Post-Ecstatic Bear Disorder: Alaska Insomniac Dispatches

2016-07-20 09.02.17

Moraine Creek, Katmai National Preserve

Really, you walked into the river, you approached the bear, you borrowed its fishing site? You clambered up a bluff, only to see a sow and her cubs doing the same thing some yards away? How could a vegetarian like you catch a fish, I mean, don’t you hate the idea of any animal suffering with a hook in its mouth? Honestly, how did you miss the Volkswagen Beetle-sized bear passing behind you, your focus on your new fly fishing skills so all-consuming? How could you abandon that orphaned baby duck? Was the guide right, that only its mother could save it? Why weren’t you mauled, slashed by the dagger claws of bears? Why did they not so much as roar at you?

In this land, the bears and the people pass on the salmon highways like daily commuters on their way to work. None of it looked right. Even as a former employee at a zoological society, I had scarcely been so close to such a dangerous, hulking mammal without the benefit of steel bars and safety latches. I obsessed over all of it and as a result failed to sleep. Instead, I observed my dreams without end, curious about the essential question, “Why was I not more afraid?”

Kvichak River, Bristol Bay, Alaska

In a room between the Alaska and the Aleutian Ranges, with their thousands of ponds, lakes, creeks, rivers, hills and mountains buffering me against the chaos of vehicle traffic, crowded rapid transit cars and the press of people in my normal life in the San Francisco Bay Area, my brain did not accept that any of this was real. The endless light honeyed the conversations among new acquaintances, coating us in its amber embrace. Soon those acquaintances seemed like family. The sneaking silhouettes of DeHavilland Beaver single engine floatplanes waited like uncles at the docks, eager to reveal more of southwestern Alaska each morning. No, none of it felt real. Instead, I felt like a character in a fairy tale, a woman who met the eagle, the salmon and the bear, and never was the same.2016-07-19 22.33.52.jpg

Crosswind, Inbound for Pothole, Katmai National Preserve

Outside the lodge a mere 20-minute flight away, the kame and kettle topography of Katmai National Preserve undulates and expands across the horizon, mounds of earth alternating with water-filled depressions. It’s as though a heated discussion between the retreating sheets of ice and the dirt below it was settled through compromise – the glaciers depart, but they leave proof they were here. We land in a pothole, which in any other state would be called a lake, or at the least, a big pond.

The Forty-Ninth State

For all the breathless sensation, I know Alaska is not innocent, nor am I. I use oil, gasoline, minerals and forest products from Alaska. American government built the Alaska pipeline and most of the roads. With the temperature increasing, glaciers are melting. Alaska, then, is a platform for understanding, for researching the Arctic, whose melting ice will open shipping lanes for increased use of more natural resources. Polar bears are pouring into Arctic villages like Kaktovik in unprecedented numbers, looking for food because the ice is melting their hunting stations too fast and at too rapid a rate.

But it’s not all doom and darkness. We don’t always mess things up.

Nushagak and Kvichak Watersheds, 150 Nautical Miles Southwest of Anchorage

The most important environmental catastrophe those of us in the lower-48 have never heard about is the Pebble Mine. Why? Because it has not yet happened. One of the world’s largest copper, gold and molybdenum mineral deposits lies here in Bristol Bay, home of the largest remaining wild salmon runs on Earth. Had development moved ahead, a visitor would see the largest open pit mine in North America, covering some seven square miles and burrowing down to a depth nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. But people got together, learned together, and crafted goals together. Coalitions of nonprofit groups, Native communities, as well as state and federal government agencies, conducted scientific analyses and drew up economic plans that included preserving traditional ways of life as well as the wildlife upon which they depend. One nonprofit leader told me that in the beginning, some of Bristol Bay’s residents were not as concerned about the future. A mine, after all, offered the promise of jobs. But after a trip to see a similar operation in British Columbia, their tune changed. I don’t want to see my lands and people ruined like that, the Native elder reportedly said.

Anchorage International Airport, Gate B8

My colleague Brian and I stood on the jet bridge preparing to board our return flight from Anchorage through Seattle and back to San Francisco. We told each other story after story of our bear encounters. An elderly couple wearing tourist shirts from Seward leaned in and said, “Sounds like you had quite the adventure, we didn’t see any bears at all!” We must have sounded like public television nature show narrators. How lucky I felt at that moment. We had seen so many bears we lost count, we had been so close as to touch them in some cases, we had felt adrenaline and exhilaration in our veins and been high and floating on the heightened awareness of our bodies in proximity to such powerful animals. Perhaps this was addiction.

Walnut Creek, California

I have returned to the lower-48, where my regular circadian California sunlight and night skies have eliminated my sleep deprivation but not my obsessive ursine dreams. It seems I have settled back into previous, predictable patterns, but it is clear that my heart has not. It seeks and hunts and is filled with a sonorous sorrow and regret, but regret for what? All I know is that I am changed, I am new, I am free in a way that my photos and words fail to describe. I am by turns bitter and serene, with so many memories lying on my tongue, an exquisite sugar. What now? What am I supposed to do with my new person? I self-diagnose my condition, noting that my mind lingers in another state, far from California. I relive every counterfactual – each bear attack that never happened. I imagine the bear ripping out my intestines, as opposed to extracting the ruby-jeweled salmon eggs of the sockeye in the river.

I am the opposite of traumatized. I am ecstatic. I am yearning and believing. I turn to a little book a dear friend gave to me in which Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, writes that understanding leads to love leads to change.

This pilgrim to the north will attend to her post-ecstatic bear disorder, but knows there is no cure. Not that she wants one.2016-07-19 09.12.55-1.jpg

One Room to Rule Them All

GovSchwarzeneggerOperationsControlRoom

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger looking at the map board in the Project Operations Center in Sacramento. Photo Courtesy of the Water Education Foundation.

“…you need water. Whatever it costs you have to pay it. It’s like oil today. If you have to have oil, you’ve got to pay for it. What’s the value of oil? What’s the value of water? If you’re crossing the desert and you haven’t got a bottle of water, and there’s no water anyplace in sight and someone comes along and says, ‘I’ll sell you two spoonfuls of water for ten dollars,’ you’ll pay for it. The same is true in California.” Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (b. 1905 – d. 1996), Governor of California from 1959-1967, in an interview he gave in 1979. Quoted in Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.

Thirty years ago in his seminal book Cadillac Desert, author Marc Reisner described California’s State Water Project Operations Center as a room in which a “hydrologic ballet” took place to move water from north to south, a distance twice the length of Pennsylvania. At the Water Resources building in Sacramento, he noted the Univac computers were “punched and fed floppy disks by a team of programmers.” Univac, whose machines filled entire rooms, was the same company the United States Air Force used to operate the ground guidance computers for its Titan Missile program.

I wanted to see what had changed since 1986, so my Nature Conservancy team and I took a tour of the facilities last fall. For one, the State Water Project now shares a building called the “Joint Operations Center” with a host of other state and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project (the other big water project in the state, servicing the San Joaquin Valley farmers, who receive about five of the seven million acre-feet of water that the project delivers), the California Nevada River Forecast Center, the National Weather Service and the Flood Control Center. You could pass this nondescript building a thousand times and never know the powerful data sets and computer models being used to predict flood risk, river levels, snow pack, aviation weather and extreme storm events. You would also never know that in this three-story brick building the oversight of dozens of dams, reservoirs, and power plants is all possible through remote control of myriad knobs, gates, canals and valves. The Joint Operations Center is probably the most important place in California. But given that California grows half of all produce, nuts and fruits in the United States, is home to transformative biotechnology and aerospace industries, and has created the computing and materials innovations that have revolutionized technology – one could argue that the Joint Operations Center is one of the most important buildings in the world. For none of the things we take for granted, be it an iPhone or a handful of almonds, is made without water. Yet the Joint Operations Center is miles from downtown Sacramento next to a Walmart and a Chipotle.

MapBoard Project Operations Center

California on its side, showing the state’s facilities that comprise the State Water Project. Courtesy of the Water Education Foundation.

The tour guides said we could see where the state’s water project is controlled, and so we followed them into a small conference room with a few windows looking into the Project Operations Center where a couple of people worked that afternoon. No photos allowed. Also, our guide said, pointing to a closed set of vinyl blinds, “there’s window into the federal side. We can’t show you that.”

Despite our disappointment, we appreciated gazing into the Project Operations Center, especially the decidedly analog map board, which former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger loved as a dramatic setting for some of his press conferences, according to our guide. While not as sophisticated as a Hollywood touch-screen monitor seen in television shows like CSI and Hawaii Five-O, where images on a computer can be transferred to a glass wall display with a single touch, it is nonetheless impressive. Running the entire length of the control room, the map board traces the path of what would be the longest river in California– if it were natural. According to the state, in an average year about 47 percent of the water goes to “environmental water”, about 11 percent goes to cities and 42 percent goes to farms.

The State Water Project begins at Lake Oroville in Northern California, the location of the tallest dam in the United States and the world’s eighth largest dam, and runs through about 700 miles of aqueducts, encompassing 34 reservoirs and more than a dozen pumping stations, to terminate at Lake Perris, another human-engineered lake, in Riverside County. With nine power plants, the operators in the control center move water and control hydropower output based on loads to the system. They wheel and deal, purchasing and selling power day and night like Wall Street traders. Only I cannot imagine Leonardo DiCaprio ever playing the role of a state water trader talking about power purchases and sales in a room with green and yellow lights akin to a 1980s board game of Battleship.

LAO-SWP-Map

The State Water Project, built in the 1960s-1970s, is the nation’s largest water development project, delivering 2.5 million acre-feet of water per year. One acre-foot covers a football field in one foot of water. Courtesy of Maven’s Notebook.

But why does the state need to buy power when they have hydropower plants that can create power? Because moving water down to Southern California has one obstacle – a mountain range. The Tehachapi Mountains are right in the middle of the path where the water must travel to reach the city of Los Angeles. The A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant must raise the water up nearly 2,000 feet. To some engineers, according to Reisner, the pumping is “the ultimate triumph, the most splendid snub nature has ever received: a sizable river of water running uphill.”

Thus, the largest energy user in the state, as it turns out, is the state. The water project needs anywhere from four to eight billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water; the State Water Project produces almost six billion kilowatt hours per year. Any surplus power is sold, while any required power is purchased from other sources. Power purchases are made when power is less expensive (for example, not during a hot spell when power usage is high and everyone’s running their air conditioner). Some of the power used is regained when the water runs downhill. There’s a lot of addition, subtraction and algebra involved. The bottom line – “In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money,” wrote Reisner in his introduction.

Our tour lasted several hours and included time with the snow survey office, the people who inspect the levees in the Sacramento River Delta region and the personnel who gather to coordinate during an emergency flood response. These individuals collaborate to share information in order to save lives, as the state has a history of catastrophic floods that have destroyed farms, cities and injured and killed people. Between the power purchasing and selling, the National Weather Service and the river and flood forecasting, these desks must be staffed around the clock every day of the year.

We now know that California’s water systems were conceived, designed and built during wet years when rain and snow were plentiful. Yet researchers who study the long pattern of climate in this part of the world suggest that drought is not a one-time catastrophe or emergency. It’s normal and part of life in the arid West. The ridge of high pressure keeping precipitation out, and pleasant, unseasonably warm weather in California, reminds us that drought is never far from our hearts. Perhaps, as California publisher Lindsie Bear said to me recently, we do not live in a semi-desert, a place lacking in rain. We live in a climate with an abundance of dryness.

Back at the Joint Operations Center, yellow lights indicate that a pump is offline, power sales ramp up, the National Weather Service updates its informative Facebook page and computer weather models run all night trying to figure out what kind of El Niño event we might experience. I just hope the Chipotle stays open late when the graveyard shift employees get hungry.

Collect Those Minutes

As the year draws to a close, I am grateful for words, Mojave Desert skies, brown bears, baptisteries, golden grape leaves, war heroes, eagles, canyons, colleagues, family, and for endearing and enduring friends. Here’s my new friend, Charles Finn, whose musings on just how certain we can be in this life lift me up. Charles is the editor of the High Desert Journal and recently published Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters – purchase it here .


Memoir of a Raven

Time is running out and I admit I wasted my afflictions. But there’s nothing like drinking out of a fresh grizzly print to confirm that your life is on the right track. So I remind you that the days come and go, but mostly they go – it’s the minutes you must collect. The armature of your life will drag you along even as the plowshare of the days turns its one long furrow into forever. My advice is to keep pace. Don’t let up. As confused as you might be in life, as conflicted, in death there is no doubt.

Find an elk carcass and look inside.

No confusion there. I love the world for this, for the certainty that exists in us all.

~ Charles Finn

Charles Finn Raven

Travel and Death- A Normandy Poem

Normandy American Cemetery, Coleville-sur-Mer. Photo by Author.

Normandy American Cemetery, Coleville-sur-Mer. Photo by Author.

To go to another continent, to face your nationality, your origin, your culture, your frame of reference, is to encounter yourself, perhaps for the first time.

Also –

Dying and packing a suitcase are the same.

Traveling abroad and death are understood only by those that undertake the obstacles of finding one’s way in another language, with unfamiliar maps, with your best guess.

Like that twilight drive years ago, away from a body in a Pennsylvania hospital, paying a parking meter, as we did, returning home without their father, without her husband, without their brother, without my future father-in-law.

I remember stepping upon unknown earth.

I trespassed onto the grounds of heartache.

I sidestepped explosives, my feet found delicate phrasing,

I placed the weight of my sorrow on toes that somehow withstood the pressure.

I blinked for days – sunlight raw, unbearable, out of place.

Our view the day before – false hope.

The next – folly in that view.

But back to where I stand this day, years later:

Nine-thousand crosses, 41 sets of brothers, even dogs in the foxholes,

American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer. Photo by Author.

American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer. Photo by Author.

blown to new kingdoms and rooms with windows looking out to gardens,

where words, routes, the way out, lead to the object of desire.

The map, the one-way ticket, the lamp, a curvilinear road, mild air, rays of day’s illumination, a manuscript, a book of hours.

One minute here, in your country, knowing all that you know.

The next, your shins peeling, like shedding snake skin.

Your journey is concluding, you are different now.

Yet so few know what it is,

inside your skin and scales.

Only the sojourners,

truth be told,

as it is revealed in both a passage and a loss,

walk with you now.

They walk with you, inside you, in the oxygen, in the detritus of what you exhale.

These souls now accompany us into the place of regret,

whispers on a long plane ride.

An endless walk.

In London, the subterranean chambers marked Way Out.

We, those who have lost, those who have traveled away,

look for the placard –

Way Home.

Vierville-sur-Mer - Omaha Beach. Photo by Author.

Vierville-sur-Mer – Omaha Beach. Photo by Author.

Armistice Day display and Poppy Appeal outside Westminster Abbey. Photo by Joe McCrossen.

Armistice Day display and Poppy Appeal outside Westminster Abbey. Photo by Joe McCrossen.

Saving Nature Means Saving Ourselves From Myth of Work and Life in Balance

Finding balance shouldn’t be about negotiating a tightrope. Photo by Susie Shoaf.

By Kristine Zeigler & Lynn Lozier, The Nature Conservancy in California 

This week the Wall Street Journal dedicated an entire section to the issue of women and equity in the workplace. It seems every day more research is published about women’s lack of progress in obtaining executive leadership roles and what factors may be to blame. Work-life balance comes up a lot as a barrier to more women entering the top management positions in companies.

At our workplace, The Nature Conservancy in California, both men and women at a recent work-life balance workshop reported feeling overworked, exhausted, burnt out and unsupported in many ways.

The workshop could have been a bummer. Employees mentioned a host of anxieties and worries, including their aging parents, their limited time with their children, their wish to have children, (or their decision not to have them), as well as their obsession with work to the point where they slept very little. Yet they also spoke of their fondest hope – that they could shape their future even when faced with difficulties such as illness in their families or financial hardships. Honesty was on the table. So was goodwill.

One outcome of the salon is that the notion that “work-life balance” is a myth and frankly, not a useful metaphor. It suggests a teeter-totter or a fulcrum. Too much weight on one side and you fall off – failing at one part of your life and out of the game. Given our shared passion for The Nature Conservancy’s mission to preserve lands and waters all over the world, we are not even sure it’s fair to say that our dedication to nature and our commitment to our personal lives are all that different from one another.

So we settled on a new paradigm to replace “work-life balance:” equilibrium. One way to define equilibrium is as an adjustment between opposing or divergent influences or elements. Natural systems, including the human body, are full of dynamic functions that adjust to change and maintain equilibrium. Saturation and scarcity harmonize in systems – one influence waxes and another wanes. Things are “tuned” as you go along and function is sustained, be it the forest, the ocean, or the body.

Equilibrium also describes a mental state that is calm and stable. It speaks of poise. No matter what is going on in the world around you – anxious colleagues, deadlines, family conflicts, ill parents or children in need – there is a place within the heart and the mind that can be a place to rest – like a hammock, not a tightrope. Finding breath and finding the center of oneself, letting one part of the body be saturated by peacefulness, may be the most radical chemical and biological reaction of all.

The Nature Conservancy needs its employees to be at their best. Much is at stake, from rapid land development, climate change, and depleting fisheries, to unprecedented and catastrophic drought in much of the West. Animals are going to go extinct and coastlines are going to erode. Homes, businesses, even our very health, is on the line. Our time is now; the planet needs us. So, seeking equilibrium in ourselves could be the winning formula for restoring it in nature. Nature depends on us, as much as we depend on it. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues to reach for and sustain equilibrium.

Above all, it is critical that we forgive ourselves and adapt at those times when one part of our lives looms large at the expense of another. There is no perfect balance or proportion at any given moment. It’s a dynamic.  The key is to be adaptive and maintain your own equilibrium. Perhaps approaching things this way can be calming.

Coastal wetlands may give us the best metaphor yet. Mangroves get tattered and beaten up after a storm, but they absorb and dissipate destructive forces while providing nursery grounds for myriad young marine life. They are resilient. So are we.

Despite the storms of our lives, we can find calm and be our very best selves inside the office or at home with our families. The plants, animals and people on this planet need us to do just that.

Kristine Zeigler is the Director of Philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy in California and is one of five female members of a nine-person Leadership Team.

Lynn Lozier is the ConservationTrack Program Director in the Conservation Investments Department at The Nature Conservancy in California. She is also a coach and trainer in teamwork and team leadership.

Paradise of the Poets, Abode of the Blessed

“What you do not see,

do not hear,

do not experience,

you will never really know.”

Anders Apassingok (Yupik)

 

Brown bears wrestle and play on the tundra, Katmai National Park. Photo by Cynthia Beckwith.

Brown bears wrestle and play on the tundra, Katmai National Park. Photo by Cynthia Beckwith.

The thick neoprene waders, much too large for my height and weight, curled out of my boots and began chafing my ankle bone, rubbing it so raw that sockeye red-colored dots of blood formed. I was lumbering across the spongy tundra plants at Kukaklek Lake in Katmai National Park. I may have felt silly (“Do these waders make my butt look big?” I asked my coworkers, who did not deny that they did). I may have been clumsy and inexperienced. I did not care. The suit bulged out of the boots and the suspenders slipped again and again off my shoulders, but my mission was simple – follow the leader, in this case, my colleague Rand, and descend the bank of Moraine Creek and plant myself in knee-deep water. Our objective – to observe Katmai’s bears gorging themselves on sockeye salmon that were nearing the end of their life. The sockeye had a singular mission as well – to spawn, that is, to lay their eggs, then turn from glossy, glamorous lipstick red to splotchy blotches of pale pink and white before going belly up to serve their eyeballs up as tasty snacks, or more likely, to simply rot in the southwestern Alaskan sun.

I’m doing my best, I really am, to take you with me on this journey. I was standing in the river, the same river as the bears were fishing in, the stink of salmon flesh coursing through my nostrils! The bears could have cared less about my being there, so obsessed with the never-ending all-you-can-eat salmon service that makes a Las Vegas casino buffet seem stingy.

I thought a lot about the merit of writing this, and I considered not even trying. After all, words kept failing us. My fellow Californian Maira would look at me after seeing the tenth or eleventh bear and her mouth would fall open and her eyebrows would arch and we would just laugh. Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it incredible? We repeated these questions to one another. Yes, yes it is, and I imagined, as we stood a football field and a half away from a sow and her two cubs, that I would fail at any attempt to write about this wildlife adventure. Because how could I really describe what I had seen? Photographs would help, as would my passion. But how to tell another soul that your heart opened so wide your brain reacted by creating new folds in which to store these memories which are too large to fit inside the brain with which I was born?

I turned to my mentors, two “M’s” of natural history writers, John Muir and John McPhee, to see how the heck they had used the millions of permutations of Roman alphabet letters to paint the volcanoes, the Native villages, the glaciers, the beluga whales, the puffins, the steller sea lions, the sea otters, the bald eagles, the moose, the caribou and the black-legged kittiwakes. How did they assemble paragraphs of fjords, spruce and douglas fir forests, lonely outposts of men in hairnets getting off work from seafood packing plants, cottonwood trees standing sentry on milky blue waters in lakes hidden from view (but lucky for us a DeHavilland Beaver seaplane broadened our possibilities, giving us more places to land then if a runway were built every other nautical mile below). “We hear about the Great Lakes region’s more than 10,000 lakes. That’s nothing,” Rand says. There might be more than two million lakes in Alaska, but who can count them all?

MapsAlaskaOverUSMcPhee wrote in his 1970s-era New Yorker articles, which were later compiled into a compelling book Coming Into The Country, that Alaska’s total acreage of 375 million acres, combined with its small population, is difficult to fathom. The “civilized imagination” he wrote, “cannot cover such quantities of wild land.” John Muir, composing in the late 1880s when he was a sage celebrity in his seventh decade, wrote in Travels in Alaska that he and his companions who glided through the fjords of southeast Alaska aboard a steamer, seemed to “float in true fairyland, each succeeding view seeming more and more beautiful, the one we chanced to have before us the most surprisingly beautiful of all.” And this line made me feel an even deeper kinship with Muir – “ Never before this had I been embosomed in scenery so hopelessly beyond description.” He continues: “…in these coast landscapes there is such indefinite, on-leading expansiveness, such a multitude of features without apparent redundance, their lines graduating delicately into one another in endless succession, while the whole is so fine, so tender, so ethereal, that all penwork seems hopelessly unavailing . . . it seems as if surely we must at length reach the very paradise of the poets, the abode of the blessed.”

The bears were stuffed, but they kept eating. Photo by Cynthia Beckwith.

The bears were no longer hungry, but they kept eating. Photo by Cynthia Beckwith.

In thinking about the density of this state, you’re talking about 100,000 fewer people than the number of residents who live in the city of San Francisco. San Francisco is about seven miles wide. Alaska is about one-fifth the size of the entire United States. Still, facts and figures and all the tourist postcards with a silhouette of Alaska shoved into the lower-48’s outline do not convey why it all matters. Sure, it’s big. So what?

It is Alaska’s oil, gas, copper and gold that merit our dedicated, sustained attention. Add on to that the state’s position in the Arctic, where formerly frozen shipping lanes are opening up for the first time in human history, and you have the ingredients for a global case for adding Alaska to your “I care about that” list. Coal and oil development, as well as gold and copper mining aspirations, require more rail lines, more roads and more compromises. Pressures are mounting to build renewable sources of energy, including damming rivers that look like California’s used to look before we diverted and ruined them for all time.

A Blockbuster Video store near the apartment I rented while in Anchorage does brisk business. Alaska, it seems, is about a decade behind in the entertainment department. The state ought to be proud that it may also be behind when it comes to damming its rivers and bringing its salmon to the brink of extinction. But now is the time to pay attention, and never let your dedication waver – we cannot take for granted that a global mining company or a dam builder or an intergovernmental coalition of the willing will find a way to find more value in destroying Alaska’s wild places and wildlife than in leaving it be. One day it could be economically feasible, for example, to build the largest open-pit copper and gold mine on Earth – right in the center of the planet’s largest salmon runs, forests and rivers teeming with life (see this one hunter’s recent op-ed that illustrates how the mine’s future is still very much alive).

Before visiting Alaska, I thought I knew big, grand, tall and strange. After all, the Owens Valley’s Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States, as well as nearby Death Valley’s Badwater, located more than 200 feet below sea level, are just two features that make my childhood in Bishop seem larger than life. But I was unprepared for Alaska. No superlative seems distinct enough, special enough, descriptive enough, to convey what is going on there. “This place,” Rand had warned me, “will blow your mind.”

On my last morning I longed for just one more adventure. I drove up to Glen Alps and hiked the short but precipitous and steep Flattop Trail. Near the top I took in the international airport on my left, wavy patterns of water along the mud-flat zone on the coast, and to my right, another airport. I saw highways and housing developments, power lines and communication towers. I made out the wind turbines on Fire Island and beyond that, the string of mountains and volcanoes of the Alaska Range. Just two days previously I had been embosomed in rubber and neoprene, walking in the same water as the sockeye salmon and brown bears. Out there, beyond the horizon, I wanted to touch the glaciers and cirques, the rockfalls and hanging valleys, the crevasses and the waterfalls so spectacular and yet so hidden.

Out there, I thought, is wilderness, and yet, high above Anchorage, I realized that if any progress in the grand epoch of humankind is to be made, it is to realize that describing wild places as outside of oneself is to miss the point. We are the wilderness, we are the city’s lights, we are the oil, the gas, the gold and the salmon. We are responsible for all of it, even the parts that we may dislike, like the resource extraction companies and the governments that seem to be a villainous enemy with their industrial strength salmon, tuna and whaling operations.

In the end, words do matter. After all, some places have been protected without their primary sponsor ever seeing them (President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Act during the nadir of the Civil War, mere magazine accounts and oil paintings all he had as proof that it was right). Words are all we have. Adjectives may fall short, there may not be quite the right noun or adverb to show you what was shown to me. But I had to try.

No wheels, no problem! Alaska's myriad waterways and lakes make for endless runways and possibilities. Photo by the author.

No wheels, no problem! Alaska’s myriad waterways and lakes make for endless runways and possibilities. Photo by the author.

When Maira and I returned from our flight to Katmai we lamely attempted to show our gratitude. It was, I said to my hosts, the best day of my life. Our seasoned pilot, who has more than 6,000 hours of flight time maneuvering Cessna Caravans and DeHavilland Beavers amid the grandiosity of Alaska, smiled. He replied it was the best day of his summer. Which for an Alaskan is really saying something.

On The Twentieth Anniversary of the Massacre of Srebrenica: Failings Both Societal and Personal

Boys Footbath Esma Danijel Sanel Mehmed US Flag 2003 Salih and Cockatiel Sanel

Joe and I had invited the four Bosnian boys that beautiful autumn weekend in 2003 for a pizza and slumber party at our modest apartment in Pacifica, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. We figured their mother Esma needed a break. Our place, cheaply furnished and cramped, had a gorgeous feature – the living room window faced the Pacific Ocean and it was possible to see dolphins and whales with the naked eye.  When the second youngest, Sanel, saw the unobstructed view, the first time he had ever seen this sea, or any other for that matter, he exclaimed,

“The Pacific Ocean – it’s beautiful!”

It was a scene I never wanted to forget, the four boys we were tutoring, all sitting in a row on our second-hand couch, goofy grins spreading across their faces. The oldest, Daniel, sat with his feet planted in a bath that bubbled warm water about his toes while his three brothers – Salih, Sanel and Mehmed – jabbed one another with their elbows and snickered while I searched for my camera. When I finally found it and snapped their photo, Daniel had passed the bath to Sanel and the four of them had settled down to watch a movie we had rented from Blockbuster. They had none of the self-conscious “this is for girls” bias that American boys would have had. They all wanted their turn to relax and treat themselves to a sudsy tub of water. And they deserved it.

Esma and her boys had arrived from Bosnia in 1999 as refugees. Mohammed, Esma’s husband and the boys’ father, had died in the war in Bosnia and by all accounts was a well-respected man in his small village. One of the case workers for the family told me he was “really something.” Though we never knew exactly how he died, what we did know was this – Esma was a stranger to the United States, she was 29 years old, and she had four boys who needed to learn English, go to school, and acclimate to Oakland. For Esma’s part, she needed to fill out endless paperwork, obtain health care and above all, earn enough money for rent and groceries. It seemed impossible. Refugee Transitions, a nonprofit serving the Bay Area’s refugees with critical and pragmatic adjustment services, matched the boys with Joe and me and then we embarked on weekly sessions to teach them English. Soon we were including them in our own lives. After a while they became like family, so much so that our friends and parents would ask us, “How are your Bosnian boys?” I believed they would be safer and would have more opportunity in the United States. We dedicated ourselves to ensuring that would be the case.

Now, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica (today’s New York Times published a moving opinion piece by Seema Jilani; 60 Minutes and Bob Simon’s report from 1999 is heart-wrenching), where more than 7,000 men and boys were slaughtered by Serbian forces in the countryside, I am still trying to reconcile if we failed Esma and her boys. Or indeed, how much we failed.

The boys learned English within their first six months and by the conclusion of their first year in the U.S. were not all that hard to distinguish from California-raised kids, what with their blond hair, blue eyes and gangsta swagger and rap lyric knowledge that helped them fit in and find protection in the Oakland public school system.

Esma’s progress learning English was understandably slower, but she communicated the essentials with us very well, even finding the courage to call us on the telephone when she needed help.

Eventually we stopped teaching them English and transitioned to on-call consultations for a variety of tasks that are difficult even for U.S. citizens, let alone refugees. For example, I negotiated a low-interest loan and sales price on a sporty red Honda Civic on Esma’s behalf, which, if you know me, is not exactly my strength – a salesman can typically walk all over me. But in this instance, the two used car men mistook my frequent departure from the sales trailer as disgust with their initial offer. In truth, I was calling Joe to see if he thought it was a good idea for me to buy the car on our credit card and have Esma pay me back; Joe talked me out of it, and boy do I appreciate his more level head. Joe said that it was important for Esma to establish her own line of credit. Every time I returned to the trailer the salesmen lowered the price, the interest rate, or both.

Joe took the boys to buy shoes, filled out the required forms for the family’s green cards, welfare checks, then the welfare-to-work program, and many other official documents that Esma could not read. I got Sanel into the San Francisco Zoo’s summer camp, Joe got Daniel into an outdoor education camp and we picked up the boys from time to time to expose them to places outside their school and city. Esma had met someone new, so we wanted to give her time alone without the kids around. We helped the boys with their homework, gave them advice about their futures and took them to baseball games. As the boys grew older, they became testy and irritable, cooped up as they were in the two bedroom apartment. Though I thought they were good-hearted children, they got into trouble often. We blamed the school – one of the roughest in the country where students formed gangs and picked on the boys until they found older boys to protect them.

Joe and I often discussed whether what we were doing was actually helping them given that they could only afford Oakland. The older boys often mused about returning to Bosnia where they remembered friends and family in their village. It was ironic, Joe and I thought, that Oakland’s violence, homicides and bullying in the schools could be worse than a country torn apart by ethnic cleansing. It seemed that Americans, who had given a limited number of slots for Bosnian refugees, weren’t doing that great of a job making sure the refugees were successful once they were on American soil. But since only the two oldest boys had any real memories of Bosnia, we figured that at least in America two of the four could create their own destiny. The other two would need to work harder to move forward.

About five years after we met the family, Joe and I moved to Boston. We drove to Oakland on our last morning to say goodbye to our Bosnian boys.

“We will never see you again,” Esma wailed. I threw my arms around her shoulders in a lame effort to console her.

“Of course you’ll see us again. We will write and call and visit you,” I said. Esma, whose face was streaked by tears she could not control, as well as the reluctant smiles of the four boys all lined up on the shaded sidewalk in front of their apartment building, remain like a dusty postcard in my memory. Esma had been right.

The family soon moved to Idaho where their cousins had found jobs amongst a small community of other Bosnians. For a few years we sent holiday cards and messages through MySpace. Then our annual cards were returned. We seemed to have lost track of them. Then one day a letter arrived, the return address a prison in Idaho. The second oldest, Salih, had beaten a man, nearly to death, and was serving a sentence for aggravated battery. He begged us to write to him. I searched for Daniel’s name and a mug shot came up, but I was not certain if it was an internet prank or something factual. I failed to find the other boys on social media. According to a legal forum website, Salih was deported by the state of Idaho in 2012 or thereabouts. Salih posted to the site: “I lived in USA ever since i was 5 and now 23…KInda confused..Deported to Bosnia. I was never told an time lenght of deportation or what i could do to re-enter. my whole family is back there. Can anyone find out for how long i was removed… please email. Thank you.”

Today the ghosts of Srebrenica raise the question of how ethnic cleansing could take place in the modern era, on a continent marking the origin of so many of our American ancestors. How did the United Nations, NATO and the United States let the carnage happen?

We failed the former Yugoslavia. And I can’t help but feeling that I failed my four Bosnian boys, too. Surely there was more I could have done to show them the best of America. But they did not die in a massacre, I remind myself. They had their chances to start again, flawed as the chances may have been.

I just hope Salih and Daniel remember the Pacific Ocean, the wilderness of the Sierra and the simple pleasures of a foot bath, their brothers laughing and tickling them, angling for their turn to soak their feet thousands and thousands of miles away from the killing fields.