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On Alaskan Waves

On Alaskan Waves

Over the past several years studying renewable energy, I’ve thought a lot about the way that changing our energy resources from fossil fuels to phenomena that almost every human has experience with—sun, wind, rain, waves, tides—could lead to a different relationship between humans and what Larry Lohmann calls “Big E energy,” the industrial concept of energy. I suspect that renewable technology is fertile ground for a much-needed new narrative of the human relationship to the rest of the living world. Hear me out.

I don’t think I need to linger long on the human relationship with fossil fuels. Most of us are entirely dependent on these fuels, yet we would be hard-pressed to tell you where they come from, how their energy gets to us, or what they look like all along the way. There is an undeniable invisibility to fossil fuels, their life stories hidden in pipelines, turbines, and cables. The unseen unknown is most difficult to care about. It demands no further understanding and carries on beneath our consciousness. And so, we do not care about, understanding, or even think about that which brings us electricity and this exceptional mobility.

That which is true about fossil fuels, their distance from the human experience of so many, could not be further from true for our renewable energy resources. That’s not to say that renewable energy technology is close in mind to our everyday experiences, but the sun and wind sure are. Let me tell you a few of stories about a new, wonderful place where I am working on a wave energy project.

One. Paddling Out

My introduction to this Alaskan sea was by kayak. Tandem, in fact. Molly took me and Daniel out on a sunny day, beyond the harbor wall and into the island-speckled Sound. I am not particularly good at kayaking, but gliding just a few inches above the surface for a few hours seemed like the best way to meet this vibrant ocean. It was from that spot in a red kayak, inches above the surface that I learned what the Sitka Sound had in store for me. Jellyfish glistened in the dark, harbor porpoises and sea lions pierced the calm and greeted the sun. Sea otters… ohhh sea otters are enormous. Did you know that? I didn’t. In my mind I could hold one in my hands. Turns out, that’s absolutely not the case. Adult sea otters can weigh up to a hundred pounds! Meters of kelp defied gravity with the help of buoyancy.

We picked a small island to pull up on. The waves slammed the boat against the rocks. And I, who had arrived with only a single pair of sneakers in my suitcase, stayed in the kayak as Molly dragged it (and me) onto shore. The island’s beach was seashells— broken and whole. I tried in vain not to crush them as I searched for a place to lay my nauseous head.

I think it is a subconscious nervousness that gets me feeling weary whenever I go out to sea. Though I have made my studies beyond the shore, my body prefers solid ground. But this island, as solid as the shell shards and rocks below my feet, is both sea and shore, solid and fluid. It is isolated and exposed, yet it is still—at least in human time. And on that afternoon, it is the resting place for three sea-tried humans and…. Shhhh… look over at that tree… one majestic eagle.

Two. Rolling Ground.

The waves are getting bigger and not even the excitement of whale spouts—2 over there, 4 to the right, 6 out front—and the majesty of whale tails, each with their own unique pattern, rising then disappearing into the water, can keep me from sliding. I sink down into the carpeted cabin seats. It is a beautiful day for a whalewatch, with what had been calm water when we left Cresent Harbor, dancing in the sunlight. The sun is still shining, but the water has changed, and I have come down from the upper deck feeling woozy. A sea swell sleep is coming.

I want to watch for humpbacks, I really do, back my clouded head begs for the backs of my eyelids. I usually find that its best to give in to this feeling, so it goes, sea sickness 1, Ali 0. But I stay tuned in to the sounds around me, and between moments of emptiness I listen. The marine scientist and cultural expert behind me dishes fascinating tidbits about this place to the enthusiastic folks around him.

We are in sight of Biorka Island. People used to hunt fur seals from there, he tells. Biorka Island, called Wasίs by the Native Tlingit peoples, is where I will be investigating the feasibility of a wave energy site. I force an eye open to see the long island in the distance. For now, that’s good enough, and I slide back to a stillness inside.

Tomorrow I will be reading about this place from my cozy office in the Sitka Sound Science Center. On page 344 of the Geographic Dictionary of Alaska I will read, “in the space between Biorka and Vitskari Islands, a more or less heavy swell is nearly always experienced, even when the water is smooth in other parts of the Sound.” That is how it got the name, Rolling Ground. Go figure, I’ll think, remembering my forehead plastered heavily on the ship window. Rolling Ground.

Three. Driftwood Bay

I am browsing a book of Native place names around and on Sheet’ka Ḵwaan, a space that includes Sitka, where I am. I come across a place called ShaaḴGeeyi, which translates to Driftwood Bay. I don’t know many places around here yet, but I smirk a bit before I turn back to the map. I think I might know this one…

Yesterday, I traveled out to Biorka Island with the Sitka High School marine biology class. They were doing a marine debris clean-up with the Science Center Educator, Kristina. We had arrived, over Rolling Ground, in Symonds Bay, Wasίs Geeyi, on the Northeast side, at the neck of the island. Upon arrival, Stacey and Kristina had equipped me with bear spray, special trash bags, neoprene gloves, and a clipboard with Rite in Rain paper. The gray marine sky drizzled. The bear spray surprised me, seems we had traveled more than 30 minutes by sea to get to this island, but as I got off the boat and saw a buck staring down at me from a cliff, I figured one is never too careful in the Alaskan woods.

The trash bag, gloves, and clipboard were for collecting and logging marine debris. We weren’t headed out to pick up just any old trash on any old beach. We were at the entrance to Sitka Sound, facing into the open Pacific. We were looking out onto the open space of commercial fishing and international shipping on the high seas. Expect to find some weird stuff, Kristina warned us. The week prior, the currents had brought several brand-new Yeti coolers that had fallen overboard from a container ship. I had been planning on roaming the island for research purposes, but the idea of picking through what had been tossed around the biggest ocean on the planet and had made it onto this beach was just too enticing. And as I bent over for one piece of ocean plastic, another would catch my eye keeping me on the beach.

The students in the class collected in groups of 3.

Of course, the three boys in the class were one debris-collecting group, and they had, as high school boys will, quickly found a challenge of strength. For five minutes or so, two of them tried to lift a massive piece of driftwood while the third pulled a swath of fishing net from underneath. They dug in the sand beneath the wood, trying to free the net. Similar pieces of wood, trees really, covered the beach and floated on the water. Hundreds of trees, extending 50 feet out to sea. Driftwood Bay.

Later, down the beach, I was startled by what sounded like a wind-gust of hail hitting the window sideways.

“What was that?” I asked.

The boys pointed to the receding wave. Below it smoothed, palm-sized rocks rolled by each other.

“Amazing” I stammered.

They agreed. And in our shared amazement one mused, “Its crazy how the waves can just toss around what three of us couldn’t even lift up.”

Crazy. Yea, it sure is. Crazy what this planet can do.

A New Narrative

These stories are the nausea, the strength, the sound, and the wonder of wave energy. They are known. They are felt. The waves are our teachers, our muses, and our music. If they become our energy as well, and if we are careful to remember all else that they are, then is it so crazy to imagine that our energy too, becomes something so much more? Can a transition to renewable energy be not only a reduction of emissions, but also a shift in our human story? Can we design our new, renewable energy system in a way that does not separate humans from the rest of the living world, as most modern technology does?

Philosopher Martin Lee Mueller uses the phrase “technologies of inhabitation.” He writes, “’technologies of inhabitation’ would be those that have a participatory quality: tools conceived to facilitate gift-cycles throughout every step of their designated production, use, and disposal. If a community succeeds in embedding such gift-giving technology into its wider social practice, its members have every possibility of being attentive collaborators, rather than nuisances, in the biosphere.”

The potential for technologies of inhabitation and the possibility of conscious participation within this energized earth do not inevitably fall out of the transition to renewable energy. In fact, without intention, it is highly unlikely. But renewable energy technologies are built around phenomena with which humans are already engaged- the sun, the wind, the wave, the tides. We live in cycles with their gifts. The waves build and rebuild the beaches where we study and play. They warn us of storms and excite our senses. We reciprocate through our creative acts. We paint the waves, we listen to their voices, and we tell their stories. These are the gift-cycles that we must attend to and build upon as we design and deploy new technologies. They are simple evidence that the narrative of human exceptionalism that enslaves the living world—our bodies included—is false. It is from that evidence, from within those gift-cycles, that a new world of energy technology can emerge.

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