The Transfer of Energy
From a boardwalk above a bog, I look out to a conclave of cobra lilies. Their bulbous hoods are chartreuse, green globes set on tall stalks. Heads nodding in wisps of wind, these carnivorous plants—Darlingtonia californica—appear to be in conversation.
My husband, David, and I have zipped by this spot many times, but never stopped. A mention in a tourist magazine prompted us to turn off Oregon’s Pacific Coast Highway 101 just north of Florence and pull into the Darlingtonia Wayside.
Despite the roar of log trucks and campers and cars a few hundred feet to the west, the bog feels quiet, separate. In a sunlit opening encircled by cedar trees, it is a perfect little world.
I hadn’t expected much. It was late summer. At this stage of the season I figured the plants would be dried up. But I was wrong. True that plenty of the hoods and flowers had shriveled and turned brown, but many globes still glistened green, splashed with wine-red speckles and veins.
Cobra lilies—also called California pitcher plants—are native to northern California and southern Oregon. They grow beside streams in mountains and coastal bogs like this one. The soils in these settings are poor in nitrogen, yet the cobra lilies flourish for they have evolved to capture that essential nutrient from the bodies of bees and beetles, flies and wasps, moths and butterflies attracted to the plant’s colors and nectar.
At the opening of each hood, two leaves sprout like the forked tongue of a cobra. Nectar glands coat the leaves and entrance. Some insect visitors sip and fly without being trapped, but unlucky others crawl inside and take a ride down slippery hairs that line the tubular stalk. At the base, a pool of liquid. Death by drowning. Captive flesh decomposed by bacteria. Nitrogen extracted, recycled. A transfer of energy from insect to lily.
I’m captivated by this wayside in the woods, this cozy space peopled with plants. Is it the scent from the nectaries that entices me, the same fragrance that lures the insects? David says he doesn’t smell it. He snaps a few photos then meanders back to the car. I’m not ready to leave.
Maybe it’s a flicker from The Little Shop of Horrors that makes me lean hard over the railing to get as close as I can to the hoods. In that movie a carnivorous plant with a taste for human blood hypnotizes the hapless flower shop assistant into feeding it. Perhaps I too am a bit hypnotized for I yearn to crawl inside and explore the lovely globes that seem to glow from within. Their surfaces are pockmarked with transparent dimples, fenestrations formed where chlorophyll is lacking. The mini windows create a bewildering beauty as tiny shafts of sunlight hide the exit from flummoxed insects lured inside.
I want to climb over the railing and drop down.
I want to enter the conversation, merge.
But I resist.
I don’t want to damage the plants, the bog.
When I join David in the car I say, “I feel a piece of writing coming on.”
I was floundering in my writing life after many years of momentum.
My rejections had become a pile of digital shit leaking into my writer’s ego. My buoyancy for a pandemic project—a screenplay based on my book about a young Louisiana woman in Paris—had sunk under the heaviness of expert review. And though sparked by the challenge of a rewrite, in the end I could not call up the energy to enact the recommendations: cut the first thirty pages, add more romance, add sex. My respect for the true story squelched my flare of interest. I set aside my first-ever screenplay. I boxed up the how-to books, my many drafts, my pleasure in the work.
So it was I arrived with David from our home in Seattle to spend time on the Oregon Coast. Only when I look back can I judge how adrift I was. My urge to write had gone missing. Was I still a writer? If I wasn’t a writer, who was I? I had no answer. That emptiness scared me.
We were staying in a friend’s house just north of the town of Waldport, a beloved place we have visited many times. Early mornings, if it’s not raining, I take my cup of coffee onto the deck that faces the ocean. Settled into the built-in bench, I soak in the damp green perfumes of coastal willow and shore pine. I watch birds: sandpipers skittering like ping-pong balls on the beach; goldfinch flashing yellow in the willows; pelicans flying single file above the waves like neatly spaced rows of stitches.
When the sun crests the hills behind me, my back is warmed. Fragile daylight grows robust, strikes bright white the frothing tops of breaking waves. The ever-changing surf is riveting in its transformation from smooth peaks of arriving water to crashing bubbling foaming chaos on the beach.
The waves I watch were likely born when wind moved across the ocean surface and transferred energy from air to water. White caps became chop became wind waves became swells that traveled hundreds of miles. What I see arriving on this Oregon beach may be the watery voice of a windstorm that blew several days ago far out in the Pacific.
Where the seafloor shallows near shore, the arriving swells grow into steep-flanked peaks of water that are slowed and tugged into parallel alignment. Breakers form. The spectacle unfurls. The bass drum booms and cacophonous brass of crashing ocean rattle the air up and down the beach.
Perched on the bench each morning, I prop my notebook on my knees. Muscle memory returns: hand and pen move across paper, inked words fill blank lines. Daily practice becomes the force that tugs my writing life back into alignment. I recover the pleasure of searching for words to describe a place I love.
When I look out to the ocean from the house on the beach I stay alert for the spouts of whales. Sightings are thrilling but ephemeral. Winds quickly shred the misty breaths. My surge of happy adrenaline morphs into a hard gaze at a now-empty spot. Breaking my stare to scan the sea for a surfacing elsewhere, I return to the empty place again and again, yearning for reappearance. Spotting spouts is a crapshoot.
What I see are mostly Gray whales, Eschrichtius robustus. Some twenty thousand of them migrate twice yearly along this coast—north in Spring, south in late Fall. The ones I spot in summer are among the two hundred or so who drop out of the northward migration and stick around to feed in Oregon’s nearshore waters.
To me the whale spouts are messages written against sky and ocean, prose from a fellow mammal alive in the sea. (Dead whales don’t spout.) And though I know each breath out is paired with a breath in, I’m too far away to witness anything other than that warm mix of whale snot, water, and gases made visible when huffed out into colder air above the ocean. Heat energy is transferred. Water vapor forms. Just as my breath out condenses into a cloud on a cold day.
Sometimes, if I use binoculars to scan for whales, I spot a black triangle slicing the surface like the fin of a shark. But it’s not a shark; it’s a Gray. Half the tail fluke pokes up when the leviathan turns sideways and swims along underwater to feed, the baleen plates of its upper jaw filtering out tiny animals that dwell near the bottom and in the sediments.
Is it ridiculous to liken my glee at seeing whale flukes and spouts to my bliss at snagging glints of inspiration that arrive when I’m faithful to my daily writing, when I show up and stay alert to that which rises within me? Or, as poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum might ask, am I pushing too hard against the vulnerable surfaces of this idea? Maybe, but I like comparing my writing glimmers to sighting whales. Both are life below the surface made visible.
Those glints from my subconscious illuminate my writing path. Not all snippets will survive; not all will hold energy after transfer to context. Only some words, fragments, sentences will slake my thirst for accuracy and meet the demand for sound-effects that will, I hope, sprinkle my prose with hints of poetry. A piece is finished only after many cycles of drafting, deleting, adding, editing, shaping, tearing away, moving around, reading aloud, revising, rewording, editing again. Writing is a process of creation and destruction.
A risk of massive destruction hovers over the house on the beach. David and I have a rule when we visit: if the ground shakes, run like hell. Shaking signals an earthquake, which means a tsunami could be on the way. Scrambling as fast and as high as we can up the hills to the east of the beach would likely get us above the awful waves and save us. Assuming we survived the quake.
The earthquakes here are born when tectonic plates—those great slabs of rock that move beneath ocean and land, that write the geological history of our planet—shift. The Earth is restless and impermanent. It changes at scales fast and slow.
Under the Northeast Pacific Ocean, stretching from northern California to Canada’s British Columba, is the seafloor plate called Juan de Fuca. New plate forms along its western edge where molten rock emerges at an underwater volcanic ridge in the middle of the ocean. Creeping east about an inch a year toward North America the plate enters the Cascadia Subduction Zone some seventy-five miles offshore. There the Juan de Fuca is being tugged, subducted (and eventually destroyed when melted and recycled into molten rock) under the edge of the North American continental plate.
The plates are always on the move. Except when they’re not. In our present time, in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, they are locked. Tremendous pressures are building. Eventually they will come unstuck and our part of the West Coast will shake in cataclysm. Scientists calculate such megaquakes happen about every three hundred years. The last one was in 1700. We’re due.
The earthquake is mother to the tsunami; the child can morph into a monster. When the giant blocks of rock jerk past each other, tremendous amounts of energy are released, instantly transferred into the overlying ocean. Tons of displaced seawater form waves that move at speeds faster than a jet plane. When tsunamis reach a coastline, they roar ashore as monstrous wave after monstrous wave, fierce and powerful, flooding inland as they scour crush splinter swallow everything everybody in their path.
An old and rare usage for subduct means to withdraw, subtract, remove. Subduction as the act of taking away. A jerk of the Cascadia Subduction Zone would remove, obliterate so much of what I love: the house on the beach, the cobra lily bog, the graceful old bascule bridge across the Siuslaw River in Florence, the dock in Waldport where we crab for Dungeness. And there would be thousands of people left injured or dead from the twin cataclysms of megaquake and tsunami.
As David and I grow old together we are less hypnotized by illusions of permanence. After witnessing the collapse of family elders and friends into illness, dementia, incapacitation long before death, we ponder how our own lives might end. We joke that when the tsunami comes we’ll run toward the ocean, not away. To spare ourselves, our daughter, Claire, and her husband, Nate, our likely declines.
We’re not ready for that yet. But if the time were right, if the coincidence did find us, would we have the courage to go down to the beach, hold hands, and wait for the carnivorous ocean to claim us?