In my life, I have lived many places, but the place of my heart has long been the state of Oregon. Especially the coast. Currently I live in a part of Oregon vulnerable to storms and high water.
A plucky group of forward-thinking people in our area trains volunteers to help first responders in emergencies. They also encourage residents to learn how to use hand-held radios to receive emergency messages.
I have taken their classes but find the little radio most useful for getting marine weather forecasts. Since I lived on a sailboat for six years, these marine forecasts are familiar. They also remind me how bad sea conditions can be just offshore from our cozy homes on land. Small Craft Advisories are common where the long Columbia River meets the Pacific at the Columbia Bar!
The historical novel
Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark
vividly describes what ships can face arriving at the Columbia Bar:
When the Tonquin arrived off the Northwest Coast and mouth of the Columbia River on March 22, 1811, it had left all tropical antics far in its wake. Here wind squalls from the northwest swept across the charcoal sea. Huge swells tossed the ship. Roaring white breakers smashed against the shoreline of this far edge of the North American continent, stretching away endlessly north and south in a misty gray-green band of impenetrable forest and rocky headlands. . . .
Whatever safety and shelter was offered by this wild coast was blocked by a four-mile-long sandbar across the Columbia's mouth. Still today one of the world's most dangerous navigational hazards, here the power of the largest river of the western continent, discharging an average of 265,000 cubic feet of water per second, collides head-on with the power of the world's largest ocean. The Pacific tides and swells entering the river's mouth fight against the outgoing river's discharge. This battle throws up ferociously steep mounds of water, up to twelve feet high, known as standing waves. They can literally stand a boat up on end. At the same time, incoming swells from the North Pacific, generated by powerful storms thousands of miles out at sea and thirty feet or more in height, tower over the shallows of the bar. Crashing down in a tumult of foam and spray further churned by the winds and tidal currents, these waves create what seems to be a giant cauldron where the earth's hydraulic forces converge.
Somewhere in this chaos of wind and wave and powerful tides the Seagoing party had to find the gap in the shallow sandbar. It was only through this single channel that the main current of the Columbia River exited the continent, and they could enter.
"The wind was blowing in heavy squalls, and the sea ran very high," wrote Franchière, about their arrival off the Columbia's mouth, adding that they could plainly see the breakers crashing from three miles off.
A small whaleboat with 5 men is inadvisably launched by Captain Thorn of the Tonquin to find the channel:
Alexander Ross watched from the rail with the others. The seas were so rough that by the time the whaleboat moved one hundred yards from the ship, he wrote, the onlookers at the rail frequently lost sight of it among the whitccapping swells. Mr. Fox's whaleboat soon became "utterly unmanageable." It turned sideways to the "foaming surges," spun around, then was flung up to a wave crest, before disappearing again into a deep trough. . . .
By noon two days after they'd arrived, March 24, the wind had dropped. Now Mr. Mumford, the second mate aboard the Tonquin, made another attempt at finding the channel across the bar. . . . They were approaching the bar but still two miles from shore when those in the longboat suddenly found themselves pulled into the ripping maelstrom of current and surf and wind and shallows for which the Columbia Bar was already infamous. Ross, at the oars, described "the terrific chain of breakers. . .rolling one after another in rapid succession" while a "fearful suction" pulled the longboat toward the bar. Before they had time to respond fully, the current had dragged the longboat into the bar's breakers, the crashing tons of water spinning them this way and that.
"[A]t this instant, Mr. Mumford, who was at the helm called out, 'Let us turn back, and pull for your lives; pull hard, or you are all dead men.'"
For twelve minutes, Ross wrote, the longboat hung in the balance, the men pulling with all their strength, but neither winning nor losing the battle against the current sucking them farther into the bar's breaking surf. Finally, "the boat obeyed the oars," he wrote. They managed to row themselves out of the imminent danger and to the relative safety of the heaving but open sea.
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In a more modern vein, Wikipedia summarizes the following facts about the Columbia Bar:
The Columbia River Bar is the portion of the Columbia River where the current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean, often as large, standing waves partially caused by the deposition of sediment as the river slows. These standing waves are usually mixed with ocean waves and wreak havoc with small (and not so small) vessels. To add to the treachery, conditions can change from calm and serene to life threatening breaking waves in as little as five minutes due to tide, wind direction and ocean swell direction. Since 1792 approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia River Bar. The nearby U.S. Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment is renowned for operating in some of the roughest sea conditions in the world and is also home to the National Motor Lifeboat School. It is the only school for rough weather and surf rescue operation in the United States and is respected internationally as a center of excellence for heavy boat operations.
As a practical tip, small craft are advised to cross the bar during times of incoming flood tide, staying toward the outside of the navigational channel to avoid the frequent large ships which move at 20 to 30 knots.
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I'm not sure if this "You Have to See This" video is still available,
but if so, it's, um, entertaining?
* * *
I was at the southern tip of South America, and there were no ravens. I saw no crows, either. This was latitude 55º S., the Antarctic equivalent of southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia. The natives of the Arctic are famous for their stories about Raven. So where were South America's trickster birds?
It turns out there are none. Every other continent around the globe has some member of the crow or raven family. Northern South America has a jay, which is a cousin of the Corvids. But ravens and crows have scarcely moved south of Mexico in the Americas.
The bird-watchers at Living Wild in South America explain that the Corvids probably had no reason to go far south – though that does not seem to stop most explorers from moving around the world, and it has not kept ravens out of Africa or Australia. The Living Wild photographers also mention the interesting caracara family, suggesting that these bold and common birds of South America may out-compete ravens for the omnivorous scavanger slot. Maybe so, but caracaras seem solemn, no-nonsense birds to me, more like eagles and hawks. The role of sassy entertainer is still open in southern South America, currently filled by smaller birds like the chucao.
Whatever the reason for their absence, I missed ravens in the bogs and tundras of southern Patagonia.
* * *
Have you ever been surprised by the absence of something you had always assumed would be there?
In his clever article "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?" David Quammen argues that the corvid family—which includes crows and ravens—may be too smart for its own good.
"For example," he writes, "they play a lot.
"Animal play is a reasonably common phenomenon, at least among certain mammals, especially in the young of these species. Play activities—by definition—are any that serve no immediate biological function, and which therefore do not directly improve the animal's prospects for survival and reproduction. The corvids, according to expert testimony, are irrepressibly playful. In fact, they show the most complex play known in birds. Ravens play toss with themselves in the air, dropping and catching again a small twig. They lie on their backs and juggle objects (in one recorded case, a rubber ball) between beak and feet. They jostle each other sociably in a version of 'king of the mountain' with no real territorial stakes. Crows are equally frivolous. They play a brand of rugby, wherein one crow picks up a white pebble or a bit of shell and flies from tree to tree, taking a friendly bashing from its buddies until it drops the token. And they have a comedy-acrobatic routine: allowing themselves to tip backward dizzily from a wire perch, holding a loose grip so as to hang upside-down, spreading out both wings, then daringly letting go with one foot; finally, switching feet to let go with the other. Such shameless hot-dogging is usually performed for a small audience of other crows.
"There is also an element of the practical jokester. Of the Indian house crow, Wilmore says: '. . . this Crow has a sense of humor, and revels in the discomfort caused by its playful tweaking at the tails of other birds, and at the ears of sleeping cows and dogs; it also pecks the toes of flying foxes as they hang sleeping in their roosts.' This crow is a laff riot. Another of Wilmore's favorite species amuses itself, she says, by 'dropping down on sleeping rabbits and rapping them over the skull or settling on drowsy cattle and startling them.' What we have here is actually a distinct subcategory of playfulness known, where I come from at least, as Cruisin' For a Bruisin'."
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Do you have a favorite story about animal play?
pp. 33-34 of "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?"
in Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature
by David Quammen (NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1985)
The raven sang
two or three times a sweet melody.
Then she saw us.
She saw me, anyway, and stopped.
We were two artists, moving into the guest house for a two-week residency at Hubbell Trading Post. I heard unfamiliar birdsong and stepped outside to see who it was. A large raven was perched on a wooden electric pole.
It was 5 p.m. in late September, that hour before real dusk when ravens fly in ones and twos all in the same direction, calling. The raven looked down at me.
"Rwork," she said and flew west. But I was sure I had heard something else first.
That raven sang
two or three times a true melody.
I wanted to hear it again.
The same raven (or one like her) often perched on that pole near dusk during our residency. I listened as often as I could but only heard the usual range of raven evening talk, which is interesting in its own right.
Scientists have recorded over 80 distinct sounds made by ravens, though they currently believe an individual raven may use only about 20 of these on a regular basis. Sort of like I only use about 5,000 of maybe 100,000 words of common English.
Ravens have been credited with:
rrronk cluck rattle whine-thunk
caw squawk (low) honk (very rapid) rap-rap-rap
coo (long rasping) caw (nasal) honk cowp-cowp-cowp-uk
kruk (low, soft, murmur/ oo-oo (soft upward inflected) cheow
krrk whisper) km and mm knock (rapid) caulk-caulk-caulk-caulk
nuk cark pruk growl
Eighty distinct sounds—plus unexpected silence. Ravens seldom speak during the breeding season until the babies hatch, and they do not call out when a captive raven is set free.
Individual ravens are known to imitate: Other birds, a train whistle, radio static, a motorcycle being revved, urinals flushing, dogs barking (near and far away) and, in the Olympic National Forest, the sound of avalanche control explosions: "One – two – three – beccccchh." But the closest I found to music in the literature was a story by Jane Kilham, wife and colleague of corvid scientist Lawrence Kilham. She heard wild ravens make sounds "similar to spring water gurgling through a tube, so musical that she found it fascinating to listen to." Perhaps there was hope for me yet.
Then, one night, I saw a PBS Nova program called "A Murder of Crows." The narrator noted that, like ravens, crows have many words, such as different cries for cat, human, and hawk, with different levels of urgency for each. They also have what the narrator called two dialects—one familiar to us and raucous, the other for private family moments which is melodic and sweet. They played 13 seconds of crows murmuring in a nest near the University of Washington, and my heart jumped. Was I getting closer to hearing that music again?
Catherine Feher-Elston tells of a bird she rehabilitated who enjoyed a music box that played "the Neapolitan classic Torno a Sorrento." She lived in northern Arizona for a while, so maybe I had heard her rehabilitated bird at Hubbell, singing an Italian popular tune. But no—Feher-Elston's bird was also a crow. I want to respect differences between these two highly-intelligent species. Because, even within each group, there are wide variations, especially in vocabulary.
Lawrence Kilham quotes a 1922 observer as saying, "Nearly every raven I met has some note that is distinctive." The Yale team of Marzluff and Angell write that raven literature reports "many unique calls with distinct meanings." And Bernd Heinrich, well-respected author of Mind of the Raven, says, "We know infinitely less about vocal communication in ravens than. . .about the call of a frog, a cricket, or the zebra finch. . . . The more complex and specific a communication system becomes, the more random-sounding and arbitrary it will appear." All of which surely allows for the possibility of music, even in a gravel-voiced songbird, right?
Distinctive notes. Unique calls. "Unique" means one time only. So why do I ask for this raven gift again? To confirm what I know to be true?
As Craig Comstock, a raven-watcher in Maine said, "I understand the need for the scientific method, but there are times when nature speaks just once, and it is a loss not to listen."
I heard a raven
sing melody sweet and true
and I treasure it.
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Have you had a unique experience you would like to share?
With gratitude to the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
Artist-in-Residence Program, Ganado, Arizona.
Catherine Feher-Elston, personal communication.
Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds
(NY: Cliff Street Books, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999)
Lawrence Kilham, The American Crow and the Common Raven
(College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1989)
John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005)
PBS A Murder of Crows, video.pbs.org/video/1621910826
aired 24 October 2010
This month's Explorations blog has featured only one comment—VS's observation on post 2A that international agreements like the Shengen Agreement in Europe can help create peaceful borders. I agree. And I believe such agreements are essentially large versions of the kinds of conversation and cooperation that need to happen on any level to promote peace.
I suspect that few people have only one definition of peace, though they may have one that springs to mind most readily. Maybe this is a memory or dream of a quiet meadow by a stream or a sunny glade in some forest. For some, peace might be the elation of racing down a ski slope or the serenity referred to by R.J. Rummel in post 2C. These are internal, personal moments of feeling a sense of peace—often rare, welcome when they come.
Many cultures also place a high value on what the International Alert website (in post 2C) describes as "communities living together, side by side, and resolving their differences without resorting to violence." This value is called "living in harmony," and it does not happen unless people work at it.
Skills and attitudes that help build harmony and peace among people—whether they live together in a house, on a street, in a village, or some larger grouping—need to be learned then developed. Anyone can learn and practice them. One such skill is described by Thich Nhat Hanh in post 2B: Learning to see beauty as well as suffering. This is what people call a "practice," meaning it is a skill which can be practiced and deepened every moment.
Another skill that can be learned to help build harmony is openness to other ways of seeing and doing. People have different personalities, different ways of seeing and learning, different abilities. To be open to such differences, we can recognize them and be respectfully curious about them. When we are politely open to others, we learn new things. We do not need to adopt other ways, necessarily, but we can come to understand them better. If two people want to work together and their ways are very different, they might be able to invent a third way of doing something that works for both.
Openness and learning to see the beauty which is all around can help us live more peacefully day-to-day with ourselves and with those nearby. These are some of the skills which help pave paths toward peace.
Next month's topic will start on December 1st with a singing raven.
Years ago, I heard a lecture by a professor who asked men and women to define peace. She found that their meanings for this idea were generally quite different. It got me thinking.
Is peace the presence of something? Or is the absence of something?
Is it something people have together or when they are alone?
Is peace different for each person? Different from one culture to another?
Here is how International Alert, an activist peace group, talks about peace:
"Peace is just as much about communities living together, side by side, and resolving their differences without resorting to violence as it is about people signing a treaty or laying down their arms.
"Our mission is to build a more peaceful world by:
1. Working with people directly affected by conflict to find peaceful solutions
2. Shaping policies and practices to support peace
3. Collaborating with all those striving for peace to strengthen our collective voice and impact"
This group defines peace very comprehensively, including in it physical safety, social justice, and access to what humans need for wellbeing, such as food, water, education, and healthcare.
In a very different vein, here is how R.J. Rummel, a conflict resolution scholar, writes about peace:
Peace has always been among humanity's highest values--for some, supreme. Consider: "Peace at any price."1 "The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war."2 "Peace is more important than all justice."3 "I prefer the most unjust peace to the justest war that was ever waged."4 "There never was a good war or a bad peace."5
Yet, we agree little on what is peace. Perhaps the most popular (Western) view is as an absence of dissension, violence, or war, a meaning found in the New Testament and possibly an original meaning of the Greek word for peace, Irene. Pacifists have adopted this interpretation, for to them all violence is bad. This meaning is . . . the primary dictionary definition.
Peace, however, is also seen as concord, or harmony and tranquility. It is viewed as peace of mind or serenity, especially in the East. It is defined as a state of law or civil government, a state of justice or goodness, a balance or equilibrium of Powers.
Such meanings of peace function at different levels. Peace may be opposed to or an opposite of antagonistic conflict, violence, or war. It may refer to an internal state (of mind or of nations) or to external relations. Or it may be narrow in conception, referring to specific relations in a particular situation (like a peace treaty), or overarching, covering a whole society (as in a world peace). Peace may be a dichotomy (it exists or it does not) or continuous. . . . Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist will see peace differently, as will pacifist or internationalist. Socialist, fascist, and libertarian have different perspectives.
1. Alphonse de Lamartine, Meditations Poetiques (1820). 2. Desiderius Erasmus, Adagio. 3. Martin Luther, On Marriage (1530). 4. Cicero, Letters to Atticus. 5. Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Josiah Quincy (September 11, 1773). 6. Irenology = the scientific study of peace.
How do you think and feel about peace?
When you describe something as peaceful, what is it like?
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!