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Essay

King Tides, 2017

in Resource Stewardship

I went to the beach today.  Well, actually, I biked past it on my way home from work.  It seems I don’t get in the water nearly as much as I would like these days, for a combination of reasons.  Little spare time, too tired, fear of sun burn and skin cancer, more important things to do.  If I’m honest it’s probably also because of the stress I associate now with a visit to the ocean.  It was better before.  Not as crowded or dirty.  More fish, healthier coral.  I miss the days of my childhood when we’d hit the beach with friends and family for days at a time without a care in the world, except for the weather report and the expected tides.  It was a good way to live.  I thank my parents for that.

As for my trip today, riding past Aloha Tower and down it’s drive, I began to notice something was different.  Large parts of the concrete piers in Honolulu Harbor were nearly submerged.  There was barely a few inches showing above water in some places, a little more in others.  The water was dirty and littered with detritus as the waves washed further up and in than it had before.  The currents seemed different, more ominous maybe, as they swirled around and back out to sea.  The colorful schools of fish between pier 7 and 8 even seemed nervous, as if something was afoot that only they understood at their core.  Tourists walked past obliviously, locals talked amongst themselves.

As I merged with Ala Moana Boulevard and continued on eastward, the traffic increased ten fold.  Cars and trucks and buses carrying countless humans to and from work, to the beach, to their homes or hotels either whizzed past or strained within the crowded streets, hoping to maybe get to their destination a few minutes faster than the next guy.  I could smell the exhaust as I weaved in and out of traffic, from the sidewalk to the road and back, trying to avoid the bottlenecks and make it to the cool water and peaceful beach.  I was partially successful.

Ala Moana Beach Park was crowded and hot, but it’s white sand and blue ocean was way better than the hot, black asphalt and shiny, intimidating skyscrapers of Kaka’ako.  Visitors and residents were enjoying the afternoon and trying to keep cool in the shade and in the Pacific.  But all was not right.  The ocean, in many places, had overlapped the wall between the beach and walkway, sometimes even reaching the roadway.  The beach was wet and smooth almost everywhere and the reef beyond the swim channel was barely visible with just tiny tips of its tallest rocks struggling to stay above the surface.  A giant stage for some festival or other was taking shape at the Magic Island side of the park, almost extending out into the ocean, as if in defiance of what was going on underfoot.  Meanwhile, the waves kept rolling in.

As I approached the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, I noticed the water had spilled over the retaining wall that is supposed to separate the land from the canal.  The parking lot had puddles of water here and there on a sunny day, and the sidewalk was barely a foot above sea level.  It looked as if the waves would soon make it up and over the sand berm between the ocean and the Hilton lagoon, and the two would become one body of water.  Riding down Kalia Road near the Halekulani was an eye opener.  Ocean water was splashing up through the storm drains and into the street where it created small salt water puddles every few hundred feet.  I had been told this has been happening for a few years but this was the first time I’d seen it for myself.  Disturbing.

Still, I kept pedaling.  I passed through the thousands of tourists clogging Waikiki’s streets and sidewalks, their oversized bags and bellies betraying their pampered, carefree lives, unaware and mostly uninterested in the world changing events transpiring all around them.  They were there for pleasure and relaxation.  No time to worry about man-made climate disruption or global warming or sea level rise.  This, after all, is Hawai’i.  They came here for a paradise on earth.  How could a place like this be in peril?

I finally reached the Kapahulu jetty and rode slowly out to it’s tip, looking down on the roiling sea below.  The kids were jumping into the approaching waves, as they always do on a south swell, and the body boarders were riding one after another of the glassy, well formed, chest high waves.  A pang of jealousy gripped me.  Oh to be in the water, sliding effortlessly down the face of a wave, riding it all the way to the almost totally submerged groin.  I let my mind slip back to my childhood again and reminisced about the “good old days”.  Nothing better than that feeling.  Never wanted to lose it.

I rode on up Kapahulu Avenue towards the zoo until I reached Ala Wai Boulevard.  The light stopped me for a moment, and when I crossed the street I was delayed again.  Two large, sun burnt tourists hopped right in front of me as they tried to avoid a fetid, dirty puddle in the crosswalk.  “Sorry, sorry…” they giggled as they continued on without flinching.  By then my feet were on the ground as I waited for them to pass, their self-absorbed voices ringing out behind me as they continued on obliviously.  I got back on my bike and continued toward home.

Now up on Waialae Avenue, I shared a stop light with a young woman who looked and sounded to be Micronesian.  She was absorbed in her cel phone conversation and didn’t notice that she was blocking my way through and was talking loud enough for everyone within shouting distance to know her business.  I thought of how she probably had left her home to escape the environmental degradation and rising sea levels there, only to be confronted with a similar, if not yet as acute, situation in Hawai’i.  She had come to get better education and employment opportunities to a place that was running out of those things too.  If things don’t change, she had only bought herself a few more years.

On I went.  Up the Saint Louis Heights hill, down Dole Street, past the Hawai’ian Studies Center and East West Road.  It was here that I pondered the decades, centuries really, of study and research that had been completed in this area, all to expand our understanding and to improve our world.  Surely someone had figured out how to stop the waters from rising.  As I rode past, the sprinklers watered the sidewalk.  The unused water trickled down the dirty gutter, into the storm drain and down into Manoa stream, and finally made its way to the sea.  There it would dilute the salinity of the area and pollute it so that if would be even more difficult for the already struggling coral reefs off Waikiki and Ala Moana to survive.  How can we start minimizing our problems when we seem to always be adding to them, I thought.

As I rode up University Avenue, the grade became progressively steeper until I began to sweat profusely and my breathing rate increased.  Three young boys passed me going the other way on the sidewalk and one encouraged me to keep going.  “You’re almost there”, he said.  I told myself, as my legs and chest began to tighten, “relax, breathe deep, it’s just a little hill.  Keep pedaling.”  I passed the business school, the place where they sometimes teach students to put profit before planet, to answer to their customers and investors at the expense of their creator and their life support system.  The place that built those buildings in Kaka’ako.  My chest began to tighten again.

In contrast, Oahu Avenue was peaceful and serene.  Stately old homes from a bygone era, intermixed with modest single-walled structures, likely holding three generations of kama’aina inside.  I searched for my neighbor’s lost cat as I rode by, to no avail.  I told myself, and her, that he probably was out looking for a girlfriend and would be home soon.  I wasn’t sure if I really believed myself.  Still, I kept going, tired now from the long ride but determined to finish strong and make it home soon to a cold beer and a bowl of fresh poke, just caught today from the waters off Oahu.

It wasn’t until I reached Manoa Road that I started to think that maybe all this just doesn’t matter.  The sun will rise tomorrow, the waves will keep breaking, the humans will keep doing what they do, and all will continue as it has.  What’s wrong with a little bit smaller beach, a tiny bit more concrete, a little less reef, a few more lanes of traffic?  We can adapt to that if it means a more secure, comfortable life, right?  Only problem is, I corrected myself, this is a process, not an event.  Development and the pressures it brings are cumulative.  Exhaust from cars and planes and power plants builds upon itself until its a big problem, sneaking up on us in the mean time.  Degradation and destruction of part of the natural environment is connected to the global environment in total.  Nothing is separate.  Everything affects everything, and everything is growing bigger.  It’s only a matter of time before something has to give.  Pity the organism that destroys its own life support system in the pursuit of a better life.

Finally home.  It’s cooler up here.  Nice breeze.  Light drizzle.  The cares of the afternoon seem to melt away in the upper valley.  I sit on the wall and begin to write.  I reflect on the sea, and the cat, the waves and the traffic.  All in their places, serving their purpose, doing their thing.  I wonder if we’ll ever figure out how to save this planet and ourselves, or if we even should try.  Perhaps we deserve what we get, whatever that may be. Maybe its all meant to be this way.

But still I long for the days when we played in the waves, not a care in the world, secure in knowing everything would be alright.  I’d like to give that awareness to my granddaughters, but I’m afraid to expose them to something they will only end up losing in the near future.  Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?  I’m not so sure.  My feelings of nostalgia are bitter sweet.  I pray that there will be a beach there tomorrow to share with the ones who come after.  If it will be, it’s up to us to make it happen.  We broke it, we can fix it.  What could be more important?

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