silas crosby

some words from the sea

Month: October 2010

San Miguel

The fog hangs low as we climb into the dinghy. The heavy blowy greyness of it flirts with the idea of becoming rain before it remembers that this is southern California and reconsiders. The outboard dies halfway between the boat and the beach. Doug already has the oars out and is rowing when Steve gets it started again, but I’m busy analysing the swell patterns as we approach the back of the beach break in Cuyler Harbour. Don’t worry, we had told Doug and Lynneita, we totally know what we’re doing. “After this one,” I tell Steve.
“The key,” he tells us, “is to just wait and watch. Get a feel for the situation”.
“You have to choose your moment and go, come in just behind the breaking wave” I say, “follow this next one in”. “I see a big set coming,” he says, “we’ll just wait here”.
However, despite our confidence, neither tactic adequately accounts for the technology present; indeed, without neutral or reverse, the outboard continues to propel us towards the beach with little heed paid to timing or positioning. Someone swears and we all lean back as the stern of the boat lifts up with the crest of a breaking wave and the bow surges forward and down into the sand. It’s a near thing, but as we leap out into the calf deep water and pull the boat up the beach the landing is already being called a raging success by me and Steve. “That dinghy,” he says, “it just keeps proving itself”.
“That was nothing,” I say, “we could do way gnarlier”.
Even though they can’t argue with the fact that we’re on the beach and nothing above the knees is wet, I get the distinct feeling that Doug and Lynneita aren’t convinced. “It’s all about patience,” Steve says.
“And timing,” I say.

The rangers cabin at the purportedly least visited state park is quiet on our approach but the flag is raised and there are shoes beside the doormat so we sing out our hellos and peer through the windows. Jim comes to the door rubbing his eyes, halfway into his sweatshirt.
“We were out working late last night, and then again early this morning,” he tells us, “but wait a sec and I’ll open up the visitor centre”. We follow Jim into a room with framed aerial photographs of the island and historic timelines painted on the walls.
Jim’s not the ranger. He’s a biologist employed by US Parks as part of the effort to restore San Miguel Island after years of sheep and goat ranching by early homesteaders and circa WWII missile practice by the navy. Specifically, Jim collects data to do with a species of fox unique to this tiny little island. At one point, he tells us, the only ones left were in captivity. But the breeding program was successful, as was the reintroduction, and so now the population numbers over three hundred and fifty.
I’m not a biologist. But I’ve hung out with enough of them to appreciate the challenges that face this species and this island. The deterioration of this specific ecosystem was due to a combination of introduced species of plants and animals that pushed out – in one way or another – the native species, and chemical contamination (DDT). The restoration effort is similarly complicated. After all, as in so many of these situations, no one was really paying attention before all these changes took place. Like trying to piece together the remnants of a lost culture, this kind of “salvage ecology” must constantly refer to the principle of diversity for diversity’s sake in its effort to reintroduce and restore.
All the foxes wear radio collars, which make it possible to track and monitor individuals and every so often they have to be trapped.
“It’s not so bad,” Jim explains, “they get a free meal out of it and a place to sleep for the night. Some get so used to it they keep coming back – trap happy, we say. But they’re still wild animals, and don’t like being handled”.
We eat a snack outside as Jim collects some equipment – he’s offered to hike with us to the site of a prehistoric forest. In his twenties and an experienced field biologist, Jim usually spends eight days at a time living here on the island. He works with another field biologist, but she’s on another island right now. This week, it’s just him and one volunteer. He’s not expected to show us around, but with the ranger gone he seems happy enough to answer our questions.
“We’re supposed to work two office days a month,” he tells us when I ask about what his job looks like in the six days while he’s not here, “but I do everything I can to get out of them. Sick days, comp days, whatever”.
It’s not far to the Caliche forest. The process is a bit unclear, but the gist is that at some point there were trees and now there are two or three foot high trunks of calcium. There’s a fence to keep us from walking right up to them, so we stand twenty feet away. I’m trying to feel impressed.
“Yeah,” says Jim, “sometimes we get groups of artists out here in the summer and they really dig it. They can’t get over how beautiful it is. Personally, I’m not sure what they see. Maybe they like the challenge of beige on beige”.
He’s right. In theory this stunted sandy forest is serioiusly cool (petrified trees?!) but they’re not hugely exciting to look at. Before the navy came and took over from the ranchers, the island had been almost totally stripped of vegetation. In an aerial photo at the visitor centre, one can see that in 1929, the island was one big sand dune shot through with a few veins of rock. The armed forces introduced a succulent called ice plant (potentially from South Africa), and it thrived in the relatively damp climate of the Channel Islands – despite the desert appearance, the islands get quite a bit of fog. And this is where the whole project of restoration becomes even trickier. Because, as Jim explains to us, the foxes seem to eat quite a bit of ice plant – to the extent that the biologists assume that this is where they get a significant portion of their water. Without the ice plant, Jim doesn’t really know what they would do.
On our way back over the hill, we find a fox skull and Jim points out the markings that distinguish this species from foxes anywhere else. In the same crouch, he reaches over and picks a piece of ice plant and shows us how to squeeze out the white, gooey fruit. He’s right, it does taste a bit like kiwi. At the top of the hill, Jim gets out his radio telemetry gear and we all stand around as he adjusts the frequency, waiting each time for a small steady beep which tells him that the animal is still alive. If the radio collar doesn’t move in something like ten hours, the beep changes and the biologists go frantically looking for the animal. It’s important, he explains, to keep track of who dies, and for what reason. “Nine times out of ten,” says Jim, “they’re just having a long nap”.
We all stand looking out across the island. From the top of the hill we can see the ocean on both sides of us. After so much time spent recently in urban places, I feel relieved to be back in open space. “You must have a good stereo system,” says Lynneita, “or at least an iPod”. Jim looks sheepish.
“Not really”, he shrugs, “I brought my iPod out here at first, but I never really feel like listening to it. There’s enough to listen to out here already”.
We leave Jim squinting out towards Harris Point, where his volunteer has struck out to set more deer mouse traps – they’re trying to correlate population densities between the foxes and the mice, trying to fit another piece into the puzzle of this small island ecosystem. All we can see is a light speck of tee shirt that comes and goes as the volunteer bends down behind the short scrubby groundcover to adjust another trap.

Tell Me Now

It’s four o’clock in the morning and I’m halfway through my third straight episode of This American Life. Three miles off the coast of Big Sur, I’m pretty sure that Ira won’t mind that I downloaded them (all four hundred plus) without exactly paying because they are making it possible for me to stay awake until Steve gets up (sometime after dawn). I also figure he’d probably think this night would make a good Act Two in an episode titled “Why Isn’t There Any Wind”?
I’m being sneaky (with myself) in my approach to this huge bank of public radio by listening to episodes I’ve only listened to once before and not since the beginning hours of my relationship with TAL. Tonight, it’s Hamlet in prison, the folly of freezing people and what life is like on a much bigger, much different ship in the middle of a very different sea. Like favourite songs, though, these stories hold remnants of the moments when I first heard them. So it is then, that the feeling of early morning walks through snowy streets a continent away overlays the more immediate feeling of damp air and the sound of the diesel engine and this boat, moving through water.
We left Monterey for the second time in the middle of the afternoon in ten or fifteen knots of wind but by dinner time the sails are banging around and we’re not moving forward any more. We had tried to leave a couple of days earlier, but when we came out of Stillwater Cove into a solid twenty knots of southerly wind we changed plans and wisely headed back to Monterey for another day on the internet and Indian food.
Every ten or fifteen minutes I go below to look at the array of small glowing screens that replace the real world as soon as it gets dark or foggy. By the light of my headlamp I make a cup of hot chocolate and take it to the seat at the very back of the boat. To my right stretches the whole pacific, too vast to take seriously and too serious to look at for too long.
To my left soar the dry mountains of central California. I can’t actually see the mountains through the dark but every few minutes I watch stars that seem to travel back and forth through the middle sky until I realise they are headlights of cars snaking along the switchbacks of the coastal highway.
How long do stories need to come tiptoeing out of the moments from which they are made? It is here, in the dark and quiet, that stories start to seep out of cracks in the walls in my memory, begin to understand themselves enough to stand up and state their names and their needs.
I am funny, one says. I won’t need many words, says another. I’m ready, they all say, tell me now.
How? I ask them, I’m already making new stories. If I look back for too long, won’t I miss something of the now?
One night and day later, I stand above Morro Bay on Black Hill looking at the highway curve away from the coast and disappear behind sharp hills and rolling ranch land. In my mind, I can see it beyond where it is visible from where I now stand; there, the curves and undulations lay themselves out dutifully until they bring me to San Luis Obispo, where less than a year ago I stopped for a burrito and a coffee and talked to my dad on the phone. We’re doing well, I told him, just a few more weeks and we’ll be in Mexico. I can even follow the road in my mind as we left that evening and rode our bikes through the dark canyons until we found another small patch of grass to lay our tent.
Looking north, I can see that the road follows the coast for a few miles before passing through another town but, try as I may, I remember nothing of the hours and miles that preceded the stretch of road directly in front of me. Where the road bends beyond my eyes, all I can see is a blur of coastal cliffs, grocery stores and strawberry fields. How is it decided, I wonder, what gets forgotten and what remains?
With the first light comes the wind. The sails set, I turn off the engine and stand in the sudden silence it leaves behind.

“How can the poem and the stink and the grating  noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be  set down alive?

Like nearly every morning, I wake to the protest of fabric as Steve pushes his way out of the aft cabin past the hanging foul weather gear and lifejackets. This morning, the portholes are still black cutouts.
At first, the headlamp beam jumps around the galley alone, grinding coffee and lighting the stove, putting on gumboots. As Steve turns on the electronics, the bright white voice of the headlamp is joined by a softer chorus of greens and blues; one by one, the glows of the few small screens seep into the black of the cabin.
The anchor comes up heavy with mud and kelp and as we push out through the breakwater into Half Moon Bay I am leaning over the bow with the brush and my most persuasive brush manoeuvres.

When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch.

I’m fifteen rows into my sixth or seventh attempt at this hat when the light goes on and with no hesitation I rip it out again, covering the cockpit bench in kinky purple string. I guess all it takes sometimes is a generous amount of doing it all wrong before the right way makes itself known.
I’m so sure of my realisation that I celebrate by making bran muffins without even casting on. When I do sit down to start again, I promise the tired first stretch of yarn that this will be the last time, and before I know it we’re four inches in and things have never looked better. And all I had to do was read the instructions, make mistakes, seek help, and then humbly start again (and again). Ha.
Maybe world leaders should consider taking up knitting, I think as I hold this small victory of order over chaos in my hands.

You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water.

We let the anchor go just as the gravity defying carnival ride takes off of shore. The screams travel easily across the water to us as we flake the sails beside the Santa Cruz pier. All evening, the screamers compete with the sea lions (but the sea lions win because they don’t need advanced engineering to make them noisy).
I have a hard time believing we are where we know we are.
How did I miss this? The hardest part of arriving in a place the second time is realising you remember nothing. This carnival in front of me begs the question: have I forgotten or did we just miss it completely? Either way, the answer opens the door to so many more things inevitably forgotten and missed, just out of our line of sight or beyond the reaches of backward looking thought.
Even without being confined to the winding of roads, we choose the paths we glide and plod from here to there and there is no way to travel both left and right, east and west, at the same time. Especially when we’re trying to go south.

And perhaps that might be the way to write…to open the page and to let the stores crawl in by themselves.”

-John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

With love, to Kenya

By Sunday, the crowds have relaxed.

In the lower field

they happily press together,

absorb each other’s sway,

bathe in the waves of sound

and come clean

after all the dust and hustle of the weekend.


On higher ground

couples begin to gather empty bottles,

chairs and children,

start to unstitch the quilt of blankets

and tarps

shaking loose tattered programs and

lost earrings.


You are here too,

settled into recently vacated real estate

head bobbing and shaking

to the beat of the bass.

Or maybe that’s you

at the back

with the groovers and movers.

Happy with a bit more space

you boogie like it’s Eric,

not Emmylou

and you’re in the dining room,

on a Sunday morning

all the day to go

instead of almost over.


Leaving the park I stop

with a small crowd beside four children.

How sweet the sound they sing.

Quietly now, we gather these last small melodies

and hum them back to the night air

all the way home.


[happy birthday dad]

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