Sunday, October 09, 2011

"Decisions in the sound are creations, not selections from a menu of choices."

Author Charles Wohlforth and his orca studying hosts in Prince William Sound leave their boat anchored  to paddle ashore in small kayaks to pick blueberries:
The silence of deep moss rendered hypnotic the repetitive process of grasping one bright blue orb and then another and the gradual increase of the blueness in a plastic bag - the only contrast from universal green.  The sound erases the rest of the world in a few days  Being is different here.  Time smoothes, pulsing slowly with the tide, losing the quantized, mechanical tick it has in the city.  Decisions in the sound are creations, not selections from a menu of choices.  Cognition, or thought, is different here too.  It's continuous, not suited to boxes.  Whole ideas grow up, long thoughts leading to unexpected destinations - unlike the flitting of city thinking, which is mostly reactions to questions, messages, lines and squares.  From this perspective, the city life, if remembered at all, looks like a mechanical complex of herky-jerky activity, as incoherent as a hazily remembered dream.  Both mental frames are real - urban or outdoor - but the continuity that arises in this environment makes it easier to feel connected to other living things.

I'm reading Wohlforth's The Fate of Nature for my next book club meeting.  He writes with a magic wand that lets complex ideas shine through stunning wordscapes.

It's easy to be seduced by his prose, so I've copied the paragraph above to think it through.

Does one really think so dramatically differently in nature than in the city?  Minute and hour hands organize time very differently than tides and migrating birds.  Alarm clocks regulate our lives differently than sunrises, crowing cocks, and cats mewing to be fed. (I had to look up the word 'quantize.' (see below))

"Decisions are creations . . ., not selections from a menu of choice"

This sounds beautiful, but how much is this more novelty, than a condition of man in nature?  If one is in a new environment one has to create ways to cope. One hasn't yet made habits of living in the new surroundings. This includes a person used to living in the wilds learning to cope in the city.  True, you don't choose your meal from a written menu, but you do choose it from a natural menu of what's available.  And just like you have to know where that great little Korean restaurant is, you have to know where the caribou or moose are likely to be found.

Uninterrupted time does give one space to think deeper and longer.  But I had that luxury as a child walking 20 or 30 minutes each way to school.  I'd hone fantasies or trace possibilities to fill the time.  I think on the whole, though, I agree.  The natural world affords longer more frequent uninterrupted moments for the brain to spin out ideas.   Nature, not the newspaper,  offers the weather and other news necessary to survival.

Below, he paints a profound ecological cycle tapping every human sense in three breathtaking paragraphs. [Update:  I found a good way to describe this passage.  It's like filming for Imax from a helicopter, swooping down the mountainside into the sound and down under the water and then back up again - all on this giant screen.  But he does it with words.]  I'm skipping an opening paragraph that moves the water from the skies to the mountain top glaciers, and downslope where "the perpetually damp temperate rainforest grow enormous trees" and eventually flows back into the sea.
"There are mountains and canyons under the sea also, along the ragged-edged continental shelf, the fringe between land and the abyss.  At the center of the gulf's arc, vertical rock confuses the waves and wind, with contradictions offered by fjords, islands, channels, and spires, and within the unfathomably complex inland sea of Prince William Sound, which encloses a world of its own, water-floored corridors walled by brooding spruces leading to secret, fecund gardens of mud and flashing fish, prey for eagles.  Winds funnel and focus through these mazes.  Currents twist in baroque patterns, changing with each turn of the tide or season.  Intricate forces, entangle ecological stories into as many digressions and surprise endings as there are eddies and tide-pools.  But the tempo of every tale comes from the beat of the storms and the timing of the moment in the spring when the sun emerges warmly on stilled waters.

"The prodigious biological productivity of the Gulf of Alaska owes everything to that moment when the surface's crop of phytoplankton is perfectly prepared for growth.  The winter storms have stirred up organic nutrients from the seafloor, mainly nitrogen;  few other waters in the world are as rich.  The rush of fresh water from the mountains, more than the Mississippi River's annual flow by half, and all in a few months, disgorges atop the heavier saltwater.  Iron and other mineral nutrients arrive with the fresh water to mix with the nitrates.  As the storms die and the fresh water spreads, a surface layer develops to hold blooming plankton near the sun (when the sea is mixed, the plantlike organisms fall into darkness).  Now, in May, sunshine is high, gaining every day until it lasts almost all night, brightness reflecting off still-snowy shores.  Water is calm and rich in fertilizer.  Everything is perfect for an explosion of photosynthesis, and the phytoplankton blooms.

The energy that plankton capture from the sun over a few weeks will feed zooplankton by the billion - tiny creatures like krill and copepods, which look like shrimp, and larval forms of many other animals, such as crabs, barnacles, and other shellfish.  The water clouds with them, especially where tidal currents meet, fronts between waters of different temperatures or salinity that concerntrate matter like invisible walls in the ocean.  Forage fish such as sand ance and herring gather to feed on zooplankton in crowed schools.  Gulls find the schools from the air and dive on the water, wheeling and dropping straight down, as violently as spears, then hurriedly climbing up the air again to protect a catch.  Humpback whales lunge through the schools, bursting diagonally from the surface, occasionally catching a bird, too, before rolling over and sinking back again with a giant slosh.  Salmon, lightning fast and bright, blaze through the schools of forage, fattening for a single spawning journey upriver.  Rivers along the gulf cost reaching hundreds of miles over the mountains will receive salmon eggs and carcasses.  Salmon flesh will feed bears, birds, and scavengers, whose waste will fertilize the trees, moss, and grass.  Long before that can happen, during the spring, phytoplankton bloom subsides, having consumed the winter's mixture of nutrients, but that energy flows on through the system, from mouth to mouth, up the trophic levels of the food web, and up to the floppy tops of towering hemlock trees fertilized by bear scat.

Wow, he's woven a vivid word movie of the interrelationships that hold together the Prince William Sound ecosystem.  For those unimpressed, consider the stodgy prose of a text book explaining all this.  In comparison, these words fly off the page and take a (at least this) reader up in the flight.  [I wouldn't normally take such a long citation, but it needed to come  full circle.]

Does it help that I've kayaked in Prince William Sound and seen the whales leap, and camped in the fecund gardens - thick with ferns and skunk cabbage and countless other greens - dripping with recent rain?  Oh, I'm sure that helps light up his words for me.

In contrast, I offer a bit from a NASA website on a workshop held last week on similar topics. 

"NASA’s carbon cycle and ecosystems research provides knowledge of the interactions of global biogeochemical cycles and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems with global environmental change and the implications for Earth’s climate, productivity, and natural resources.
There are three major research objectives:
Document and understand how the global carbon cycle, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and land cover and use are changing
Quantify global productivity, biomass, carbon fluxes, and changes in land cover
Provide information about future changes in global carbon cycling and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems for use in ecological forecasting and as inputs for improved climate change projections."

Of course, they have different purposes, but in any context, Wohlforth's prose and ability to conjure up words that make complex systems into a wild adventure leave me in awe and, as a blogger, enormously jealous.

I'm not even very far into the book, so you may be getting more samples as I go along.  But if I take too much time with individual pages like this, I'll never finish.  

verb (used with object), -tized, -tiz·ing.
Mathematics, Physics . to restrict (a variable quantity) to discrete values rather than to a continuous set of values.
Physics . to change the description of (a physical system) from classical to quantum-mechanical, usually resulting in discrete values for observable quantities, as energy or angular momentum.  [from]

1 comment:

  1. Charles' book amazed me.

    I promised him a book review, and haven't yet delivered. After reading this, I feel no need.

    The ways I've described PWS and my time there in articles, blog posts and art are scattered, ultimately meaningless in a connected sense. Wohlforth's book connects personal experiences on Prince William Sound so well with the wider world, I cried in wonder at some passages on places I thought I knew.

    I've been reading Jim and Nancy Lethcoe's books on the history, glaciers and geology of PWS this summer. I'll loan them to you when I'm done, if you would like that.

    Jim's geology book is the best explanation of the thin crust upon which we live here in SC AK there is, and one of the most accessible geology books for laymen I've encountered. Charles' book grasps that wonder at the thin edge we dwell upon rather well too - far more poetically than Lethcoe, but less informative scientifically.

    Powerful look at Wohlforth's magnificent book, Steve.


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