Treasure Island

Content now. For the moment. At last concluded a short story I’d planned to finish in September, and before that the prior October, and before that the tail end of 2016. Sometimes, a work is just not ready and we realize it, and I am always too distracted. Oddly enough, this new story references Treasure Island of all books. Though perhaps not so surprising as a recently finished essay referenced The Wizard of Oz, and I’ve not read that one.

But Treasure Island. A café is named The Black Spot. The proprietor is named Silva. A barista is named Red (this one’s complicated). Metaphors for cannon rounds crash through log walls and there’s much idle drawing of maps, all curiously lacking an X-marks-the-spot.

But somewhere in development, the fiction became about predatory storytelling, the appropriation of local legends, and the superposition of imagined narratives. Perhaps I even had something subconscious to say about Treasure Island’s noted exclusion of women, as well as the novel’s conscious borrowing of material from other authors: Kingsley, Irving and Poe, not to mention its cozying entrenchment in historical events and figures.

But this got me thinking, to actual great surprise, about the very first piece of fiction I remember writing. Certainly the first of pages-substance. Seventh grade, 12 years old. A school assignment. We were assigned to rewrite a chapter from a book—or, depending, perhaps just a scene. From what I remember, everyone chose different books—and I choose Treasure Island. I wasn’t such a big reader then, if I am now. I remember going back to the same few again and again like one does a pop-song playlist.

Not a big reader, but I sure loved buying books yearly at the local library’s fundraiser. You can fill a couple banker’s boxes when the paperbacks (Treasure Island included) cost 10 cents each. I don’t remember all the details, but the gist of my rewrite was to have Jim attempt to retake the ship—and there was a fair amount of sharpshooting from the rigging.

But the most wonderful thing is: I cannot, to this day, separate the narratives. What I wrote at the age of 12 remains more real to me than the original. Or at least inextricable. Adventure. Not so much a foray into fan fiction as a partial rewrite of a classic. Better memories. 

More interesting then that Treasure Island found it’s way into my new short story when the story is very much about rewriting a history for something imagined more favorable. I mean, there’s no one named Red in the Treasure Island original unless were talking about a minor character named Redruth. I checked Wikipedia—

And I’m fairly certain I haven’t re-read the novel since middle school and that any borrowing now is done through deep memory, because time and because I’m not a big reader and if there’s time at all, I’m keen to read something new. I also seem to have lost that old draft to a buried box somewhere. Understand that I’m teased regularly for being “very” organized. I’m not, really, but the rumors are true, I do possess a hand-made glue-bound volume on my shelves that purports to be the “Collected Papers (unrevised) of Roger Topp,” by the dates, collected between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. Clearly a protective dump from a floppy disc both too large too small to stay in style. Of course, I also have sworn grade-school teacher testimony (in writing) I’m an extrovert, and implying this may be a problem.

Or perhaps I don’t reread Stevenson because I’ve moved on, because the novel was definitively for boys, or perhaps, if were to retread the book, looking for clues and memories, there’s a chance Stevenson’s original narrative might, because I’m sure it’s pretty decent, reassert itself and clear out this unauthorized memory.

Falmouth, 4 a.m.

Falmouth, 4 a.m. Tiny flies on the sidewalk table. Tiny streams from the overnight sprinklers. Murdered puddles of ice cream. The air smells like a good day. Crickets and the clank of the fuel truck and hoses feeding the petrol station. The baker is in. The dress maker is asleep in her bed, all of the covers pushed down—the window a soft splatter of American flags. The moon, soon to eclipse the sun, is a slim pointer for the morning star.

Raccoons in the dumpsters. Rabbits in the parking lot—and then everyone who didn’t get there too early, everyone who trusts a bus schedule. Uneven sidewalks and bubblegum, a dryad monster potted in a road median.

These are artifacts of the simulation, slipping, absent-minded, resolved to straight lines and mathematical curves. The alignments are by-blow, something I keep to myself. This bus won’t be put of service half-way across the morning run because the aisle is a bathtub of puke and beer, sloshing back and forth and side to side at stops and hard turns. I’m not pushing a wheelbarrow about the grounds of a nursing home, not anymore, not for a long time—smelling the gasoline and the junipers we planted yesterday, yearning for my lunch break from minute one.

In recent years, I’ve taught myself to wake early. It does not matter when I fall asleep. It does not matter when I have coffee. It does not matter. The penalties are small. I leave a wet-dripped-from-the-cup trail between rooms. I lose a hat when it should be on my head. But pushing six back to four, once in a while, is in stride—if I have somewhere to go.

Some mornings I forget to set the alarm. I’ll wake, regardless, within minutes of when it should have broken the silence. But most mornings there’s no bus to catch. Fewer each year, I think—and this morning I again woke before the alarm. Because I had no destination in mind, only the kitchen counter espresso and the desk in the home office, I remained on my back, thinking about one character and then another for an hour and then another. This month, one is traveling to a gas giant’s moon. Another drops her luggage into the trunk of a taxicab even as she plans to abandon it and go by foot. 

Public reading in a couple weeks. I plan to read tight excerpts like popcorn, and most will concern going places, travel so called—and what’s there when we step back to the curb.

Night of the CTD

August 17

Last night we cast the CTD for the 100th time this cruise, and then kept on casting. The rosette went out the baltic door again and again against a background of ice floes and water so still, the ripples of the submerging cage were the only things moving on the surface. They made lasting impressions.

But excepting a few liters of collected water where we saw the chlorophyll levels to be the highest, and excepting where the ship’s acoustics saw the zooplankton scatter in the cage’s wake—and scatter wider when the VPR strobe was flashing, the CTD is a passive observer, describing the fundamental characteristics of the water from the surface to the bottom: changes in salinity, changes in temperature. Sharp changes in the column’s properties over depth indicate independent water masses that have remained in character over great distances. The drum on the winch is loaded with 10,000 meters of cable. Last night we needed only 300, but beneath us a relatively shallow sea, there are clear layers, from the fresh summer meltwater to the Alaska Coastal Current, Pacific water, and off the shelf, in the depths, Atlantic water.

The photographs below are of CTD casts aboard the Sikuliaq in 2014, 2015, and 2018, in the North Atlantic, and the Caribbean, Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

 

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Because Gliders

August 4, 2018

Because I ultimately like getting off a boat and being disturbed that a thing such as a cup of tea, set on a table unattended, does not immediately break the tenuous friction of the counter-top and slip to the edge and the tiles below. Because I want to find it inexplicably odd the fluid in the cup is not a measure of how much the world is moving.

Because science—even though I’m not a scientist anymore. Robert’s questions led to more questions, which is how it should be. His first question I knew. My first answer I knew. After that, things got interesting. They ran down corridors and got swept up in the prop wash. They glowed. They burned holes in the soft spots. At length, I answered them. Then, more questions.

Because now we might go places I could not have dreamed, or places so familiar I’m astounded by how fresh they feel. Because I love the process, I told Robert. Because every now and then we have to take our instruments and go to a place we can’t predict a damn thing. Yes, I’m talking about marine science, and other things. Expeditions are like this. Carry a knife and a flashlight—Instagram when you can.

Because sometimes I just want to stand at the rail and look out at the ocean.

Because I haven’t been on a bona fide research cruise since 1995. The five other subsequent sailings were either ship trials or a ship ferrying the party to remote islands.

Because I sleep really, really well on ships. Because I will have at least one epic dream when the world is not still. Because I’m still living down the nausea of ’95.

Because there is science aboard I haven’t seen. New nets, big nets! New tools on the CTD, a new mission, and moorings! Lots of moorings to be picked up and to be let behind. Even the familiar tools are noon to a sunset in a different scientist’s hands.

Because I’ve never seen a glider deployed.

Because gliders.

To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @arctic_WFFF on Twitter.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Transit / Transition

August 3, 2018

After the yard work, the Sikuliaq’s anti-roll system now makes for a smoother, more comfortable ride than before. By pumping water between tanks in the hull, the ship better maintains level. Upstairs from the Main lab, the lounge now resembles a lounge and not a second cantina. There’s a gaming table crafted aboard ship. There are a pair of couches set for movie watching. The TV has been moved away from the corridor wall and lowered, now less like a platform for PowerPoint and training videos and more like something someone could fall asleep to, while a film plays to the end, rolls credits, and plays the star-spangled banner. The lounge is carpeted, and there’s far less chance, now, we’ll come back tomorrow morning and find all the café chairs piled in a heap and lashed together against the port wall, the paint scratched, on the inside, by the latest storm.

The ship’s had a new paint job. The ice-like, arctic blue of the lower hull has been re-imagined as something deeper, richer, and oceanic. I’ll get used to this, though I’ve been grumbling these last few years how the new look has rendered obsolete all the photos I took of the ship set in the ice, the crew in orange and black—and black and orange suits dotting the frozen ocean, the ship steady as if set-up on blocks in a dry dock. She cleans up nice, but the sea is hard. The rust comes back.

To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @arctic_WFFF on Twitter.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Mobe Day

April 2, 2018

Phil brings part of a second round from the bar out onto the deck where we blink in the low, northern sun. Alaska, in summer, so no one needs walk back to the boat in the dark. We discuss past expeditions and who has sailed with whom and when and where. We wonder what the weather will be. The satellites see ice over some of our stations, but there’s an equal chance it will be driven north as the winds change to the east. Will there be swells? Will the ice still be there when we need to collect our moorings? Will the glider behave on its test dive, and will be confident we can let it dive again out of sight so it makes its own months-long journey to Barrow? We talk about the ship and how it has evolved. We talk about seasickness. We talk about the vagaries of itinerary at sea.

Here’s what to know about a ship: it’s trying to kill you. Watch where you put your feet. Watch where you put your hands. Here’s what to know about seasickness: it’s your inner ear telling your body, for some reason—probably due to an evolutionary cock-up—that you are being poisoned. Food in your stomach is a good thing. Hydration is a good thing. Dry crackers are great. Coffee and other greasy foods spell trouble. Ginger works. When you do get sick, and everyone has their limits, it’s the worst thing in the world, not unlike an adult’s inexplicable and seemingly sudden revulsion for rollercoasters. Celia says she’d rather catch the flu. The best thing, of course, is lying down. Lying down makes everything better. Lying down takes the motion of the ocean and turns your nightmare into a hammock. It’s not a solution though, because we’ve only got the boat for a few weeks—and every hour counts. There’s science to be done on deck, and you have to get up anyway, to eat and keep the stomach busy. Busy is good. Busy is probably the best thing to be.

 

To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @arctic_WFFF on Twitter.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

This is Not About That, Not Yet

August 1, 2018

This is the day the cast assembles, and to a large extent airport currents bring people together naturally, because everyone is flying in from the four corners. Like magic, we cluster outside the gate. We see friends and colleagues we haven’t seen in a year, doing something commonplace as waiting for a plane. The airport is a natural corridor of comings and goings, and more often than not, a place of gathering. Later, of course, the pub becomes a green room, that most gregarious of places.

This is my fifth time waiting for the Sikuliaq, the fourth time I’ll board. I was lucky to be there at one beginning, waiting for the shell of the giant machine to be dropped into the Menomonee River. That day in October, it rained like mad, and the guests of honor had trouble breaking the champagne against the underside of the ship’s hard nose. The bottle slipped from their fingers and fell from the gantry. Our shipyard hosts ran back to the trailer and pulled another from the case. In the end, all the good photographs were taken, and everyone shook hands and water as the ship pushed its first and largest displacement across the river.

The expanse of the sea is deceptive in its seeming uniformity, but we’re guided to our places on the stage. Infancy is rough like early rehearsals. We don’t need, nor necessarily want them to go too well. But ships and towns mature. Weathered wood and rust stains are evidence of the best of repeated performances, poor copies only if you think of them as copies, as something similar to what has gone before—which is to say, nothing is ever routine, but only, gradually worn in. Nothing can be trusted when new. A cruise is an imperfect performance and an expedition is something else, a traveling show, a motley crew, and we haven’t got to the karaoke yet. This is not about that.

 

*To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course and interact with this August 2018 expedition to the Beaufort Sea, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @Artic_WFFF on Twitter.

 

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.