Walking through the din of a coastal maelstrom

  • Alan Kesselheim

 

The five of us walk slowly along the spongy Pacific Coast trail, showing flashes of color in the green and brown, mossy forest: My daughter's polka-dot rain jacket, my son's electric-blue backpack. We have gotten by the sections that require low tide to cross. The path climbs into the rainforest while storm squalls canter overhead. Hail beats down in fierce bursts.

At the crest of a muddy ascent, an opening invites us off the trail. Without discussion, we enter and set our packs down. The sun breaks through and shines on us.

I sit on a soft patch of moss. The wind buffets the treetops hundreds of feet up, but on the ground it is calm. Blue sky opens overhead. My wife gets Water For Elephants out of her pack, this trip's read-out-loud book.

Her voice flickers as I drift away. Around us the trees stand, patient and vigorous, swaying in the wind. Spruce, cedar, hemlock, the coastal behemoths. Each of them is an entire ecosystem. Rampant stalks of energy, aisles of them, cast their generous shadows across us.

I know this is illusion, but I hear a faint hum from them or a steady pulse, a beat as slow as glaciers. Whorls of bark, exquisite waves and knurls of tree skin, flow upward into the dazzle of light and pummel of air. I sense the interlocked roots beneath me, tendrils feeling through the frail, sandy soil. I think about the winds that recently raked this coast, toppling hundreds of trees, peeling them out of the ground, throwing them down, where the agents of decay, new life, pounce. This slow, inexorable drama; I close my eyes and listen for it.

It has been a very loud trip, March on the Pacific side of the Olympic Peninsula. I knew it might be stormy on the coast, but the sound of it! This was no symphony of crashing surf, with its regular cadence. This was the overwhelming roar of ocean, a sustained crescendo of raw power. We've had to shout to be heard above it.

The rest of the tableau was arresting enough. Rugged sea-stacks of rock enduring the pounding -- black columns succumbing, grain by grain, while gray waves kept breaking as far out as we could see, churning over reefs and sandbars, frothing through channels, hurling spray against cliffs. Hunks of sea foam floated on the wind like giant, soapy snowflakes.

Our camps perched on the upper fringes of beach or in sheltered openings in the forest. Right off the bat our cook stove failed. Despite hours of tinkering, it wouldn't hold pressure, and we have been cooking on fires ever since. The driftwood is waterlogged, the trees are dripping, and the dead wood on the forest floor is slimy. We have earned our fire-building merit badges, hoarding bits of dry kindling, hunting for wind-dried dead grasses and gathering twigs in protected thickets. We stoop over each hopeful match.

At night I'd lay awake in the pitch dark and listen to the sea, a reach of water stretching unimpeded for thousands of miles. Overhead, hour after hour, a lash of wind ripped through the towering forest. I tried to remember whether there were dead trees anywhere near. Sometimes, when I woke, the tide was high and the roar was close enough that I felt the concussion of water hitting land, shivers in the ground.

Living day after day with the loud ocean, buffeting wind and the heavy fists of combers crashing against the continent, I think we began to feel roughed up, a feeling both heady and fatiguing. We wanted peace. One dawn, a bald eagle keened and chipped nearby. Oystercatchers flirted with the surf, their bills red as blood. At low tide, after breakfast, a seal hauled out in the rain on some black, wet rocks, indifferent to the bellowing, airy cacophony. Neighbors.

Marypat finishes the chapter, closes the book. I am brought back. The sun flickers behind a cloud again as the temperature drops. The trees stand mute, keeping their slow, imperceptible beat.

I have not heard a word of the book. Rather, I have been thinking about energy, the energy that we strip from the earth, cook down, refine and burn to sustain the way we live. And the monstrous, unchanneled energy I have been surrounded by for four days of a single storm, a power grid of air and water and rock -- coast-eroding, rock-crushing, tree-toppling energy. That and the pulse of vegetation thrusting into the air, sheer gravity-refuting tonnage just standing strong, humming in the wind, for century upon century.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Bozeman, Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...