Soft

Spring in the arctic is soft. It happens gently, so that without thinking too much about it you’re wearing your sneakers and then sandals to school every day and you’ve stopped building fires altogether. You can’t figure out how you could ever have been skiing on the same trail that is now six inches under water. Was that only last week? You go out to pee at two in the morning, it’s sunny with a pink glow to the north, and you can hear the river a quarter-mile away shushing like a giant slushie. Mud is everywhere. The dog dries out in the house and leaves sand art on the floor.

We had a beautiful final ride in ANWR a few weeks ago. There wasn’t much snow, but it was sunny and warm enough that wet boots didn’t matter too much.

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Arctic Village is dealing with loss right now, and it is hard to know my place as a neighbor-teacher-outsider. I want to lend my strength as the community, especially the young people that I love, deals with grief and loss, but I am not confident that I know how.

The loss is twofold.

A few days ago, an elder passed away. “She was our oldest elder – she was 95!” L told me. Every such loss is tragic: elders have irreplaceable traditional knowledge and wisdom. This is a time of upheaval and change for Gwich’in people, and that knowledge and wisdom is a source of strength and hope. Such a loss is devastating for the community and for the culture.  “She died of a broken heart,” folks said, “she was so sad after what happened.”

A young man, twenty years old, her grandson, took his own life last week. I did not know him and do not know his family well. I do know the kids he grew up with, and I am afraid of the impact that this will have on them.

The suicide rate among Alaska Native men in their twenties is more than ten times the national average. I have heard more experienced teachers speak again and again about the domino effect that a suicide can have in a village.

It is not my place to try to explain this. Any explanation I tried to give would oversimplify a complicated story. My role in this is to help my students find empowerment in a very hard world.

But I have been bad at it.

When we found out what had happened, I held the older kids in my classroom so that we could insulate them from the tragedy for a few minutes. When adults from the village arrived, we (the staff and community-members) broke the news. After a few words and a few moments of silence, the other adults left, and I was alone with the kids. They were absolutely silent. I have never heard them like that.

“Do you want me to put on a movie so that you guys have something to zone out to, or is it better this way?”

“It’s better this way.”

That was my great offering. A movie. They sat for an hour until we dismissed school. Before they left, I told them that I loved them, but I could feel the words, like a stack of pancakes hitting the floor, falling flat for them in the empty air.

I have not been the best… what? this year. I was going to say teacher, but that’s not what I mean. I have been a perfectly good teacher. Maybe I have not been my best self this year. I have tried to do too much too fast. I spent a lot of time recovering from, planning for, or going on adventures. It has made me happy. But. In Venetie, I would have been giving that time to the kids – going walking or making cookies or working on the prom or planning awesome art projects. We built momentum, the kids and I. And that made me happy. This year, there have been no cookie nights. Nobody ever asked for them, and I felt it wasn’t quite right to offer. There was no prom. The play was awesome, a bright spark, but it wasn’t enough to get a real fire going.

If my heartfelt “I love you” fell flat for the kids, it was for the same reason that this school year fell flat for me: I didn’t give it the dimension that brought last year to life in Venetie: my personal time and space and passion. These are things that are not in my contract, that no one has the right to expect of me, but that, freely given, have let me fall in love with what I do and let me be who my kids need me to be.

I will not give up the time that I spend in the woods with Geoff and Daazhraii. That time makes the world crisp at the edges and centers me in myself.

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I will not give up, the way I did this year, the commitment that brings my work to life for me and makes a real difference for the kids.

I haven’t figured it out, but I am facing the question: How do I give the kids the best of me without selling myself short? How do I get what I need and still give enough?

For Geoff, this spring was a bitter exploration of this question.

He got a letter late in March asking him (us) to stop traveling on tribal land without either obtaining permission from the council or bringing a tribal member.

He was devastated. Geoff has been camping and snowmachining in Arctic for several years now, and to suddenly have this happen was a real blow. It is hard to live in the village, fall in love with the land, give your time and energy to the kids – above the call of duty, and then have the rug swept out from under you. It makes you feel awful and unwelcome and unappreciated. It hurts.

We always try to be careful and respectful of the land and people. We don’t take wood from people’s wood yards or waste caribou meat. We never leave trash behind – we often pick it up.

I think it is evident in my writing that I feel a spectacular reverence for the lands and waters around Arctic Village.

But it is tribal land, and our traveling on it – our living on it, even – constitutes trespassing.

I never thought to ask if we were stepping on anyone’s toes. I guess we thought, if we thought about it at all, that our awesome work with the kids and our long-term residency exempted us from rules that might apply to, in Geoff’s words, “yahoos from Fairbanks who are just coming out for the weekend”

Privileged assumption much?

And yet.

What prompted this edict? It could be any of a number of things. I get lost in wormholes whenever I try to pin it down. A concern for our safety, a personal conflict, a kneejerk reaction, an exercise of authority, a bid for new revenue, a devotion to the rule of law, a sense of pride?

It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself as someone who has been kicked off of tribal land. I don’t think of myself as that disrespectful or inconsiderate.

And yet.

It’s not something I have the right to feel offended by.

The tribal government has the right to ask us to stop traveling outside the village on tribal land, plain and simple. It is fair, but it still stings.

So. We are writing a letter requesting permission to camp on the east bank of the Chandalar during our river trip this summer. We plan to invite Geoff’s good friend, a tribal member, to travel with us more, now that we have a second tent. As a gesture of goodwill and of our commitment to the kids, we donated a large sum to the student activities fund, which pays for student travel. Next year, regardless, we will travel primarily in ANWR. The land to our north is beautiful, and we have been talking about maybe shooting for the continental divide.

Right now, though, it is spring. I am in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from all of my responsibilities and quandaries. I have the summer to grapple with the hard stuff. Maybe by fall I will have it figured out. Maybe.

Shook-up world: What is the value of wilderness?

Like so many people, I am dazed by the events of this week. On Tuesday night I went to bed in tears, shocked and frightened by the outcome of the election. Trump’s campaign always felt like a prank to me, and now it feels like a prank that got out of control and set fire to the house with all of us trapped inside.

My fear stems from the following:

  • We have just sent a message to every secretly bigoted and misogynistic creep on earth that we, as a nation, condone abusive behavior and expressions of prejudice. This, more than anything else, frightens me.
  • I heard yesterday that Mr. Trump has expressed an interest in allying with Russia in Syria. Although I thought I remembered hearing that Russia was no longer backing Assad, I couldn’t find anything in a short online search to confirm that recollection. It is horrifying to think that our country might lend support to a criminal head-of-state who has used chemical weapons against his own people.
  • We have empowered a science-denier to make policy decisions that will have an irreversible impact on the environment.
  • Mr. Trump will have the opportunity to appoint as many as three supreme court justices.
  • Mr Trump will appoint a cabinet. I keep hearing rumors of a Secretary of the Interior with oil interests (Forrest Lucas, Sarah Palin) and an Energy Secretary with financial interests in fracking and in the Dakota Access Pipeline (Harold Hamm). I’m trembling here at the hem of ANWR.
    I understand that our Department of the Interior is responsible for managing federal lands in the best interest of the American people, for industry and recreation as well as conservation, but I am not convinced that the economic and political benefits of developing oil and natural gas are always worth the price we pay.I have not been persuaded that the potential benefits of developing mineral resources in ANWR outweigh the potential cultural and environmental costs. I know that this state runs on oil money and that my job and many, many others depend either directly on the oil industry or on the state budget. I know that it has never been demonstrated that the Porcupine caribou herd would be disrupted by development in the 1002 area. I know that the pipeline needs to maintain a minimum pressure or be permanently dismantled, and that with Prudhoe Bay producing less than in previous years, we need a new source for oil if we want to keep it open. I know that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has vowed to open the 1002 area in ANWR for drilling, and there will never be a better opportunity.  I expect the onslaught to be immediate and forceful, and I know that my students and their families are not prepared for it.

I’m trying to channel my anxiety into action. I’m reading endless articles and teaching my class with a renewed passion for civics. I am trying to cultivate a diversity of nuanced opinions among my students, who are usually, to their detriment, of one mind. I told the kids today, as I have been telling them for months, to bring me their voter cards when they turn eighteen and I’ll bake them each a cake to celebrate their power. I want the kids to know how the government works and how to influence it. I want to spend the next four years building up to a huge celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage. I want to get my students informed about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline and in contact with native kids, like them, whose environment and heritage may be threatened by oil development. I also want them to understand – really understand – the perspectives of people who don’t share their views, including those who wish to develop oil resources. I have never been so motivated to get my students writing clear, cogent, persuasive essays. We have such a long way to go, though. They are miles behind and not catching up quick.

But, after all, why bother with all of that? What is the value of wilderness?

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Wilderness is valuable for its power to make us feel small. We spend so much time in human-built environments, perfectly made to our scale, that we forget how we diminish in the presence of  mountains and tundra, how we disappear in the course of rivers that churn with mud and power. When I am out there, I am no greater than one of seven-billion ice-crystals lying under an unknowably deep and vast sky.

It is valuable for its beauty, if you believe that beauty has value.

It is valuable for subsistence and cultural diversity, if you believe that subsistence and cultural diversity have value.

It is empowering.
How does it feel to stand in a silent, snow-filled valley, hundreds of miles from anywhere?
It feels like hugging the sun.

It is valuable for its complexity. As Carl Sagan reminds us, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together” (thank you, Symphony of Science). We have so much yet to learn from the systems that interconnect in wild places. It is not enough to take pictures and samples to fossilize in a lab somewhere: the complexity of nature demands space, time and variables that cannot be simulated or artificially preserved. By eliminating wilderness, we preclude the full expression of these complex systems and curtail our studies and potential scientific knowledge.

The variation – the biodiversity – that powers the miracle of evolution also powers the miracles of medicine and technology: we look to biology and ecology for answers to our most difficult human challenges, and, without wilderness, those answers have no place to live.

And what about this wilderness? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? What is its value, specifically? I try to be pragmatic, and I think I am. I can see my way all the way around most political issues. I can see what people who want to develop the resources in the 1002 area see. Economic growth is important. Jobs are important. Energy independence is important. But vast, untouched and untouchable wilderness is inherently valuable for its power to command our respect and awe. Arctic beauty is important, more so as it dwindles. Culture and caribou are important. Unique biological and ecological processes and systems are important. And the only difference that really matters between these things and those things is that these things are available nowhere else in the world.

If by cultivating economic growth, jobs, and energy independence we compromise the biodiversity and cultural diversity of the planet, we pay too high a price.

In other news, ahshii. It’s snowing.

At last.

Oops Pie

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By far, the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me happened on Monday.

Last weekend, Geoff, Albert and I borrowed a canoe and took off for an adventure. We were camped a ways up Deadman’s Creek, and we spent all of Monday hiking in the tundra and berry picking at the base of the mountains. We’d just gotten back to camp, tired and sore from picking our way across the tundra, and were sitting down to eat some dinner before heading back to the village when search and rescue showed up. A complete surprise.

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“Yeah, your Dad called the troopers,” one of the guys said. I looked down at my feet, silently wishing the ground would split open so that I could fall in and be swallowed up by a new slough. Stupid-girl Slough.

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The details don’t matter much, just that it was a communication breakdown and entirely my fault. The searchers were good-humored about it, glad to find us all in one piece. What a first impression I must have made, though, moving to Arctic and causing such a stir within a week. There was a sign posted out in front of the school when we got back “No school Tuesday September 6th until Teachers are Found.” Wright Air flew over the river looking for us, and Venetie was all stirred up on my account. Board members called the superintendent. Kids cried. Geoff’s mom found out and told her neighbor and he managed to get a prayer circle going in West Virginia. What a mess.

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But all things, even embarrassing things, pass, I guess.

I made pie the other day from the blueberries we picked on Monday. They were shriveled up and sweet and purple on the red-leaved bushes, and they made my fingertips and teeth blue. That Tuesday morning the mountains were dusted with snow (we motored through a nasty little rain-squall to get back to the village, and it was cold and awful, so it stands to reason it’d be snow a few-hundred feet higher), so I think that was the last of the season’s blueberries. Embarrassment pie, mortification pie, sweet, delicious, wonderful, blueberry-major-oops pie. dsc05140

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How to be Wildly Happy on a January Day in the Arctic

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Wake up slowly, miles from anywhere. Stoke the fire and watch the sun wash the snow for a slow noon hour.

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Then, layer up and ride out while daylight still lingers like sugar on the ridgelines.

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Break trail a while, then stop to watch the sky go soft around the edges,

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and to sweetly kiss someone wonderful at the top of the world,

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while that world turns to silhouettes and shadows, and the valley shivers with steam rising from the overflowed creek.

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Hold on, swallow fear, and fly over rattling ice you can hardly hear over your rattling heart.

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And climb a hill and wonder, breathless, at the pathless wilderness, the sure mountains with the sun pressed between their shoulder blades.

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Watch your breath fog in the cold and know that months have come and gone since human boots have printed this hilltop. Let the shape of this bowl of sky press into your memory while you leave winding, wood-gathering footprints on the hillside.

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Build a fire while the sunlight dies. Make dinner and press palms to the column of heat while you wait for the moonrise to break the soft peaks of the horizon.

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Let the night overflow, then ebb to moonlight and the shadows of two human figures on the snow. When the firewood is gone, take the long road home. Arrive late. Arrive cold. Arrive stiff and stumbling and exhausted. Arrive grinning and shivering and grinning. Sleep well, sleep warm.

ANWR Christmas

I think I’m going to be in Alaska for a long time.

Jake has always said “Keely, the look on your face when you walked out of that classroom on the first day… I knew you’d be in Alaska a while”

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This wasn’t the look on my face, yet, but it’s a pretty darn good look.

It’s a year later now, almost to the day, and we talked about it again a few days back. He could see it right away, I guess, and I guess on some level I’ve known almost as long.

Last week, in Ohio, Jesse gave me a crash course in chainsaws. My hoodie pockets are full of tiny wood shavings and I feel like a badass. Or at least someone who is approaching badass and isn’t scared completely shitless of chainsaws anymore. I’m working on building the skills to take care of myself out here, and I have miles and miles to go. Even just washing dishes at Geoff’s over break (he doesn’t have running water) was a learning experience.

Geoff took me camping in ANWR for Christmas. We hung around Arctic village for a few days, hoping the temperature would pop up over -30. When it finally did, we jumped (-25 wasn’t much of an improvement, but you take what you can get). Just as we managed to get the tent up at the site he’d chosen, the temperature started dropping. It settled in the forties that night and didn’t shift for days. It dropped to -45 at the coldest, and I thought my buttcheeks might freeze solid when I went out to pee, but it was outrageously beautiful.

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When it’s cold like that, smoke from the woodstove settles in the still air.

We boiled snow for drinking water, and kept the bottles close to the stove so they wouldn’t freeze solid. We kept the frozen fruit by the door, and moved it closer before snacking so that it wouldn’t be -40 when we tried to eat it.

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The sun never kissed our side of the horizon while we were out. We had a few hours of long, soft daylight each day, and endless hours of clear, starry night.

When it’s that cold, engines freeze up. With the chainsaw, you can just bring it into the tent to warm up, but you have to get up every few hours to start the snowmachine (otherwise it might get too cold to start, and then you’re in trouble unless you’ve got some handy, safe way to put fire under the cowling). Geoff literally brought the kitchen sink (it’s a big, handy, enamel bowl, in his case, and fits nicely in an ActionPacker) but drew the line at the generator. Every night we were out, his sleep was broken when the fire would die and the temperature in the tent would plummet. He’d stoke it up, then head out to run the sno-go for a while.

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On one morning’s ride, we stopped here just to stare at the beautiful sky and the light on the snow.

On the last night of our adventure, we rode out and found a bit of high land with a view of the mountains and had ourselves a picnic dinner.

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We built our fire on a hill very much like this one and waited for the moon to rise and fill the valley with light.

I knocked low, dead limbs off the trees with an axe, and Geoff used the sno-go to pack down the snow in our campfire area for easy walking. He unloaded the wood we’d hauled with us (sizable logs from an earlier stop) and started handing me kindling. It was -20 or so, and the wind was blowing a little. I was grateful for the fire, once we got it going.

The stars came out of the murky, day-gray sky first, and we compared knowledge of constellations. Then the moon spilled its light against our backs and the trees, and the smoke from our fire covered its face and made it turn colors. I have come to love the shifting smoke-shadow that the moon casts on snow. It’s every bit as mesmerizing as fire, but so much more cold and ethereal. Eventually, the valley was brimming with moonlight. There was no sound but the chattering fire, no light but the light of our camp and the moon. We were thirty trail-miles from the village. I have never been so far north or so far from other humans.

Geoff wrapped some caribou in bacon and packed it in foil, then threw it right on the fire. I warmed tortillas gingerly on the edge of the blaze. We ate hungrily and fast as the fire consumed the last of our wood, then packed up quickly and unceremoniously while the northern lights started to spool out over the treetops and rode back to camp, with a hurried, chilly stop to load wood that Geoff had cut on the way out.

The tent warmed up fast, and the temperature outside dropped. It was in the thirties again by the time we headed back to town the next morning.

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It was nearly noon when I took this picture. We were on our hurried way back to the village so that I could make my 2:00 flight. It’s hard to get moving before sunrise.

I need to learn to do this for myself. Geoff is awesome, but I’m independent by nature and fierce about it from experience. And I think I’m going to be in Alaska for a long time.