Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Returning to Their Heaven: Haleiwa O-bon and Toro-nagashi

One of the reasons to return to Hawaii this time of year was to attend the annual O-bon celebration at the Haleiwa Buddhist Church and participate in the toro-nagashi.

The annual celebration is in memory of one’s ancestors and the Haleiwa ceremony features in addition to the prayers and dancing the floating of paper lanterns lighted with candles on the waters near the church.

It’s a celebration I took part in with my good friend during our college years and taken up again in recent years as a time to renew our acquaintance on an annual basis. This year was more poignant because my friend died suddenly in the last year.

In recent years the O-bon celebration and  toro-nagashi in Haleiwa have become quite popular and many folks gather after dark, waiting for the entourage of priests to descend from the church, clanging their bells and leading the way to the waters beyond the sandy beach. Each lantern has a flat bottom, six sides of decorated colored rice paper and a slender candle at its bottom.

My lantern carried my deceased father’s name and I also carried a lantern with the names of my friend’s grandparents, parents and deceased brother.

I’ve not been to India or to Mecca but that’s the feeling I imagine I would experience performing a religious rite in such close quarters with so many young and old fellow pilgrims. Following the priests and buoyed along by the crowd, we work our way down to the dark waters, our candles lit by people with lighters, our feet sinking into the soft sand as we head downward and seaward. At the water’s edge we meet others returning to shore and we step into the water and walk in to knee depth where we place our lanterns on the water among the tens of hundreds floating out on the currents. We turn and return to shore, then up the soft sandy beach and turning, watch the hundreds of points of light bob and float away on the dark waters.

In this way last Saturday the spirits of my father, my good friend’s family, and that of my good friend returned to their heaven.

--Mike Sato

In Flossie’s Aftermath

PHOTO: Keola Donaghy/Star-Advertiser
It’s hard to take seriously a tropical storm named Flossie but Hawaii state authorities made sure everyone paid attention before Flossie reached the Big Island on Monday.

In Honolulu, we were treated to high humidity, no breeze and torrential downpours beginning late Sunday night and throughout Monday as Flossie made landfall on the east shore of the Big Island, then passed over Maui and Molokai. Heavy rains, thunderstorms and some wind damage. Power outages and one person suffered a lightning strike on Maui but otherwise no one was hurt.

By the time Flossie reached Oahu, she’d been reduced to a tropical depression and rain. Late Tuesday, the trade winds had returned as had the blue skies.

Were all the warnings warranted and the storm preparations necessary? On Monday, the news stations devoted live coverage and repeated warnings. United and Alaska Airlines cancelled flights. There were lots of parking spaces at the beach at Waikiki; people were buying lots of toilet paper, bottled water and bags of rice at Longs Drugs and Foodland.

Of course the precautions and preparations were warranted. Most of the time we walk around enjoying the sun and surf, connecting up to the ‘net, shopping and eating like normal folk and don’t think about how fragile it is to live on islands in the middle of the Pacific. Many folks remember the big ones like Hurricane Iwa and Iniki when electricity wasn’t out for an hour or two but for days. Farther back, older folks remember long dockworker strikes which resulted in shortages of toilet paper and rice.

Storm tracking has come a long way and the state is much better prepared when it comes to informing folks about hurricanes and tsunamis. We’ve come a long way from the days when I was a youngster following my father down to the beach to see what we then called a ‘tidal wave’ arrive onto the south Oahu shore.

Being prepared for an emergency isn’t a bad thing, especially since an emergency is, well, an emergency and you really don’t know when it’s going to happen. I’m sure the bottles of water will be drunk, the toilet paper used, and the rice and spam and Vienna sausages eaten.

It shouldn’t be any big deal, but every once in a while, it’s good to be reminded how tenuous the threads of civilization are.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tell Me A Story... About Puget Sound

Last week the subject of telling a story came up at the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council meeting. “We need to tell our story,” Councilmember Diana Gale said. Even people on the “inside,” our friends, don’t know what we’re doing and what’s being accomplished. Others on the Council agreed that better stories, not only about the bad things happening to the Sound but also about the good things being done, need to be told.

There are stories being told in words, photos and videos about Puget Sound and there will be more, according to Partnership staff member Dave Ward, who presented what’s called “Phase 2” of the Puget Sound Starts Here campaign.

We’re no longer having personal best practices at the forefront of the web campaign, explained Ward, who showed the Council the new web format now optimized for handheld devices as well. Best practices are still a part of the campaign but the focus is now not so much about how we are connect to the Sound as showing how we are connected by the Sound. In other words, the Partnership campaign has taken a major philosophical shift from telling people what needs to be done to telling stories about what life on Puget Sound is like, what it means to live here, why life in Puget Sound is so special.

The campaign will have monthly “themes” much like a magazine to attract viewers to return to the site each month: this month, “Journeys,” to be followed by “Farming the Sound,” “Craft Food and Beverages,” and “Sounds of the Sound.” According to Ward,  ten percent of the new web campaign’s content will be devoted to personal best practice “should dos” and calendar listings for local events; the rest of the content is unique “lifestyle storytelling.”

Ward said that public attitude polls show that Puget Sound Starts Here has gained a brand awareness among 26 percent of Puget Sound residents and the campaign, thus far having spent over $1.5 million, has a goal of increasing that awareness to 50 percent by 2015. Since brand awareness itself doesn’t mean behavior change, the web site itself is a conduit leading people to local events where they will learn personal best practices. The effectiveness of how much behavior is changed for the better will be tracked through county-by-county surveys in 2015.

The new “lifestyle stories” may not be quite the kinds of stories the Leadership Council members had in mind when they talked about telling stories. On the other hand, the Partnership doesn’t seem to be burdened amy more by the old polling albatross of only a fourth of the region’s population thinking the Sound is in bad shape. According to Dave Ward, people may not have much knowledge about the Sound but about two-thirds think it’s extremely urgent to protect the Sound. The Partnership now categorizes the Sound's population as 50 percent made up of supportive “Sound Protectors,” 39 percent “Fence sitters” and the remainder unreachable “Sound Skeptics.” With public attitudes like those, showing progress towards a “fishable, swimmable and diggable” Puget Sound by 2020 shouldn’t be that hard.

But it is difficult to move folks from awareness to action. Over the last 25 years, discussion about “what works” in Puget Sound communications has revolved around whether one sold death or sold life-- whether one emphasized what was bad with the Sound or emphasized what was good with the Sound-- to gain the public’s attention and move the public to action. Obviously the Puget Sound Starts Here Phase 2 campaign is selling life, telling the story of our Puget Sound lifestyle.

What’s missing in Puget Sound Start Here, Phase 1 and Phase 2 — and in the entire Partnership endeavor thus far— is the sense of urgency. There's urgency whether you're selling death or life.  If someone is aware that the Sound is going down the toilet, then it’s urgent that the person be engaged in ways to reverse that. If someone thinks the Sound is still in good shape, then it’s urgent that the person be engaged in ways to keep it good. You can sell death or you can sell life— and people can respond to either-- but it’s the urgency to take action that matters most.

The Big Lie in the depletion of our environmental capital is that we can live our lives as business as usual and that we have all the time in the world. What’s your story about Puget Sound?

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shhh...Puget Sound Partnership's Leadership At Work

PHOTO: Darren Stone (Times-Colonist)
The bad joke used to be that the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority had no authority, the Puget Sound Action Team didn’t take much action, and the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council.. well, you can finish the bad joke.

The Leadership Council meets in Skagit County this coming Wednesday and Thursday at the Padilla Bay Reserve. Its staff (still under interim director Mark Daily— nobody seems to want the job since Tony Wright resigned in January) will report on how well Puget Sound recovery is meeting goals in the critical areas of eelgrass, nearshore and shoreline habitat.  They’ll also discuss fish consumption science and monitoring, a legislative agenda for the 2014 session, and what’s next for the Puget Sound Starts Here campaign.

Are we recovering the health of Puget Sound? Like most of you, these days I only know what I read or hear or see in the media and saving Puget Sound has become one of the better kept secrets eclipsed by climate change, ocean acidification and coal export. I admit to having a bias towards communications, primarily because I take government transparency and public participation seriously. If one of the big problems with Puget Sound recovery is that ordinary folks don’t know what’s at risk and are not participating in its recovery, then keeping Puget Sound’s health a secret is taking us nowhere fast.

In the last few months, there have been ample opportunities for the Partnership and its leadership to say something about our Sound’s health. With two deaths in our resident orca L-pod, we are now down to where we were 10 years ago with a low of 82 Southern Resident killer whales.  The state’s inability to come up with fish consumption standards continues to allow toxic pollutants to be discharged into the Sound  and puts residents at risk from eating fish.  Research showing a decrease in the number of creatures living in the sediment of the central Puget Sound was called a “wake up call” then it seemed everyone went back to sleep.

Are the issues complicated? Sure they are but they require a public discussion sparked by more than picking up dog poop and washing one’s car on the lawn. Can the issues be understood by voters? They had better be— otherwise kiss the recovery of the Sound goodbye.

Governor Gary Locke’s pronouncement about saving our salmon-- that “extinction is not an option”-- only ended up being hollow as we waited and waited for actions to protect critical habitats and reduce and eliminated toxic pollution. It will be a shame if Governor Chris Gregoire’s pronouncement that, by 2020, the Sound will be “fishable, swimmable, diggable” became a toothless tiger because no leader would say clearly and loudly what needed to be done and who needed to do it— and hold them accountable for getting it done.

Partnership, Leadership Council, Governor Inslee— your play.

--Mike Sato

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Herring

A flock of seagulls squawked excitedly the other day in San Juan Channel off the tip of the Fisherman Bay peninsula, probably around a school of baitfish brought to the surface by feeding salmon or a seal. Maybe it’s just my rose-colored recollection of the past but it seems to me that there used to be more times when I’d see those flocks of sea birds feeding.

I never have seen the herring or baitfish below the surface forced up by a predator into protecting themselves by forming a ball, the idea being that those on the outside would be eaten before those on the inside. The “ball” would wind to the surface where the sea birds would dive from above, screeching and squawking in their frenzy.

When fishing, that’s when your heart starts to thumpin’, your feet start to jumpin’-- and you want to get as close to the action and move your plug bait or killer lure around the frenzy.

Maybe there aren’t as many herring these days or maybe there aren’t as many salmon or maybe I don’t spend as much time looking across the water. The last time I was out fishing, the daybreak on the water was spectacular, the fish finder gear fascinated me, and it didn’t matter that we didn’t catch anything.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve baited a double-hook array just right so that the herring looks like the live bait it’s supposed to be when it’s dropped over the side and slowly trailed at the proper depth behind the boat. The last time I did that maybe the salmon weren’t there that day or maybe the hooks just weren’t baited right; I took the herring home and fried them up.

Getting a fish meal that way was simpler and a lot less trouble— but surely not as much fun.

A bit more elaborate but certainly festive is a whole different kind of herring ball made of
herring, potatoes, onions, pepper, and olives and garnished with all kinds of good stuff. Enjoy.

--Mike Sato

Monday, July 1, 2013

Adventures in Bunnyland

It’s the first of July and in years past the wild rabbits have been eaten by the coyotes that howl in the woods at night. This year the coyotes have been silent and the rabbits are still around, living in the bushes and behind the woodpile, emerging in the morning and the evening to eat the yard’s clover and the planted beds’ succulent shoots.

Rabbits’ Guy says these are wild cottontails and that the rabbit-coyote populations fluctuate back and forth. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on their Living With Wildlife website says these were introduced in the 1930s as a game animal. They begin breeding— like rabbits— from mid-February through the summer with a 30-day gestation period. On any given morning or evening there are big ones and little ones in the yard and around the neighborhood and one can probably surmise what the others are doing in the bushes.

My old dog knows he can’t play the catch-me-if-you-can game: the last time he chased one he came back limping so now he chases after those pellets they poop on the lawn and gets yelled at. The neighbors call them “bunnies” because they look cute. Cuteness is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve read Richard Adams’s Watership Down and watched the killer rabbit segment of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. These are not wild animals to be trifled with, despite “bunny” being an American colloquialism deriving from the Scottish bun for buttocks. Heh, heh, the neighbors said, “Bunny.”

The first summer I lived on Lopez in the early ‘70s, the roads at night were filled with the Belgian hares that had been introduced in the islands at the start of the century. Jim Lawrence in his book Callused Hands, Hungry Heart writes about the blessing of “road kill stews” bestowed on the young, poor and hungry during those days on San Juan Island.

“There was so much protein crossing the country roads in little bunny suits, it was always just a matter of time before you or the car in front of you knocked one in the head without destroying the flesh. With a quick swerve to the side of the road, I’d lean out the driver’s door and throw the limp carcass behind the front seat, only to cook it for dinner a few hours later. Saved a 22 bullet.”
My mother tells the story of my uncle serving fried rabbit without telling his niece, who thought it was chicken. “What’s up, doc?” he said to her— repeatedly— until she figured out what he was getting at. He stopped preparing rabbit, however, after one had its front paws up, trembling, before he killed it. “It looked like it was praying,” he said.

Ruth Reichl tells Michael Pollan a story in the article “No Reservations” in the June issue of Smithsonian about publishing a profile in Gourmet Magazine about chef Thomas Keller killing a rabbit:
“So there’s this scene where Keller wanted to make rabbits and kill them himself. And he does a really inept job. He manages to break this rabbit’s leg as he’s trying to kill it and he says rabbits scream really loud. It’s gruesome.And we thought long and hard about whether we were going to put this in the story. And I said: ‘It’s going in because he concludes that if he’s alone in the kitchen and he’s finally killed this rabbit, it’s going to be the best rabbit anybody ever ate because he finally understood in that kitchen with this screaming rabbit that meat was life itself.’”
So, here’s to life itself hopping around in my yard.

--Mike Sato