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Reality at the edge of the world

by bdietrich on April 7, 2013

I live on the edge of the world.

My Pacific Northwest house faces the Salish Sea, an inland body of salt water that includes the San Juan Islands. It perches like a tree house on a steep hill, looking into the branches of conifers a hundred feet high or higher, with orange madrona trees woven through like thread.

The evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson would say my perch mimics that of my African prehistoric ancestors. We evolved in a savannah landscape where we looked for grassland predators and prey from the relative safety of clumps of trees. An urban apartment overlooking a park gives much the same sensation.

While far from utopian, my abode is fairly quiet, pretty, and bourgeois-comfortable. Until reality pokes in.

Which it does  all the time. Having covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill as a journalist, I watch from my bedroom office window as a parade of oil tankers migrate in and out of the nearby refinery port here like balloons that might pop on the wrong rock. At least now they have tug escort and double hulls.

And I live a short distance outside the city of Anacortes, a refinery and boat-building town of about sixteen thousand with dreams of industrial might that go back a century. Anacortes is a curious combination of blue collar, professional, arts, and retiree, and perennially torn between the desire for “growth” (which has infinite definitions) and “sustainability” (ditto.) It’s a place that always wants to be what it was, but again that “was” ranges from mill town to Mayberry, depending on who’s doing the remembering.

This is a common story on our planet reeling from Future Shock, population growth, and technological addiction. Few of us are consistent in our desires.

Now America’s energy revolution is butting in.

Anacortes is on Fidalgo Island, connected to the mainland by two bridges and, increasingly important, a railroad. Trains were once infrequent but now, with almost no public notice or fanfare, the Tesoro Refinery on Fidalgo Island built new railroad sidings to allow 100-car tanker trains to bring oil from the newly burgeoning oil fields of North Dakota.

The refinery next door, Shell, wants to do the same thing.

Both actions are a response to Alaska oil exports falling three quarters from their one-time peak and the Dakotas needing to ship oil by rail while the proposed Keystone Pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico is battled. Events a thousand miles away result in choo-choos rattling into my reveries.

As gasoline consumption drops from fuel-efficient cars, the four refineries in northwest Washington are in a race to see which ones can remain competitive.

Then there are proposals to ship millions of tons of coal from Montana to nearby Cherry Point, again by rail. Mine it in Montana, rail it to Washington, ship it to China, burn it, and have the soot blow back. At a time scientists are speculating about ways to put carbon back in the ground, we can’t wait to dig it out. Crazy.

Anacortes’s mayor is pushing a plan to sell 5 million gallons of water a day to what would be (if built) the largest water bottling plant in the nation, shipped by rail to customers up to a thousand miles away. More tracks, more trains, more plastic, more fossil fuel burned, more waste, more global warming, less water.

And with the Great Recession receding, residential development is heating up. There are always land disputes, the most recent a permit to clearcut 40 acres adjacent to city parklands and a peregrine falcon nest and replace it with a subdivision.

So I can’t turn my back on the world as much as my house pretends. I respond by trying to play a constructive role in local conservation organizations. There’s also brewing debate about future civic visions, with the pro-industrial mayor of twenty years seeking yet another term but facing serious challengers for the first time. Should be a lively one.

This story plays out in a thousand communities across America. The future comes out best when smart and dedicated people stay engaged.

So pay attention. Participate. Worry. But not too much.

Two bald eagles just flew by. I think birds were created to deliver hope.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Alcala April 7, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Thanks, Bill. An important message: stay engaged.


Joy Humphrey April 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Ditto what Kathleen said.


Dolly Hein April 8, 2013 at 9:24 am

Beautifully stated……..


Anthony Young April 9, 2013 at 11:18 am

Excellent analysis and wonderfully said. Anacortes is an amazingly wonderful place to live, soothing and peaceful, and filled with an abundance of extraordinary people and nature. Thanks Bill for reminding me to look out of my office window too for my “reminders” of hope.


Laura Hamilton April 14, 2013 at 12:22 am

I enjoy your writing — great observations! All I can say is — Laurie Gere for Mayor!


Karla Locke April 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Thank you for putting it all in perspective.


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