Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Into the Wilderness

I believe that if we are to save the earth, we must first love her. That is why I read stories of Paradise and the Promised Land not as tales of real estate, but as tales of love. I do this because I do not own the place I love the most. But it is my Promised Land, all the same. It even took me forty years to get there.

As a child living across the street from Berkeley’s Tilden Park, I loved trails more than roads, not because I am an athlete or wish to conquer the limitations of my body or the land, but because trails were quiet. I didn’t have to smell automobile fumes in the woods or see the ugly incursions of metal jabbing the soft fields. In the woods I could leave behind the relentless pressures of industry and profit which were already shaping my world in grade school. How my dream world went north to Alaska I do not know, but I do remember lying awake during the secret hours of night and looking at pictures of polar bears and imagining myself a fur clad shaman even before I had heard of such things. My grandfather crossed the arctic circle with Will Rogers and remembered it all the days of his life.

Then, in 1966 my parents adopted a real husky from Fairbanks. She became the center of my teenaged life and we loved each other. Because she looked like a wolf, she transformed the world of Little Red Riding Hood into a forest rich with grace and hope. Later, after she died, I adopted another northern dog who taught me that sometimes grace is not enough. Sometimes you have to be stubborn and persistent. A few years later, my church’s youth group was planning a work trip to Circle City, a village north of Fairbanks, and I asked to join them, but they told me there was no room. Two years later, they planned a second trip to the Inupiat village of Point Hope in the arctic, and again found a reason why I was unfit for youth ministry. The gifts I purchased for the Alaska mission were dumped in a drawer in California “for another time.” Shedding belligerent and angry tears, unable to afford a trip on my own, I left that church and steeled my heart. But I learned something very surprising. Promised Lands don’t go away.

If you forget them they come for you. I tried to lay the north aside, but the north refused to forget me. I made friends from there. I waved them off to Huslia and Fairbanks and they did not come back. Iditarod champion Jeff King turned up one day quite unexpectedly in my office. The Bishop of Alaska sent his children to my school. Finally, in the summer of 2001, after my own daughter went to Fort Yukon with yet another youth group, I gave in. I knew that nothing could live up to forty years of my extravagant imagination, and I wasn’t certain I could stand ten days of my own company, but the time had come to get up and go. I flew north in the middle of the night, knowing only that this place was calling me in ways as huge and strange as the state itself. Like the golden crowned sparrows who winter in California and summer on Kenai Peninsula, I was impelled by an instinct I could not name.

Alaska turned out to be far more wonderful than I could have possibly imagined.

Returning home was a little death. Having tasted its own true life in the wild, my soul was loath to settle for life in a domesticated, paved, and battened down California. For days I dreamed so vividly of where I had been, that I woke up literally disoriented. Worse than all these visions, however, was a sadness that I had not even been aware of before but which now threatened to overwhelm me. On my first morning back, while out walking with the dogs, I heard my gentle, gracious and generous California weep. "Save me," she said.

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