“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”
~ William Wordsworth
A recent backpacking trip took me, yet again, to a magical and beautiful place. I usually go to the mountains to refresh my spirit, test my body, and to be enveloped in beauty and serenity. This trip was all of those things but the goal was to see if there was a certain rare and special little plant blooming. The alpine forget-me-not only grows in one locality in the entire state of Washington and we have the honor of that place being right in our back yard. Er, well a 6.5 mile hike in and a scramble up a boulder-strewn slope, but, hey, that is our backyard after all! This trip had the added bonus of being with folks as deeply interested and moved by the world around us, particularly natural history and ecology, as I am. The company was perfect, the conversations deep, and the observations astute. Not only did we find the little beauty (pictured below), we found a whole “mountain-side” (really just a mountain shoulder) colored by the most vibrant blue I have ever seen. Getting down on the earth with a hand-lens was all I needed to be struck with awe and care for this delightful planet.
I then stood up and looked around, where mountains beyond mountains, snow-capped and rugged, filled the land. Both the micro and macro can inspire us to be better humans, to care for both the small and insignificant and the grand and jaw-dropping. This was just such a place to remember this but really any place, every place is sacred, if only we see it so.
The snow creaked under my footfalls, like walking on a world of styrofoam coffee cups. In the early morning light my long shadow spread across the frozen earth like a cloud over the sun and my hands hurt the moment I took my gloves off to adjust something on my camera. It was still, perfectly so, and must have been -15 or colder. I knew that I could not remain comfortable long in this cold Arctic air so I snapped a few photos and headed back into the school where we were staying and studying all week long.
I entered the warm and closed off world of the Nunamiut School, which felt like a completely different world than where I had just been outside. And it was. It felt strange to be inside the school for so much of our day – we slept in the school, we ate in the school, we played in the school and we even swam in the school (yes, many of these very remote Arctic schools have indoor swimming pools). My students and I were integrated into a 4/5th grade class at the school, where we had classes on local language and culture, science and the environment, and worked on practical projects with the local students. These projects related to environmental stewardship and resulting in the creation of trash art and reusable bags in order to reduce the amount of trash that the community creates. Currently, all of the trash, recycling and compost goes 2.5 miles up the only road out of town to the refuse site where it is burned.
It’s an interesting experience, being an all-knowing, all-powerful American, and seeing something that you think it appalling and then just realizing that you don’t have a clue what the right thing to do is. Yes, burning trash isn’t great and I certainly didn’t stand upwind of it but what else are they going to do with it? Recycle it, which would mean paying for it to be flown out? Make less of it, which worked really well when they were subsisting totally off the land (caribou, wolves, wolverines, bears, berries, fish and the like)? So much of their food is now flown in – prepackaged and highly processed which comes with all sorts of trash. Should they compost their food waste (which they actually do to some degree), but how do you do that on permanently frozen ground (permafrost) with an short and intense warm season?
Burning their trash actually may be the best thing to do and given the scale of their impact (especially compared with ours) in such a vast landscape, maybe it ain’t all that bad really.
I know, I know, I should be more environmental, but what are you gonna do.
Some of the other experiences that we had there are depicted below: cross-country skiing, visiting a local history museum, Inupiat language class, and visiting frozen Lake Eleanor. Each of these experiences deserved a blog post itself – they were deep and impactful. I don’t know if I will have the time to do so but will try.
I really don’t know what to write or say about Alaska. Hell, I didn’t see Alaska, which is a land more vast than any I have ever seen. We saw a bit of Fairbanks, including some delicious Thai food, and then flew over fast stretches of boreal forest and frozen rivers, including the mighty Yukon. Then on through, not really over, but through the Brooks Range – a fortress of frigid mountains extending far beyond my imagination. I have never seen so much land frozen and seemingly lifeless. Narrow valleys and steep, snow-capped peaks and then suddenly we rounded a bend in the mountains and a wide valley opened up and there was our destination: Anaktuvuk Pass!
We landed and were greeted by half the village it seemed. Kids from the school, most on skis, waved and held banners welcoming us to their home. It was unlike any welcoming I have every experienced and likely ever will. It was cold when we got off the plane, but we didn’t feel it for the warmth of the people kept the chill at bay.
My first impression was one of overwhelming kindness – what a greeting! – and cold. A chilly zero degrees Fahrenheit or so greeted us but it was to get much, much colder in a few days when the wind howled and snow banners flew.
When I looked around, I saw the vastness of the place. I had never been in such a wide and wild valley before. The village of Anaktuvuk Pass (population 330 people or so) lies on the northern edge of the Brooks Range, where two rivers and two worlds meet. The John River flows south through the Brooks Range into the Yukon River drainage, whereas the Anaktuvuk River heads north to its meeting with the Colville River and on into the Arctic Ocean. A low, indiscernible rise in the valley separated these two mighty watersheds from one another. Small changes, to my eye at least, in this grand place indicated dramatic forces going on.
“Vast and wide”: beyond anything we can know or understand completely, yet including within it all that we know and understand. We don’t need to look past them (our lives) for some big metaphysical insights. If we could just actually be our lives rather than try to control them, maybe we could appreciate them.
Next Monday I head to Alaska for the first time, which has long held an allure for me. The wildlife, the wilderness, the mountains and the sheer size. Vast and wide, undomesticated and wild, rugged and rough are words that describe the place and the people, at least in my mind. I will be traveling with five students, aged 9-12, and one other adult, a friend. We are heading to the Arctic, to a small community nestled on the north side of the Brooks Range, the great Arctic mountain range of the north. “Flying over all the ugly stuff,” so said a friend who grew up in Homer. Only an Alaskan would say that flying over so much vast space and beauty would be the “ugly stuff.”
We will stay in the Nanumiut village of Anaktuvuk Pass, where a great people and animal intertwine – the Nanumiut, a semi-nomadic tribe, and the migratory caribou. We head up there with adventurous spirits, open eyes and excited hearts for we know not what we will encounter nor what we will experience. How is the climate changing there? How is that affecting the caribou and other beings there and how does that all impact a people and a culture? These are some of the questions that we are taking with us.
Vast and wide is how I think it will be, if I let it be so and if my mind reflects that. Can I let it be beyond anything I have read about Alaska, beyond anything that I can know and conceptualize? Will I get sucked into trying to make some metaphysical conclusions or will I simply let be the lives of the people we will meet, the animals we may see, and the snow and cold and mountains that are every bit as alive as you and me?
As I sit here in the Valley I now call home, a place we have lived not even a year yet, I wonder about home and what it means to be “rich.” Barry Lopez pondered the same question in his book Arctic Dreams, which will be traveling with me to Alaska. He wrote:
“What does it mean to grow rich?
Is it to have red-blooded adventures and to make a ‘fortune,’ which is what brought the whalers and other entrepreneurs north?
Or is it, rather, to have a good family life and to be imbued with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of one’s homeland, which is what the Tununirmiut told the whalers at Pond’s Bay wealth was?
Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?”
My hope for my life is to cultivate an intimate knowledge of this place, this Valley, one that is vast and boundless. That my wealth may be marked in relationships, to both place and her inhabitants, in joy and love, peace and harmony, and in friendship and communion. I go to the Arctic to see what dreams I may not yet be able to imagine and to come back with an imagination more vast and wide than I knew was possible.
I teach at a tiny little community school in a tiny little town in north-central Washington. Each Friday my students and I explore the farthest reaches of our home in the Methow River watershed and probe the depths of our souls through poetry, photography and more. This morning, as is common, we began by sitting in a circle and settling ourselves down. After five minutes of this (sometimes we do ten minutes), I read a Mary Oliver poem as a prompt, after which they wrote for ten minutes. Free writing is what we call it and they really seem to enjoy this way of beginning our day together.
For a few moments our creative juices were flowing or as one student put it, “the faucet had been turned on.” Each came up with a moving expression of their inner world, a geography that was at once both personal and interpersonal. Each personal geography melded into a collective geography while remaining true to itself, like soil layers becoming bedrock over eons of time. I wish I had their words to share with you because, as is always the case, what they wrote was beautiful. One of the students, a twelve-year old with long brown hair, said that she thought is usually wrote about the present moment. “Hmm…” I said, “you are probably right.” Here is mine for what it’s worth. I am no Mary Oliver.
It has been both cold and warm lately. I awoke this morning at 6:15 am and it was 15 degrees F outside, yet southern exposures are becoming snow-less. I hear red-winged blackbirds and Canada geese and see other signs of spring. Each day the angle of the sun increases and the bus is hit more directly by its warmth. At the same time, we’ve gotten new snow recently and I continue to enjoy the heck out of winter and especially skiing.
Some days ago I hit the trail behind our house and headed towards town before turning up a steep trail called Powers Plunge. It challenged my cardiovascular system and I felt like a turtle crawling up a steep bank. There were two climbs and I was tired and sweating after navigating the second and gentler of the two. From there I headed on towards town yet again, on a different trail this time, looping on around to head back home. All in all, I skied over 18 km (11 miles) in an hour and half or so. As I neared home, I crossed over Wolf Creek, pausing to gaze at its ice-bound beauty and I composed this short poem:
The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.
~ Robert Swan
Reading the local paper I was stunned into puzzlement by one sentence tucked deep into the article about the local brewery expanding. The article said that the average U.S. household uses approximately 250 gallons of water a day. “Whoa, how is that possible,” I wondered. I looked over at the five-gallon jug sitting on a counter in our kitchen and couldn’t fathom how that was possible. With some internet sleuthing, I found out that an individual uses 80-100 gallons per day. I continued to be shocked and needed to estimate how much our household uses. Here is the run-down for our household (all estimates are just that, estimates of actual water use):
Dishes/cooking/drinking: 20-25 gallons/week
Compost toilet: 1-2 gallons/week
Showers (adults only, 10 minutes shower, 4 times per week): 200 gallons/week
Baths (girls only): 15-30 gallons/week
Laundry (1 time per week which is likely an over-estimate): 15 gallons/week
Total = 251-272 gallons/week for our household = 9-10 gallons/person/day
Only 2.5 percent of the planet is freshwater and yet we Americans use 100 gallons a day. Even if I am off by a long shot on my estimations, I still don’t use anywhere near the U.S. average. Most of you shower much more frequently than I do and I would join you if it was feasible or more convenient, so it’s not that I am some angelic human being. What I did do is design an inconvenient home which means I work harder for my water and therefore don’t use as much. And maybe that is the key to sustainability – design your life so that it’s at least a bit inconvenient and you will use less water and energy and produce less waste. We are talking about convenience and comfort here, not anything close to survival, so why not give it a try. Walk instead of driving. Jump in the river instead of showering today. Pee outside instead of into a toilet. Not only will you find a little bit of sustainability, you may also find joy and fun in it as well!