Failure Is Not An Option

 

The Apollo Moon Program took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface in 1969. During the third mission to land men on the moon (1970) an explosion left the Apollo crew in grave danger.

The story of Apollo 13 offers an important message for humankind as we face up to climate change: “Failure is not an option.”

These words were uttered by Gene Kranz, NASA Flight Director, when he addressed the engineers and scientists responsible for returning the three crewmen to Earth under what appeared to be impossible circumstances and limitations.

As we learn more about the daunting task of reducing carbon emissions well below 1990 levels even while the world’s population grows exponentially, the challenge feels every bit as awesome as that faced by Krantz on that fateful mission.

Kranz advised his team to not be emotional but to “work the problem.” It seems to me that is good advice. We have to cut through the arguments and individual beliefs that each of us holds to create a sustainable human enterprise on Earth.

And like Apollo 13, the clock is ticking for us, too. Beyond a certain point we will not be able to reverse the physical adjustments of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and of living communities most vulnerable to them.

So just how did these scientists and engineers “work the problem?” Well, to begin with they erased the previous flight plans and went back to the drawing board. Then, they looked at what was on hand that could be used in new ways to meet the needs of the moment: “We’ve got to take this square battery pack and make it fit into this round receptacle,” the engineer explained to his team.

And what were they attempting to solve? Chillingly for us, the crew was experiencing a lethal build-up of carbon dioxide on board their small craft, and the engineers were attempting to build a carbon scrubber with the stuff on board the spacecraft.

Cutting through all preconceptions, the team put their heads together and managed to build a new scrubber with a square end that fit into a round hole.

Without being simplistic, much of what we have to do to come together as communities, nations, and international bodies seems just like that: a square peg in a round hole. So far nothing fits very tight.

But here is a simple example of how a great accomplishment was achieved:

  • Work the problem, skip the rhetoric;
  • Gather what is on hand and if necessary use it in new ways that can get us the solutions we seek;
  • Failure is not an option – we do not have the luxury to try this another time, therefore our leaders, social institutions, and citizens must all come to the table with sobriety and willingness to think anew.

Apollo is the Greek god of reason, morality, and maintenance of society. Perhaps in our cultures these have not always been united. Just as the Apollo crew was buoyed by the worldwide prayers and hopes of people and nations, we could look at the human community, and all the living communities that keep us alive and happy, as a crew on an endangered spacecraft that we have got to bring home safely.

Let’s work that problem.

Caretta caretta…no, it’s not a song

It’s a fair-weather day.

A battalion of brown pelicans coast overhead on dark arched wings. Children build sand castles and bob in the surf, and shorebirds rest in warm dunes—a feast of beauty and abundance.

Santa Rosa Island was named in homage to Isabel Flores de Oliva – the “Rose of Lima.” She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1671 as Saint Rose.

Pensacola is rich in stories.

Take the story of Caretta caretta for example. She doesn’t even know we’ve tagged her with a dichotomous name to set her species apart from others. Her only inclination is to find a darkened shoreline and lay her burden down.

Buoyed by thick ocean waves she paddles with strong legs through the currents.

Through heavy lid, she looks toward shore and vaguely remembers its smell and warm, gritty touch. The moonlit shore is quiet as she takes purchase on the shifting sand below her.

She looks from just under the water along the beach head where bright lights in hotels and restaurants, homes and gas stations could make her decide to turn away. She looks for a darkened beach, lit only by the silver moonlight. It’s instinctual.

Every May through September along the Gulf shores, female loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) return to lay leathery eggs in the dunes of their birth.

Kemp’s Ridley, Atlantic green turtles and sometimes leatherbacks also use these crystal white beaches as a nursery. It’s been so for thousands of years.

Caretta caretta has spent her youth in the Sargasso Sea, a body of water created from currents in the North Atlantic and where Sargassum seaweed covers over its surface. It is believed the loggerhead turtle feeds and grows in this protective cover.

When she comes of age, dozens of eggs grow within her as she heads back to the same beach where as a hatchling she was just the size of a quarter and prize catch of shorebirds, crabs, and other beachside predators. She is one of the few lucky infant turtles that managed to survive to adulthood.

Now she returns to lay down the next generation. And, should she come ashore, will she struggle to navigate beach chairs, plastic inner tubes, or sandcastles?

What will happen to her offspring? Baby sea turtles are attracted to bright lights, an instinct that should turn them toward a moonlit sea. Will they head toward the hotel lights instead? Rangers report scores of tiny turtles destroyed by cars or desiccated in the hot sun among buildings.

In today’s world, with the human built environment, it takes countless volunteers to tend turtle nests, redirecting the young toward the ocean. Because of this, can we say that these species are self-sustaining?

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world today. Four of them lay their eggs here. That constitutes a biological treasure for this region, a remaining strand of a once diverse web of life just off these shores.

What if Caretta caretta disappears due to human interference in this annual ritual that replenishes her kind? Should we really care?

Reach back 100 years in Pensacola history to an ocean teeming with life. Fish would be larger and more plentiful and you could scoop up shrimp in the bay with your hands. There would be hundreds more dunes with waving sea oats, both habitat and nursery to many species.

The loggerhead turtle is part of an ocean web that supports our fishing industry. The biodiversity of our beautiful islands is the basis of tourism, a principal industry. Somehow we have to learn to maintain this natural treasure while going about our business.

We are working that out now. There has got to be a way. Pensacoleans have never been short on ingenuity.

For Caretta caretta we can turn down the lights, sit out on our decks and listen to the oncoming waves. We’ll save money by reducing energy consumption and get a better view of the heavens. Let’s face it: life would be dismal without the beauty of nature.

When we see a dolphin breach the waves, white terns dive and soar, or listen to ocean breezes, we are renewed and encouraged that all is right on this exquisite planet we are so fortunate to share with other species.

Caretta caretta…no, it’s not a song. It’s a symphony.

Duma, Ghost Cat, Part III

Border Cat

This story takes place in Yuma, Arizona where the Colorado River meanders south to the Sea of Cortez. In truth, most of the water never gets to the Delta area as it once did. The jaguar in this story followed the river trace toward Yuma’s agricultural canals and farm fields where he inadvertently became tangled up in border problems. He represents species whose ranges traditionally span the arbitrary boundaries of the human species.

Duma bounded from row to row, sure footed in the cover of night. The big cat’s ghostly form moved through the forests of broccoli, then across the road under a cool moon and into the tall corn tribe growing profusely by the canal. His activity was confined solely to night, now that the ranchers and homeowners were on the lookout for the phantom jaguar. This put Duma at a disadvantage. His white coat stood out starkly against the night sky and dark shadows. His large tracks left a trail of fear for the farm hands who worked in the same fields come morning. Duma plodded over the fields in search of prey. It had been many days without meat and he felt weakness entering his heavily muscled body.

Duma’s quivering nostrils caught the scent of something unknown, stopping him in his tracks. It was not exactly like the smell of the two-leggeds. But what? Duma moved closer to the smell’s source in a low crouch now, soundlessly advancing. Another smell—of death—unmistakable…  His nose led him closer to the road than he liked, and at its edge he paused and stretched out his long, white neck to peer through the corn stalks. Every fiber of his being was on alert, his small ears drawn forward to catch the slightest sound, Duma’s glassy eyes opened wide to catch the slightest movement. He held himself completely still, taking in every possible clue as to what this prey might be and calculating what it would take to bring it down.

Finally, the animal came into view. It was small and sitting on its tail in the middle of the road. It smelled strange. Duma’s full-grown jaguar body demanded more and more of the hunter’s skill to satiate the incessant need for flesh and blood, and now he felt the gnawing ache of hunger in his empty belly. So he continued to investigate.  As he looked on in perfect silence, the strange animal stood up and started to walk toward something ahead of it in the road. Duma understood with his nose that whatever it was, it was dead. The smaller animal swayed over it.

Duma sniffed the air again, breathing in the chemical language.  An acrid scent of urine and scat pierced his nostril. This was no self-respecting beast, he decided.  He took a chance and crept slowly out onto the road toward the prey, sensing no eminent danger.  As he skulked closer, the small creature turned. Duma let a low growl roll out onto the warm night’s air from his powerful throat. The animal seemed unafraid! Perhaps it was more of a threat than he realized. Duma paused, bringing himself more upright. He cocked his small, intelligent head as he tried to understand what he had encountered. Remembering other times he had misjudged a threat, Duma was not going to let his ego fool him again.

Duma crouched, waiting to see what this strange beast would do. It started coming toward him, walking in a strange manner, falling down, and then righting itself. Duma thought it must be injured. He stood up, walking forward with more curiosity, yet ready to pounce.

When the moonlight lit up the white panther, the child saw it.

Colectacolecta…. ”

What a strange sound, Duma thought…high pitched like a rabbit. The creature was holding its paws out toward him, and he reflexively swiped them away, knocking the child down. It began to wail.  Its smell was foul.

Duma was deciding just how hungry he was when suddenly a noise grew out of the sky and sunlight shot down the road! The great white panther bounded out of sight. Behind him he heard his prey shrieking.  Duma looked back. It was the sky beast he’d seen many times.  He was filled with terror.

Now it dropped from the sky with wings swirling and fire breathing from its mouth.  Duma had never seen anything like this animal, many times his size.  He soared into the air and leapt over the tall corn, golden tassels brushing against his belly, white flanks streaming through the dark field toward the trees.

Duma stopped for a moment and looked back to see the beast take its prey. But instead of devouring the strange little animal, it turned toward him! Now the deafening roar and giant flapping wings came rushing at a greater speed than the jaguar could maintain, and his great paws lost traction in the muddy soil. Reluctantly, the powerful cat decided to come into the open to gain traction on the solid dirt path between corn rows. That’s when the creature threw light onto him. Duma felt the ripping heat tear through his flank. He crumbled to the ground, pushing up a great cloud of dust as his two-hundred-pound body came to rest in a heap of white hair, muscle, fang, and claw.

The last fading sight in the cat’s blue eyes was that of the great monster coming in for the kill.