Chickadee-dee-dee

We hiked out to Big Lake last night and did not get eaten by an ice bear. Now that I have once ventured into the bush, fully out of earshot of snow-gos and yelping dogs, I do not think wild horses could keep me out. I prowled alone all over the outskirts of the village tonight, following tracks through the trees, hoping to spot a lynx. I felt wildly daring when I stepped off the snow-go-beaten trail and stalked through the deep, dry powder, following an intriguing set of prints down a trail no person had been on since last snowfall. I didn’t find the animal that left the tracks (they were old, but I liked their winding line and followed anyway). The only wild thing I met on my walk was a chickadee, singing his spring song from a spruce tree. I stopped at his tree to watch him cock his jaunty, capped head as he hopped, and to rub powdery pitch between my fingers until it became soft and sharp-smelling.

On our hike last night, Sean and I saw no sign of the rumored bear, but we saw a squirrel scamper across the trail and stop in the snow, flicking his tail. He looked at us for a long time, and let us get surprisingly close. The squirrels here are small and ferociously alert, nothing like the languid, fat squirrels of suburbia. I expected him to break for the woods at any second as we drew near, but he didn’t. Instead, he vanished. Poof! We walked to the spot where he’d staged this trick and, sure enough, found the trap-door. The squirrel had whack-a-moled into a tunnel in the snow. Sean and I peered in, incredulous, and the squirrel popped up at the base of a shrub some ten feet away. I shrieked with surprise as it broke for the treeline.

It felt good to have someone to walk with me. It has felt good all week to have someone with me, and now I think the engine of this morning’s plane must have deafened me, because the quiet is so complete and sudden. I miss Sean and his bounce and bright warmth, but I’m not letting go of the fact that I chose this independence for a thousand right reasons. Sadness is silly when there are tracks to trace through the snow and sunsets to race to the riverbank. There’s a mountain I want to climb this spring, and looking at it makes my heart leap up, quick and giddy as a hand catching a blown kiss.

DSC02064

Shattering white in the sun

Drip, drop, drip.

Drop.

It was warm today. Chunks of snow hurled themselves over the eaves and hurtled past my classroom windows at startling intervals all day long. Icicles drizzled melt water into the pitted snow below.

Yesterday, Shannon and Terri shanghaied me after school and took me to Big Lake on Shannon’s new snow-go. I was sandwiched between them, my cold face buried in the fur ruff on Shannon’s jacket. The narrow, icy trail slipped and skittered under the roaring snowmachine, and I felt my knees grip harder, skittish and too-cautious as always.

When we got there, I looked up and around at the expanse of white and blue and space in every direction. I could feel the mountains yarding on my heartstrings across the ice. I have to get up there, once at least, before I leave the village for good. I should have taken pictures of the mountains: If I had, you could probably see the words “come hither” stenciled in the sky by their ridges. I did, I think, or maybe it was just a whisper from inside the part of me that loves to want just for wanting’s sake, and lingers, grinning, on windy precipices, tasting salt.

I took only one ridiculous snow-go selfie, but in my defense, I had no gloves and those machines can really fly.

I took only one ridiculous snow-go selfie with Terri, but in my defense, Shannon was in front of me, I was in awe, I had no gloves (abducted, remember?) and those machines can fly.

I opened the window over my sink wide today and let the sound of the ice and snow, first slipping and scraping on the metal roof, then falling in white sheets to smash on the ground in a snow-cone splash, slip into my kitchen over the log-deep sill.

It’s been an exhausting week. The shattering ice confused with the chattering of the girls and made a little white noise for me rummage in to find a smile. They mixed their own cookies while I made a pot of curry and arbitrated disputes over who would get to choose a cookie first. They laughed and left their wet snowpants in puddles on the floor and hung their grubby socks to dry on the ledge of my open window and tracked muddy prints all over the floor and made me happy.

Yesterday evening, C came by to tell me that her sister wouldn’t be able to make it to school today.  P would have to stay home and babysit the four-year-old so that their auntie could make it to work. We walked over to the school in the dusk light and got P’s math book and independent reading so that she wouldn’t fall behind. “I will never have kids” said C. “It isn’t fair”

The village is grieving and drinking and grieving. A young man passed away last weekend, and everyone is reeling. I knew the man, who used to cook for the school. He played country music too loud and grinned and danced along when I’d bop by in the middle of my crowd of kids, mouthing the words and playing mini air guitar. One of my boxes wound up at his house, and I met his newborn baby and his wife on one of my first days in the village.

The kids have been sullen and sleepless. No one is taking this well, and those whose families live hard have retreated into silence to bear the living harder.

Today, the body was returned to the village. Nearly everyone met the plane at the airport. My class chose to go, and we rode packed in the back of the red school pickup, bending our heads against the wind. We hopped out of the truck and joined the crowd of people standing in the melt-glittery white light of morning. Everyone looked up as the fat plane ripped the blue sky open overhead. When the long wooden box was lowered out of the plane, the young men lifted it and began to walk the mile or so back to the village. The rest of us followed on foot, the fourwheelers and snow-gos growling behind. As one man tired, another stepped in to take his place bearing the dead. They walked in a rhythm of strength to weakness to strength again. A single skin drum beat time all the way to the village, and a man’s husky singing voice rose above the footfalls and engines and quiet talk of the crowd. Halfway home, an obviously intoxicated man stumbled into M, a high schooler with an intellectual disability. M looked at me with silent, confused, helpless big brown eyes and tried to step away. Another boy dodged behind me until the man fell behind us.

The men of the village carried Earl right up the steps of the church and through the front door. Everyone stood inside in winter coats. After a few short prayers, a murmured amen, everyone left. I took my students back to class.

Yesterday, one girl wrote in her writing journal that the brilliant, multicolored northern lights of this past week have comforted her. She feels like they’re a message from her uncle on his way to wherever he’s going, a silent promise that it will be okay.

For steel-eyed sixth grader, C, it’s not enough. She’s angry and righteous and pained. She blames alcohol. Drinking has been ripping up the village like a wrecking ball these past few weeks. She wants the council to get together and stop it. “They used to check planes and raid people’s houses that did it, but they don’t do nothing now.” I want so badly for her to have the voice to scream it all someday and be heard, but for now she can’t, and it’s ripping her apart. She is so small and her feelings are so big. This place puts awful burdens on children.

Tonight, Terri, the lower elementary teacher who lives next door, banged on my window. “Come look!” she shrieked, “it’s incredible!”. I gathered my robe around my legs and stepped barefoot onto the porch. It was warm today, and the night was bearable for a long moment.

I stood slackjawed until the cold bit too hard into my toes and my bare knees had goosebumps.

Moments later, I was flinging pants and a coat and a hat on.

Have you ever laid back in a spinning playground tire swing and watched the northern lights ripple and unspool from green to pink in the sky? They unwind across the velvet stars like skeins of acid yarn. They flutter and shimmer like handlebar ribbons in the summer. Night lights for people in the cold.DSC02028 DSC02036

Bush Living Challenges 2: Uh… Everything? (except the important stuff)

DSC02022Mail comes every day, but because of school, I can only get to the post office on Wednesday. I, very unwisely, didn’t get a sled in Fairbanks this week and continue to carry my parcels through the snow like an old-fashioned Christmas card. It’s tricky when I have a lot of boxes! Today, Mr. Ben very kindly let me put my packages in his sled. Over the sound of the sled scraping over the hard snow (it got cold again this week) we chatted about postcards and speculated about the contents of our packages as we walked home. I love Wednesdays. The school has early dismissal and the teachers all walk or ride in the school truck to get the mail. My friends and family have been amazing about sending regular letters and care packages, so I always have something to look forward to. Masi’ (That’s Gwich’in for “thank you”) and loads of love, y’all.

This is Fort Yukon from the air.

This is Fort Yukon from the air.

Venetie looks similar to this, but smaller and with mountains in the distance. Someday I’ll have the presence of mind to take a picture. Almost everything in the village has to be flown in on a small plane (special circumstances might call for a barge up the river, but I think that’s just for vehicles and other things too heavy and bulky to fly). Heavy things like furniture and liquids get expensive quickly, and there’s a wait for everything. When flying out of Fairbanks, baggage goes on the plane with you and freight goes on a plane sometime when there’s room. Baggage is a dollar more per pound than freight, but freight is uncertain. Don’t send your cheese freight and expect to make pizza that same night. Boxes usually come within a few days, and the freight office will keep them cold or frozen for you while they’re waiting to ship.

That monstrosity is my grocery receipt from January 2nd.

That monstrosity is my grocery receipt from January 2nd.

I bought everything I needed for two months that day, then stocked up again last week. The first time, I bought a ton of frozen green veggies, and I’m still working on those. My fridge is awesomely cold, so I still have (unfrozen) carrots, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and cabbage from January. Eggs too. I freeze things like butter and cheese, and I make most of my own bread products. Salad greens and fruit are really the only things I can’t keep, so I revel in those things when I get the chance (salad twice a day, every day this week! With avocados!). Apples are okay in the fridge for a month, but they go a little soft after that. This time, I got some frozen fruit to spice up my breakfast once in a while. Really, the food thing isn’t that bad. Running out of something or realizing you are missing a key ingredient that can’t be found at the village store really truly sucks, but it doesn’t happen to me too much. I’m a good provisioner, and I stocked up with a good variety of ingredients, so I work with what I’ve got. Pro – tip: Cilantro freezes with its flavor intact. It’s worth its weight in gold on taco night. I discovered this accidentally, when my cilantro wound up in a box of frozen stuff for shipping.

Here's the post office! I took this photo way back in January, probably around midday. Compare the quality of light to that in the photo from this afternoon with the packages! It's incredible how much we've leaned into the sun!

Here’s the post office! I took this photo way back in January, probably around midday. Compare the quality of light to that in the photo from this afternoon with the packages! It’s incredible how much we’ve leaned into the sun!

Here's a closeup of the flyers on the post office

Here’s a closeup of the flyers on the post office, a little gossip for those of you who are interested.

In case you were wondering about what's newsworthy in the village

And some more, just in case you were wondering about what’s newsworthy in the village.

The phone company?

The phone company?

The dump

The dump. We’re working on recycling, but it doesn’t make much economic sense.

The district had inservice in Fairbanks last week, which provided a nice opportunity to get groceries and eat ice cream. I got to visit book stores and the ice park and the Festival of Native Arts, where I had the pleasure of seeing one of my students dance. I strolled through a couple of art galleries with my hostess, an awesome lady who works in the district and offered to put me up for the weekend and drive me around, which was extremely helpful because I still have no idea what I’m doing, logistically, though I’m figuring it out. She made sure I made it on the plane with everything I’d need, and I’m grateful to her for that.

ICE PARK!

ICE PARK!

The art and culture and food made a good change of pace from the predictable pleasures of village life, but I’d worn myself out teaching hard in the weeks leading up to inservice, so I spent most of last week in training or in a sick fog. I didn’t even get to have dinner with Dave and Lindsay, which I was looking forward to. I slept through dinner a lot.

It felt weird, having to get in a car to go somewhere. I didn’t like opening the cupboards in my suite at the hotel and not seeing the comforting rows of flour bags and cans of coconut milk that I keep soldier-neat here in my Venetie apartment. Flying in on sunday, when the pilot banked the plane and I caught sight of the mountains, then the tiny village, vanishing small in the flats, I felt my face stretching on its own into a (snotty [so snotty] still-sick) smile. Home. My little corner of the wilderness.

DSC01973My life here is simple and my time is full but never rushed. A friend commented to me in a letter that he’s impressed by my ability to keep cabin fever at bay. It’s not hard. I like having time to fill with cups of tea and french practice and cooking and long walks and phone calls. I like the simple pleasure of once-a-week mail and my breathtaking view of the night sky.  As I told another friend, I have the luxury of bathwater time, copious and comfortable and ideal for reading. I need a houseplant or two, and I still need a sled, and in a truly ideal world I’d have an actual bathtub, but coming home made me realize how profoundly I am happy here.

Same River, Different Sky

I took my class for a walk (or, rather, they took me) before journaling today. It was snowing heavily for a while this afternoon, and I grinned and leaned into the sky, letting the kids run ahead. The girls threw loose snowballs that exploded in small halo-bursts around their heads, their giggles and shrieks muffled by their gloved hands, thrown up to block the blast, and the snowfall. One of the boys drank from the washeteria hose as we walked by, the only person I’ve ever seen drink from any hose in February. The snow scrubbed the smell of snow-go exhaust from the air, laying it down with it’s snick, tick lullaby. Walking, I loved the way the new inch of snow compressed to silence and pad my footfalls. I loved the way my tracks were softened almost immediately by more snow falling from the sky. It gilded everything: the girls’ long hair, the shoulders of our sweatshirts, the knees of our jeans. Sticky. I felt it falling on my face and prickling as it melted. I stuck out my tongue and caught a few flakes. Snowfall tastes like pop-rocks: not so much a flavor as the expectation of one and the shock of an instant’s sensation instead.

Back at school, we peeled off our damp outerwear and cracked the outside door, warm from the exercise. The open door let in cool air and the thick silence of new snow. I reminded the kids to write their experience the same way their brain does: in five dimensions. They aren’t very good at it yet, but that leaves us with plenty of room to grow, a natural objective. We’ll try again the next time the weather is fine.

On walks through the village, I’ve taken lots of pictures that I haven’t been able to share because our internet is lousy for uploads. I smooshed these down a lot to get them through, and I know they’re grainy, but I think they’re still lovely.

DSC01922DSC01969 DSC01878In other news, today marks the one-year anniversary of this here chasing piggens project. A year ago, I was burning my Christmas tree in the homestead driveway and enjoying the first daffodils.