A dead whale. A dead grey whale. Then, bones. Eventually, nothing. And some people wonder why I continue to produce twelve month essays and studies. Twelve Months At Possession Beach is the latest of my twelve month series. Fortunately, the majority of visits smell better than a dead whale, but there’s always something interesting – even if it takes twelve months to realize it.
(Full the fuller set of links and description of Twelve Months at Possession Beach, check out one of my other blogs: AboutWhidbey.com.)
OK. A dead whale is smelly and gross, but I was there to take pictures. Why include it? There are vistas, flowers, wildlife, tides, storms; and for Possession Beach and Possession Point there are beaches, salt marshes, bluffs, forests, and trails.
Many people travel by checklist. Saw this site, check it off, move to the next, repeat. They get to see everything, but each becomes a snapshot, one glimpse of a place from one moment. It’s like speed dating, but they never call back.
My approach to travel isn’t exactly getting married to a spot, but by accidentally starting my twelve month studies I’ve found myself looking at, experiencing, and on occasion smelling a variety of places in the Pacific Northwest. (Read Twelve Months At Barclay Lake for how the whole thing got started.) It may not be marriage, but I find myself developing a relationship to a place that isn’t based on one good or bad day, but on how a place feels throughout the seasons. Weather changes. Crowds change. Nature changes.
Travel is more difficult, now. People who would’ve casually planned a trip to another continent might wonder where to go, instead. That doesn’t have to be difficult. Everywhere you go, someone thinks that’s the place to be – and someone else wants to leave as soon as possible.
Whenever I hear about someone wanting to fly to another country to experience another culture, I wonder if they’ve traveled within their own city, county, state, nation, or continent first. Washington’s culture isn’t the same as Washington D.C.’s culture. Is this something we’re missing, when people in a country are more interested in other countries without knowing more about their own? Imagine the food! You want decadent? Try anything deep-fried from the Southeast. Want experimental? How about some Asian fusion from the Northwest? Want to understand “them”? A visit to “their” neighborhood may only take a few hours, but it may provide insight into discussions that are already taking days of some people’s lives. On one visit to the southeast, I had one halting conversation with an elderly black man, and another with white folks who boldly celebrated “kicking the Yankees’ butts at Vicksburg during the War Between the States. (Chronicled in Just Keep Pedaling.) We’re not all alike.
Picking someplace new every time costs time, a precious resource. There is effectively an infinity of destinations. Checking them off, and then deciding yet again which to visit next also means spending time reinventing travel arrangements, what to pack, and who to have along.
Returning to one place several times throughout a year simplifies the escape. Clothing changes, and weather may get in the way of travel, but that’s part of life. Visiting several times means not having to squeeze every experience into one trip. By taking pictures and notes, I spend more time noticing changes. A lonely and wet Wednesday in March will be dramatically different from a crowded and sunny Saturday in August. Looking back at those photos and notes makes it easier to see the changes. In some places, it confirms that Nature is resilient. In other places, it becomes obvious that there is no “preserving the land as it has always been.” The mammoth bone I found on one beach certainly wasn’t from a herd that’s still here.
The whale, though. Whoa. The whale. How many different stories are there? Whales in the water are magnificent. They’re one of the reasons I enjoy living by the Salish Sea, particularly on Whidbey Island. But standing on the shore and seeing a whale in the water is at least somewhat remote and ephemeral. They’re always at least some distance, they rarely stay in an area very long, and only part of them is visible. That’s way more than enough compared to my childhood wandering through the Pennsylvania woods (which included creeks with a whiff of sewage, depressions that turned out to be the collapsed roofs of abandoned coal mines, and houses never far away.) But seeing a dead one taught me new things.
When I first saw the whale I thought it was another rock on the beach. I knew better. The bluffs shed sand frequently, and boulders occasionally; but the boulders are easy to spot. I’ve tracked one from being barely noticeable, to jutting out from the bluff, to where it fell onto the beach, to the growing gap between it and the hillside. This was too big to be such a boulder. But, it didn’t smell and I thought I was downwind. (Later I would find the smell had permeated my clothes. Laundry!)
The rational mind can carry too perspectives. Dead whales are so rare that there could be a different explanation. That ain’t no boulder.
It is bittersweet finding a dead whale. It is a rare event, which can be a thrill; but it is also a sad event. Too many of the dead whales in the Salish Sea die of starvation. I can also take a hint. Whether Nature intended it or not, I wasn’t going to ignore the opportunity to watch what happened. By the way, I also called Orca Network to report a dead marine mammal, as anyone should. They knew about it, which explained why parts of it were anchored and tagged for research or to be displayed or both.
Each visit added to an experience that is more than I want to shove into one blog post. Personal experience is richer than reading about someone else’s. That’s why I am a fan of travel.
The first visit was after the whale was dead for a while. The skin was turning from grey to a surprising mix of colors.
By the time of the second visit, most of the flesh was gone, revealing a cathedral of bones draped in remains and seaweed.
Within several weeks, what was left was mostly a curve of spine that was slow to break up.
A few larger bones, either from the head or the hip, stood apart, weathering to translucence.
And then, it was all gone, or at least distributed to the bellies of birds and crabs, with some pieces heading to labs and displays.
And then, and then… The changes in flowers and migratory flocks of birds and people were enough for a year of stories. That is always the case, at least for me.
I am working on the twelfth in the series. The first was in the Teanaway Valley, but I didn’t record it. The next three were in the Cascades: Barclay Lake, Lake Valhalla, and Merritt Lake, bracketing three climates across the range. After I moved to Whidbey I started the photo series (as photos to print and as photo books): Cultus Bay, Deception Pass, Admiralty Head, Penn Cove, Double Bluff, Maxwelton Beach. And now Possession Beach. And now the next one, which is in month six of twelve.
Visiting a place over twelve months isn’t traveling as broadly, but it is traveling more deeply. In these pandemic and economic upset times, it is also nice to have a way to cheaply and easily get out into the world, to get out into Nature. Nature was here first. Nature will be here for millions or billions of years. The rest of the news is about layers we drape over a reality that has a lot to teach us. It is reassuring to look beneath those layers for lessons that are more eternal, even cyclical.