this is the only reprimand they’ll give us. Turtles don’t cry out asking to be saved, and they don’t hold the same imperative that seems to come with polar bears and wolves. I worry that their last message will be almost silent, that they won’t warn us. I worry that they will slip away, and their absence will speak louder than the rasping way they take in air, heads just barely above the surface of the water, entering our above-ground world for a second before vanishing back into the blue-green depths of the ocean.

Danger in the forest

Temperate forests train us to be passive. Occasionally, hikers get eaten by bears or cougars, or gored to death by mountain goats. But by and large, the biggest threats you face in a temperate forest are the elements. You’re much more likely to hurt yourself by getting lost, falling off of a cliff, drowning in a raging river or freezing to death. You’re constantly battling the elements when you’re outside–taking off a fleece, putting on a rain jacket. You’re afraid of getting wet, of cold, of the setting sun.
In the tropics, the elements are more or less constant. It might rain, but it’s so warm that it doesn’t really matter. It’s always hot and humid, and so you’re constantly drenched in your own sweat. And yet, walking through a tropical forest, you have to be constantly on guard. Here, all the threats to your existence are living. There are the standard subjects of nature documentaries—anacondas lurking in rivers, poisonous snakes tangled in the vines of a tree, ants whose sting will have you in bed for two days with a fever. But really, the danger is everywhere. Wasp stings become routine, like getting bitten by a mosquito while hiking in the Cascades. You have to re-learn how to walk in an environment where you can’t grab a tree to stop a fall because the trunk is covered in spines, home to a toxic caterpillar, or protected by a group of army ants. You’re constantly vigilant, because everything around you is full of poison—the spines of plants, the insects living on them, the snakes you’ve been afraid of your whole life, the frogs hiding between the leaves. There’s no place for idle daydreaming, for putting your hands on a blind ledge or grabbing a vine without really looking at it.
And yet, here I take risks. I strip naked, wearing nothing but my rain boots, and let wasps sting me in unmentionable places as I bathe in a puddle of water on the forest floor. I run through the forest on a moonless night without a headlamp, where the dark is so total that I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I swim in a river where I’ve seen an anaconda the night before, where there are piranhas and caimans and parasitic fish that will swim up your vagina and have to be surgically removed. I do this for a week, get stung by something large and black that I can’t quite see, and my hand is radiating burning pain past my wrist for an hour. But I’m fine. I survive, largely without incident.
Now, I want to go home and get to know my place better. I’ve never thought to run naked through a temperate forest, partially because I’d probably be close to well-frequented trails, but really because I just haven’t been trying hard enough to actually be outside. I don’t go into Discovery Park at night and run around without a headlamp. I don’t sit nestled between the roots of a hemlock tree and sketch the plants near me or close my eyes and see if I can hear the wind over the sound of my own thoughts. I haven’t even snuck back into Cleveland Memorial Forest, the Seattle School District-owned piece of old-growth where my high school ran outdoor program trips, to run around on the trails that used to be my home almost every weekend during the school year. I’ve been spending too much time reading, as usual, and not enough time getting to know the plants I live near.
When I come home to the US, I’m going to feel very homeless. Since I left for Ecuador, my cousin has moved into my room. My stuff is mostly in boxes in the basement. I have stuff in storage at Whitman, but I’m not moved into my house there either. I need focus and purpose for the month I’m home, or I’m going to drive myself crazy sitting at home and feeling like I don’t quite belong. And so, I want to try to re-learn the forests of my childhood, to connect with them better, to teach myself botany like a scientist and teach myself to see place like a tracker. I want to spend a good portion of a day or two every week in the forests by my house, not hiking, but just sitting and observing things and drawing leaves. So many indigenous people raised in the Amazon are able to walk through their tropical forests with completely confidence, knowing which plants are safe to eat and how to get where they need to go. I’ve been blessed to grow up near a forest that’s safe, a forest where I’m not going to get bitten by a poisonous snake or attacked by a bullet ant. And it’s time for me to start taking advantage of that.

Letter to a human 10,000 years from now

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
Dear person ten thousand years from now,
Today it rained in the morning. The rocks around me are red-orange, made of sand stuck together, forming ridges and shelves as far as I can see. Here, I walk on my feet and sometimes my hands. The rain adds uncertainty to the land, so I slide twenty feet down bare rock faces, not able to control my speed, barely able to change direction. I almost fall into puddles of orange water pooled in the rock. I walk up sandstone ledges arranged like a staircase, each step a different width, half of them breaking off as soon as I put my weight on them. I let the shape of the rock guide me, abandoning the concept of efficiency. I want to move north, but the rock that way is too steep, and I risk falling, sliding down into a canyon three hundred feet deep. Instead, I go west, finding level ground, rocks that curve upward gradually, gentle enough to walk on.
I wonder if you still go outside, if you see the sky with clouds and with sun. I wonder if it still rains in the desert. I wonder if these canyons, sheer rock faces plunging down hundreds of feet, are still here or anywhere. I wonder if they’ve all been filled with trash or something radioactive, something with a half-life greater than the time between my death and your birth.
I hope you know what it is to be wet, to be cold, to feel so hot there’s sweat dripping off of you back and you can barely stand to smell yourself. I hope you’ve been hurt, feared for your life, known that one misstep might cause you to fall into an abyss, hopelessly trying to fly on your way down. I hope you’ve climbed on top of something and felt free to scream knowing no one can hear you.
I hope you’ve been alive, and been human.

Tracking in the desert

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
In the washes, there are sets of four-toed tracks compacting the dust, no longer than a nickel, made sometime before the rain this morning.
I feel the crunch of soil compacting under my show, step after step as I create a new trail across the desert and I feel guilty for all the fun I’m having.
There is a conversation taking place behind me, four people who used to be in my shoes telling each other stories whose words I can’t make out.
Tracking is a lot like journalism. You’re given pieces of information but left to piece them together, decide what’s relevant, and decipher meaning. You start casting a wide net, gathering as much data as you can. You write down anything you can, ask as many questions as you can think of. You get close, get obsessed, caught up in trying to find the story. You try angles, test theories, try to stay unbiased. Not every government project is hiding a larger social problem. Not every track with four toes and the perfect x above the metacarpal pad is a wolf track. You learn from everything imaginable, and your biases guide what you follow and where you choose to go. There are stories etched deep in every landscape if you look hard enough.
Today, following those coyote tracks, I found myself in a trance. It’s almost meditative, the inquisitive silence punctuated by gasps as you look down to see a print so clearly defined you could frame it and sell it as art. I got on all fours, trying out gaits, trying to decipher what I was seeing. I know the names—direct register walk, trot, lope—but I have so little practice picking them out in the sand. I want to be a better student, spend more time drawing and journaling and seeing everything the land has to teach me. But I like what Craig said today—try so hard to pay attention and you miss things. All of our minds wander. I’m no less holy or motivated because Ke$ha is stuck in my head, because I’m spending half of my walk across the canyonlands worrying about civil engineering. And those things that snap me out of my self-centered thoughts, the things that slap me across the face and make me sit up and pay attention—those are the things I want to learn about. And more of the than not, they’re tracks.

Walking through canyonlands

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
Sunrise is hope, renewal spreading across the horizon. I wonder about the wisdom of silence—we’re struck by awe, humbled at these sights. But maybe sounds can acknowledge what we feel when we see the sun. It gives us life, sustains us, feeds our bodies and nourishes our soul. Maybe we should dance, sing, be joyous.
Feet on dirt—crushing, compacting, like boots on snow. Feet on rock—a soft tap, not quite a click. The same genus as heels on a marble floor, but a very different species. Distant cousins. Water ripples in sand. Warm, not hot. A breeze so small you can barely discern direction. Juniper berries and twigs pool in the rock’s indentations. Pieces of crumbled rock are scattered on the slickrock. Moon soil, full of craters. One piece looks like a tortoise, grotesque, half-formed. It’s hotter. My abdomen tingles, my scalp itches. It’s an early warning. Seek cover, get inside. The crypto is like a minefield and those hills aren’t getting any closer.
I love the ripples on the rock. Water is so clear in its presence and absence. It carves over time, folding the surface in on itself, carving lines, curves, stream channels. It’s the face of time, seemingly permanent until you walk across it, and it cracks and crumbles, brittle sand, easier to change than the wet tide flats at the beach.

Putting plastic squares on a fence

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Lava Lake, Idaho
context: We spent a week on the property of Lava Lake Lamb, a sustainable sheep ranch that’s trying to do research on wildlife migration through their land. We had just come from Nevada, where we listened to anti-grazing activist Jon Marvel describe the problems fences pose for wildlife migration. He told us that anytime we saw a fence in the west, we should tear it down. But as part of our work for Lava Lake Lamb, we helped them make their fences more “wildlife-friendly”.
So we put up plastic squares along fences that Jon Marvel says shouldn’t be there to stop sage grouse that he wants listed as endangered from hitting them. I don’t mind fences out here—it all looks the same to me; fences are part of the landscape as I’ve come to see it. But fences keep wildlife from moving, and I realize I’ve stopped looking at sagebrush as wild and started assuming grazing when I see it. I worry about the plastic—so many biologically pervasive toxins in them, molecules that get inside you and stick, invisibly, until you try to reproduce or are diagnosed with cancer. But I doubt those small squares will disrupt many endocrine systems. Is this what it means to see landscapes whole? To see the scars too, to always have a rejoinder starting with, “But…” whenever a solution is proposed? Can I go back to Moab senior year, when I didn’t know cattle grazed on public lands and the desert was just beautiful, even at Hidden Splendor*? Driving in Nevada, I look out the window and I see Harry Reid, gold mining, Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project, Hiroshima in September 1945, Owens Valley, the Superfund site list, cyanide, cows and climate change. Is there an off switch for this vision? Will I ever be able to see a sunrise unaffected again?
Oh, hyperbole. And yet, with everything I know, it’s still beautiful out here. Finding beauty in a broken world…almost easier, in a way. The contrast is starker. Or maybe it’s that things seem more beautiful because they’re broken—imperfect, yet still present. You acknowledge the imperfection and you work to make it whole. You put tiny white plastic squares on barbed wire fences, and they shudder like tree leaves in the breeze.

*Hidden Splendor is a site in the middle of nowhere—the San Rafael Swell in southeastern Utah. It’s where much of the uranium for the Manhattan Project was extracted, and the old mine shafts are still there. It’s also possibly the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been.