Something I learned a long time ago about myself is that nature is my cathedral. It is where I am brought to my knees, where I am offered perspective.
Last Sunday I visited a vast cathedral: Denali National Park. The day’s sermon was on the subject of scale.
At the park entrance most of the foliage was gone from the shrubs and deciduous trees, the sky was gray and the air had a wool sweater edge to it. A short climb in elevation led us into snow flurries. A higher climb left us waiting to see if we could even make it to the end of the road for all the snow that had accumulated on the pass. Thankfully, the snowplows prevailed and we made it to Wonder Lake, where it felt less like winter and more like late autumn again.
Deep inside the park, the cranes were having their giant meet-up in the sky. Hundreds, possibly thousands of the birds gathered and one group would meet another group and they’d rise together and circle. Another bunch would join and in the distance a group five times the size of the smaller group circled and rose and their soaring bodies gave shape to the air currents.
A thousand years earlier it must not have been so different. Gray sky, sun shining at a low angle through the clouds to the base of the lower mountains. Layers of riverbed, glacial moraine, cut valleys.
Alaska is huge. Denali National Park and the surrounding Preserve—not even the biggest National Park in the state—encompass more than six million acres. The 92.5-mile long road into the park allows casual visitors like myself just a glimpse of what is out there. Part of what I loved about going in the park was how little of it I could see.
I grew up hearing a story of how the world came into being, and how it is that I am supposed to navigate through this world. The story shaped everything. I learned to pretend to ‘believe with conviction’ in the story I was taught, and I could fake it as long as my imagination was limited to just that one story—as long as I never left the one road.
Nature tells its own story. It’s less tidy. It involves a scale of time that the human brain cannot comprehend. It’s based on death and renewal and resilience. It’s based on birth and decay and physics and chemistry. Although it contains mysteries and induces wonder, it is not capable of lying.
Near the end of the road, where the snow had gone and we found remnants of blueberries still hanging on their leafless branches and lingonberries bunched close to the ground, where the mountains made perfect reflections into the ponds and where overhead the cranes continued to call—the sun came out for a few minutes. The clouds gave way to bits of blue sky and for a moment the summit of Denali showed through. It didn’t last long.
I am always looking for a story. I continually narrate, create and assume. It was tempting to think that the clouds parted for my benefit.
All photos by Dean Sundmark
It’s September 1st and I’m sitting on my deck. It was cool enough for a fire this morning, but now it’s hot–so hot that I’m looking at the shade wondering if I should move my little writing operation over there. Of course I won’t because a) it would be too cool in the shade, and b) after living in Alaska for 24 years, I’m always fearful that each sunny day might be my last. There are certain things we don’t take for granted here in Alaska and sun is primary among those things.
President Obama is in Alaska for a few days and it’s a big deal. Some say he’s just using us as a prop to talk about climate change, and maybe that’s true. But I’m okay with that. I don’t think a person can be here on a crystal clear day like the one we’re having and leave without knowing that this is a pretty special place. And he’s going off the road system. He’s going to see parts of Alaska that most Alaskans don’t get to see. He’s going to learn a bit about this state whether that was his intention or not.
Of course I was a little disappointed that President Obama chose to go to Seward instead of Homer, but Seward does have the advantage of a retreating glacier that a person can walk up to. Oh well, instead of Black Hawk helicopters and Secret Service agents, we have our typical fleet of scuffed-up Subarus and fellas in Carhartts and Xtra-Tuffs. It’s fine that he chose Seward, I guess.
One thing that this presidential visit has me thinking about is how darn proud I am of this state. Just by its placement on this planet and its geology, it’s exceptional. And the people who live here, they’re a little different than the people who live in the lower 48. I’m not sure if that’s because it attracts people who think differently or if it’s because living here molds us into something different than we’d be if we lived in, say, Ohio or someplace like that. That is not to say that the people here are better than people anywhere else, but I would say that we have a higher per capita population of people who question societal norms. If nothing else, it makes us an interesting bunch. I hope the president will get just a little taste of that about Alaska while he’s here.
In other news, my mom and step-dad left this morning. Mom gave me the foliage-change report as they drove up the Kenai Peninsula, and the bore tide report as they drove by Turnagain Arm. She reported on the fresh snow just beyond the Matanuska Glacier. So much to beauty to behold as they’re driving away—I hope it lures them back.
These clear sky nights are bound to bring a frost in soon, so I suppose I should stop writing and harvest the peas from my garden. The tomatoes that did well outside for most of the summer have already been moved into our living room, and the carrots and beets and cabbage will only get better with the cool nights.
And speaking of cool nights, maybe President Obama will get to see the Northern Lights while he’s here. Dean noticed them around 2:00am the other night and we bundled up and sat on our front deck and turned our heads toward the heavens for about twenty minutes much to the consternation of our dogs, who possibly thought that their people had lost their minds. But we watched the Aurora and we witnessed a number of shooting stars. The air was calm and it was quiet—so quiet.
It’s possible, with these clear nights, that the President could see the Northern Lights through his window at the Hotel Captain Cook. It wouldn’t be the same as when we saw them the other night—in the comfort of our jammies, on our own front porch, without the interference of town lights—but it might be enough to give him pause. Alaska is amazing in a million different ways, but one of its best features is its ability to give pause.
Always, there is plenty to mourn in this world. Plenty to worry about. Plenty to try and change. But I don’t want to write about those things today.
Maybe it’s because this morning I went barefoot in the garden and picked snap peas for breakfast.
Maybe it’s the rare thunderstorm that rolled in last weekend and drenched us while we foraged in the blueberry bog.
Maybe it’s my chickens, weaving in and out of the nettles and wildflowers and pushki, clucking the way chickens cluck when they’re happy.
Maybe it’s that my mom is here for the summer and we can walk through the wooded trail to the bakery and there we can solve the world’s problems over a sandwich and a cup of soup.
Maybe it’s the freezer full of salmon and the sweet, sweet strawberries growing alongside the driveway.
Maybe it’s the higher than average number of coffee-on-the-deck mornings we’re having.
Maybe it’s this town, with its people who aren’t afraid to dance late into the night on a Tuesday.
Maybe it’s that I wake up every day with a dog tucked sweetly into the bend in my knees.
Maybe it’s sitting in the shade of an umbrella on a friend’s deck, drinking drinks and catching up while her golden retriever puppy nibbles at my toes.
Maybe it’s the evidence of sun on my skin, my flip-flop tan, the way we haven’t had to build a fire in the woodstove for days.
Maybe in this moment it’s the squirrel out there, taunting my dogs from the safety of a spruce tree. Or that raven that just flew past the open door, owning this meadow in a way I never will.
Maybe it’s the knowing that all of this, it has nothing to do with blessings or earning or deserving. It’s just that I’m lucky.
The weight of it all hits me hard some days.
The other day at work my computer was out of service. It was the perfect time for me to tackle a few tasks that had been piling up. I did some filing. I made some phone calls. I did a little shelving. And then I listened to the fifty-two messages that were saved in my voicemail.
The messages went back as far as 2008, and listening to them has given me quite a lot to write about, but for this post I’ll stick to the ones that were left in response to two pieces of my writing.
“Hello Teresa, this is Rollie Campbell. I’m a relative of yours. I read your bit in the Telluride Newspaper and I have to say—way. to. go. Some of those things should have been said a long time ago. And here’s my number if you want to talk.”
This message, along with four email messages from strangers, were waiting for me at work on the Monday after Father’s Day, 2008. I had written a piece for the High Country News about my father’s memorial service held on a hillside near Wilson Mesa, just outside of Telluride Colorado. I wrote honestly about how I’d been hurt by the service being turned into a sermon. Instead of memorializing my father, the person holding the service felt compelled to preach about hell, and how those of us in attendance who weren’t saved would most certainly go there.
It was the first piece of my writing that had ever been published. It was personal and it was pointed and it was syndicated in newspapers around the West. Hundreds of people read the column in their Sunday newspapers. It was terrifying.
Now I can look at that essay as a turning point in my writing life. It was the beginning of me digging a little deeper, going closer to the core of what I care about most.
I called Rollie Campbell—this distant relative of mine who was in his 80s at the time. He lived on Wilson Mesa when he was a boy. He knew my dad and my aunts and uncles when they were young. We talked for about an hour. He told me stories and answered questions. After speaking with him, I knew a bit more about life on Wilson Mesa in the 1920s and 1930s. I had a few stories to put with the names of the people who came before me.
I did not erase the message he left in June 2008. I listen to it about once a year—usually when I need some kind of reassurance.
Message #s 28,29 & 31:
–“Teresa, call me. Here’s my number.”
–“Holy crap. Are you at work today? I need to buy you coffee.”
–“Hello. You don’t know me, but I want to tell you thank you. Something similar happened to me. I never told anyone.”
It was October 2012 and I wrote a blog post in response to a sexual assault that happened in Homer. I wrote it in a hurry and posted it in a hurry—before I could change my mind. Then I went into the bathroom and nearly threw up. Then I told my husband about it. I had never told him the story.
Unlike the message from Rollie Campbell, I’d forgotten about these messages. Hearing them again the other day brought me back to those first few days after I posted the essay on my blog. Lots of people were reading it, but worse, lots of people I knew were reading it. I felt more exposed than I’d ever felt in my life.
But an amazing thing happened. People responded. Men and women approached me at work, at coffee shops, in the grocery store. People sent me emails and private messages. While the feeling of being exposed never went away entirely, it was eased by the incredible sense of being supported by people who cared, people who had been through something similar, people who had a story of their own.
What I learned from that post is that courage begets courage. I only had the guts to write what I wrote because I’d read the work of others who had been brave. Then a few people had the courage to tell their stories because they’d read mine.
Listening to those voicemail messages made me revisit those essays from years ago. If I had them to write over again, I would change things. They are imperfect and perhaps a little self-indulgent. Writing them was difficult. I might have been wise to use a bit more caution. But would cautious writing have prompted people to call and leave messages?
For me, writing is always finding the balance between restraint and indulgence. Too much of either one is a bad thing and whether it’s fiction or nonfiction it’s always a struggle to reach that sweet spot. But I know, and the messages on my voicemail reminded me, that people want to read work that originated close to the writer’s heart. They want to read what is real. They respond to stories that reveal some of the author’s uneasiness and dread. Maybe sharing something so intimate makes us all feel less alone.
Kachemak Bay in June
It’s raining today–a beautiful, windless, cool summer rain. It’s filling our rain barrels, settling the dust, watering our garden. Everything is green. Bright green. Alive green. New green. I open the front door. I inhale. I hold the air in my lungs for as long as I can. I let it out slowly.
I put on a rain jacket and pick greens from our garden. Every plant is growing at a miraculous rate. Each leaf is crisp and succulent. It is food and it is medicine and I want for everyone in the world to feel the satisfying crunch of this fresh bok choy, taste this raw spinach a second after it’s picked. I want for everyone to hear the squirrels chattering in the spruce trees and the golden-crowned sparrows calling to one another in the open meadow. I want for everyone to breathe deeply of this morning’s air.
Right now, my mother in law is having a hard time. A few months ago she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which is a hardening of the lung tissue. She needs supplemental oxygen–each day a little more than the last.
When I think of her, I find myself conscious of breath. I fill my lungs with a little more air than I normally would. I imagine oxygen finding it’s way to every part of my body.
This afternoon I am meeting friends and acquaintances, community members and strangers by the Seafarer’s Memorial on the Homer Spit. We’re going to make our wishes known and we’re hoping our pleas won’t fall on deaf ears.
Later this month, the United States Navy is planning to begin training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska. They have a permit to use live artillery and sonar to practice for war. The training is scheduled to happen for the next five summers during key breeding and migratory periods for marine life. By the Navy’s own estimation, the impact will be detrimental to as many as 182,000 marine mammals.
So we’re going with our homemade signs and our kayaks. We’re going with our bicycles and our skiffs. We’re asking the United States Navy to listen to us. We’re asking them to change their plans to accommodate the migratory animals. We’re hoping they’ll remember that the Gulf of Alaska is not a strategic military or political space but rather a life-giving body of water that is worthy of our protection.
Looking out my window, past the tomato plants on the sill, past the garden in my front yard, I see portions of Kachemak Bay and the Kenai Mountains. I think of my mother in law, fighting for every breath. I think of the ocean life, unaware and undeserving of the battle that’s about to be inflicted upon it. I am heavy with gratitude and sorrow and wishes.
I want a world where war games aren’t necessary. I want everyone to feel the sense of satisfaction I felt when I stepped into the cool rain this morning. I want the world to change. So I make my homemade signs and I pick a lunch salad from my garden. I write words on a page and I take one deep breath, and then another.
I thought we’d made it through another season. A snowless winter, early greening and the unseasonably warm wind in February and March fooled me. But April came and for a month the progression into summer was put on hold. The lengthening days and the birdsong reminded me that it wasn’t exactly winter, but it sure didn’t feel like spring. April was something all its own this year. Something to endure.
In April I thought a lot about racism. Not racism in the news but racism in my family. I thought about the hateful comments I heard from an uncle at my father’s funeral. I thought about the racial slurs I grew up with. I thought about the story of my dad and his brothers one time running off a Hispanic family enjoying a public park on a Sunday afternoon after church.
That was a long time ago. And the racism is no longer so blatant.
Now it’s a little more hidden. It’s got a new vocabulary—thugs, illegals, Islamists. And it’s got new targets—liberals, gays, atheists. It’s veiled by politics and end-times theology, the purpose of which is to keep humans categorized and separated into those who are worthy and those who are not. The way we look down on others has shifted over time, but I wouldn’t say that the problem is gone.
There is a deep shame for being born into racism. I once used racist terminology. I once told off-color jokes. I wish it weren’t true and that I could undo my past. I will always be trying to wash myself clean of it, but the memory of my ignorance still clings to me. All I can do is admit that I was a part of the problem, ask for forgiveness and try to make amends. Since I see the wrong ways of my past, am I somehow immune from divisive thinking? No, not now and not ever. No one is immune. We are all capable of great and terrible things.
The family I was born into is also a family of Pentecostals.
In April I read about William Seymour, the black, one-eyed son of slaves from Louisiana who led the Azusa Street Revival in Southern California and who was essentially responsible for spreading Pentecostalism around the globe. He believed in love and inclusiveness. He believed that God did not favor one gender over the other. He believed that God’s love revealed itself most powerfully when people from different races came together in worship. He did not exclude other religions from the spiritual movement that he led and he did not take credit for its growth or the way it transformed people. He believed that the Holy Spirit was moving and his job was to make sure that human designed divisions—race relations, gender hierarchies and economic standing—did not get in the way of God’s work.
I’d never heard of William Seymour until this month. I’d certainly never heard that the origins of the Pentecostal movement were so tied to the notion of equality. I think that somewhere in the line of my family’s Pentecostalism, something went terribly wrong.
While I was enduring April, while I was cursing the late-season snow and reading about religion and philosophy and contemplating my family’s history of racism, a friend across town lost her son. He was eighteen years old. The sad and shocking news pulled me right out of the heady place I’d been inhabiting and brought me back to the here and now.
Basically, I was hit with the most basic truth. We all love and we all feel pain. As long as we’re alive, there is no escaping these basic things. We can spend our lives constructing borders, terminology, political parties, religions, philosophies, economic divisions—every manner of barrier we can think of to keep us focused on our differences, but we’ll never be separate. We are bound by our human experience, which, when it comes down to it, is all we really know.
We love our children. We suffer excruciating pain when we lose them. Is there any category of people for whom this is not true? Was there ever a time in human history when this wasn’t the case? Will this ever change in the future? No. I don’t think it will.
I have spent most of my adult life trying to reconcile my religious upbringing with who I am now. I am left with more questions in regards to spirituality than answers. But I find solace in humanity. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Yesterday I mentioned to my friend Erin that the trouble I’m having lately with my blog is that I have too many ideas. There is too much rolling around in my brain and trying to home in on one idea has been difficult.
As soon as I said the words “too much,” my problem solved itself. “Too much” is the topic that won’t go away. Looking around my house it seems I have too much stuff—too many coffee mugs in my kitchen cabinet, too many unworn shirts hanging in my closet. On any given day, if I don’t make a point of intentionally avoiding it, too much information streams through my consciousness—too many interesting articles, too many news headlines, too many links that beg to be opened.
On a societal level, we could almost be defined by having too much: Too many cars on the highways, too many types of cereal to choose from at the grocery store, too many events on our calendars. We have more kitchen gadgets than our grandmothers ever dreamed of and more entertainment available at our fingertips than the younger versions of ourselves could have imagined. We seem to have just about everything that we need.
But apparently we don’t have it all. Yesterday California’s Governor Brown announced the state’s first mandatory water restrictions. When a resource as important as water becomes scarce enough to be dangerous, people make a change. They have to. Scarcity has a way of inspiring immediate action.
Unfortunately, when something seems abundant, there’s not quite the same level of urgency.There are exceptions of course. When the cells in our bodies begin to reproduce at an abnormal rate, we call it cancer and we don’t celebrate the abundance. We act. We do what we can to stop or slow the cell growth.
A couple of years ago a group of forward thinking people here in Homer tried to act on the overabundance of plastic bags in our town. They understood the true cost of the free plastic bags that fill up our landfills and pollute our marine ecosystem. They tried to be proactive but they failed. They failed because banning plastic bags just didn’t seem urgent enough to most people. It turns out that plastic bags—at least to a few vocal opponents of the ban—are a symbol of American freedom. And as long as plastic bags are plentiful, then those opponents believe that it’s their right to get them for free at the grocery store.
When I dropped my trash off at the McNeil Canyon transfer station the other day I watched a bald eagle swoop down and grab a stray plastic bag from the ground. The giant bird flew off carrying its free find. Since it’s nest building season, I imagined it meticulously tucking the bag in between the cottonwood branches that it had painstakingly put together for its home.
The scene disturbed me. It’s not natural for eagles to build nests with plastic trash bags. But then it occurred to me that it’s not really natural for humans to wrap nearly every one of our food items in plastic, then bring those plastic-wrapped food items home in a plastic bag, then throw the grocery bag and the food wrappers into yet another plastic bag in order to discard them. It’s ridiculous when you think about how our reliance on plastic has become normal.
Maybe those who opposed the ban don’t think there is too much plastic in the world. Maybe they don’t care if eagles are building their nests out of plastic. Maybe the idea of plastic finding its way into the ocean and breaking down into tiny molecular bits to be consumed by our food supply doesn’t matter to them. Apparently it doesn’t matter as much as their personal freedom at the checkout stand. But their thoughts on the matter don’t change the fact that our reliance on plastic is a problem, and as long as it’s free and convenient, little will be done to curtail its use.
Imagine if plastic bags were scarce the way that water is scarce in California. Would the opponents of the plastic bag ban be outraged at the thought of being charged a small fee for their bags? Would they scoff at the crazy liberals who want to control every aspect of their life? Probably. But then after their scoffing they’d start to remember to bring their own bags to the store. They’d get used to reusing the plastic bags that had accumulated under their kitchen sink. They’d adjust to a life with just a little bit less plastic. The world would keep spinning and they would be no less American for their trouble.
Water, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to do without.