Here’s a translation of some of what we added to the Spanish version of The Time at Darwin’s Reef.
Funafuti, Tuvalu, May 18, 2015
Pasefika cut a slice of twist tobacco, shredded it, rolled it up in a dried pandanus leaf, lit it, and watched his exhale drift away. He puzzled over the effects of smoke rising high in the air that somehow affected changing sea levels, or at least that was the gist of another discouraging BBC news report he picked up on his short-wave radio that morning. Was it all smoke? Too much smoke? Surely the little wisps he was making couldn’t be part of the problem.
He fixed his gaze on the horizon. The sea line looked strangely fatter, like it was carrying a heavier load than usual. It was still more or less even, no unusual swells or whitecaps. But the high tides had been getting higher lately, daytime temperatures were soaring, and even the seasonable storms were getting stormier in terms of wind and tidal surges yet producing less of the precious rainfall people relied on for drinking water and essential plants and trees for moisture. High tides and low rainfall were spoiling banana plants, staple taro and pulaka gardens, the deep roots of coconut and pandanus trees, and the hand-dug fresh-water wells. Rain percolated down through the coraline soils and floated on the saltwater lens under each island. Sea water coming in from the top turned the entire mix brackish and therefore useless for anything but perhaps washing clothes. Rain catchment in cisterns didn’t have that problem but they also were also running low. The overall rise in sea levels juiced up the spring and King tides.
These hardships were not caused by the typhoons or tsunami that regularly but infrequently ripped tons of coral from the surrounding reef and rolled it over the tiny bits of land, knocking everything down in its way The islanders had always coped with them, in part because they could tell by reading the horizons, waves, and skies when the big storms were coming. Coping skills included loading up people and perhaps a few of their precious belonging in canoes, paddling out in the lagoon as far away from the target coastline as they could get, and riding out whatever was left of a tsunami wave by facing into it after it had crashed on reef and land. That didn’t stop the damages on land, of course. Not counting the tall coconut trees, the islands averaged a mere eight to nine feet above sea level. The tides used to go back to more or less whatever they were before. Repairs, rebuilding, and replanting resumed at the first opportunity, usually under the tolerable and manageable weather conditions that led them to successful atoll life in the first place.
The new wet was insidious to a fault—slowly but constantly growing, threatening, leading less to hope for sunny and cooler days than to the certainty of knowing that, sunshine and sea breezes or not, this storm was not likely to pass until it had taken the entirety of the islands and surface life underwater. Seas were rising everywhere. Some of the islands to the north, in the Marshalls and Gilberts, had already been decimated by record levels of flooding. Everyone worried about Tuvalu being next. The islands were sinking, their reefs and beaches washed away by reinvigorated currents. Local leadership said God would protect them. Fat water or not, Pasefika’s day was sunny with a slight onshore breeze ghosting out to where sea connected to sky. The ocean was not a barrier between islands. It was a pathway to them. Air and sky were a substantive connection. Air was translucent but nonetheless also a material thing connecting the vast ocean and islands within it to the highest stars. It could be “pierced” like a window or a curtain.
Pasefika was studying this triad of island, sea, and sky when quite suddenly a dragon tail of smoke unfolded into the horizon. He stood up and shouted, ko puu te falau, ‘a voyage is piercing the horizon’. The news carried in a relay of voices down the beach to the village.
The freighter showed itself first as a dot blowing smoke as black as coal. Its diesel engines were pushing the ship along on schedule. The schedule was everything. No one had time for non-emergency tune-ups en route or tricky abstract conversations about slow-motion carbon footprints. Besides, Funafuti was getting supplies today from Hedstrom’s in Fiji. Ships did not call regularly. Pasefika had ordered an inflatable raft. It was supposed to arrive a month earlier by air. But the small airstrip was flooded and forced the plane to cancel its landing. That cargo was rerouted by sea instead. This was going to be an exciting and busy day.
Pasefika tucked his half-smoked pandanus cigarette behind his ear and went back to the village. He watched the mother ship anchor in the lagoon and the smokestack stop pumping its devil-may-care smoke. The crew began offloading the cargo. Seeing the ship reminded him of others that had come calling in the past. He knew from his elders that missionaries from the John Williams segment of the London Missionary Society in Samoa sailed to Tuvalu in 1861, piercing those old horizons on a self-serving commitment to save the islanders from their poouliuli, ‘heathen darkness’. There were a few slavers and vagabond traders in between, but Britain’s colonial government made the next most powerful piercing. They called the Polynesian islands Ellice and the Micronesian islands the Gilberts and put them together first in a Protectorate in 1892 and subsequently as a colony in 1916. The islands were divided into two colonies in 1976 and became independent nations, Tuvalu and Kiribati, shortly thereafter. Funafuti, the only island in Tuvalu with an airstrip, became the capital for the new country.
The imported religion was firmly entrenched, having displaced nearly all of the traditional beliefs in favor of Christianity but the indigenous economy was more resilient. The impersonal rules of modern commerce were compartmentalized with the interpersonal and adaptive mandatory sharing principles of the kin-based economy when the next big cultural and physical piercing came ashore in WWII. The Marines had landed, bringing ships, landing craft, all sorts of heavy equipment, and thousands of personnel with them as they prepared for an assault on the Japanese who had seized Tarawa and other parts of the Gilberts to the north.
Pasefika was just a child during the war but he remembered and relished the excitement of having U.S. forces at hand. His parents both had jobs supporting the troops. That gave them money to spend on imported foodstuffs and other items at what quickly became fale koloa, community stores, throughout the islands. But that was then, Pasefika ruminated, and some of his own money had already been spent as prepayment on the supplies coming today. He didn’t mind. Canoes were harder to come by nowadays. If the predictions were right about the tides, Pasefika, his wife, and children could at least use the raft in an emergency. His extended family still had a few canoes in good repair but new opportunities for importing flotation and fishing craft reduced traditional canoe-building activities to nearly nothing. It was a new dawn, a new day, let the water come. He would be prepared, or so he thought. Sailing on a raft away from ground swell flooding was possible and kinship obligations would require him to share it with as many people as he could. But the present-day flood damage was tearing his community apart. Sharing land, produce, and other strategic resources were the foundations of kinship itself. Mud and blood persisted as the fabric of island life and survivability itself. Tearing it asunder would make everything bleed.
Bad news. His raft was not shipped. The bursar said it would be on the next ship, date and time unspecified. If he wanted to cancel and get a refund, he would have to request it in writing to Hedstrom’s. Worried and discouraged, he sat under a coconut tree and relit his cigarette. Maybe if the killer wet arrived in Tuvalu before his raft, a whole fleet of missionary, government men, and Navy ships would gather to save the island people. Rescue by air would have to be timed to beat the runway water. The island used to have problematic spillover once or twice a year. It was now happening at least twice a month. The runway flooding that cancelled Pasefika’s first delivery ran into the borrow pits the military had dug for raw material in building the landing strip. The islanders had used them since as garbage pits. High water filled them up, mixed with raw sewage, and scattered refuse all over the place, creating not only an unsightly mess but especially unhealthy circumstances.
He wasn’t holding his breath waiting for a rescue armada to arrive by air or sea. He needed to exhale. And think.
He figured the high water that finally arrived to sink Tuvalu would be more of the same message sent by the old colonial cultures, letting the islanders know that they were not done asserting power over suffering indigenes. Colonial destruction would be back. This time it was not carried by ships, emboldened by gunpowder, sanitized by self-serving missionaries, overwhelmed by government men, or laced with imported restrictions on marriage, dress codes, rituals, land tenure, and more. This time it is a huge wet telegram from the old exploiters, threatening not only established island physiography, traditions, and lives. This time it would be capable of wiping out all the buildings, machinery, signs, and symbols planted by colonial arrivals in the past. None of it could survive underwater. Tuvaluans of course would be the big losers. The colonial greenhouse gas makers would just write it off as an economic loss in red in their great books, cover it with homilies about thoughts and prayers, and offer some one cow aid to survivors who had previously migrated to big islands elsewhere. The only sliver of satisfaction Pasefika could find in that scenario was ironically equivalent to a climate grenade going off in the hands of the returning conquerors and their climate wrecking descendants.
He smiled at the irony that the time at his reef was running out with the incoming tides. He finished his cigarette and closed his eyes. Visualizing the great curiosity inspired by beached whale pods, he found some comfort in knowing he wasn’t alone in the history of earth’s creatures wanting to change from wet to dry. But at least they had an option. Pasefika and his kinsmen needed the dry as much as whales needed the wet.
Baja California, 16 mayo 1962
DELFINES EN EL DESIERTO
Por qué de mojados a secos se quieren mudar
Por qué es tan fuerte su anhelo de ir
Más allá de su lar de agua salada, abrazando un sueño
De muerte terrestre, dejando atrás en la profundidad
La honda clave de su identidad
Será que en un mundo sin pausa alguna
Se escapan de barco, tiburón y red
Vuelven atrás, huyen del reino de aleta y concha
Para estar con el hombre en seco hogar
Cerrando el ciclo de su viajar
Pero han de saber que la nieve más virgen
Guarda venenos de hollín y basura
Que el cielo más claro mentiras perpetra
Invisibles al ojo que de ciencia no goza
Y al delfín que en el mar retoza
Si de olas y espuma procuran salir
Que nunca alcancen la árida playa
Que regresen al mar sinfonías buscando
De arrecifes y naves en naufragio mortal
Pues el agua es vida, la tierra fatal