Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Today Elaine and I stood on the tiny deck of Alvin, the submersible used to find an accidentally dumped H-bomb off Spain in 1966 – and to investigate wrecks like those of the Titanic, Bismarck and Thresher. Extraordinary sensation.
Here’s the background. Ever since the late 1960s, I had wanted to visit the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). I think I first heard of it via (Dr) John Todd, who founded the New Alchemy Institute and whose work on aquaculture, particularly the farming of tilapia, I was hooked by in the early 1970s. I even went off and worked with (Dr) Robin Clarke at his UK equivalent, BRAD (for Biotechnic Research & Development) for a short stint in 1973. But my burgeoning interest in oceanography and aquaculture lost steam by 1974, after timely, kindly advice from several professors in the field that you really needed a PhD to make any real progress.
But as the climate change issue grew in importance, so did my interest in the work of WHOI. Then Elaine and I met WHOI President and Director (Dr) Bob Gagosian at the 2003 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. He arranged for us to be taken around the Woods Hole set-up by (Dr) Dave Gallo, Director of Special Projects. Among the things we talked about was Daves work with (Dr) Robert Ballard, who among many other things discovered the Titanic.
We also got to see some pretty interesting technology. Dave took us around the 274-foot-long support ship Atlantis, on whose deck we saw and scrambled onto Alvin. Then there were the REMUS torpedoes, which were like something Q might have offered James Bond. Since I am just finishing off Robert Harriss novel Pompeii, whose hero is a Roman aqueduct engineer, I was interested to hear that REMUS torpedoes have been used to inspect a 45-mile stretch of the Delaware Aqueduct, which carries some 900 million gallons of water daily, and loses 10-36 million gallons each day.
I was even more interested to learn that REMUS machines have been used in Iraq to detect mines a job otherwise undertaken by US Navy-trained dolphins. The Navy also came up in discussions we had with a whale scientist whose work involves analysing blue whale calls picked up by SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) and other Navy offshore hydrophones, normally used to detect submarines. One of the whales they have been tracking this way, and for years, is easy to detect, because it sounds different turns out to be an unusual blue/finback hybrid. Another interesting finding: there seem to be more whales in some areas than anyone had expected.
But my key interest today was in WHOIs work on climate change, particularly of the abrupt variety. New data show North Atlantic waters at depths between 1,000 and 4,000 metres becoming dramatically less salty, especially in the past decade. The concern is that large-scale freshening of the North Atlantic could cross a threshold that would disrupt ocean circulation and trigger abrupt climate change.
Sunday, September 28, 2003
Surfer in sea-mist (©JE)
Despite a heavy sea mist, in which we would later watch a lone surfer on the Atlantic shore plunge off into invisibility, we set off this morning for First Encounter Beach. Here the Pilgrims led by Captain Myles Standish first encountered Native Americans. Arrows flew, though apparently no-one was hurt.
Native Americans 0, Pilgrims 0.
But the locals can have had little inkling of what these aliens would mean for their kind: their future had arrived, oddly clothed, differently armed – and differently minded. Similarly, the business community of the late 1960s and early 1970s had little inkling of what their early encounters with weirdly dressed environmentalists might mean for their own future prospects. Too often, over decades, I have heard business people talk of my own ‘kind’ in terms of beads and sandals or “watermelons” (green outside, red inside).
Such stereotypes blind – and disable – us. These days I regularly quote writer William Gibson: The future is already here. It is just not evenly distributed. So who or what – now stands invisibly among us?
Hornets’ nest (©JE)
Found myself sitting on a bench today in Chatham, which was inscribed with a memorial message in honour of Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who died in 1997. “Thinking in generational terms,” the bench intoned, “must begin with reverence for this earth.” Tsongas, I recalled, was pro-human rights, pro-civil rights, pro women’s rights and pro-environment, but he was also – unusually for people of such persuasions – pro-business.
The bench stood outside what looked like a mini-temple, but turned out to be home to the town’s public ‘restrooms’. And no sooner did I leave the bench than I discovered a large hornet’s nest quietly humming in a tree a few paces away: either the powers that be had – in the spirit of the inscription – decided to live and let live, or they had missed this extraordinarily beautiful celebration of insect energies and architecture.
Later on in the day, Elaine and I walked along Marconi Beach, part of the Outer Cape’s National Seashore. Ravishingly beautiful. This was where Gugliemo Marconi built the first wireless station on the US mainland in 1901. Two years later, the first US wireless transmission went from here to England, a somewhat banal exchange of good wishes between President Roosevelt and King Edward VII. It took 25,000 volts to send the message.
As we walked along the beach, with what I think were sand pipers scurrying hither and thither and an energetic surf crashing in, we found an enormous number of unidentifiable egg-sacs, a sign of life’s more or less endless bounty. But other shells, symbols of death, turned up too: near where Hania stayed in a dune-top house earlier in the summer, I found a brass cartridge case that had washed ashore, either a heavy machine gun or cannon shell. Later, as we drove back to the Whalewalk Inn, we found some postcards showing an extensively pock-marked ‘Target Ship’ that had been moored and heavily bombarded and strafed in Cape Cod Bay in the 1950s, but that’s the other side of the Cape. So the history of the cartridge, which I intend to take home, remains a mystery.
But it did make me think of two things: first, the German shells that left substantial holes in my father’s legs (see Influences, ‘The True Battle of Britain’); and, second, Elaine’s discovery of a truly beautiful Indian arrow-head when we were walking along a seemingly endless white sand beach near Dune City, Oregon, in 1981. Later, I told Frank Herbert (see ‘Influences’) about this, and he said that (1) such finds were pretty rare and (2) that the beach was the one that in the 1940s gave him the idea of writing his extraordinary sci-fi novel Dune. Not sure what Marconi Beach will inspire me to do next, but walking barefoot in its sand left me feeling very much at peace with the world.
Elaine @ Marconi Beach (©JE)
Saturday, September 27, 2003
Whalewatchers, off Provincetown (©JE)
Our first full day at the Whalewalk Inn, in Eastham, Cape Cod. Drove down from Cambridge via Boston yesterday, having enjoyed several days with Peter Kinder of social investment firm KLD. Peter and I met many years back behind the scenes at a conference in Stockholm, organised by the Mistra Foundation. While we waited to speak, we found ourselves exchanging views on US Civil War generals. We share many things, including military history, music and corporate responsibility. Some time later later, Peter would walk me around two battlefields of the War of Independence, in Concord and Lexington.
While in Cambridge, we also took the opportunity to have breakfast with Bob and Anne Massie. Bob headed CERES, a leading US NGO, during the days when it was incubating the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). I well remember the session in New York when I led the charge to ensure the GRI was based on the triple bottom line concept rather than – as originally planned – just environmental reporting. Later, Bob moved CERES strongly into the corporate governance area, partnering with Innovest to target companies that, like ExxonMobil, place at hazard large sums of shareholder value by turning a blind eye to the risks of climate change.
This morning Elaine and I cycled several miles through woods and between salt-marshes. She wobbled a great deal, having last been on a bike decades ago – but notes that she didn’t fall off! Wonderful, though, to have a chipmunk amble across our reasonably silent path. Later, we drove north to Provincetown, where we took ship in the Humpback Express to watch whales over the Stellwagen Bank. Fascinating talk on the tensions between wildlife and shipping by a young man from the Center for Coastal Studies. Joined the queue afterwards to press money into his hands to support the research and whale rescue work.
A burning blue sky and mirror-calm seas, though the surface was often broken by riffles of bait fish desperately trying to escape predators. Every so often, a giant humpback jaw erupted through the skittering fish, before splashing back. A mother and calf ignored us as they ate their way through the gentle swell. Seeing those extraordinary animals was a powerful reminder of why I became an environmentalist over 30 years ago and of the songs Roger Payne recorded many years ago (see ‘Music’ under Influences).
Links: www.coastalstudies.org; www.ceres.org; www.kld.com; www.whalewalkinn.com
Wellfleet Harbour Actors’ Theater (©JE)