Scrub Jays
I’m not much of a birdwatcher.  I love the activity; I’ve even got myself a nice new pair of binoculars.  But my knowledge base is thin – pretty much everything I know about birds I’d learned by the sixth grade, the result of a childhood spent tromping around Washington state with my parents, rubber boots on feet, gortex jacket on back, bird book in one hand and daily species list in the other.

(An aside:  I did have the opportunity to brush up on my skills in college. Vertebrate Zoology 201 featured two full weeks of lab devoted to good ol’ Class Aves, but unfortunately the TA made the mistake of telling us we were going to be tested on the exact same specimens we were using in class.  In my usual fashion, I figured out that while telling sandpipers from sanderlings was hard, remembering that the sandpiper was the one mounted on a stick, while the sanderling had been prepared posed on a rock, was easy.  I got a 4.0 in the class, but I still don’t know the difference.  My loss.)

My mom, on the other hand, is a mighty birdwatcher, an Audobon-certified master, fully capable of picking out peregrine falcons while she is driving sixty miles an hour down a country highway.  An enduring scene from my childhood:  the squealing of tires that would ensue when my mother would shout – “Charlie!  Stop the car!” at my dad while we were hurtling down I-5, our little pop-can of a 1980 Mazda surrounded on three sides by angry semi drivers wondering what the hell was wrong with us.

How we never caused an accident, I’m still not sure.  Maybe fortune favors the drunk, the foolish, and the amateur ornithologist.

Anyway, I’m not much of a birdwatcher.  But I’m good enough that when I recently saw a scrub jay hopping around Capitol Hill near my Seattle home, I thought to myself – whoa.  Didn’t we used to have to drive to Eastern Washington to see those?


(The photo isn’t mine.  I’m not much of a photographer either.)

The answer – a rare ornithological win for me! – is yes.  Eastern Washington or, say, Central California.  Now the birds are here.  The scrub jays, like so many other Californians, are moving in.

Now whyever would they be doing that?

Hint:  it’s warmer in central California and eastern Washington than it is here in Seattle.

A lot warmer.

I went to the locks yesterday.  The sockeye are running, and I wanted my daughter to see them.  I realize I swore up and down I wouldn’t post pictures of her online, so let’s just say the photo could be of be any ten-week-old (!) seeing a salmon run for the first time.

Now maybe your impression from the picture is – hey, that’s a lot of fish.  I’d agree!  It was even more impressive in person.  They were jumping all over the place, the viewing windows were packed, the harbor seals were living large – it was straight out of Wild Kingdom.

But the thing is, it isn’t a lot of fish.  There won’t be a sockeye season in Lake Washington this year.  I looked it up – the state doesn’t open the lake for fishing until “significantly more” than 350,000 sockeye pass through the locks.  This year’s forecast is for maybe half of that.

In fact there hasn’t been a season since 2006.  I myself last fished the lake for sockeye in 1988, when I was in high school.  Friend of mine had an aluminum boat; we went trolling.  We even caught a couple.

Does that ever seem a long time ago.

I found this postcard a little while back, when I was wandering through a gift shop somewhere in the San Juan Islands:


Swiftsure Bank is smack in the middle of the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Go to the upper left corner of the state of Washington, and then swim another 10 miles northwest (bring a drysuit – that water is cold), and you’re there.

I won’t belabor the collapse of the commercial salmon fishing industry here, other than to say that particular area of the state has historically been one of the hardest hit.  But if you Google “largest Chinook salmon ever caught”, the top hit is a story about a sport fisherman landing an 83 pounder up in Alaska last year.  Now I’m not saying Edward Moff, whoever he might have been, didn’t land a monster fish, even for his time.  He thought enough of it to have his picture taken – and this was 100 years ago.  He wasn’t exactly using his iPhone.

Then again, they didn’t have hatcheries back then, either.  Nor did they grow genetically altered fish in ponds.

Time to Remember
This list could go on forever.

Sea turtles, which used to live in such abundance that, while you couldn’t quite walk on their backs from Spain to the “New” World, they certainly could keep your men fed along the way.  Las Tortugas got its name for a reason, before it became a set in a Disney movie (here’s lookin’ at you, Captain Jack!)

Or the black sea bass I once had the fortune to see, while scuba diving off Catalina Island.  Majestic fish.  Grouper family; peaceful to a fault.  Once incredibly abundant, but tragically unafraid of scuba divers – even those with spear guns.  Now they are so rare that if you see one you don’t dare tell anyone, for fear word will get out, and someone will try to catch it (which is as illegal as it is immoral, but even so).

The recent extinction of the black rhino – and that really is forever.

I hope I have this quote correct; speaking as a Caucasian whose family immigrated to these lands about a hundred years ago, the specter of cultural appropriation always makes me nervous.  But, turning to the League of the Iroquois (by way of  “…have always in view not only the present, but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”

Now the Iroquois had a planning horizon of seven generations to go along with this system of thinking.  Tragically, near as I can tell, the world today is being managed to the remaining life expectancy of the old men that run it.  Well, maybe that plus a year or two, a little margin of error to hedge against potential advances in medical technology.

I mean, to be fair, according to Wikipedia, James Watt (Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, for those of you who weren’t born yet, which is kind of the point) didn’t actually say, “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”  But he did have the worst record for protecting endangered species in the history of ever, and we can be pretty sure he wasn’t interested in managing to time horizons that are effectively infinite, which is bloody well what we should all be doing at this point.

Well.  If the Iroquois had wisdom, and Edward Moff had himself a 94 pound Chinook, we at least *do* have our iPhones.  So I submit to you that it is all of our responsibility to fight against sliding baselines, those subtle shifts of expectations that arises when you yourself have never seen a thing, but only heard about it, or read about it.

See, we now have the ability to generate institutional memory with a bandwidth and fidelity unprecedented in human history.

Think about what power that is.  And then go use it.

Teach your children well.  And somewhere in between the preschool admissions and the SATS, the LSATS an the GREs, find time for the birds and the turtles and the fish.