Author Archives: UncommonLoon

About UncommonLoon

I'm a bumbling 20-something with a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife, no plans, and a lot of hobbies.

Castaway 7: Homecoming

If this strange journey has taught me one thing, it’s that time truly is relative. That it’s possible to notice the passing of an individual day more than an entire month. That doing nothing really does expand time; and that this is not always a good thing. That familiarity can make time contract and vast stretches seem to fall into a void, knitting together edges of your life that stood across vast oceans before. That it takes conscious effort not to allow this familiarity to become complacency.

When I saw the Imua pulling up to the same wharf we’d been left at six months prior, I almost could have forgotten the space between the two events. Its image was so familiar that I might have wondered if I’d dreamt the whole thing in a Dramamine-fueled coma. But the overwhelming delight at seeing new, yet familiar, faces was evidence enough of my isolation. Upon stepping off the ship, one of the Fish and Wildlife employees we love the most handed us all a perfectly ripe banana. Never has a piece of fruit brought me so much joy.

The changeover with the new CAST crew was a whirlwind of social activity. My crew and I filled the new crew’s minds with more information than could possibly have been retained, trying to pass on as much of our knowledge of the strange home they were inheriting before our time came to an end. I was surprised by how quickly my awkwardness at seeing new people after six months faded. As a person with a history of social anxiety, I expected to be especially plagued by those feelings when the insecurity of being unpracticed entered the picture. But it actually seemed that my sheer exuberance at the interactions was enough to cloud the doubts I would normally feel. Though I had to retire early after dinner on the first day to decompress a bit, I felt very socially competent most of the week. In the days that followed I believe I’ve even come close to experiencing what it’s like to be extroverted. I have chosen to sit at a bar twice instead of a table to interact with strangers. I have made pleasant comments that could lead to conversations with line companions. I’ve smiled at babies. Who am I?

When the ship finally began to pull away from Johnston, I was somewhat startled by how little I felt. Though it had been a home to me for longer than several other places I’d lived, I was just so ready to move on. Leaving it in the hands of new friends also made the separation feel less final. I did realize with a twinge of sadness that I’d neglected to say goodbye to my garden. But when I shouted across the growing divide to the new crew members “don’t forget to water!”, they responded with “just did this morning!”and I knew it was never my garden and it didn’t need me. It was on to bigger and better things too.

As Johnston boobies flapped alongside the boat and the island grew smaller and smaller, I felt relief more than anything else. Though I experienced true seasickness for the first time during the return trip (not recommended), I found the opportunity for rest it provided a godsend. Upon arriving in Honolulu, there wasn’t much time to revel in the amenities of civilization. Boat disembarking immediately turned to boat unloading, and the work continued in a frenzy until everything was moved back to the bunkhouse we’d stayed at in November. It was surreal to be back in that place. Once again I started to feel suspiciously like I’d never left. But the new faces that greeted us inside begged to differ.

My first foray into city life was sublime. My crew mate and I made a bee-line for our favorite bar. We ordered the beers and pub food we’d dreamed about so many times on-island. We saw rainbows over Diamond Head and listened to the cacophony of urban sounds. We reveled in a hard job well done and the pleasures that awaited us.

My journey finally came to its climatic close at the Detroit airport. Five in the morning on June 22nd, 2019 stands as the only time I have run through an airport without trying to catch a flight. Throwing down my bags to embrace my parents and partner at the baggage claim will forever be one of the greatest moments of my life.

I don’t know that I’ll visit another of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. There are several more with similar volunteer programs that I could apply for. A large part of me is fairly sure seven months is just a little too long to be parted from those I love. But there will always be a part of me that wonders what else is out there. At the very least I know that remote life itself remains wide open to me. Even at the end of the six months, I was still happy living in a tent and most of the physical comforts of society could have been forgotten in comparison with the emotional ones.

Until the next bizarre adventure, thanks to whoever took the time to read these posts. If you’d like to know more about Johnston Atoll or are interested in becoming a member of the Crazy Ant Strike Team follow this link. If you’d like to know more about the other U.S. Minor Outlying Islands follow this link.

Mahalo.

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***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service***

Categories: About me, Animals, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Castaway 6: Over The Blue Horizon

We are in the last month of our banishment—er, I mean deployment—here
on Johnston. I can feel the desire to be reunited transitioning from a
constant dull ache to actual anticipation. It is finally starting to
feel like it will really happen. Like the end is not some unreachable
horizon but a point on a map we are drawing nearer to, even if the
progress feels slow. In under 30 days, I will see other humans. In
around 40 I will see my humans. I remind myself of all the psychology
that insists the mental pleasures of anticipation outweigh those of
actually getting what you’ve been waiting for. Though I’m inclined to
think it’s a little easier to relish waiting a few hours for a donut
than months for dearly missed loved ones.

Lately I’ve been plagued by strange ominous dreams in which my loved
ones either ignore or scorn me. It’s as if my primate brain is sending
out alarm signals. “You haven’t seen x, y and z in an unacceptable
amount of time! They may not even care for you any more!” I know these
dreams are fictitious and I pay them no heed. But they are interesting
in that they remind me of the dreams that used to haunt my sister and
I as children, in which our parents would abandon us or do cruel
things like destroy our favorite stuffed toys. The irony (and often
hilarity) of these dreams was that they bore no resemblance to
reality. We had some of the most loving and attentive parents children
could ask for. I’ve since found that others experienced these paranoid
dreams as kids. I view it as a marker of an immature, and thus
insecure psyche. These dreams were just another form of nightmare in
which the monster, though just as unreal, was a bit closer to home.
Though I’ve maintained communication with my friends and family
through messages, I don’t believe this contact fully “registers” in
the brain. Logically, I know everyone will be waiting for me with open
arms, but my subconscious roils with insecurity and paranoia for not
having actually seen or heard the voices of every primate’s most
important security blanket: their group.

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I now see the ocean surrounding us as less a beautiful landscape and
more an impenetrable wall. Homebody though I may be, the fact that I
physically can’t leave is starting to get to me. I feel caged. We may
seem to have the run of the island—deciding which invertebrates live
or die and abducting tropicbirds for our nefarious scientific
purposes—but nothing is more humbling than watching the birds fly out
past the horizon each day and remembering that, unlike their kind, we
are stuck on this chunk of rubble with the geckos and mice, for better
or worse. Snorkeling still offers some reprieve, as the majority of
the world comes to meet you at the sea wall. Fish, rays, and sharks
are a wonderful reminder that, though it may seem like it, the blue
mass around us is far from a barren desert. Johnston Atoll belongs to
the ocean and it’s here that it really comes alive. Though
unequivocally important to the seabirds we study, the land and trees
themselves are more of an afterthought.

Tensions have grown between some of the members of the group, an
unavoidable consequence of seeing no-one but each other for months on
end. I find myself clinging to my friends some days, and wanting
nothing more than to be utterly alone others. During the all-island
tropicbird MIC, the largest survey conducted every year on Johnston,
exhaustion and frustration often got the best of us. It can be
difficult to remain cordial when you can feel your back savagely
burning under the relentless sun. Or when you’re tripping through
broken concrete and rebar on top of a hazardous waste landfill. Or
flushing your eye out after the fourth stream of guano to hit you that
morning got you right in the face. Called both lovingly and grudgingly
Trash Paradise by several previous volunteers, there are days when
Johnston earns that name very well.

As the changeover between our crew and the next CAST approaches in
June, we’ve started organizing, inventorying, and generally spiffing
camp for its new inhabitants. This process is therapeutic as it’s a
final push to get rid of the extraneous clutter that’s been hanging
around and make the space as welcoming as possible. But it’s also
strange to think someone else will be living here soon. Sitting in my
favorite spots, caring for (or say it ain’t so, neglecting) my
kombucha-brewing SCOBYs, rearranging my specific brand of
organization. I also lament the prospect of passing on my precious
garden. Tending to and sitting in it has been one of the most
consistent sources of pride and tranquility here. What if there are no
gardeners on the new crew? What if the tomato worms and mice take
over? What if they don’t like arugula?? The possibilities for
vegetable-related travesty are endless. It’s thoughts like these that
confuse the general homesickness I feel most of the time. Like it or
not, I care about this place. I may be ready to return to the greater
world beyond these endless blue walls, but there’s no denying this
place has become a home to me.

 

***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s
own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife
Service***

Categories: About me, Blog Series, Remote Living, Thoughts, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Castaway 5: The Weird and The Wonderful

Johnston Island is a contradiction. Beautiful and hideous. Exasperating and comforting. Plentiful and barren. Its vistas are endearing in an absurd way. Plumeria and hibiscus flowers surround a decaying tennis court. Birds nest in the thousands around a crumbling multistory building. Turtles bask on a beach marred by discarded telephone poles and marine debris. I myself am consumed by a striking contradiction in feeling. I love and hate Johnston. I want my sunrises and lazy afternoons to stretch on, but my weeks and months to contract. Half of me wants to use my time here to the fullest, the other to whittle it as efficiently as possible. It takes near constant presence of mind not to live in the future. Many of our survey tasks are somewhat mindless, like walking between points of a memorized route or scratching at the ground to disturb ants. It’s hard not to drift off in these moments, exploring all the lovely people and things that await me upon return. Audiobooks have been one of the greatest life preservers against this temporal drift. Better I be immersed in a story than in some false projection of possible futures, their promises filling me with vacant desire.

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Luckily not all our work is mindless. As we continue not finding yellow crazy ants and the birds in our reproduction monitoring plots grow, we are able to spend time banding the juveniles before they fledge. Banding a bird means applying a small numbered metal circlet to the birds right leg so that it may be identified in future population studies. Banding these birds is the first real wildlife handling I’ve done since college. Though I hate distressing any creatures, the process is quick and painless. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. Banding is one of the activities that reminds me why I’m here. And my ability to pick it up relatively fast gives me hope I may not be in the wrong career path after all.

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We’ve also started to notice changes in the wildlife and invertebrate composition here on Johnston. Though I wouldn’t say we experience “Spring” at this latitude, the slightly rising temperatures seem to be coaxing certain species out of wherever they were hiding. In some ways this is wonderful, with the arrival of more white, grey, and sooty terns. Or the sighting of more turtles, eels, and sharks. In other ways it is frustrating and even terrifying, with the heat bringing out garden pests, ants, and—my personal mortal enemy—centipedes. I struggle to put fresh vegetables on the table as it is, having produced only two zucchini, one eggplant, and some herbs and arugula for my crew so far. With the coming months bringing even hotter weather, I’m starting to feel as if I’m fighting a losing battle with Mother Johnston.

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I think most people who live here must experience a similar mixture of extreme feelings. For many, this is the most remote spot they will ever set foot on. The pleasure of having a whole island nearly to oneself is undeniable. To be on Johnston is to live someplace almost wholly taken back by nature. And living in an atoll means being more surrounded by that other world—the marine world—than I ever thought possible. But being here also means you’re at Mother Johnston’s absolute mercy. You must roll with the punches, whether that means a perfect rainstorm right when you need it or a boobie shitting on your head.

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**This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service**

Categories: Blog Series, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Castaway Part 4: Halfway Heartbreak

Our crew has finally been blessed with the knowledge of our departure date. The boat to deliver us from Johnston Island will purportedly arrive June eighth. Five days of shattering social contact will then take place between my crew and the new CAST, known affectionately as “the changeover,” in which we will train the newbies on all things Johnston. Then we will leave the poor saps behind and head Honolulu.

This puts us almost exactly half way through our stay here. In many ways this makes it easier to grapple with, seeing as we’ve already survived as many months as we have in front of us. The finish line is finally in view and we can stop making jokes about being abandoned here to eat radioactive coconuts for the rest of our days. But initiating the countdown has also drawn emphasis to the time we have left. Though I still enjoy the Johnston lifestyle, I have finally identified some things I really miss, such as couches that don’t have ants perpetually crawling across them and beds not made of air.

Still, the material desires are completely inconsequential and could even be ignored, if it weren’t for the looming shadow of what I really miss. My people. I am not alone, but I am lonesome. I feel an ache that can’t be placed, a desire to search for and ruminate over some unseen affliction. Originally finding it easy to still my mind in the early weeks, I now struggle to meditate. When left unoccupied, my attention bounces erratically from past to future, picking at emotional scabs and obsessing over possibility. It often seems as much a task to focus on the present as if I were in physical pain. I imagine unlikely hazards befalling my loved ones while I sit on this bizarre, impossibly far away hunk of rubble. I make plans and change them. I play the movie of my reunion with my family, partner, and friends over and over again.

Tranquility still surrounds me. The birds still fly in from the ocean every evening. The Milky Way still stretches above. But sometimes majesty is lost in the absence of love. I want to believe I have the capacity to appreciate beauty regardless of company. That it is inherent in my nature. That all else failing, the intimacy between I and the earth will buoy me when I have no one to turn to. But there is a certain sadness in the moment shared between a single human being and a single shooting star. Between a vast ocean and one heart. Perhaps beauty is not a benevolent gift of the cosmos, but of the complex and conniving machinery of natural selection. Perhaps we only revel so that we may draw another closer in our ecstasy.

Or perhaps I am weak. Needy. Perhaps my inability to focus on the beauty that surrounds me displays codependency. Perhaps the desire for the physical proximity of certain individuals is just another aspect of the hedonic treadmill. To say so would be valid considering the life history of the species I belong to. We need one another to survive but our nature does not exactly program us for tranquility and peace, even when we get the things we most desire. But if attachment to the people in my life makes me just a cog in the machine, then so be it. There is no force in the universe I’d rather be beholden to than the love for my people. If I’m destined to always grasp for something, I’d rather grasp for humans than objects, places, or ambitions.

As I stare down the line at that somehow close, yet somehow so very far away finish line I repeatedly tell myself to savor this time. That I will look back and miss the days spent hiding in the ant cave from the midday heat, baking brownies and watching stupid TV comedies with my island sisters. Or seeing the adorable fluff of a tropicbird chick peak out from under it’s striking parent. Or the vastness of the ocean and the silence of disconnection. Though I may have left a lot behind, I’d be remiss to forget how lucky I am to be here.

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***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service

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Castaway Part 3: Camp Comforts

Shitting in the ocean is one of the greatest things. The first time I waded in about belly-button height and squatted tentatively as if the movement might not occur. The second time I leapt from an aging pier, plunged into deep blue waters and relieved myself while treading and swam back to shore. Yes we have toilets here. The fancy composting kind with the rolling barrels inside. I use them frequently and have no complaints. But sometimes you’re a mile from camp and no more than two hundred paces or so from the most beautiful bathroom in the world. No commode can compare. It’s almost as if the masterminds behind shitting into a white bowl of fresh water were onto something but somehow missed the actual point. Shitting into water is only great when you are also in the water. I remember we used to get frustrated with tapirs defecating in the stream dangerously close to our water source at our field camp in Costa Rica. “Why the hell do they have to shit in the water?!” we’d lament, suspicious this particular offense hinted at a cosmological plan to fuck with people trying to live in the wilderness. But I understand now. Absent of the knowledge that shitting in fresh flowing water obviously ruins the “freshness” of said water, I’d shit in it too.

Living on a deserted island with four other people obviously engenders a somewhat “open” dynamic. Being the kind of person who’s been relatively comfortable with nudity and necessary bodily functions for the last several years of my life (I was not always this way), I didn’t have a whole lot of adjusting to do. You could say I fit right into life on Johnston. Thus, the interesting bit of this adjustment has been pondering the way we do things in “normal” life. The stripped-down (literally and figuratively), no-bullshit lifestyle here brings a magnifying glass to the myriad ways we live in utter stupidity in so-called civilization.

Since I was old enough to comprehend the scarcity of fresh water on this planet (around two percent of all the water, only one being drinkable and the rest jammed up in icebergs that are slowly melting into the very salty, very undrinkable ocean) I recognized shitting in it was probably ill-advised. But it was always the sort of “oh well, what else can we do” feeling that followed this acknowledgment. Now, upon using the workable alternative, I’m completely flummoxed. Not too long ago, I read a Vice News story by a reporter who went to live at an eco-commune somewhere in Canada. She was horrified by the prospect of using a composting toilet. Let me re-iterate that. She was horrified by the idea of shitting into a plastic bin with a rotating drum instead of a porcelain bin full of water. The apparatus the shitting takes place on is almost indistinguishable, especially once you’re positioned on it. I suppose she just hated the idea of being that close to other peoples’ dung. And perhaps she didn’t realize that if properly cleaned and maintained, composting toilettes smell and appear far better than their putrid cousin the port-o-potty and many a public restroom. Either way, she probably could have dug her own cat-hole in the woods had the prospect of other peoples’ shit horrified her so. But my guess is she was even horrified by her own shit; a sad reality to live in. I suspect our penchant for shitting in water and flushing it “away” has more to do with the culture-hangover of puritanical body shame than it does practicality.

Many people probably think I’m roughing it out here. The truth is, life is so easy and straightforward here it’s a stark reminder that human existence doesn’t have to be that complicated. Sure maintaining camp takes some extra time and effort: refilling water filtration devices, hand-washing clothes and dishes, staying one step ahead of the ants and mice. But the tasks don’t loom like their “civilized” counterparts do. Cooking a meal never requires a trip to the grocery store (unless you count walking a hundred meters to a bunker with a little wagon in tow). Taking out the trash happens once every couple weeks if you burn all the paper and fibers (this also brings to light the startling fact that landfills are packed, in part, with things that could have been fodder for s’mores). Doing laundry simply requires doing laundry, not accomplishing several other things before the buzzer sounds and you have to put the next load in. Having limited clothes means the dirty ones can’t accumulate; having limited possessions and no internet means limited distractions. I also usually don’t see eels and spotted eagle rays in my basement, so there’s another perk of the ocean laundromat. There is no such thing as traffic.

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Laughs also come easy out here. The things my crew and I find hilarious have quickly degraded from kitschy to hopelessly absurd. Not long after we arrived, one crew member found a disembodied mannequin head on one of the shores. “Linda” now appears in all our group photos. We spend our nights watching an animated children’s show called “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and make incessant references to the characters the following work hours, giggling maniacally at mixtures of cartoon-world jargon and seabird sounds. We hash out clandestine secret societies such as the “Johnston Flat Fork Society,” named for an inexplicably two-dimensional eating utensil discovered among the conventional kitchen items. I’ve yet to experience boredom.

Setting aside the frequent and ever-stronger pangs for loved ones, living here has been just my cup of tea. We also drink a lot of tea, which is great. Though we still have the civilized pleasure of sitting in front of a glowing screen at night (a solar-generator charged during the day powers a projector at night) my crew and I spend our free time reading, making art, brewing kombucha and baking. Though I must confess I spend a good chunk of my spare hours falling asleep in hammocks.

At the risk of sounding braggish, I’ll divulge that there is work going on here. Previous weeks have had my crew conducting “mean incubation counts” for red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, and great frigate birds. These surveys entail counting every nest with an egg or chick on almost the entire one-square-mile island. The coming weeks bring hand searching and an all-island ant survey, both of which will have us on our hands and knees in the midday heat looking for tiny creatures we all hate. There are definitely weeks in which free time is precious and we have little energy for anything other than just laying around. But as I’m told, a busy camper is a happy camper and we have close to five more months to whittle away here.

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**This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service**
Alyssa Salazar
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Castaway Part 2: Johnston Island—First Impressions of a Forgotten Landscape

 

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It’s been a little over a week since we were marooned. After four days at sea on the Imua, and four more nights sleeping on the docked vessel we finally moved ourselves from ship to shore and waved goodbye to our setup crew last Friday. Second thoughts be damned, we are stuck here for up to eight months with no hope of escape. Though this might sound dramatic, the feeling would have been mutual had you been standing on a deserted wharf as your one link to society slowly pulled away. Barring health or weather emergencies, we expect to be here until around the end of June. No return trip is currently planned however as it will depend on scheduling and boat/crew availability. It is never expected that a strike team will be on Johnston for longer than eight months though.

Our first week has consisted mainly of revitalizing camp and clearing routes for our upcoming monitoring of the ecological health of the island. Camp itself is shockingly comfortable by my standards. Life centers around the Ant Cave, a kitchen, library, lounge, and meeting place all-in-one housed in military bunker designed with nuclear blasts in mind. This means no windows—hence “cave.” It was also highly cluttered when we arrived; filled to the brim with old food, files, gadgets, and mystery boxes and buckets from past crews. Despite this, the Ant Cave maintains a certain charm. The large bunker doors are never closed, so light and fresh air (and, admittedly, pests) filter in at nature’s discretion. This gives a sense of being outside even while in a dark, high-ceilinged dome. There is a medium-sized array of solar panels that provide us with enough juice to consistently light and power electronics in the ant cave. Stove and refrigerators are powered by propane. There is no plumbing, but we have a makeshift sink rig as well as composting toilettes. The front and back areas of the Ant Cave are covered with large tarps to provide additional shade for eating and relaxing.

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Beyond our giant outdoor dining room table lie our personal tents. Each of the five of us has been graced with more personal space than most field camps could dream of. A nine-person camping tent shaded with a large tarp set in a clearing of iron woods. Each setup is a comfortable distance from the next, and only one of the dwellings is even visible from the Ant Cave. I set to work personalizing my own space pretty quickly, and my “yard” is almost too endearing (I sometimes don’t want to leave).

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Johnston as a whole is a bizarre mix of beauty and decay. Having been built up as a military base, the substrate in most areas is concrete. There are crumbling bunkers scattered around and areas that bare indicators of residential use. At one point, over a thousand people lived on Johnston. Undeterred by the seemingly inhospitable conditions, vegetation pushes through the cracks and has overtaken most of the abandoned island. There is no shortage of trees and bushes for seabirds to nest in. Only the runway and main thoroughfares for bicycles and gators remain clear.

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Most of Johnston is enclosed in sea wall. Thus, there aren’t many spots to walk directly into the crystal-clear aquamarine water. But getting over the sea wall in most areas requires nothing more than hopping a small concrete border and descending a sloping embankment. About a dozen feet or so beyond the divide, giant table coral heads teeming with fish cluster just a few feet below the surface. Sometimes the ocean comes to great you in full force at this dramatic separation between island and water. I was scrubbing my tent’s rug at the sea wall one afternoon when a four-foot giant moray swam casually between my legs. It took me fully by surprise since the otherwise striking silhouette of its undulating body was hidden beneath the rug until it was almost touching me. My pre-programmed reaction was to leap onto the sea wall. Though I know morays aren’t looking at people as a source of food, their snake-like appearance doesn’t fail to trigger the amygdala. Once I was out of reach though, I watched in stunned silence as the green-brown predator continued away from the sea wall, likely in search of something more edible than a welcome mat.

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The most powerful emotion I’ve experienced upon being left at Johnston has been relief. A month living in Honolulu did plenty to inflame the anxieties that had somewhat subsided since leaving DC, and the lack of personal space on a merchant vessel didn’t offer much reprieve. The sigh of relief I breathed upon entering my tent the first night felt like a long-delayed exhale to an inhale that had possessed me since my last re-entrance to society from remote living almost five years ago. Subsequently, the moments that have really taken me aback so far have been steeped in solitude. Peering through my tent window at the several stars visible from my pillow. Coming up a hill into a field as the sun rises, flanked on either side by nesting boobies but not a human in sight. Swimming naked off one of the tiny “corner beaches” with only fish for company. Sitting on the sea wall watching the sun and birds return to their respective hiding places. Of course I haven’t forgotten about my crew. I recognize that I live in a small village, not a private retreat. We all have strengths, weaknesses, and quirks and there will be difficulties in maintaining a functioning living space together. But a one square mile island provides quite a bit of room for five people. Obviously, I already miss my loved ones at home. But I will be interested to see if my introversion eventually expires, and I start hungering for some novel human interaction. Only time will tell.

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***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service***

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Castaway Part 1: The Departure

It’s hard to say goodbye to someone you share most moments of your life with. They’re there when you wake up, when you go to bed, when you celebrate your successes and when you mourn your failures. They’re there when you don’t even necessarily notice or appreciate that they are. Then suddenly they’re not. And all those little moments that seemed so insignificant, and passed by so easily, emerge as salient reminders of what you’re missing each day. Luckily for me, I have a new family of friendly strangers to cushion the blow. I’m not sleeping in a glaringly vacant queen size bed, but a snug top bunk above a new friend. Though my departure from home is disarming, it’s almost certainly more so for the one I’ve left behind.

So here I am in a barbed wire enclosed yet somehow still charming bunkhouse in Honolulu, awaiting what may be the strangest seven months of my life. A world apart from my partner, who I’ve left to endure the Michigan winter I’d been striving to escape my entire adult life. It’s worth explaining why I’m here. I’ve taken an eight-month position with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. My official title? Volunteer Ant Killer.

The backstory is long and I’d rather go more into detail about it in a future post when I’ve become more of an expert. The short version though is that during World War II, the U.S. decided to expand a remote atoll off the coast of the Hawaiian islands to use for military operations. Fast forward to now and Johnston is a decommissioned deserted island boasting a bizarre post-apocalyptic facade, but with a twist: it’s a cherished nesting ground for rare seabirds and the location of an ambitious invasive species control operation. Enter CAST–the Crazy Ant Strike Team! An appropriate acronym for a group of volunteers seeking elective exile from pretty much everything. The members of this biannual project ship out to Johnston to preform eradication of the invasive yellow crazy ant and monitor seabird and marine life populations. Are they die-hard bird and fish lovers? Ant haters? Disenchanted misanthropes? Experience collectors in search of a good story? It’s hard to answer for more than one CASTer at a time.

 

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Johnston Atoll, among the most remote atolls in the world. 500 miles from the closest landmass and visited for government business only. There are times when the closest human population center is technically the International Space Station.

 

The reactions I received when I informed my friends and family I’d be joining this effort were a mixture of surprise, fascination, and a little horror. The process usually went like this: “I’m going to Hawaii in November!” “Wow that’s amazing! What will you be doing in Hawaii?” “Well, I’ll only be in Hawaii for a month then I’ll be shipping off to a remote island for seven!” “Wow, how exotic. What island?” “Well, it’s not really an island…it’s more of a decommissioned military base with buried radioactive waste and a serious ant problem.” “Wait….what?!”

Those who really know me weren’t that surprised however. Living on a remote island as far from large human populations as possible sounds just about right up my alley. The specific nature and history of Johnston however was a little hard to stomach though even for my closest loved ones. Though today reported as safe to inhabit, Johnston has served as a veritable dump for various toxic wastes such as agent orange, dioxin, and weapons grade plutonium. Though I wouldn’t say I’m not concerned, I’m more fascinated than worried personally.

I have to give some credit where credit is due therefore to my partner, family, and friends. Thank you for supporting me through this undeniably eccentric part of my life and career. What may look like an insane decision to many looks like a life-changing and door-opening milestone to me. My reasons for joining CAST run the gamut from passion for wildlife to obvious misanthropy. These motives propel me through most of my life, but they don’t eclipse the love I have for and receive from my loved ones. You all are my guiding light, my pillars, and my chief concern through this process. Know that I will take care of myself and that you will be missed each and every day.

So as you may have caught on, this will be the beginning of a special blog series. Though one of the most remote places in the world, Johnston boasts one of the most important amenities of civilization: internet! Though it will spotty and unreliable, I’m hoping it will be good enough to keep this blog updated with my strange goings-ons. I’ll be in Honolulu for the next month training, packing, and preparing for life on the atoll. After that I’ll be CASTaway (see what I did there?) to live amongst the ants, birds, and stars. If you’d like to get in touch beyond following this blog, feel free to drop me a line in the “About” section of this site. Mahalo!

 

***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service***

Categories: Animals, Blog Series, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Do Ants Have Selves?

I had a mental experience the other day that seemed, at the surface, completely inconsequential but upon further inspection revealed itself to be rather interesting. I was sitting around idly while my partner did something routine and uninteresting. The specific thing he was doing isn’t actually important at all. What matters is that the activity had nothing to do with me and there was no usefulness or benefit to my being there. Now, I am a very impatient person. In most situations like this I would be perturbed that there was nothing useful I could be doing or that I hadn’t brought a book. Or I would be thinking about all the different ways I could use my time off, or how I’d rather be spending “quality” time with my partner instead of just watching him do some mundane task. But this time, strangely, there was none of this mental chatter. I remember simply gazing at him passively and thinking, “It’s good for him to be getting this out of the way. So, it’s good for me.”

Now, this may seem unremarkable. When you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re supposed to want what’s best for him or her, right? What do I want, a pat on the back for being happy for my partner? We all like to see our partners happy, and we all should cheer at the thought of them accomplishing things or improving their lives in some way. But although we’d like to assume this comes from a place genuine care and concern for another person, it’s often a little less romantic than that. Evolutionary psychology suggests the overwhelming majority of our thoughts are about ourselves.

Even thoughts that seem to be about other people still tend to revolve around how those other people make you feel. Even in the case of your romantic partner or best friend. When you carefully examine your positive thoughts about this person’s accomplishments you may discover they carry a much more selfish hue than you’d be willing to admit up front. Perhaps seeing them happy directly imparts happiness on you, or their success clears obstacles from your relationship. Though these thoughts are not selfish in the sense that they prioritize you over your partner, they are selfish in that they still revolve around your personal experience or happiness. Though the ability to feel genuine happiness upon witnessing another’s happiness can easily be attributed to what we call love, it doesn’t necessarily equate to altruism when that person’s life and emotions directly impact your own.

Now let’s bring it back to my seemingly unremarkable thought. In this case, I was not cheering a personal success for my partner or witnessing a big smile on his face. I was watching him do an errand, and a boring one at that. Yet I was still able to simply and convincingly tell myself, “This is good.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not using this occurrence to make some grand statement about the validity of my love for this person. Again, the thought I had was still completely hinged on my own personal experience with the world. What’s interesting about the thought is the dissolution of the individual self it suggests. The essence of the thought was almost exactly the same as one I’d have while completing an errand of my own: “This isn’t particularly fun but I’m glad I’m getting it out of the way and will appreciate it later.” It’s interesting to me that though I could, at the time, cite no direct reason why my partner’s completing this errand would benefit me in the foreseeable future, I still felt convinced by the thought and was not perturbed by any need to examine further why I was spending my time sitting idly.

To me, this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of sharing your life with someone. Your lives become so entangled that you (hopefully) start to realize that your interests are aligned in ways you can’t even consciously perceive. The lines that separate the two of you may seem to blur a bit, and the chatter in your head begins to accommodate the needs of a person who was originally recognized as “other.” The concept of boundary dissolution and the questioning of the personal “self” have deep ties to Buddhism and modern psychology. Still, most people don’t experience a release from the concept of self in their daily lives, and might not even understand what that means. However, I think many people could attest to having thoughts such as mine. Thoughts that simultaneously encompassed the needs, intentions, or desires of another person as more or less “second nature.”

When I was in college I read an interesting book in my animal behavior class titled Baboon Metaphysics. It was a chronicle of a multi-year behavioral study of baboons that sought to determine how the primates handle their social lifestyles. Does their behavior stem from complex thought and concepts of identity or is it predominantly instinctual? The findings of the study were rather inconclusive, as metaphysical awareness is a pretty hard thing to judge; there are no philosophical pH strips. The researchers observed that the baboons seemed to fluctuate wildly between moments of near-human social awareness and primitive anarchy. But it’s the character of the question that interests me more than the answer. What are we seeking to prove when we want to find out how an animal views itself? Do we want to establish how similar they are to us? How “intelligent” they are? We often question whether animals (specifically mammals) view themselves as individuals but seemingly neglect the alternative. What would it mean, for instance, if many animals did not recognize the boundaries of the self like we do?

Though the process of natural selection demands animals place their own needs above others’, social animals present a bit of a snag in the evolutionary machine. How can organisms compete to survive, yet simultaneously arrange themselves in a cooperative group? The science of animal behavior has generally assumed that supposed altruism comes in two flavors: kin selection and social bonding. Basically, animals do things for others out of instinctual concern for their own genes in relatives (kin selection) or to pay into a social bank to reap rewards from their comrades later (social bonding). While this description does a lot to explain apparent altruism from a functional standpoint, it doesn’t do much to explain how the animals themselves view the interactions. Does a baboon think, “I’m going to groom my friend so he will groom me next Tuesday” or does he simply feel some instinctual urge to comb through his neighbor’s hair?

I think it’s pretty obvious that certain forms of life do not have much in the way of metaphysical awareness. Ants likely do no “view” themselves as anything, let alone individual members of a group. Their “thoughts” are probably more like electrical impulses that give explicit instructions like “turn right” and “search for food.” Ants operate much like an interconnected network of individually operating but interdependent bodies. They are closer to neurons in a brain than individuals in a community. But what if the experience of an ant wasn’t all that different from that of a baboon? What if, like ants, baboons didn’t always recognize each other as independent “selves?” The neurological limitations that exist in ants may not exist in baboons. Baboons likely have the full mental capacity to recognize their individual bodies and distinguish their intentions from those of other baboons. But perhaps the conditions under which baboon social structure evolved formed a much more malleable version of self than we currently experience in human society. Perhaps baboons waffle back and forth in their metaphysical capacities not because of a lack of intelligence but as a symptom of their social evolution.

Though my proposal is completely exploratory and hypothetical (I am not an evolutionary psychologist or and animal behaviorist), it does have interesting implications as a thought experiment. If other social animals operate on a different understanding of the “self,” or even operate without one at all, couldn’t we feasibly will our minds to do something similar? Weren’t we forged by the same evolutionary fires that gave us ants, dolphins, chimps, and baboons? Perhaps our obsession with ourselves—our identity, our emotional lives, our aspirations, our appearance—is not so much an innate product of intelligent life but a vestigial mental module from a time when we weren’t so reliant on others. And maybe it’s our individualistic culture that has simply fanned the flames of this obsession, ever widening the gap we perceive between our interests and others’.

Though it’s common knowledge in Buddhist and meditation circles that the temporary dissolution of the self is achievable through practice, I do not believe the general populace recognizes the availability of this experience. From the first day we come into contact with the world outside our mother’s womb, we are treated as individuals and taught to perceive and categorize the boundaries of other people and objects. To go against this conditioning is not merely a difficult task, but a mythical one. Many might assume the experience comes only from the ingestion of psychedelic drugs or in the midst of a psychological “break.” We are limited by what we believe is possible and we will never try to dissolve a boundary that we do not inherently recognize as optional. But billions of people experience what they would define as love for others every day. They make choices that prioritize others’ needs with or even over their own, and the others don’t always share their genes or reciprocate favors. Though the content of their thoughts may still be inherently “selfish,” it is possible that their concept of self has been warped by their interconnectivity with another person. Could it be possible for people to use their own observation of love for others to open the door to an experience they didn’t know was possible: an experience of self that does not end with the boundary of their skin?

 

 

Further reading on the subject of the self, Buddhism, animal behavior and evolutionary psychology:

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Waking Up by Sam Harris

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth

Categories: Animals, Culture, Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

IN LOVING MEMORY OF LITA 2002-2018

It’s been two months since my world fell apart. Every time I’ve even thought about sitting down to write this my mind, and often even my body, has seized up. I suppose sitting in front of a blank page to write about the most horrible experience of your life is not exactly something most people would look forward to doing. But this was a special kind of despondent procrastination. Mixed in with the anguish was fear, even a terror, that I would somehow fail at this task. Just as the fear of failure stalks me in other aspects of my life, I was petrified by the idea of attempting something that could never be done well enough. In this case the lack of confidence stems not just from doubts about my abilities, but also from the sheer insurmountability of the mission.

To commemorate my beloved daughter is impossible. It is impossible in verbal, written, photographic, or any other form. It is impossible to convey the magic of her presence, the softness of her fur, or the intelligence of her gaze. It is impossible to say a damn thing about her that doesn’t pale in comparison to who she really was. But nevertheless I have to try. I cannot go on silently suffering when I have always turned to these blank pages to really feel. I need catharsis and the world needs a record of this miraculous creature.

I am aware that to a large portion of the human population, non-human deaths will never seem earth shattering. I acknowledge this fact and I do not expect those people to empathize or even sympathize with this outpouring of emotion. But, contrary to popular belief, telling someone their feelings are not valid does not actually invalidate them. My experience of grief has been sincere and excruciating. How I feel does not devalue human death, nor does it elevate every non-human death to tragedy status. Every loss is felt in its own way and with its own particular weight. And this loss has been heavy. So very heavy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel a love so pure, comforting, and uncomplicated as the love that emanated from Lita (or “The Floof” as we often called her). The greatest gift my parents ever gave me, the tiny grey cat entered my life just as I was falling off the cusp of childhood into adolescence. We bonded to one another with an intensity that can only come when two beings truly need each other. She was my first soul mate. Over the years Lita and I were nearly inseparable. In her kittenhood she would follow me around the house, meowing desperately should a door be closed between us. I wanted to take her everywhere with me, and brought pictures of her when I had to be away for more than a day or two.

Even in those bizarre and torrid teenage years, when many young people lose interest in their family pets, Lita remained a stable and reassuring force in my life. Her presence was invaluable in reminding me that I was not alone, and that I was needed. I will never forget the first time I began to struggle with depression and looked to her as a reason I had to be here. We were in this together. She would go on to serve as one of those reasons many more times in my life.

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Us, circa 2002 and 2015.

In our adult years we still remained tied to one another. Her absence was felt deeply in college, and I returned her to my life as soon as my post-college housing situation allowed it. One of the most exciting times of my adulthood was moving into my first studio apartment on my own with her in tow. I would come home from work and literally dance around the minute space with her in my arms, ecstatic in our simultaneous independence from outside forces but comfortable codependence on one another.

Even when that dream came crashing down as I discovered the apartment to be hopelessly infested with parasites, her reaction is one of the most memorable aspects. I recall sobbing on the phone with my partner while she walked in circles around me meowing incessantly, clearly disturbed that I was so upset. Later, as I sat feeling defeated in my partner’s condo, I held her close and thanked the cosmos that the little life-ruiners hadn’t gotten to her.

The next several years of my life would be marked by indecision, frustration, change, and more defeat. My partner and I decided to make a cross-country move that didn’t stick, and Lita happily accompanied us on multiple nine-hour car trips there and back without complaint. She supported me through the confusion of feeling utterly directionless in life and isolated in an unfamiliar city. Her soft body curled against me each night continued to remind me that I would be ok.

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Lita waiting for me to come home to our DC apartment.

Lita’s health was also a large factor in our intense bond. Her biological brother died suddenly of kidney failure around the same time I moved her back in with me after college. Though his death was shocking and sad, it allowed me to move quickly to get Lita the treatment she undoubtedly needed ahead of the disease’s progression. The extra care I provided for Lita helped me feel even more needed, and I felt in some unexplainable way she knew I was doing a lot for her. Luckily, Lita’s demure nature made her a perfect candidate for the semi-invasive administration of subcutaneous fluids and oral medication, which kept her kidneys functioning for years. It wasn’t until she also developed symptoms of colon cancer that her health truly started to decline.

It would be disrespectful to her character to imply that Lita’s value and impact on my life was tied solely to her service as a de facto emotional support animal. She was so much more than just a comforting presence. She was a brilliant and unique force of life unlike any I ever expect to see again. She weighed all of nine pounds at her heaviest and yet she commanded the respect of all other animals in a room. Never interested in making quadrupedal friends, she generally preferred to boss other cats and dogs around and stick to charming only the humans in the room. But when it came to charming humans, she was a star. She always greeted guests in a matter of minutes from their arrival. She loved the company of her humans and lamented being alone. Lita’s charm came through both in her behavior and her appearance. “Your cat is a person!” proclaimed one of my animal-inclined friends upon first meeting her and looking down at her contented face as she sat swaddled in her arms. There was just something in her eyes that seemed to say, “I may be a cat, but I understand you.”

Lita’s death has been the most painful and destabilizing experience of my life. I’m aware this communicates an embarrassing level of privilege, but I can only say that I wish more people could assign their greatest woes to the loss of a loved one. I’m lucky not to have experienced trauma or neglect in my life, but that doesn’t mean I am impervious to emotional pain. In fact, it is probably part of the reason I feel this so deeply. Her physical decline and eventual loss pulled an existential rug from my feet; making me question whether anything is worth the pain we endure when we continue to open our eyes each morning.

As I held her lifeless body after her euthanasia and wailed into her fur, I thought things could never get any worse than that moment. But the weeks that followed didn’t offer much reprieve. I’ve struggled with hopelessness, desperation, dissociation, sleeplessness, nightmares, and lethargy in rapid succession. I have collapsed into a chair after work and not moved or done anything for hours at a time. I have googled suicide helplines and then deleted my browser history. I have considered trying to convince myself in the existence of an afterlife in order to cling to some shred of hope I might see her again. I have sobbed so deeply I’ve worried my body might collapse in on itself with one final heave.

I wish there was something else I could say. I wish there was some magic word I could use or perfect poem I could write that would instantly communicate the importance of the relationship I had with Lita. The knowledge that my memories of her will fade over time terrifies me. As I pass her ashes each day, sitting atop an altar among our favorite pictures and her favorite toys, I beg the universe to allow me to always remember her the way I do now, even if it continues to hurt this much.

If you or someone you know has lost someone, please remember that the species of that person does not matter. We are all made of the same complicated, bizarre, goopy stuff and our capacity to build relationships does not recognize the boundaries of phylogenetic trees. Love is love.

I love you so much Lita and I will never stop missing you. Thank you.

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Categories: About me, Animals | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Ode to Landscaping

Keep your edges on game
Maintain, clean shave
Burn the remains of life slain to regain control of a brain
That won’t stop you living in pain
Don’t pay for sins til clouds spit on your grave
What’s in a name
But a soul; control
Nine number’s all it takes to harvest energy like cattle
Don’t think you’re not chattel
A mastermind no but a system on fire
Ever searching for a buyer of higher designer ideologies
That simmer men to create psychologies
Reduced to nothing but the need to repent and beg apology
For daring to set foot atop a crust of a bludgeoned rock under an unloving god
So what’s the shock
When your grass keeps growing
When your ignorance keeps showing
When you wrote the script but still don’t fit it
Your mind’s a hornet’s nest, best not to kick it

Categories: Poetry, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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