Back to Alaska

“We’re taking a train to New Jersey, flying to Alaska from there, and then driving back to Vermont,” I told my friends.

Jordan paused for a moment and then asked, “Why?”

We all laughed at the blunt questioning in her voice.

“Well, Edge’s car and most of his stuff is still up there so we’re going to get it and visit everyone, too,” I answered.

But there’s more to it than that.  After a winter of renting a house and staying in one town, I am ready for a journey.  A week ago, as I was running in the spring afternoon, I thought about movement across the land, about travel and staying in one place.  My feet ran forward as fields melted and streams grew, and I remembered my nomadic ancestors–those perceptive, migrating people that we all come from.  What trace of them is left in me?  Is it their instincts that I feel telling me to walk, run, and to notice the world that keeps me alive?

It is a continual conflict within me: to stay in one place and know it deeply, or to travel and know the world as a great mosaic, all pieces making one place.  I like to believe that I can dig into a place even while traveling.  I like to feel that I can meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.

Terry Tempest Williams, in a talk she gave at the University of Fairbanks, said, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”  In this world of petroleum power, I believe this.  What do I love about staying?  Seeing the seasons through.  Working the land.  Growing my food.   The power of canning, freezing, pickling.

And this brings me back to the beginning of it all.

We have learned to celebrate agriculture and storage.

We have learned to reward ourselves with vacations.

There is a tension between these two things.

I am sitting in the Seattle Airport, waiting for a flight to Fairbanks.  In less than one day I am shooting across the country, and I will take just over two weeks to drive back.  So much oil.  And still I go.  It is a radical thing to stay home these days.  There is a lure to go far away, and since the advent of personal cars and cheap flights, we’ve all got the hook in our mouths.  There must have been a lure, too, for the nomads, to cultivate and rest through the seasons.  To stay in one place.

So I search for the convergence of these things, and I feel the churning within me as a river does when two tributaries come together.  I am going back to Alaska, back to the wild that forces you out of the car, the wild that asks your intention.  Is it to pass through, to get to the end?  Is it to discover?

I will dig into each place, meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.  My intention is to discover.

Dew Drops in Dawn

I’ve made it through February, though it began with deep freezing temperatures and is leaving with a burst of freezing rain and fierce wind; yesterday I could hardly stop my skis from flying, and my four-year-old students fought just to stay standing.  We went inside after one surprisingly fast run.

As March is beginning I’m thinking of melting snow and robins’ songs, though these things are bound to be a few weeks away still.  The other day at the Sunrise Cafe–a small, bright yellow building where I’ve been finding refuge from the resort in lavender scones and lattes–I overheard a customer yearn for spring.  She said to the owner, “I’m ready to smell the earth!”

I thought, “Oh!  Me too!” and looked out the window to the snow-covered ground, the white flakes sifting down again, the cold peaks of Madonna and Sterling, and the ridge line across the notch running up to Mt. Mansfield, all of it smelling of ice and evergreen.  Even if the mud is not here yet, the days are stretching out and steadily giving the evening hours back to the sun.

This extra light makes me think of summer, especially, and ironically, of the nighttime.  Even though I saw the world longer each day in the Alaskan summer, the sound of crickets and the lighting of fireflies are part of my internal landscape.  My thirst for warm darkness, moonlight, and dew drops in dawn will be quenched again in Vermont.

After spending over half a year away, I wonder how much has changed.  It seems so long since I’ve been home, even now after four months.  I need more than one season to feel steady and settled into a place.  When I was in New Zealand, I read a poem in a Wellington bookstore that spoke to this.  It goes like this:

The Route

If you want more than to brush your face
against nature, eyes clinging briefly to swatches
of sky, their blues deepening as you watch,
hit-and-missing leaves, damp paintings
patched seamless together—if you want more
than the quick epiphany of a hill line
breaking free of houses, you have to
walk the same route each day.

 
To know a second before the way a view
opens like a fan and close perspective crumbles,
to acquire a memory of verges and stones
where a snake may pour over your foot,
or a spray of butterflies playing chest-high,
engulf you at a sudden turn;

 
to feel circling through you, sequence:
how the small yellow, freckled as the common
orchid, cedes to blue-and-zebra, and both precede
the black, primadonna rare, big as a bat—
to know this cycle better than you know
your neighbour, you have to walk
the route each day.

 
To feel each missed occasion as a lover’s absence
short-changing the body: pumps, pulleys,
mainspring linked to the fragile, falling chemistry
of your spirits; to read the sharp calligraphy
of birds carved on the air, to ambush
nature into telling, you need to stay
in one place for more than a year.

This poem resounded so clear within me that I bought the book: Porcelain, by Diana Bridge.  At the time I read it, I had been moving from one town to another almost every three days and beginning to question how much I could actually see at this pace.  Reading “The Route” now, I feel that same understanding and desire to root myself to one place for a long time so as to know the tiny movements that make up a whole mysterious world.

When was the last time I stayed in one place for an entire year?  And what constitutes a place?  A town?  A region?  A state?  A country?  Even as a child we left the state to visit family in Massachusetts and New York, or to go on vacations in Mane, Washington, British Colombia, Virginia, Florida, England, Ireland.  Within me is a seed for travel that I have nourished and watered all of my life.  Now I feel another thing growing that asks for different care: quiet movement and wide eyes, deep breaths, stillness and the awareness of each small piece of life around me.

Still I ask: does the landscape ever really stop and start again, dividing itself into different places, or does it go on and evolve, merging into itself as my own arm merges into my hand into my fingers, all dependent on one another and moving in conjunction with the whole.  What does it mean to stay in one place when you see the world as the body, curving, breathing, and seamlessly moving from one part to another?  Then again, what does it mean when the fingers can feel in a way the knee cannot, and the ankle rolls and supports independently from the extension of the elbow?

Perhaps it comes down to this: I can only know what I can see, feel, taste, smell and hear.  A place goes as far as I am willing to walk.  As deep as I am willing to dive.

Traveling in the Backyard

After so many winters of travel, I am settling in for this one.  I’ve always thought of winter as a quiet, reflective time, but I hadn’t noticed my travel rhythm until now: last year I went to New Zealand and Tasmania; in college I’d use winter breaks to travel to Utah where my cousins live; my junior year I spent break getting ready to travel abroad in Northern Ireland from the end of January through mid-April.  Now, having returned from Alaska in November, I am moved into a post-and-beam house in Cambridge, Vermont, with a lease that runs until the end of April.  Edge and  Nobee (our dog) are with me, and we are sharing the house with my brother Jeff and a friend, Erik.  All summer I spoke to Edge of Vermont and looked forward to being back here, but now I feel the travel bug jumping inside me again and I’m searching for a way to calm it.  What did I learn from my travels last winter, though?  Be still, be here, sink in.

I am taking lessons from the dog, learning the excitement to be had each time we go outside.  Nobee loves the large field behind our house, where our neighbor’s draft horses sometimes plod, and she sprints through the snow, diving up and down like a dolphin in water all the way into the trees at the edge.  From there we walk through a small opening in the fence that leads to another field, and we traipse along the boundary of the open space before ducking under a barbed wire fence back into the woods.  Nobee leads, always a sprint in front of me, and I follow behind her, breathing in the snow-crisp air.  Maple and beech trees stand together and give way to intermittent groupings of fir trees near streams that cut small valleys through the forest.  Two weeks ago I heard a gun shot before we went out, and Nobee led me to the kill: blood-stained snow and the innards of a deer the hunters didn’t want.  We visited the spot every day for a week, interrupting crows so Nobee could snack, until all that was left was a small part of the stomach, which had become a frozen disk.

We continue on through the forest until we reach the third field, which looks out over a large red barn, horses outside in a paddock, and a farmhouse on Lower Pleasant Valley road.  Across the road the land rises up to a rounded peak called Cady Hill.  Nobee does a lap around the field, and from here we turn around and head home, arriving back after an hour.

I discover more each time we go out: a bright orange fungus on a maple branch, a simple wooden bridge with inch-wide gaps across a stream, a large rock balanced on a bent tree to mark a trail; and each time it snows it is as if I am entering a new place, creating tracks that were not there before, and ducking under heavier snow-covered branches.  I have struggled with my desires to travel, and to stay in one place and know it deeply, but perhaps here I am doing both.  What is travel but movement across the land, and an opening up to a place one didn’t know before?  Each walk is an exploration.  Each interaction builds a deeper relationship.  So I will keep learning and watching Nobee as she scoops up snow with her snout in the middle of a sprint, effortlessly happy to be here.

Alaska Wild

My summer of light is over.  The moon has returned to the northern sky.  In August I woke two nights in a row between 1:30 and 3:00 am and walked outside to darkness—or what darkness meant then, the deeper end of dusk—and looked up to see the moon shining like golden cream, my favorite light extending in a circle across the sky.  In my last days on the farm at the end of September, it was 9:30 pm and navy blue, it was 11:00 pm and black, it was nighttime and starry.

When school got back in session on August 18th, I started teaching classes in the garden.  One day while on a break, I heard a teacher in the faculty lounge say, “Fall is my favorite time of year because it’s dark enough to see the stars again and still warm enough to stay outside to look at them.”  All of my life I have loved summer nights for the stars and moon, and it still amazes me that people can live for months on end without this and see it as normal, but I did learn to love the unending light and all its energy.  Alaska’s nighttime has a way of breaking open, boldly renewing the world for the second time in twenty-four hours.

Now, after six months and with the return of night, I am driving home to Vermont with my friend Katie, who flew to Fairbanks to make the month-long journey back with me.  Throughout the summer I felt the pull towards the east, to know the soils, roots, rivers and mountains of my home more deeply, but Alaska draws me in now, quietly like the sway of wind in trees, like the slow then quick brilliant change from green to red in the tundra.  The wild here moves everyday across the land and sky; it knows its beauty and harshness and is calm in it.

When I first arrived in Alaska I wondered if the cities and people infringe upon or accentuate the wild, and what I have found is this: the wild is where the moose and lynx cross the paved road and keep going; it is where I take the road and then leave it.  Wild is found in the meetings of animals and people, and in the moments that hold stares without thoughts—that moment before you take out the camera and you watch, looking at each other with curiosity and wonder before going again on your own path.  Wild is everything and it is everywhere.  As I drive across the country now I see the wild extend through Canada, and down into Montana where I am now, and I know it keeps going, and I will follow it.

In the Middle

I just passed the halfway mark of my six-month contract. One part of me is thinking, “I only have three months left?” and the other part says with relief, “I still have three months left!” The garden filled in so fast, from tiny transplants to strong vegetables ready to harvest, that I still feel like I just started. Really, though, the third and last session of student gardeners starts next Monday, and then August will be here, school will start again, and September will come and happen and end my time as a School Garden Supervisor for Calypso. But, I still have three months left, and here I am already getting ahead of myself.

The pace of gardening in Alaska is faster than in Vermont. Even though it may take a little longer for the ground to thaw in the spring, and the winter sets in sooner in October, once the temperature creeps up, the garden is off to a sprint. The farmers at Calypso often do late night planting, starting at 11:00 or midnight, and sometimes going until 2:00 a.m. because the weather is perfect and the light stretches out. At the school gardens it’s different, as we do most of the planting with the students who work from 3:00-6:00 p.m. My garden, at Hunter Elementary School, is hot. Surrounded by pavement and pebble-filled playgrounds and with no trees for shade, the heat radiates all around the garden and encourages the plants to grow fast, as if there was an individual sun over each vegetable. Some veggies want to bolt because of this, and part of everyday is just walking around the garden observing, snapping off flowers from the tatsoi and the beets, and deciding whether or not the broccoli can hold on for another day.

The students only work Monday-Thursday, so the rest of the week is my time to be at the garden alone. I am thankful to have a volunteer come on Sundays, so I do have one full day off, and lately the rains have set in on the weekends, giving me a break from watering, but I still like to spend time on Saturdays when the streets are a bit quieter, doing some work. Last weekend, a man walked up to the fence to compliment the garden and asked, “What are you doing here on a Saturday?”

“Oh, I’m just checking on everything—doing some weeding,” I replied. The garden doesn’t take a break on weekends like the students do; it grows through the constant sun, unfailing and steady. Even in the shock of transplant, which causes the outer squash leaves to yellow and wilt, the center continues to expand out and up, offering new green into the world.  I respond to the light, too, gaining energy by just being outside.  Unlike being at home in Vermont, I don’t know it’s late by looking at the sky, and instead I’ve learned to pay more attention to my body and stay in tune with how I’m feeling so I don’t overrun myself too much.  There have been weeks when I wake up early each day to run, then bike the ten miles to the garden and work before the students arrive, then spend three hours with them before biking home.  I always think it will be sustainable, but my energy wears out after four days of this schedule, and I remember there is a reason the plants go to seed so quickly here: even though the light gives energy, it can also stress and it signals the need to flower, reproduce, and cycle back into the soil, just as I crash and need to catch up on sleep once all my energy reserves have been spent.  When I think of home, what I miss most are the cool evenings fading into nights spent around campfires that light up the darkness.

This first half of my job has gone by quickly, and I know the second half will as well, and then I will make my way back to Vermont, if only for a short while.  I’m still on the no-plan plan, but as the time gets closer, I feel the pull for green mountains and family.  Until then, I will continue to follow the energy as it moves, and be here, thankful for the sunlight and all it grows.

Maple Syrup Meditation

The farther away from Vermont I get, the more maple syrup I consume, as if it might pump green mountains and maple trees through my body.  At home the syrup was a treat with occasional weekend brunches; during my four years at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, I was always stocked with a gallon jug, but still I never poured it onto food more than once a month or so; Now here in Alaska, maple syrup makes it way into my breakfast at least four times a week: in oatmeal, yogurt, on pancakes.  I’ve even put it in my morning chai.  When I first arrived in Ester, I held off on making pancakes until the package from my mom arrived with the quart of maple syrup made by my friend’s dad, Smitty.  When two big boxes showed up at Calypso Farm, I excitedly brought them home and cut them open.  Inside I found books, climbing gear, a daypack, peace flags and mail, but no syrup!  I could picture the exact spot in the kitchen where it sat in Vermont.  By that time I didn’t want to wait weeks for another package, so I broke down, went to the store, and bought the maple syrup at Fred Meyers (only, of course, because they carry Vermont maple syrup).  It cost $14.00 for twelve ounces of grade B.  I’m usually a grade A medium amber girl, but when in a place far away from maple trees and syrup production I’m not picky.

Smitty’s syrup arrived on Thursday, and it’s a good thing since I’m down to only a few more ounces of the store-bought stuff!  What do people in Alaska do without this sticky, thick golden sweetness?  Although there is the option of fake syrup with “maple” flavoring (many of these products don’t actually contain any real maple), some people tap birch trees.  Before coming here, the thought of birch syrup never crossed my mind—it takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup, as opposed to the maple ratio of 40:1—but with the plethora of birch trees, it only makes sense.

When Tom and Susan first bought the land that would become Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, they lived in a yurt without a large holding tank for water, and no driveway to drive five gallon jugs up, so in the spring when the sap started running, they tapped trees and had so much sap that they used it for drinking and cooking.  “I tried doing the dishes with it one time, but it didn’t quite do the trick!” Tom laughed.

Inspired by a birch tapping presentation we went to at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Colby set up a bucket on one of the trees in our backyard.  For the past week, the sap has been flowing and we’ve emptied the four-quart bucket four times; two of those days it was overflowing before we had the chance to empty it.  Since it requires so much sap to make birch syrup, and because it must be heated at a lower temperature for a longer amount of time than maple sap due to its lower sugar content, we aren’t going to attempt to make it.  Birch sap is a delicious drink with a subtle sweetness nonetheless.

As maple syrup continues to be a staple in my diet, we’ll see how long my supply lasts.  I admit that I hold Vermont’s syrup to be the absolute best, and am therefore reluctant to buy it from another state or from Canada, but it sure puts a kink in my effort to eat local (it is in fact possible to get all meat and most produce Alaska-grown).  There are always justifications for my indulgence—I ride my bike to work, I don’t have running water, I keep my house on the lowest possible heat setting, I grow most of my own food—so these must balance it all out, right?

It’s harder to look at what it will take to balance out the carbon emissions from the airplane I flew to get to Alaska, or the environmental costs of materials it took to make my car, computer, iPod and cell phone.  As I write this, I feel the need to say that I don’t have a television, as if this might convince me whole-fullness or neutrality.  What can I do to bring myself to a balance?  Or is there no action to take but noticing, living in awareness and allowing each moment to move as it does?

I can pour maple syrup on my oats and feel connected to Vermont, or I can run on gravel roads in Alaska and feel how my legs move the same here as they do anywhere.  I can hear birdcalls, smell pine needles soaking on the ground during spring thaw, lose my thoughts in the wind that pulls my ponytail and settle in the stillness that asks only for me to be present.

In this world with all of its intricacies and connections, all of its turbulence and calm, is it wrong to eat so much of one thing if it must be shipped so far?  All I can do to find the answer is listen to the energy that propels me to run, which also asks me to sit, be quiet, be open.

questions

starting to pack for alaska, and where do i begin?

i told my mom i want to be a vagabond, having been inspired by slow travel and by this book Vagabonding.  she laughed and all she could say was “i love you”

how do i reconcile my desire to travel with my desire to buy land and stay here and know vermont, or any one place deeply?

how long does it take to know a place deeply?  does it depend on time or presence or willingness or perseverance or openeness or love or all of these things?

is there such a thing as starting over?

why would i want to start over, when all of my experiences have led me to where i am?

i do not want to start over.  i want to continue on.

on, in, out, over

reconciliation is an act of balancing

my synallactic heart, balance me on a string, drown me in the world, teach me to stretch on the thin strand of the horizon, where the night and the morning and the earth and the sky move together, giving way for one another, giving the possibility for each to encompass the world.