Among other, graver things, I will remember the summer of 2018 as the summer during which we tried to stop using plastic straws. This was largely at the behest of the #StopSucking campaign, spearheaded by actor-slash-environmentalist Adrian Grenier, previously best known for his starring role in HBO’s Entourage. A poignant viral video of a sea turtle having a straw surgically removed from its snout made the internet rounds, and, like that, straws were the new six-pack rings. Savvy to the fact that profit margins wouldn’t bear the strain of demanding that patrons sip directly out of glasses, restaurants and bars catering to the socially conscious found various workarounds. Some places would give you metal straws, opaque and inflexible in a way that immediately made you suspicious about whether or not they could ever possibly be sanitized. Others opted for waxed paper straws, which, in spite of possessing a certain old-timey charm, backfired in all of the ways that a piece of paper submerged in liquid might be expected to fail. Sitting at a café in Brooklyn in August, I desperately raced to down a sixteen-ounce (plastic) cup of iced coffee before a festively striped paper straw dissolved into it completely. No one talked about the cups, which were still just regular commodities; it was only abstaining from straws that would earn you Adrian Grenier’s ruggedly handsome moral benediction. A few days later, at the upstate wedding I was in town to attend, the bride vowed to give up straws as a 21st-century act of honoring and obeisance.
Shortly afterwards, I flew from Chicago to Seattle to visit my parents, who were spending the summer at our cabin on Lopez Island in the San Juan archipelago. The islands dot the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which traces the northwest corner of the contiguous United States and connects the Salish Sea to the Pacific Ocean. To get there you drive north from the city for a couple of hours, through the Skagit Valley at the base of the Cascade foothills, until you get to a former logging town called Anacortes; then you wait in line to catch the ferry. The crossing only takes forty minutes, but once you’re there it feels as if you’ve gone much further: the island is mostly evergreen forest and pastureland, with a year-round population of about 2,500 (not counting the summer people) and not a single stoplight.
When I arrived my parents and I acted out a practiced family routine: spirited and slightly uncivilized political debate over dinner (the positions argued for being left, lefter and leftest), followed by dessert in front of PBS NewsHour, with important personal updates exchanged rapid-fire during pauses in Judy Woodruff’s reportage. There was a lot to catch up on: our geriatric cat’s arthritis seemed to be improving in the warm weather, Costco’s Kirkland Signature house brand had started making a kombucha that they were selling in bulk, and, most important of all, my parents had recently attended a wake for a baby orca.
The story of Tahlequah’s calf had held sway over the Pacific Northwest since she had given birth on July 24th, garnering the same kind of frenzied media attention as the royal wedding had in May. In this case, however, the narrative was unequivocally sad. The calf, a female, had died soon after birth. Had she lived, she would have been the first surviving calf born to the pod of orcas native to the San Juans in three years. Shortly after the birth, the mother whale (labeled J35 but known colloquially by both researchers and the general public as “Tahlequah”), began swimming with the corpse, keeping it afloat by alternately pushing it with her nose, tucking it under one flipper, and balancing it on her head at the surface of the water. Whenever she lost hold of the calf’s decaying body, she dove down to the seafloor to retrieve it. Carrying a deceased calf for a few hours or days is a typical mourning behavior for orcas, but this case was extreme: what media outlets began referring to as “Tahlequah’s tour of grief” continued for seventeen days and a thousand miles, all near the coastline of the San Juan Islands.