Salton Sea, Riverside County, CaliforniaMarch 15 1988
CALIFORNIA: Riverside County
Beside the Salton Sea two miles southeast of Salton Beach

At 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon, arriving in a single hard gust, the wind starts blowing directly off the water. The radio had forecast wind to 40 mph, so this must be it. It's constant and unrelenting. In half an hour Henry's lakeside windows are white with salt spray from exploding waves.

At dusk the wind does not let up and the sky tingles with pinkness. Though the wind feels cold and raw, the air tingles with something fresh and alive so I'm drawn from the Henry-cocoon for a long walk along shore, listening to music through my pocket radio's earplug. Many elderly Northerners overwinter in this area and along shore permanent retirement communities create entire towns. The radio is full of 40's-style sentimental music with violins and harps. Somehow schmaltzy music is perfect for this precise moment in this strange storm.

Heaped in the mud along shore lie thousands of dead fish called tilapia. Tilapia are warmwater fish that often die during winter cold-snaps. I'm betting that here they have been introduced by California wildlife officials to serve as forage-fish for predatory game-fish such as bass. The violent surges, streamings-back-and-forth and general poundings by muddy waves move the dead fish around like cups in a shell-game, filling their gaping mouths with mud and sand, leaving them in absurd momentary juxtapositions with mudballs, brown wood-debris, coagulations of spume, and one another. The dreamy music coming through my earplug is like anesthesia, causing a sense of detachment from the morbid theater along shore. Like a white seagull I glide along the water's edge looking down on an endless monotony of dead fish, marveling at my own aloofness and the pleasure I feel in being nothing but an untouchable observer.

But then I begin thinking about the fatal smallness and shallowness of the Salton Sea. These tilapia died because their "sea," their entire universe as they knew it, was isolated from larger lakes or seas that could have introduced life-saving currents of warm water on those recent nights when the temperature dropped. This sea is an ecological island and as an island it is vulnerable to myriad unpredictable outside influences.

At 6:00 PM National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" comes on so now I rein in my seagull spirit and walk as a man along shore. Tonight they describe how new evidence proves that man's industrial chemicals are depleting the ozone layer, and I walk back to Henry thinking of how the whole Earth is a tiny ecological island.

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