Jul. 9, 2012

Elephant Seals, Año Nuevo

by Kim Addonizio

There they lie, fasting and molting
and not moving, but for an occasional
stray flipper that idly rises
and sinks down, into the mass
of massive bodies.
This is their summer's work,
before the bulls swim in
to bloody each other for mates.
We watch their great sides heave,
the effort it takes to stay
where they've arrived, amazed
they've managed something we can't.
What would it be like
to live, slow and huge,
the low slopes of the dunes
marking a horizon whose limits
we weren't compelled to challenge?
For these seals there is no
path that leads away,
no car waiting
in the wavering heat of the parking lot,
and no road takes them
to the made world: here we're all
immensely complicated, and nothing,
my darling, is seasonal —
once you and I leave
this place, we won't return to it.

"Elephant Seals, Año Nuevo" by Kim Addonizio, from The Philosopher's Club. © BOA Editions, Ltd, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Dame Barbara Cartland (books by this author), the author of several hundred books, most of them romance novels. She was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, in 1901, and her family moved to London after her father died in World War I. She published her first novel, Jigsaw, when she was 25, and from the 1970s onward, she produced an average of 23 books a year.

Cartland left behind 160 manuscripts when she died in 2000.

Today is the birthday of Oliver Sacks (books by this author), born in London (1933) to a large extended family of doctors, scientists, and religious Zionists. He became a neurologist, and has turned case studies of patients with neurological conditions into eloquent narratives.

In 2001, he wrote a memoir: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. In it, he talks about his childhood in England during World War II; his Uncle Dave, who made light bulbs; and the scientists whom Sacks never knew, but who were, he says, "honorary ancestors, people to whom, in fantasy, I had a sort of connection." Sacks and his older brother, Michael, were sent to a boarding school during the war, where they were routinely whipped and bullied. In 1943, at the age of 15, Michael began exhibiting symptoms of psychosis. "My brother saw 'messages' everywhere, felt his thoughts were being read or broadcast, had explosions of strange giggling, and felt he had been translocated to another 'realm,'" Sacks wrote.

To cope with the trauma of the boarding school and his brother's illness, Sacks sought refuge in the neat, orderly periodic table of elements. He sometimes dreamed of a career as a chemist, and though he went into medicine instead, he still likes to give elements as birthday gifts: "Tin is element 50 and since ten people have turned 50 lately, I'm out of tin. A good friend of mine was 80 recently and I said to him, 'I wish you were 79, because then I could have given you something made of gold, but since you're 80, I have to enclose a bottle of mercury.'" For his own birthday, Sacks filled balloons with xenon, a gas that's much denser than air. Instead of floating, the balloons all dropped to the floor.

It was on this date in 1958 that Alaska's Lituya Bay was hit with the largest mega-tsunami ever recorded. Lituya Bay, which lies on the Alaska panhandle, is a T-shaped fjord about seven miles long and two miles wide; two inlets form the crossbar of the 'T.' The Fairweather Fault Trench runs perpendicular to the fjord; it's filled with water and glaciers. Because of its shape and its proximity to the fault line, Lituya Bay has seen at least four mega-tsunamis in the last 150 years.

At about nine p.m. on July 9, there was an 8.0-magnitude earthquake along the Fairweather Fault, with the epicenter about 13 miles from the bay. The quake triggered a rockslide from one of the cliffs: Forty million cubic yards of rock and ice dropped from a height of 3,000 feet, and splashed down into the Gilbert Inlet, causing the mammoth wave. An eyewitness reported: "The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. It must have risen several hundred feet. [...] Big chunks of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water. [...] They came off the glacier like a big load of rocks spilling out of a dump truck."

There were three boats in the bay at the time of the quake and rockslide. One boat was engulfed by the resulting mega-tsunami, but the other two survived. Because the area was uninhabited, the two men on the small boat were the wave's only casualties.

The mega-tsunami reduced the forest to a collection of stumps and bedrock, hundreds of feet up the shore, as it swept out to the Gulf of Alaska. Spruce trees with trunks six feet wide were splintered. Later, scientists were able to calculate the height of the wave based on how far inland the damage extended; they estimate the mega-tsunami was 1,720 feet high. That's almost 300 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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