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.