Ended Hiatus

Ended Hiatus

13730801_1553661621326584_6611188446585815400_oOK. So I’ve been working in Belize for the last month, which has meant I’ve not been keeping up with my posting duties. Internet access was temperamental, time was limited, etc., etc. But I fly back to the U.S. in a few days (currently hanging out on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world), back to my car (parked just north of Seattle), and figure out whatever is next.

And honestly I don’t have any real idea what is next for me. I had thoughts of staying out west, but over the last month a number of things have been calling me back to New England. Not enough that I know I’m heading directly there, but I’m looking harder at a handful of opportunities near what has long been my home.

It feels good to have that pull. Belize has been amazing—working with American high school kids running a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary students focused on improving their literacy skills. It was a time out, time off from the road, from climbing and adventure, time for human contact and connection and cultural exchange.

Belize-3503And it was an ecological exploration. Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, multiple ecosystem zones, caves, jungle, mountains and savannah. Iguanas crouch in the trees, tarantulas roam the forest floor, toucans haunt the air. I saw a manatee, two Harpy Eagles, a jaguar, held a boa constrictor, swam with sea turtles, pondered over leafcutter ants and got bitten by thousands of bugs. It was an awesome amazing trip, one I’ll be writing about more. But before that happens I wanted to share a video. My dance with sea turtles reminded me of it. At 2:25 is the job I think is probably most interesting in the world: sea turtle wrestler. Heck yeah! Lifetime aspirations! 🌊🐋

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CDS Column: The Cost to Learn

CDS Column: The Cost to Learn

IMG_0400The other day I came across a news release from my alma mater the University of Southern Maine: “USM hails turnaround,” was the headline, “Admissions numbers substantially up and budget balanced for first time in years.” Classes are full, and the university is in the black. Officials were upbeat; for the first time since the Great Recession the university is making money.

USM was hit hard back in 2008. There were cuts, layoffs, changes in leadership. Officials threw countless levers in search of something capable of putting things back on track, of making ends meet. Now they finally have good news: “The number of high achieving high school graduates attending USM this fall is soaring. ‘Last year at this time 16 admitted students who were awarded merit scholarships sent us a deposit,’” a school official said. “’This year that number is 216, and we expect the numbers to climb.’” Things are looking up.

I studied at USM a decade ago, graduated in December of 2007 in the calm before the financial firestorm. Those were flush days for the university, before a lot of tough decisions and belt-tightening.

Today in-state USM students pay $253 per undergraduate credit. That’s not much different than when I was there. Out-of-state tuition, meanwhile, costs $665 per credit. One year of classes and fees costs $8,920 per year for in-state students, while out-of-states pay $21,280.

An hour away, meanwhile, at University of New Hampshire, an in-state student pays $600 per credit hour. A year of tuition costs $14,410, plus an additional $1,607 in fees. Over four years those numbers add up, and the $60,000 price tag for UNH doesn’t include food or a place to sleep. College today is full of opportunity, including for students to saddle themselves with significant financial baggage barely into adulthood.

It wasn’t always this way. The prosperity of the American Century wasn’t financed by 18-year-olds; it was fueled by public investment. In the wake of World War Two former soldiers swarmed university campuses backed by G.I. Bill dollars. A generation later their children attended low-cost state universities, another gift of government dollars. These two generations—the Greatest and the Boomers—built success out of this community investment. They prospered, and America prospered. They grew in tandem, gains forged in the fires of collective investment in higher education. We were a nation of government-funded students and state-sponsored graduates, two parallel rails that fostered America’s transition from industrial nation to an economy interlaced with technology. Today forms of commerce unimaginable in the post-World War Two years are commonplace, built by this army of first financial aid recipients. Complex derivative industries now sustain us, and the grandchildren of people born before telephones reached a majority of households are finding jobs as ap developers for smartphone companies. Such is the growth in an educated society.

1140f-highBut those opportunities are becoming harder and harder to afford. Over the past 50 years education has changed. The opportunities have changed. Even as the necessity of a college degree has increased, support for obtaining one has dwindled. Political pressure has forced entities built on public investment to operate more like businesses, to focus on growing income streams rather education opportunities. School budgets once covered by government have been cut while the portion left for students to bear has ballooned. The task of educating, a responsibility once felt by all of us, has been privatized, individualized and handed off to the kids. Education has transformed into something you buy, and it’s no longer affordable.

How did this happen? How did investment in a strong workforce, with the stability and prosperity that it brings, become the responsibility of 19 and 20-year-olds? How did we so erode our public support of higher education that the costs now land on the shoulders of children?

Perhaps it is tied to the modern narrative around education. The story of school was once that of a tide that lifted all boats: No one lost by investing in education. Gains might be unevenly distributed, but society as a whole saw tremendous advancements as a result of rising standards. Better education meant better jobs, more wealth and general upward mobility. The trajectory was one of growth. Investment in education was a building block in creating middle class communities, an investment in a collective future, and a brighter one.

Today, however, that storyline is gone, replaced by a simpler tale. Today we are told education exists for the individual. It is a personal investment with personal rewards: the chance for more money and a better job. From a societal level there is little incentive to see others educated, as only the individual sees the benefits. Taxpayers, meanwhile, bear the expense. Society is saddled with the cost. For individuals college is an investment; for the rest of us it is an expense.

Such a shallow view of our society, history and economy. Education, like economics, is not a zero-sum game; with investment, the pie grows. There is no finite number of slices. Inventions like the internet and the iPhone revolutionize entire sectors, creating new opportunities and derivative markets that spill their way down the economic food chain. Exploding technologies may be built by engineers and computer programmers, but they create opportunities for accountants and janitors, lawyers and food service workers, CEOs and parking lot attendants. Everyone benefits. Education is no simple rising tide; it is a wave, a tsunami, a tremendous force for change.

We knew this, and for years we watched it work. For generations. The result was the American Century, a middle class revolution built on public investment in knowledge, creativity and growth. America led the world, leadership funded by all of us.

We could get back there, but not by ignoring the cost. We must spend wisely and choose which bills to make our own. Education is one that belongs to all of us.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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Shattered Glass Beach

Shattered Glass Beach

IMG_8192.JPGThe idea sounded cool when I read about it a month ago: a beach made of sea glass, stones replaced with ground shards of white, green and brown. Rare specks of blue and rose radiating in the sun, waves lapping the shore, giving the glass below the waterline an even more powerful sense of iridescence. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California. I wanted to see it.

I left Oakland on Saturday, the end of a month sleeping in beds (none of them mine and in four different states, but still). I had two weeks to get up the Pacific Coast to Seattle, where I’ll fly south at the end of the month to Belize. The Plan: surf, climb, paint, read, write and flyfish my way through Northern California, Oregon and Washington before my flight. See beautiful things, beautiful places. Maybe fall in love with one of them and decide to live there forever. You know, the usual roadtrip stuff.

I crossed the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, aimed for Point Reyes National Seashore, where two lanes snake across highlands, surrounded by ocean on all sides. It juts into the Pacific, America’s left-coast thumb. Stiff breezes rake over grasslands and grazing cows, an unceasing roar from the north. Sand beaches stretch for miles, some lined by dunes, others by cliffs. Elephant seals bask in the sun. Seabirds glide on endless thermals overhead.

13497627_1521654587860621_4683670894975756410_oI drove to North Beach and watched waves pound the shore. It was a desolate place. I wanted to stay, to take in the starkness. The sun had warmth, but not enough to fight the wind. I pulled on my jacket, wandered down to the lighthouse at the point, then over the peninsula to a protected harbor. All of it wild, lonely and exposed.

I spent the night in a boat launch parking lot. Coyotes yipped in the dark; the wind carried their calls. I read by headlamp until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I went to sleep still wearing my jacket.

The next morning I work up and drove the beach. The wind had died, the ocean was calmer, more orderly, but breaking against the sand. It would not be a surfing day.

Or so I thought. I got back to my car and saw a slip of white under the wiper. “Live Free or Die. 🙂 🙂 :-)” it said. It was a note scrawled in pen on the back of a paper receipt. “I moved here 21 years ago from North Hampton. No more ice cream headache! Come over to Drake’s Estero, wind will be offshore. Enjoy! Tony Szabo”

Surfing beta. The board strapped to the roof had given Tony the message I might need some direction about conditions. He was right. The estuary—I’d seen signs for it.  I climbed back into the Element and headed that way.

I came to Drake’s Beach and watched lazy rolling waves cut towards shore. The swell came north, the wind pushed its way south; a perfect combination. Small, but enough. I grabbed my board and wetsuit and headed for the water.

I’m not much of a surfer, the Pacific is a different animal than the North Atlantic, but it was fun, friendly but cold. After an hour I climbed out shivering, my hands numb. I fumbled my way out of my wetsuit, changed and headed north again.

Dinner, a podcast and a map later I knew I had 100 miles to go Glass Beach. I would be there by the morning.

IMG_8191.JPGThe morning was cloudy when I pulled into Fort Bragg, the ocean calm. I turned left of Highway 1 and parked, following signs to Glass Beach. “Please leave all cultural artifacts,” a note said. I descended cabled stairs to the shore.

And there it was—a beach of mostly seaglass. People were everywhere picking their favorite pieces, dropping them in bags, digging through the glass, mostly white, green and brown, the blues and reds long ago picked out.

This beach is a former dump. Until 1959 residents tossed all manner of trash off the cliff, and over the decades the ocean transformed much of it. Now it’s a park.

But a park with a past. Dig through the glass for a bit and your hands turn dark, grimy. The ocean did what it could to wash this beach clean, but even a half century of rinsing cannot rub the trash truly clean. Instead of a glow, the beach is a dull hue, still has the feel of a refuse heap. Down at the waterline it’s better, with the ocean actively rinsing, but even there bits of metal and old springs show through. The garbage dump is still home to garbage.

A few miles in either direction are more beaches, endless beaches. They are without glass, but they are also without the grime. The waves lap and coat them with salt, nothing more. These stretch in either direction, south to Mexico, north to Canada, broken by more cliffbands than roads. I went looking for the glass, for the one expired trash dump on 3,000 miles of beautiful coast. Thank goodness I made some stops along the way. I will be making many more.

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400

400

Icy landscape, View Point, Weddell Sea, AntarcticaIt’s happened: Antarctica has hit 400.

If 300 was a movie about the destructive capacity of a small band of humans, 400 is the same thing only on a much larger scale.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week that on May 23 carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole surpassed 400 parts per million (PPM) at the South Pole for the first time in 4 million years, a marker NOAA called “another unfortunate milestone.”

The South Pole has shown the same relentless upward trend in carbon dioxide (CO2) as the rest of world, NOAA said in a statement released on their website, but its remote location meant it was late to register the impacts of fossil fuel consumption, the primary driver of greenhouse gas pollution.

“The far southern hemisphere was the last place on earth where CO2 had not yet reached this mark,” Pieter Tans, NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network lead scientist, said in the statement. “Global CO2 levels will not return to values below 400 PPM in our lifetimes, and almost certainly for much longer.”

400 PPM “should be a psychological tripwire for everyone,” according to NASA Michael Gunson. “Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 PPM and much higher levels. These were the targets for ‘stabilization’ suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down.”

CO2 levels rise during the Northern Hemisphere’s fall and winter and decline during the summer as terrestrial plants consume CO2 during photosynthesis. It’s an AMAZING process, one you can watch on this video from NASA:

 

But plants only a fraction of emissions. For every year since observations began in 1958 there has been more CO2 in the atmosphere than the year before, according to NOAA. Last year’s global CO2 average reached 399 PPM, meaning that the global average in 2016 will almost certainly surpass 400 PPM.

The question NOAA scientists are now asking is whether even the lowest month of 2016 will have CO2 readings over 400 PPM.

Also concerning, the rate of increase appears to be accelerating. The annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii jumped 3.05 ppm during 2015, according to NOAA’s statement, the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years of monitoring. Last year was the fourth consecutive year that CO2 grew more than 2 ppm – which set another record. This year promises to be the fifth.

Part of last year’s jump was attributable to El Nino, the statement said, referring to the cyclical Pacific Ocean warming that produces extreme weather across the globe and causing terrestrial ecosystems to lose stored CO2 through wildfire, drought and heat waves.

“We know from abundant and solid evidence that the CO2 increase is caused entirely by human activities,” Tans said. “Since emissions from fossil fuel burning have been at a record high during the last several years, the rate of CO2 increase has also been at a record high. And we know some of it will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.”

So there’s that…

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

IMG_8135.JPGIt can be tough to read news about the environment. With oil spills and ocean acidification and coral bleaching and mass extinctions and rising temperatures it can seem overwhelming, just easier to just put your head down, worry about yourself and ride the doomed Earth into oblivion.

But that is only half the story. The other half is awesome.

Like this: the California Academy of Sciences announced yesterday they are partnering with coral reef conservation group SECORE to plant millions of concrete, reef-attaching “seeding units” in damaged reefs to “restore dwindling reefs with sexually-produced corals on a meaningful scale,” according to a statement on their website.

The project is part of an $8.5 million investment Cal Academy is making in coral reef research and restoration. “We’re not losing any time in our continued fight to understand, protect, and restore these majestic ecosystems,” Bart Shepherd, director of the Academy’s aquarium said.

That’s in San Fransisco. And there’s more. An article published on the Atlantic Magazine’s website on Wednesday profiles an Australian scientist who has been studying coral reefs and discovered that many of the world’s reefs in better shape than might be expected have frequent human interaction.

Contrary to what you might think, the bright spots weren’t all remote reefs, where humans were absent or fishing was banned. Instead, most were home to lots of people, who rely heavily on the corals and who frequently fished. They weren’t leaving the corals and fish alone; instead, they had developed social norms and institutions that allowed them to manage the reefs responsibly.

The study offers the evidence that it is possible for humans and reefs to coexist without the inevitable destruction of the coral.

At is an unrelated video about a chance discovery that sped up the growth cycle of slow-growing corals in Florida. It may be possible, it seems, to restore not just fast-growing corals but slower-growing species as well. More reason for encouragement.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 1.24.48 PMThen there is the work of Jason DeCaires Taylor, a sculptor who creates stunning installations underwater out of coral-accepting cements. His beautiful creations sit on the sea floor and transform over time. They become an intermixing of human and natural creation. His sculptures turn into otherworldy attractions that highlight the plight of the oceans, while at the same time offering sealife a space to thrive.

Taylor talked about his work on the TED stage:

 

Lastly, there is Norton Point, the Massachusetts-based company tackling the problem of ocean microplastics with capitalism. They are turning trash from the sea into something useful: sunglasses.

For every product we sell, even those not made from ocean plastic, we are committing to you to clean-up one pound of plastic from the ocean. In addition, we have chosen to give back 5% of net profits to global clean-up, education, and mediation practices.

Their Kickstarter campaign has exceeded its $37,000 goal by more than $5,000 this week, and there are still 20 days left until it finishes. An excellent example of how the environment inspires defender/entrepreneurs.

So instead of getting discouraged, instead of losing hope for the future of the planet and the environment, look for the bright spots, the many examples of people and organizations pushing for positive change. Look at the amazing discoveries they are making, the incredible support they are finding. Inspiration builds upon inspiration, success from success. Maybe it’s even time to join.

 

Climbing for Brian

Climbing for Brian

10553818_903535722993720_2619385696188103555_oTwo years ago my friend Brian died. He was climbing on Cathedral Ledge, doing laps on a route I’ve been on countless times before. I was in Peru at the time, a long way from home, a long way from the people I turn to when things get difficult.

I had plans to spend eight months in South America, plans to bounce from Peru to Chile to Argentina and all over and up to Central America. But it didn’t fit. After I month travelling in Chile I flew home.

Instead I went climbing: Red Rocks, Zion, Eldo, Rifle. Looking Glass. Rumbling Bald. The Obed. I wandered through 14 states over five weeks, clipped bolts, jammed cracks and hung on gear. I got scared. I got lost. I fell. I saw old friends and made new ones. I took the type of trip Brian loved taking. He and I had discussed a trip to the desert or to Yosemite, though it never happened. But I felt a connection to him out there, a recognition that “gone” and “with us” can be indistinct.

A month ago was Brian’s birthday. Facebook was kind enough to remind me. It popped up in my feed like he was still here, like I should send him a card or a gift. But he’s not.

13172996_1480482645311149_7238612379710389030_oA few weeks earlier I made it to one of the desert towers Brian and I talked about. The North Face of Castleton is a beautiful 5.11- up steep orange rock. My friend Jim just happened to be in Moab at the same time as me, and it was his birthday. He put a post on FB asking if anyone wanted to climb the next day. “Seriously?!” I said. “You’re in Moab?? Let’s climb Castleton!”

We met the next morning around 10 a.m. and drove to Castle Valley. It was noon by the time we reached the route, but at only three pitches we figured it would go quick. I took the first lead, a steep blue Camalot crack that ended in thinner cracks through a patch of white calcite. Two guys were repelling off as I started up. “Mountain Project says you need 6 number threes,” one of them said. We had two. Jim looked at me. “Maybe leapfrog that one below you?” I heeded his advice.

But the crack was straightforward, the climbing uncomplicated. I jammed and I jammed, making quick progress. I hit the calcite rested and laughing, enjoying the movement and exposure. No wonder Brian so loved such places—the red of the sandstone gleamed, and every jam felt handcarved. This was climbing at its best.

13147451_1480754145283999_7137182934756421799_oJimmy followed, pushing his way up the final exposed crux with a grunt, and we scampered up two more pitches, both excellent.

From the summit the Valley ran off in every direction, a landscape carved out from the red stone with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. It felt like paradise, God’s country, the kind of place Brian would smile at.

There is a photo of Brian taken on top of another tower. He is sitting, his legs outstretched, writing in the summit register. A valley spills out below him. The sun is high, the sky blue. It looks peaceful. This is how I like to remember him. He was joyful, at ease.

It’s been nearly two years since Brian fell. I’m on another trip, roughly 20 states in, another handful of climbing areas. There has also been surfing and freediving and random beach visits. And yet this still feels like an homage to him. He keeps popping up. I started this post a year and a half ago, while I was on that first trip. It came back to me today, begging to be finished. I couldn’t ignore that call.

There is a sense of being lost in wandering, but there is also an open door, a chance to be reminded of people, events, places that otherwise fall into darkness. So quickly we forget, but wandering we remember. Some of that can be painful. Other parts are beautiful. Perhaps every visit to the desert will in part be Brian’s. I hope so. I see him in the beauty of the landscape. I feel blessed to share it with him. It may only be in my heart, but that is enough.

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