The Hood Canal, which walls off the Kitsap Peninsula from the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington state, bears something of a misnomer. Canal, in the American sense, generally refers to a man-made waterway; the Hood is all natural. Really it’s a fjord. (It’s in good company, label-wise, in the Pacific Northwest: Crater Lake actually sits inside a caldera, as it was formed by the collapse of a volcano rather than by outside impact.)
A solid hour of research couldn’t net me the original Skokomish name for the Hood but like plenty of other PNW features it’s a solid bet that the label it bears isn’t its original one. Crater Lake used to be called Giwas, Mount Hood was Wy’east, Rainier was Tahoma—the list goes on. The same man gave English names to many of these places, including the canal and Rainier; George Vancouver, who would himself end up with a place or two called in his honor, had a real fondness for marking up the map for his friends and naval superiors.
I say this all not out of pedantry or even a real desire to be woke but because sitting out against the water as the sun set over the tops of dark pine trees it felt like the kind of place where things should be called by their right names.
For a long time I’ve had a sort of romantic attachment to the water and a life that could be spent on it. It might be nice to live for a time on a fishing boat out on the ocean, I find myself thinking. Or maybe carving a canoe and retiring onto a quiet bend of river somewhere.
Ah shit. That seems pretty hard.
Anyway I’ve been fortunate enough this past week to spend some time looking out on the canal from the spot pictured at the top of the newsletter. And because I can’t help myself, I spent some of that time thinking about the Really Big One, the earthquake the Pacific Northwest is inescapably bound for, and the havoc it will wreak on areas like this. Low-lying, on coasts or banks. How many more ghost forests will be created in the sudden, fatal falling of land beneath water.
It’s difficult to comprehend, and I think some of that comes from how offensive to the senses it would seem to break the placidity of this place. The still green surface of the canal, the quiet spurts of water from the oysters as they filter at low tide.
I have taught that story, the story of the last Big One and the one to come, in my GED class several times. The first time was in part due to a cultural misconception that I bought into, that teenagers need to be shocked into caring about things, walled off as they are within their phones and small dramas. A few students left that day near tears; at least one had trouble sleeping. It occurs to me now that teenagers are the opposite of apathetic and uncaring—it’s that they care so much about the Big Things that matters like dishes and curfews and eardrums don’t really register. Get them talking authentically and organically about Death or Justice and there’s no telling how much you’ll learn. Algebra and cleaning up their Cup-o-Noodles debris, not so much.
Most of us grow out of this eventually and that’s probably on the whole a good thing, or else we’d all be dashed to pieces inside. But if anything is ever to be fixed or changed I think we have to find that teenage heart inside of ourselves at least once in awhile, to feel all the weight and the horror and consequence of the decisions that are made without us. Writing helps me do that; organizing, too. I think you can reply to this newsletter directly via email if you subscribe and I’d be thrilled to hear what does it for you. Makes you feel like that again, like you did when you were 14 or 17 and ready to punch through a wall for all the things you cared about.
Some people who clearly felt that way this week can be found in Puerto Rico. They’re no strangers down there, on that island ravaged by hurricanes and venture capitalists alike, to the kind of world-changing disaster I’ve been talking about. Something like a million Puerto Ricans—roughly 1/3 of the country—got out in the streets on Monday to protest the abhorrent and negligent behavior of the island’s governor. Even Ricky Martin got in on the action:
There aren’t a million Hawaiians out on the streets this week but there are a few thousand. So far they’ve been successful in halting efforts to install a thirty-meter-wide telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano held sacred in the indigenous traditions of the islands. The interests of capital don’t lie dormant for as long as volcanoes do and so I’m not optimistic that it will be a permanent fix. But if you lose all hope what else do you have, really.
Of course it’s easy to type that and it belies the level of utter hopelessness I feel when I think about the Marshall Islands, another place out in the ocean that the U.S. wrecked pretty good. Besides the leaking concrete dome full of nuclear waste and the record-high cancer rates from the testing it was announced this week that the fish living around Kwajalein Atoll, home of a massive U.S. Army base, are toxic. “Cancer risk and non-cancer hazard are unacceptable for adult and child Marshallese residents under numerous evaluated fish consumption scenarios," the report said, which both undersells it and is also startlingly more honest than these reports tends to be.
That we have destroyed even the fish in a country with the world’s best fishermen is one more faint tally in the ledger of the imperial war machine. It won’t move the needle much; the sea level rise that will swamp those islands completely in a matter of years and render them uninhabitable barely has. Like outer space or the deepest parts of the ocean it is a concept too enormous and tragic and consequential to really comprehend. Or at least to put words to.
I think about translating the Aeneid in AP Latin my senior year, and how we had to learn the concept of ululating, a kind of world-rending repetitious cry that we don’t have in the modern west. I wonder if we’ll do anything like that when the world starts to end, piece by piece. Somehow I doubt it. It has already begun, really, hasn’t it?
These are the kinds of things that make it hard for me to sleep at night but I would hate to do that to you—some reward for clicking on my newsletter. So allow me to end by reiterating that there is still, always, hope. “Rebellions are built on hope,” or so I was told recently when I rewatched Rogue One on a tiny JetBlue seat screen. It was a nice sentiment, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time, preoccupied as I was with the major turbulence we were hitting up over the Midwest.
But hope without action is pointless. There is no cavalry; there is only us. When you’re done emailing me about what it is that makes you want to run through a wall to make the world right let’s talk some about what to do with that feeling. You have to have hope, and you have to do more than just hope. On the occasion of the moon landing, W.H. Auden opined that “we were always…more facile at courage than kindness.” We’re going to need a lot of both in the years to come. I think that’s about the sum of what I know about the world.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be in touch again next week.