What I’m reading: The River That Made Seattle


, , ,

I’ve lived on a hill above the Duwamish River for most of my 25 years in Seattle–I can even see it when the trees are bare–and yet I never really knew much about it. I’d gleaned a bit here and there from the Duwamish Longhouse and the bulletins from the EPA (both entities featuring heavily in this history), and from volunteering for Nature Consortium and Duwamish Alive!, but that was about it.

Book cover for The River That Made Seattle.

What elicited my interest in learning more was a map of Seattle I found during a cleanup project at the library where I work. The map is from 1908 and shows the Duwamish River before it was straightened and dredged to make room for shipping and industrial operations. B.J. Cummings’s book details what happened to the river before and since, and how it’s inextricably woven into the shaping of the city of Seattle from its early years up to the present day–to say nothing of the effects of both of these things on the indigenous people of the region, to whom the river has been literally a source of life.

Seattle, 1908.

It’s also one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Seattle has made much of its environmental friendliness and commitment to sustainability, and the number of people I meet who are unaware that Seattle has a river, let alone that it’s hazardous to eat fish out of it, used to surprise me. (These kinds of things no longer surprise me, but that’s another post.) The River That Made Seattle is a history of the city through a particular lens, the lens of a river to which the city owes much of its prosperity–but at considerable human and environmental cost.

Duwamish River warning sign. Source: WA Department of Health.

My own relationship with the river has been little more than that of most of the city’s residents for most of my time here: the indirect benefit of its shipping traffic and intersection with truck and rail cargo; an obstacle to be crossed when going in and out of West Seattle (which has been considerably more challenging this past year, for reasons I’ve already written about); something that I’ve felt vaguely bad about, especially when those EPA bulletins started arriving in my mailbox, detailing the pollution of the river and what would need to be done to clean it up.

From a river tour I took in November of 2008.

That relationship began to change before Cummings’s book came out, in part due to other efforts she’s been involved in, but The River That Made Seattle shows how the entire city’s relationship to the river can–and arguably must–change. It’s a worthwhile start not only to understanding the importance of the Duwamish River to Seattle’s history, but why its cleanup is a matter not only of good stewardship, but of justice.

View from Duwamish Waterway Park, March 2021.

Psychic distance, chaotic time



There’s a now-classic bit in the newer run of Doctor Who about the nature of time. It’s in the episode “Blink,” which introduces the Weeping Angels, a terrifying species who only move when you aren’t looking at them. If you’ve seen the show, you already know exactly which bit I’m referring to. It’s this one:

Yesterday I got an automated e-mail from my bank, informing me about a direct deposit from my employer. My monthly paycheck had just hit my account.

I’m on sabbatical, which means that I have even fewer anchors to my week than everyone working from home since last March. Balancing that is my studies at Wilderness Awareness School, which does provide some structure (and much-needed human contact, albeit masked and distanced). I’ve also been in a strange state of numbness after the insurrection in Washington D.C. on January 6th. Though I haven’t lived in the D.C. suburbs for a long time–in fact I got away as fast as possible–it’s still where I’m from. I was born a few miles from the events of January 6th. So my response to the event was somewhat personal, for reasons that had nothing to do with the particulars of what was actually happening.

I was last in Washington D.C. in the fall of 2019. My parents were embroiled in the colossal task of packing up the house I’d grown up in, where they’d lived for over forty years, to move out to the Pacific Northwest. I went back east to do some heavy lifting, in a few senses of that term. I don’t recall why, but I had a free afternoon one day, and took the Metro downtown to wander around the Mall and visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which I’d never seen–it opened long after I moved away. The museum was amazing and I hope to visit it again someday, but what I mostly remember was how empty the Mall felt, and how fortified the White House looked. I’m old enough to remember before Pennsylvania Avenue was closed, never mind all the additional fencing and other security that’s gone up since.

January 6th was both shocking and not. Shocking because, well, the incidents and developing pressures that led to all that additional fortification notwithstanding, the last time anyone assaulted the U.S. Capitol was during the War of 1812. Not, because…I mean, have you read the news anytime in the last few years? The most shocking thing about January 6th was how the people tasked with preventing it…didn’t.

I’ve written before about the effect of emergency on our perception of time. Last year the jokes were all about how March 2020 had lasted hundreds or even thousands of days. Time grew elastic, seeming to stretch out into an eternal present where we had always been working at home at our dining room tables–and that was if we were lucky. If we weren’t, our jobs had evaporated, or had become so dangerous due to the pandemic as to make the paltry sums of “hazard pay” offered by grocery stores and the like insulting. I look at some of my entries from last year and they seem to have been written much, much longer ago than that.

And yet that notification from my bank startled me. Was it sending me notice of my deposit early? Why would a bank do that? How would it even know to send it? With a shock I realized: we’re already at the end of the month. January 6th was weeks ago, and in the frenetic churn of a news cycle for which the designation of 24 hours doesn’t seem frantic or fast-paced enough, it feels even longer.

Some of this, for me, is no doubt a function of age. I’ll be 47 this year and am somehow stunned to be over 20 years into the new millennium. Part of that had to do with growing up in the shade of incipient nuclear annihilation; every time I hear Prince’s “1999” I recall how much of the cheerful-sounding music of the 1980s was about how we could all expect to die at any moment.

But also, time gets away from you. The disorienting elasticity of time over the past year is, in a way, just an exacerbation of the weirdness of our perception of time, even as we collectively assume that time moves forward moment by moment, at the same pace for all of us. I’m reminded of when I came up with the notion of psychic distance, back when I first moved to West Seattle. Before our bridge broke, my house was an easy 15-minute drive from downtown, 30 minutes by bus. And yet people acted like I’d moved to the moon. The bridge, the river, the enormous forest on West Seattle’s eastern edge, the industrial district and port in between–all of it turned those few miles into a chasm.

I don’t hear as much talk about “back to normal,” these days. That meant, as much as anything, the resumption of a more sensible passage of time. Even nature, a balm though it’s been for me over these past months, has gone wibbly-wobbly. The garlic I planted in November, expecting it to show up the following spring, sprouted less than a month later. A few days ago I saw the first openings of salmonberry flowers. A run of unusually warm and clear weather has stirred up all the birds.

Back to normal. Wibbly-wobbly-ness notwithstanding, I don’t think there is any going back.

A passage from Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather that I like to post every year


, , ,

I’ve long been a fan of Terry Pratchett’s novels, though I haven’t read the last few that he wrote–mostly because after that, there won’t be any more. One of my favorites is Hogfather, which can reasonably be compared to A Nightmare before Christmas (Pratchett often riffed on pop culture, and also Shakespeare, who was also pop culture, so that’s fine), but more broadly is a meditation on deity, belief, and myth.

Toward the end of the novel, there’s a lovely passage that I always think of at the winter solstice. In it, Death and his granddaughter Susan are having a conversation right after Susan has rescued the titular Hogfather from oblivion:

“Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
She turned on him. “It’s been a long night, Grandfather! I’m tired and I need a bath! I don’t need silliness!”
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”
They walked in silence for a moment. “Ah,” said Susan dully. “Trickery with words. I would have thought you’d have been more literal- minded than that.”
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
“So we can believe the big ones?”
“They’re not the same at all!”
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

I used to take this passage quite literally. Until it occurred to me that I never really believed in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but I do believe in justice.

Or rather, I believe that justice is something we can create–I don’t believe that it has an existence independent of us, and the systems and structures we create to bring it about. And I think, lately, that this is what Pratchett was really getting at. In Hogfather, gods come into being because of people’s belief. So perhaps Death is making the same assertion about justice, mercy, and duty.

Anyway, Pratchett’s both very funny and pretty danged insightful, so if you haven’t read Hogfather, or any of his other books, give them a try. (Small Gods is a good one to start with.)

Every so often I remember how angry I am


, ,

I give people the impression that I’m calm and level-headed. Recently I revealed some of my deep-seated social anxiety to a friend, to their surprise; they hadn’t thought that I got anxious about anything.

Much of the time, I am calm and level-headed. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over quite a lot of years on it, and to give it a deep well rather than, well, surface tension. But I am also, not infrequently, furious. Especially over this last year, but it goes back a lot further than that. Not sure when it began, really.

Today I took up my bag drills again. I have two bags in my garage for punching and kicking, backfists and palm strikes, along with a tension band and some mats. I’m going to hang a pendulum for escrima drills. That’s what I can do, since the pandemic put an end to my gung fu group.

We were together for quite a long time, more or less since the death of our teacher in 2012. We kept working out in the basement he’d rented in Seattle’s ID for awhile, then moved to a community center in the University District. Remembering, through practice, the things we’d been taught. And then COVID came. The community center closed. We could probably find somewhere else, even outdoors, but the kind of training we were doing isn’t really possible from six feet of distance, masks or no masks. I haven’t seen any of them since.

When I started with my teacher in the late 90s, two days passed between my initial conversation with him on the phone, and meeting him in Pioneer Square, where he taught at the time in another rented basement. On that intervening day, I learned that an old friend of mine had just escaped from a domestic abuse situation that had been going on, unbeknownst to me, for years. I had nowhere to put my resulting rage: but, the next night, I did. I still have the scars on my knuckles.

My then-boyfriend, now-husband often referred to martial arts as my stress management therapy. There’s always been an element of truth to that. I’m not violent by nature and it’s not my go-to; I’ve hit another person twice in my life that I can recall. In one case, they started it; in the other, I’d been subjected to month upon month of the kind of harassment that is still written off as boys being boys. But hitting something that is designed to be hit, a focus mitt or a punching bag, can be a very satisfying way of releasing stress.

It can also bring up the deeper-seated anger that’s way down in that deep well, underneath all the calm.

It’s reassuring. I’ve been depressed a lot this year–no surprise, haven’t we all?–and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between depression and just being sort of…neutral to everything.

There’s so much to be angry about, I’d hate to think that I couldn’t do it anymore.

Reacquainting with the antelope


, , ,

Years ago when I was in library school, there was a particular article we read as a sort of foundational text for the discipline. This was Michael Buckland’s “What is a ‘document’?” which reviews various definitional approaches to the question. Since libraries and other information repositories concern themselves with documents and no such repository can collect absolutely everything, the point of the question is to determine scope. Whether a thing belongs in library is thought to depend on whether the thing in question is a document in the first place, and then you go from there. In practical day to day terms the question rarely comes up; the bigger question I’m usually facing is whether we have any money to pay for the thing, or for access to the thing, and whether in light of budget cuts we can afford to keep the thing. Library science has a grounding philosophy of sorts, but daily operations tend to be more pragmatic.

The metaphor that everyone always remembers from the Buckland article is the distinction between an antelope out in the wild (not a document) and an antelope in a zoo (document). It’s interesting then that it isn’t Buckland himself who makes that distinction; his is a review article, a documentation of other documents. This particular metaphor originates with Suzanne Briet, who proposed to define a document as “evidence in support of a fact” back in 1951. Briet’s article was in French; perhaps francophone librarians recall the metaphor’s origin correctly.

Now an animal in a zoo can have important educational, research, and informational functions, just like a book in a library can. But one of the things about documents is that they are necessarily one step removed from the thing they are documenting, and whoever avails themselves of these documents is likewise necessarily one step removed from direct experience of the thing. Patrick Wilson wrote an entire book-length study of this issue, titled Second Hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority, which among other things discourses on how we as humans decide what information to believe since we cannot directly experience everything for ourselves, nor gain all the necessary expertise to understand what we’re looking at from necessary perspectives. The relevance of this to our present moment is obvious. I think a lot of people out there are frankly terrified by how little any one person can understand about how the world works. Some of the simplifying explanations these people come up with are actively dangerous to themselves and others.

This fall I’m on a sabbatical from my library and having a number of direct experiences of antelopes through the Anake Outdoor School. There is a definite experiential difference between reading about a golden-crowned kinglet in my field guide to Pacific Northwest birds, and encountering a flock of them in the forest. The latter happened to me yesterday; it was both an opportunity to turn information (from the field guide) into knowledge (mapping what I’d read onto what I was seeing in front of me in terms of identifying marks and behaviors) and one of those deeply satisfying experiences that people go into nature for the express purpose of having.

I’m currently reading Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, which I’ll probably have more to say about once I’m done with it, but one point he’s made that’s sticking with me is that people who spend more time engaged with political news and information sources often end up with a less accurate picture of what’s going on. Much as it’s difficult for someone whose profession is information to admit this, it’s possible probably to have too much information–not in the sense of having too much prurient detail (although of course that also happens) but in being unable to see the forest for the trees. I’ve said before that for all the overwhelming volume of information we now have access to, our human brainmeats still process that information at the same speed as they always have. To construct knowledge out of information, we have to be selective.

The danger here of course is that most of us are selective according to what we already believe we know to be true, or what we want to be true. Very smart and knowledgeable people are not an exception to this, although they do have an advantage in the specific areas they are knowledgeable about. Add a general American suspicion of expertise and you have, well, some of the more toxic informational stews one can find online without even looking particularly hard.

I guess what I’m saying here is that one could do worse than go out and take a look at the antelope for yourself. Just remember that once upon a time, somebody looked at an antelope and decided it was a unicorn.

Pandemic slice of life


, ,

A friend who has to move on fairly short notice gave me four Western red cedars (one sapling and three seedlings) that she had in pots. They’re on my front steps right now. Eventually they’ll go out to the land for planting.
Friend is in Ballard, so I drove back to West Seattle through downtown because I’ve been north of Spokane St a handful of times this entire year, and downtown not at all.

It didn’t look apocalyptic, but it did look empty. Oddest of all was the building where Amazon’s offices were located in the late 1990s on 2nd Ave, upstairs from what was then the Art Bar and later the Noc Noc. Whole block is boarded up and, I’m guessing, slated for redevelopment.
Thinking about 20 years ago a lot lately, for some reason.

Story first. Facts later



Many years ago, when I was first studying with my gung fu teacher, he recommended Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear to me. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, and I suspect some parts of it haven’t aged well, there was a key point in it that I’ve never forgotten and found to be largely true: our intuition, among other things, can alert us to immediate dangers, and our intuition can be trained. The latter is part of what self-defense-oriented martial arts training does.

This point comes back to me from time to time in various interesting ways, such as when I’ve encountered research into the human instinct to treat the unknown as dangerous–because the bustle in the hedgerow might actually be a tiger, and treating all such bustles as tigers works out better in the long run, survival-wise–or when I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which among other things describes how the interpretive part of our brain races ahead of the analytical one in assessing evidence, or when I read of another bit of research positing that humans developed reason not to make real sense of the world, but to bolster social cohesion.

Recently it came up again, this time in a class session on interpersonal relations and handling conflict. Because the overall program is one on nature connection and wilderness skills, navigating conflict was compared to wildlife tracking, in that in both cases you’re working with incomplete data, and your mind has tendency to create a story out of what seems to be there, rather than analyzing what is there. I’d say that confirmation bias comes into play in a big way, too, or maybe just plain old wishful thinking.

There’s a saying that I started disliking about five seconds after I first heard it, which is: you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. I mean, I guess it’s true as far as it goes, but it feels like–to quote another saying of limited utility–closing the barn door after the horse is gone. Because we have a tendency to interpret first and look at the facts afterward through the lens of our interpretation, we’ve arrived at a point now where, in America at least, we can’t even agree on what the facts are. I watched a guy on Twitter yesterday insisting that Trump’s lawyers were saving their best evidence for the Supreme Court, despite many, many lawyers explaining to him that American courts don’t work that way. (I’m still not sure he wasn’t trolling, which is my own wishful interpretation to keep me from sliding further into despair.)

I’m as given to letting my story race ahead of the data I have on hand as anyone else. The difference, if there is one, is that I’m increasingly suspicious of my own opinions about a lot of things, because there’s just no way to have all of the data. And even when you do, interpretations can vary wildly. I’m reminded of a tracking trip where another tracker and I were looking at the same data–the same animal tracks–and one of us thought the tracks had been left by a deer while the other thought the tracks had been left by a goose. Look up what those animals’ tracks look like in a field guide and you’ll wonder how we could possibly have arrived at such disparate conclusions.

And yet, that way lies paralysis. In fact, I’m famously indecisive, if you ask my husband or my friends. Not a great way to be if it actually is a tiger in the bushes.

I don’t know what the answer is, though in nature awareness as a practice there are techniques for gathering the necessary data before the tiger has a chance to eat you. This is, sort of, what de Becker is talking about–the ability to discern and analyze that bustle on an intuitive level, so you do know whether it’s a tiger or just a squirrel. A lot of formal education at its best is about the practice of slowing down and not letting your first interpretation of something be your last one. This is probably what people mean when they lament the lack of (other) people’s critical thinking skills. But acquiring those is a slow process, too, and requires more patience (and willingness to be wrong) than a lot of people seem to have.

Musings on an endless Tuesday


, , , ,

When I was a kid, like a lot of kids I received copies of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Unlike (I later learned) a lot of kids, the thinly veiled Christianity of the books was obvious to me at the time, and I didn’t have the adult experience of making that discovery after the fact. (Thanks, Sunday School.) I still have my copies somewhere, though it’s been a long time since I read them. I used to have a print of Pauline Baynes’s map of Narnia hanging on my wall, and the fantasy world in which I’ve set some of my own fiction owes some of its geography to Narnia (and also to the Piedmont-Atlantic coastal plain, to be frank).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot of an incident in The Last Battle, the final book in the series and the one in which Narnia is destroyed. Before this happens, a number of characters make their way inside a stable that in the course of events is transformed into a portal to paradise (I’m really summarizing the complexity of what happens here). But not everyone who enters the stable sees this: in particular, a group of Dwarfs who insist to the end that they are, in fact, in a stable, with all of what one usually finds in such a place.

Plenty of people with more theological and literary credibility have written extensively on what Lewis meant by this incident, by the Narnia series as a whole, and by the Dwarfs as a people. In the context of the story, these particular Dwarfs are seen to have lost their faith in Aslan, so completely that when presented with Heaven, they are unable to perceive it. But with the haziness of personal memory (and, to be frank, not having considered myself Christian for over 30 years) I have a tendency to generalize this incident and find it applicable to another, more secular phenomenon I’ve witnessed.

This phenomenon isn’t new with these past two weeks, or even in the past four years. In my more despairing moments I think that Kurt Andersen, the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, is correct and it’s been built in since the country’s inception. (It’s not a bad book, though I think his argument reaches a little far here and there.) It is, in essence, the human propensity to double down when presented with information that conflicts with our perceptions. This is a very human tendency, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s an exception to it, myself included. It probably has something to do with an article I read recently positing that humanity didn’t evolve reason in order to better apprehend the truth, but because the ability to rationalize contributes to social cohesion within groups. When the Dwarfs in The Last Battle repeatedly insist, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs,” they’re essentially doing this.

In that book, the other characters pass the Dwarfs by; their belief, or lack thereof, has no effect on the rest of the story. But the social costs of, for example, continuing to insist that COVID-19 doesn’t exist even as one is in the hospital for it, or of continuing to insist that an election must be fraudulent because it didn’t lead to one’s desired outcome, or continuing to insist that systemic racism isn’t an ongoing powerful and pernicious force in this country, are obvious. And there’s a cost to the people engaging in these sunk-cost fallacies, too, though they may not realize it. The cost isn’t salvation, in this instance, but perhaps something as seemingly ephemeral. I’ve been saying for years that the role of denial in American social politics hasn’t been properly appreciated. Even if people don’t deny themselves to death, we can be so insistent on denying the possibility of being wrong that our greater social cohesion cracks under the strain.

In my more hopeful moments, I see the tumult of the last few years as perhaps finally overwhelming that collective denial. I won’t argue that it’s justified the cost in human lives, if so. And I’ve concluded that there are some people, in the words of the captain from the movie Cool Hand Luke, who you just can’t reach. But if we can get past this collective fear of being wrong, it would help.

Seattle: notes from a wildfire


, , , ,

Sunset at the Dunes, before the smoke.

A week ago this past Monday, I was awakened sometime after midnight by the smell of smoke. I was camped near Eel Creek at the Oregon Dunes, taking a little bit of a break from hours in front of my computer and the last hustle of essential tasks before beginning a nine-month sabbatical from my job at the university. It felt like a very strange time to be doing that: as my colleagues on the faculty and staff prepared for a hybridized, partly-open, blended-learning campus, I was preparing to…do something else.

That something else is the Anake program at Wilderness Awareness School, which has also had to make adjustments in response to the pandemic. One of those adjustments was that the program would not take its tracking trip to the Oregon Dunes. I had been there before as part of WAS’s Tracking Intensive a few years ago, and decided to go on my own.

A tracking mystery.

As I made my way down I-5 and then through the Coast Range to the Oregon coast, my navigation app kept popping high-wind warnings at me. After some investigation I’d previously concluded that the range itself would shield me from the worst of the wind. This turned out to be true. What I hadn’t reckoned–what a lot of people hadn’t reckoned–was the effect the unseasonal easterly wind would have on the Pacific Northwest’s increasingly severe fire season.

Past the Dunes, the trail cuts through forest before reaching the sea.

I stayed at the Dunes until Wednesday morning, doing less tracking than I’d planned–the wind and increasing smoke made it difficult–but getting in a hike to the sea, which is about 2.5 miles from the campground I was staying in. I sat on the sand, ate my snack, and watched pelicans, shorebirds, and vultures going about their business as the sky above gradually smeared with yellowish smog. That night, at my campsite, ash fell on me like flurries of snow.

Smoke coming in across the sky as I sat on the beach.

At that moment I was over a hundred miles and a mountain range’s width away from the nearest fire. But, as the rest of the U.S. is discovering this week, smoke spreads. So does fire, and by Wednesday morning I was concerned about how close the fires were getting to major highways. Not only did I not want to be cut off from getting home, I didn’t want to get in the way of people evacuating from the small towns east of I-5, or the firefighters and relief workers coming to their aid.

Return trip on my hike, full of smoke and sand. I half expected Mad Max. Or maybe a sandworm.

The sky was dark orange as I drove through Salem. The pale blue over Portland, where the worst of the smoke hadn’t yet reached, seemed strange. I crossed the Columbia River with a sense of having escaped, and spent a socially distant afternoon in a friend’s yard in Centralia where the smoke was still mild.

Since then, back in Seattle and then out in Duvall to start the program, I’ve mostly been indoors. The air quality in Duvall is somewhat better than in Seattle–higher elevation, more trees, a few light rain showers have made a modest difference. But it’s been bad enough that the first week of an outdoor-oriented program has mostly been conducted online. Much as schools around the country are doing.

Between Salem and Portland, on I-5.

Since I came back I’ve run across commentary, mostly from people who don’t live in this part of the country, about the fire danger to Portland and Seattle. This is not the way to think about this problem. Portland and Seattle are at basically zero risk of being directly affected. It’s the smaller towns, the farms and remote homes situated in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, that are at risk, and these are the human-inhabited places that have burned.

Last year I had the opportunity to meet Washington’s commissioner of public lands, who gave a talk on wildfire in the state. West of the Cascade range we tend to think of fire as an eastside problem. But this, too, isn’t the way to think about it. Fire is less common on the western side, but it does happen. And because it’s less frequent, when it does occur, it’s worse.

Portland and Seattle aren’t in direct danger. Neither, by and large, are the areas to which the wildfire smoke has since spread–across most of the country, really. But this, too, isn’t the way to think about this problem. Waiting until something is literally in our faces, negatively impacting our lives in obvious and tangible ways, is waiting too long.

We’ve already waited too long.

The woods at Wilderness Awareness School, outside Duvall, WA.