Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Nature Shrieks, Again


 Nature Shrieks, Again

Fire is shrieking again in California.

Edvard Munch titled this painting in German “Der Schrei der Natur,” “The Scream of Nature.”  In Norwegian he called it “Skrik,” meaning “shriek,” a more pained and searing sound than what we usually call “The Scream.”


The horrific fires burning this week in California, including two in rural Monterey County, near Salinas and Cachagua, bring back sad and scary memories for me of the Soberanes wildfire that burned all summer in 2016 in my neighborhood and the Los Padres Forest, 140,000 acres, at that time the most expensive wildfire in US history. 


Here’s a rewrite of my column from 2016, days after we had been finally allowed back into our mercifully saved house, after three weeks’ evacuation.  Many folks this month are not so lucky. 


Nature Shrieks


A therapist neighbor says we are a community of both relief and grief.  Some of us are home, cleaning up fire gel on the outside and smoke on the inside.  But others are sifting through the blackened debris of their houses and their lives. 


But elsewhere, fire still burns, and people still wait and watch. 


And listen. For the roar of fire.


It’s not just Edvard Munch who hears the shrieks of nature.


The wise “Earth Bible” series offers six “Ecojustice Principles.”  One is the Principle of Voice: “Earth is a subject capable of raising its Voice in celebration and against injustice.”


Nature makes all kinds of noises.  Deep calls to deep.  All creation is groaning as in childbirth.  


But the noise I’m hearing from these fires and seeing in this painting is a shriek of pain.   We humans treat nature as an object, not a subject.  We stab the landscape with the destructive forces of climate change, drought, overpopulation, a careless and cruel attitude of ownership and objectification.  (I’m talking about you, hikers who started the fire, but we’ve all set the dry stage for worldwide wildfires.)


This fire is a shriek of pain from the land.


Munch wrote about this painting, “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.


Nature is loud and has something to say.  Sometimes the trees of the field clap their hands in joy.  But today to me she sounds sad and mad. 


I usually write in these weekly posts about the ocean.  Which can also be noisy and destructive, especially when amplified by climate “change.”   Scientists now call it “climate chaos,” instead of “warming” or even “change.”  No denying the chaos of raging hurricanes and ravaging fires.  Nature’s voice is loud these days, and she’s screaming at us, a cry of pain, a shriek.


I post these ocean (and fire) devotions every Wednesday here and on Facebook.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Are You a Swimmer or a Drifter?



 Are You a Swimmer or a Drifter?


I used to be a swimmer, but I have become a drifter.  I enjoyed swimming.   Drifting is so very different, I’m still adjusting.  But there sure are advantages to my new lifestyle, and much to learn.


Far out at sea, beyond rocks and hiding places and visible sea floor, animals either swim or they drift.  Swimmers, like tuna, mackerel, sardines, find their dinner, and avoid being someone else’s dinner, by moving fast, often in a school, eating on the move, and eating a lot, to make all that energy they need to keep swimming. 

Drifters, another word for plankton, (the word is the same as “planet” – Greeks thought the planets “drifted” through the heavens) cannot propel themselves much, so they find dinner by stinging prey (jellies) or just by bumping into it (copepods, diatoms.)  Drifters need much less energy, so eat much less food.  Unlike the swimmers who can avoid prey by swimming fast and/or in schools, drifters protect themselves by being transparent, or tiny, or stinging. 


Actually it’s not really an either/or, swimming or drifting.  Almost every creature begins life as plankton, little drifters.  Even human egg and embryo.  Some remain drifters all their lives – copepods, jellies.  But some drifters, as they age, grow into swimmers (fish) or they “settle” (crabs, sea stars.).

As an Aquarium volunteer my favorite station is the “Tiny Drifters” microscope, formerly called the Plankton Lab, where we can show guests magnifications of tiny live animals.  Putting a tiny plankton baby crab or sea star under the lens, I would say, “It’s drifting now, but will grow up to settle or swim away.  I have children in my house - they are in the plankton stage of their lives, but eventually they will ‘settle’ or move on.”  And yes they have.


But strangely I, their aging mother, have gone from a life of happy non-stop swimming through life, moving fast to the next meal and accomplishment, to a contented drifting.  Call it retirement, pandemic lockdown, a spiritual seeking for still waters -  this girl is one peaceful plankton.


Another difference is that swimmers travel mostly horizontal, while drifters go vertical.  It’s not quite accurate to say that drifters can’t propel themselves, or that they just float along.  They actually take part in the largest migration on earth, travel
ing every night from the safe dark depths up to the surface for food under cover of night, and then back down deep at dawn.  It’s estimated from their tiny body size it would be like us walking 20 miles a day.  It’s just a different kind of movement from the frantic swimmers.  These days I too, rather than propelling myself forward, am having some “down” time.


It’s easier to call myself “plankton” than “drifter.”  We modern Westerners disapprove of drifters, assuming they are tramps or vagabonds, aimless, moochers.  Get into the swim of things! Expend more energy, consume more, including other life forms, you must keep moving to live. 


Like all metaphors, this one is exaggerated and imperfect.  But these days this drifter is certainly consuming less (well, at least buying at lot less stuff), impacting my environment less, using less energy. I am not hiding in crowds or chasing a dream.  Of course, while both swimmers and drifters live dangerous often short lives, I am so very lucky to be able to drift in my small safe habitat with enough to eat and not much danger (so far.)


Maybe I’m reversing that normal pattern, how drifting plankton grow up to become determined swimming fish or settled crabs.  I’m doing the opposite, getting out of the swim, taking “down” time, and casting my fate to the wind.  And currents.  Sail on.


I post these Blue Theology “Tide-ing” ocean devotions every Wednesday here and at on Facebook.  Come and sea, be in touch!

Wednesday, August 5, 2020




When I wear my jelly fish mask I am protecting not only myself, and others, but I am also protecting the ocean.

How does wearing a mask protect the ocean?  Ed Ricketts would know – that’s his statue near the water in Monterey.  Even though he has been dead for 70 years, he’s protecting the oceantoo by wearing his mask.


Ed Ricketts revolutionized the study of marine biology in the 1930s and 40s by spending countless hours knee deep in Pacific Grove’s rocky tidepools, exploring and cataloguing what he called “the habits and habitats” of marine animals and plants.   His fabulous book “Between Pacific Tides” is Stanford University Press’s bestselling book, and it has never gone out of print.

Ricketts organized the book not by individual species, as all previous books had been, but by habitat, where they live.  “Thus, crabs are not all treated in one single chapter; crabs of the rocky shore, high in the intertidal, are in a separate section from crabs of lower intertidal zones or sandy beaches.”  It was the students and grand-students of Ricketts who created the Monterey 

Bay Aquarium, which is likewise 

organized not by separate species, like old aquariums, but by habitats – Kelp Forest, Deep Reef, Sandy Seafloor, OpenOcean etc, neighborhoods.  Even the “Splash Zone” is not a cute name for the kids’ area, but a term from Ricketts, the high intertidal, where the waves splash.


Ok, but what about the masks and the ocean?  Back in April I wrote in this weekly blog that Covid-19 does not live at sea (other viruses do), but I did propose a theology of viruses – check it out at


Masks are a paradox because they both separate us and connect us.  They separate and protect me from the dangerous sneezes of others, and my sneezes from them.  But masks also connect us – they prove dramatically, lethally, that one people can sicken others, or worse.  When one suffers, all suffer.  We’re in this together. No person is an island, or lives on an island.  Or dies alone on an island. We’re all connected.


Rickets didn’t call his book “The Study of Ocean Animals and Plants” or even “The Study of Marine Habitats.”  He used the word “Between.”  He talked all the time about “inter-“ I think he coined the term “intertidal.”  Oceans are in-between places, in between land masses.  And oceans, like masks,  both connect and separate.  The Pacific separates us from Asia, and at the same time it connects us.  That blue is so vast that Thailand monsoons don’t wreck our shores, but we do feel the effects of earthquakes and tsunamis even this far away, and ocean currents run shore to shore.


So wearing a mask doesn’t literally save a fish’s life, but it does remind us how deeply connected we are, how we are a “between” people, in our towns, our nations, our world.  Our so-called freedom to do whatever we want stops right at the deadly cough, the in-between that is between you and me.  Our intertidal.


And masks remind us that this invisible thing called air, that we blithely march through and breathe through every second of the day, air carries life and it carries death.  And where does that air come from?  – the ocean.    75% of all oxygen we breathe comes from ocean plants, and all weather comes from the ocean.  As we live and breathe, or as we breathe and die, it is the ocean, connector and protector, we have to thank. 


Stay safe out there.


I post these ocean devotions every Wednesday here and on Facebook.  I got my mask from another fab aquarium, the Aquarium of the Bay, at Pier 39 in SF.  They sell many different cute mask animals.  Buying their masks also supports their work, which is another way to protect the ocean. Check out a cool video about Ricketts,