Author / Speaker

Chapter Seventeen
Little Boys and Dragonflies  

   For a time, I travel. In days gone by, my journeys were undertaken for hunting or hiding, for as I have said, there were bigger fish in the sea. These days my travels are mostly a matter of reconnaissance, an inspection if you will, and, to a small degree, a checking in with the troops, though, unlike your leaders, I do little to sway the opinions of my fellows. They know where they stand individually; they know where we stand collectively. With a few exceptions – the opportunists who can make use of changing circumstances -- these positions are one in the same. Just a few feet back from the precipice. And moving rapidly forward as we speak.
    Long ago, these journeys set me brimming with joy and excitement. Oh, but the sea was a lively place, a kaleidoscope of beauty, a pageant of beginnings and endings beyond number. Now the pageant has grown darker, and many of the endings look the same. I wish you would spend less time nitpicking over the length of a cephalopod’s memory and more time looking at the bigger picture.
   Perhaps if you saw with your own eyes what I see, it would light a fire under your backside. Let me sink my hand into the top hat of ills, rummage around, draw something out. There is so much to choose from. How about this? In the Pacific, halfway between California and Hawaii, there is a trash pile. You have dubbed it the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. Assembled by converging currents, it is not just any trash pile. It is its own vast, oozing ocean. In protest, a man sailed a ship made of plastic bottles. He named it the Plastiki. Another trio, also imaginatively, built a raft out of junk. It seems to me effort would be better directed at the problem itself. But your strength is drawing attention to matters, not addressing them. I would tell you how big this garbage patch is, but it grows overnight. By the time you finish this story, whatever I tell you now will be obsolete. Oh, right. The Atlantic Ocean has one, too. Some of your scientists think the Atlantic Ocean garbage patch might stretch from shore to shore.
   Drifting in the night I watch lantern fish rise from the deeps to feast on the plastic bits that mimic the plankton they eat in more pristine seas. The lantern fish nibble and nibble. Even plankton, the mainstay of the ocean menu, rarely assembles in so impressive a mass.  It is pretty in a fashion, the way the moonlight sparkles off the plastic, a glittering jeweled sea.
   But, if you will pardon the turned-on-its-head pun, these garbage swaths pale in comparison to your Dead Zones. In science-speak, these are areas of the ocean with oxygen levels so low that most life cannot survive. These Dead Zones are caused by nitrogen-rich runoff – your farms, your sewers, your street waste, your dish detergent, finding its way to the sea. No surprise, there’s a whopper of a Dead Zone off the mouth of your Mississippi River. Dead Zones, you’d think, would be black, but they’re more like dirty snowfields; a boneyard of sea creatures smothered beneath a white mat of opportunistic bacteria. For those who are not scavengers, these are terrible places. Off Namibia, I watched waves of rock lobsters crawl ashore to escape poisonous gases released by rotting algae. Closer to my heart, I have watched baby octopi inching their way up crab trap lines to escape oxygen barren waters on the seafloor.
   Take the town you live in. Smother it bridge-of-the-nose-deep in excrement, leaving everyone a single nostril to breathe from. Fatten the air with gravy-thick soot. Quickly the old and the infirm, then the middle-aged and not-yet-infirm, they die. The last elders that remain watch the young haul themselves free and leave for another world. Hope springs eternal until their rent bodies return, drifting down to rejoin the excrement from which you watch. Do you think the crabbers gently peel each octopus from the line?
  The Dead Zones, they are a real show stopper.
  “Runoff from Modern Life Foments a Tide of Toxins.” “Growing Seawater Acidity Threaten to Wipe Out Coral.” “Algae Blooms Invade Coastal Waters.” These individual headlines you idly scan over coffee will one day reach a sum that will not allow for subtraction.
  So many important matters that you ignore.
  Did Nero really play the fiddle as Rome burned?
 I don’t know, but I wouldn’t doubt it.

   Justin left on a Tuesday evening, the United Airlines flight from Guam touching down, refueling, replacing its crew and lifting off again.
  Koror, Guam, Houston, Chicago. Dragonflies flitting above the mangroves after a rain; snarled commuters above the Chicago River on the Well Street Bridge. The miracle of modern travel.
  They stood staring at the runway through streaked glass. On the tarmac a baggage handler looked their way and waved. Justin hadn’t wanted a grand sendoff and she hadn’t either. They’d had a small going away party on the Wendell Holmes. Here at the airport it was the two of them and the laughter of tourists heading home.
   Her chest clutched, making it hard to speak, but she did.  
  “I’ve got something for you.”
   It was a hardback, with hand drawn illustrations and gold gilt page edges. She had bought it online from a collector in Massachusetts.
   Justin lifted Oliver Wendell Holmes’ words from her hands.
   She saw how his hands shook.
   He kept his eyes on the cover.
   “Printed in 1890,” he said.
   “With poems beyond time.”
   “I know. I learned about him from my mother.”
    He’d find the check later.
   After he left, she stood by the glass. A teenage girl closed the restaurant’s mock bamboo doors. The gate attendants whispered to each other and left. When the security guard passed, he looked away.
   Outside by the curb, a single taxi driver slept.
   Cedar walked past.

   When she stepped aboard the Wendell Holmes, flowers rested on the camera table. The flowers were in a bamboo vase, orchids from Marty’s garden. A small envelope was wedged in the flowers, her name, in Marty’s flowing script, on the front.  
  Cedar looked at the flowers and then she went down to her cabin. It wasn’t quite dark, but she slipped out of her clothes and into a nightshirt.
   When she reached up to shut the porthole, there were two photos on the small bedside stand. The new frame was simple dark wood. The photo did not curl at the edges. She was playing the bagpipes. Justin stood beside her grinning. She remembered the evening he had taken the photo, setting the camera on a rung of the ladder and trotting back to stick his fingers in his ears.
  There was another envelope. She opened this one and read the note.
  She fell asleep with the seashell frame on her chest, Justin, ear to the shell, smiling his dreamy smile at the ceiling.   
  She dreamt of little boys and dragonflies.

  The next morning, dawn tracing the jungle tree line, she opened Marty’s card.
  Flowers are beautiful, but it’s the bamboo that matters. Strength, loyalty, steadfastness. A few of the many things I admire about you.