published: September 2019

The green machine, a voyage in Alaska

by Vince Palermo

I recently returned from a trip to southeastern Alaska with my partner, Natasha. We lived aboard the 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Lion for a week, motoring over 800 miles through the inland waterways. When we left the harbor at Juneau, I had only the sketchiest idea what lay ahead. It was to become for me the week of immersion in pristine green splendor. We motored by night, anchoring in the early mornings in remote bays, coves, and inlets of fjords.

Living sea grass and barnacles attached to a large rock in the intertidal zone, out of water at low tide. Will be submerged at high tide

As I stood at the bow in the early mornings with the cool crisp wind blowing on my face, I was surrounded 360° by old growth forests, predominantly native spruce and hemlock dotted by golf balls, the heads of bald eagles. Small birds popped out of the water, quickly flying away. Whales surfaced to create the sound I would become familiar with, blowing and then inhaling. The green splendor was not just around me; it was below me as well, in the form of plankton and myriad species of fascinating plants growing on the sea floor. Nature’s green, chlorophyll pigment captures sunlight and sustains life. It is the very bottom of the food chain and is the fundamental molecule providing the driving energy of life in the form of sugars, fats, and proteins.  It is in algae, plankton, sea plants, marsh grass, meadow plants and flowers, lichen, ferns and bushes, tree needles and leaves. Here, enveloped in The Green Machine, I stood in awe of the natural beauty saturating my senses, and of the primordial intelligence embedded in this, our last frontier.

On the second morning we were in a zodiac, maneuvering between ice chunks and icebergs, headed up a fjord toward the face of a glacier. It was Natasha’s dream to see a glacier before they are gone. She was overjoyed to not only see one, but to also hear the thunder as masses of ice calved off the advancing face. Watching a documentary cannot be compared to the total sensory experience of being there. Seals with their pups were on the ice sheets, and evergreens climbed the walls of the fjord.

Sheets of lichen growing luxuriantly on the forest floor. Two hundred new species have been recently discovered in Alaska.

Each day I took in wave after wave of sights and sensations, from observing whatever form of life appeared as we motored by the water’s edge, to landing on the shores and exploring. Twice a day we were in the zodiacs headed for shore. We explored the intertidal zones, walked the meadows, and trekked through the forests. I am still processing these onshore experiences, as well as those onboard the Sea Lion.

One realization that stands out for me is that despite the massiveness of The Green Machine, it is as vulnerable as it is beautiful. Vulnerable to the net, the chainsaw, mining, climate disruption, and forces in play beyond the borders of Alaska. Catches are decreasing, whale size is diminishing alarmingly, glaciers are shrinking, permafrost is melting, and timber is being sold to Japan and China.

The days are now shortening. Soon I will be in front of my wood stove watching the flames. I wonder about the unstable relationship between The Green Machine which knows balance, and The White Machine which knows only too well how to take. By all the many indicators in nature, it seems The White Machine is winning. But the game is not over, and nature has not yet played all its cards.

I went to Alaska discouraged about the outlook for planet Earth. I returned with renewed hope for a different outcome. I was inspired by three amazing biologist/naturalists who led our excursions, and in the afternoons and evenings shared their wealth of knowledge and abilities as earth stewards. They were a highlight of the trip.  I learned more marine biology in one week than I did the rest of my prior life. It is dedicated young environmentalists like these who inspire me. They, along with the other NG staff and crew made this an extraordinary week. I left a part of me on the inland waterways of Alaska.

“Gift to ourselves, ourselves we did plunder.

Such a pity, before beautiful, now a chosen blunder”

(excerpt from Tragedy of the Commons, page 206, Extensions of Mind by Vincent Palermo)