Monday, June 06, 2005


Total Silence

I think it was a couple of years ago that I first noticed my father's loss of faith in the notion of progress. Up until that point, I always remember him as being resolutely defensive of the great science projects of his generation that overwhelmed us with such things as abundant electricity, nuclear deterrence, and mosquito-free summer evenings. But somewhere along the way since Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring hit the shelves, I suspect that subconsciously his defenses were eroding, and that news of the imminent demise of the iconic Puget Sound Orcas was what somehow coalesced all the other challenges to his disbelief into a coherent whole.

The reason I subscribe to this cumulative undermining of the cult of human ingenuity is that in facing down the nightmarish idea of scientific folly, he still managed to offer up a hopeful suggestion that maybe the Orcas could still be saved by a last minute, superhuman effort in hatchery-produced salmon to replace the depleted wild stocks on which the whales previously fed. I vividly remember the somber atmosphere in the car with my parents and sister and nieces when I informed them that the Orcas were not in decline due to starvation, but rather due to the accumulation of toxins ingested through the consumption of bottom fish that absorbed the PCBs and mercury and myriad pollutants that literally coat the sea floor between Vancouver Island and Seattle. Even my father's wishful thinking was unable to surmount such a daunting report. It was as though I'd told a toddler there was no Easter Bunny--total silence.

This spring, my father turned eighty, and having watched his friends pass away over the last couple of decades, he has enough grief to deal with, but I would guess that normal losses like these are easier for him to accept than the escalating rate of extinction of species from human blunder and scientific arrogance, and I wonder if he now contemplates the possibility of a world once again uninhabited by homo sapiens, and whether that distinct possibility might have been avoided had Americans--fresh with enthusiasm and confidence from defeating fascism and the depression--simply paused to think about what they were doing.

I can only imagine what must go through his mind as he stands on the bluff of the Columbia River where he was born, looking out over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation--the most contaminated pre-Chernobyl site on earth--and gazing down at the carcinogenic waters flowing by on their way to the Pacific Ocean past the hydro-electric dams that once served as monuments to his hopes for a healthy and prosperous future. I can't help thinking that this must be the cruelest of hoaxes on a generation that endured so much, to be burdened with questioning a way of life they mistakenly came to rely on, and to reluctantly realize the horrendous legacy instore for their offspring.

And in empathy with his inevitable sadness and perhaps anger, I am yet grateful for his knowledge that my environmental work and personal sacrifices were expressions of an equally profound faith in the goodness of creation and the importance of human humility in awe of the mysteries of life. And in some strange unspoken way we have become closer and more respectful of each others' hardships in meeting the challenges of mere mortals, and I sense that gives him comfort as well as hope. Oddly, it does me.


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