The region to the north…is the seat of the highest gods and also the adversary…
From the North comes the power to keep silent…to keep secrets, to know what not to say. The Goddess as Dark Maiden, the new moon that is not yet visible, and the God as Sacred Bull are the totems of the North…
—Star Hawk in The Spiral Dance
I can remember, decades ago, a parade of my elders heading North to Alaska. They took cruises, or traveled on Elder Hostel journeys, returning with a new light in their eyes; they’d loved it. I never understood exactly what it was they loved. I was in my busy mid life. I didn’t really listen, didn’t really take in, what their joy was all about. Now I know. Dan and I have recently returned from such a trip to Alaska, and there’s a new light in my eyes.
We left in the middle of June. I was feeling disoriented in life and in our country, devoured by the daily news cycle, unable to see what kind of drama we are in. Is it a farce, a tragedy, a soap opera, a crime drama, a reality show, a vast right wing conspiracy? Are we watching “Saturday Night Live,” “The Sopranos,” “House of Cards,” “The Americans,” “The Apprentice?” My Muse complained bitterly. She felt hijacked by the manic spirit of our times, unable to dive down into the depths where She usually lives. It was time to take my Muse on vacation. Dan’s Muse came along too. She’s the one who takes photos.
At the airport the TV screens were all about the Warrior’s victory, which cast a glow on people who, even in endless lines at Starbucks, were good humored and kind. This seemed a good sign as I tried to shake off the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, the Attorney General claiming not to remember anything at all about his associations with the Russians.
I thought of my paternal grandparents, who fled Russia in the early years of the twentieth century to escape Russian pogroms and the dread twenty-five year draft for Jewish men. The Russians were stirring up a ruckus in my heart. I can hear my father’s voice: “Russians are passionate, they are wild, they are profound and mystical, they are wily and can’t be trusted.” I am descended from Russian Jews. I spent much of my adolescence engrossed in Russian novels. My ideas about life were shaped by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. Is Russia my “old country”? Are the Russians ancestors, enemies, or both? In the grips of a culture complex inflamed by our dangerous times, I was haunted by the catastrophes my family had escaped. Our trip to Alaska snapped me out of it! So did a dream, in which I found a carved wooden Buddha—about the size of a chess piece—amidst the vegetable parings I was throwing away. The little Buddha’s right hand was holding his head in a look of amused dismay, as though to say, “Oh my, oh my.” I understood that this was the attitude I needed to cultivate.
What the Traveller Brings
I’d grown up fearing the coming hordes of Everything-Wanters.
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
Another helper was a novel, Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, set in the Alaskan backcountry, among the Iñupiaq Eskimos. The narrator is a boy, Cutuk, who becomes a man in the course of the tale. His father, Abe, is a white guy from Chicago who has gone native. His mother, a native, has abandoned the family. They live a subsistence existence in the wild. Their home is an igloo built by Abe. Cutuk, whose tribal name clashes with his blond hair and blue eyes, gets picked on and scapegoated in the village where they go for supplies. The novel introduced me to a world I’ve never experienced, in which so little goes so far.
Abe had taught me to skin and dry foxes…And though we often used only the thick warm fur for mittens, he made me skin to save the toenails, tail, eyelashes—out of respect for the animal we’d taken.
Cutuk’s world is stark and wild and tender: “Our dogs raised their nuzzles to inhale the sweet scents of love, food and fights.” The story begins in the ‘70s, when the natives were entirely dependent on their sled dogs for transport in the cold North. In the isolation of such a life, the traveller is a welcome break from the every day, bringing news of other realms, and companionship. Enuk, an elder of the tribe, is a frequent guest in Cutuk’s childhood; he is the great hunter the boy longs to become.
My mother…was a fairy tale that kept fogging over, while Enuk, even vanished down river, stood in my life as sharp as a raven in the blue sky.
Cutuk showed me my shadow as a white person from the native point of view:
It was annoying and white to talk too much or ask questions, especially when a traveller arrived. Shaking hands, also, was a sign of being an outsider.
I was living a double life. One life happened in Cutuk’s world, in which everything he wore and ate was carefully taken from what the family hunted. In the other life—my “Everything–Wanter” life—I inhabited the glamour of our cruise ship—a magical vessel with beautiful staterooms and common areas. We sat in the aft of the ship, watching our wake, as the little yellow Pilot, our tugboat, pulled away, leaving us to the gray blue waves.
|Seven Seas Mariner|
|Saxman Village Woods|
We were guests, also, on the lovely forest path we walked to see the totem pole collection. We were guests in the Beaver Clan House, made of red cedar, smelling like the forest—a sacred space painted with animal faces and a dark doorway like a vulva. On either side a beaver totem looked as though it was giving birth to a human.
An elder in a red and black costume, with beautifully stitched leg warmers and an impressive staff, introduced the dance, performed mostly by children. They were all decked out in their red and black tribal costumes, with their different clan totems on their backs: Eagle, Raven, Beaver, Halibut, Whale, Wolf, Frog. I had the sense they knew they all belonged to one another, but had plenty of room to be different from each other. I paid special attention to one boy, perhaps 12, who, like Cutuk in the novel, had blond hair and blue eyes. He sang and danced as passionately as did the others, and looked like he belonged to the tribe, or so I hoped. Dan and I were charmed by a toddler, who wandered around in her tribal finery, pacifier in her mouth. We learned that the Tlingit are a matriarchal culture, not surprising, given the quiet authority in the women’s faces and the values of Potlatch, expressed in a dance in which whites were invited to dance with the tribe, and honored by being wrapped in tribal robes.
Mother of the Forest
It felt strong and good to be near mountains without names.
—Seth Kantner Ordinary Wolves
Our ship slipped through gray waters, past dark green forested shores, hills fingered by mists, mountains streaked with snow, sudden waterfalls. There was something at once breathtaking and mesmerizing about the ship’s slow passage along steeply wooded cliffs and rocky shores, as the waters glided away from us. My Muse had made a full recovery, and was busily writing down images phrases for this blog about voyaging north. I had cut myself off from the news. There was space in me, and silence.
We made an excursion to the Mendenhall Glacier. This was important to us. Though we had liberated ourselves from the Washington drama, we were still reeling from our President’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. I wanted to pay my respects to the glacier, while it still lived. I was amazed at the power of its presence, glowing blue and white. It has been retreating for hundreds of years, going back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Behind its great mass arose an unnamed mountain range, which looked like a fairy tale city.
The story of the glacier was more nuanced and complex than I had understood. It was told to us by a Forest Ranger, a young woman who improvised a charming story about the sick glacier and the black bear who loved it. She spoke in the voice of the dying glacier, getting weaker and slower. She spoke in the voice of the black bear who was grateful for the life the glacier gave her. She spoke of the love between them, the interpenetration of species at all levels of being. For the glacier creates new life as its retreating weight grinds rock into silt, which flows into waterways and provides nutrients for fish and other creatures. In its dying the glacier created the Tongass National Forest, a vast temperate rainforest, luxuriant with hemlock, yellow cedar, alder, pine, and Sitka spruce—known by the natives as “The Mother of the Forest.”
The forest as a whole is a fertile mother, a generous mother, producing flora and fauna in the cyclical dance of death and rebirth. I said to the Forest Ranger, “that’s a more nuanced story than the one we hear in the lower forty-eight.” She nodded. “The glacier is not just about death. It is a creator of life. But,” she added, “what will happen when the glacier is gone?”
The Mother of the Forest, as Sitka spruce, provides food and shelter for the bald eagle family we visited in a small boat. These impressive birds mate for life. They stand three feet tall and have a wingspread of six to seven feet. The pair we visited were protecting their enormous nest, in which, we were told, there were three chicks. To see our national symbol in the wild, as such a stirring, devoted creature, shifted something in me.
The Mother of the Forest, provides nourishment for the humpback whale. We were part of a gathering of strangers on a catamaran, bonded in awe and reverence as we watched the great whale blow, breach and dive, displaying her black flukes with distinctive white markings. Every whale, we were told, has different markings. Her name, the naturalist told us, is Flame. She comes every summer to the feeding grounds of her youth, and spends the winter near Maui. Some years she has a calf with her. Not this year. These whales had been on their way to extinction. But since industrial whaling was forbidden in the 1970s, the population has come back dramatically. “Thanks to you,” the naturalist said, “who make seeing whales a profitable business for Alaska.” Again, as when we were thanked by the Tlingit people, tears sprang to my eyes. Compared to Cutuk and his people I was certainly an Everything–Wanter. But perhaps maybe there is something to be said for us Everything–Wanters, at least those of us who want to see whales, grizzlies, wolves, to engrave them in our psyches, to shoot them with our cameras, instead of wanting to shoot them dead.
As our ship took us through the Inside Passage we saw more dazzling scenery created by receding glaciers. We sat in the aft of the boat, sipping an aperitif, and watched the glory of all this creation pass by us—a surround of jagged mountains rose above the rainforest. It was almost summer solstice and the sun stayed up late with us. In the long, long evening the waters were smooth and blue gray. The first growth forests gave way to saw tooth mountains behind silent mountains beyond silent castles of rock and ice—a parade of odd angles, askew ridges, jagged mystery. I knew I was in the presence of gods that gave no thought to human concerns. I watched my fellow passengers put down their iPhones and gaze at the mystery. The sun dreamed on through an endless twilight, and finally called it a day long past 10pm.
In Sitka we saw the Russian influence in architecture and history. The Russians came two hundred years ago to hunt sea otters, whose beautiful pelts were used to make expensive fur coats. The otters were hunted almost to extinction. Thanks to a ban on hunting them for all but native Alaskans, the charming creatures have made a remarkable comeback. We were delighted to see one, floating on his back in the middle of Sitka Sound, admiring his webbed toes. We learned his fur is so dense that he can float, effortlessly. He has an opposable thumb and uses tools to open clams. Somebody said, “Hand him a martini!”
The Great One
That wolf—how many miles and years had he walked under this smoky green light? Walked cold, hungry, in storms, wet under summer rain, walking on this land I’d always called my home…How was it that I’d never considered carefully that an animal could know infinitely more about something than I could?
—Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner
On the Solstice, we arrived at Seward. Here we had to say goodbye to our lovely ship, and clamber unto a tour bus, which would take us to Denali National Park. The mountain, Denali, was named by the Athabaskan Indians, “the high one,” “the great one.” We were blessed. Denali revealed herself again and again as we were driven from Seward to Anchorage. This doesn’t usually happen. Only 20 % of visitors get to see the mountain, which is over 20,000 feet high, the tallest mountain in North America. We saw her again the next day, on our bus tour of Denali. Our eloquent bus driver/tour guide said: “You never know when she’ll show up, or not.” He said the same thing of the animals. We were blessed again by the sight of a mother grizzly, playing with her two cubs. She lay on the ground and pawed at them. They climbed all over her.
A Park Ranger had climbed unto our bus to greet us when we first entered Denali National Park. She got political. She told us the park was celebrating its centennial this year. She said it was a treasure of a park, an intact ecosystem—no invasive plants or creatures—one of very few left in the world. Protect it, she said. And please tell your congress people to support it. The bus full of strangers applauded. We were all on a pilgrimage to see wildlife. We were in the company of people who yelled “Moose on the Right!” “Eagle in the pine tree to the left!” “Caribou in the ice fields!” Poor caribou. They are created for weather that is 50 degrees below zero. It was 60 degrees above zero and they sought out what ice was left to lie on; they are suffering climate change.
Our time to return home began to loom. My dreams expressed alarm. In one dream children were being hit over the head with two by fours, which was how I imagined I’d feel returning to my life in the “lower forty-eight.” Obama showed up in another dream, his back to me, piloting a ship in dark waters. Back in the Eskimo world of Cutuk, things were terrible. He was a young man now, who had become a fine hunter. But, influenced by his sister, whose life expanded when she went to the city, he made the journey to Anchorage, and suffered profound culture shock:
Hotels with a hundred windows loomed. The roar was constant. Nothing at home was this frantic…Everything had words. As if someone had cut up a magazine, glued it to the sky. No reading the river, snow, ice, tracks—the city took it literally; reading signs meant reading signs.He felt the suffering of trees: “Trees stood alone, dreary and dripping and surrounded, roots weighted under heavy stone.” He was mad at the city “for taking the animals’ beautiful land and turning it into ridiculous things: parking lots and strip malls, pensions, section lines and new hair styles.” He realized something that I was beginning to understand: “more than in wind or cold or [spring] Break up, the power and absoluteness of wild earth resided in its huge, uncompromising silence. Anchorage conquered silence, left not a trace.” Cutuk returned home to the backcountry, but home had changed. Sports hunters used snow mobiles to murder wolves. The village where he got supplies was not what it had been. Electricity and machines changed everything.
Suddenly, the past was over. It would never come back to protect us. We’d been pretending as well as any actors. The chasm between legends around the fire and surround–sound TV, snowshoed dog trails and Yamaha V–Max snowmobiles was too overwhelming, and no hunting, no tears, no federal dollars could take us back across. I felt an avalanche of grief…
|The Great One|