It was the first storm of the year, and all of those who wished to be big names in the coming hurricane season were gathered for the 33rd Annual Global Hurricane Planning Conference in Bermuda. Just as at the annual Global Meteorology Association gathering and that of its less scientific allied organization, The Association of Weather News Broadcasters confab, huge egos were involved. Or as one snarky journalist once famously reported, “these events attract a lot of wind bags.”
But this year’s event began with an unusual sense of foreboding. Clouds, both physical and metaphorical, hung over the gathering even before the opening ceremony started. Actually, the atmosphere should be described as one of dread. Storms were brewing and frustration roiling to a degree never witnessed before, and to the great dismay of all involved. Afterward there was a great deal of postmortem reflection on what went wrong. Some blamed COVID and the distraction it introduced. Others attributed the underlying tension to the psychological stress associated with the fact that their work had been confounded by and occasionally overshadowed by discussions of climate change. Regardless of the causes, it was clear from the beginning that calm waters were about to become turbulent, even treacherous, as issues of gender pronouns, anxiety about climate change, and laments about widespread apathy all competed for attention among the tempestuous participants.
“So, here you go again”, sighed Albert who was one of the more eccentric elders at the gathering. Known for his highly vocal disavowal of alcohol and caffeine, he cradled his signature coffee mug bearing the message ‘Warm Water, I Love It’. “Maybe we should just cancel the season and take a rest, or self-isolate and use COVID as our excuse”, he continued in a breathy whine. Bernadette protested gustily, “And miss MY chance to be seen and heard? No Way! This is my year.”
“I am weary,” sighed Claude. “We plan and plan. We send out warning messages and no one seems to pay attention until the threat is imminent. Making our message louder, our impact bigger, and our threats ever greater is ignored, year after year. What’s the point?”
Indeed, it was the case that year after year humans rebuilt hurricane-flattened homes and entire towns placed in low coastal areas or along rivers prone to flooding. People did seem incapable of getting the message about hubris and the need to recognize limits on human capacity to control flooding.
“And here we go again with the annual gender pronoun discussion, for naught,” Dominique complained. “Meteorologists will insist on referring to hurricanes, not to typhoons or using the more gender neutral terms as Asians do. I know its H.. U..R.. icanes, but I am at the end of my tether having to listen to some old drunk at the pub make sexist jokes about ‘why are there no H..I..M ..icanes?” I am ready to go blow the roof off the place if I have to hear this one more time.”
“Maybe we could arrange a blizzard in July and see if that communicates our message about climate change. It would be amusing to sit back and watch people trying to buy snow shovels at the hardware store along with their Fourth of July barbecue supplies”, Eugene howled as he propelled various light weight objects about the room in a fit of anger.
Filomena, attempted to restore calm. “Maybe we should just try to see eye-to-eye, instead of using up our energy struggling with one another,” she thundered. “We do have something important to say, and maybe we just need to accept that it will need to be said over and over before the public gets it.”
Quietly dissenting, George observed, “No matter where we take our message and no matter how much we make it louder, it is still ignored. Sandy tried to deliver the message to New York City and really cranked up the volume. The city’s transport system was shut down and the lights went out, hinting at what is to come. But the two legged didn’t get it.” Diane muttered something in agreement, shaking her head which hung low in despair.
“George, is that why you were playing Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan over and over down on the beach this morning?” inquired Albert, staring sympathetically into Diane’s single misty clouded eye.
Then there was a long silence, the proverbial calm before the storm, the long awaited keynote speech. The speaker was introduced:
“This year we are honored to have an indigenous representative from Central America. It is appropriate to hear an indigenous voice, as this is the first year of the United Nations Decade of Indigenous Peoples and such voices and names are too rarely heard in our world. It is with great honor that I introduce U Kʼux Kaj. She has studied hurricanes for a very long time and brings a much needed perspective to our work.”
The room went silent as a colorfully dressed tall woman walked onto the stage. She wore a traditional feather cloak and displayed hair hanging in dreadlocks into which were woven various small shells and large seeds. Her majesty was spellbinding. After the visual shock, the appreciative and spellbound audience burst into deafening applause.
“Thank you for inviting me to your gathering. It is an honor. Let me begin by explaining how I became part of this world so obsessed with big storms. It is probably due to the name that my tribal elders gave me at my coming of age ceremony. My parents tell me that I was an unusually active child, occasionally disruptive, running about the village turning things upside down in my path. That is why our elders gave me the name U Kʼux Kaj. U Kʼux Kaj is the Mayan god of wind, storm, and fire. She is also one of the deities who participated in the creation of mankind.
That paradox, a disruptor who is also a creator, is the theme of my presentation. My perspective is undoubtedly partly due to a cultural expectation that I live up to my name. It certainly encouraged me to re-examine cultural and scientific assumptions about hurricanes. Let me begin by elaborating on what many of you may already know, but that which you have barely mentioned, or not explained consistently in your messaging.”
The thirty minute power point presentation that followed was indeed partly familiar to most of those attending, the exception being journalists whose jaws dropped. U Kʼux Kaj used photos, charts and scientific data to document that hurricanes provide what is now referred to as “ecosystem services”. She explained in detail how tropical storms restore coastal wetlands and barrier islands, using data on silt deposits to make this clear. Beautiful videos of colorful flora and fauna which returned to once barren white sandy tourist beaches were convincing. U Kʼux Kaj then explained that hurricanes exchange salt and fresh water by flooding inland, thereby creating brackish waterways needed by many species that thrive in neither fresh water nor sea water. She explained why and how pearl oysters actually thrive after a typhoon.
Then U Kʼux Kaj showed slides of fallen trees. “This is the public face of hurricanes, yes?”, she asked. “Who dares to have a news broadcast or weather forecast about a hurricane without showing a tree fallen on a house or car?” Nervous chuckles of confirmation rippled across the audience.
“Let me explain why this is not just destruction. Without occasionally removing the dense forest canopy lower growing plants cannot compete. Critical habitat is lost. So not only does tree downing open the forest, the fallen limbs and logs provide much needed breeding and nesting locations for the following.” U Kʼux Kaj then quickly flashed through beautiful slides of birds, small mammals, and reptiles ending with fish. “Yes,” she commented. “Even fish benefit. Limbs fallen in streams provide protection for young fish and attract insects needed for food.”
“If this be familiar territory for some of you, please bear with me now as I beg you to allow me to guide you into the unfamiliar. For indigenous people, when we talk about tropical storms and hurricanes, we are not just discussing natural forces and objects, we are talking about our other than human kin. We see no discontinuity between the two-legged, or humans, and other creatures. We are equals. This is part of our animate view of the universe. But, landscapes and forces of nature are also alive and conscious. Hurricanes are our brothers and sisters. They deserve respect. The two-legged must share the world with them. They must learn to live with storms and help them to do their important work. Building sea walls and giant flood gates may be seen as necessary in areas where the two legged have invaded and colonized nature. But such measures should not be viewed as the best path forward. Humans need to learn humility and recognize that they are no match for Mother Earth. The two legged just may need to decolonize some coastal areas and return the land to the continual renewal that natural forces bring.”
The assembly jumped up, applauded, cheered, and howled.
“Thank you for your support,” U Kʼux Kaj bowed and smiled.
“I received the same affirmation when I addressed the Indigenous California Wildfires Association gathering a few weeks ago. I addressed an audience who knew that continually struggling to eliminate fires was as hopeless as trying to hold back a hurricane-induced rising tide with a sea wall. We discussed how the two-leggeds’ beloved Smokey the Bear reflected a desire to upend natural fire cycles and put humans in control. The result was too many people moving into forested areas, the mountain equivalent of high risk coastal shore lines. Living in forests full of unburned tinder that has accumulated over decades and then blaming lightening for the resulting fires is idiocy.”
Again, those assembled leaped to their feet and applauded.
“Our sister, fire, creates forest habitat just as hurricanes clear the forest canopy. Fire is needed for the wonderful seeds of giant redwoods to be released from their pine cone prisons. Native Americans have used controlled burns to revitalize forest habitats for millennia. Forest managers are just re-discovering this technique. That is why indigenous people are being hired to manage controlled burns while good old Smokey is being put in the museum.”
“If there is a message I want to deliver to you, it is this. It is time to stop being apologetic for the work we do. It is time to work with our kin, fire, and once again attempt to get the two-legged to see the wisdom of working with us and stop trying to contain us or wishing we would just go away.”
There was not a dry eye in the room as a five minute standing ovation roared like thunder.
“I have never been so proud to be a hurricane,” was shouted repeatedly.
“Let’s celebrate!”. The chant began as rain and wind were welcomed to the gathering and the first glorious storm of the year began.
Randy Kritkausky, is an author living in Whiting Vermont. His first book, Without Reservation: Awakening to Native American Spirituality and the Ways of our Ancestors describes his journey of discovering Native American heritage. Randy is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.