Arctic Dreaming

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View of the Brooks Range, Alaska from a bush plane.

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!

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The valley of 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.

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Fourth/Fifth grade students from the Numumiut School greet us on the tarmac.

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.

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Part of the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, AK and the Brooks Range beyond.

 

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Wide valleys dominate the Anaktuvuk Pass area of the Brooks Range.

written by David LaFever

Vast and Wide

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“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.
~Norman Fischer

 

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.

 

Is there anything more lovely?

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Have you every seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful
than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
~ Mary Oliver “The Sun”

 

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.

Is there anything more lovely
     than the sunrise this morning
A flaming light reflecting off
     billowy clouds and snow-capped peaks,
As though a wound had opened up
     in the very cosmos itself,
Bleeding forth light
      and beauty and love?
Is there any love more wild
     unhindered, unobstructed and free,
Like running wildly through
      a field of wildflowers or laughing
Uncontrollably at nothing in particular
      until your belly aches with delight?
Is there any moment more pure
      than right here, right now
Pens scratching out words,
      wild thoughts on a spring day?

 


by David LaFever

 

The Creek Flows Thick

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

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.

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

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 creek flows thick
and solid with cold.
Over, under, around and through
Ice flowing in ways I cannot
imagine, in places I cannot
maneuver. Ice into ice,
water through water.
A ceaseless dance of change –
changing form, the formless,
the molecules remain the same.

 

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar

by David LaFever

Simple Sustainability

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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!


by David LaFever

 

Privilege

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(From mid-February 2018)

Sitting, looking out a four-paned window at two rivers, the Methow and the Chewuch. Late winter sky – gray with brightness – and the sun coming through in a wheel of rays. Up valley a storm, dark and brooding. Snow clouds obscure Gardner Mountain, all the way down its shoulder.

I have been skiing a lot lately – all Nordic skiing on the largest groomed trail system in North America, right here in our valley. Today I skied to town from home, a little over 9 km (5.4 miles) in thirty minutes or so and immediately ran into friends. I love small towns, where everyone knows nearly everyone else. No anonymity here, but also a place where fame can turn to infamy if you aren’t careful. This means I must be responsible rather than reactive.

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Yesterday I skied with a couple of friends. We took off from the Gunn Ranch trailhead, contouring up the mountain-side and on into a forested nook to a couple of backcountry huts. Covered approximately 15 km (9-10 miles). Gorgeous, fun skiing with good people and a wonderful dog. Spectacular views of the North Cascades mountains under a bluebird sky.

Back a few weeks ago now, my friend John from Vancouver and I skied from Mazama to Winthrop, which is over 31 km or more than 19 miles on a groomed Nordic ski trails. John and I pushed ourselves and it took us 3 hours and 5 minutes. We arrived at the Winthrop trailhead, worn out and happy. I immediately started talking with some other folks and found out that they had just done the same thing. Cool, I thought. Then I found out they did it in the same amount of time as us, and noticed that they were much older than John and I. My ego deflated instantly. Bummer. Then I thought, “This means that I might be able to do this too when I am in my 60s or 70s.” Cool! All these vacillating thoughts occurred in an instant. Oh, how the ego-mind does go and take me with it!

I am very grateful for all this skiing and don’t want winter to end just yet. These ski trails along with alpine skiing of all kinds makes this such a wonderful place to live. And I feel both the need to take advantage of this, this being one of the reasons we choose to live here, and the guilt of being able to do something so unnecessary when so many are struggling to survive. I recognize the privilege that I have and carry around with me (the so-called “Invisible Knapsack”), which allows me to live a life that includes Nordic skiing several times a week in winter, and am appreciative of it. Sometimes I feel guilt associated with it, but more often I feel the responsibility that comes with it. How do I use this privilege? How grateful am I for what it allows? How much understanding of and respect for others do I engender?


by David LaFever

 

Swallowing Myself

Death has been much on my mind and the mind of others around me lately. The actual death of a friend, the continued wars and destruction that we are engaged in throughout the world (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and on and on), and the planetary decline/collapse of our biosphere that we are both cause and at the mercy of.

I will share something from my journal that I wrote about death and life recently, from January 22, 2018

I see the birds first, some bald eagles perched in tall cottonwoods, and a quorum of ravens, black splotches of feathers against the pure white snow. I then notice the carcass, ribs poking up out of the pink snow. Two adult bald eagles and a dozen ravens or more are present also. One eagle has been there at the dinner plate for sometime now, as evidenced by the rose color of its head and neck feathers. The newcomer’s feather gleam white in the luminous morning light. Death begets life in a beginningless and endless way.

We are usually disgusted by death and abhor it, although fascinated by its seeming finality and lost in our inability to comprehend it. But what if we looked at it differently, seeing it as a Great Mystery and the great gift that it is? The ravens and eagles understand the giving aspect of it, even if they don’t have the words, although I suspect the ravens know when a meal is nigh.

As I look around I see cottonwoods and pines that we once alive, but that are now among the standing dead, and the telltale signs of woodpeckers, pecking for a meal. Without the thing that we call death, there would be no woodpeckers, no eagles, no ravens and none of the beauty that these creatures offer to the world. Without the deer carcass, that some larger predator likely killed, what would these ravens and eagles eat, especially with so few salmon in our rivers?

We call it death, but when I look at it, I see life or the offering of a life at the least. The great gift that we can give at the end of our life, is our life. In this beginningless and endless place, do we simply fold back into the great cycle of life and death? Is there some other journey that we begin at that time? If we are honest with ourselves, we do not know, so we call it something to ease our worry a bit – the Great Mystery, if nothing else. Our lives too, are mysterious and in reality unknowable. We tell stories and those stories become this “I” and this “we” and both stand in for and create what we think of as “truth” and “reality.” But what is this really?

If death is death and life isn’t life, what is this? Just this….

A Jim Harrison poem comes to mind in which he decides to “swallow himself in ceaseless flow.” I like that description because it could be either life or death and what really is the difference? Here is the poem, titled “Cabin Poem”:

I’ve decided to make

up my mind

about nothing, to

assume the water

mask,

to finish my life

disguised as a creek,

an eddy, joining at

night the full,

sweet flow, to absorb

the sky,

to swallow the heat

and cold, the moon

and the stars, to

swallow myself

in ceaseless flow.

 

One last glance at the scavengers and the carcass, and I head down the road in this glistening winter palace. I wonder at the world where lines are crossed and then recrossed and where distinctions are blurry at best. And I wonder at this species, which desperately and naturally makes distinctions, tells stories and tries to make sense of this senseless and sensuous world. Even things as seemingly solid and assured as life and death, upon closer inspection, ebb and flow, ceaselessly life the rivers and tides that I love so much. I become amazed at the possibility that lies before me, made possible only when I loosen my grip on categories, on my likes and dislikes.

As I continue on, I near the elementary school and downshift as I approach a stop sign. I pause a moment, taking in and letting go the wild winter scene, before turning right to head down river on East 20.


by David LaFever