Kids on a Stormy Sea (video): Growing Young, Growing Old

My kids have grown up in skiffs, on the Alaskan ocean, surrounded by fish, kelp and rolling water. (Hold on to something stable while you watch this!)





Coming in from fishing at 11:30 pm.

Coming in from fishing at 11:30 pm.

Noah, 10, coming in from a huge storm.

Noah, 10, coming in from a huge storm.

It has not all been good. They will tell you of unending kelp in the nets, of too many fish and not enough fish, of mending net in the rain, of huge seas, of lost meals and sleep. But most of them come back. For at least part of the summer fishing season. For now.


They have grown up in the skiff. A girl became a fisherwoman. Boys became fishermen. And me? Some days, after 38 seasons out here, I think this life has turned this young woman old.    


But God will not allow it. Not yet, at least. The day I landed on the island for my 36th season, something happened.   I saw a furious splashing out by the reef in front of our house. A pod of orcas hunting down sea lions, maybe?

“Micah! Abraham! Come quick!” They run to the window with me, watching strange flippers emerge then a huge dark body leapt out of the water.

“What is it?” the boys ask together. Then I know.

“It’s a pod of fin whales. They’re lunge feeding!”

My eyes are fixated on their antics. I almost can’t believe it. Fin whales are sober whales. They don’t cavort or frolic like humpbacks. They’re massive, second only to the blue whale, and they haul their heft with great solemnity about the oceans. They know what life is about. They migrate to this bay again and again every summer, like me. They’ve seen it all. And, we have too. 


But now—there are fresh herring darting into the bay. Now it is nearly summer. Now they give up their old habits and indulge in what’s called lunge feeding. I’ve read about it but never seen it. They’re feeding on their sides, skimming and scooping up schools of herring, their usually invisible flippers flapping and slapping the water.

We watch with binoculars as they rise and roll, flushing the waters with their spinning and lunging, mixing water and whale and air into a wondrous froth. Why merely sink and dive when they can spin and skim their thirty-ton bodies up onto the lovely surface and net whole schools of tasty fish?

And there we are, laughing, witnessing their perfect feast, and who knows what else is possible in this watery world?  (Click to Tweet)



All the next day my steps are light with joy. I remember G. K. Chesterton’s words:

"It is possible that God says every morning to the sun, 'Do it again,' and every evening, 'Do it again' to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never gotten tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we are."


Is it possible that already I am young again, full of hope for the season ahead? The waters that threaten us, that wear us out and down, also inspire and launch the worlds’ heaviest creatures into the air—can it be?  (Click to Tweet)





But it is. And I think again of the gathering of waters, the mikveh, the Hebrew word for that moment in Genesis when God called out all the waters above and below into a single massive body, the seas. The same word, mikveh (literally meaning “collection”), came to be used of every gathering of water that cleansed and purified. A convert to Judaism would immerse himself into the mikveh, a special pool of water for that very purpose, waters that were sometimes called “the womb of the world.”

As the convert came up out of the waters, he emerged new, as a child, now separated from his own pagan past. He was called “a little child just born,” or “a child of one day.”

I am a “child of one day” this day, the spume of the whale washing over me. I am converted from the wear of age and time and so many trips and seasons and fear and doubt out here—made young again by delight. And it is easy to think of God creating the oceans right now. It is easy to think of Jesus right now. So many times I am looking for Him, for that man who has both rescued me in such particular ways, and who remains yet so far off, so invisible that I am blinded with longing and frustration.

But this first day my eyes are open. As I launch off into the pages of this book, Crossing the Waters, I will show everywhere I have found him here, in these waters, and in the waters of the gospels. 

And you, too, are you ready to be made young again?

God is waiting to fill you with delight!!



(Adapted from Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt and the Seas)

(And writing this, thinking of you all, already fills me with delight!)



30 Whales Die, New Fin Whale Videos & Practicing Resurrection

   A few days ago I went to pick up my daughter for her second visit to the island this summer. We skimmed across the bay on this gorgeous bright day. I did not know what awaited me. We never do. 

I saw spouts ahead. Of course, fin whales. They hang out here for the summer, feeding and lounging and being their own spectacular selves. For these creatures, the second largest whales in the world, their very existence speaks of a lavish, extravagant God.

And here, they came yet closer . .. .

And here, when my heart stopped . . .

This has been an extraordinary summer of whales----from humpbacks throwing their impossible weight from water to sky, over and over, sending the ocean itself skyward into foam. Orcas filling the bay, their fins slicing water. And a Sei whale sighting, my first. But not all the whale news has been good. 

NOAA reports that 30 whales have washed up dead around the islands of the western Gulf of Alaska. Even closer to home, right here on Kodiak Island, 9 fin whales, have been found floating or beached, one just a few miles away. NOAA is calling it "an unusual mortality event." It's almost three times t

he usual rate of beachings and die-offs. 

(Photo from NOAA. Bears feeding on fin whale carcass near Larsen Bay, 7 miles from us)

Everyone loves a mystery, but not this kind. Marine mammal specialists are baffled. Extensive studies are underway, but the best guess hazarded so far is a toxic algae bloom flourishing in "the Blob," the massive swath of warm water infecting and affecting the entire West coast, from Mexico to Alaska. Massive bird die-offs, sickened seals and sea lions have all been blamed on both the Blob and the "Godzilla El Nino."


map of the "blob")

I am shaken. These leviathans suddenly appear fragile, vulnerable. I count on their presence every summer to expand our vocabulary of wonder, to remind us of our insignificance, to hint at the grandness of God. 

I do believe in global warming, because I see its effects and realities close-up here in Alaska. And I believe in a sovereign God who loves His creation and desires us to love it as well. But I can't fix this. I feel helpless. I only know to pay attention, to care for the ground and water at my feet, to love those around me. I turn to Wendell Berry in these times:

“So, friends, every day do something that won't compute .

... Ask 

the questions that have no answers. Put your faith in two 

inches of humus that will build under the trees every 

thousand years ... Laugh. Be joyful though you have 

considered all the facts ... Practice resurrection.”


The Country of Marriage

 I pick up my daughter. I rejoice in my sons' happiness at seeing their sister. 

I prepare for the arrival of 18 in a few days, for the 3rd Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop. We'll sit together over words of truth and hope. I'll tell them about the whales. We'll look about this beautiful world with fierce, observant eyes. We  will consider all the facts of living this life, and then  . . .

Then we will laugh,

because together we are practicing


Song of Breath-Stealing (Alaskan) Astonishments


Friends, may I take you to my one little theater of Glory, where God has been so astonishingly at work and at play this week? I must show you, else the rocks will start shouting and pelting. I will borrow the Psalmists words, because I cannot conjure up any words more true or lovely. Come and see!

producing food from the earth,
 wine that makes man’s heart glad—
making his face shine with oil—
and bread that sustains man’s heart.


Now, your turn! Would you share below (with me and all who gather here) a moment of praise and wonder from your own theatre of glory? From a spider to a hummingbird, to grass thrusting through concrete, is He not everywhere present?? 

Among Whales and Odd Olympic Bodies+Does God Love Your Body?

        It begins, the event we’ve been waiting four years for. Down from Mount Olympus come the gods and goddesses of ice and snow. I will watch as much as I can, as much as is possible without a television. I watch for the human drama, for inspiration, for wonder----and all this comes. Such perfection! Such beauty! Such precision!  I am agape. I am astonished. I am in love.

          (“What is man that you are mindful of him? The son of man that you would care for him?  You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor.”)  Yes, glory and honor!

        But then it comes.  At some point, all this glory and honor can depress a body.  Can depress this body.  For they are all so perfect.

And the other creatures I love to watch out my windows---the ones who fly and skate and swim and run with such animal force? Oh, their bodies, formed exactly and perfectly for each their place, and made one better than us----made without the capacity for dissatisfaction or self-loathing. O blessed eagle, otter and bear! Creatures large and small, creatures Olympian and animal, among you all I feel the odd creature out, twice over.

          So I am wondering, amid all this perfection, does God love our bodies, our out-of-shape, aging, so-much-less-than-they-could-be bodies? If we all just trained and worked out four hours a day, like the athletes, think what our bodies could look like! Aren’t we just colossal disappointments to our Creator, who does, after all, love beauty, speed, and grace?

 And then, I find this: New York photographer Howard Shatz photographed 125 of the world's most elite athletes, each one an Olympian. Here is a sample. Look:

       Maybe perfection is more varied than I thought . ... ???

        And then I remember the fin whales, our daily neighbors. They’re not photogenic. They don’t spyhop or breach or enter the air with any sort of drama, just a slow serpentine arc from water to air, then the curling dive, like ships sinking into the deep. 

           They're monstrously slow, these whales. Not spectacular. And their skin is mottled. Almost ugly. 

 And I remember the littering of sparrows about our house---poor little, common thing, each one just like her sister, a thousand for a penny.

         But I know God loves the whale, the sparrow, the sea lion, the bear, the weightlifter, the runner, the gymnast.  I simply look at them and see it---a Creator's love for his own.


  And us? Us!!  Do you remember that He not only formed and shaped these bodies before they saw light, but he loves us, our bodies enough to inhabit them, if we so choose??!!  He loves us enough to join us here in and through our bodies, however muscled or weak they are, however ravishing or plain. For this is how we know Him. In every breath that lifts our lungs, every bite we swallow,  every landscape and face and sunrise we see, every mile we walk, every thought we wonder---in all of this we can know something of Him.  Our bodies are His, given out of love, for our joy, that we may know Him.

         As you watch the Olympics, don’t hate your body. Yes, we will always wrestle with our shape, our age, our vast imperfections, which feel as though they sink us like whales. But, like the whales, no matter how deep we dive, we will keep rising to breathe again, as they do, for in Him we live and move and breathe and have our being, our bodies.  

And our bodies are  His: Loved, beautiful, spirit-indwelt, and named "very good."

Mother and Cub Feasting on Whale+ Raising Lazarus

A 40 foot humpback whale washed ashore near the end of the road last fall, killed by orcas. I don’t know how many bears claimed the carcass at first, but now, a mother and cub, smelling opportunity, have ambled over and claimed what's left as their own. 

They're camping out on the carcass, hosts of a  no-guests and “You’re-not-welcome” feast-fest.

Other bears were not welcome, nor eagles, foxes, crows or any other sort of carrion-eater. (The mother, in fact, dispatched with a eagle with a single swipe of its paw. See photo above))  But respectful people and their cameras were tolerated.    

It was a great relief to see these bears, especially after the killing of another kind of Kodiak bear this last week. A bear who refused to leave a schoolyard and neighborhood dumpster. (How many other schools go into lock-down for bears refusing to “recess” for recess?) How reassuring to watch the right kind of bear----the wild kind. The kind like the other 3500+ on this island who eat wild things, living or dead, not our rotting packaging and waste. Who live as they should, not as they can.

And more than relief, what astonishing connection we feel with these creatures and their recognizable parental displays of love, annoyance, boredom and affection.  

I was reminded, too, of another reason I live here. Why I put up with lousy weather, isolation, and too much cloud, dark and rain. For this: To witness untamed beings in all their wildness. 

I was excited, then, to make the trip two days ago out to the end of the road--literally---with my camera in hand. But this one road out of town doesn’t ride well when you’re tired. After a switchback-sickening hour plus drive, we arrived. I lit from my car to peer over the bank. I saw--------- 

---------a beach and a skeleton startlingly empty of bears. 

 Another car sat on the bank, waiting. I discovered the news: the whale is mostly consumed and mother-and-cub are foraging elsewhere. I missed them by just two days. 

This was not what I planned. Not for the day. Not for this post. So here is the truth: the photos above were taken by my camera, but not by me. By my much-luckier niece, Rachelle Fields, who ventured out two days before me, my camera in her capable hands.

French poet Charles Peguy has written“We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.” 

So I am telling what I saw: an empty beach. Scavenged bones. The tracks of creatures who were gone.  And I saw more besides. I saw myself getting home at 7:30 pm with a long to-do-before-bed list that couldn’t be put off. I saw an evening of more than usual fatigue. An evening of haranguing my sons to get their homework and piano done. None of us had three hours to waste that day.

As it turned out, I wasn’t wrong about any of that. Except the evening went even worse than I envisioned it. But something else happened as well. Along the way home, I took out my camera, a large camera whose weight and whose lens remind me what I’m supposed to be doing. I left my notepad on my lap and asked Duncan, who was driving, to stop every few minutes, every bend of the road for another image.  


Back home, today,I re-read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to remember again what I’m supposed to be doing in this life.

"The world is wilder  . . . more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps.  . . . This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.” 

We did go into the gaps. We stalked bears. And while waiting hopefully for the bears to return, we climbed gravel hills, toured clear-cut devastation, marveled at beaches we hadn’t seen before.

We took off after school and cashed in a late afternoon and evening. We saw the glory of our own backyard again. We raised some Cain in the car. We made whoppee. We didn't see bears. But we kept on seeing, yes, a dangerous, bitter, extravagant world. And in seeing, maybe we even raised Lazarus, again.