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Archive for May, 2008

North to Alaska

I can’t get away from the state of Alaska. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but it has been haunting me for the past three years. Every time I turn around, there it is, with all of it’s gray icy mystique, persistent odor of fish and damp underbrush, drunk leering bearded men, millions of pairs of brown rubber boots strewn in millions of piles, and thousands of partially completed cabins wrapped hastily in Tyvek before the approaching winters.

When I first went up there to work for the summer my head was filled with the classic dreams of wilderness. Alaska. The very thought of it entices some people, and I counted myself among the enticed. I traveled north on the ferry, eagerly attempting to spot wildlife through the rain streaked windows and gray gloom.  I spent ten weeks on Prince of Wales Island, a crummy, desolate place receiving over 130 inches of rain a year and popular amongst Texans who come all the way up there to blast away black bears and presumably hang them on their walls back in Texas. That ten weeks of camping in the rain quickly assassinated the Alaska mystique; in fact I cursed the state as I painstakingly set up big blue tarps over my campsites.

One pretty much needs gills to breathe in Southeast Alaska, and I found this out the hard way as I wiled away portions of three consecutive summers on the saturated forest service roads of islands in the Inside Passage. I was inventorying invasive plant species, and we would drive 0.25 mile, get out of the vehicle in our rustling rain gear, and walk 25 m in either direction as we wrote down every plant we saw. Back in vehicle, and repeat. 3000 times. Along the way we saw bears, moose, millions of Sitka spruce and hemlocks dripping with the weight of the incessant rain, muskeg, insane people residing in incredibly remote communities, totem poles, and the northenmost occurrence of a Douglas Fir (as far as I know).

Every year I come home to Portland, Oregon and kneel down and press my hands thankfully on the sidewalk, grateful for sidewalks and concrete and Tofu Scrambles and traffic lights and sunshine in the summertime and cultivated gardens and affordable apples at the grocery store.

And now I find myself faced with yet another work related trip to Alaska. I depart one week from today for several weeks of field work, looking for rare plants and wetlands along a proposed natural gas pipeline. It is time for me to put aside the thoughts of doom and gloom and gray liquid misery. I must grasp onto the good- the glittery Alaska gems that give people the itchy desire to go there in the first place.

Nobody can argue that Alaska is not beautiful. Come to think of it, I could maybe argue that parts of it are ugly (the rickety canneries, the vomit around every corner when the bars close), but I would be hard pressed to discount the majesty of the glaciers, the wild forests, the great expanse of tundra, the sight of a great turquoise iceberg against a emerald green spruce forest. So there I have it: Alaska is beautiful. It will be a privilege to feast my eyes on such sights.

Nobody can argue that drinking in Alaska is not fun. Particularly in fishing communities, when the men roll in and stupidly squander an entire week’s worth of pay on increasing the drunkenness tenfold of some small speck of a crusty bar, the only place in town. It never gets completely dark in Alaska this time of year: the sun goes down but a murky twilight remains for a few before the sun pops up again. The dark dive bar will be your solace, your escape from the relentless daylight and the endless hours of possible work time. When the bars close, the inebriated patrons spill into the streets, blink in the sunrise, and kick the living shit out of each other. In Alaska bar brawls are alive and well, and since I haven’t been directly involved in one, I enjoy them for the entertainment factor they provide.

No one can argue that Alaska is not tough. In a pansy city full of pansy city boys that wear Carharts to look cool and can’t even change their own oil, it is extremely refreshing to become surrounded by rugged hairy people who are rugged and hairy because they have to be, not because they are Gay Bears or indie rockers that don’t even own a tool box. There is something nice about capable people, and the people in Alaska are remarkably capable.

There I have it, Alaska is beautiful AND provides for some good quality drinking around extremely capable people. I will put aside my Alaska bashing until I return, once again extolling the virtues of sidewalks and incapably hopeless indie rockers.

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Memory

I heard a woman on NPR who had the most amazing memory. She could remember every single day in incredible detail, from any day of her life. In order to calibrate the experience, the reporter asked the audience to recall what they did yesterday. He then expressed that her memory was such that she could remember every single day to that level of detail. The woman with the memory sounded tired, stretched, exhausted. I could hear the resign in her voice over the radio. A wash of tension filled my car as I drove down the farm roads on Sauvie Island. A well meaning caller phoned in to question if the woman with the memory dreamed.

“Yes,” she replied, “I rarely sleep, but when I do, I dream.”

I consider myself to have a decent, above average memory. But a memory that keeps me awake at night, synapses firing without ceasing? By no means can I even recall every detail from every bygone day, and in fact, I often cannot remember the storyline from books that I have read on multiple occasions. I’m not entirely sure why this is, why my brain picks and chooses and lets bits of information fall to the wayside, but I’m comfortable with forgetting. Many other things, I do not forget. In fact, I often cause difficulty for myself by never forgetting. I can’t forget the way it made me feel when I wore that dress on the first day of third grade, only to discover admist the giggling and whispers that wearing dresses on the first day of school fell out of fashion in the second grade. I am stuck with that feeling of humiliation and the visual image of looking down at my navy dress with tiny white polka dots, my small hands folded in my lap, burned in the brain.

As I listen to the woman with the memory wearily describe what life is like for someone who cannot forget even one of those moments, I am struck with wonder about whether or not she has a library of good moments, of joyful memories, which she can access at will. Or is it that mediocre or negative moments take precedence, and overwhelm the joyful by their sheer numbers?

I vow to stockpile my joyful memories, and work on forgetting things like that out-of-fashion navy dress. For I also remember ice skating on a frozen pond, the ice glassy and smooth from a recent melt and freeze. My newly sharped skates cutting clear arcs across the glass, my father’s hockey skates slapping the ice in the distance. I can go so fast, so fast that the wind stings my ears and neck. I have dropped my scarf, perhaps intentionally as the wool felt scratchy against my reddening skin. My mother heats hot chocolate on a rickety stove on the lakeshore.

I am free.

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What is Wapato?

Wapato is an Indian Potato, dug by the native people in the early spring for it’s starchy carbohydrates. It is also a 2.6 mile long trail easily accessible from my office. It is a place where I think, walk, run, horseback ride, and watch the seasons turn. I mark the first Indian plum of the season, and shudder at the advances of the reed canary grass, which threatens to take over the world. I evaluate my existence in all of it’s unremarkable form as I navigate my way through my burgeoning adulthood.

I belong to that place, that small and relatively unspectacular path of dirt and encroaching weeds.  

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