2012…A Small Town World?

Marquesan dancers performing the 'Dance of the Bird'. Photo courtesy of Mckenzie Clark, www.mckenzieclarkphotos.com

It’s midnight and the first seconds of 2012 begin. Among the faces of mostly Marquesan strangers, a warm feeling of love for all of them overcomes me…Rounds of kisses and well-wishes…and I wonder why we don’t keep that love faucet open all year long?!

…Children turn to silhouettes against white flashes of firecrackers, here and all the world over…

What if, with everyday, simple loving actions, the whole world took on a small town feeling…?

Happy New Year from the Voyage of Swell!!

Mr. Avery’s Letter…

 …Heading out for a bodysurf with my ‘Blakeney Sanford, Fine Art’ custom handplaner…waves, stars, and fresh air make great presents!

Happy Holidays to you!!

So, I recently got a letter from a teacher in the UK, asking if I would write a letter to his 14-15 year old students who have been assigned a big project on climate change.  He asked me to include a bit about life aboard Swell, about ‘making a difference’ for the planet, and whether I think that reading up on foreign issues (vs. witnessing them firsthand) can give one a thorough understanding of them. I thought I’d share the letter here, too, both a resource for other teachers that might want to share it with their students, and as some holiday food for thought as we head into the new year.

Love and best wishes to all during this fun season of giving and sharing. Your support and comments keep me inspired to keep writing, seeking, learning, and exploring this amazing planet we live on…so THANK YOU!!

 May Peace be in Your Heart!

Love, Liz and Swell

P.S. Give the Earth a gift this year by remembering to bring your shopping bags to the mall, using recycled or reused wrapping paper, and choosing earth-friendly items with minimal packaging!!

A quote on the wall in Barry Schuyler's office…come on, let's harness the power of LOVE!! (the last word of the quote is 'FIRE')

Letter to Mr. Avery’s Students:

Hello fellow citizens of Planet Earth,
 

My name is Liz Clark. Mr. Avery probably told you that I’m sailing and surfing around the world on my sailboat. It was always my dream to be a captain and take this voyage. It is also my dream that humans will find a way to live in harmony with nature on Earth…I thought the best way for me to ‘make a difference’ for the planet would be to live this low-impact sailing lifestyle—simple and close to nature. Since leaving California in 2005, I’ve sailed over 17,000 miles through Mexico, Central America, the Galapagos Islands, French Polynesia, and Kiribati—looking for waves, meeting new people, learning new cultures, challenging myself, and making observations on how we can solve the environmental problems we face.

Swell is a great boat. She’s 40 feet long and 55 years old! I have worked really hard to restore her and make her a sturdy sea warrior and also my home. I have to have a basic understanding of a lot of different things to be able to make this trip, like mechanics to fix the engine, navigation, weather and seasons, wiring and electricity, first aid, cooking, wood working, knots, and more! I must learn new languages when I arrive in a new place, and cultural customs too. I eat a lot of cabbage and carrots because they don’t spoil for a long time when I’m out at sea. I also catch fish and even bake my own bread. I love to free-dive and climb coconut trees too! I do yoga and read lots of books since I don’t have a television. The things I miss most about land life are hot showers, ice cream, fresh lettuce, washing machines, and most of all–my family. Sailing is an amazing way to travel. I move along over the ocean at a speed not much faster than you can run, but with my home! I love it because the ocean has a way of making me feel incredibly small and insignificant, but also so powerful.

So, I hear you guys have been given a big assignment on climate change?! That kind of project can feel really overwhelming at first. But when it’s broken down into smaller pieces, like you guys will do, it becomes more manageable. In a way, your assignment is a mini version of what all humans on Earth are facing right now with climate change. Because the challenge and breadth of the issue is so enormous, it takes all of us participating, just like in your class, to understand the problem from every angle and collaborate to create effective solutions.

When I think about the global environmental problems that I have observed throughout my voyage, a few ideas stand out:

First, country borders are invisible lines that don’t mean anything to Earth’s life-sustaining systems, nor to what makes us human. We can’t solve climate change country by country, because it’s bigger than that. It will affect us all, no matter what flag we fly, or music we like, or sport we play…And from my observations, people are essentially the same everywhere! We often choose to look at our differences, especially physical ones, but if you look with your heart, you will see that there are far more similarities than differences among us. We all have arms, legs, and eyes. We all want to eat, breathe, have shelter, and be loved. We all experience feeling sad, happy, angry, and embarrassed. We are born into different cultures, realities, and physical bodies, but that is what makes the richness of humanity! It would be so boring if we were all exactly the same!

Respecting and celebrating each other and ourselves is one way that we can start solving a lot of our problems right now!!…Understanding and caring about each other is absolutely essential to collaborating as Team Earth! Look at the world today…Scientifically, I think we have a good idea of what needs to be done to at least begin curbing climate change. But when we move to the cultural and/or political arena, scientists might wince and become less interested. And the same goes when talking science to politicians, and so on. This is where we must improve! Our strength as humanity lies in our diverse sorts of intelligence! There are people who spend there entire lives studying one type of protozoan in the ocean, and others who dedicate their lives to a specific area of policy-making, or anthropologists who study one native culture in a lost corner of the Amazon, or an engineer who spends his career trying to improve the efficiency of a solar panel, and so on. Collectively, we know so much about SO much! But all that intellect doesn’t do us much good if we can’t collaborate!? We MUST come together and respect each other’s knowledge to come up with viable solutions!? We need each other!

But how do we get people to come together? I believe we can start on a person-to-person level. That means you and I have the power to make a difference! We must respect each other before we can accomplish our united goals. And before we can truly respect others, we must respect and love ourselves! But how do we learn to love and respect ourselves? We follow our dreams and passions! If we live up to our potential, and always try our best, we feel good about ourselves. Then, when we see others feeling down, we want to bring them up! We might remember how it feels to feel down, and start to see that we are all struggling with the same human problems. We might see that we are not so isolated, different, and separate from everyone else. Then, we might start to feel connected to each other. Taking that a little farther, we could start seeing our connection to plants and animals, too! Even the air that we breathe and the water we drink all connect us to each other and to the Earth, and all deserve respect! Once we feel this connection, it’s much easier to motivate everyone to work together for the Earth! We are all links on a long chain, and a chain link isn’t much good on its own!

So, to connect with all the other links in the chain of humanity and the web of life on Earth, we must try to understand each other! We can start by simply being nicer to each other. Try thinking of all humans like one big family. As for understanding other cultures, if you can’t hop a plane to Peru or Africa tomorrow, you can start by learning another language, or reading up on current international events, other simply spinning the globe. Wherever your finger stops, ‘Google’ it! Reading certainly expands our base of knowledge, but when traveling is an option, I think that experiencing the world with our own eyes and hearts always brings us a more complete perspective. A book or article will always have the author’s view invisibly inscribed in the way he or she tells the story. That view might be a little different than the way you see it once you are there in person. And, who knows, it might be your perspective and creativity that uncovers a new, real-world solution!

By traveling and seeing how other people around the world live, I’m expanding my understanding and perspective on the problems we as humans face. At the same time, I’m also expanding my attachment to all of humanity. Strangers from all over world often offer their help, a meal, or simply a smile.  In turn, I love and care about them! The same goes for the animals and plants that have enriched my journey, too! I now feel like a citizen of Planet Earth, rather than a member of just one country.

Another important thing to consider is that people in third world countries look to the first world for ideas about how to live. In this sense, we have a duty to become good leaders and set good environmental examples, because Earth cannot support all the human population living the way we do in the UK and the US. So by becoming green leaders, we encourage the rest of the world to follow suit.

Lastly, I’m sorry to report that I haven’t found a single remaining corner of Earth that is unaffected by humans. Before leaving, I imagined arriving to a far away island with perfectly flourishing ecosystems and no pollution. I have yet to find that island! The most remote islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean have plastic washing up on their shores and foreign-based fisheries overfishing their waters. There is nowhere to hide, so we must make quick progress toward real solutions!

Some of you might consider choosing a Pacific atoll for your project, like those in the area where I am sailing now. Atolls are amazing land forms. They are actually sunken islands from millions of years ago, where the surrounding coral reefs kept growing up while the island itself sunk away. These rings of coral rise to only about 2 meters above sea level. They host extraordinary coral reef ecosystems, which are as biologically diverse as rainforests, and certainly as beautiful in their own way! When I think about the future of these atolls, I wonder…how will the coral adapt to rising sea levels and temperatures? Where will the local people go if the sea level rises? And is it fair that the people here make a tiny ecological footprint compared to those of us living in the USA and Europe, yet they will incur an enormous impact?

Best of luck to you all and let me know how it goes!…Together we can make the world a better place!

Lots of Love,

Liz and Swell

Your Mother’s Calling…

Simply respecting all life on Earth makes us a part of something GREAT!

Even way out here, I rarely feel that ‘far away’ from humanity anymore. Not only is there plenty of plastic as a human reminder on the beaches, but we have so many amazing ways to connect and be involved in each other’s lives without being physically together. This technology certainly makes spending these long stretches away from my family less difficult! But it seems when I’m in California, the amount of time we all spend looking at our phones hardly leaves us enough time to notice the weather!

The last few months have been somewhat of a pilgrimage back to the nature for me. With sporadic use of phones and internet…away from cars and advertisements…television and news…facebook and movies, I’ve noticed feeling connected to something that doesn’t require a 2-year contract for a phone upgrade—Earth! And I’ve begun to think we may really be missing out on something. I’ve asked myself over and over lately. What is it that I get from giving nature my attention? What is it that I crave about these faraway places, beyond uncrowded waves and unpolluted water? I’ve concluded that the answer is quite simple: I love to bear witness to wild Earth. It simply makes me feel good. There is an energy that I feel near wilderness—almost like I can hear nature resonating! But once we’ve chopped, cropped and paved, that energy seems subdued. There is simply a different feeling developed places give off…When I find a less human-effected corner of the earth, I feel like I’m witnessing the wild world rejoicing, sparkling, thriving, and flaunting it’s splendor–and I love it!! But these corners are so rare and even the farthest removed places on Earth are being destroyed by climate change…Will these atolls even be above sea level in a hundred years?

We have come a long way from moving at nature’s pace, and it seems to only be getting faster at an exponential rate. That makes sailing a small boat long distances rather special because you don’t have a choice but to work with nature, at nature’s speed. You must wait for the wind to change. You must feel the wetness of the rain and salt. You don’t have jet fuel to push past it…you have to work with it, understand it, give yourself to it. Being at the whim of nature is something we feel relatively little compared to the humans who lived before us. And despite that they missed out on flat screens and frozen yogurt, is there something much bigger that we in this era might be missing? Could it be that being close to nature makes us feel whole? Could it be that recognizing our connection to the rest of life, the elements, and the universal energy that makes all the electrons spin is good for us!?…I feel so good to be a part of such greatness!! Might it fill us with purpose and an intangible wealth to celebrate Earth’s diversity of life? To foster clean rivers, delight in teeming oceans, and see how much love we can bestow upon our Planet? Could it be that giving this love to nature automatically gives us something in return—something we can’t hold in our hands, but in our hearts?

I don’t think it takes a lengthy foray into the wilderness to experience this connection…it can be as simple as respecting the plants and animals that are native to your neighborhood. And just turning off your phone every once and a while to watch the clouds…

Long hours in paradise…

Rocky and Poppi do plenty of fishing themselves…

An atoll away from the site of my ‘big cry’, I found a little more reason for hope…Here was an atoll that had been inhabited by a single family for many generations. I spent some time getting to know Gaston and Valentine, 2 of the 5 people that still permanently live there. Working with some regional environmentalists, they’d agreed to dedicate their atoll as a part of a new program in French Polynesia called “BIOSPHERE”. They are attempting to institute marine reserves in select areas of each archipelago.

Gaston & Val…loading the last of their copra.

Gaston and Valentine’s bay is a perfect cut in the reef for passing sailboats to find shelter, so Gaston has installed 15 moorings in their bay to prevent damage to the coral from the anchors of visiting sailboats. Fishing is limited, too–mating seasons and size limits are respected in all sorts of sea creature harvesting. In turn, the lagoon is rich and teeming with mature fish of a variety of species. Life seems so resilient when given a chance!

Firi firi, traditional Puamotu Sunday bread in the making.

Umo Umo, the rescued frigate, gets his dailies.

Mariah, the Napoleon wrasse, waiting for hers…

These two are a truly hardy duo. Life really gets back to the basics out here. It was refreshing to see how relatively self-sufficient and sustainably they live. Valentine’s family has inhabited this atoll for as many generations as she can trace. She doesn’t want to move to Papeete, like many outer island people do, as she claims people in the city have become ‘too spoiled and have forgotten the beauty of their land.’ Her motu fills her with daily joy. Of anyone I know, Valentine embodies ‘living simply’. But don’t confuse ‘living simply’ with living easily! Atoll life is hard work! Only hard work and respect for nature keeps food on their plates, clean water in their rain catchments, and the relentless entropy of tropical regions at bay. There is no phone, no village, no corner store (…but they do have satellite television!?! ) Every meal must be prepared from scratch, every drop of water must be carried or pumped from the catchments, every fish must be caught, every leaf must be raked and burned, the pigs and dogs must be fed (and their pet Napoleon wrasse and frigate bird!), and the vegetable garden tended. And every day it starts all over again…

The pigs munching on lobster scraps.

Without easy access to buy things, I noticed that things we would consider trash, like water bottles and rice bags, get used thoroughly and then reused again for something else–a habit that our consumer culture and marketing schemes teach us NOT to do!? Every six months or so, a cargo ship makes a special stop to deliver them flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil, motor oil, gasoline for the outboard, diesel for their generator, and a select few other items. But other than that, nature provides. If they drink a coconut, the coconut meat goes to the pigs. Their food scraps or extra fish from the fish trap feed the bird, the wrasse, and the dogs. They really understand that they must live within the limits of nature, without taking too much. If only they had a plastic-to-oil machine, virtually nothing would go to waste!

What if we all used things as thoroghly as this scrub brush?!

Work hard, eat well…a good philosophy!

Valentine, with her relentless cheer, cooks up meals that have become legendary among passing cruisers. Her wit and resourcefulness stem from an a ingrained Puamotu toughness that she prides herself in…Beaming between kneading the bread dough, she recounts stories of growing up without rice and flour, and learning to dive to depths of over 70 feet with her father, who was one of the most respected natural pearl divers of his time. “My father was afraid to die before he taught me how to live,” Valentine explained. Unfortunately, he died before he was 50, due to the deep diving…But I seemed to think that her father was resting at peace. From what I gathered, Valentine had been paid attention.

Better Must Come

The youth will inherit our mistakes…NOT fair!

A few days after the Napoleon breakdown, I went to talk at the elementary school in the nearby village, like I’ve been doing at various stops over the last few months. I give a presentation about plastic pollution its effect on marine life and use my sailing trip to help explain where currents and winds carry plastic that’s tossed in the ocean. I was thrilled to see that this island’s kids seemed especially bright and tuned in to the environmental basics…we even took an after school excursion to the village landfill!

Young minds expanding!

Talking trash at the village landfill…

The Great Napoleon Breakdown

the mega fauna are usually the first to take the hit…

That same week I spent hanging out with the fishes under Swell, I watched locals return day after day to fish the same spot in the reef. I could see them hauling up Napoleon wrasses. This great wrasse is an instrumental reef species, which can grow to nearly 400 lbs! One of the old men in the village explained to me that the fishermen sell the fish to the passing cargo ships for the equivalent of 1 dollar a pound. The ships then resell them in Tahiti to restaurants for triple that or more–as there are relatively no Napoleon wrasses left in the Society Islands, they’ve been almost completely fished out. This contributes to the out of control population of ‘crown of thorns’, a starfish-like organism that feeds on live coral. The Napoleon wrasse is one of its few predators.

So on the fourth consecutive day of Napoleon massacring, my curiosity got the best of me and I went to talk to the fishermen. It was a father and son, obviously fishing for a little food and money their family. How could I possibly tell them they shouldn’t take so many of these fish…How could I say anything, having lived a life of so many blessings. How could I explain that the Napoleons are

excruciatingly sensitive to overfishing, and that it was likely that they could kill off their island’s population in just a few seasons of this kind of relentless killing…? I couldn’t. They wrestled three up from the bottom as I drifted beside their boat. They proudly lifted the floorboards to show me the stock of 6 or 7 others they had caught before I arrived. One was not even a foot long.

I gently posed the question, “Would it be good to leave some that will continue to reproduce?”

“It’s ok.” The older man said. “There are SO many,”

…so many that it didn’t matter… “Would it matter to their grandchildren?” I wondered.

As the day went on, I tried to get the Napoleon wrasse off my mind, but I couldn’t. The megafauna of an ecosystem are historically always the first to take the brunt of the human hunt. And if a species isn’t prone to being hunted for something to eat or sell, it falls victim to the next wrung of human negligence–habitat loss. If it isn’t edible or valuable, then bulldoze it’s home, poison its waters, because it isn’t useful anyway…It was this kind of thinking that got us where we are today, on the brink of species extinctions in every habitat the world over.

I’d seen the same scene–island after island, port after port. But for some reason this particular island’s situation brought everything into painful perspective. It historically supported a small enough population of humans, as to be able to feed the population without depleting the fisheries and was remote enough that selling fish to other regions wasn’t possible. But like the world over, once an area had depleted its resources, populations look to neighboring areas: Tahiti now looks to the Tuamotus to supply much of its fish. But will the Puamotu people realize before they’ve taken too much? How long before their islands were as fish-depleted as Tahiti? It seems like a horrible broken record I’ve witnessed playing over and over all over the world in varied environmental scenarios. Each comes with its own mixed bag of political, cultural, and economic differences, but at the core they all seem eerily similar…And with the way the world works and basic human nature, we still seem far from where we need to be to collaborate and produce long-term, sustainable solutions to these problems!

That night I sat up on the bow of Swell. Looking up at the wide atoll sky, I suddenly started to cry. My tears came first for the napoleon fish. And then for the other reef fish that would be sure to follow. And then I cried for the next generations, who might only see a Napoleon wrasse in a photo…Tears came rushing out for the children, not only here on this tiny speck of island, but also for all the world’s children…what kind of world will be left for them? And surely they will ask us why we didn’t take better care of the Planet…The tears snowballed into sobs…and I cried on into the night, because the Earth is slowly dying: its biological richness depleting, its rivers and oceans and skies choked with our waste, its wildness tamed by bulldozers and plows…And still, the majority of the humans are either ambivalent, feel too powerless to do anything, or lack education. And individually, most of us are just doing our best to get by everyday…so who’s really at fault?

The tears eventually subsided, but one thought stuck with me: No matter how humans came to control this noble planet, I am certain we have greatly misinterpreted our role as Earth’s most ‘intelligent’ beings, tragically overlooking our duty to be stewards rather than looters, of this unfathomably awesome orb of life.

The Coral Question…

Coral reefs create living liquid masterpieces in motion!

I’m back!  Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving!! 🙂

The swell was running a few days late, leaving me plenty of time to spend with my underwater neighbors. The coral is alive just here below Swell. I made a mooring with a piece of chain wrapped carefully around the bottom of a coral head, so as not to hurt the living coral. I submerge myself and enter the liquid world–a living masterpiece in motion! Long beams of light strike, dance, and scatter across the myriad coral forms, fingers, bumps, lumps, purple, blue, pink, yellow…Invisible currents swirl and tug. I dive.

Detail extorted at close range…my many fish friends appear. The blue spotted coral grouper comes out to patrol his coral rock like a nightclub bouncer. The yellow tangs waft over the reef together in a flock, grazing on algae like sheep at pasture.

Two African pompanos flash across my periphery—trailing long streamers off their fins, 10 ft or more. Running low on air, I meticulously check the mooring line then jet to the surface. Rest, hover, breathe…and down again…I’m engulfed in a school of nervous, black striped jacks—they look like they just made a jailbreak and don’t know where to go. A yellow trumpetfish hovers behind, like he doesn’t exist amidst the chaos, what possible evolutionary advantage is that color!? I reach the bottom, gripping rock. The shy little squirrelfish–night plankton eaters–stay in the holes of the rocks all day, peering out with one round black eye. Oh, a lionfish! How does he fit in that hole with all those long delicate fins? He looks like he’s stuck in an uncomfortable Halloween costume. The butterfly fish, bannerfish, and Moorish idols seem engrossed in a never-ending beauty pageant—strutting their stripes and fancy fins. The long finger coral host families of blue and yellow chromis. They expand from the fingers and withdraw back to them in perfect unison at the slightest notion of danger.

My lungs burn and I shoot for the surface…the baby balihoos are always there to greet me. Keeping their long little snouts wiggling along just out of reach. From up here I notice a barracuda prowling the deep-water edge like a spy. I suck a gulp of air…

Down again. Parrotfish go about their carefree coral munching—they pass in classic teal greens, but also pinks, white, black, brown, and even orangey-yellow. The gobies rest on the rocks on their pectoral fins, hanging together like gossiping 14 year olds. A triggerfish bumbles by like a belligerent clown. A cowfish gives me a look like she just left the salon with a bad haircut. A couple of goatfish tickle the sand with their funny beards and a peacock flounder is frozen to the seafloor, moving only his eyeballs as I hover over him…I need air. The surface glistens above. I pass through a school of unicornfish, twirling their horns in the upper currents, gathering plankton.

I’m high on the incomprehensible complexity of this underwater world…Each organism participating in the great underwater symphony I’ve just witnessed. Its harmony the result of an unimaginable time span of evolutionary fine-tuning and fermenting into this fervent, sumptuous stew of life…

But what will be left here a hundred years from now? Will they survive the rising sea temperatures and levels, overfishing and pollution? As ‘far away’ as I felt at that moment, I shuddered: NO WHERE will be far enough to escape the effects of climate change…

Gone Sailing…Hang with Thich

"The world of form and color is a miracle that offers blissful joys every day. After we have this realization, we cannot look at the blue sky and the white clouds without smiling." _Thich Nhat Hanh

I’m on a passage…not sure when I’ll find the world wide web again, so until then, I’m leaving you to ponder my favorite quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh’s early journals in Fragrant Palm Leaves:

“Clinging to what you have learned is worse than not learning it in the first place.” 

“Let compassion pour from your eyes and don’t let a ripple of blame or anger rise up in your heart.” 

“One is always the first beneficiary of one’s own good acts.” 

“They did not know that when the mind divides reality up, when it judges and discriminates, it kills paradise. Please do not scold the sunlight. Do not chastise the clear stream or the little birds of spring.” 

“Our eyes are filled with dust. There is no need to seek a Pure Land somewhere else. We only need to lift our heads and see the moon and the stars. The essential quality is awareness.” 

“Most important is knowing how to ride the waves of impermanence, smiling as one who knows he has never been born and will never die.”  “Begin by looking deeply at yourself and seeing how miraculous your body is…Consider your eyes. How can we take something as wonderful as our eyes for granted? Yet we do. We don’t look deeply at these wonders. We ignore them, and as a result, we lose them. It’s as though our eyes don’t exist. Only when we’re struck blind do we realize how precious our eyes were, and then its too late…” 

“If we want freedom, we must invite those phantoms up to our conscious mind, not to fight with them, like the old man fishing for snakes, but to befriend them. If we don’t, they will trouble us everyday. If we wait for the right moment to invite them up, we’ll be ready to meet them, and eventually, they will become benign.” 

“The best medicine to chase away the heart’s dark isolation is to make direct contact with life’s sufferings, to touch and share the anxieties and uncertainties of others.” 

“Life is simpler here, and it fills my heart with love…I’m not romanticizing poverty, but I have seen people in affluent societies suffer from loneliness, alienation, and boredom, problems unimaginable here.” 

“The destructive capacity of nonstop busyness rivals nuclear weapons and is as addictive as opium. It empties the life of the spirit. False heroes find it easier to make war than deal with the emptiness in their own souls. They may complain about never having time to rest, but the truth is, if they were given time to rest, they would not know what to do.” 

“Without fierce resolve and a mature spiritual life, private demons cannot be controlled.”