by Denny Kaill
San Juan Island
The Covid-19 virus has caused considerable world-wide economic and physical suffering, if not death, with the end nowhere in sight. But curiously, during the initial stages when populations were directed to shelter in place, surprising contrasts became evident; as the result of reduced traffic, satellite pictures from space showed polluted cities worldwide with clearing air.
And in our own small space on the planet it was like time travel, San Juan Island as it was 30 years ago: there was little traffic then, you could park anywhere, leave the key in the ignition. Most German cars were Volkswagons. The amusement park rides of the tomato cars and flagged mopeds were still in the future. The big Jolly Trolleys (neither trolleys nor jolly if you were stuck behind in the vacuum sucking dirt into the air; roll up your windows) were a distant entity. The Disneyfication of the island had yet to be.
The killer whales, soon to be politically correct “orcas,” were just another part of island wildlife. I was working at a marina on the west side and when the whales were going by we might get in a skiff to go out to watch them in appreciation for a few minutes, maybe not. We observed them like we would a pileated woodpecker or a young otter swimming through a school of herring. It was all part of the same awareness. In 1990 there was enough chinook for the whales to eat, and flotillas of tour boats were still over the horizon. Like the rest of the island, the whales had yet to become a commodity.
Thirty years later, in the relationship between people and orcas, they’re not doing so well. There are lots of people living off the orcas while the orcas get nothing, actually less than nothing, in return. If I were being uncharitable I would say this is a parasitic relationship, and while a parasite usually doesn’t kill its host, so far the jury is out. They are not getting enought to eat. Not having enough to eat results in “peanut head,” a starving condition that can release toxins as their fat reserves burn away, the toxins a result of pollution by … people. Less than nothing.
In 1990 the islands hadn’t yet been promulgated, advertised or brochured. They hadn’t built it yet so not many came. But like the recent air over Beijing, the pleasant surprise of sequestered islands was temporary and we’re back to 2020, masks and all.
There is a syndrome biologists call shifting baselines, a form of chronic long-term amnesia that causes each successive generation to accept its own degraded ecology as normal. Salmon fishermen who rejoice at catching ten-pound chinook forget that the generation before hauled out fifty-pounders. Every year our standards slip a little further; every year we lose more and remember less.