Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A lapse of memory in an age of global warming

After a few posts that don't really address the original aim of this blog, I've finally found a story that resonates with what I want to talk about here. Last night I watched a Tom Bearden piece on the Jim Lehrer Newshour about the problems of resettling native Alaskan peoples from small islands that are being gradually submerged by the effects of global warming. One segment stood out for me. To wit:

PERCY NAYOKPUK, Resident of Shishmaref, Alaska: I think most of us have the same conclusion here is, in that we're not going to beat Mother Nature.

TOM BEARDEN: Percy Nayokpuk is one of the elders in Shishmaref. He owns one of the island's two grocery stores.

Residents here voted six years ago to move the village to safer ground on the mainland just a few miles away, but such a move will be expensive. Estimates run as high as $200 million to $300 million for each village.

And Nayokpuk thinks the federal government should pick up much of that tab. Nayokpuk says, for 400 years, his people lived in smaller, more nomadic communities, which could easily pick up and move.

But in the 1920s, the federal government mandated that all native children must get a formal education, so it built a central school on the island, effectively ending the nomadic way of life.

PERCY NAYOKPUK: They very easily could have built it on the mainland and everybody would have been on the mainland. Shishmaref is here mainly because the government insisted we move here.

Now, I think they should also remember that and maybe also give us a hand with the move. We certainly can't do it ourselves.

TOM BEARDEN: The median family income in Shishmaref is $30,000 a year, and virtually every household on the island receives some sort of government assistance.

It's hard to imagine why rebuilding a village like this in another location would be so expensive. After all, the roads here aren't paved and the homes have no indoor plumbing. Instead, they use what are euphemistically called "honey buckets."

But the corps' Opheen says, if the federal or state government is involved, it means following strict rules and regulations for housing and infrastructure, all of which is costly. New construction also means transporting building materials a great distance and bringing in workers.

PATRICIA OPHEEN, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: You've got a crew of 25, 30 people. You have to bring everything in to house that crew for construction, including their housing, water, as well as all of the food.

The transportation and the hauling to get these folks to those locations is extremely expensive. And we're moving to a location, typically if they do relocate, that doesn't have a road service to it. So even building the road service up to the new community has an expense associated with it.

I think it would be a shame if these people had to lose their community because of the short term memory problems of local governments. I can just see now how a hue and cry will be raised about the 'enormous expense' involved in keeping these communities intact. The whole problem has arisen because there wasn't enough respect for native communities' vitality and importance in the first place.

Let's not think we are somehow good because we fix a problem we created. Repairs are costly, and harder to shell out for when we know we have some responsibility for them in the first place. But we need to bite the bullet and pay for them, not blame the people who are blameless and only want their communities to survive.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

No Lapse of Memory

We take a brief intermission here on Pearl Harbor Day to talk about not what falls through the cracks, but what doesn't. I was very happy to go to a breakfast this morning honoring the survivors of that attack. There were seven left here in our region. I went because my friend's father was being honored. I wanted to go, but I didn't really expect my own emotions to be so close to the surface.

What struck me is that these big events of our lives, good and bad, never really go away. Each of the men got up and spoke their piece, some more ably than others. I suppose in some ways it has become a set piece in their recitations of it, but that doesn't mean the emotions were any less real. I was just listening to an interview with the writer Jonathan Carroll about his latest book, and he talks about his conviction that we don't act out of one self but many. We are not always the present moment person as it might seem, but act from all the different people we have been. He spoke about how we return to the different moments in our lives, not in some sort of detached and tranquil memory, but as if we were still there. My friend's father talked about how he was on the ship the Holbert and had been anchored along side the Arizona and other ships in Battleship Row, but were moved to over by the Submarine Base the day before. Just a simple fluke of luck. He's still here and my friend actually exists because of this random twist of fate. He described his witness to this apocalyptic scene, with oil burning on the surface of the sea, and men jumping off of sinking ships, not into water but into fire, and men shooting down their own planes because they were afraid that the Japanese suicide bombers were returning. His words to sum this up were simple. "It was a total mess," he said, shaking his head. 'A total mess' stands in for a lot.

The thing is, that after all these years, after having returned home, worked for the post office, married, raised a daughter, that total mess hasn't ever really gone away. I don't know if it's right to say that this experience trumps all the rest. I hope not. But I was struck by the fact that even in the mind of an elderly man, hard of seeing and almost blind, this memory is still being lived out and interpreted anew.

Also, and maybe somewhat surprisingly, my friend's father still remembers that they were all in the mess that morning and were waiting for their breakfast. They asked, where's our breakfast? And the mess cooks answered, "The Japs are attacking!"

They thought it was a joke. But all these years later, my friend's father remembers, 'We never got our breakfast that day.' Well, I hope that this morning's breakfast made up for that a little. Actually, that was another sweet and unexpected moment. We had come to the end when it was announced that a local company called Gravelle's Boat Company had footed the bill for breakfast. Just a low key thing. Didn't make any big advertisement out of it. But again, no lapse of memory. I will remember that kindness.

So here's to you, Howard Trotno, and to the other men who are still here today, as well as the ones that aren't.

Today at least, we don't forget. We remember.