The Casual Blog

Tag: Dominica

Recovering, reading about B. Franklin, and addressing climate change

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This week the weather in Raleigh was mild, and it was pleasant to walk to work. The walk takes 15-20 minutes, depending on how I catch the lights and whether I’m trying to get there for an early meeting. When I wasn’t especially pressed, I made a few pictures of people working and playing.
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Now, after two weeks from our return from Dominica, my various wounds (assorted bruises, scrapes, and blisters) are mostly healed up. The most worrisome, my severely sprained right hand, is still swollen and sore, but hurting less, and I’m able to play octaves on the piano, though not loudly. It reminded me of when I first tried to learn to catch a football as a little kid, and jammed up my fingers.
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It is remarkable how the body can overcome and regenerate. In fact, did you ever notice how sometimes a new injury seems to help an old one to heal? My nagging shoulder issues, which I’ve been trying to get over for several months, seem to have gone away, cured or obscured by the addition of new, more pressing discomforts.
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It’s Memorial Day weekend, and we’re still full of memories of our friend Scott, who shuffled off this mortal coil right after leading our Dominica trip. He managed, by being an unusually vibrant and generous person, to hook himself into the fabric our lives, and his departure has ripped that fabric. We’ve been talking about him, his good deeds and his goofiness, and looking back at photos. For therapy and comfort, I’ve been rereading some of In Memoriam, Tennyson’s poetic memorial to his beloved friend Arthur Hallam. Yes, it rhymes, in a style that’s way out of fashion now, but it can still speak to us. It takes grief and loss seriously, and delves deep.
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As I’ve noted before, my favorite founding father is Benjamin Franklin. Last week I finished another biography of him, by H.W. Brands. Franklin was a protean genius with many aspects, and so the biographer will inevitably neglect some of them. Brands is most interested in the political and literary Franklin, and less in the scientist and philosopher. But in describing Franklin’s diplomatic efforts in England prior to the revolution and his diplomacy in France during it, he gave me new perspectives on the war. For those of us who cut our historical teeth on revisionism, it is reassuring that Franklin, who loved England dearly, could conclude that there was no alternative to war.

For all Franklin’s enormous fame during his lifetime, it’s interesting that there are significant gaps in the record, and much we don’t know about his inner life. But what keeps shining through is his insatiable curiosity about the natural world and his constant effort to make the human world better. It’s also inspiring to me, as I get on in years, that a good portion of his greatest achievements, including helping invent and establish American democracy, were in the last quarter of his long life.
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Apropos of making things better, there’s a good short op ed piece on climate change by Tom Friedman in the NY Times, which poses a question I’ve been wondering about: “How do we do something about [global warming] at the scale required, when many remain skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life[?] He also quickly hones in on the central moral and political quandary – the conflict between the welfare of this generation and future generations: “our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next generation.” (Quoting Thomas Wells, a Dutch philosopher.) Friedman argues for urgent change, including a carbon tax and energy efficiency standards. This seems sensible, at least as a starting place.
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On Sunday I took a walk through Raulston Arboretum, which I try to do once a week, but missed recently. I completely missed the irises — they’d come and gone while I was traveling. But the roses are in full bloom, and there are some remarkable lilies.
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A painful loss — our diving friend and mentor

14 05 08_9103_edited-1On Wednesday, we got shocking news: our friend Scott Powell had died. He was 44. Just the previous week, he’d led our trip to Dominica, where we’d done a baker’s dozen dives together. We also shared the first leg of an epic journey (for us, 34 hours) to get back home, which involved lost luggage and missed planes and an unplanned overnight stop in San Juan, where we had our last dinner together.

We’d known Scott for about six years – as long as we’d been scuba diving. As owner of Down Under Surf and Scuba, he provided the base for almost all of the diving courses we’ve taken, and helped me reach the level of PADI Master Scuba Diver. From Scott we got our first information on Bonaire, Roatan, the Galapagos, and Fiji. He personally introduced us to North Carolina coastal diving, and taught my course in wreck diving. And of course, he sold us almost all of our diving gear. Once you get the diving bug, it’s a powerful thing, and he was our prime mentor.
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Scott had seemingly limitless energy and an upbeat zest for life. Unlike a lot of intensely adventurous types, he also loved meeting and talking with people. He was a gifted storyteller, with a good sense of humor. He was incredibly generous with his time, and kind and considerate. He was politically conservative, but genuinely interested in and tolerant of other perspectives. Even when I disagreed with his views, I was grateful for the experience of exchanging ideas with mutual respect.
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At the end of the Dominica trip, Scott strongly encouraged us to come to the next scuba club meeting scheduled for Tuesday to hear a speaker from Duke talk about dealing with injuries from poisonous sea flora and fauna. We did so, and so got to see him on his last night.

We got there a little late, and most of the tables were taken. When he spotted us having trouble finding a seat, he hopped up and introduced us to some congenial new people with spare table space. He kicked off the meeting with his usual warmth and wit, and wrapped it up the same way. When we were leaving, he mentioned that he’d read my new blog post on Dominica (see below) that afternoon, and liked it. Would I mind if he shared it with the group? Of course not, I said, thanking him.

The next day, I heard that he went back to his shop after the meeting and was working there alone when he collapsed. Someone (I’m guessing he himself) called 911, but when the EMTs arrived, they had to break into the shop. He was gone. I’d guess he had a heart attack, but have no further details.

His memorial service on Saturday morning. The crowd at Brown-Wynne in Cary was big – standing room only. There was a presiding pastor type, but the heart of the service was the words of his friends and family. I particularly liked the remarks of Bill, Jim, and Sid, Scott’s fellow dive professionals, who were plainly inspired by and devoted to Scott. There were also a couple of friends from Y Guides, which Scott seems to have very much enjoyed with his older son.

His wife, whom I did not know, spoke briefly and well, noting that Scott’s nature was to love people. She read a letter from their son to Scott about the fun things they did together, and looking forward to learning scuba diving. It was touching, and of course, painful. Painful in quite a different way was the closing sermonette by the pastor, who in stentorian tones pressed all present to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and be Saved from eternal Damnation. This didn’t sound at all like the Scott I knew, and was my least favorite part.

But the important point didn’t get lost: Scott touched and enriched many lives. It was good to share with others a moment of recognition of that gift. He was inspiring in his wide-ranging curiosity, his kindness and generosity, his energy and resourcefulness, and his understated courage.
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I imagined we’d have many more adventures together, and many more discussions about the greatest places to dive and most amazing things to see, and about the optimal gear and configurations. I expected we’d have many more good meals and good laughs. I’d planned to debrief him carefully about diving in Africa, and many other things he knew about. It’s hard to believe, what seemed natural and inevitable is suddenly impossible. This will take some time to process.

If it had ever occurred to me that he’d be leaving us suddenly, I’d have worked hard to get some good pictures of him, but, of course, it didn’t, and I didn’t. Still, I’m glad to have these.
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Coral Reef Diving and Hiking in Dominica, West Indies

14 05 07_8847Coral reefs are one of nature’s most amazing creations. Untold millions of miniscule animals form structures of wildly varying forms, textures, and colors, and extend them widely over thousands of years. Some of the structures resemble terrestrial plants or animals, but others look like modernist architecture, surpassing the most fanciful creations of Gaudi. They are home to 25 percent of the ocean’s creatures, and a fundamental part of the planet’s infrastructure.
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As a diver, I relish the incredible privilege of time with strange and beautiful coral. I’m also acutely aware of their perilous situation, and the urgent need for action. Global warming and ocean acidification are killing coral reefs, and the consequences for all life that relies on the ocean may be catastrophic. I was slightly cheered to see the UN and US reports in the last few weeks highlighting these threats. Perhaps reality is sinking in, and perhaps it is not too late. I have my doubts, but I try to err on the side of optimism.
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In any case, for the time being, there is awesome beauty to contemplate and celebrate. And so last week Sally and I made our first visit to the Caribbean Island of Dominica. I learned the correct pronunciation (doe-me-NEE-ka), and the location – part of the Lesser Antilles, to the south of Antigua and north of Saint Lucia. The terrain is mountainous, with peaks up to 4,747 feet, and much of it is covered with lush tropical rainforest. It is exceptionally beautiful.
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We stayed in the town of Roseau at a friendly, diver-oriented place called the Castle Comfort Lodge, and did our diving with Dive Dominica. The dive sites we did were mostly 20-30 minutes away by boat to the southern part of the island. Most days we did two dives in the morning and a land adventure in the afternoon, and twice we went out with the DD boat on night dives.
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The water was a mild 81 degrees F, with visibility of 50-60 feet and little current. The coral seemed fairly healthy, with little bleaching, and lots of variety in shape, texture, and color. There were lots of tube sponges and crinoids, and some anemones. The most interesting new fish to us was the frog fish, a remarkably well-camouflaged and strange creature. Other highlights were scorpion fish, snake eels, electric eels, sea horses, balloon fish, trumpet fish and squid. There were many small colorful tropicals (such as butterflyfish, damsel fish, goat fish, and squirrel fish). However, I missed my beloved queen angelfish, and there were relatively few larger fish (such as groupers and barracuda), which was mildly disappointing. We saw only one shark all week (a sleeping nurse) and only a few hawksbill turtles. On the other hand, we saw quite a few large lobsters, large crabs, and small shrimp.
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One afternoon we went on a whale-watching expedition and had good views of five sperm whales. The crew used underwater microphones to detect the whales’ signature clicks and then watched for them to spout. There was one pair that turned out to be a mother with a very large nursing daughter (pictured below as the mom descended). It was a thrill to see these remarkable creatures up close. We also were visited by a group of bottle nosed dolphins who came close to the boat to observe us.
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The next day one of our fellow divers, Shane Gero, turned out to be a sperm whale expert who’d spent several years studying the Dominica sperm whale families. We learned more about their family structure, habits, and culture. They eat giant squid, which live thousands of feet down. Family group are all females, joined by males only at breeding time. When orcas threaten the young, the family forms a circle around the babies, with heads inward, and ward off the attacker with their tails.
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Our most remarkable land expedition was a hike to the Boiling Lake, an area of active volcanic activity, which took about seven arduous hours through the rainforest and up and down mountains. Along the way there were spectacular vistas, rivers, and waterfalls. For much of the time, though, I was entirely focussed on finding the next safe spot to put my foot, and in some climbing points, my hand. With Sally’s encouragement, I took along a walking stick, and was glad I did – it was helpful in many situations, such as stepping from rock to rock over fast-moving streams. We did not bring along rain gear, which was an unfortunate oversight – it rained on us for much of the hike and we were well soaked.
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I’d thought of hiking as a relatively placid physical activity, but this was anything but. It required engagement and commitment at the level of double black diamond skiing. I was very glad to get back at last, but soon began thinking about how I’d like to do more of it. I was, however, sore and beat up by the end of the week. I took a fall getting on the boat early in the week and badly sprained my right (dominant) hand, and worked up a major blister on my right foot. Paradise can be hard on a body!14 05 07_8856

Our other land expeditions (including Trafalgar Falls, the Emerald Pool, the Carib Indian territory, and a boat trip on Indian River) were lovely and untaxing (aside from the twisty, bumpy drives to get there). We also had a good time soaking in the stone-lined hot springs named Screw Spa (sorry, but it’s true). A totally unexpected pleasure was meeting Miss Dominica 2013, Leslassa Armour-Hillingsford, a lovely and gracious young lady who helped us with our trip plans in her capacity as clerk for the family business (the Anchorage Hotel)
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The trip was led by Scott Powell, proprietor of Down Under Surf and Scuba, with remarkable energy and good cheer. Scott made sure we had interesting dives, good meals, and fun activities. On the van ride back to the airport, Scott and I noticed that the driver was falling asleep and barely keeping the van on the twisty mountain roads. He worked hard to keep the poor fellow awake (and us alive) by asking him everything he could think of about local geography and culture. We made it, obviously (whew!). Good job, Scott!
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