In junior high, i’d make one of my best friends sit and listen to me read from my journal. We’d already covered most of the documented territory in more conversational form, but i wanted her to hear the written version: raw, yet unedited, crowded with the run-ons and long parentheticals that still plague me. this was not an exchange of any kind; she didn’t, nor did she wish to read me her murkily constructed secrets. Sometimes she groaned. Often she made excuses to go home earlier than what i knew was her family dinner time. There may have been nose-picking. This was very much something i did to her, and may have had something to do with the eventual strain in our friendship. My journal was not interesting. There were boys and questions about God and extraterrestrial life (often conflated), and i had nothing of what i might now call “voice” that was not directly borrowed from Anne Frank or Anais Nin(how does a pubescent American know what a diary should sound like?), but I was determined to have an audience, and she resented being cast in that role.
And then: the internet came. It made me nervous, and i really believed it was a way for the government/aliens(/God?) to monitor us. But it was also an audience. After a brief flirtation with chat rooms (X-Files and atheist babbling, mostly), i found online journals. They weren’t blogs yet–this was 1999 (after typing this, i learned from Google that “blog” was actually coined in April of that year–but teenagers in Flagstaff weren’t talking about it). But there were online journal sites, and i stayed up late night after night making one on angelfire.com. It was a steep learning curve, and the only time i’ve felt digitally ahead of the game. I taught myself some basic html and started posting, and then i found friends.
I found this network of 3 or 4 strangers who all “knew” each other, at least digitally. i went about making myself known to them. Commenting wasn’t an option then, but you could link your website with theirs, and somehow they found out. The details escape me. Of my first online community, i remember that one woman worked in a pet store, and sometimes she told funny stories about hamsters. The one male of the group was concerned about getting burrito farts in the face if he gave bad cunnilingus (or good?), and suggested that the next advanced mammal have their genitals closer to the belly button. I wrote mostly about Monty Python and learning to drive. The only evidence of my first blog’s existence is this internet artifact: a link page from one of my fans (scroll down to “The Page of Eternal Indecision” (it goes nowhere)). The “voice” is drastically different than how i wrote in my “paper journal” (which you can read more about here). It was performative, hid the fact that I was in high school, tried to be funny and relatable (to an audience of sexually anxious 20somethings).
After the angelfire stage, there was another site, which didn’t require code and you could just hit a button and out it went. I was less silly there, and a little melodramatic. I eventually shut the site down with some closing post about how i had a boyfriend and couldn’t blog at the same time (somehow, maintaining an online presence for my audience of 3 seemed impossible if i were to make our weekly stick juggling dates downtown. So much for having it all.)
Toward the end of high school, i had a brief stint on diaryland.com, where i narrated in specific detail my interactions with a city councilman on whom i had a huge, hopeless crush (perhaps this is the nature of teenage crushes on local politicians), and which would have been a terrible life choice in the age of Google but felt pretty damn invisible at the time. But you can’t be in college and have something called a “diaryland,” and so i learned to import, switched to blogger…and from there, the path was easier to travel. Everyone and their dog was on it. By this point, blogging was a thing. Audience just happened (sometimes with unanticipated consequences (see comments)).
My paper journals have suffered. The latest volume is mostly notes on workshops and classes, menstrual cycles, and an occasional meteorological observation. The internet is letting me do what i wanted to do all along, when i forced old friends to listen to my dull redundant inner truths, and sat down new friends to peruse four 3″ binders of photo albums. Facebook is my teenage brain made public, acceptable, and almost expected as a form of interaction. This is the one area in which i feel almost in step with my generation: the ease and desire to share and be recognized. Over and over and over again.
Spiders build webs in the bottom
of the rain barrel: this summer, a safe place.
Birch saplings stacked
in the back seat of a university car,
making squirrel jumps across the yellow line.
When i first came to Alaska, i felt claustrophobic in the forest, trapped by scrawny, frizzled spruce trees and dense shrubs that blocked the sky, the horizon. Escaping the taiga was the main reason i jumped then at the opportunity to live and work at or above treeline, where i felt like i could see, move, and breathe easier. I’d always felt uneasy surrounded by too much green, too many shadowed things. The tundra felt enough like the desert–is enough like the desert–to become a home. A few winters here have cured me of the idea that the forest is a green place; green is, rather, something that happens, a brief and showy event, superficial and somewhat overwrought. We anthropomorphize the “lazy willow,” whose leaves turn to yellow by the end of July, finding the whole endeavor not worth the effort. Dig your fingers in and find cold in the earth, wet and blackened. That black, the shadows, the texture and chromatic departure from the gray scale that trees offer, became more like a shelter than a cage. Sometimes the horizon is too much to take in uninterrupted. Becoming a forest dweller caught me by surprise.
A cloudless April weekend in Nome felt uncomfortably bright, and on Monday when i woke to gray skies and haze, i felt a tension i hadn’t recognized dissipate. L said this was the brightest time of year, maybe even the brightest days, when the light is back and the snow isn’t gone yet. I wanted to say how do you stand it, the view from her kitchen table out over the tundra and then the ocean, glaring white, beating in the window, sunlight like some growing spilled thing, creeping into cracks and around the curtain. Not used to it, i felt so small, and so irrelevantly visible in that land-and-seascape. In the days i was there, the warmth started its work on a small hill just outside the window, and while L worked i gravitated to its darkness. I lay with my book and her dog, face against the dried brown lichens, some familiar, some not. The air wasn’t much above 30˚, if at all, but the hill gathered warmth from every direction, and before i fell asleep i noted the heat distorting the air, radiating up from the dark patch of tundra.I think we crave a certain balance, and what might seem like extremes do balance over time. I’ve had several conversations recently about how manic and exhausting the people seem who have just arrived from somewhere else, and, conversely, how withdrawn and dull the rest of us must seem to them. This must be, in part, about light. Who wouldn’t be a little manic around the light if it didn’t follow the dark, if you just showed up in it with no opposite extreme?
Last month, my friend Michael sent me an envelope containing 15 black and white photos of dead salmon, mostly bone, some sand and gravel. He asked for advice: who should get fish heads? Does this one, with the decaying fin pointed upward and the mouth trapped in a fishy snarl, look like its flipping off the camera? Good. This needs to happen before the legislative session ends. How are artists different than politicians? Will anything come of it? We’re not going to save Bristol Bay with this. Is this all a waste of time? “Well, yes,” i said, because what else could it be but a waste of time once you throw in a verb like “save” and a place, any place, that’s not already ranked in terms of revenue but could be someday. “But you’ll always have been the guy who sent fish heads to Don Young. And that’s something, isn’t it?”
Over the weekend, i skied on a frozen river that might be dammed, and after the race, ate salmon with friends. Race organizers had joined forces with the people working to stop the dam, and placed signs at intervals along the trail asking dichotomous questions of salmon and skiers: a big wild river or a little expensive energy? Would you rather waste money or respect nature? There was one sign about LED bulbs, another about earthquakes, and something about the Titanic. The rhetoric annoyed me, but the need for the rhetoric annoyed me more, and my own cynicism even more than that. Over dinner, our friend who served the salmon and helped organize the race said she wondered if people were unhappy to see the race politicized. And i wondered about the people who could ski on a river and not think at least a little bit about the river, and if that’s political or if it’s only showing the slightest awareness of your surroundings. Is it political to make note of whether your feet rest on ice or water, snow or bare ground?
“The dam’s not gonna happen. Some people are saying they’re only pushing it to distract us from Bristol Bay,” my friend said. As if “we” can only focus on one place. As if we can even focus on one place. As if looking skyward, or groundward, upstream or downstream are politically separate acts. All our internal maps are fragmented and in constant shift.
Understanding and engaging with the legislative process doesn’t seem to translate much into desired outcome so we might as well go skiing or make art. Art is outcome. And process. Sometimes futile lawsuits against government entities are the right course of action (see page 2), just so you can always say you did it; maybe that’s a kind of artistic process too…? I’ve never really had reason to expect “results,” or at least results that reflected the work put in.
I suppose we are all distracted. Hopelessly distracted. I refuse to answer a question like “would you rather have a wild river or cheap energy.” I would rather have a conversation. I would rather go for a ski. I would rather arrange photos of dead fish in a half-circle around me on the floor and think about how river gravel feels on bare feet. Who’s asking the questions here? Where am i supposed to be looking? Upriver? Bristol Bay? Juneau? Ha. Google maps? Have i mentioned that online petitions make me cry sometimes? Can we talk about this? It would be…something.
(title: Anne Carson)
Recently, I heard a locally/regionally well-known photographer and writer speak about being locally/regionally well-known, and about love, and saving the world. The final question asked of him during the Q&A referred his simultaneous love of two very different corners of Alaska, and asked how he reconciles that geography, and if he “feels a bit polygamist.” Everyone laughed, because polygamy is funny, and having a home place (or two) is automatically equated to having a heterosexual relationship with a woman (or two)(haha!). He gracefully deflected, saying he doesn’t like Denali’s sub-zero winters and it is luck rather than polygamy that allows him to avoid them by retreating to his other home, where it just rains for six months straight. People clapped and cheered. The room was full of people who, by these definitions, are all “married” to, or at least having a casual affair with the same place. Then the power went out.
David Gessner says that “if marriage to a place is something of a strange metaphor, it’s also a fairly natural one,” and that “if the model of polygamy may no longer be a practical one for physical love, for love of place I embrace it.” He talks a bit about monogamy and intimacy and the American cliché of Westward travel, and, well…eh. He acknowledges that the metaphor is limited, but i think he focuses on the wrong limits, and the first time i read this short essay (“Polygamist of Place”), i cringed at lines like “I have other lovers—Colorado most prominently,” but i wasn’t sure if i was cringing at his characterization of himself as an aloof sort of geographical playboy, or his assumptions about monogamy, or the fact that COLORADO IS NOT A WOMAN YOU MEET IN A MOTEL ROOM AT 3PM, and even if she was, i’d imagine Greeley would behave quite differently as a lover than Durango and you really must be more specific (he means the Front Range, really, and who hasn’t been in love with the Front Range for, like, 5 minutes, that slut). But mostly i cringed because i’m so tired of this metaphor and its failings. In her discussion of the (American) land-as-woman metaphor, Annette Kolodny writes that by oversimplifying the way that metaphors function in our individual and cultural thinking, we can “cavalierly assume that when we use metaphor, we do not really mean what we say…Metaphors do, indeed, mean a great deal and may, in fact, serve as intersecting points for the various components of experience and action.”
And if we have to keep thinking in terms of marriage metaphors, here’s what i think is missing (in part): the wives are all talking to each other, sharing migratory bird populations and sharing STIs and wildfire smoke and recipes and waterborne bacteria and whatever else sexually active married women and geographical regions do (um.). Their interactions long predated the mobile, privileged American male writers who torture themselves about their inability to remain “settled and geographically married” (Gessner) to one place. They’ve been talking all along, and by isolating these places into disconnected pockets of “wilderness” and micro-climates, we’ve been ignoring—or silencing—those conversations.
But really, they haven’t been talking talking, because they are places, with ecologies and histories, not gossipy women, and it would be really helpful to both if we recognized that. Whatever your thoughts on metaphor as experience, it seems like this whole marriage thing is just another way to limit our imaginations to First World tokenized virgin land (or wife?! oh, wtf…) environmentalism.
Also, this topic is a great way to end conversations with happy drunk people at parties, fyi.