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One Word for Fog

by Kieran Mulvaney

August 21, 2007

I have a slim book with me, by Sumner MacLeish, a Bostonian by birth who for several years in the 1990s lived on St. Paul, where we are now docking. She married an Aleut in a ceremony officiated by none other than our very own George Pletnikoff, who was at the time a pastor with the Russian Orthodox Church. The book, about life in the Pribilofs, is titled "Seven Words for Wind," which she explains in the opening paragraph: "Aleuts have at least seven words for wind, many of which refer to strength. Day after day, night after night, sometimes for weeks on end, the wind pushes across hundreds of miles of open water, across this small plate of land in the Bering Sea."

It’s easy to picture the inhabitants of these islands having to hunker down for long stretches as the wind screams off the sea and across the landscape. It is also possible to close the eyes and picture the beauty and bounty of the Pribilofs, the sun shining on the luscious tundra, flowers in full bloom, seals and whales offshore … It’s possible, but it has not, during our extremely brief sojourn here, been the experience. Nor, at least while we have been here, has the climate been defined by wind.

"So George," I asked in the wheelhouse with a smile this morning. "If the Aleuts have seven words for wind, how many do you have for fog?"

"Just one," he deadpanned. "F*****g fog."

It has been everywhere, cloaking us and seemingly moving with us. It affects the mood somewhat: slowing things down, quieting them. Add the fact that, for most of the crew, these are the final two weeks of a three-month expedition, and this is a quiet, laid-back ship.

The locals take the conditions in stride. "There’s no point getting mad at the weather," observes George, correctly.

"It’s real nice weather lately, real nice," said a villager on St. George yesterday evening, casually lighting a cigarette as we stood around looking at nothing in particular. "Well, apart from the fog."

We had just concluded a meeting with the community, one in which George explained the expedition so far: the initial round of community visits, the submarine exploration in the canyons, the campaign against overfishing and for Marine Cultural Heritage Zones. It helps, of course, that the villagers know and trust George, except now, instead of Father George he is Greenpeace George. That is not, shall we say, exactly considered a promotion, but several community members took the time to express appreciation for the fact that they now have a greater understanding of what Greenpeace is and stands for, and that we are here to work with, and not against, them, that we want to protect the Bering Sea on which they rely but which is dying, bit by bit.

By the end, one small boy, in a line seemingly scripted for the Hallmark Channel, actually asked: "Will you help save our culture?’ Honestly. George, briefly taken aback, quietly promised that "We’ll do everything we can."

We are not expecting quite such a warm welcome on St. Paul. It is a larger community, and resentment remains (misdirected toward Greenpeace) over the cessation of the sealing hunt here in 1985 and the sense that we were somehow responsible. It is part also of a general and understandable distrust of outsiders, who for centuries have lectured, hectored, and enslaved the Aleut people.

All we can do is represent ourselves and the organization to the best of our ability. Nobody said it would be anything other than a long haul, after all.

We are now alongside and the engines are off. Time to go ashore. We’ll see what the next two days bring.

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