Monthly Archives: March 2011

‘Stay with the River’

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From “Bang the Drum Slowly,” by Mark Harris.

One thing he knew was north from south and east from west, which I myself barely ever know outside a ball park. We drove without a map, nights as well as days when we felt like driving nights, probably not going by the fastest roads but anyhow going mostly south and east. “Stay with the river,” he said.

“What river?” I said. “I cannot even see the river.”

“You are with it,” he said, and I guess we must of been. He traveled according to rivers. He never knew their name, but he knew which way they went by the way they flowed, and he knew how they flowed even if they weren’t flowing, if you know what I mean, even if they were froze, which they were for a ways, knowing by the way the bank was cut or the ice piled or the clutter tossed up along the sides when we ever got close enough to see the sides, which we sometimes did because he liked to stop by the river and urinate in it. He would rather urinate in the river than in a gas station. Once a couple years ago I caught him urinating in the washbowl in the hotel in Cleveland. I bawled the daylight out of him. “I wash it out,” he said. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. For a long time I kept an eye on him.

Moving south he noticed cows out of doors. “We are moving south all right,” he said, “because they keep their cows out of doors down here.” He knew what kind they were, milk or meat, and what was probably planted in the fields, corn or wheat or what, and if birds were winter birds or the first birds of spring coming home. He knew we were south by the way they done chicken. “We ain’t real south,” he said, “but we are getting there. I can taste it.”

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Then It Stopped

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This was around the corner, on California Street, late last Wednesday morning. The pre-work routine wraps up with The Dog and I perambulating the neighborhood before I head off across the Bay. Last week was wet, maybe the wettest week of the wet season. Jan Null, a local meteorologist who I like to say wrote the book on San Francisco rain (it was his doctoral dissertation), has developed his own scale for storm intensity–it takes into account factors like the amount of rain and duration of high winds–and he rated the one that came through on Thursday as the strongest of the season.

Then Sunday, all that seemed to stop. It had been dry from midday Saturday, dry enough to go out and mow the lawn before it became unmowable and try to drain the water that had pooled in the crawl space. It drizzled a little tonight, but the weather forecast for the week is dry and warm, up to the 70s by Thursday. I think all the vegetation here is going to explode.

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Storm Week, Potrero Hill

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At the foot of the pedestrian overpass that cross U.S. 101 from 18th and Utah (west side of U.S. 101) to 18th and San Bruno (east side of the freeway). I was on my way into work. Can’t remember if this was the day I locked my keys in the car (Triple A came and got them for me), or the day I jump-started a coworker’s car (she had left her lights on), or the day I had delivered another coworker’s purse after she forgot it at work. The only thing I know for sure is that we had rain this day, like every other day of the week. Below: U.S. 101, looking south from the pedestrian overpass toward Bernal Heights (Utah Street turning west into 18th Street below and to the right).

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Salmon for Their Own Sake

Like everyone else, I’m given to enthusiasms. Like everyone else, my enthusiams are too many to list. Thinking about them, most seem to involve a narrative of some kind: the progress of favorite remembered plays in baseball or basketball–any sport, really–to movies and books to roads I’ve traveled and places I’ve visited and on good days to whatever I happen to encounter in the world.

(Maybe something else is at work here; our tendency or need to turn everything into a story. I just came across a poem, “In Praise of a Teacher,” by Nikki Giovanni. She says:

“I always loved English because
whatever human beings are, we are storytellers. It is our stories
that give a light to the future. When I went to college I became a
history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we
think we are; English is much more a story of who we really are.”)

One of my enthusiasms, strange to tell for one who has hardly ever hooked a fish, is for salmon. Specifically, the salmon of the Pacific coast. And going with the notion of story, I think the biggest part of my attraction is to the salmon’s life narrative: birth in cold inland waters, migration to the sea, a sojourn that can last several years in the hostile wilds of the ocean, and then a long homeward journey to find that birthplace stream, whatever the obstacles, spawn just once, and die.

salmonstream.jpgIt’s a great story, and my often half-informed fervor to share salmon history and lore for anyone who will sit still for a minute has led my colleagues at our Local Major Public Radio Station (LMPRS) to adopt a “safe word” when they think things are getting out of control. It’s “coho.” At the same time, I’ve probably gotten as much interest (or forebearance) as anyone could reasonably expect when suggesting salmon stories to develop for broadcast. Earlier this month, I got to attend a West Coast fisheries conference and do a few stories on prospects for the coming salmon season.

But that interest from my fellow journalists always comes with a question that I’ll summarize this way: “Salmon? Why should we care about salmon?” It’s a reasonable enough question: Every news story in every news venue contains some sort of explicit or implicit rationale or assumption about audience interest. Falling housing prices? Well, a lot of the audience is in that boat. E. coli in the food supply? We all eat that food. Rising taxes or reduced pensions? You see how it works.

In narrating the plight of California’s once-great native salmon populations, those who seek to save some semblance of the historic fisheries are learning to play that “why should anyone care?” game. In the past couple of years, they’ve brought consultants into play who can quantify what salmon mean economically. Cancelling two straight commercial salmon seasons, they reported, cost boat operators and fishing communities upward of $2 billion and 23,000 jobs.

I suppose the numbers are powerful, and it’s useful to have them when trying to persuade someone else that the decline of salmon is a story that matters. But the power of the statistics only goes so far: Someone else whose ox is being gored in the debate–for instance, the Central Valley farm interests who might not get all the water they want because some is being set aside for salmon–can come up with bigger, scarier numbers. And the numbers are unfortunate in another way: The pure economic impact is important, of course; whole societies have lived their lives around the salmon. But the cost a lost salmon season doesn’t begin to touch on the wonder of the animal and its place in the world or on what’s really lost when wild salmon runs go dead.

As it happens, my schoolteacher wife is teaching her fifth-graders about watersheds this year. Part of the lesson is about fish, and she’s been particularly interested in learning about efforts to restore one of Northern California’s last surviving wild coho runs, up in Marin County. One book in her watershed library is the one pictured above, “Salmon Stream.” The entire contents: a simple narration of the salmon’s life history. What’s wonderful about it is it presents the fish–the “resource”–as something of value for its own sake, without economic justification or cost-benefit analyses.

For me, the answer to why anyone ought to care about the salmon isn’t instantly accessible. The rational piece of the answer is what they represent about the world as it has been, as it is, as it might be, and the toll we’ve exacted from our surroundings to have our lives just so. The non-rational piece is the beauty of the thing itself, from conception to death. And maybe, when the question comes up next, I need to have copies of that picture book handy.

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‘Pent Up in Lath and Plaster’

I had occasion over the weekend to open the front cover of “Moby Dick.” (One of many secret shames: I’ve never read it through.) But Kate had suggested that there was a section there we might share with some friends with whom we were going to have a poetry-reading evening. The very beginning of the book carried me away with its description of city dwellers tending toward the sea:

  Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs — commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall northward. What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster — tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

(Here’s a decent online annotation of the text for some of the references above, including “hypos,” short for “hypochondria,” which back in Melville’s time meant depression or melancholy.)

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Japan Nukes: Academics, Consultants, Talking Points

Over at my Public Radio news job, the last 10 days or so have been dominated by what’s going on in Japan: an earthquake of incredible power, an unimaginably destructive tsunami, and then a much slower-moving and harder-to-comprehend series of incidents involving the collapse of a major nuclear power plant where safety systems were knocked out by the initial disasters.

What everyone wants to know about that last series of events, of course, is how big a danger the nuclear plant situation poses. Is it, in fact, a disaster? And the answer, despite the parachuted-in American news anchors’ default hyper-urgency, will be a long time coming. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity from the plant’s owners and the Japanese authorities; and part of the problem is a lack of clear reference points. What history is relevant here? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The atomic powers’ legacy of open-air Cold War nuclear testing? Three-Mile Island? Chernobyl? Or all or none of the above? I don’t have the answers, but as the latest story on the situation from The New York Times makes clear, problems continue at the crippled nuclear plant and radiation concerns in the surrounding area are on the increase:

The government said it was barring all shipments of milk from Fukushima Prefecture and shipments of spinach from Ibaraki Prefecture, after finding new cases of above-normal levels of radioactive elements in milk and several vegetables. Relatively high levels were also found in spinach from Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures to the west, canola from Gunma Prefecture and chrysanthemum greens from Chiba Prefecture, south of Ibaraki.

Why should anyone on this side of the Pacific care about chrysanthemum greens from Chiba Prefecture? There’s no reason, on the thoughtless face of it. Japan’s nukes, Japan’s problem.

But even if that’s your take, the issue becomes more local when we talk about the safety of nuclear plants here and the recent surge in enthusiasm to build more of them. Let me just say I’m agnostic on the question of building more. One big argument for them is that they offer an alternative to carbon-based fuel sources and could be part of the solution to combatting global warming and climate change. And plenty of people feel nuclear power got a bad rap from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and that as a matter of having abundant sources of secure energy, we need to develop more plants now.

As part of responding to the news this past week or so, we’ve been trying to track down experts who could tell our audience whether the Japanese crisis raises safety concerns about the two working nuclear plants in California–at Diablo Canyon on the south-central coast and San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego. In looking for people who might be knowledgeable but have no axe to grind–avoiding industry sources and people from anti-nuke groups–we arrived at nuclear engineering experts from an important local public university.

In one case, we interviewed someone I’ll call Professor A at some length. The professor’s message was enthusiastically reassuring: No, there are no concerns about safety at California’s power plants. All issues have been addressed–even the recent discovery of a fourth seismic fault near Diablo Canyon. In fact, the endorsement of nuclear power was so hearty that the engineer recording the interview commented that Professor A sounded like “an apologist for the industry.” That was a legitimate concern, and I went back and took a look at the interviewee’s background. It turned out that the professor has consulted for General Electric, a major nuclear plant contractor, and with at least one other industry firm. Not to say that that necessarily colored the professor’s statements. But it’s something that we should have known going in and brought out in the interview, which we wound up killing.

Last thing at work Friday, a colleague had me listen to an interview with another professor from the same distinguished university. She had described this faculty member, Professor B, as sounding very pro-nuclear. And indeed the professor did. When asked a question about the safety of nuclear plants, the professor essentially dismissed it with a counter-question: “How about coal? Have you looked at the numbers on black lung?” (That line sounds good until you think about it a minute. Black lung, of course, afflicts people who extract the fuel from the earth, so a proper comparison would be to the safety of people who mine uranium. Let’s just say uranium mining is no picnic, unless lung cancer is your idea of a picnic. Also, the counter-question simply ignores the real issue, and fear, that radiation presents. It’s clear there will be some long-term effects simply because contamination hangs around so long; but the long-term effects are not at all clear). A quick check showed that Professor B, too, has done consulting work in the energy field–though it’s not at all clear whether that work involved nuclear energy.

The take-away lesson–a basic one, you might think, in a world where corporate money plays such a big role everywhere–is that even when we’re dealing with someone in academia, someone receiving a salary from the public treasury, you need to follow the money and ask about it as a matter of course.

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For Sale in Berkeley

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Just in case you were looking for a ’50s vintage Dodge Wayfarer (my guess: It’s a ’51, which makes it 60 years old. Here’s a better-preserved local specimen for comparison). This one was parked on Gilman Street, just below Santa Fe.

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Blogger by Moonlight, or The Earthquake-Tsunami Saga

That title makes me think: "Booger by Moonlight." But that's a different story altogether.

So: Last Thursday night, we were following our usual custom of watching the local news (if for no other reason to catch one or another of the occasional on-air snafus that add up to must-see TV). About 15 minutes in, one of the anchors cut in with word of an 8.8 earthquake off the coast of northeastern Japan. One of the odd things I have set up via an email account is U.S. Geological Survey reports of Pacific earthquakes, so I'd been aware of a series of sharp quakes in the region that seemed to kick off with a 7.2 quake. Within a few minutes, the Thursday evening (Friday afternoon Japan time) quake magnitude was updated to 8.9 and eventually 9.0. Having gone through a handful e of 6-point shakes and a 7-pointer that was centered 60 miles away but was strong enough to wreak havoc in the central Bay Area, 9.0 is unimaginably powerful.) Soon, the channel was showing pictures, though not very clear ones, of an unidentified city location where, in the distance, you could just make out a flow of water (my guess it was a view of the tsunami just beginning to flow into Sendai, a city of 1 million on the northeast coast). After seeing that, I called my son Eamon and daughter-in-law Sakura–her hometown is about 50 miles north of Tokyo and 180 miles from the quake epicenter–to ask if they'd heard about the quake. They hadn't, yet, but immediately got on the phone to try to reach Sakura's family (they were all fine, though the shaking had been quite strong where they were and lots of stuff inside their home had come crashing down).

After hearing from Eamon, I started to think about how the event would impact our local public-radio news operation in San Francisco. Well, sure, there'd be reaction in the Japanese-American community here. And yes, there was a possibility of a tsunami on this side of the Pacific, though in 25-plus years of covering news here tsunami threats have generally been non-events on this part of our coast (not this time, though). In time, a couple colleagues showed up on email to share ideas for coverage in the morning. Then I headed to the one immediate outlet for news we have, a blog we call News Fix. I made my first post around midnight, then kept updating until 4 a.m. Friday morning. There was enough traffic to early posts on tsunami warnings for California that it broke the site (we had some incompatible, inefficient widgets installed, apparently). I and others posted later Friday, on Saturday, on Sunday, then again Monday.

Posting on that news blog is different from posting here. It's much more to the point, and I feel much less need to be discursive. The result: Less thought, fewer words, more links, frequent posts. Here's the list from the last few days:

Links to Coverage of Japan's 8.9 Quake, Tsunami

California, West Coast on Tsunami Watch

1964: A Distant Quake, a Disastrous California Tsunami

Tsunami Warning for California, Oregon

U.S. Geological Survey Breaks Down Monster Quake

Japan Quake-Tsunami Aftermath: Fears About Nuclear Plants

When the Tsunami Arrived in San Francisco Bay

California Tsunami Watch: Canceled

Japan's Great Quake: The California Perspective

More Maps and Images of Japan's Great Quake

Japan's New Crisis: Fighting to Avert a Nuclear Disaster

Japan's Nukes: What and Where They Are

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Approaching Portland

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I have no problem with most of the flight directions airline crews give passengers, except for one. The order to turn off all electronic devices–“anything with an on or off switch”–gets in the way of picture-taking on takeoffs and landing. I have never heard the electronic point-and-shoot photography has even interfered with a plane’s avionics or brought down a flight, and I’ve seen landing videos shot right in the cockpits of big commercial jets, so I persist in the habit. Here’s an example from last Saturday: my Southwest flight from Oakland on approach to Portland airport. The image is looking southeast over Sauvie Island, just west of the Willamette River and the city. How do I know? I spent a while checking my images of the approach against Google Maps satellite images and online maps. I don’t know the area at all, and had to orient myself as to the direction of our approach–some later images corrected my impression that we were landing east-to-west; it was the exact opposite. That upside-down Y intersection at the lower left is where Reeder Road, coming from the left, meets Oak Island Road, coming from the right. I couldn’t find the name of that stream winding through the center of the frame, but you can see the Multnomah Channel, just west of its confluence with the Willamette, at the very top of the picture. Compare the satellite image of the spot.

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All-Salmon Weekend

A summary of my weekend-plus at the meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (what I'll describe as akin to an advanced seminar on chinook salmon from a world-class faculty) in Vancouver, Washington:

Day 1: I left home for the Oakland airport at 7:20 a.m. or so. My plane departed at 9 a.m. and landed in Portland at 10:40 or so. I was behind the wheel of a rented car by 11 a.m. and at the Hilton in downtown Vancouver by 11:30. In a hallway, I recognized a voice I'd only heard on the phone before–Barbara Emley, a San Francisco salmon troller who's been fishing salmon since the 1980s. I introduced myself and she invited me to lunch with her and two fishermen, Dave Bitts of Eureka and Joel Kawahara, from Washington's Olympic Peninsula. They filled me in on the morning's proceedings and what was to come in the afternoon, including a discussion of limitations that may be posed on this year's chinook salmon catch to accommodate threatened populations of killer whales, which like to snack on them. I spent the afternoon in a variety of meetings and talking to a variety of people, including Chuck Tracy, the PFMC officer who works on salmon issues. At about 5:45, I headed over to my friend Pete's house in Portland to hang out with him and his boy Niko. 

Day 2: Sunday morning I was at the hotel by 10:30 or so for another day of meetings both on the status of the Sacramento River salmon fishery and on initial suggestions for the 2011 fishing season. I interviewed about half a dozen people, pulled a couple soundbites, wrote up a short story to air on KQED's local news on Monday morning, did a read-through with my editor in the Bay Area. I got out of the hotel about 7:45, went to Pete and Niko's, had a late dinner, then voiced and uploaded my story. Pete and I stayed up talking until about midnight, then he went to bed. Since I had promised a second story, I stayed up and wrote that, pulled another soundbite, and sent it off to one of the editors in San Francisco. 

Day 3: Monday, which at one point in this adventure was penciled in as a day off, I was up at 7:30, drank Pete's excellent coffeed, stayed at the house while Pete took Niko to school, then voiced the second piece I had written the night before, wrote a third piece (these are all very short, like a minute, max), voiced that, then uploaded everything to KQED. I made an attempt to talk the editor of our statewide show to put off a Tuesday morning story I had promised her, because I was hoping to have a pressure-free day before flying back to Oakland in the evening. But my gambit didn't work, and a promise is a promise, so I said I'd have a script to her late in the afternoon. In the meantime, Pete had returned home and we had talked about going to Powell's, the landmark bookstore in Portland, which I had never visited. So we walked to the Lloyd Center "Max" station–about three and a half miles from Pete's, as it turned out–and rode free to the heart of downtown, then walked the rest of the way to Powell's. We hung out there and both bought something–I got a cookbook, which I never do, and a novel by Peter Carey that's supposed to be something of a gloss on Tocqueville's visit to America. Then I bought Pete lunch at Little Big Burger, which was awesome (we each consumed 1.5 cheeseburgers and split an order of fries). Then Pete said, "Well, you feel like walking back?" I did. So we set off across the Pearl District, Old Town/Chinatown, the Burnside Bridge, and up Burnside Avenue to Laurelhurst; we detoured through Laurelhurst Park, with Pete filling me in on details of the neighborhoods we passed through. At 3 o'clock, when we got back to Pete's, in the general vicinity of Mount Tabor, we had walked another four and a half miles or so. The total for the outing came to about nine miles. Back at Pete's I packed up, loaded up the car, took my leave, filled up with gas, and made the short, easy drive to the Portland airport for my 6 p.m. flight. There, I schlepped my stuff to one of the cool little work carrels they have in the terminal buildings and, at about 4:20, began writing my story for Tuesday morning. At about 5:30, I had something that was, if not profoundly insightful, most likely would not provoke shrieks of outrage from editor or listeners. I did a quick read-through with said editor, then packed up my stuff and walked to the gate for my flight, which was due to be boarding. It was a little late, but not by much, and the flight was uneventful. We got to Oakland about 7:30 or so. Kate picked me up. We went home, had dinner, walked the dog, and then I recorded my voice tracks and isolated my soundbites and uploaded all the sound. Lest that all sound real quick, I was done with all that at 12:30 this morning. 

Day 4: This morning, while I was asleep, an engineer mixed the sound, and the piece aired at 5:50 a.m. I caught it during a 6:50 repeat and at some point realized I had made a factual error in the piece. So I wrote a correction for that, too.

Later, I vacuumed the house. 

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