Ben White Yucatan Diary
Executive Summary: The Ewing begins blasting on Friday, at 6:30 am. Rosario and I hold another press conference in Merida to present evidence of harm (and whine). I go looking for boat that can take me out and accidentally discover a hidden paradise.
Note: Every fifth day of this diary actually includes Friday, Saturday and Sunday and material is gathered for it over those three days.
As the Ewing releases noise on the northern Yucatan coast, I am blasted in Merida by a battle of the bands on every corner. Just outside where I write a stage is set up and some guy is going on and on very loudly. The only difference between it being pleasant and, as now, almost unbearable, is simply volume. Of course the volume outside is probably no more than about 115 db instead of 255db.
With the Ewing experiment begun, forget going to Mexico City. Too late to talk to officials to convince them to change their mind. Like water stopped, I now flow along the coast looking for a way out to that damn boat. West to Celestun, I am told there are no tourist boats. Progreso tells me maybe, but not now. Finally a good lead in Holbox. I drive about 200 miles there on Saturday, get close, but no cigar, and then drive back to Merida today, Sunday.
I feel like I have been tied to the ground with government red tape and made to watch the rape and murder of my mother ocean in front of me. As I have wondered for years, what is the response of a reasonable person watching the rape of their mother, as all of us are at the moment? I really don't know, because being a lunatic, I do not boast of being reasonable. Anger, denial, resignation? Stuck in the anger phase, I want to fight back but in a way that actually works, not a harmless flailing away. The only cure goes to the root. We have to change how we think about this world.
Just out there beyond the horizon of Progreso is the Maurice Ewing, paid for by myself and my neighbors, waging war against the creature of the water and the fishing families of the coast. And, at the moment, there is not a damn thing I can do about it but object.
Sheer objection is less than I want at the moment, it doesn't satisfy. Rosario and I held our second press conference on Friday morning, just after the Ewing fired up the old airgun array (at 6:30 am). We vigorously presented all of the couple of dozen studies that show harm from airguns to fish, fisheries, snow crabs, squid, turtles, giant squid and sperm whales.
Even though it was well attended, I think the general response was a weary "So What?"
I felt that in our seriousness, and in the irrelevance of our objection and information to the fact that the Ewing was going right ahead, we reduced ourselves to just more activists trying to get attention about something. I hate being just part of a conversation society. I want to act.
Do you know that smaltzy song "Walking in Memphis," (I love smaltz—can't get enough) where the singer is being wooed by an evangelical beauty who asks "Son, are you a Christian?" and he answers, "Ma'am, I am tonight."
I had a similar moment at the press conference when I was holding up a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe that I would take with me into the water (if I could ever get out there). One reporter asked me if I was Catholic and I said, with a smile, "Soy hoy," which means, "I am today," to which he responded to with a knowing smile.
I am noticing the little statues and pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe wherever I go, being held aloft into the clouds by a peasant child. But isn't that a black crescent moon she is standing on, with her cloak of stars? Everything I have learned about the power of spirituality (and physics) over my half century tells me that the question of whether the object of reverence is "real" or not is totally irrelevant. What makes it real is the belief, and the more belief, the more real. There is a heck of a lot of belief across this poor white-rocked land in the Virgin of Guadalupe. In front of almost every home there is a little shrine. I am told that she will listen to me if I pray to her and, with a lot to pray for, I have started. And indeed, she is everywhere. I don't know if the image of this old gringo embracing the power of this image to help protect the sea creatures of the Yucatan is corny, or hackneyed, or what, but I am assured it isn't disrespectful. But at least it is innocent, I come to her like any other fumbling mortal.
Unable to get a boat out to the Ewing, and unable to swim, fly, or walk to it, I pursue leads, all the way to Holbox. Now I have always had this theory about the geographical drift of wackos—that they tend to go as far as they can until they are stopped by a sea somewhere and there they tend to accumulate in little eddies of interesting folks. Such as Key West, Provincetown, Venice Beach, Nome, Alaska. Under this system, Holbox should be the wackiest, it is so off the beaten path. But it is outstanding in its pleasant normalness.
If you were able to hack through the jungle and mangroves to the west of Cancun, the first little road you would get to going north would be heading to Solpherino and then Chiquilla. Solpherino is home to three "millennium" trees, at least a thousand years old each. I am told that these trees still harbor the children of the alluxes, the little all male (children?) mud pranksters of the Mayan. Looking up into the massive grey elephants feet trunks into the clusters of bromeliads and dark junctures of branches, I have no doubts.
But if you keep going north to Chiquilla and then take a boat ($4) 20 minutes to the north, you will find the most perfect little Mexican Caribbean town that I have ever blundered into. Pure white (crushed shell) soft sand lapped by the most turquoise of waves. Friendly people without the attitude of those long abused by tourists. No cars! Just a few trucks and a bunch of four wheel drive golf carts. No big hotels, just beautiful thatched palapas at the edge of the endless beach. A working beach, filled with launches with flags out the back of different colors (a code?) Friendly dogs so well cared for I enjoy giving them a good scratch. Standard of living maybe double of the mainland Yucatecan towns. Their secret? Ecotourism and environmental protection. And the whole community is into it. To top it off, in July and August they play host to whale sharks, both babies and adults.
I was late getting to Holbox because I was so sick I couldn't move Friday night and Saturday morning. Felt like one of those butterflies I mounted in a box when I was a little kid with a pin through their thoraxes (the approved way for kids to study nature at the time, complete with killing jar—yes, I am a sinner). Maybe one can carry this cultivation of empathy too far. The creatures of the waters of the Yucatan get blasted so I feel like I am shot through the stomach. But I eventually recovered enough to make the long ride east and then north to Holbox, just in time to meet with an Italian hotel owner who owns a boat and Juan Carrateca, Araceli Rodriguez's island contact.
I laid out the problem of the Ewing and then the plan. He brought out a nautical chart and scrolled it across the table so we could see where the whole thing was happening. I told him what I knew about the Maurice Ewing and why they were doing this. Like almost everybody else in Mexico that I have talked to about this, he was absolutely certain that it was connected to Pemex and its search for oil. He thumped the chart in places where Pemex has already said it wants to drill, one of them right next to Alacranes (Scorpion) Reef. He was upset and angry that the Mexican government would allow such a thing and understood perfectly the threat it presented to his little paradise.
But, when it came to using his boat, he just couldn't. He was a foreigner running a business. The Mexican government has a way of cracking down on those who oppose it in any way. He could lose his boat, his hotel, he said. This was a good looking, strong young man with a very successful hotel on one of the most remote spots in Mexico. And he was intimidated enough by the federal government to demure in helping me even though he clearly wanted to. If it was in Italy, well.... in a heartbeat. I didn't even blame him.
Juan Carateca agreed to meet me in the morning to talk out other ideas. The Italian's boat was a hefty zodiac with a 200 hp motor, but still, he recommended that we needed a real tourist boat with two motors and at least 9 or 10 meters that could go a long way. And still we need permission from a Port Captain for exactly what we plan to do.
I immediately liked Juan. Tall, a long face, kind eyes, Juan works as a guide to take people out to see the whale sharks and other miracles. He bent my ear for awhile about how hard it is to keep drunk idiots from riding the shark like a horse, buzzing them with jet skies and slicing their dorsals, getting in the way of their feeding on the surface. Juan tells me that one way or another, we will find a way out to the Ewing. And I believe him. Tomorrow, after I take care of business here in Merida, I will head back to Holbox. Juan says, "This is ourcampaign. I am a warrior for the animals, they are all I care about." My kind of guy.
A little more about sound:
The last time I was in Merida was on a trip I took by myself about 25 years ago. Before marriage or kids, before Sea Shepherd adventures, before my second career protecting critters. I signed up for a cheap flight from Miami to Merida that only left twice a week. Hitching from Virginia to Florida, I hit it wrong and had to wait for three days in Miami, where I secretly camped out along the water in the back of rich people's estates, tying my backpack up in a tree during the days. Living on the streets.
When I finally got down to Merida, I headed north to Dzibilchatun to explore my first Mayan ruins. I then spent the next two and a half months exploring the Mayan centers in the Yucatan, Belize and Guatemala.
It is ironic that this sound attack is going on along the Mayan coast, a people who had a real and unusual interest in the properties of sound. Following a guide leading people who could pay him through Chichen Itza, I watched him clap his hands in front of pyramids. The echo from each one was different and some very strange. One sounds like a rifle ricochet. One has now been discovered, according to a new paper to the American Acoustical Society, that was designed to sound like the call of the sacred bird of the Mayan, the resplendent Quetzal! How do you figure out how to make the echo from a sequence of steps sound like your favorite bird? Our present technology seeks other challenges (like how to more efficiently kill Iraqis).
And then there was the first night I got to Tikal, the huge Mayan city tucked away in the deepest Guatemalan rainforest of which only a little bit has been uncovered. But part of that little bit is a grand square with the two tallest pyramids in the New World facing each other across the square.
Well, the car full of Israelis I was hitching with didn't get to Tikal until dusk and it was already closed. But I have never been much for rules, so I squeezed under the chain across the road and walked to the main square, howler monkeys making my entrance anything but stealthy. I climbed the steep steps of the tallest pyramid, sliding my hand up the cable affixed to the crumbling steps. All the way up to the little room at the top, with its stone frontispiece going on up into the sky. At about 200 feet up, I was above the treetops, just crouching there, listening to a strong wind whishing towards me, rolling across the treetops. Somewhere a jaguar screamed. And then the wind hit the pyramid where I sat, reverberating the frontispiece and using the little room as a sounding board. As clear as a bell, a distinct tone was produced that rang out across the endless Guatemalan swamps, as it has, I guess, for centuries. It seriously spooked me, raising goosebumps on all limbs. As quietly and inconspicuously as I could, I climbed off the pyramid, crept down the road to the campground where I climbed into my old army mummy bag and pulled it close around my face.
A strange place to be messing with sound. Here where the Mayans clearly used and understood it in a way we haven't a clue about.
The beach patrol for bodies has begun, with two big fish washing up in Progreso on Friday. If I am totally shut down getting a boat I will be relegated to the death search. But I am going to exhaust every single possibility first. Lets all visualize me getting a good fast cheap boat operated by a gutsy believer.
For the moment, I am not succored by the rationale that one can lose by winning, whether the rationale is from me or others. Although, being in the critter saving business, I am used to losing, my intent is still to shut the bastards down.
What we have now is what has always happened—they eventually get their test off. But this one was delayed over a year and has now received attention world wide. Yeah, that's good. But not good enough.
Thanks for all of the kind words, good wishes and prayers coming to me from all over. I am blessed.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 16
Merida and Holbox, Yucatan.
Executive Summary: Maurice Ewing pounds the coast, Day Four. I finish paperwork to extend visa another 30 days (while not at all sure they will allow it) and return to find a rentable boat in Holbox. The struggle continues. The wind picks up again.
"Ah hiv ahlways relahd 'pon the kahndness of strangers," Blanch Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.
Ain't that the truth. Without dedicated local folks, outside agitators like me would be worthless. We now have fishermen and volunteers along the coast looking for bodies, Araceli and her group making magic, the Mexico City groups bitching up a storm, and Juan in Holbox scouring the marinas for a boat to take me out to confront the sound monster. But, like most distant disasters, you can't hear it or feel it from the land, so what could be wrong? Remember the part in Star Wars when Obi wan Kenobi picks up on his psychic radar the destruction of a world? That sense would be buzzing like crazy right now.
This assault makes me think about property rights, that buzzword for the unreasonable right, who see the taking of a strip of land out of your backyard to put in a community nature trail an outrageous theft of personal rights. Who does the ocean belong to? One would think that, within territorial limits it belongs to the people of that country, is held in trust for them. And beyond that? Is it the tragedy of the commons—a free for all?
But what happens when governments sell off their responsibility to protect those waters and lands for the benefit of the people? Not just here off the coast of the Yucatan but when the water system of Cochabamba, Uruguay is sold to Bechtel, or the lands of the western United States just handed to anyone who wants to mine, or when the state government of Washington gives permits to the refinery at Cherry Point allowing them to dump toxic material into the air and water and our bloodstreams. To me, that is a treasonable offense. We are not children, nor weak. We do not need government except to protect us and if it specifically not doing that, it is time that it be changed.
My conversation of last week with Ken Hollingshead, longtime employee of the NMFS Office of Permits, still haunts me. He is the one who chaired the public hearings over LFA sonar, and helped the Navy prepare its Environmental Assessment for its future review by....guess who? Ken Hollingshead. As far as I know, he has never turned down a Navy or Lamont-Doherty permit request. In our conversation, Ken made these points:
-Even though it is true that the Ewing's Incidental Harassment Authorization does not permit the lethal taking of one marine mammal, the finding of one during one of the tests would not necessarily call for even a temporary suspension of the tests.
-With manatees, since they are handled by Fish and Wildlife, the death wouldn't even matter.
-The precautionary principle (where, if all data is not known about a conflict between a human endeavor and a creature, that deference is given to the creature) is not the policy of his office and never has been.
-The active sonars on board the Ewing would have negligible effect on anything even though they are over 200 dB.
-That, essentially, any creatures I were to find on the beach dead would be treated somewhat suspiciously by his office because I am "just trying to shut down the Ewing."
I always try my best to be polite to Ken, even though he makes me grit my teeth. This time when we hung up, me calling from a booth in downtown Merida after his office refused to return my call for ten days, I felt like saying, "You know, Ken, it is your business if you don't give a damn about whales and dolphins, but you shouldn't have your job."
Both the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which came into being partly from the charisma of AWI founder and my mentor Christine Stevens, under Richard Nixon to boot, are as revolutionary in their way as the Declaration of Independence. For the first time I know of, we promised as a country to put the consideration of other beings above our individual wishes, for the good of all. To say that some dams and roads and developments would just not be built if it adversely affected wild creatures—whoa—that's powerful. And the MMPA saying that we will set a goal for the death of dolphins in fisheries at a zero mortality rate goal; that every year we would improve a little. Helluva promise. And then comes decades of watering down by the very industries who hurt whales and dolphins: the public display folks like Sea World, some fishing interests, and now, in spades, the US military in their demand for exemption from environmental law. Poor babies. Have you noticed? They are sooo picked on.
Did you all hear about one of the cases used by the military to argue for the Range Readiness Act last year that they were being hampered in being battle ready because they were not able to practice bombing and playing army everywhere they want. For example, a bunch of pansy-ass birdwatchers objected to the Navy bombing a little island out in the Pacific full of nesting birds just because the Navy had no permit under the International Migratory Bird Treaty (one of our oldest international wildlife protection agreements). What a bunch of whiners! They just want us to be unprepared the next time we go looking for Osama bin Laden.
Well, then no one catches the Navy sleeping. They sent, apparently, one of their brightest legal minds to argue the case against these dweebs. He pointed out that the Navy bombing of the island actually helped both the birds and the birdwatchers. It helped the birds by making people reluctant to walk on the island as the bombs fell, and the birds don't like people walking on the island. But the next one is the beauty: He said that it benefits birdwatchers because they prefer watching rare birds- and the Navy was making them rarer. Impeccable logic. The judge said that the Navy's arguments were "creative but not convincing." Wimp. I expect Scalia and Thomas have taken care of the likes of that tree hugger judge.
This evening as I was taking the passenger ferry boat from the mainland to Holbox, I saw in the west a celestial display like I have never seen. You know sun-dogs? The prismatic spots that occur in the sky sometime on either side of and at the same height of the setting sun? I remember in the Deer Hunter, De Niro says they have some particular good luck symbolism (just before they all get sent to Viet Nam, tiger cages and Russian roulette). Well, this was like that but bigger and right above the sun, which was sinking into clouds like behind an agate. A big round colorful prism spot about 10 degrees above the sun. And the sun was setting over there towards where the Ewing paces back and forth, firing their big guns every twenty seconds.
Driving long days back to back for three days has made me as grumpy as a DC beltway commuter. But I have noticed a couple of things:
Mexican villages tend to have their cemeteries, full of little houses, just to the left as you drive west out of town. For some reason, that seems perfect to me—dying into the sunset—lifting wings and flying away.
Mexican working men don't take lunch breaks like Norte Americans. Instead of taking each individual lunchbox out and going by themselves somewhere to eat in peace, Mexican workers put all the food in the middle, draw up stumps or stacks of scrap wood as seats, and eat with their hands all from the same big spread. Like around a campfire. Talking, waving, nodding.
Many of the trees look like they were designed by Doctor Seuss. Tall spindly ones with no leaves at all until bright yellow flowers appear on the ends. Lush green big trees with long stalks full of crimson flowers. Strange beauty.
Well, I've got to run. Juan is here to take me to talk to the guys about the boats, and one won't be here tomorrow. Wish me luck.
Much love to all, and to all a good night.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 17
Executive Summary: Maurice Ewing pounds the coast on Day Five, just (tantalizingly) visible about 4 miles north of Progreso. Boats and gung-ho skippers found. Great expectations.
Stopped by computer glitch from filing my daily missive; I discover how attached I am to it. This is an odd and unasked—for conversation we have begun, you and me, and I am very grateful for it. Somehow, like dreaming, my telling you helps me make some sense out of my day.
I left off this diary running out the door to meet with fellow guerero para los animales Juan Carrateca and the two boat captains he thought might be willing to rent us a tourist boat to get out to the Ewing. They were waiting outside the Internet cafe in the town square underneath the spreading flamboyant trees. We walked a half a block to the Viva Zapata bar and restaurant and sat down upstairs under the raised palapa roof. The two boat captains ordered two tequilitas (just little tequilas) and we got down to business. With Juan nodding, I told them the whole story of the Ewing, but they already knew quite a bit and told mehow upset the fishermen along the coast were with the Ewing totally ignoring their livelihoods in their search for ???
These guys were into it—totally, and had already cleared their rental to AWI and their taking me and some journalists out. Now that doesn't guarantee the Progreso Port Captain will agree, but we have jumped every hurdle he has given us to make this trip out to the Ewing legal. So, I guess you folks can stop visualizing bringing to me a committed skipper and a legal tourist boat. Now, if we are able to actually shut down the Ewing for one day, it may actually come down to funding to see if we can persevere. I guess the new thing I need visualized is dollars falling from the skies into AWI so I can continue this struggle.
When it came for setting a price on the daily rental, the captains had to check some things the next day and get back to me at eight that (Tuesday) night. So, I was stuck in Holbox with nowhere to drive or people to agitate for a day. Tough luck. Cut adrift in island paradise.
I walk out of my palapa at the Hotelito Mawimby, hit the water and take a right, headed toward the long curving beach beyond where the cabanas stop and I can see no human being. Nothing hurting, nothing wrong (except for the Ewing working, Iraq, Bush and all of the dark world beyond). But at that moment at that place, it was just the blue-green water swishing in, the wind rattling the palms and palmettoes, ospreys whistling, and the sun warming up the land and spreading the clouds. I walked for hours.
When was the last time you walked a beach? I live on an island surrounded by beaches that never fail to blast me in the face and make me glad to be alive. But I hardly every go. Maybe this is one reason why we find it so easy to dismiss the ocean, stop protecting it. We are not listening to it very often anymore. Seems we only really protect what we feel is part of us—our family, our home—and these frames of reference are shrinking. Now if we saw all people and all creatures as part of us and the streams and lakes and oceans as bloodstreams and rain a miracle and each moment of sunlight glistening a personal gift from a kind universe, maybe then…
At one point in my walk I accidentally disturbed a big mixed flock of seabirds, each with their own distinct personality: perturbed and whistling oystercatchers, dowdy gulls not wanting to move and the sleek, racing model terns.
I have been asked by some of the people reading this daily diary to hand out some assignments, give people a way to help other than just hitting them up for scarce dollars. I hear you. So I am going to try something, a tiny task a day, sort of like your own chance to do something very small, but important when combined with everyone else. The thing we can all do today is to contact Mr. G. Michael Purdy, the boss of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Now, Mr. Purdy seems like a nice guy, but he is about to make a big mistake. LDEO is about to retire the Ewing—that's the good news. The bad news is that they have bought a bigger and better ship to do the same damn thing all over the earth. In fact, the RV Marcus G. Langseth will have even more power to blast the oceans, although out of the goodness of their hearts, LDEO has promised to go no louder than the Ewing. It is intended to obtain more information with fewer passes because that is environmentally safer. Why, one must ask, if it does no harm whatsoever? Why try to reduce the number of passes?
But the mistake is that instead of retiring this stupid old heavy handed way of obtaining information about the bottom of the ocean, they are putting into a new package and just carrying on, as if the world doesn't have their number already. Once dynamite was used to perform a similar function as intense blasts of sound now do with the Ewing. We need to graduate to the next generation of tools. Maybe it would help to let Mr. Purdy hear from us. At this minute the Langseth is being fitted in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island to do more of the same as the Ewing. LDEO has a brilliant chance to change directions.
I suggest that we email Mr. Purdy in whatever is your operative language, and put in the subject line of your email, "SHUT UP, MAURICE," or "MAURICE, WOULD YOU KINDLY BE QUIET NOW," or "MAURICE, YOU CAN SHUT UP, NOW." Something along those lines. And then ask him to lead the world in developing creative ways to find out what they need to know—be in front of the curve instead of behind it. His phone number is 845-365-8348, his fax is 845-365-8162.
Maybe a good story to share with Mr. Purdy is that of the conversion of F.J. O'Reilly, the CEO of Heinz a few years ago. At the time, the tuna boycott was hot. American tuna boats were killing tens of thousands of dolphins yearly by encircling them with fishing nets to catch the tuna beneath. Many of us whale activists were going around to schools to urge kids not to let their moms and dads buy tuna fish. It was enormously successful. One of my colleagues, Shawn White of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in the United Kingdom, spoke one night at a fancy girl's "finishing" school in Ireland. Unbeknownst to him, one of the girls in the audience was O'Reilly's daughter. When his talk was over, the story goes, the girl promptly had her dad on the line back in the states and asked him, "Daddy, are you killing dolphins?"
Within a little more than a week, O'Reilly held a press conference to announce that Heinz (Starkist), the largest packer of tuna in the United States, was no longer going to buy tuna caught by encircling dolphins. And they haven't. And within another week or so, the other two major packers in the United States, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea, also flipped, forced by the market. Since then, dolphin-safe tuna has been worth far more on the international market than tuna that is still caught by encircling dolphins, and the number of dolphins killed has dropped by many tens of thousands to a number still too high (both methods, of course, are still fatal to tuna—a whole 'nother discussion).
Mr. O'Reilly was smart enough to listen to his daughter, make an unprecedented and bold decision and come out of it leading the industry. Beauty. Maybe Mr. Purdy can be convinced that it is just too late in the life of man on this earth to be using such a device as seismic airguns to find out about stuff (now that the Paris conference just announced that species are disappearing at 10 times the rate of the fastest extinction ever known by Earth.) And don't let him convince you that their pounding is more necessary than ever after the horrible Asian tsunami, in order to find out about plate movement and, presumably, save us the next time. For LDEO to offer such succor at this time is as intellectually dishonest as if I swore to the people of the Yucatan that the Ewing would certainly cause earthquakes. It is the eternal carrot held out by science- we will save your lives- just give us a blank check. Scientists will not be able to accurately predict earthquakes in time to save lives for a long time, no matter how much banging away they do.
Why some science has to have such a heavy hand has always been one of my curiosities. I once developed this theory that there seem to be two schools of field biology working today- the Marlin Perkins school (spokesman for Wild Kingdom years ago on TV, where they would always wrestle the anaconda into submission and cut open its stomach to check its contents) and the Jane Goodall (or Paul Spong) school of research where one goes to where the creatures are, parks oneself there as inconspicuously as possible for the rest of one's life and just keeps track of what goes on with free creatures being what they are. I finally met Jane at lunch at AWI one time and asked her what she thought of my analogy. Never willing to say a bad thing about anyone, she said, "I think you are being a little hard on Marlin." Hah.
At 8:00, I meet with the boat captains and sloe-eyed Juan again. How much will it cost?
More soon about snapping shrimp and acoustic daylight with new information back from our far-flung friends.
Things are getting interesting real quick. Don't go away. Thanks for all of the prayers and good wishes. Oh yeah. Start blowing again on Sunday.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 18
Holbox and Merida, Yucatan.
Executive Summary: Maurice Ewing is somewhere near Sisal; sound attack on Day Five. They apparently cut fishing nets yesterday (oops), which is not surprising as LDEO insists this is a fishing hiatus. The rental boat for us (the forces of good) is contracted and, so far, cleared. We're a-coming, Maurice. Dead fish get turned into (I mean relinquished to, not transformed into) priest of Progreso.
With a contract quickly agreed upon between the boat skipper and myself, we sat talking for an hour about the strange and wonderful critters of the world with the other willing skipper (standing by) and Juan Carateca. I didn't get all of it, but they gave me the Mayan and Spanish names for some of the birds I had seen: mockingbird (who they say has eight, not seven or nine, songs), the brilliant black and fluorescent blue bird with the long tail like a cross between a magpie and a Stellars jay, the Baltimore Oriole and the two types of hummingbirds (colibri) I had seen on the island. Also stories of the whale sharks that visit (up to 40 in the late summer!), how those other folks over on the mainland take largartos (crocodiles) much too small in order to sell for shoe leather. About the two types of monkey that live in the woods. And yes, of course, about the Mayan goblins the aluxes, or "duendes," as one skipper called them interchangeably, whose existence is as sure as this fleeting life.
I made them laugh describing my bewilderment early in the trip when, one morning scouring the papers for any mention of our tussle with the Ewing, I saw a picture of lots of little things up beyond the treetops in the sky with a caption talking about langostas (lobsters). I was trying to look real hard to see if they were actually lobsters flying around and wondering how the hell they got up there when I finally figured out they probably call locusts lobsters too. Seems appropriate, as opposed to the way many north Americans drool at the thought of lobster or crabs or shrimp but become bilious at the thought of eating, say, locusts. 'Course they're all bugs.
Driving back and forth from Merida to Holbox and back and forth along the little fishing villages of the coast makes me think of the search for petroleum, which is the force behind this seismic airgun technology I am fighting, and my complicity in racing all over the Yucatan peninsula burning that poisonous black stuff. As if to emphasize my dilemma, an odd thing happened at one point in the middle of the long straight road down from Holbox that slices for miles through the jungle. I am just cruising along, my arm out the window, no traffic for miles when, with no warning, WHAM!, a bird hits the window frame behind my left ear and ricochets into the space between my back and the seat—instantly a lifeless mass. Totally against character—I will even stop to look at newly killed wildlife just to see how they are put together and admire them—I quickly grabbed behind my head and, without even looking at it, threw it as far as I could into the trees, with a shudder. Little feathers were everywhere. I looked at one carefully. It was the loveliest green. That is one little person my trip to the Yucatan did not help.
So I start trying to dodge everything. Mainly yellow butterflies with the size and erratic flying of bats. The sun is intense, and as I drive along, long silver snakes of mirage in the road in front of me glitter, slither, and then disappear.
I want to tell you about a restaurant in Holbox. And in case you are wondering how I can do things like enjoy food and walks on the beach when something as horrible as the Ewing blasting is going on just over my shoulder, my only defense is that this work is what I do all of the time, not just now and then. I try to exhaust any opportunity to stop the bad guys, but once I have done that, I try to steal some time to invite my soul. I have learned that I must grab bits of happiness on the fly. Maybe, for me, its a way to keep going for 36 years of activism, taking mini-vacations of an hour or so.
La Isla de Colibri (the Island of the Hummingbirds) could be a restaurant run by my gourmet chef friends Kate Stone or Laurie and Tim Paul of Friday Harbor. Tiny, just five tables. Snappy polyrhythmic salsa on the CD player. Two sets of double doors fold open during the day, revealing original and strange folk art. One has a Mayan hieroglyph with faces spelling out the year the restaurant opened (1996). One has a standing green man with brightly colored birds flying out of all parts of his body. One has a play on the Mexican legend of the Eagle with the Rattlesnake tangling above a shell. And the last is a painting of a green guy with horns, arms upraised like a tree, with sprouts and berries coming out of his feet, sides and arms. The waiter, it turns out, is the artist, and he told me it is the spirit that watches over, and brought us coffee. Good on him. I told the waiter about the Green Men of England with the vines growing out their eyes and mouth and ears, pagan symbols representing the male counterpart of Mother Earth and (oddly) found in cathedrals all over Europe. He had never heard of them.
The walls are covered with framed art prints and photographs: Diego Rivera, the God-Adam touch from the Sistine Chapel, watercolors of Mexican homes, the old medieval picture of the guy with a face made of vegetables, Guernica, a Picasso of two women running hand in hand, arms outreached along the sea, one breast on each flying free, a big wooden cross with those little flat copper charms tacked on, the sweet Gustav Klimpt picture of a mother cuddling her child, a photograph of a Mayan girl jumping for joy, and, just as you are leaving—above the door, a final note to endear me to the place—a stern picture of Zapata and a grinning one of Che playing golf. Over in the corner sits an exquisitely carved little bar, maybe 5 feet wide, with a cross centered above all the bottles of booze.
I knew when my warm avocado soup came it would be awesome. And it was.
Why is it that it sounds so strange to so many that one might take a stand to protect the living creatures of the world that might entail physical risk when we take so matter of factly the apportioning of a percentage of our poor youth to die in stupid and unnecessary wars? Mexico is no different than the United States in that we teach our children that it is high honor to fight and die for your country. But only, it seems, in the abstract, if the actual reason for taking the risk is vague. Just how will killing this man (or this old woman or this schoolgirl) in Falluja help protect my home and family? But the idea, to many of the journalists talking to me down here, that I would plan on shutting down the Ewing by getting in the water, makes me an extremely odd duck. Why don't they ask 18-year-old inductees why they are willing to risk their lives to go far away and shoot bullets at someone with whom they have no grievance? At least I know why I act, and why it must be peaceful.
It seems to me like our threats are changing. No longer is it just the barbarians, or Vikings, or Gringos coming to murder us and carry away our children. Now it is poisons just as surely stealing our loved ones through Cancer. Real smart guys like those at the LDEO accepting a little collateral damage to the seas because they want to find out something. The Navy plays around with active sonar and somebody else plays around with HAARP to see if Tesla was really right about being able to control things on earth by bouncing energy off the stratosphere. Our government takes our protection money and funds those we need protection from- the US military and their corporate buddies. The government does not even serve the purpose that the feudal lords once did and give us, in exchange for our servitude, a safe place to run to when the hard rain begins to fall. They lead the world in the manufacturing and export of hard rain.
For what its worth, I think that the only thing there is to do right now, is to fight for the diversity of life—every single thing—every face, every being, every creature's home. That is what I think the Mother Earth is asking us to do in our dreams and in our moments where we stop the busyness for a second and let the waves and birdsongs reach our heart. I think it why we feel scared—not because of Bin Laden but because we know deep down in our guts that what we are doing to this place, and to our own true selves, is building up a debt we can't ever pay. When I feel best, the most alive, is when I am directly involved in a campaign to save life somewhere. Even knowing that I will never completely succeed. That I can do this for a living is a huge blessing.
"Every man dies but not every man truly lives," William Wallace (Well, actually Mel Gibson) a.k.a. Braveheart.
We are going out with our own rented boat to challenge the Ewing in the next few days. But I won't say which day until we have pulled it off. So stay tuned, boys and girls, things are going to get heavy quick, and there's a spirit a-moving over this land, as the old spiritual says.
Thanks for the kind wishes, prayers, blows toward Mexico, pictures of tacos with the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously painted on, attaboys and Go Bens. I am such a glutton for praise, I enjoy every one.
Love and revolution,
Yucatan Diary Day 19
Executive Summary: The Maurice Ewing continues blasting, leaving a trail of dead fish. The fishermen say that now there is nothing to catch. Nada. Legal Denunciation filed with Semarnat by Rosario Sosa for a bunch of things, including having no agency ready to do necropsies to determine reason for death. I get ready for action.
Over 30 years ago on a bus from Ann Arbor to Charlottesville, I was reading the introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Lama Anagarika Govinda, a German who went to India on pilgrimage and became a holy man. He wrote something along the lines of, "If you believe in reincarnation and believe in evolution, then you can see that we hold within our genetic memory what it was like to be every creature that ever existed, right back to the stones."
Now, the part I am not sure about with reincarnation is whether we travel through different lives the same little soul package. It seems to me that is our operative illusion, that we are individuals, instead of just one of the pairs of eyes and hands used by the one great consciousness, that also looks through all those other eyes of vireos and lizards and scorpionfish and whale sharks. I see nothing in modern physics to argue that we are really individuals, any more than each separate arm of an anemone is an individual. Putting that quibble aside, I really liked the image and it rung true to me: that sometimes when we are especially carried by the movement of a creature, say a cardinal swooping through the underbrush or a dolphin turning its head sideways from the bow wave, it is more than just admiring the creature, we are, I believe, remembering our cardinalness and our ancient dolphiness.
Just back from the market where I got a haircut for $2, plus a $1 tip, bought some more fabric for a dive flag, bought some kid's scissors and a notebook to cut up all of the newspaper articles and keep track of everything. And I bought a plastic bag with both peeled oranges and slices of jicama, with the ubiquitous mixture of powdered red pepper and salt dumped on top ("One scoop or two?" "Oh definitely dos, por favor.") plus the lime, the juice upon which Mexico runs, poured over the whole shebang. MMMM. Probably gave money to eight or more beggars on my route. A big fat 10 peso for each, to their delight. To those traveling gringos that frown on such a practice: I think they can shove it and should go back home and sit on their money like Scrooge McDuck. Now I have been places in India where it turned out to not be such a great idea due to the pure onslaught. But here I have never seen giving to one bringing in more. All kinds of twisted limbs, sad faces, wounds, blindness, little kids, people who can't get off the ground. Yeah sure, its just a racket. In the evening they get up and dance home to their fancy digs. Hardly. This is real rock bottom, and yes, except for the grace of God, it could be and might still be me one day. So I give to everyone who asks, if I have it. Makes me want to throw up on their white bwana suits to hear pompous wealthy travelers sniff at the miserable poor.
I saw an old man with deep creases in his face and hands, a deep dark brown, threadbare clothes, shoes with the back heel stomped down, and the most noble, handsome face. Tell me it is anything but happenstance that he has lived his life trying to eke a bare living out of the poor Yucatan soil, and now has spent upwards of 60 years doing his best, instead of living as a stockbroker in New York wearing fine suits and cologne. I remember clearly the moment when I lived in Spain when it dawned on me how lucky I was to have been born, well, middle class and white and American, at the top of the heap. Now, after working against the big cheat of globalization for a few years, I have come to believe it was precisely that contentment with my position that is the problem. Until we see the ones who make our clothes and pump our gas or care for our children as our equals, even if they are in Sri Lanka, there will be no peace, and should not be. The next revolution must be a global one.
Before you get my 20th diary entry, a lot could happen. If anything like jail or deportation stops me from filing, I will when I can. We are going to try to go after the Ewing again, with a boat licensed to take out tourists all loaded up with crew, a bunch of journalists and me. The thing I don't want to happen is that we drive all over the place looking for the Ewing with the reporters thinking about how stupid they can make us look. So please visualize us taking off from shore and going right to the Ewing, bobbing there in the waves to the north. Some people say that the Mexican Navy is maintaining a 10-mile perimeter around the Ewing and chasing away any vessels that get close with helicopters. If that is so, we will stop when told. We are going on the premise that ours is just another Mexican boat hired out to Gringos out for a day of sun and sea, with all t's crossed and i's dotted—legal. Other fishing folk say they have been able to get right by the boat, so we will see.
Like last time, when it comes down to actually making the move, getting in the water and hope they keep their blaster off, I start getting very nostalgic about this life that I am still fortunate to be living. The littlest of things: childs' faces, shadows of palmettos thrown large against buildings, the full moon rising, the taste of the first sip of coffee in the day, good red wine, being kissed by someone who loves me, being able to walk down the block, being able to hear someone singing their heart out, being able to hear my mother's voice, hugging my children, watching the shadow rise on the building as the sun sets, the almost overwhelming tumult of the market, watching an act of sweetness from one person to another—all of these ordinary little shimmerings of life that don't normally stand out that much until you think about never experiencing them again.
Now to all of you kind people worried about me, I ask you, please don't be. I have zero death wish. I have planned this meticulously and believe that all can be done with no risk to anyone, including me. But, as a tree climber, my frame is a little different from landbound muggles. It is a learned skill, absolutely not to be confused with any sort of heroism, that enables a tree climber or rock climber to hang by his or her fingernails and do the job. So it has been also with cutting loose whales and dolphins at night. You just get to the place and concentrate on the job at hand. No big deal. Business as usual.
I find these crowded streets absolutely chockablock full of unsung heroes who will probably never be recognized as anything special. Just for starters, poor Catholic moms with a bunch of kids—how in the world do they pull it off? People with disabled kids, or disabled parents and kids. Guys like Louis who come into town every day to sell hammocks because that's all there is and he (at almost exactly my age) explains that he is far too old for any company to want to hire him. To me heroes are people who are scared, have no idea how they will carry on for themselves and their family, and do it anyway, day after day, forever.
On the other hand, I came into this world with nothing and have been given everything: true love, healthy and brilliant children who I adore, relatively good health of my own, steady sustenance, parents who love me, a supportive brother and sister, persistent passions to carry me along, the gift (from my mom) of a love of nature strong enough to nourish me in loneliest of times, true friends, a hungry mind, and the resources to keep it curious. So, for this favored son at play in the fields of the Lord, it is the bare minimum I can do to try to give back—to serve. Not my will but thine, O Lord, be done in me. I have learned that it is true: it is the giver who is blessed.
Thanks for all who have hung in here with me. Its crunch time. Think good thoughts. Peace to all.
"Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace," St Francis.
Love and revolution,