As far back as I can remember, I have turned decaying logs with my father looking for salamanders – his environmental barometer. On days when they were present we would simply continue our hike, on others he would announce he was looking for another planet.
I feel this year, my fiftieth, more than any other, that our planet has catapulted into rapid change, or perhaps it is the confluence of my middle pause and changes that have been building now for years. I have just returned from a trip to Iceland, a trip that has not only boiled and frozen extremes into my senses, but one that has exposed the contrasts of how we have lived and the effects of our trespasses.
Glaciers. Iceland may have simply been a place for all of my readings (from Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring, to Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, to Kress and Jackson’s Puffin Project,) two years of work on local water contamination and daily observations to merge, but it became the place where I experienced the physicality of voids.
In this photo our glacier guide, Alberto Marini, explains that Solheijmajokull Glacier is the fastest retreating glacier in Europe, and shows us how far it has receded since he started work there 2 years. He also points out where cameras were located during the filming of the acclaimed documentary, “Chasing Ice.”
Oystercatchers. Earlier this summer I was happily watching a pair of nesting oystercatcher on the beach in Spring Lake NJ. One pair, roped off from a sea of bathers. In contrast, in Iceland I saw hundreds of these bright billed birds in their natural habitats, no boundaries necessary.
Puffins. I had an early emotional attachment to them. They are favorites of my father and step-mother, and they were the subject of a trip to Machias Seal Island Maine in 1978 – our first trip back to Maine after my sister died. We weren’t able to land on the Island that day as the ocean was too rough, but even through my sea sickness – I delighted at these amazingly colored birds as they dove and floated and dove again. The dark ocean was alight.
It wasn’t until 2015 that I ventured to another nesting ground, the Skelligs in Ireland. Once again the ocean was too rough to land, but my high at watching both the puffins and the gannets from the rocking boat removed any trace of sea sickness. These birds are simply magical.
I was excited to head to Iceland , where there are many puffin nesting grounds, in fact more than half of the world’s puffins nest here – and luckily we arrived at the same time as the pufflings. On Reynisfjara’s black sand beach I stood directly under the puffins as they flew back, mouths full, and forth, mouths empty feeding their pufflings nesting above the basalt column cliffs. On a zodiac off the coast of Husavic, we had an almost eye level view as they floated and flew alongside us. But I was reminded, even amongst these spectacular arrays – that their numbers, as well as many sea birds, are beginning to fall – rapidly fall – so much so that the puffin is now on the International Union of Conservation’s Red List.
Counteracts. (22 Cedar Hill Road vs. Monsanto)
My tiny “(milk)Weed Project.” I hope there are more acts to come.
Special thanks to my colleagues for indulging me, and providing an inter-disciplinary view.
With Jake Benfield, Les Murray and Joe Oakes.