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recently about how manic and exhausting the people seem who have just arrived from somewhere else, and, conversely, how withdrawn and dull the rest of us must seem to them.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.
I’m not really interested in reading about gardening. As a result, i haven’t really attempted to write about it, either pastoral reflections on tending the earth, literally and metaphorically planting my seed in fertile soil, or manifestos on food sovereignty and overthrow of the vegetable industrial complex. I haven’t really delved into the meaning of it, beyond the obvious (and all the aforementioned subjects are pretty obvious), figuring it would be trite and overdone and boring for everyone.
But i’ve got this blog, which i’m really trying to keep from dropping into MFA-induced senescence again, and pictures of growing things are wildly popular on Facebook. Also, i spend a lot of time these days trying to come up with interesting ways to eat kale, and while we’re talking about trite and overdone, i might as well quote Annie Dillard saying “how you spend your days is how you spend your life.” At which point i must admit that i am spending my life picking kale, an overabundance of already-flowering broccoli, and the cutest little tomatoes you’ll ever see, and so if i’m going to be writing nonfiction, there’s gonna have to be some vegetables in it. So as i was sitting in the greenhouse with a beer after pulling up the remaining arugula, i decided that writing about it is probably inevitable, and i should ease myself in by blogging.
This particular greenhouse in which i am spending my (summer) life is kind of loaded with symbolism for c and me. Before i’d even started keeping a box of my favorite tea and a couple pairs of underpants in his house, i called him from the seed rack at the Fairbanks Freddie’s, and prefaced my request to resurrect a corner of his greenhouse for the summer with “I promise i’m not gonna try to move in or anything, but…” He said yes, and even helped me turn the soil and repair the rotting wood frame. Within a year, i’d moved in, teas, underpants, and all, and the next spring, we replaced all the fiberglass siding. This year, new soil, an electric composter, ripe tomatoes before the end of July. We pour money and time into it like crazy. We call the plants “the kids,” which is totally sweet and appropriate when we’re talking about rushing home to water the kids on a hot day, but perhaps less so by the time we’re gleefully chopping them up for monster salads.
And then there’s the political side of it. Though for this brief season, Alaska seems ideal for gardening, not even Barbara Kingsolver could make life here sound sustainable. Personal or community gardens might make a tiny dent in the carbon footprint of contemporary life in the subarctic, but every time i start to feel self-righteous about that, i need only to look at the 500 gallon fuel tanks on teh other end of the driveway to be reminded that we cannot live on kale alone. last week, i wrote this poem about bulldozers, which got me thinking about what kind of metal things are made of (i was wrong on what bulldozers are made of, it turns out), and then as we made breakfast (eggs with kale), c and i got a little carried away with surveying all the little things in the kitchen made of well-traveled metal, and imagining all the steps and labor and financial and shipping arrangements that made their presence in our kitchen possible. I won’t say capitalism isn’t amazing, but it’s exhausting to think about over breakfast: kitchen utensils, cars, nails, all torn out of the earth’s fertile soil, somewhere. Today i finally finished building a long-procrastinated compost box (the kitchen scraps have outgrown the electric composter, as a result of a well-fed garden, for which i largely credit the composter), and after a moment feeling all smug and ready for the apocalypse, i looked at the box of shiny identical 2″ screws, and thought again of all the necessary steps that got them to me, and i imagined how much less motivated i would have been if i had to do this project without power tools. I seem to focus on metal as the first thing to become unavailable in the event of social and economic collapse, and metal is really necessary for food. I try to take care of my pans, not use more screws than necessary. But still. I digress. I’m kind of falling asleep. See? This is why you shouldn’t read or write about gardening.
Except you should read Rebecca Solnit’s article in Orion, “Revolutionary Plots,” where she says
A garden as a retreat means a refuge, a place to withdraw from the world. A garden as an attack means an intervention in the world, a political statement, a way in which the small space of the garden can participate in the larger space that is society, politics, and ideas. Every garden negotiates its own relationship between retreat and attack and in so doing illuminates—or maybe we should say engages—the political questions of our time.
She goes on to say, basically, that gardens are great, but not enough, and a scapegoat for actual action: “Planting heirloom seeds is great, but someone has to try to stop Monsanto, and that involves political organizing, sticking your neck out, and confrontation. It involves leaving your garden.” This resonated with me, not because i think of my greenhouse as some revolutionary space, but because i’ve retreated from the question altogether, and that bothers and comforts me at the same time. I had no idea that, as Solnit says, today’s young people are distancing themselves from the baby boomers’ activism by retreating into passivity and gardens; but i certainly use it as a retreat. Much of my life, though, is a retreat. Maybe that’s the root of the uneasiness.
And roots. Root:radical:radish, etc. In college, Lauren and Jesse made t-shirts: “think of a radish.” That’s another topic altogether, but really the same one. The last crop of radishes failed. Too warm, or too dry. And soon, it will be time to pull it all up or bring it inside. The last tomatoes will still ripen on the plant after the leaves have yellowed and fallen off, and the image of them in the window, looking out on the first snows, will make me feel virile and self-sufficient, and also ridiculously vulnerable, all this metal and fuel keeping us and “the kids” alive when all practical evidence suggests that they shouldn’t be.
Gary Snyder is shorter than i imagined, and he said he like “all my earrings.” I took extra validation from the inclusion of the word “all,” meaning not just the nondescript turquoise chunks i wore that particular day, but the full rotation of accessories i’d chosen over the previous three. He said also that i asked a good question. Also, he passed me the butter. That is, at the heart of it, all that really happened.
Seated next to him at dinner the first night, despite my half-assed resistance (“No, i can’t sit there, i’m not ready, do i seem like i’m ready, i will not be ‘fine,’ ok, which chair am i putting a sweater on? I swear i’m not ready, this is not a good idea…”), i was notably silent. Other people around us were having more compelling and, to Snyder, relevant conversations, and it didn’t seem the time to launch into an idolatry monologue. I ate my salmon. Some got stuck in my teeth. One of Snyder’s sons is an avid Facebooker. I don’t know about the other one; it wasn’t discussed. Someone, a woman writer, is working on a biography of Kenneth Rexroth, a difficult subject because of his reputation as a sexist. I had no literary gossip to contribute, and no plan for this. It was suggested that i hand him a copy of this blog entry, but despite what i put on the internet, that’s not really my style. I’d joked about directing him to my house with a map of all the watersheds between here and Anchorage, but i’m lazy and the truth is i have no idea what’s going on off the highway south of the Alaska Range. So that left me with silence, and internal panic.
Eventually, i did use words. In the morning, he signed two books (No Nature and The Practice of the Wild); i’d brought a bigger stack with me, but two seemed like the rational, respectful, not crazy and overly needy choice. I asked my good question. He gave a good answer. I tried to explain reading No Nature in the rain at the old Eielson Visitor Center, and he said something about Denali creating its own weather and my heart broke a little (i’m baring my soul, and all you’ve got is a tourist brochure soundbyte?!), but…what else was he supposed to say? It does create its own weather. I still read the book.
A couple years ago, when Snyder read in Tucson and i was definitely not in Tucson, i made peace with the idea that i’m not alive at the right time or in the right places to personally interact with the literary icons of Snyder’s era. He’s old, and i’m here, and between mortality and distance the odds of ever sitting down with him–or even seeing him read his work in person–seemed pretty slim. That is, until David Stevenson came into my life, and with the help of some malleable students in the UAA MFA program, he invited Snyder to Alaska for what was likely his last visit. I got it in my head that i had to “make the most” of meeting him, sitting near him, taking the butter from his hand.
There was some discussion at this year’s residency about the difference between “the writer” (or “being a writer,” the identity and the personhood–or in some cases, the personality, of it) and “the writing”–the actual work produced. What i realized in not having long, meaningful talks with Gary Snyder was that it’s all about the writing, not the person, not the cult. His work has done and always will have done what it has for me (i have yet to figure out exactly what that is, and as David wrote/said in his welcome address (linked above), i don’t really have to–the influence is subtle and basic), and i don’t need to be memorable to him. As c pointed out in days before the residency, that after all these decades of literary celebrity, i wouldn’t be the first cute young woman to gush at Snyder. He meant this as a comfort. But i started to see that i didn’t need to be another one either. There is a value to the pedestal, to the prophet. Everyone kept telling me that he’s “totally approachable, easy to talk to,” etc etc. I have no doubt he is. But that wasn’t what turned out to be important. I wanted my myth to stay a myth.
Another man, a poet from Fairbanks, told me he’s modeled his art and life after Snyder’s philosophy: do your work, live your life, take care of your house, and write poems in between. He had the chance to meet Snyder years ago, but couldn’t manage even to stand in line to get his books signed, handed them to a friend and waited outside. He said he was ultimately glad to have kept that distance. One-sided exchanges work best that way. This time, he stayed in Fairbanks till after Snyder flew home again.
And my good question? It was about choosing your readers, and what to make public. He said that art is a public act, by definition. That without an audience, you are a “self-entertainer.” When Snyder discovered that Allen Ginsburg had been opening and reading his private mail, Ginsburg’s defense was “look, nothing’s private.” All his poems are written for an audience.
The public reading was probably the most fulfilling moment for me. Uncomplicated by expectations or pressures to go be memorable or clever, i could just watch a genius on a stage. This is a ritual i have no need to disrupt. It was enough. “The final phase in my poetry is surprisingly weird,” he said, chuckling a bit at this acknowledgment of his own death. Which seemed appropriate, and necessary. Unsurprisingly, he has an excellent reading voice.