The Cambrian

Viewpoint: Before making big decisions, make sure you see all the connections

A ‘fogbow’ off a Cambria beach exists in the meeting of sea, shore, air and light.
A ‘fogbow’ off a Cambria beach exists in the meeting of sea, shore, air and light. PHOTO BY ELIZABETH BETTENHAUSEN

The spot of bright white light on the ocean proved a mystery to me for many years. The spot appeared on its own schedule. Then, one day, two bright spots appeared, and a shining arc connected them. For the first time ever I saw an entire “fogbow.”

Fogbows appear here in Cambria when the fog hugs the Pacific Ocean’s eastern edge, and no clouds block the morning sun. The fogbow curves high right after the sun rises above the Santa Lucia Range. Where the fogbow ends touch the water, light glows. The bow’s white light looks like an intense question.

I’ve been mulling over fogbows, cousins once removed from rainbows. They appear here on the coast when temperature, water, wind, sun, and marine audacity conspire. Walking the beach on a fogbow morning, I call to other people, “Look! A fogbow!” Often they’ve never seen one before, and we all stare at this ocean mystery. While light diffraction, degrees and bare hints of color make reasonable sense, fogbows near the beach still challenge our understanding.

Glaciers melt quickly in the Andes, the Himalayas, and the Rockies these days, well into the Anthropocene era of this planet’s life. Do fogbows curve within water so anciently frozen but now speedily melting and evaporating? Does the global warming of the air make fogbows appear more often? Perhaps fogbows show up before our surprised eyes to remind us to use water, sun, carbon and oxygen much more carefully.

The artist Mike Wilks created “The Ultimate Noah’s Ark” (1993), a challenging visual and zoological feast. In the introduction he discusses the ancient stories of animals and the great flood, as told in Israel, Lower Congo, Samoa, Babylon and elsewhere. In the story of Noah, the rainbow forever reminds God of making an agreement with Noah and “and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9). Never again will such a flood destroy almost all life on earth. The rainbow constrains divine anger.

But no fogbow appeared in that story. The ocean provides potable water to fogbow, clouds, rainfall, and us. When human audacity swirls through the waters, it’s time to stop in our tracks and look at the fogbow.

In the opening paragraph of their introduction to “Audubon’s Birds of America” (1990), Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson write, “Audubon’s real contribution was not the conservation ethic but awareness. That in itself is enough; awareness inevitably leads to concern.” I hope such optimism proves true.

To see a fogbow one must stand at a border, between sun and fog. This new era of Earth’s history, created by billions of humans and our actions, needs new symbols. The fogbow reminds us to pay attention to the permeable border between human self-interest and the safety of “every living creature.”

How do our actions regarding Moonstone Beach, Santa Rosa Creek, and the Pacific shape the future of the tidewater goby, steelhead, pelicans? Do we recognize how every action creates the environment of life? When we humans become aware and start to listen, we hear the fogbow’s questions.

Retired ethicist Elizabeth Bettenhausen lives in Cambria.