Monday, June 23, 2008

Alaska Journal

On Solstice night the sky was clear over our rainforest; an amazing sight. In the small hours a giant red moon rose up from the southern horizon over sharp snowy peaks and a silken sea. Except for the gentle exhalation of a whale, it was utterly still: no boat noise, no breeze, no bird, not even a tiny wavelet plashing on the rocks. As if to reflect the hesitation of the sun at its apogee, everything else seemed to have stopped as well.

It has been another cold, wet spring here in Alaska. The spring king salmon run was a disaster. Pundits claim this is the consequence of the extraordinarily hot summer we had five years ago, when streams went dry and there was poor egg survival. But some of us wonder if it isn't part of the general collapse of ocean systems, and the relentless netting of anything that moves in international waters, particularly in the North Pacific gyre where our salmon grow up.

While herring seem to be on the increase, on the outer coast, at least temporarily, our runs in the Inside Passage become erratic. Last summer there were whales in the harbor, under the floats, chasing herring. We normally have a run into the harbor, but to have the whales pursue it was unheard of. We don't know if there was a shortage outside; there were some reports last autumn about skinny whales showing up in Maui. In any event, the water around the slips was saturated with herring blood. You could tell when a whale was nearby from the filaments of red spreading through the water. This year there seem to be herring enough out in the Passage but the harbor run has been meagre.

The fish were late; so were the hummingbirds, whose numbers also seem diminished. The ones that that survived have woven their spider web nests in the lilac and the red ozier dogwood. Cold weather brings them to the feeders far more often than in past summers, and they are going through gallons of syrup. The eagles' starvation season lasted far longer this year than in the past; who knows if it will be a good nesting year. The last one was a disaster, though our local pairs did well, hatching and raising chicks. Perhaps the bins of salmon scraps from the processor have an effect. This year the supplement continued until the end of May, far later than normal. There were still 70 or 80 birds coming in, pinions stalling, yellow feet with talons spread to grab, picking up on the wing, or landing and gulping carcasses whole, sometimes taloning anyone in the way with a loud whump, squawking, fighting. Even so, in June an emaciated eagle was picked up nearby. There are definitely some old-timers among the eagles who come; perhaps this was one of them.

The paper yesterday reported more disturbing bird news: the deformed bill syndrome we have been seeing for the past few years in small passerines and crows is on the increase and is now showing up all over the Pacific Northwest. But to counter this news, a hermit thrush nests nearby; its fluting blending at all hours with the sweet melody of a fox sparrow.

In April an avalanche took our cheap hydro electricity, knocking out transmission towers and lines. We had to go on diesel, and despite the fact that Alaska is a major oil producer our fuel (and food) prices are the highest in the nation. No one thinks to replenish those who keep the cookie jar going. But we were lucky: the weather held, repairs were made in record time; it was not winter ("pray it does not happen in winter"). People rose to the challenge as people here do, and within six weeks we had reduced our electricity consumption by two-thirds. So it can be done. It remains to be seen whether we will continue in our frugal ways.

But Alaskans are in trouble. Folks in the interior are being forced to leave their villages, where they have existed time out of mind, because they are now dependent on fuel, and in their cash-poor economy the price of fuel and staples is beyond them. Unemployment here is the highest in the nation. The economy is in trouble worldwide, but trouble, like climate change, deepens in the North. And the Artic ice has melted faster than any year on record.

Everywhere there are wars and rumors of wars: a new and familiar phony WMD strategy seems to be developing between the US and Israel over Iran; Zimbabwe is on the verge of the recent scenario in Doonesbury that depicts the murderous tyrant of Berzerkestan; meanwhile Sudan continues to sink further into genocide with rape as a weapon of intimidation.

This morning early I went out into the lilac-scented garden. An ancient white is rewarding me for years of seemingly fruitless care, pruning out dead wood, burying branches already near the ground in hopes they will root. Today it is so covered in blossoms it is almost impossible to see the leaves. Its perfume is augmented by the more subtle scent of "sweet rocket", phlox from someone's garden gone wild along the beach. In the herbaceous border everything is trying to come into bloom at once: the purple balls of alliums, the delicate fringed pale blue flowers of morning rue, the butterfly flowers of aquilegia in every color and form, towering stalks of blue delphiniums in every shade, and great candles of intense red and yellow lupines. Their blue wild cousins are blooming everywhere on the roadsides now. The peonies are in bud, and an azalea flames the same color as the rufous hummingbird's gorget.

The alpina clematis, beloved of bumble bees, are just dropping their lavender petals, while the bees themselves seem happily to be multiplying in the piles of brush I've thrown on the sea wall to strengthen it. We can't keep honeybees in this climate, alas. In the polytunnel tomatoes, squash, pumpkins and beans languish in the cool weather; even the peas on the deck seem reluctant this year, while the roses and lilies have suspended operations until the weather warms a bit more. I've taken pity on some of the vegetables and moved them inside into the garden window, where the tomatoes are towering to the ceiling, already bearing small round green globes, and pumpkins are muscling their way around the other pots, threatening to take over the entire living room. The first incipient pumpkin bloomed yesterday, but she was wasting her time, poor thing, because the male flowers are slower to develop (even so in the plant world as the human!) and none was ready.

The new Prairie Fire crabapple is just dropping its cerise blossoms on the white sweet woodruff that spills around the foot of a stone shrine that predates my appearing by who knows how many decades. And a young copper beech, also new this year, has unfolded its dark leaves, holding them proudly aloft, as if saluting the huge yellow cedar on a neighbor's property nearby.

As I turn to go in, a whale breaches.

The anguished questioning of the world is stilled in my garden; it is invited there for healing. Who knows what resonances a pocket of beauty, peace and silence may have for the future of our race? There is little I can do but live carefully and offer hospitality to pain, and in that hospitality is, perhaps, a seed of hope.

There are other gardens here, far lovelier than mine, set in the context of the wild garden that is the Alaska wilderness. Its stillness, its hospitality for pain, must also be preserved, for in wilderness pain is taken from us and transfigured;[1] "in wilderness is the preservation of the world."[2] We must keep some of it, at least, from exploitation, lest we lose our souls.

[1] Erazim Kohák in The Embers and the Stars.

[2] Eliot Porter in his book by the same title.


Post a Comment

<< Home