When I was an adolescent, I attended church camp most summers. Each year it was a week of being in close proximity to a couple hundred other hormonally charged Christian kids where we had daily bible studies, morning and evening church services and ample opportunities to get our lives back on track with God. Away from all of our worldly influences, we were shown just how terrible the world was, and how important it was for us, as Christians, to stay as separate from it as possible.
One summer, after returning home from church camp, I took a hammer to my record collection. No good Christian should listen to, much less own, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” so I set up my record-destruction operation on a cement slab in my mom’s driveway and pounded away on my small stack of vinyl. I don’t remember everything I destroyed that day, but in addition to AC/DC it included albums by Queen, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
I didn’t feel good about destroying my records, at least not for long, but something I’d heard at camp made me think that listening to certain things was wrong, that the wrong kind of music would taint me, and that something about me was bad if I liked certain kinds of music. Better to remove it from my life altogether than be temped to listen to it. That’s the message I got.
I didn’t wreck all of my records. I kept Chic’s “C’est Chic” because even though going to dances was not acceptable in one of my two homes, I spent hours making up dance routines in the basement of my mom’s house to the song “Le Freak” because it was, quite simply, the best dance song in the universe. I was pretty sure God wouldn’t mind my dancing as long as I didn’t do it in public and as long as I didn’t make my moves too sexy.
I also kept Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” album. “The Logical Song” spoke to me and I listened to it over and over again. For this middle school girl who lived two different lives in two different households, who couldn’t yet articulate all the questions stewing inside my brain, it was nice to know that other people felt lost sometimes. I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am…
Whoever preached the sermon that inspired me to clean up my record collection did understand one thing about music. It’s powerful. Even though it can be logical, mathematical and scientific, it has the ability to go beyond those things. It has the ability to work its way into you on a much deeper level. At least that’s true for me.
In high school, after my boyfriend of two years left me broken-hearted, I wore out my cassette of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” by rewinding it too much. Alone in my room, I wallowed in my pain listening to “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” about a million times.
My musical obsessions have changed over the years. In fact, they change from week to week or month to month. One thing stays the same though: I find a piece of music that speaks to me, that touches me at some deep level, and I listen to it so many times that I suspect other people would think that I’m insane if they knew the extent of it.
In June of 2014 I discovered Jason Isbell’s album “Southeastern.” In my car to and from work each day, I played the song “Elephant” again and again and I swore that I’d learn to write songs, that I’d be happy never writing anything ever again if I could just write one song that was as good as that song.
After my dad died in 2007, I heard Martha Scanlan’s version of the old hymn “Ten Thousand Charms” and listening to it helped me mourn not just the loss of my dad but also the loss and isolation I felt over no longer believing the same religious teachings of my youth. Listening to the song helped me articulate that I was mourning more than just my dad.
Currently I can’t seem to get enough of Kurt Vile’s two most recent albums “Walkin’ on a Pretty Daze” and “b’lieve I’m goin’ down.” For whatever reason, they are meeting me where I’m at at this point in my life.
I won’t even get into my obsession with old-time fiddle and banjo music for this blog post. But one life-changing, serendipitous musical encounter started one day when my children were small and I was listening to NPR while driving them to town for a swimming lesson. The show on the radio featured a segment about a music festival being held in North Carolina. I heard clawhammer banjo being played and I immediately started crying. Not just crying, but had-to-pull-the-car-over-and-collect-myself crying. I have no explanation for it, but before that moment I’d never experienced a sound searing itself right into my soul. Remarkably, I met one of my dearest friends that week at those swimming lessons. Her name is Kate and she is one of the finest old-time banjo players that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and I’ve met a few. Soon after that I picked up a fiddle for the first time.
The thing with music is that what speaks to me isn’t necessarily what speaks to another person. Some people might hear a fiddle tune in a minor key and to them it sounds like nothing more than old-fashioned screeching. I, on the other hand, might hear a tune and feel compelled to listen to it hundreds of times and then play it hundreds of times. I don’t have a great explanation as to why music is so personal. Maybe it has to do with genetics. Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe there is something that goes way back to the core of our being, something that on some level still defies explanation.
It’s this unknown, hard-to-understand aspect of music that gives me the ability to respect genres that don’t necessarily resonate with me. In this life we’re always on the lookout for something that connects us to our people, our spirit, ourselves. We’re longing for something that makes us feel alive and engaged. What does that for one person will not necessarily be the thing that does it for someone else.
The rock and roll albums I busted to smithereens in my youth might have been edgy, they might have been rebellious, they might have had questionable lyrics, but they weren’t doing me any harm. I can think of plenty of things that did hurt me when I was a kid, and music isn’t one of them. The same is true of the rap music at the Tenana Valley State Fair last weekend that was so rudely interrupted. The performers might have been edgy, they might have been rebellious, they might have been rapping about serious issues, but they weren’t hurting anyone.
Those responsible for freaking out at the Tanana Valley State Fair last weekend did not get away with their decision to interrupt the music and kick the performers out of the venue. They’ve been sufficiently shamed through newspaper op-eds and comments and have ironically given the rap duo more attention than they ever expected. But I wonder what kind of message the censors sent to those few people in the audience who perhaps related more to the music of Starbuks and Bishop Slice than the other more “acceptable” acts. Censorship is tricky that way. Besides the blatant messages it sends, there are many more that are subtle: You don’t fit our ideal of what it means to be Alaskan. You are different and therefore unwelcome. Something must be wrong with you if this is the kind of music you enjoy.
All of those messages are similar to the ones I heard when I was a kid at church camp in the early 1980s. Thankfully, the music spoke to me louder than those messages. And for all those Alaskan kids who love rap, or punk or electronica or any kind of genre that might scare the socks off of those who manage the Tanana Valley State Fair, I say turn up the volume. You’re as Alaskan as any of the rest of us.
Orlando. I went to bed in one world and woke into another. Or maybe that’s not quite right, maybe that’s too dramatic. I went to bed in a world that is violent, that has always been violent and I woke to a world that will continue to be violent. There are violent people who have access to tools that allow them to act on their violent tendencies in a way that is out of balance to their own rage. This is not new. So I guess I went to bed in the same world that I woke up in, but maybe something shifted. With each tragedy there is the hope that something has shifted.
Was the Orlando shooter’s rage so much greater than the sum of the all the human emotion that was contained in the lives of the 49 people that he killed? No. Was it greater than the sum of their potential to love and create and expand and grow and flourish in a world that needed them? No. His rage was tiny in comparison to what his victims had to offer. And yet he had a tool that allowed his rage to quash that which was so much greater than his rage. Because he had a tool that allowed him to do so, the shooter, for three hours, acted out his twisted version of reality that told him that his rage was more important than anything else. It was not.
I want to believe that love is the answer. I want to believe that goodness will prevail. I want to believe that there is a way to solve this never-ending problem of violent people acting violently with tools that are disproportionately more powerful than their actual rage. I love life and I love people and I love so much about this world, but I admit that I feel helpless when it comes to solving this problem.
When I try to imagine the world going forward, I can’t picture it without thinking of unwinding a great spiral. The spiral of human history. At the tip of the spiral there are the weapons of war. In the last century we’ve created weapons strong enough to wipe out all of humankind and weapons powerful enough for one misguided soul to take out the lives of fifty others. And we’ve convinced ourselves that our strength lies in our weapons. It does not. To believe our strength is determined by the strength of our weapons is a colossal failure of imagination. It’s like saying that for all of the traits that humankind possesses, our ability to out-arm ourselves against our neighbors is the greatest. I don’t know how to begin unwinding this part of the spiral, but it seems like a good place to start.
Further into the spiral is the notion of sin. There are acts that harm other human beings and there are acts that do not. We need to unwind the notion that who we love, how we love, how we express our love for this life is in any way sinful if it does not harm another human. It’s a simple concept but one that seems to have us caught up in a frenzy of ridiculous bickering. Love between people is not a sin. Period. Stop calling it a sin and if your religion tells you it’s a sin, well then that’s the next thing on the spiral that needs unwinding.
Spirituality, seeking, looking for ways to live a meaningful and engaged life—those are all good things. But when rules and laws and outdated scriptures tell you that there is just one way to live a life and yet you look around and you see thousands of good people living lives that are in no way harmful to your own, it’s time to reassess the value of your religion. It may be time to let it go, or let it evolve into something else. If your religion is telling you to separate yourself from this world that you were born into, rather than be a part of its creation, you might want to consider the logic of that. It’s interesting how religious people embrace innovation and advancement in medicine, in transportation, in technology, but for many there is a stubborn refusal to innovate a religion that is outdated. At one time, burning whale blubber for light made sense. Now it does not.
There are so many layers of unwinding that I imagine, but the hope would be to unwind right down the the core of human suffering. To find the single notion, the single lie that we’ve built the rest of the spiral around, which I suspect is the idea of separation.
We are all human. Religious or atheist, gay or straight. No matter our sex or our gender or our height. No matter our IQ or our income. No matter our nation of origin or the color of our skin. We have the same capacity for goodness or badness or rage or awe. We all have the capacity to create and love. We all depend upon this one Earth for our existence.
Of course this spiral that I imagine is too big for any one person to unwind. We can’t go back in time and even so, history was not less violent than the present. So what do we do? I don’t know. I don’t claim to even begin to know. But can we see the world for what it is and decide to engage here and now with what we’ve got, mistakes and all? Can we cut through the spiral to that core of our common existence? Can we start to think more ambitiously about how to love each other and this world? Can we? Will we? How do we begin?
I have spent the past week getting reacquainted with my heart. I’ve cried. I’ve played a few of my favorite songs over and over again. I’ve taken my fiddle out of its case and played the modal, soulful tunes that I love best.
All of this tending to my heart came about after I learned of a friend’s death last Wednesday. Trevor Stuart was a fiddle teacher of mine, and his passing was unexpected and sudden.
I wasn’t especially close to Trevor. Aside from his twin brother Travis, I’d never met his family. I hadn’t seen him for several years. I only knew a little of what was going on in his life by his occasional Facebook posts. And so this sorrow I feel over his death is something of a nostalgic sorrow. It’s not the true, deep sorrow that his family must be feeling. But it is sorrow nonetheless. He died too soon.
I met Trevor and Travis at Alaska Fiddle Camp almost a decade ago. They came from North Carolina to teach old time fiddle and banjo. I felt at home with them right away. They were funny, sincere, open and kind. Of all of those traits, it was their openness that stuck with me. They were open to friendship and they weren’t interested in proving that they were accomplished musicians or important in any way. They were just there to play music and have a good time. It was also apparent that they loved music, and not just the kind they were there to teach. When they had the time, they’d sit in on the Irish fiddle and bodhran classes. Late into the night they’d sing country songs, 80s pop songs, whatever. Music was more to them than a genre or a style. It was bigger than that.
One thing that always stood out about Trevor’s teaching style was that he taught tunes rather than technique. He seemed to know that the tunes would mean something different to every fiddle player, and so he didn’t try to get his students to play the tunes exactly as he played them. He didn’t insist on teaching them precisely the way he’d learned them from some old recording. He trusted that the tunes were living things and that variation, interpretation and evolution were part of the nature of old time music. He loved the music and what it could do. He trusted that the tunes would be just fine once he passed them along.
His own old time fiddle playing was as soulful as any that I’ve heard. He must have worked hard to master the technicalities of playing, and thank goodness he did, because his mastery allowed the heart of his playing to shine through.
And I suppose that is why I’ve been so deeply saddened by his passing. Trevor had heart. It came through in how he treated people and in how he played music. My own life was enhanced by the music he taught and played and by the kindness he and Travis brought with them from North Carolina to Alaska. I know I’m only one of hundreds who feel that way. And I, like so many others, assumed that we’d see him again someday.
As humans, our capacity to love is so great, but often we forget this. We squander our energy for love on things that matter so little. We get caught up in sounding smart, in trying to be important, in trying to acquire status or material possessions. We forget that we are meant for so much more in this life.
Trevor’s unexpected passing won’t change the course of my life the way that it will his family’s. But it has done something. Over the past week I’ve felt my heart wedging open. It feels like it’s coming out of a deep, long sleep. It feels vulnerable and awake. It feels like it’s beating along to some tune that I haven’t yet learned how to play.
*Thank you to David Bragger for the wonderful recording of Trevor and Travis. David’s work is exceptional. To learn more about it go to The Old-Time Tiki Parlour.
Here I go, writing about something I never imagined I would write about on this blog: the legalization of cannabis, marijuana, weed, pot. It’s something I haven’t cared much about in the past, but I care about it now for a number of reasons.
As I watched my home state of Colorado decide whether or not to legalize marijuana, I listened to the arguments both for and against. I began to educate myself both to the true nature of the plant and to reasons it was deemed illegal in the first place. Since its legalization, I’ve asked a few family members who live in Colorado if they’ve witnessed any serious problems and the ones I surveyed said that they have not. This is coming from people who have no interest in partaking themselves. I do realize that there are plenty of others who may feel differently.
For me, the strongest argument for legalization has to do with justice. Too many people are spending time in jail for cannabis related crimes and more often than not it’s not the middle class or rich users that are getting caught, but the poor, the minorities, the ones who, for whatever reason, the police are watching closely. The more I read the more I realize that marijuana being classified as a Schedule 1 drug is completely misguided and wrong, and the more I learn about the drug war, the cartel, the criminal justice system, the more I realize that this legalization thing matters. It’s something wrong with our system that is worth correcting.
I was pleased when Colorado made marijuana legal and I was pleased when Alaska followed. That being said, I know that legalization is not an easy process. There are rules that need to be sorted out and there are long held misconceptions that need to be addressed. I also know that legalizing cannabis is not a comfortable notion for everyone. I respect that this is going to take some time.
Homer is in the smack dab middle of these legal cannabis growing pains and right now a great deal of time and energy is being spent on the decision of whether or not to allow commercial cannabis operations within city limits. I know it’s within the city’s rights to opt out, but personally I don’t see any advantage to doing so. Opting out would keep the city from gaining any tax revenue that might come from cannabis enterprises, but it would not keep cannabis out. To me, opting out is just a way for the city to take some imaginative moral stance.
I imagine a welcome sign on the edge of town, one that a visitor might see after stopping outside of city limits at a retail cannabis shop:
Welcome to the Halibut Capital of the World. We’ll gladly take your money for as much booze as you can buy, but we don’t want your pot dollars. We’re above all that.
Welcome to the Halibut Capital of the World. We used to have a well-funded fire department and library, but our superior morality prevents us from getting revenue from a regulated cannabis industry. Instead we are desperately looking for other ways to fleece you.
Welcome to the Halibut Capital of the World. Here we will let you use as many plastic bags as you want because we believe in your freedom to use them, but we don’t believe in all freedom. Here we have decided for you what legal substances you may purchase. (If you live in Homer, you know about the plastic bag ban controversy of a couple of years ago.)
I know I’m being sarcastic here, but honestly, what is it that people are afraid of when it comes to marijuana? Are they afraid that kids will have access to it? If that’s the case, then they must not realize just how readily available it already is. If anything, regulating it and having retail cannabis shops for those 21 years and older will make it more difficult for kids to get their hands on it. Have you heard what happens when adults get caught providing alcohol to kids? They get in serious trouble. Lessening the demand in the black market will likely make it more difficult for kids to buy and sell pot, but then again, maybe it won’t. It’s legal to grow marijuana, and kids who really want it will probably always be able to get it. It’s a fact, like it or not. Just the way that kids who want to have sex in their teens will likely go about their business whether we like it or not. What we can do is educate them, supervise them, and give them some decent alternatives as to how to spend their time.
Are people afraid that a few retail cannabis shops will attract a bad type of person to town? I suppose that requires defining a bad type of person. Homer has always been a place where young people come to live and work on the Spit for the summer and I am fairly certain that those who want it can find an ample supply of marijuana here. Having a legal way to purchase marijuana will mean that those young people who come to town are less likely to get in trouble, and if they aren’t getting in trouble then maybe they aren’t a bad type of person. See how that works?
I think that what the issue of cannabis in city limits comes down to is that there are still a number of people who are uncomfortable with the fact that it’s legal. I’m uncomfortable with the fact that MMA fighting is legal. I’m uncomfortable with a number of different religions. I’m uncomfortable with Hummers and Big Gulps and violent video games. But I recognize that these things are legal. I respect that individuals can make their own choices in regards to these legal entities and products. I am morally opposed to them and yet I realize that we live in place where people can make the choice to partake in things that I don’t necessarily approve of.
Mostly I’m afraid of the City of Homer taking a moral stand. It is not the place of a city to set moral standards. Let the churches set rules for their parishioners. Let parents set rules for their children. Let adults figure out where they stand on the use of marijuana and alcohol. I realize that the legality of marijuana is new and that means we are stepping into new territory. But it seems a shame to prevent a few rule-following entrepreneurs from running regulated cannabis businesses within city limits. If residents of the Lower Kenai Peninsula don’t want to support those establishments, they don’t have to. If there is no market for those legal cannabis businesses, then they’ll likely close down after a time. If however, there is a demand for their services and products, the City of Homer will gain some much needed tax revenue.
To end this discussion about the legality of cannabis in Homer, I want to suggest that the City of Homer has bigger problems to worry about than a few legal cannabis related businesses in town. We are a town in a state that is facing a huge budget crisis, a budget crisis so big that we can scarcely imagine what’s in store for us over the next several years. We need to think about diversifying our revenue sources. We need to become less reliant on the oil money that has sustained us for so many years. We need to think of ways to keep our police and fire departments well staffed and well funded. We need to keep the doors to our library open because as money gets tight for more families–and it will–people will need the resources it offers. In short, the City of Homer needs to make some money.
Marijuana is going to be a part of our culture whether we are morally in favor of it or opposed to it. The difference is not in whether or not cannabis is going to be here, the difference is that now the City of Homer has the opportunity to use its legality to its advantage.
My hope is that the city council can come to a decision to allow cannabis industries within the city limits without having to take this to a citywide vote. If they can’t, then I hope the city residents will vote to make it so.
I have a chicken in my house. She’s nestled in a straw-filled cardboard box in my daughter’s bedroom. Newspaper is spread over the floor and every few hours I go in and take her out of the box so she can walk around a bit, fluff out her feathers and spread her wings.
I probably should have taken a friend’s advice and offed her when she was a chick. I should have done the deed when it became apparent that she was weaker than the others in her flock. But I didn’t. So here I am with a chicken in my house.
While the other chicks put on weight and seemed to thrive, this one—a fluffy, feather-footed brahma—stayed significantly smaller. She had tremors from time to time and was always a step behind the others. But I didn’t kill her off. She didn’t seem to mind her status as the weakest of the flock and the others didn’t pick on her, so I held out hope that she’d catch up. But she never has.
For being with a rooster and six other hens that are much pushier than she is, it’s remarkable that she’s done as well as she has. She’s been able to sneak between the legs of the others to the food bin and she finds her way to the kitchen scraps that I offer. At one point in the summer, a neighbor dog came into the yard and attacked our chickens. When I assessed the damage, I found small pile of white feathers and figured she was toast, but later that evening she was back, no worse for all the excitement. Even in her weakened state, she escaped a dog. She had an instinct to live. After that, I figured she just might make it.
But last week I could see that something was wrong. The comb on top of her head was sickly pale, she was wobbly on her feet and she didn’t rush to greet me. At one point she was hunkered down outside of a laying box and another hen jumped on top of her and used her as a springboard. That’s when I decided to bring her inside.
“I’ll take care of her for you,” my husband said.
He wasn’t offering to care for her.
“Let’s give her a few days,” I said.
It’s been three days now. The comb on the top of her head is looking brighter. She’s getting steady on her feet. She seems downright excited when I go in to check on her. This is not surprising since she is in a heated room, does not have to compete for food and has been given hard-boiled eggs, lettuce, and sesame seeds to supplement her diet. Earlier this afternoon I took her out on the deck for some fresh air and she turned around and headed straight back to the front door. She may be the weakest of the bunch, but she’s no dummy.
I watched a documentary a while back and in it the filmmakers went to a chicken factory farm. It showed one of the workers walking through the place picking up corpses of chickens that had died in the night. He was talking to the camera and not fazed at all by his chore of throwing the dead into a big pile. To that worker, the chickens were something besides animals–they probably had to be in order for him to do that kind of job.
To be clear, I’m not such a terrible softy. In my years of raising chickens I have discovered a few of my own that have died in the night. I’ve disposed of their bodies without fanfare or undue emotion. I’ve even raised chickens for the purpose of eating them. I’ve helped with the butchering. I’ve dipped their dead bodies in boiling water, plucked them clean and wrapped them in butcher paper.
So why is it that I care about this weak little chicken so much? And while we’re talking about it, why is it that I am having a hard time imagining butchering the rooster that’s out there, bossing around the flock, crowing like a maniac during daylight hours and eating up more than his fair share of the expensive chicken food that I buy?
Maybe I am a terrible softy.
And I have to ask myself, what happens if this pretty little white tremor-prone chicken gets better? She’s never going to be as robust as the others. She’s never going to lay enough eggs to justify the cost of the feed it takes to keep her alive. And the rooster, he’s not giving anything back. He’s never going to earn his keep.
Maybe this is the crux of my dilemma: Killing these unproductive chickens makes sense if money is what’s most important. But I don’t see these animals as just a commodity. I realize that is something of a luxury since my family is not going hungry, since our survival does not depend on the maximum number of eggs, since a little extra money spent on chicken food is not going to leave us wanting.
But what to make of that little voice that says, “Just cull the flock of the weakling. Just butcher the damn rooster and have a nice chicken dinner.” Is it my own stubbornness that makes me want to ignore that voice?
I admit that part of my decision to tend the flock—weakling and rooster included—is an experiment. I want to see what happens when the chicken is given a little extra care. I want to know if there is intrinsic value in keeping these animals alive.
If I think about it too much (and I am) I have to ask myself if this is a selfish kind of kindness. Am I just making myself feel better by tending to this floundering chicken? Maybe, but it’s not as though I have a close relationship with this animal like I do my dogs. I haven’t named her. I’m not going to let her live in the house indefinitely.
I think it has more to do with what feels natural to me. Caring for this animal is not something I have to force myself to do. It’s easy. Sure it takes time and effort, but I don’t have to dig deep within myself to find the strength to do it. Killing it, on the other hand, would be a stretch—unless her suffering became too great.
Right now she seems to be okay with being alive. She stands up in her box when I enter the room. She’s eager to check out whatever morsel I have to offer. She’s making progress. So I’ll continue to root for this underdog. I’ll try to bring her back to health.
Her recovery will be a nice reminder of what is possible.
Maybe she’ll even get a name.
Two summers ago when an old, dilapidated greenhouse on our property was torn down, the view behind our house opened up. For the first time since we moved here seventeen years ago we could see the cottonwood forest that sits above us on the neighboring property. I was happy to discover that every evening around sunset a pair of eagles found their way to one particular tree and perched there overnight. It was like clockwork—when the sun went down, they’d land on a sturdy, almost perfectly horizontal branch, and stay put until morning.
The sun dips below the horizon earlier every day now, and it’s the time of year when our small house starts to feel even smaller. As the darkness expands, our house seems to shrink. Nighttime encroaches on morning and evening. Incredible sunrises and sunsets mark the transition. More than the darkness, it is the sameness that seems remarkable this time of year. I tend to sit in the same place every evening, drink the same tea. In general, I move into a routine that unintentionally becomes a bit rigid. I’m content here and I don’t have much desire to leave the house. When I do venture out, I daydream about coming back home, starting a fire, reading a book and writing.
A few weeks ago I was in Philadelphia and New York visiting our daughter during her fall break from school. It was my first time in either of those cities and being in such diverse and densely populated places was a feast for my senses. I’ve only lived in small, western towns where white is the predominant skin color, where at every place of business I’m bound to run into someone I know, where I rely on mountains to gauge direction, rather than the sun.
The way city dwellers need to get out into nature, I needed to spend some time in a city. I needed to see people different from myself. I needed to hear different languages and witness a way of life so very different from my own. I came home feeling more confident. I could get used to being in a city—could even live in one if circumstances took me there. This was good because growing up in rural places had me feeling wary of cities.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen lately. For the month of November we’re trying to eat only foods that we prepare—nothing from a box or a bag. It only works with planning and so I am in the kitchen a lot and when I’m not in the kitchen I’m thinking about food. What to make? What to add to the grocery list? How much time do I need to allow? This works only because of the sameness of November—no vacations this month, no company. In November we have more time in our lives without the garden to tend to, without the frequent outings of summer.
Our son is twenty-three and living at home for just a little while longer. Soon he’ll have a place of his own, a yurt he’s helping build. As his move out date approaches, he’s watching me cook and asking questions. “How long does it take to make rice?” “How long do you cook beans in the crock pot?”
Our daughter is nineteen and on the East Coast in her junior year of college. It’s been almost a year since she’s been home. As we walked around the streets of NYC and Philadelphia a few weeks ago, she talked about home cooked meals and our dogs. She misses fires in our wood stove and seeing mountains. In a month she’ll be home for winter break.
Early last summer, someone bought the land to the east of the eagle tree and almost immediately a new house started going up. As I expected, the eagles stopped perching in their usual cottonwood tree. I looked for them, but they had moved on, no doubt to a tree far from any construction zone.
Late Wednesday afternoon last week I was chopping potatoes and onions for a stew. Tears were streaming down my cheeks as I cut into the onion and I had to stop for a moment to keep from chopping my own fingers. Even before the onion, I’d been on the verge of tears for a few days after hearing about the death of a young man who’s the same age as my own son. I didn’t know him personally, but I know his dad. His mother and I once commiserated about the messiness of our son’s bedrooms. They are the second family I know who lost a child this year. While 2015 will be a year that will likely lose its significance for me over time, they will always remember this year as the year they lost their son.
I used a paper towel to dry my eyes and I took a moment to recover from the onion chopping. As I looked out my kitchen window an eagle swooped low in the cottonwood forest. It made a couple of passes before it landed on the tree with the perfectly horizontal branch. A few minutes later the second eagle landed beside it. They seemed unperturbed by the new three-story house just a few yards to the east of them.
I was unexpectedly thrilled to see the eagles return to their tree, as if they came back just for my benefit. I like to imagine that they searched the area for another that could serve their purposes, but all of the other trees fell short. None of them were the eagle’s equivalent of a comfy couch to settle in on for the evening.
The temperature is down in the 20s now. The night before last I had trouble sleeping because I was worried about my chickens out there in their uninsulated coop. The next day I installed a heat lamp and gave them a ton of fresh straw. Now as the cold wind rages, their space is rather comfy. Such an easy fix, straw and a heat lamp.
Today I’m reading the news of the Paris and Beirut terrorist attacks. I’m also making my grocery list and starting to clear out the things that have accumulated in my daughter’s bedroom while she’s been away. This afternoon we’re helping our son get the materials for his yurt deck. The sun has come up, finally, and I just fed my chickens and stoked the fire. Now I’m sitting on my couch with an old afghan draped across my lap, writing again, glad to have a moment to piece all of these unrelated things together.
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