Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Woods Have Eyes

Note: This is the final essay I wrote in Alaska. I'm home now, and missing where I was very much.

Certain cosmic theologians and philosophers, Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme and others, say that to be in the image of God is to live in a universe that we don’t just look at, but which can look back at us.

I am now near the end of my time in Grayling and the Lower Yukon. On Monday, I’ll be packing up and doing the trip in reverse: Grayling to Aniak to Anchorage to San Francisco, with a 5 a.m. plane change in Portland. I will again see night. (It comes now, but at 1 a.m., while I am sleeping.) I will leave a small village surrounded by woods and water, and return to its opposite: a city that stretches farther than the eye can see. I will leave a world where work as we know it slows down on Saturday and closes down on Sunday: where the cycles of labor and rest are guided by the changing seasons. I will return to a world that is always running. I will leave a world defined by the awe of nature and return to one that is in awe of technology. I will leave a new experience and return to one that is old and familiar, for the Kingdom of Heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

I go home knowing more about what it means to keep faith with my story and with God. I will miss friends whom I have come to love. In the chamber of my heart grows a pearl of great price.

Floating down the Yukon, sitting in a village, has given me ample time to think. Since the beginning, humans have sought the meaning and significance of our intelligence, measuring ourselves with and against the animals and plants with whom we share this earth, and with the Divine that gives us life. We have expressed ourselves in shamanic prophecy, healing, art, poetry, music, drama, dreams, agorae, villas, castles, cathedrals, caves, stupas, ships, planes, computers, peaks and parks. We have told stories whose meanings we are still pondering. We have also, in the Western version of this adventure, wreaked unspeakable destruction upon our earth, our souls and each other. Western man has been at war against himself ever since the Assyrians. That our common humanity has been so marred by separation, by wars and crucifixions and crusades and jihads and other horrors suggests how long the western culture of dominance has resisted coming face to face with itself. Dominance does not want a universe that can look back. It wants one it can control.

Not all ways of being human are based in opposition and violence. Not all ways of being human see greatness in rational detachment.

I went to Alaska because I have dreamed about it for forty years, ever since a husky born in Fairbanks turned up at the Berkeley SPCA and became my best friend. Forty years is a long time to journey toward the realization of a vision. The parallels with Egypt, the Wilderness and the Promised Land have not escaped me.

Forty years also remind me that things take time to unfold. Perhaps the greatest mistake is to think that there are ever instant answers, that education prepares us only to succeed at life and not to question it.

Alaska guards an ancient and important drama. Alaska is still a frontier. American mythology has reduced the frontier to raw materials to be conquered and developed, but that is just the wishful thinking of capitalists. A frontier is a borderland. A frontier is where one thing turns into something else. In the cold war spy stories, the frontier was what separated the captive countries from the free ones, the oppressive law from liberating grace. As people approached the frontier, they wondered. Would the way be open or shut? Would there be a way through?

There’s a saying around here that it’s good to eat food that one day might eat you. Implied in such a saying is both risk and relationship. Nature is not just blank slate or raw materials. She lives, within and without. Jesus refused to produce bread from rocks. He refused to dominate the land or use his power to lord it over others. Because he was God, he wouldn’t play God. Make no mistake. For the white man, Alaska is the temptation in the wilderness.

All life is a search for riches, but what it means to be rich differs greatly from place to place. As the frontier metaphor suggests, we are all explorers, whether for moose or the undiscovered country east of the sun and west of the moon. Even when every physical inch of the planet is known, there remains the infinite country of our own souls. It is there, wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that good and evil reside, not between nations or political systems. Spiritually, as St. Paul and Buddha have both said, most of us are infants. It is time to grow up.

“There’s a great storm brewing and it is very near,” an elder said to me after church this evening. I am not the only one who feels it. The signs are too many and too obvious. The animals are disappearing. The air we breathe is polluted. Only a very sick animal will foul its nest to the degree that globalism has done in its search for material wealth.

My elder friend believes that Native ways are true and that we will know this at last in the end. I have no reason to doubt him. His culture has lasted for over 10,000 years. Something that stable must have much going for it, or it would have been abandoned long ago. What we call progress may be just another world for desperation. Jesus thought so. It is easy to forget that Jesus came into the world, not to promote progress, or attack the root causes of social ills, but to give us a second chance. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he said to the thief as the two of them died on their crosses. We are a faith not of innovation, but of restoration.

So much Alaskan writing lives on the edge between then and now, like a tree stating its case before a logger, a developer stating his case before a bear. In his autobiographical novel Ordinary Wolves, Seth Kantner, an Anglo raised among the Inupiaq Eskimo people, writes of the exhilaration of finally getting a snowmobile and being able to outrun any animal with it. At first, pursuing his quarry, a wolf he has been dying to kill, he feels nothing but power over nature. But that power turns to remorse when he sees the broken, exhausted animal he has soullessly run to its death with a machine. It was no hunt, it was slaughter. It was terrorism. Something precious had been forever debased, a balance lost. This moment of conversion becomes the basis for all the novel’s later wisdom, after the narrator moves to Anchorage where everything, including people, are for sale, as run to exhaustion by money as the wolves were by internal combustion.

What the narrator learned was life is not what you get out of it, but what you put into it.

Few of us in Europe or North America will ever live as close to nature as the families who call Graying, Anvik, Shageluk, Holy Cross and hundreds of other Native Alaskan villages home. Even in many so called rural areas in the Third World, nature has been so degraded by overdevelopment, mining, smoking piles of trash and other blights that people don’t live close to nature there, either. But in Interior Alaska and also in certain parts of Arizona in Navajoland, whose people are related to the Athabascan people of the north, nature lives. It is the Native Way to know the earth as home, to learn its way and hear its voices, to keep track of the people, the trees, the animals, birds and fish, not as statistic but as living relationship, as love, as respect. There is nothing abstract in it. Respect the animals and they will increase and give themselves for food. Treat the animals like resources, like a crop to be harvested, a commodity to be marketed, a thrill of killing, and you will lose them. They will leave. This has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with the climate of the human heart.

Monday, August 11

I am revising this at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. I have been back in civilization for about six hours, much of it sitting amid disgruntled travelers near the check in gate, as I wait to check my own luggage. I watch them, the white people, with their crates and coolers of fish, their sporting equipment, their complaints. I wash my hands beside a young woman who is scheduled to be shipped out to Iraq but can’t get on a flight home to say good bye. White people like to take up space. A few hours ago, in Aniak, a man dressed all in khaki was carrying on power business in the Quonset hut that serves as airport waiting room, while the natives greeted one another and shared news of grandchildren in soft voices, a network of acquaintance that stretches up and down the Yukon and the Kusko, into Anchorage and beyond, rather like the Episcopal Church at its best.

Coming back into this white world is proving difficult in unexpected ways. I find myself jarred by the way we stagger around, all the people with their cartons of fish and game, the vapid stares, the way so many of us behave like we are experts when in fact we know very little. After a month of living among native people, I have experienced my own capacity to be obtrusive. I have also had the chance to engage in the spiritual discipline of observation, observing my own ignorance, my own demons and personality defects and feeling the power of God’s grace and love. It is not about culture. It is about you and me.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Good Bye Grayling

I'm packing up now and turning my sights toward home. Thanks to all of you who have shared this time in Alaska with me. I'll be posting a wrap up later this week.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Summer has finally arrived

The temperature hit 80 degrees Friday under perfect blue skies. Today was hot again, but the clouds gathered, and as I write, rain is falling, settling all the dust a dry week has stirred.

I began Friday morning with more berry picking.Sandy and I hit the woods in the company of her sister’s honest to god hunting Chihuahua, a fearless little tawny thing named Missy, who leaps over holes and slinks through the grass like a lion. The former family dog was a toy poodle named Odie, who once fell off a boat into the Yukon while the family was out fishing, swam to shore, and made such a racket that they could hear him calling from miles away.

A squirrel is trying to make a winter nest in the insulation of Sandy’s roof. The northern squirrels are red, with white rings around their eyes. It’s said that long ago, when squirrel was very cold, another creature, parka squirrel, lent squirrel his parka. But when parka squirrel asked for it back, squirrel cried so uncontrollably that to this day his eyes are ringed with white. “Even the names of plants have a story,” Sandy said. “There’s a bush near Anchorage that turns bright red in fall. In our language we call it ‘Hawk’s’ because the hawks eat its berries.”

We talked about how living in a place where you know everybody is different from living in a place where you don’t. In big cities, it’s easy to forget people. In a village, you see the whole bunch of us every day. “I really like that storyteller, Joe Campbell. All the characters in his books are right here. The hero, the fool. Everyone has a part to play.”

The high bush cranberries are almost all ripe now. The blueberries are beginning. After cresting yesterday, the river is settling down again and the beach is reemerging once again.

Sunday’s readings have Elijah in the wilderness, hearing God in the still small voice. Jesus walks on water. Both readings show the spiritual journey as movement, with God appearing in unexpected ways: as quiet, as a calm more powerful than the night’s most fearsome storm.

One of the girls and I watch fish from the bridge. The little specks are all tasty gnats.

On my Saturday afternoon walk, I ran into Sandy's dad. “You’ll be back in civilization soon,” he said. “Back in your real life.” I answered, “I guess.” He said, “It is your real life.” I answered, “Yes, it is my real life,” sad to be leaving here, but thinking about home in new ways. “It’s civilization.” “Is it?” I wondered. “Yes, it is civilization. That is what they call it, so that is what it is.”

The word civilization comes from the same root as “civic.” It is related to citizenship, to city. It is a way of looking at how people live together. We have come to a great crossroad in time where we are being called to look closely at how people live together. A wilderness without people to take care of it is as artificial as a city where all the trees are cultivated and all the animals either pets or pests. We are all connected. Buddha talks of Enlightenment as being the moment when we fully become part of the great interconnected Mind. Paul tells us that we are all part of the body of Christ. Modern “objective” thought has done a great deal to separate us. The writer of today’s reflection in Forward Day by Day writes of a verse in the Book of Acts that it “discloses that the early Christians were socialists. They were not Marxists, holding with atheism, class warfare, and suppression of dissent, but economic socialists – private property was unknown among them.” This statement reflects how tainted so many of us are by ideological “isms.” To have all things in common is really not socialism or any other ism. It is simply a fact of life on earth. We share air, ocean, land, mind, spirit, the adventure of being human. Hopefully, we share the gifts that have been given us with others. What I think I own, I really have on loan. When I am gone, it will be someone else’s turn to have a hand at my house, my library, my reflections, my successes, my unanswered questions, even as I have inherited all these things from my elders.

A Smokehouse. Smoked salmon last all winter. King Salmon run in June. The Silvers come in August.

Jesus arrived in the midst of a heartbroken people at one of history’s most difficult moments. He showed them a truth that was stronger than the attachment to wealth and the idolatry of Imperial Rome. That truth is alive and well. It is the light that shines in the darkness. It is the breath of the Holy Spirit, calling us across miles, ages, and terrains to find one another and reweave history’s tattered threads.

And so, on my evening walk, a rainbow.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bear Tracks

Abby wanted to take me all the way to the end of town, so I appeared at her door at 9 a.m. this morning and she, the puppy Princess and I set off at a brisk clip into the woods. I have learned to read the side of the road for signs of bears. A crushed patch of grass usually means a resting spot, and of course there are the tracks themselves. The beach is covered with them. This morning, no one but birds disturbed our way. The skies are alive with black capped chickadees. At the end of the road a bridge crossed the creek. Beyond the bridge the hunting trails begin. I’ve now toured every inch of the village from the berry patches at the end of the single runway to the hill at the end of the road. But to say that is to say nothing. I could go on exploring this country for years and still be surprised by it, for the light never shines the same way twice, the river is sometimes swift, sometimes slow, sometimes mirrorlike, sometimes opaque. The energy of the village rises and falls. Nothing is routine. You have to be in a larger, more machine driven world for things to become routine. Not once, in four weeks in Grayling, have I heard the phrase “hard wired.” It would never occur to anyone to compare themselves with a computer.

The river is now so high from the flooding near Fairbanks that the northern part of the beach is almost entirely under water. We walked it with the children this morning. What was once a wide gravel walkway is now narrow and choked with driftwood. Angelina and Skyler settled down to play a pretend game of fishing, as they caught small pieces drifting by on the gentle current, and threw back the ones they decided were bad. Dallas the puppy finally befriended me and after a splendid day and night of freedom, white dog is now safely back at home.

Tomorrow is Friday. It will be my last formal day with the children. Children were the great work of the church when it first came to the Interior. In the old days, many of the missionaries maintained a genteel distance from village lifeways, but they embraced the little ones. I can think of no better reason to travel over 4,000 miles from home.

One of the Girls and Me

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Summer Clean Up

This morning, the youth workers cleaned up all the weeds around the church. Here's a picture of the results. It will make our last Sunday together more gracious. Otherwise, I have little to report today except for a passing morning shower, an overcast sky and many flights of chickadees. All is well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Grayling Daily News

This morning, as I was writing a letter home, word came over the radio that a loose boat was floating down the Yukon. Almost at once, the energy around me shifted as people rose to the occasion and decided who was going to do the rescue operation. Rising water has caused all number of inconveniences to both the beach and the boats moored on it.

About a half an hour later, as I was on my morning walk, I saw Tom’s boat bringing in the errant craft. When they got it ashore, however, no one knew to whom it belonged. It might have floated all the way down from Eagle Island, sixty miles upriver.

Towing the Boat

In other village news, a twin engine Navajo plane carrying my co-leader for children’s programs was forced to crash land in Aniak yesterday shortly after takeoff when one of its engines failed. The pilot was cool and competent, bringing it down on a sandbar in less than a foot of water. All eight passengers, three of whom I knew, sustained only minor injuries. It made the evening news.

Also heard today: The Tenana Chiefs’ Association approved plans for cell phone service to be brought to the four neighboring villages of Grayling, Anvik, Shageluk and Holy Cross.

I was awakened early by sunlight streaming through the window. Morning temps were only in the thirties, but rose into the sixties as morning turned into afternoon. We took the children down to the river for a swim and a weenie roast, and I helped deliver meals to the elders.

Swimming Weather

I discovered why I avoided mosquito bites during my first two weeks and have succumbed so badly now. Turns out the worst little biters are not mosquitoes at all, but gnats. These tiny creatures inflict large welts. Vitamin B doesn’t seem to do a thing against them.

On our evening walk, we saw another boat tied up out of place. We also saw fresh bear tracks. If one is to believe the science program Nova, the process of global warming is speeding up far faster than anyone dreamed. Chelsea and Cindy asked what we were going to do. I think it may be hard to understand natural processes when most of us live so far away from them.

These late Alaska nights have gotten to this poor old Californian at last, so I’m going to make it an early night. Peace be with you all. I’ll be with you a week from today.

The Day in Pictures

As I continue in the work of reflecting on the gifts of Graying, here are some more pictures of our changing light and the events of my day.

The morning began under low, brooding skies

On my morning walk, I stop and visit. Here is one of my good friends.

Here I am, showing Abby how to make God's Eyes

Local Color

By evening, the sun was shining. Here are two men casting nets for salmon in a flat bottom Yukon boat

A New Friend from the Innoko River, posing with One of the Boys

Monday, August 4, 2008

Winding Down

I walked atop a beaver dam today and ate barbecued moose -- it is every bit as good as people say. We had services in the old church by candlelight and once again, I experienced the power of the Book of Common Prayer. It is August. People are beginning to leave the village for the cities. The swallows are all gone. The teachers are returning. Soon, I, too, will be on my way back to California. I wonder what the last week will hold.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Gifted Day

“Writing any story set in Alaska is hard, because Alaska is always a character. Even if the story is about something else, Alaska is still a character.” –from tonight’s conversation over dinner.

Berry picking is one of the premier delights of an Alaska summer. High bush cranberries, blueberries, salmon berries, raspberries, red currants and black currants are all to be found, if you know where to look. The blueberries are not yet ripe, but very soon the village will make its annual trek up Blueberry Hill.

Today, we went in search of cranberries. Cranberries are a great source of vitamin C and medicinal. In the winter, a quarter cup of cranberry juice will ward off colds and infections. I was given a jar so that we, too, may try it. The berries grow in clusters and, as the name implies, they are high and easy to pick. My companion, a true berry obsessive, could spot berries from a hundred feet away. By the end of the day, I was getting pretty good at spotting them too. We tromped all over the woods behind the airport, filling buckets and discussing the state of the world. The country here exists in a remarkable balance. Avarice seeks to unbalance it, to rip away what is there and leave a gaping emptiness where once life thrived.

I am learning a great many things about plants and their uses. Soft grass, with its good insulation properties, was used in the old days as boot liners during the winter. The tall grass was cut for dog bedding. In the days before manufactured toys, clumps of grass would be uprooted, the dirt shaken out of the roots and tied into little grass dolls with wild and curly hair. (I figured out how to make them and the girls and I spent a frolicsome afternoon making grass dolls.) Chamomile is a most common ground plant and can, of course, be brewed into soothing tea.

Medicine plant, or wormwood, is a bitter astringent that has been known to help serious illness. I chewed on a leaf today, and was immediately convinced. It was invigorating, but so was riding all over the place on a bicycle. It’s not every day I go aerobic!

We spent all afternoon under flawless skies picking up two groaning buckets full of the tiny berries. Then it was time to eat! I actually got two dinners this evening: one with the Deacon family, the other down at Evie’s. It would have been her husband’s 84th birthday, and though he could only be with them in spirit, they had the party anyway. Everyone brought food: salmon cooked in many different ways, pasta salad, fry bread, four kinds of cake, ice cream – all of it delicious. Elders, young parents, children and babies all gathered in Rose’s living room. I said a prayer with her and reflected that a week from Friday I will be doing the same with my own father as he celebrates his 84th.

It is from our families that we learn the lay of the land. It is from our families that we are given our stories. If I can honor that, I will be grounded. As one of my good elder friends said, “Finding yourself. That’s such a white thing. So you run off to find yourself. I know people in their forties who are still finding themselves. If you haven’t found yourself by then, what is the matter with you?”

The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man, upon finding, sold everything that he had and bought the field. Of course the point is not to find yourself. It is to lose yourself, and be found.

Here are some more village shots:

Town Hall and Post Office

Hee Yea Lingde: The Local Power Company

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Tour of the Town

Grayling Native Store

Friday, August 1

A fresh shipment arrived at the Grayling Native Store this morning and everyone who was available was put to work opening boxes. This store carries about anything you might need, as well as a few surprises. Who would have ever thought that I’d find an ample supply of my very favorite Safeway Clear Soda in the middle of the Alaska bush? But I did, and as I write, I am happily sipping a cup of Blackberry/Raspberry. Inspired by this, I thought I’d take this opportunity to show you around the village.

The Mission House where I am staying is located on what the map calls C Street, but which is really just the road to the river. Across from me is the Community Hall.

Community Hall with School in Background

Behind the community hall is the school. Built in the early ‘70’s, it currently serves 38 students, K through 12, with4 full time, 1 part time faculty. One of the teachers also works as principal.

Grayling School

Behind the school you find the water treatment plant, the post office and the Grayling city offices.

Water Treatment Plant

If you like to carry a water bottle, Grayling is the place to fill it. We have some of the best water on the Lower Yukon. The city offices have a computer room where residents may use the internet, send faxes and the like. To the left of the city offices and slightly to the rear is the clinic.


To the right and across the street from the post office is the gas station, which is open for a shift in the morning and one in the afternoon. School, gas company, water plant, post office, town hall and clinic all circle a central common. There are two other businesses in town, the air service, located on Third Street on the way to the airport, and a Native company, just up Third from the clinic.

The Village's Single Gas Pump: Left nozzle, diesel, Right, regular

The bridge on the way to the airport is the only paved piece of road in all of Grayling. The airport itself sits at the south end of Third Street. It's much simpler than the miles of strip malls, shopping complexes and freeway auto rows that I see most of the time, but as Wendell Berry said in his poem “The Wild Geese,” what we need is here.

Airport Bridge: Note the engineered creek bank

Saturday, if all goes well, I’m off to pick blueberries with Sandy. Sunday we celebrate the Loaves and the Fishes. What we need is here.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Quiet Day

A good and ordinary day. Did laundry. Wrote letters to my friends without computers. Spent lots of time with the kids and visiting elders. Met the returning math teacher. Made traditional grass dolls for the children, gathered wild mint and sang songs on our evening walk. I'm moving from reporting to reflecting, so God's sled dog may be a bit more prayerful and a bit less chatty in days ahead. Blessings.

A birch tree swing

Raising the bar

Down by the Riverside