The Riddle of Riddles

Whether I was drawn here initially by sheer luck, skin walkers, or crystal vortices I am not sure. What is important is that I am still wandering the desert, floating down rivers, and hiding in the shade during the height of summer – this place has slowly carved a chasm in my soul. There is something about the timelessness and ruggedness of this place: in the rocks from a time when no life existed on earth, in the mysterious drawings left on cliff walls and boulders, in the juniper trees that burst forth from cracks in the rock, or when a thunderstorm turns the desert into a series of rivers and waterfalls.

IMG_3624I have learned to read the canyon walls as books that tell stories of otherworldly landscapes in their leaves: shallow azure seas that teemed with life, towering crimson sand dunes, volcanic eruptions that leveled coniferous forests, a supercontinent that spanned half the globe, or one small waterhole that dinosaurs frequented. It is a monument to cycles spanning time frames that are incomprehensible to us. In the depths of the canyons at night I often imagine myself hurtling through space amidst the shimmering sea of galaxies as a mere speck on a speck. In those moments I feel completely free.

I have come to feel a bond with others that have lived and died here over thousands of years. Those that have farmed these river bottoms, hunted game along these creeks, roamed these vast expanses, and boldly run these rivers. In untold numbers of canyons I have crouched on my hands and knees to marvel at the still visible finger prints of people in the mud of granaries, examine desiccated corncobs, and compare my own hands to the white outlines others left on the walls. I ceaselessly ponder the figures crowned with horns, wraith-like figures that fade into the rocks, the spirals winding into nothingness, and the big horn sheep dancing across the patina of desert varnish. I cannot explore or read enough. Each alcove and ledge offers the possibility of the unknown, and each additional visit a chance to put together another piece of the riddle.

Traveling here can be difficult, but the rewards of being swallowed by the canyons are immense. Others since time immemorial have sat along the shore of the river and looked out at the vultures soaring along the cliffs with wonder, gazed with awe at the bighorn sheep living out their lives on crumbling vertical ledges, and have tried to decipher the ceaseless murmurings of the river cutting through this land of stone. It will change you. I learned to see what is written in the canyons and sky because one man was so enraptured by these places that he spent his life  sharing them with others.

Thanks Dee.

Forget the Finches

A rainforest can appear vacant and silent, but there are some people who say that there are more eyes than leaves, that you just have to keep your mind blank in order to see and hear the life.

IMG_3536 (1280x1280)Madagascar is a small continent, massive and isolated from mainland Africa for over 70 million years. Geographic isolation and a variety of unique ecosystems ranging from desert to rainforest have led to the evolution of an incredible array of diversity, the likes of which exists nowhere else on earth. 90 percent of the reptiles and amphibians are endemic – a number which accounts for two thirds of all known chameleon species in the world. 80 percent of the 10,000 known plant species are endemic, as are roughly 50 percent of the birds. Oh and the lemurs have radiated into dozens of species filling a broad variety of ecological niches – some are the size of mice and others the size of children. The beauty of the adaptive radiation exhibited by the lemuroids and the rodential tenrecs make Darwin’s finches look like a flock of inbred sparrows.

IMG_3151 (1280x1280)Seeing an animal means recognizing a sound or animal form that fits a pattern latent in the mind. This process is innate, but takes cultivation. Maybe it is a set of golden eyes or a rustle in the canopy. Or the strange, beautiful humming noise a Milne-Edwards Sifaka makes just before launching sideways from one tree to another until it disappears through the jungle. Possibly the haunting horn-like wail of the Indri Indri cascading through the forest.

Everything in the rainforest is alive. Leafs jump through the air on two hind legs. Sticks sprout legs and crawl. A group of flowers bursts into a kaleidoscope of butterflies. A gigantic centipede has IMG_2963 (1280x1280)leeches riding upon its back waving furiously in the air looking for a host. A small frog living inside the cup created by a broken stalk of bamboo. A Giraffe Beetle awkwardly poised on the end of a perforated leaf. Life growing upon life.

Variegated packs of birds move through the forest amidst a medley of songs and chatter. Blue Cuoas jumping from branch to branch, swallowing tree frogs whole; Madagascar Paradise Flycatchers diving through the lushness trailing long white feathers; and Crested Drongos making regal sounding proclamations.

IMG_3107 (1280x1280)Under the impenetrable blanket of the canopy the night resounds with a cacophony with barks, beeps, trills, and hums of frogs. Other nocturnal creatures are furtive and carefully climb through the trees with nary a sound, like the Eastern Wooly Lemur and the Brown Mouse Lemur. Their presence is only known by the reflection of their gilded eyes through the branches. The eyes of the Leaf Tailed Gecko offer no reflection; one must discern its aborescent disguise amidst myriad other dead leaves dangling from a branch.

Chameleons crouched into leaf-like forms can be found stoically sitting on the ends of branches to better feel the approach of predators. Some are less than an inch in length, others more than a foot. Some are rose-colored, others are emerald, sky blue, grey, white, black. All of their eyes move independently, but with equal suspicion.

IMG_3383 (1280x1280)In the center of the country, rugged, seemingly barren granite mountains burst forth from the plateau. A thick fog often envelopes them as the moisture laden air rolls in from the east. There is no towering old growth forest here – this high desert teems with life at a different scale. Out of the proliferate cracks in the granite massif pours forth spring water about which gather flowers, ferns, mosses, and bugs. IMG_3380 (1280x1280)These microcosms abound with tiny insects traversing a world of undulating sand particles and plants that give the terrain a surface area hundreds of times that visible from human scale. Shy, incongruously neon Carpet Chameleons wander the plains below. Rainbow Bush Grasshoppers clumsily jump about in a confidence likely rooted in their toxicity. The night is quiet as frigid air descends off the mountain and the lights of our galaxy begin to wink on and shimmer against the black unknown.

The west has arid desert that is home to baobab trees and cactus. The vegetation takes hundreds of years to grow in the harsh dry environment. You could walk along in this landscape dying of thirst indefinitely, but there is a chance that you would come upon one of the canyons that slice through the landscape as verdant gashes of life. These perennial streams are lined with tropical vegetation that shakes with flying lemurs and echos with the calls of birds.

IMG_3387 (1280x1280)In walking amidst such profusion and diversity of life I am reminded in a profound way that we are part of a vast organism. Wandering in the wilderness is a mental odyssey to our origins; with proper attention you can see the eternal cycle of death and rebirth that has stretched on since the dawn of life. The chameleon crawling up your shirt with its oven-mitt hands; the leech sucking away on your inner thigh; the malaria carrying mosquito buzzing around your head; the wild, edible berries along the trail; and the lemur urinating on you are striving to reveal a fundamental truth about existence.

Explore Mauritius

It is a strange undertaking to simply arrive somewhere with the intention of undertaking a project, but with limited knowledge of the place, an inability to speak the local language, and no idea of what type of project to undertake. There were the additional constraints of having only five months worth of time and quite limited financial resources. I found myself last November in just this situation. For the first few weeks I watched insects crawl on the walls, read books and papers on climate change the environment, tested if I could give myself diabetes with mangos, figured out that the local beer made my hands and feet itch, and contemplated the human condition. I could identify many things that other people should be working on like pollution, waste, energy production, food security, education, inequality, corruption, and industrial tourism. Mauritius was not very different than the majority of the world in the problems that it faces, but many were more acute due to the constraints of living on an island. None of these areas seemed appropriate for me to delve into though.

After a month I felt no further along. I could not help but think that I could not find anything to do because I had an incredibly limited skill set and simply was not up to the task I had set for myself. If you need a problem to deal with you can always create one yourself. The first project that I needed to undertake in Mauritius was to help myself as the malaise and boredom were too much. I abandoned the illusion of altruistic action and returned to just IMG_4609 (1024x768)doing what I enjoyed. I set about exploring the scattered remnants of natural areas on the island. I found happiness in the quiet of the forest and the inspiration on the peaks. I breathed deeply in the open, relishing the reprieve from the oppressive concrete sprawl and sugarcane wastes. It did not take long before I had hiked all of the well-known trails and peaks. I began scouring the internet and asking around to uncover new frontiers. I began bringing my GPS with me, taking photos, and writing about the trails. I hiked during cyclones in the howling winds and rain. I baked my arms in the tropical sun and came home sliced to bits by vicious tropical plants.

Thus I found my winter project in the creation of a website called Explore Mauritius. I aimed to compile a detailed comprehensive guide that would enable Mauritians and tourists alike to experience the same joy I felt in the limited remnants of nature on the island. Additionally, I hoped to foster a stronger community around outdoor activities to protect these areas for posterity. In sharing something that I love I managed to combine many of the various skills that I already possessed and also learn a few new ones as I designed the website itself and the interactive map that became the centerpiece of it all. The map was built using Google Fusion Tables as the platform and Garmin Basecamp for editing tracks.

IMG_5682 (1024x768)The number of people who use the website and are getting outside is growing every week. I stumbled into doing exactly what I intended to do at the outset.


I am no longer marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean. My departure had overtones of finality as it is unclear when I will make it back to a part of the world that is about as close as I can come to the opposite side of the world from Utah (see Map Tunneling). In my head I said goodbye to the faces of friends; the stress over my failure to learn French or like baguettes and foie gras; my disgust with the hoards of overweight, leathery tourists sunning themselves like glutted Komodo Dragons; the miasma generated by the billowing smoke of trash fires; my addiction to the fried, rolled curry deliciousness that is roti; my fragile mind addled by boredom that bristled with the shouts of the crazy lady that lived next door, the CD of Christian music that played on repeat everyday, and the kid who made noises like Moses Hightower from Police Academy. I reflected that I was orphaning my interminable project – (I wrote about the project here) – to map out the trail systems and natural areas of Mauritius. I felt proud of this child, but realized that I would no longer be there for it and could merely hope that it goes out into the world and labors arduously forevermore. I sat in Charles de Gaulle airport and kicked my feet up in anticipation of the joy I imagined that deadbeat fathers experience when they leave home into the bliss of utter irresponsibility.  No more ballet recital or parent teacher conferences, just cheap beer, Pizza Bagels, and Eggo Waffles. It never came; I was not cathartically transmogrified. Mauritius still occupied my thoughts – in that moment I felt a deep connection with the place, it felt like a part of me. The foundations of my life philosophy were shaken by the thought that being a deadbeat might not be so easy as it is impossible to fully abandon anything. I furrowed my brow, deep in contemplation. I wanted to give form to Mauritius, to find a way to relate to it in a more concrete manner.

I groped for parallels with every object around me. Mauritius is not like a notebook, a smelly sandal, a bag of dried fruit, or a trashcan. The exercise felt ridiculous after a moment, but maybe I didn’t have to create a convoluted analogy, maybe the answer was right under my nose.  The thought that Mauritius has no readily apparent utilitarian raison d’etre shed some light on the matter; it is bold and vain. After ruminating on this thought for a few minutes I felt the fingers of my hand gently twisting the ends of my mustache. Sacre bleu! Mauritius is most akin to the baroque mustache flourishing on my upper lip that I call ‘The Rajah.’

It is an ever-flowering wellspring of youth that brashly bursts forth with joie de vivre on a face that otherwise is a monument to functionality in a steady state of decay. It exists largely on aesthetic grounds, serving as a reminder that life in the end is a gigantic practical joke. Mustaches are not all tickles and giggles though – vanity has a cost. A mustache of any complexity requires two utilitarian hands to regularly groom it and twist it into shape – it is not capable of supporting itself. A mustache strives to look effortless, pristine, and independent, but this is only the appearance it offers from a distance. As one comes closer the heavy traffic that the mouth requires to support a variety of superfluous appendages like mustaches must pass through the baleen-like barrier of the mustache. Countless flavors and smells accumulate in profusion – the rich and the rotten. The existence of a mustache requires adaptability to changes in the dictates of style, a recognition that the upkeep grows correspondingly with time and complexity, and there is always a risk that it will simply run it course. Mustaches draw ire and accolades, but in the end both are senseless; it is just there – it need not be justified or explained.

The Rapture of Digital Truancy

Dear Dr. Bacastow from Penn State,

It is crunch time this semester. I just received your email regarding Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution. I will be unable to submit my Final Project (capstone) on time or ever. I hope that you can understand that I have had a very heavy course load over the past few months, including Introduction to Thermodynamics – Transferring Energy from Here to There, Physics I with Laboratory, and The Age of Sustainable Development. I would like for you to be aware that my non-attendance to your course was not unique: like last semester, I didn’t make it to a single course this semester. Before you rush to judgment and ignorantly begin throwing digital stones in your virtual ivory tower, I think that I deserve an opportunity to explain myself. I feel like you never took the time to get to know me as all of your emails were addressed to the fake name that I used when I signed up for Coursera. More importantly though, I feel like your course really wasn’t appropriate for someone who is completely uninterested in the subject matter – possibly you could try and throw in something a little more enticing or provocative from a different field to reach a broader audience. It wasn’t just you though. For Physics I the virtual laboratory felt completely inaccessible. And I am going to be frank here about Thermo: the faces that Margaret Wooldridge – Arthur F. Thurnau Professor made in her course description that made me want to stay away from school.

I will be fair though and admit some fault on my part. Each time I received an email from you or Dr. Sachs I felt a tremendous sense of power and a release when I subsequently chose not to attend your lectures. I have never liked school very much and truancy has been a part of my relationship with academia since my storied career began. It was a costly game to play before, but through technological innovation I am able to not attend courses on a scale that was impossible before. I want you to understand that your work is not in vain though as I read each of your emails with relish and downloaded your lectures, but I then mirthfully choose to do something else like going to the beach or making some food. You are giving contrast to my life – thank you for your regular appearance in my inbox. I am thinking about not attending the following courses during this next session:

-Introduction to Clinical Neurology -Digital Systems

– Sistemas Digitales: De las puertas logicas al procesador (Bilingual)

-On Strategy – What Managers Can Learn from Philosophy  – Part 2

-And possibly Theater and Globalization to round it out with a course from the humanities.

Could this count as my Final Project (capstone)?

Thank you,


Licking a Banana Slug in the 21st Century

“It was really a sad day. I took the camera out and I was going to take some pictures. And then I said, well, he deserves more than that. So I skinned him. I skinned his whole body. It took me all day. It was raining. So it was a really sad time. I’d skin a while, then cry a while. I was just like a baby,” a rancher named Ralph spoke softly out of the speakers of Steven’s car. A re-run of This American Life he guessed.

Steven had tuned in late, but the story seemed to be about a gentle and famous showbull that had passed away…that was then stuffed. He turned out of his driveway and drove towards work.  Steven veered around a broken down truck. He rocked back and forth in his seat – a symptom of a disease his wife called ‘restless head syndrome’ – as Ira Glass explained that the bull had been cloned to create Second Chance; they were physically identical and shared the same mannerisms. His owner Ralph fell in love with him as if he were the original. An emotionally rattled producer of the show narrated watching Second Chance brutally maul his owner Ralph.

The section about the bull ended and some girl, who sounded like a propagandist for The Daughters of the American Revolution, began prattling on with patriotic rhetoric about the Marquis de Lafayette. He turned off the radio and drove in silence. His eyes watered with weltchmerz as he thought about the twisted parable. Steven pulled into the parking lot at work. He stopped as he was about to open the door to his office and winced. He had forgotten, again, to stop by Comcast. He wished he could just tell Nancy that he wouldn’t do it – that he felt like he died a little bit inside each time he went there. Like a conscientious objector.

He took a deep breath and swiped his card. He then hurried towards his office, avoiding eye contact with the security guard – or was he a secretary? – whose name he had learned and embarrassingly forgotten. He made it to his desk without incident. He had just returned from a few days in Miami Beach doing a site visit and didn’t want to be there.

He got out his computer and began giving a cursory reading to the many articles that news aggregators had piled into his inbox. He felt like seeing a hundred articles on the same issue, day after day, for years, made it all seem so trivial and futile. When viewed from a meta-perspective they just looked like trends, rumors, hearsay rippling through the internet. 31 stories one week about how climate change might affect chocolate production, 14 on how the tourism economies of remote small island nations were likely to suffer in the coming decades, 19 on the meaning of the dropping price of oil for global emissions, 15 articles vociferously supporting or rejecting various outlandish geoengineering proposals. Climate change was the perfect news story in a way: no data to parse, not location specific, no characters, no beginning or end – pure echo chamber.

One article announced that the drought in California was not caused by climate change. This, confusingly, came on the heels of months of articles touting it as a tangible manifestation of climate change. Apparently climate change models did not show drought in California as a probable outcome in their projections. Steven could no longer understand what was meant by climate change; it just seemed too nebulous. Computers would decide what was climate change and what was not.

He clicked another email: Meeting with Tim moved up to 9:15. He chuckled mirthfully, thanking the lord that there is Tim Connelly to remind us why we are doing our jobs. Steven grabbed his notebook and walked quickly towards the conference room. The air conditioning made it feel as if he walked into a cryogenics lab. He was convinced that Tim probably had some Californian theory about how cooler temperatures decrease aging and that he was doing the world a favor. Steven grabbed a seat at the middle of the table.

The room gradually filled. Tim entered the room last, as usual, with a flurry of activity that made him seem like a circus performer or some sort of magician.

“Good morning. Thank you all for coming.” He took off his glasses with an exaggerated motion, aware that everyone was watching him. “We have a big week this week. A lot happening. I am hoping that we can all work out our individual schedules on our own time and that we can use this collective space to do some conceptualizing. I mainly want to share some ideas that I am going to discuss at a TED conference later this week. It is just a primer.” He smiled and then said “I’ll send you the link to the talk so you watch a master at work.”

He squared some papers officiously; papers that Steven imagined were blank.

“Climate change is not a tangible thing. It is a set of ideas that are driven by technology. Computers and networking have enabled us to amass information regarding our planet in a way that was completely impossible several decades ago….and to analyze it. In this way we have built an image of a planet in flux, one that is warming due to increasing c-oh-two concentrations. We all understand this point, but bear with me as I am going to explain how this is the theoretical basis for our business.”

“The next step in our field was to build computer models that projected these trends into the future. Then we were able to conceive the possible impacts that these broader trends could have upon different economic sectors, different nations, different locations. We saw more powerful storms, coastal inundation, droughts, and feedback loops. The calculation done by the models is beyond the capability of a human mind. The volume of data and the complexity of the interdependent variables are too vast.”

Tim took a dramatic pause, looked around the room, and then resumed.

“The propagation of these ideas has been advancing almost lock step with the rise of computers as a platform for communication, entertainment, education, and professional work. We have spent decades now working to get people to integrate the theoretical reality of climate change into their thoughts and actions. Call it education, sensitization, scare tactics. We are, in effect, asking people to substitute a computer model for their personal reality, to subjugate their personal decisions to a reality that is not intelligible to them as individuals. Stop and think about this for a moment. This is how we will save this planet. If people do not integrate these ideas into their thought, we are in trouble.”

Stephen looked out the wall of windows at the contrails crisscrossing the sky and had to constrain a rising urge to yell. He wasn’t sure what, but something. Maybe just a primal scream.

“The models describe and prognosticate, but they do not serve to explain. They model a reality given certain initial conditions and project them into the future. They do not adequately model the human economic or political responses – they are in fact intended to inform these responses. We are presented with this model of an almost helpless mass of humans… seven billion of us. Particles in an algorithm. You could log stack seven billion people into a cube two kilometers by two kilometers.”

For a few moments there was nothing but the hum of computers and the click of keyboards. Steven could not tell if people listened with rapt attention or were wracked with boredom. He hoped that nobody was listening or taking notes, and instead writing poetry or sexting.

“The important part for us is that people take this step of internalizing a reality that is anything but intuitive. Our business exists in the space created by this form of thought. The more people are willing to accept this computer generated reality and picture of humanity, the more of a market we will have.”

“Basically,” he boomed in a voice that brought everyone to attention as they knew it signaled a conclusion, “what I would like to emphasize for our business and the protection of this very planet, is how important it is that we continue to emphasize the models. We are in the business of selling solutions to this model of mankind, insurance against these potential realities. We sell ideas and peace of mind.”

One person awkwardly ventured to clap and then the room erupted.

Tim looked around the room briefly. “Any questions? I have to run, barely fit this meeting in today. Thank you for your time.”

Steven wondered if there were never any questions because nobody ever had any fucking clue what Tim was talking about. Tim put his glasses back on, grabbed his papers, and left. Everyone followed suit and hurried back to doing whatever had just been explained.

Steven opened up the information that he had gathered while in Miami Beach regarding the luxury condo building Faena House. He had met with an engineer and an actuary. He looked at similar policies they had written in the area. He felt good about his research and the numbers.

While Steven had been there he saw the streets flooding during high tide. It felt surreal looking up at the shimmering glass and steel as water burbled out of the sewers. Everyone knew the area was devastated by any tropical storm that hit the south of Florida. Yet buyers lined up for some of the most expensive real estate in the world because it could be insured. Steven’s company would not truly insure it, the state would underwrite the policy. Steven, along with the other parties in the transaction knew that the state would not be able to pay out the policies on their books, but as Tim had said, this was the space that they existed in.

His head was awash in numbers and projections. He sighed in relief when he had plugged the necessary information into an algorithms and it spit out a yearly projected cost. He started typing up the contract. He repressed ideas that assailed him about whether this was responsible and ethical. He didn’t get food for asking questions. He wondered if humans could learn to do any task, no matter how illogical and unethical by Pavlovian training? Were there limits?

He nearly completed the contract, but his mind felt frayed and he decided he was done. He had put a meeting on his calendar for the afternoon anticipating that he would need to get out. He got into his Prius and drove south towards the redwoods outside of Santa Cruz.

He parked at the trailhead on a trail that he had hiked often in college. He changed into some shorts, a UCSC t-shirt with holes in it, and his flipflops. He tossed water, snacks, and a book into a small backpack before setting off. The trails were spongy with pine duff, he could hear its murmurs underfoot as he walked in solitude. This park had always been his refuge, a counterbalance against the grinding logic of work and school…or more lately the grinding illogic. Everything in the forest was tangible, it was in order. He laughed at this thought, but it was true. He felt like he was at home there, like he fit into the order of things.

He walked off the trail and started wandering. He passed scattered, rusty iron logging equipment. He stood with his back against the trunk of a towering redwood and stared up the ridges of bark that led towards the upper stories of the tree. He sat down on a felled tree and felt the deep ridges with his hand. He relished the fecund smell of the forest. He snapped a carrot between his teeth and then progressively ate the root down.

He could not properly savor his pear as Tim’s voice kept repeating phrases from the meeting that day; they arose like ripples and swells in his mind. He wondered how much time anyone in his office, each of them likely a self-identified environmentalist, spent in nature. How can we expect people to be proper stewards for something they minimally interact with and therefore have only a rudimentary understanding of, these people who are merely concerned with how resource scarcity or natural variability will impinge upon their lives? Tim’s whole idea of an external, technology-based reality seemed to be driving the problem that it was now striving to solve. He realized that anyone living completely abstracted from nature is unlikely to lead humanity in the right direction. It seemed simple to Steven: there was only one reality, in which man was an integrated part of an environment that he effected and that effected him in turn. How could it be any other way? He shook his head. He wondered whether he should just confront Tim Connelly and ask him whether he was a cyborg. Maybe he kept the air conditioning so low to keep his processors from overheating? A rain drop burst upon his hand and sent him scrambling.


He shouldered his pack and got back on the trail. The sound of the rain grew into a hushed roar. He ran quicker. Suddenly one massive drop struck him in the forehead and he stopped in his tracks. He peered straight up and let his eyes follow individual drops as they seemed to emerge out of the ether hundreds of feet above. Birds were chattering about the rain. Banana slugs slimed their way across the trail. He laughed, remembering in college when his friends had convinced him, on a backpacking trip to the Lost Coast, that licking one would make your tongue go numb. He put one in the palm of his hand and everyone huddled their faces around his hand. He grinned and then ran his tongue down the entire length of the banana slug.  It didn’t work, but he demanded a bottle of cheap red wine to rinse out his mouth and that started off an incredible night. They howled at the nearly full moon, swam naked in the surf, and laughed at the rest of the world that Jess kept calling ‘a mere simulacra.’ Everyone drifted off to sleep as the fire burned out and the bottles went empty. The heavy bag of weed from a friend’s farm was Steven’s only company as he passed hours transfixed by towering, moonlit waves that seemed to shake the earth as they broke.

He set off running again, this time with a feeling of boundless joy. He reached his car and took off for home. He swung by the co-op on his way and bought apples, walnuts, fresh greens, goat cheese, wine, and chocolate. He was going to make a feast for everyone in celebration of living.

It was twilight when he got home, that meant Nancy and the kids should be there. He intentionally burst into the house still wearing his filthy, soaked clothes. He hoped they noticed and asked him about his day. Nobody was in the kitchen, but there was an assortment of nearly empty takeout boxes from PF Chang’s and white rice scattered about the counter.

He heard voices and saw colors from the television flickering against the windows in the living room. Nancy was watching one of her sitcoms about miserable wealthy people.

He waited a moment. “Hey Nance.”

She continued watching TV and responded distractedly with, “Hey hun. We already ate dinner. I left some out on the counter for you.”

“What are you watching?” Steve was trying to make conversation.

“Oh just that show Revenge. I know you don’t like it, but you could make yourself a plate and come watch.”

“Maybe in a bit. I bought some things to make a salad. What are the kids doing?”

“You know them. School work and talking to friends.”

He walked up the curving staircase towards the kid’s bedrooms. Mika was sitting on her bed wearing headphones. She was rocking back and forth just like Steven – restless head syndrome. She reached for her Iphone and saw Steven in the doorway. She smiled and waved.

He continued on to Stevie’s bedroom. He was at his desk, but saw Steven in the doorway out of the corner of his eye. He quickly closed a few windows on his computer and awkwardly turned around.

“Hey dad.”

“Stevieeee – what’s going on?”

“Oh just doing some trades on fantasy baseball. Too bad the Giants suck so much. We need to bring back steroids.”

“How was school?”

“The same shit that always does. You went to school didn’t you?” Stevie said dismissively.

“Well there were beautiful girls, and fights and I failed tests. We greased pigs and released them and  had massive food fights.”

“Well it is great that you got to be an extra in Dazed and Confused, but we stare at Powerpoint presentations all day and use Facebook to do our bullying and courting.

“Yep times have changed,” Steven calmly answered in jest. “I am going to make a salad – with goat cheese and I’ll make a dressing. You want any? I got some chocolate too,” he asked hopefully.

“No. I gotta get a few things done. Enjoy though.”

Steven went downstairs and ate his salad in a house that felt vacant.

The Year of the Hotdog

As we proceed through life we should never forget that the routine ingredients that flavor our lives would lose their importance if they were not underlain by mystery and shrouded in chaos.

Life is a mystery nestled in a bun of chaos topped with all of the simple, standard ingredients of existence. The universally identifiable toppings give depth and meaning to mystery and chaos, but they cannot be fully understood and appreciated without reflecting upon the mystery of that underlies them. We can only appreciate the mystery though, as it will forever remain beyond the understanding of science and logic. Speculating upon the constituents of the hotdog proceeds under the misguided belief that the object of scrutiny is the mere sum of its constituents. Even if we could agree upon the nature of its contents, the question of how such glorious flavor and beauty could be created out of seemingly nothing would persist.

I propose that this year we no longer idly muse about the nature of the hotdog and instead that we eat of it and relish the mystery.

A Setting of One Foot in Front of the Other

This day I would begin an odyssey that would shake the weltschmerz from my girdle. I would walk the coast of isle peopled with inhabitants whose languages remained completely beyond the ken of my discerning ear and whose clime would test my mettle to the utmost.

I arose with my nerves steeled for the unknown. The day’s heat proved formidable even though the cocks had only just begun to crow. At I had minimal information on the route, but I had at least been assured by various learned acquaintances that the public beaches were fair grounds for the setting of camp and that there was food for the eating.

IMG_3764 (1024x768)I walked out the main gate of our compound and turned to the right, despite the plan that I had to turn left. The sentry who assiduously guarded the entrance paced the road and as a speaker of my native tongue was likely to inquire what my plan was. The reasons being too complicated to explain drove me to bravely change course. I endeavored to head due north on a series of rarely trod bovine paths beset on every side by brambles and vegetables of a rather spiny nature. I was forced to turn back upon my trail multiple times as I navigated these wastes strewn with refuse. My tunic was sodden after a mere ten minutes.

I marveled at inexplicable concrete castles along dirt roads that were not only devoid of nobility or gentry, but there was nary a groundskeep or caretaker to be seen. I was led to wonder what chicanery inspired such frivolity.

IMG_3749 (1024x768)I reached the northernmost point of the island– a sign marked it as Cap Malhereux – and then began walking towards the yoke of the eastern sun. The Orient proved to be sparsely populated compared to the Occident. The paths were rife with mechanical conveyances that threatened my life at high velocities  with little room for refuge.

I walked along the beach when possible and gazed upon uninhabited, rugged northern isles that local lore spoke of as inhabited with the most bizarre and uncomely reptiles imaginable. I shuddered at the mere thought of these blind boas and neon lizards. Previous travelers had assured me that they had exterminated all such fauna from this island.

IMG_3757 (768x1024)I made frequent pit stops at shrines along the coast. I approached one from a distance that was dressed regally and appeared to be of significant import, only to find that upon closer examination the figure had a half simian half man face. I never have seen such a creature on this island. I later found out that this thing was called Hanuman, a beast that once mistook the sun for a mango and tried to eat it in his youth. A story that I venture to say is preposterous.

My feet had already begun to ache and blister. I sought respite in the shade of a food hawker’s stand. I shared a mirthful moment with a group of shirtless men gathered around a booth who laughed at one of the few utterances that I was able to manipulate my tongue into uttering in the local dialect: ‘Un roti de poisson avec beaucoup pimen.’ After saying this the locals will hand you a roll filled with spices, fish, and chili.

IMG_3760 (1024x768)My exhaustive research indicates that prior to 1638 there were no permanent inhabitants of this tropical island. The Dutch had a colony on Mauritius from 1638 until 1715 when the French took control of the island who held it until the British came in 1810. It has a history of being passed around like a lady of the night and appears to have few of its original natural charms left. The creole language that is native to these islands is a mix of African Bantu language, French, English, Arab languages, and Indian languages.

IMG_3762 (1024x768)

The chili in the food left my mouth ablaze and brought tears to mine eyes, which I promptly stifled to avoid doing injury to the perception of my peoples. Thence I tried to hug the coast and avoid the majority of the traffic.  Beads of sweat materialized from the ether upon my forehead and rivulets cascaded down my face. I strode in the darkness granted by the benevolent branches of trees. Many of these trees were brilliant and quite unlike anything that exists in my native land. They loomed magnificently over the road and gave me the impression that I was part of a grand procession. I was marveling at the splendor of existence, when a long ratlike creatures scurried across my path and slinked into the undergrowth and leaf litter. I deeply regretted how this creature befouled the image that I had conjured in my mind.

IMG_3770 (1024x768)The coast retreated from the road, but thankfully the breeze continued to caress me with the gentleness of thousand butterflies flapping their wings. I found myself adrift in a vast sea of sugar cane – what a delicious sight!

I passed through a city called Goodlands. I stuck my hand into the reddish soil and it crumbled into dry dust before sifting through my fingers. The name Goodlands seemed to have been given to the place in jest. It was at this moment that I realized that I was over a league away from the coast, somehow my stalwart navigational skills had foundered.

IMG_3785 (1024x768)I reached a place called Poudre d’Or with the sun having passed west of its apex. After shouting at a local man I was informed that the name of the town translates to ‘golden powder.’ After another bit of time I managed to find cold water and a fried noodle dish called mine frite. I relished both to a degree that would be lewd to place in print and would besmirch my literary reputation.

I laid down in a park and drift into a blissful slumber. I waved a greasy turkey drum stick in my hand at passersby and pontificated on a subject that had been troubling me.

IMG_3790 (1024x768)“Hear ye, hear ye. It is not only the earth’s ancient failure to provide conditions that are conducive to the building of civilization in the untold leagues of deserts, tundra, and mountains that mar her countenance that I wish to discourse upon this day, but rather a topic of more vexing concern: our grand civilizations are now under constant threat from unruly tides that threaten to inundate our coasts, a dearth of water in the hinterlands that makes the sustenance of our barleycorns difficult, and mercurial tempests that terrorize our lands.”

“It is unconscionable, it is abhorrent to the sensibilities of the most brilliant of species for whom this domain was erected. I decry that there is only one thing hindering our limitless expansion and we are therefore engaged in nothing short of mortal combat with this final foe – the earth. I ask thee how shall we respond: Can we subdue this wily savage and gentrify it or will we humble ourselves and accept that parts of it shall forever remain indomitable due to their immutable and uppity constitution?”

“If we accept a position as a mere vassal we will have to recognize and abide by a myriad of constraints and implicit duties of stewardship, therefore I exhort my intelligent and sensible listeners to push onward towards the culmination of a task that began many millennia ago. Our laudable and infinitely brilliant minds – those that have allowed mankind such success in outcompeting every other species and shaping our very environment – shall not prove themselves insufficient to putting an end to this irrational and immoral savagery that we have heretofore put up with. I proclaim that it will be no more difficult than bottling lightning or leashing a cloud!”

The cackle of a group of roustabouts drinking away the afternoon woke me with a start. I was planning on sleeping in the park, but the men sitting around drinking cider and the amount of trash sent me walking. I was disappointed as the isolated pristine white beaches that my mind had conjured and held onto like a prized mirror-finished marble had become tarnished by the corrosive effects of reality.

roostercubeThe inhabitants of the island had pasted a variety of posters along my route with the intent of advancing their chosen candidate for political office. The content of the posters seemed, like many of things on the island, impenetrable to me. One party used a picture of a rooster pecking cubes to represent their party and the primary candidate in this region had a name that is unprintable. I withered under the late afternoon sun. I provisioned in Roche Noir near the coast where the proprietor warned me about the perils of being waylaid on the coast by thieves.

I was walking without relish and had entered a very remote region. My feet felt as if they were being rendered into ground meat as I trod onward under the tangerine sun. It had rotated around the earth and now dipped below the trees with a tangerine tint. I tossed my pack down, took off my shoes, and then hobbled into the ocean like a bipedal crab. The sea trembled with anger and its menacing vibrations broke against the black rocks of the coast. I laid down in the water, casually relieved myself, and stared out at the horizon hoping against meeting a kracken or giant devilray upon this occasion.

I reluctantly returned to the beach to cook dinner while there was still light. I sautéed various vegetables to which I added small fishes. The sun painted the distant isles rouge as I suspiciously eyed the foreboding, dark clouds on the horizon. It seemed prudent that I move with haste to make ready my canvas.

The first drops began to fall. I had obtained a new big top canvas after great difficulty immediately before my departure that I began to assemble, but I was dismayed to find that it would not come together. I sat down in consternation with the realization that this was a death knell for this undertaking – I would have to return embarrassed to my abode and make designs for another journey. I prayed to my normal god, but also ventured to offer a few kind words to that monkey figure that I had seen previously in the day.

IMG_3808 (1024x768)I set off down the beach. Fortune favored me and I was rewarded with the discovery of a vacant beach castle. I approached the building and unloaded my rucksack under a tree. I curled up in the unerected canvas of my big top, but was immediately disturbed by an odor that led me to believe that the place could be nothing other than a feral cat latrine. Sheer indolence left me impotent to move and I hunkered down with unshakable fortitude. I was thankfully able to drift off to sleep each time there was a break in the rain.

I woke up and saw a break in the clouds that permitted me to gaze upon the scintillating night sky. I ruminated on the shapes and patterns that stars created in the sky. What was clearly a bear to me other fools held to be a big dipper or just a random group of stars as if god had merely sneezed them into existence. I began to get damp and shivered intermittently. I didn’t even once think that I was a miserable wretch. Eventually an orange glow in the east lit up my red eyes.

IMG_3798 (1024x768)I went down to the black rocks again to make breakfast and tea. The night had left my mind blank and it was easily hypnotized by the sound of the waves. I peered into small pools that teemed with colorful, furtive fish and gangly, writhing starfish. I saw what looked like a miniature black and white flying Arabian carpet floating through one pool.

IMG_3818 (1024x768)I set off down the beach heading south. The wind misted me with salty air. I reached another beach and I started a conversation with a guard while I waited for the bathroom stall to open up. It seemed to help pass the time as I was in dire need of the toilet. He asked me a few questions about my native land and then asked me about an incident that I had not kept abreast of due to the nature of my travels.

“I was watching the news yesterday and it said that black people were rioting because police shoot a black kid,” he said.

“Yes, but you see it is a really complicated situation,” I was not sure how to respond.

“No. No. The blacks are all bad,” he said confidently and reassuringly. I was soaked in sweat from colonic concentration.

“My friend, life is tough for a lot of people in that part of the world. It would be hard for me to relate the difficulties to you,” I had to pause and take a deep breath to keep the sardines from jumping out of my can. “But I can assure you that the darkness that courses through the hearts of my countrymen exists here just the same. The dodo is just…” I trailed off as I saw a stripling exit the bathroom and ran with the utmost gentility.

Squirting Ink as a Form of Self Defense

While I saved and planned my departure for Mauritius I felt like I was in an extreme delayed gratification study, staring at a mango on a plate for months on end. Why not stay home? What is the sense in all of this wandering? Why is there so much joy for me in caroming off in an unknown direction? My drive to undertake adventures and explore the unknown has always been hard to explain.

IMG_3665 (1024x768)On the plane to Paris I wrote the following: “For me it seems that adventures and the mystery of life unfolding are the single greatest joys in life. There will always be sedentary jobs, possessions to accumulate, things to be learned through perseverance, and debts to amass and service. Death will always haunt us as an omnipresent specter though. The potential ways to live a life seem as limitless like the earth itself. Maybe I am just not meant to sit and work in – as Mark Salouka says – paint factories. I sleep better under the stars. I feel best when I rise with the sun. I often find myself want to run wild and break from the rational non-sense of society. Another justification seems to lie in my perception that society, science, religion, and technology fail to explain the mystery of mysteries. Exploring seems to be the realization of my philosophy regarding life in some way. It could be said to be pointless, self-serving, futile… but this logic can be turned against most of the activities that other people spend their lives doing whether it is working for a financial services company, designing multi-billion dollar Iphone applications that allow teenagers to send one another self-destructing photos of their genitals, of wealth accumulation, or of working in a paint factory.”

But I am not alone. About 3500 years ago it is estimated that Pacific Islanders expanded their territory to islands that would require up to several weeks on the open sea to reach. What made them go into the blue unknown in search of islands that they didn’t even know existed? About 15,000 years ago the first waves of explorers are estimated to have crossed the Bering land bridge and roamed across two new continents. What made them go out into that white unknown of ice and snow?

I recently read a book titled ‘The Song of the Dodo’ by David Quammen, a tome on the history of evolutionary biology and it was there I stumbled across the idea that maybe this part of me is not unique. It appears that many scientists believe that this nagging curiosity is a defining characteristic of homo sapiens. In conjunction with the development of our complex brains and limbs seems to have come about a set of traits that helped us expand out of Africa and to ultimately inhabit almost every tract of land on this planet in about 60,000 years. These traits drove us far and wide; we crossed open seas on boats, we walked across land bridges, we floated down rivers, we flew planes.

IMG_3661 (1024x768)Not every species shares this same propensity though. There are others, like the Mauritian Kestrel, that refuse to even cross small clearings in the forest. There must be evolutionary environments and genetic endowments that reinforce this trait and others that would make it a disadvantage. Explorers of any species have the ability to sow their seed far and wide. An adaptable generalist species would seemingly benefit from this trait and reinforce it as more progeny means a higher proportion of a particular set of genes in the pool.

I began doing a bit of research and stumbled across an interesting National Geographic Article entitled ‘Restless Genes.’ The author, David Dobbs, expands upon this idea. Here is an excerpt about the gene DRD4-7R:

“If an urge to explore rises in us innately, perhaps its foundation lies within our genome. In fact there is a mutation that pops up frequently in such discussions: a variant of a gene called DRD4, which helps control dopamine, a chemical brain messenger important in learning and reward. Researchers have repeatedly tied the variant, known as DRD4-7R and carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans, to curiosity and restlessness. Dozens of human studies have found that 7R makes people more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities; and generally embrace movement, change, and adventure. Studies in animals simulating 7R’s actions suggest it increases their taste for both movement and novelty.”

And this part strikes home for me, it seems to be a natural corollary to the idea of a restless gene:

IMG_3648 (1024x768)“Among Ariaal tribesmen in Africa, those who carry 7R tend to be stronger and better fed than their non-7R peers if they live in nomadic tribes, possibly reflecting better fitness for a nomadic life and perhaps higher status as well. However, 7R carriers tend to be less well nourished if they live as settled villagers. The variant’s value, then, like that of many genes and traits, may depend on the surroundings. A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one; likewise with any genes that help produce the restlessness.”

I have always been looking for ways to justify this part of myself, but maybe it is just genetic , maybe it isn’t something that can be subjected to analysis. I think it may have been said best by Hank Williams:

“I can settle down and be doin’ just fine
Til I hear an old train rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the lord made me
He made a ramblin’ man.

Some folks might say that I’m no good
That I wouldn’t settle down if I could
But when that open road starts to callin’ me
There’s somethin’ o’er the hill that I gotta see.”


My papers were not quite on the up and up, so I shaved my face and cut my hair. I put on a button down shirt, khakis, and placed two pens in my front pocket to lend myself legitimacy under the weary eye of the immigration officials in Mauritius. At this point in my life I can confidently say that I understand bureaucracy pretty well, so I printed out – in triplicate – any and all documents, regardless of how superfluous, that had a seal, signature, or my name on them. On the way from Salt Lake City to Mauritius via Paris I wielded these papers like a weapon no less than three times. I think that their efficacy lies in their threat of monotony.

IMG_3682 (1024x768)I approached the immigration desk in Mauritius calmly and told the woman the following after our pleasantries, “The government just said to give me a tourist visa until they finish processing my visa application.” See what I did there? I presented the outcome that I wanted with no other options. I avoided the hours of waiting in queues that I had heard of others experiencing in similar situations.

The only problem though was that she handed back my passport and then looked up from her papers and asked, “Which company is it that you normally work for here?”

I stumbled here, “I don’t work…for…I have never been here before.”

She stumbled, looked both directions, and then said, “Oh..okay. Well thank you, bye bye.”

I had a 30 day business visa instead of a 90 day tourist visa. I cursed the two pens in my front pocket.


I had spent so much time reading academic papers and books about Mauritius, examining numbers that attempted to quantify it, and analyses of its problems that I arrived with a brain filled with sociological mush without a pinch of reality. There are no measures of net beauty, blissful slumber opportunities per capita, food deliciousness index (FDI), gross hammock oscillations per hour, or gross domestic laughter. But I think that Mauritius would score high on all of these measures. There are also never any news stories announcing that the world is okay or exhorting us to do nothing as an overwhelming wave of peace has swept through the region. The remedy for this condition is to taste the mango.

IMG_3673 (1024x768)The birds wake me each morning with the rising of the sun. Mangos are falling off of the trees on our street and my only competition is the birds. A pack of family dogs patrols the street outside our apartment. I pass my first days lazing around in IMG_3670 (1024x768)and about the turquoise sea that merges with the sky if you screw your eyes up in just the right way. I still have not seen a jet ski in Mauritius and I could count on one hand the number of guns that I have seen – both things bode well for a country in my mind. The people are amazing here – friendly, content, and welcoming. Culturally, it is midway between Europe, Africa, India, and China. You hear it when people speak and in the food you eat. Roti – the national dish of sorts – is the best food in the world rupee for rupee. It consists of a fried flour wrap filled with assorted sauces, chilis, and curries that is readily available whenever necessary. Mauritius is a sauce country, this seems to exemplify its culture to me.

IMG_3642 (1024x768)We visited the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden and saw a dozen or so tortoises imported from all over region. Despite their ersatz environment, I was mesmerized by their beauty as they charged at us from the other side of the pen after their lunch was delivered. The largest was 150 years old. It was nearly as interested to watch the packs of French tourists touting IPads descend upon the pen.

We bought a Suzuki motorcycle with 125cc’s of Merlot colored fossil fueled fury. I turned 30 and wanted to go explore the southern part of the island for my birthday. I turned out into the left lane and we started the epic 40 mile journey south on the main highway. Rain began to fall on us early on as midday clouds gathered around the pinnacles of the Moka Mountains. The mountains rise as forested islands in the midst of a boundless expanse of green sugarcane not unlike the blue sea that the islands of Mauritius rise up from. It felt like we were flying with the engine roaring; I wanted to howl and make obscene gestures at the elderly, until a pair of them passed us in their miniature car going twice our speed. We passed mansions on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, slums, dilapidated colonial buildings, gleaming skyscrapers, textile mills, and a tuna cannery. I muscled the bike through the concrete tandoori oven called Port Louis by splitting through traffic and riding the shoulder. Lauren complemented me on my driving with a flattering comparison to a fictional symbol of masculinity and daring from Hollywood, but I self-effacingly deflected the remark by comparing myself to a cat on a skateboard acting on pure fight or flight responses. We stayed at a friend’s place in Flic-en-Flac, a coastal town along the west coast.

IMG_3707 (1024x768)The mountains around the island are all remnants of the giant caldera that formed the island and then collapsed. Black River Gorges National Park encompasses the majority of the mountains on the southern part of the island. It also happens to contain some of the last remaining old growth forest – less than 2% of it remains on the island – and consequently the majority of the remnant populations of many endemics like the Mauritius Kestrel, Mauritian Flying Fox, Pink Pigeon, and Echo Parakeet. The Mauritius Kestrel population was as low as four individuals in 1974 – the rarest bird on earth at the time. The numbers have rebounded, but remain modest. There is a limited amount that can be done when the primary problems that a species faces are habitat fragmentation and destruction.

IMG_3710 (1024x768)We packed up early and left to explore the park. As we drove into the park a mongoose slinked across the road a disappeared into the brush. The mongoose was intentionally released by the government to help control disease bearing rodents, despite the knowledge that it had previously wreaked havoc elsewhere. It was less than a decade before the government was striving to eradicate the mongoose after it decided that chickens and all manner of other animals were as good as or better than rats.

We walked several well groomed but poorly marked trails that switchbacked up the mountainside. All of the forest through which we passed appeared to have been logged at some point. I didn’t notice it until a few hours had passed, but the forest seemed impoverished of insects; I saw a few butterflies and dragonflies, but not much else. We reached a lookout and looked down valley upon the sea. A few white Tropic Birds with their tendril tails rode currents below us. I paced around the overlook trying to take in everything and then suddenly I saw two bright green birds streak across below me. I tried to contain my giddiness as I hollered for Lauren to come see the Echo Parakeets. The parakeet had rebounded from as few as ten individuals to as many as 300 through the remarkable efforts of a few dedicated conservationists, in fact the same ones that saved the Kestrel. We looped back and hopped on the motorcycle. I hooted in my helmet as a Crab Eating Macaque loped across the road in front of us as we rode back to Flic-en-Flac.

Octopus Project

IMG_3741 (1024x768)We awoke at 5:45 the following morning to return to Pereybere and then catch a ride to the east side of the island where we had a meeting to examine a UN GEF funded project building octopus burrows for fisherfolk out of reclaimed telephone poles. The director of the organization in charge of the program, Environmental Protection and Conservation Organization (EPCO), explained that the program arose after declining fish catches drove many fisherfolk to work for the government mining sand to feed the insatiable demand for concrete on this nearly treeless island. (The concept of sand mining is possibly a better example of a mind numbing and endless task than working in a paint factory.) The problems with sand mining eventually became apparent and the industry shifted to the crushing of mined rocks. This left many fishermen out of work with few directions to turn. The octopus burrow project was designed to both help rehabilitate the fishery and help sustain the fisherfolk. We wanted to see how it was working.

IMG_3738 (1024x768)We boarded a handmade wooden boat with a fisherman named Dost – a Creole word that means friend. We puttered out towards the surging whitewash of the reef break and looked back upon the Bambous Mountains above Grand Reviere Sud Este. The water was absolutely clear and less than two meters deep. I leaned over the gunwale, which listed the boat to one side, in order to peer down at the kaleidoscope of coral.

I jumped into the other splendorous world that covers 70% of the earth’s surface and stuck my snorkel in my mouth. The fish seemed sentient and curious as we examined one another. They let me get close to admire their incredible forms and scintillating scales, and colors that surely exist nowhere else. The fish would disappear and reappear as they wove their way through corals with shapes that seem floral, cerebral, and dendritic. I found one large lobed brain that teemed with a miniature microcosm of colored fish. I gestured Lauren over and we relished the beauty of it in a complete absence of words.

IMG_3724 (1024x768)Dost gestured us over and we followed him over to an octopus burrow. He began prodding into the burrow with a rod and drew an ink spraying ball of arms out that he grabbed as it tried to make its Houdini-esque escape. It grabbed onto his arm and he repeatedly had to tear it loose. I stared with rapt attention as it furiously changed colors and patterns. He let it swim for a moment and it descended to the bottom, felt around, shrunk its size, and changed to match its surroundings. It is not just an octopus. The symbol ‘octopus’ does not begin to convey the beauty and complexity of that animal. Nor does ‘coral reef’ begin to encompass what I saw.

I identify with that octopus – how it changes to reflect its environment and how it strives to defend itself by spraying ink. I think that I might be doing that right now. We ate it later.

Earth is an Island

I am leaving to spend the winter in Mauritius, an island 45km in width by 65km in length that lies approximately 2000km east of continental Africa. The island serves as a rare case study in ecology as it is one of a few places to have remained uninhabited by humans until recent history. It has a robust record from visitors and inhabitants of the native flora, fauna, and changes that the island underwent over the past 400 years. Not only was the island devoid of humans – it was devoid of land mammals all together. A circumstance that came about due to the island’s young age and the challenge that relative isolation poses to introduction of land mammals. This void provided the opportunity for a plethora of spectacular endemic reptile and bird species to evolve. Fascinating account abound from the first human arrivals to the island: they picked up unafraid flightless birds, rode massive tortoises, and then mirthfully clubbed everything to death. Portuguese sailors began using it as a waypoint where they could fill their holds with upside down tortoises – which can live for years and provide fresh meat during their voyage– and hunt goats and pigs that they had introduced.

Early accounts – the first in 1598 – described large flightless birds and included preposterous drawings of them that attracted significant attention in Europe. The bird came to be known as the Dodo. The birds had lost their ability to fly as a result of an abundance of food on the ground and a lack of predators. Many were hunted and noted by sailors, a few explorers documented them over the years, and a couple of them were reputed to have made it to other continents aboard ships. Eventually a day arrived when there were simply no more Dodos to be found. The last reliable account of a sighting occurred in 1662. Sixty years after humans arrived it was gone. The concept of extinction was not understood at the time, therefore many commentators and scientists obstinately argued that the bird was mythical and never existed. It took over 150 years before there was scientific consensus that it had existed and its extinction had been induced by humans.  The Dodo has taken its place in our collective consciousness because it was the first recorded human induced extinction.

Humans, as they have done in every corner of this planet, brought rats, mice, and pigs that predated reptile and bird eggs. Forests were cut to export hardwood, then for building materials, then for tea plantations, and then for sugar plantations. Goats grazed what had been razed. Africans were imported and sold as machinery to work the sugarcane. The population grew exponentially. A few people became wealthy. The patience and resilience of the giant tortoise proved insufficient, the hardwood heart of the forest fell, the exotic birds lost their homes and their cacophony grew faint, and fewer colorful geckos lit up the day. Dozens of species quickly and almost silently went extinct over the coming centuries. Some of the first environmental protection laws in the world sprung up, and then were ignored out of political and economic expediency.

Today 1.3 million people live on the main island, mostly near the coast. The seas are rising and the weather is changing. Annual mean temperature has gone up .74C relative to the 1961-1990 mean. Yearly rainfall averages are down 8% since the 1950s, with more of it coming during extreme events. Resources on the island are strapped. Only 25% of the island remains forested. 90% of the cultivated land is occupied with sugar cane which has to be exported to purchase the 80% of the island’s energy which comes in the form of imported fossil fuels.

It is projected that the mean annual temperature will rise by 1-2C by 2060, 1.1-3.4C by 2090. Decreases in precipitation will continue, but the likelihood of tropical storms and destructive storm surges will increase.  It Is possible that 50% of the island’s beaches will disappear by 2050 due to changes in sea level and more forceful storm surges. Utilizable freshwater resources are anticipated to decrease by up to 13% by 2050. Fisheries are expected to be disrupted as sea surface temperature changes shift migration patterns and ecosystems consequently change. The third largest coral reef in the world protects the islands, but 80%-100% of live corals would perish with a 3.28C increase in temperatures, a realistic possibility by 2100.

Mauritians have recognized the threat that climate change poses and have taken steps to mitigate and adapt to anticipated changes, despite recognizing that the nation is minimally responsible for the plight it faces. In 1991 the island created the multi-sector National Climate Change Committee. In 2010 the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development created a Climate Change division. Through these institutions the nation has created a National Climate Change Adaptation Policy Framework, a tool that guides the government in taking necessary steps to adapt and mitigate with the aims of creating resilience and sustainability. Why haven’t we done the same?

The Nature of an Island

Islands have always gripped the imagination of writers from Aldous Huxley  to Kurt Vonnegut to William Golding. They provide a setting or system with limits that are tangible within the human mind where a chain of actions can unfold and conceivably reach its limits. Islands have allowed us to speculate on inequality, ecology, happiness, evolution, and societal structures.

7.1 billion of us live on an island that is adrift in a vast sea of space.

I remember in my economics courses learning about Robert Malthus, a scholar in the 19th century who postulated that, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.” He theorized that earth had a finite amount of land, but people had a seemingly infinite ability to procreate and generate needs. This would one day lead to a catastrophe if we walked blindly into the future. In many of my classes he was dug up just to be refuted as a prophet of non-sense through the invocation of the deus ex machina technology. Was he wrong?

We have been on this island as a species for around 200,000 years and we have thoroughly transformed this planet during that time. In that time frame we have managed to populate every corner of this planet. Elizabeth Kolbert, in The Sixth Extinction, calculates that there are roughly 50 million square miles of land area that is not covered by ice. Of this area, roughly 27 million acres have been directly transformed through agriculture, pastoralism, logging, mining, and the building of civilization. Three-fifths of the remaining 23 million acres is forested, although not necessarily virgin. The other two-fifths are mountains, deserts, and tundra. Kolbert’s primary focus in the book is an examination of our present time, one that many have come to refer to as ‘the sixth extinction.’ There have been five other mass extinctions since the dawn of life on earth, precipitated by various reagents, but climate change has always been a significant factor in the collapse of species and ecosystems.  She estimates that, “one-third of all reef building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” The reasons are complex: a warming planet, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, the snowball effect of biodiversity loss, competition from introduced species, the globalization of microbes, and most important of all: the incredible speed at which all of this is occurring – the same problems that Mauritius faces, but on a grand scale.

A parallel concept is that of the anthropocene, one that has been advocated by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen to denote our ‘human-dominated geological epoch.’ It is clear that we will leave a mark in the geologic record through carbon deposits from our fossil fuel use, from nuclear fallout, from dramatically morphed landscapes, and through the mass extinction event that is currently unfolding. He cites the following reasons for consideration of the concept:

  • Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet.
  • Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted.
  • Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ costal waters.
  • Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible fresh water runoff.

Back to Malthus: It looks like he was wrong in some ways, and right in others. Our island no less has finite limits than any other island does; it is just vaster in terms of resources and its ability to act as a pollution sink. And we have billions of palm trees instead of the proverbial one. The areas, like Mauritius, where limits have been reached are simply able to acquire what they need from elsewhere, but at some point there aren’t any more elsewheres. Technology has enabled us to do more with the finite resources that are on this earth and we have perpetually pushing our limits. A major part of the growth and progress that humanity has made since the industrial revolution began a few hundred years ago was made possible through the exploitation of non-renewable fossil fuels, metals, and minerals. We have also over-exploited resources that are renewable like soil fertility, game, fisheries, and forests. The technology that has enabled this form of growth has been of a kind that merely enables us to use and move these resources at a faster rate to enrich the present at the expense of the future. There seem to be cries resounding from every corner of the globe and in every field that we are approaching or have passed ecological limits, and have entered uncharted territory.

Creating a Better World

I feel a deep connection to this earth, not as a mere philosophical standpoint, rather in a way that completely shapes my worldview. It is grounded in an awareness of reality, of the atmosphere entering and exiting my lungs, of the rainwater that fills my veins, and of the sun’s energy in my food. This is my home. My values and ethics are derived from this connection. I spend months each year sleeping outside, staring at the stars. I travel to other countries to satisfy my curiosity about other landscapes, people, and animals. I enjoy eating exotic and delicious foods. I like being able to explore this place and enjoy a rich life.

Recognizing the reality and depth of our ecological crisis, and not just an abstract concept, has been a difficult road for me. I experienced years of cognitive dissonance, holding discordant views that lead to internal conflict. I saw myself as being enriched by something that was paradoxically destroying the very thing that I loved and was creating suffering the world around.

Many years ago I started the process of letting go of a future that I had been socialized to believe was our destiny. In this dream there were no constraints, humans were in control, technology had an infinite ability to address any problems that humanity faced, and the economy would grow perpetually – we forever would have more freedom and wealth. Inequality was not an issue as there was plenty. In this dream we are all atomized individuals, beholden to no one or anything – without limits. I had to pass through the five stages of the Kubler-Ross Model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  This dream is dead whether we like it or not.

I wasn’t sure what to do with about it: accept my part and let it rot away, immolate myself (with renewable materials of course) in sacrifice to Pacha Mama, or become a post-apocalyptic ecological warrior waging ideological war clothed in refuse.

The acceptance part comes at little easier if we realize that this conflict is based in a broader myth: that we need an extractive, exploitative economy in order to grow ourselves out of scarcity – the primary driver of human suffering. According to this view, as long as there is poverty and hunger in this world, then to do anything but grow as quickly as possible to ameliorate these pestilences is immoral. It follows that we need to transform this world into a place fit for human habitation. And so we justify every new power plant built, every gallon of carcinogens dumped into a river, every missile launched, every ton of carbon spewed into the atmosphere, and every tank of pesticide sprayed from an airplane.

What takes precedence: the environment or humanity? Mu! The two are one and the same.

We are bound in a symbiotic relationship with everything else on this earth. It is not possible for us to do damage anywhere without damaging ourselves. A relationship requires that both parties give and the beauty is that in do so both will be made better off.  The earth has always been able to provide enough, but it has been misallocated, wasted, or been minimized by the – never scarce – capacity for dissatisfaction in humanity. Will we let the specter of scarcity and our tendency to exploit drive us towards a situation in which we face the true horrors of scarcity? What is the alternative?

To give birth to a new dream. We can grow in a different manner and build something better than we currently have. The solutions already exist. We can have clean energy, water, and air. We can have plant and animal diversity. We can build with what is around us. We can have less things and more time with family and friends. We can live healthier lives with time to cook, walk, farm, read, and bike. We can begin to rebuild our communities.

Evolve – Fast!

Until recently I had been looking towards myself – and each individual – to change our lives with the belief that in this fashion humanity could change overnight and we would avoid the looming catastrophe.  This individual died along with the aforementioned dream – there never was an individual. We are facing a global crisis and we need to look towards collective, community-based solutions.

Revolutions occur when new information appears that is irreconcilable with the dominant framework or zeitgeist. The dominant mover of civilization seems to be the same one that up until this point in history has been on a linear trajectory: the centralization of power.  From groups, to bands, to villages, to cities, to city-states, to nations, to? Through warfare, trade, finance. Civilization in the past few hundred years under the reign of fossil fuels has advanced more towards this goal that at any other point in history through globalized markets, industrial scale production, and almost instantaneous communication. It has also enabled an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power. Power structures are most concerned with maintaining power and therefore action to deal with our ecological crisis simply cannot manifest from within a system that is its driver. It has been decades since we became aware of our current predicament and we have only deepened the crisis whilst our current system has scrambled to assimilate a reality with which it is wholly incompatible.

Our civilizations need to evolve to fit a changing planet and we need to do it fast.  We are currently wasting our days away in contemplation of a variety of pie-in-the-sky options, weighing their pros and cons, but the decision has already been made for us. We just need to go through the five stages of grieving and set about planning for the future accordingly. We need to adapt to limited resources, a variable and warming climate, our interconnectedness as a species, and our dependency upon ecological systems.  We need shift policies to foster localized, small scale production of energy, agriculture, products, and the development of socially responsible and environmentally appropriate technologies.

The issues we face will not become truly political and societal problems– like slavery, racial equality, women’s suffrage, women’s rights, gay rights – until we make them such. Sometimes issues are just inconvenient to deal with. We need to mobilize and make institutions aware that change is afoot. We need to divest. We need to change our social conscience. We need to protest. We need to block development that is taking us in the wrong direction. We need to stand up and come together. The Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report from the International Panel on Climate Change will be finalized on Friday. We can heed its advice or we can just sign this letter:

“Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.” – Kurt Vonnegut


This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
Climate Change Counts: Mauritius Country Report – South African Regional Universities Association