Category Archives: On writing

Email notifications for blog posts are back following disruption

Some of you may have noticed that you were no longer receiving email notifications of posts to the blog “Watching Our Water Ways.” Somehow, around the middle of October, this function just disappeared. I’ve been trying to get it back, and now, thanks to some behind-the-scenes work, email notification of new blog posts is back in operation.

I’ll concede that some people probably never noticed the lapse, and others might have been happy to avoid the email. But I’m pleased that many people continued to read the blog and offer their comments. This email function, along with RSS, allows people to quickly see a topic and decide if they would like to continue reading.

If you want to sign up for email notifications, simply type your email and zipcode into the box in the right column under the recent comments.

As always, my primary goal is to focus on issues related to Puget Sound, but I’m open to conversations about anything water-related. Each Monday, I try to feature something a little off-beat, humorous, artful or amazing.

I’m always open to comments and suggestions. If you have a moment, please let me know if you think this blog is worthwhile, and let me know what kind of topics you would like to me to write about.

Here are some of the Water Ways headlines (with links) from the past six weeks that you might have missed:

Amusing Monday: Finding a pathway to enjoy great poetry

I’ve been reading at least one poem a day for awhile, thanks to the American Academy of Poets, which delivers a poem by email each day of the week. Anyone can sign up for this service, called Poem-a-Day.

One poem I read a few months back has stayed with me, and I’ve read it again and again. It’s called “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane, and it is part of a “long-form” poem presented in a book published in 1930. I was captured by the mysterious symbolism, as I struggled to piece together what the narrator was observing and what Crane was saying in his lyrical manner. Here’s the poem, followed by some personal observations about writing:

To Brooklyn Bridge

By Hart Crane, 1899-1932

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

“To Brooklyn Bridge” apparently is one of the poems by American poets studied in college courses, but I never encountered it before. It offers a challenge of interpretation that was sometimes within my grasp but often just out of reach. I eventually succumbed to seeking out analyses of the poem by others, and I found it mentioned in a number of student study guides. I was drawn to a description by Schmoop.com, which includes this comment:

“Published in 1930, The Bridge was panned by many for being too darned difficult and wordy. We’ll say it straight up: This poem, like much of Crane’s work, is incredibly difficult in the sense of, ‘What the heck is this guy even talking about?’ But the payoff is worth it, because Crane is such a master of language that you’ll be carried away by the emotion and musicality of the poem even when you’re scratching your head. (Don’t worry – Shmoop is here to keep your head-scratchings to a minimum.)”

If you read on in the study guide, you learn about the stark, literal meanings in the poem, at least from Shmoop’s perspective. It did help me to fill in some blanks and complete the puzzle in one sense, but I rushed back to read the poem with its imaginative images and rhythmical style.

An audio recording of the poem accompanied by music and images can be enjoyed in the first video on this page. The second video is from Annenberg Media’s series “Voices & Visions,” which describe the life and work of 13 of America’s most famous modern poets.

Poetry is much different from news writing, of course. When writing about complex issues, I try to explain the concepts in a simple way without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Helping people go deep into a subject is like adding layers, one by one, while staying on firm ground. I try to be explicit, leaving little to the imagination.

Poetry is about describing things in ways that have never been said before, to encourage the reader to think and feel about things while stretching the imagination. Poetry can help writers of all kinds find a voice that is both familiar and grounded, yet imaginative and exciting.

I’ve written a lot about bridges and culverts and salmon-passage problems — the physical structures, the engineering challenges and the dynamic forces of water. But bridges also serve as a powerful symbol of change, representing movement from one place to another, passage of time from past to present to future, and, for some, a transcendence to a higher spiritual consciousness.

As one analyst mentioned in the Study Tiger guide:

“As mankind could build the Brooklyn Bridge in physical space, Crane seems to be saying that mankind can build the same kind of ‘bridge’ in their spiritual life to find a connection to God. Because Crane never states these poetic themes explicitly but leaves them for the reader to discover themselves, the act of reading and studying Crane’s lines can be thought of an another type of bridge, where learning the meaning of the poem is ‘walking across’ the bridge to a new kind of knowledge.”

Amusing Monday: Value of water featured in art contest for students

More than 1,300 students entered this year’s Water Resources Art and Poetry Contest, sponsored by New York City’s water utility, known as the Department of Environmental Protection. Some 60 winners were named as “Water Champions” by a panel of judges.

Art by Lily H., grades 6–7.
Photo: New York City DEQ Art and Poetry Contest

“For more than three decades, DEP’s annual Art and Poetry Contest has given young New Yorkers a wonderful opportunity to use their artistic abilities to learn about and express the importance of protecting our environment and water resources,” DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza said in a press release announcing the contest winners. “Nearly half the State of New York relies on the city’s water supply system, so this is a terrific way for students in both New York City and beyond to celebrate our shared natural resources.”

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Amusing Monday: How one composer connects music to nature’s wonder

Classical composer Alex Shapiro, who lives on San Juan Island, has a nice way of connecting music with her passion for the local waters in Puget Sound.

“When I’m not crawling around the shoreline and shooting photos of wildlife, I’m working on becoming a more adept note alignment specialist,” she writes in her blog “Notes from the Kelp.” “I compose music, mostly for chamber ensembles and symphonic wind bands who kindly offer my notes to the air and anyone within earshot.”

“Notes from the Kelp” is a nice play on words, since it is both the name of a blog and an album of music, two ways of communicating with people about what Alex calls a “heartbreakingly beautiful part of the planet.”

The first video on this page is Alex’s composition “Deep” from “Notes from the Kelp.” When I close my eyes and listen to this piece, I think about scuba diving along the bottom of Puget Sound in very cold waters. In my vision, I first encounter all sorts of bottom-dwelling organisms, such as sea pens and sea urchins, but the music also inspires a feeling of doom, which I associate with low-oxygen dead zones where nothing can live.

Here’s what Alex writes about “Deep”: “Sometimes I make the mistake of believing that I’m not being unless I’m doing and moving. This piece was my challenge to myself to be still and present. And in doing so, I’ve never been as much before. Like the sea, my truth lies below, and I am happiest when I am immersed.”

The second video shows clarinetist Jeff Gallagher performing Alex’s “Water Crossing” during a concert in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2016. Alex writes about what she was thinking during the composition process in the “Recordings” section of her website. She describes a mythical voyage in a canoe that turns into a sailboat. Dolphins dance ahead of the boat before it returns to the safety of shore.

I have spent some time lately perusing this “Recordings” page for a smorgasbord of music and observations on life. It’s here you can find a list of Alex’s musical contributions, listen to recordings and read about her music.

I first learned about Alex and her work from the third video on this page. It was created as a promotion for the University of Washington, yet Alex finds a way to talk about the importance of science and how her music is like scientific exploration. The San Juan Islands, where she lives, has always been an important place to study sea life and shoreline dynamics — and it’s not just because the islands are home to the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Alex has been traveling a lot lately and working on various projects, as she freely describes on her Facebook page. Also, as it turns out, she is moving from the home on San Juan Island that she has written so passionately about. But she’s not going far, since her new home is another waterfront location on San Juan Island. I look forward to further notes from the kelp.

Composer and music professor Kyle Gann wrote about Alex and her life in Chamber Music magazine (PDF 108 kb) in May 2008.

A further search for truth among stories about climate change

When it comes to reports of climate change, I cannot escape “fake news,” which I define as wholly made up with little basis in fact. More often than not, however, what I observe are news stories in which the reporters exaggerate or simply misunderstand the results of scientific studies.

In a confusing landscape of climate news, it is not easy to know what to believe. That’s why we need news reporters who work hard to get things right by understanding the science and conveying information in a meaningful way.

Key to the effort is figuring out which studies are even worthy of mention. A huge red flag for me is when I read a report from a so-called scientist who gathers no original data of his or her own, but instead grabs information from someone else’s peer-reviewed report and totally changes the conclusions of the original author.

Credibility of top climate stories (click to enlarge)
Source: Climate Feedback

“Climate Feedback,” a website in which climate scientists review the accuracy and tone of news stories, can help us understand the complexities of climate and identify reporters who tend to get things right. One drawback of the website is its focus on a national audience, which leaves out stories by numerous reporters working at mid-sized and smaller newspapers and magazines.

Still, I was delighted to see a new article on the website that looked at the top 25 climate stories that went viral during 2017. Many of these stories were new to me, and the analysis helped me to get a feeling for the inflammatory and untrue nature of some stories floating around the Internet.

Out of the 25 stories most viewed and commented upon, climate scientists considered only about half of them to be highly credible, containing no major errors or misleading descriptions. Because of its widespread readership, seven of the most-read articles were from the New York Times, which was rated highly for scientific accuracy.

Of the top five articles getting the most public attention, all contained some credibility problems. Among them, an article in New York Magazine titled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” was found to be overly sensational by Climate Feedback reviewers. Author David Wallace-Wells intentionally looked for the most extreme conditions imaginable under climate change scenarios, though he accurately described several scientific studies. After the criticism, Wallace-Wells followed up with detailed notes in annotated format to support his approach.

Another top-five article, called “Ship of Fools — Global Warming Study Cancelled Because of ‘Unprecedented’ Ice,” was criticized by Climate Feedback reviewers for its sarcastic tone and omission of basic facts. Author James Delingpole of Breitbart News seemed to ignore the idea that sea ice could be pushing south out of the Arctic as a result of — or irrespective of — climate change. Was the article intended as a joke? Stories like this, which discount global warming on flimsy circumstances, frequently get passed around on Facebook, and they drive scientists crazy. University of Manitoba professor David Barber explained what happened in a note, and a UM news release called the Breitbart piece “stunningly ill-informed.”

The remaining three of the top five stories — from National Geographic, BBC and The Atlantic — were described as “neutral” with only a few problematic issues. The main criticism of the National Geographic story, which described the effects of climate change on polar bears, was the apparent suggestion that a specific polar bear (shown in a photograph) was starving because of climate change, whereas nobody knows what had happened to that particular bear.

Seeing all the researchers’ comments on these stories is very revealing. I hope to go through all of them, learning more about climate change, both from the articles and the reviews. See “Most popular climate change stories of 2017 reviewed by scientists.”

While on the topic of scientific information, I’d like to again share a source to which I am somewhat addicted. Science Daily is really nothing more than a collection of news releases from universities and other institutions where research is being conducted.

These news items, usually approved by the researchers themselves, are written for nonscientists. They are often the first glimpse that we can get into new findings. As such, one must be cautious, because new findings do not always pan out. The website links directly to the original scientific papers and news sources, and it sorts by topic, such as “Climate News.” One can also sign up for email notifications.

Remembering an unusual visit from orcas some 20 years ago

It was 20 years ago that people living on Dyes Inlet and in the surrounding community enjoyed a rare visit from 19 killer whales. The 19 orcas, all members of L-pod, stayed an entire month in one place, something never seen before or since. The whales arrived on Oct. 20 and left on Nov. 19.


Orca Audio Slideshow (Needs Flash)

For me, it was a time of awakening to the amazing social structure of Southern Resident killer whales. I had been writing about orcas for years, but I never got to know the individual whales like I did in the fall of 1997.

It was inspiring to learn how their close-knit families generally stay together for life, how orca relatives often help out with caring for the young, how they work together to find and capture food.

I owe much to Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, two young researchers who observed the whales for most of the month the orcas were in Dyes Inlet. Kelley describes his observations in the slideshow on this page. He made the recording on the 10th anniversary of the Dyes Inlet visit. Just click on the whale image above.

I wrote a brief summary of the event in a Kitsap Sun story on Oct. 20, 2007.

The year 1997 was close to the high point for the Southern Resident population, which grew to 98 animals. It took about 25 years to reach that number after a large segment of the population was captured and taken away for aquariums. As the Southern Resident population declined after 1997, the Southern Residents were proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In 2005, they were declared an endangered species. Today, their numbers have declined to 76, the lowest number in 30 years.

Killer whale experts talk about how orcas in the wild can live as long as humans given the right conditions. Yet things have not been going well for the Southern Residents. Of the 19 whales that visited Dyes Inlet 20 years ago, seven orcas are still alive:

  • L-47, a 43-year-old female named Marina, who has three offspring and two grand-offspring. The two oldest were with her in Dyes Inlet, and a younger calf, L-115 named Mystic, was born in 2010.
  • L-83, a 27-year-old female named Moonlight. She is the oldest daughter of L-47 (Marina) and had her first offspring, L-110 named Midnight, in 2007.
  • L-91, a 22-year-old female named Muncher. She is the second daughter of L-47 (Marina). In 2015, Muncher had an offspring of her own, L-122, a male named Magic.
  • L-90, a 24-year-old female named Ballena who was 4 years old in Dyes Inlet with her mother Baba (L-26), sister Rascal (L-60) and brother Hugo (L-71). Her mother died in 2013, her sister in 2002 and brother in 2006.
  • L-92, a 22-year-old male named Crewser who was 2 years old when he was in Dyes Inlet with his mom, L-60 named Rascal, who died in 2002. Now Crewser is often seen with his aunt, Ballena (L-90).
  • L-55, a 40-year-old female named Nugget. Her oldest offspring, L-82 named Kasatka, was with her in Dyes Inlet along with her 1-year-old calf, L-96, who died a short time after leaving Dyes Inlet. Her next calf, Lapis (L-103), was born in 2003, followed by Takoda (L-109) in 2007 and Jade (L-118) in 2011. All are females except Takoda and the baby who died at a year old. Lapis had her first calf, L-123 named Lazuli, in 2015.
  • L-82, a 27-year-old female named Kasatka who was 7 years old when she was with her mom and baby brother in Dyes Inlet. Kasatka had her first offspring, Finn (L-116), a male, in 2010, making Nugget a grandmother.

The Dyes Inlet experience is something I will never forget, and I know many other people in the Puget Sound region feel the same way. I would be happy to publish stories from those who would like to share their experiences. Feel free to write something in the comments field below.

One of my favorite memories from that time was going out at night in a boat on Dyes Inlet with researcher Jodi Smith. All the other boats had gone home. The air was cold and quiet. Jody dropped a hydrophone down into the water, and the speaker on the boat burst forth with all kinds of pops and screeches coming from the whales. You can read the story I wrote in the Kitsap Sun archives and listen to the recording we made that night (below).

      1. Whales in Dyes Inlet

During that time in 1997, I personally got to know some of the leading marine mammal experts in our region. I even developed some ever-lasting friendships. While I wish that things would go better for our beloved orcas, I am thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day, for that time 20 years ago.

Social advice for the environmentally conscious among us

Grist, the sassy Seattle-based webzine focused on environmental news and commentary, has been running a series of advice columns called “The 21-day apathy detox.”

The title says much about the series, which is written for environmentally minded folks who have given up late-night Facebook fights and fancy salads and now find themselves parked in front of the television doing nothing but wondering if there is a future for our species.

Umbra Fisk // Image: Grist

“Can I learn to hope again?” comes the question from such a person begging for help from Umbra Fisk, Grist’s advice columnist who writes on the environmental and climate-change front.

“Well, you’ve found the right advice columnist,” Umbra replies. “I’m here to quietly change your Facebook password and not-so-quietly offer the best tools, tricks, and advice to help you fight for a planet that doesn’t burn and a future that doesn’t suck. You’ll build civic muscles, find support buddies, and better your community!”

Umbra’s 21 tips, coming to a conclusion tomorrow, focus on personal, social and political habits. The ideas are crafted so thoughtfully that one might be tempted to try them all — from “meet your neighbors” to “green your power sources” to “fight city hall.” But even if you do none of the specific actions, the series may convince you that personal actions really do count.

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Amusing Monday: Science is music when data becomes sound

Nearly everyone who deals in scientific information learns to read simple charts and graphs to help visualize the data. As a reporter, I’m often looking for the right graph to bring greater meaning to a story. In a similar way, some people have been experimenting with rendering data into sound, and some of the more musically inclined folks have been creating songs with notes and musical scales.

As with graphs, one must understand the conceptual framework before the meaning becomes clear. On the other hand, anyone can simply enjoy the music — or at least be amused that the notes themselves are somehow transformed from observations of the real world.

The first video on this page, titled “Bloom,” contains a “song” derived from microorganisms found in the English Channel. The melody depicts the relative abundance of eight different types of organisms found in the water as conditions change over time. Peter Larsen, a biologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, explains how he created the composition to Steve Curwood, host of the radio program “Living on Earth.”

      1. Living on Earth

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Amusing Monday: celebrating our national parks with poems

To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, 50 poets are writing about a park in each of the 50 states. Some poems speak of the splendor of nature, while others focus on the struggles of human beings. All of them make emotional connections to place.

River of Grass, Everglades National Park Photo: G. Gardner, National Park Service
River of Grass, Everglades National Park
Photo: G. Gardner, National Park Service

The poetry was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets as part of “Imagine Your Parks,” a grant program from the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the National Park Service. The idea is to use the arts to connect people with the memorable places within the national parks.

Each Thursday this fall, five poems are being published on a special website, “Imagine Our Parks with Poems.” As of last week, half of the poems have been published. The one for Washington state is still to come. The following is a sampling of the poetry. For more information, click on the name of the poem or the author.

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A few random thoughts about reporting and environmental science

After leaving the staff of the Kitsap Sun, I was profoundly thrilled and honored this year to have my environmental reporting career recognized by two organizations that I greatly respect.

The two awards got me to thinking about the role that environmental reporters can play in bridging the gap between scientists studying the Puget Sound ecosystem and residents wishing to protect this beloved place.

Great Peninsula Conservancy, which plays a central role in acquiring and protecting vital ecosystems on the Kitsap Peninsula, chose to honor me with its Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is especially humbling, because I see myself as a storyteller, not a conservationist. But I was reminded that stories can help bring people together to accomplish great things. One major project that involves GPC and its many partners is the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project, a major land-acquisition effort in North Kitsap.

gpc logo

When I attended GPC’s annual fund-raising dinner in April, it felt like some sort of reunion. People I had known for years from all sorts of organizations and agencies came up to shake my hand. Some I knew very well. For nearly everyone, I could look back over more than 35 years of reporting and recall their connection to one or more environmental stories. It was a bit overwhelming.

The second award, from the SeaDoc Society, was equally satisfying, since it recognized my work across the Puget Sound region. The Octopus Award acknowledges groups and individuals outside SeaDoc who have advanced the organization’s goal of protecting the health of marine wildlife.

seadoc logo

SeaDoc’s director and chief scientist, Dr. Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian, has a rare ability. He not only conducts research with a precision required to advance science, but he also communicates general scientific knowledge in ways we can all understand. I cannot count the times I’ve asked Joe to help me put some ecological issue into perspective.

Joe teamed up recently with author Audrey DeLella Benedict to write an informative and entertaining book about the inland waterway that extends from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C., including Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The title is “The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”

Unlike my experience at the GPC dinner, I knew only a handful of people at SeaDoc’s annual fund-raising auction on Orcas Island two weeks ago. I was able to become acquainted with many wonderful people who seemed interested in all aspects of the Puget Sound ecosystem. I was SeaDoc’s guest for the entire weekend, which turned into a much-needed mini-vacation. It was the first time I’ve been able to get away this year.

For whatever success I’ve had in my career, I owe a debt to all the scientists willing to give their time to help me understand their research. Science is a journey of discovery, and I’ve been privileged to hitchhike with all sorts of researchers on their way to understanding how the world works.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teaching of science and the need to encourage future researchers. Although I have a degree in biochemistry, I’ve never worked as a scientist — unless you count the year I toiled as a lab assistant growing tomato plants. It was a research project designed to figure out how the plants protect themselves from damaging insects.

I grew up believing that science was a particular set of facts that explained the workings of nature. For the longest time, I failed to see that the most important thing about science was formulating the right questions about things we don’t know. Science teachers should, of course, convey what is known, but I believe they should also lead their students to the edge of the unknown, revealing some of the questions that scientists are attempting to answer right now.

That is what much of my reporting on Puget Sound has been about. We’ve known for years that the health of the waterway is in decline. It has been rewarding to help people understand why things have been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the downward trends. While there is much work to do, we’re at a point where we can expect Puget Sound residents to limit their damage to the ecosystem and become part of the restoration effort.

Finally, I have some advice for science reporters and scientists alike. I feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to connect well with researchers, though I’ve heard it said that the relationship between reporters and scientists can be rough at times.

I’ve known reporters who are more interested in getting a scoop than in learning, more interested in getting to some perceived conclusion than in understanding the whys and hows. I’ve also known scientists who are convinced that their research is too complex for reporters to grasp, not to mention write about accurately.

For myself, it has always worked to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Gathering far more information than I need for today’s story, I find that this wandering gives me a better understanding of the big picture while identifying future stories. Thanks to those who have tolerated my detailed questioning.

Scientists also can take steps to make sure they are well understood. Spell out key points for reporters, go over the essential elements more than once, and even put information in writing if a reporter seems to need some extra help.

When this kind of collaboration is successful, the result is a story that captures the imagination, provides accurate information and sometimes even changes the way people see the world.