Your Tugboat Captain

A grove of trees has been on my mind as the forests around me burned.

If not for the ocean in the west, wildfires were burning in every direction where I live. This summer, I read about this magical grove of trees and I was surprised to learn they were saved by activists who worked their cilvil disobedience magic in my lifetime. Had the corporations that seek to profit from the endless extraction of resources and man-made manipulations of our forests had won, this grove of trees would have been flooded and killed. Given the amount of tree stumps you can see since droughts have made lake levels drop, I’m sure these trees would have been logged first and sold as timber.

Two of my backpacking trips led me to this magical grove of old growth this summer, and as I stood there alone dwarfed by these trees, I felt thankful for the people who made sure this place was there. That these activists thought of ten year old me and wanted to make sure that when I was middle-aged, they would be there when I needed them.

Lately, however, I have a growing sense of dread we are not being, in the words of Barry Lopez, “good ancestors.”

What I love about the hike to this grove is simple. It is beyond the mileage of most day hikers, and there are miles where the trail meanders along a ridge of tall trees. Below the thick trees and walls of ferns is a faint shimmer of lake water. The trees above block the sun as you walk west at a steady elevation where you can see three bends as you walk deep into the forest.

I’ve read trail reports where people say it’s boring and repetitive, and that beyond the man-made structures in this area, there is really nothing to see. I read these reports gleefully hoping that the people I dislike on the trail will stay home. “Read this!” I want to say to those inconsiderate people who play music and/or talk loudly, people who leave trash, people who are irritated that they cannot access their social media, and please stay the fuck home and go back to whatever it is you did before the pandemic. I realize I was a Jill-Come-Lately to hiking and backpacking at one point, but I have always been respectful of Leave No Trace and I would have never dreamed of behaving like some of the fuckery I have witnessed in the backcountry in the last two years.

Back to my magical grove of old growth trees. 

very large trees with a backpack and hiking poles in the North Cascades
attribution c’est moi, my pack for scale in this magical grove

I have been wondering how those trees have fared. Are they charred? Will they die? What does that forest look like now? Did it all burn? Are those ridge trails now filled with charred black trees? 

Back in July, I noticed two giant trees side-by-side where the trail cuts in between them, and I had this moment of feeling like if there was ever a forest that could have been Tolkien’s Ents, it was here. I almost wanted to ask them if it was okay if I pass through.

To imagine them burning is an unspeakable loss for me. 

This life is unspeakably filled with loss.

A fulfilled life also has unspeakable loss at times. 

Tolkien said it best: What punishments of God are not gifts? 

A question I have loved ever since I read it as an undergraduate studying religious texts. I rediscovered this quote listening to a podcast while painting this week, and I felt the grief myself of the loss of trees where I love to mountain bike and places where I love to hike. 

And the other losses I do not want to write about today.

Yesterday, however, the winds shifted and it rained. 

Fires in the forests, the STEM worshippers will say, are a natural occurrence. Necessary. A gift of regrowth. Sure. Timber, the STEM-for-industry folks will say, are necessary for the economy. Necessary? In 2022? No.

These explanations do not stop me from feeling the loss. It does not stop me from the grieving for a different future than the one we have inherited. As always, it’s the poets, the artists, the writers, and the people who believe we need to preserve forests are the voices I want to hear.

The voices of the descendants of people who saved that forest of Ents for me. For you.

This grove of trees is an album away from my front door without traffic.

A teenage girl lives in me who still thinks of distances in terms of songs and albums and not miles. I once had a friend who described the distance between Atlanta and Athens in Georgia as a “mix-tape away.” We made fun of him for that, but it never really left me. With traffic in 2022, mind you, it’s now like a four mix-tapes distance, but I digress. A distinctly Generation X measurement of time.

Another measurement of distance is an album. To this particular trailhead to the magic grove of trees is Galaxie 500’s Today, and for some reason I listened to this album every time I went out that way this summer. After the fourth trip and listen, I realized I didn’t know what one song really meant even if I could sing all of the words. The poet in me can live with that, and not all things are easily explainable. I found myself standing in this grove of giant trees thinking about the song “Tugboat” and what the everliving fuck it means. Who wanted to be a tugboat captain? And why?

Without access to the internet (may all the gods make it stay that way), I imagined all kinds of silly connections. When I got home, I asked my mister if he knew what the song meant, and he said had no idea. So I looked it up, and found all kinds of shit via SpREDDIT, and I landed on what I think is the most magical answer. The lyrics are rooted in a quote from Sterling Silver. He was asked what he would do after the Velvet Underground split and he apparently said he wanted be a tugboat captain. 


I felt immense joy to learn this. I love the Velvet Underground, and my favorite boat to watch in action? Tugboats. How fucking amazing that after being in one of the most influential bands surrounded by all the artsy coolness and your next career goal would be to become a captain of a tugboat. Why not? These tiny little boats have the brute force to guide ships, and thanks to where I live, I see them often. It’s miracle of physics, these tugboats, and I have many (bad) metaphors in my journal about change management (such as we say), teaching and learning, and being a teacher. But I’m not going to write about that today.

Here’s the thing.

I spoke to a lovely group of faculty last week, and I promised to blog some of my responses. In fact, I have a rough draft of things I wanted to say, and then there’s actually the torrent of things that actually came out of my mouth. The draft and what I said are horrifically unalike. I wanted to talk about the forest, so to speak, but I spoke about too many trees. It was wildfire of thoughts that I’m not sure made sense, and I need to type it up to share. It was the highlight of what was otherwise an awful week.

Today I want to mark one month since I’ve been to those burned forests.

One month since I took the time to learn about the origin of some lyrics that I love. And last night as the rain fell hard, steady, and cold in the Pacific Northwest, I thought about how I’d like to be a better ancestor. How these things that seem like punishments may someday be gifts even if I cannot see that now. How the unspeakable losses are something we all share. How I am thankful for the trees.

I opened all of the windows in our little home, wrote these words, and listened to Today while sitting in one place. 

I have no real conclusion because, let me be honest, I’ll just write all day if somebody wasn’t expecting me to be someplace in an hour and I gotta get my shit together (a memoir).

I’ll leave you with more words from Barry Lopez, whom I’ve been reading a lot lately and thinking about boats.

To survive what is headed our way—global climate disruption, a new pandemic, additional authoritarian governments–and to endure, we will have to stretch our imaginations. We will need to trust each other, because today, it’s as if every safe place has melted into the sameness of water.

We are searching for boats we forgot to build.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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