Everyone in this part of the Interior has heard that California is burning up. The subject came up at the airport in Aniak, where I picked up my connecting flight to Grayling. I was amazed that our news could travel this far out. Later, when I checked in at the Grayling tribal office, I learned that the reason everyone knew about the fires was that people from this village have been sent to California fight them. The world is more connected than we suppose. I am deeply moved.
I spend so much of my life in California imagining myself in Alaska that by the time I finally get here, it is like being met at the airport by that little part of myself that is always here so happy to see the rest of me. Parker Palmer says that the point of life is to live “divided no more.” It makes me wonder how much of myself and others I simply ignore when I am rushing around being busy. Vacation time, traveling to new places, forces one to slow down and think about what matters. It matters to me how we live and how we treat one another. I want to do better.
Yesterday morning, we gathered at the Snow City CafÈ to celebrate Emma Klitzke’s second birthday. Chocolate chip pancakes are a Klitzke birthday tradition and Noah and his sister feasted on them while Paul, Sarah, Kathleen and I caught up on news. Emma’s a little wild woman. Noah remains a whimsical, old soul. Redeemer Chapel at Meier Lake, too, has gone through some changes, with Stations of the Cross now lining the trail that Elliott, Katie, Meredith, Mike, Cody and Cameron worked so hard to build. You did not bear your cross in vain, dear ones.
After breakfast, Kathleen and I visited the Anchorage Art Museum and walked through a fascinating exhibit of Yupik technology. The Yupik live to the south and west of Grayling along the Yukon and Kuskokwim all the way to the sea. They are a hunting culture. All their implements were beautiful, decorated with faces – men always smile, women always frown, raven’s claws and wonderful whimsical creatures that represented both fear and delight. We learned to sew a waterproof seam which came in handy when my suitcase broke and we had to repair the zipper! In the afternoon, the rains came. I don’t usually like rain, but having seen none since March, its soft drumming on the roof was soothing. We sat indoors, eating, sharing our photos and pondering things. Her sister had sent her an essay about ANWR. It was long and detailed, but one of the things that became apparent at once was that people like me don’t know much about the petroleum industry, nor does the petroleum industry know very much about me. We simply assume things. We project our own anxieties and shortcomings upon the other. Tree huggers are hypocrites. Oil people are pompous and narrow minded. What stereotyping. Kathleen works on the slope. I hug trees. We are best, best friends. If allowed to be free, intelligence seeks other intelligence, heart seeks heart. We are one body, says St. Paul.
The rains stayed all night and were still falling this afternoon when Kathleen and I at last said good bye. I boarded a Beechcraft twin engine prop for Aniak, a village hub in the southwest interior and she went home for some much needed down time. It was relaxed in the Frontier Flying terminal. People knew each other and shared news of city and village life. I met Josephine from Grayling, flying home after a visit with her brother and sister in law in town. Another man was talking about getting his daughter a good education, about making sure she was grounded in good values, secure in the company of good friends. Someone else remarked that George C. would be flying us today. The person next to him nodded approvingly.
I had been reading about a school in Peru where all the students were encouraged to look at one another’s papers during a test. The author writes, “I was puzzled to see all the little desks pushed together and teachers encouraging students to cheat! The school principal patiently explained to the dumb gringo that the kids were helping each other find the answers! ‘We want to overcome poverty,’ she said, ‘but if we are going to move up, we will all move up together.’”
Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. I pondered it as our plane rose above the cloud layer and I could no longer see the land below. The wheat and weeds pick up right where the parable of the sower leaves off. As all those seeds that have avoided birds, shallow soil and thorns are germinating in the good soil, Shadow Walker comes along and throws in a bunch of weeds just when I’m not looking. Happens all the time. I do well. It goes to my head. Giftedness turns into self-importance. In a polarized society where oil companies don’t talk to naturalists and Democrats don’t speak to Republicans, where rich and poor view each other with suspicion and cultures make all kinds of assumptions about what constitutes wisdom and skill, it is easy to say that the weeds are external, that good and evil are distinct, and just rip off those weeds, but the fact is, in the parable, the wheat and weeds live in the same field and their roots are all tangled together, which is to say, I’m a mixed creature. If I try to deny or pluck out the weed part of me, I’m denying myself, no less than Peter denied Jesus in the garden. Later on in Matthew, Jesus will remind us that a house divided against itself cannot stand, which is exactly what I do when I pretend I’m something I’m not. The parable teaches me not to try and sort this out, just to let it grow. Have faith. God will sort it out when the time comes.
In Aniak, four of us boarded a single engine Cessna for the fifty minute flight to Grayling. Our pilot was a good looking young man named Bryce. I wondered what called him out to these parts. One could certainly ask the same of me. I’m sure I saw a black bear just outside town. We flew over miles and miles of little green fields, just like the little green fields that so delighted Jay and me on our first and only trip together to London. Except that these little green fields were completely uninhabited, wild, stretches of green surrounded by natural hedgerows; glistening pools of meltwater. It looked very cultivated, as if Nature, left to her own devices, loved beauty and line and symmetry. The fields followed straight lines and in some of the sheltered fields, young spruce trees were growing. I wonder if agriculture was influenced by all this, if England’s little green fields are in fact tribute to her wilder past.
We touched down on a gravel runway and the village chief was on hand to meet me. He dropped me off at the Tribal Office where I have been since 4:30. I am locked in safe and sound for the night. I had a simple dinner of dried fruit and nuts and freeze dried sweet and sour. From time to time a walkie talkie comes on – people checking in on one another, making sure that all is well, call your mother, passing messages.
Tonight when I say my prayers, I will pray especially for the young people who are fighting my fires. I am grateful to be here. I have many questions and so very much to learn.