Monday, June 25, 2012

Float plane to Redoubt Bay


Fishing boats below bob like children's toys in a bathtub, and hulking white mountains in the distance loom like a painting, too still and perfect to be real. We've just climbed to 10,000 feet after my first takeoff in a float plane, rising from the cloud-shrouded waters of Tutka Bay and curving around the coastal town of Homer, Alaska. Now we're heading across open water toward a wall of mountains, the red wings of the de Havilland Beaver contrasting sharply with the summer-blue sky. We carve the air like a giant metal bird, hurtling 500 miles an hour toward a wall of snow and ice.

From above, the dynamic force of these waters are revealed. Cook Inlet has some of the largest tidal fluctuations in the world, with more than 30 feet of water flushed in and out daily with the change of tides. I look down at the push and pull of currents, the undersea shelves and fault lines, the play of clouds on the open ocean. Aquamarine, teal, turquoise, cerulean, blue-gray: all the blues in a 64-color Crayola box scribbled across the surface of the sea. Clouds and sea birds drift on the wind. 

We fly straight straight across the inlet, into the heart of the mountains. The sea suddenly gives way to the boreal forest, clumps of spruce scattered over muskeg, grasslands criss-crossed with animal paths. Veins of snow taper down from the mountains, white seeping into green. A braided river cradled by lush ravines empties into the sea in a miasma of sand and silt and mud flats.

As we fly between the massive peaks, we lose our ability to comprehend the landscape. It is too big to name. Our human brains cannot make sense of it, cannot fit it into the scale of what we're able to know and understand. The unnamed peaks and snowfields and crevasses stretch on like the teeth of a comb, on and on until infinity, until they disappear into the horizon.

That evening, we board the Beaver again and take a different route home, skipping the mountains and instead following the Otter River back to Cook Inlet. Our pilot, Bruce, has been flying in the Alaskan bush since he came here after high school in the 1970s. He plays Led Zeppelin over our headsets and talks about the most beautiful sight he's seen in 30 years as a bush pilot: the lights of Anchorage on a fall night, returning home after getting caught in an early storm. Storms behind him, home ahead. He flies us low over muskeg and boreal forest, the spindly green pinnacles of spruce piercing the air. We see a moose browsing the brush, the only sign of life in this vast, wet-dimpled plain that looks as rich and undisturbed as the Serengeti. Ribbons of light snake through the green expanse, their tributaries branching out like tendrils of gold in the evening sun. Nonchalantly, Bruce steers the plane over a route he knows well, while in the back I marvel that this hunk of nuts and bolts and red paint assembled nearly 70 years ago can still offer us a glimpse of the impossible, or at least the improbable: a glimpse of the world, as Isak Dinesen wrote, through God's eye.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Hiking Grace Ridge

The alpine ground is warm where it's free of snow, but two inches above it the wind blows steadily, sweeping the snowfields clean. We aren't very high -- about 1,500 feet -- but on these jagged, nascent peaks rising straight from sea level, it feels like being on top of the world. Wind is the only sound. Patches of light and shadow slide over the snowfields. Delicate alpine flowers seem to brace themselves against the cold, growing despite the wind, teased from the earth by the lingering sun. I sit on a patch of lichen-covered earth surrounded by hills of snow, while on another bare patch, not far away, a marmot suns himself, occasionally casting a glance my way. A pair of ptarmigan startle from behind a rock, explosions of white against the sky.

No matter the elevation -- 1,500 feet or 14,000 -- the alpine zone is hushed, reverential, a place you feel you ought to speak in a whisper; a place where miniature flowers withstand the harshest, most inhospitable winds but the single fall of a hiking boot may wreak irreparable damage.

"Truly, we live in those long-ago times people will talk fondly of." (John A. Murray)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The case for milkmen

  1. The economy is still sluggish, and people need jobs.
  2. People aren't eating so healthy these days, and fresh local milk is a good for you.
  3. Raw milk products are experiencing a surge in popularity.
  4. Locally grown and produced goods are huge.
  5. Everything vintage is hip again. Hipsters would love a bottle of milk delivered to their door by a guy on a bicycle. So would most everyone else.
  6. Glass bottles aren't just recyclable, they're reusable, which is even more environmentally friendly.
  7. People have less time, and are willing to pay for the convenience of delivery.
  8. Small dairy farms are going under.
  9. Small dairy farms are key to working landscapes and vibrant communities.
  10. Having fresh local milk show up on your doorstep is awesome!

When I was 24, I lived in an old schoolhouse on a mountaintop in Vermont. It was the most idyllic place I've ever lived – and I've lived in a lot of places. The 350-acre patchwork of fields and forest was scattered with cabins and outbuildings, and each was rented out by some unique, hardy soul. Ann baked bread and kept chickens. Oliver worked at a cheese farm. Brigham kept bees, Brooke blew glass, Grace had a huge garden, Andy fixed things, Laura made pottery and John hayed and split wood. And then there was Lucy – Lucy worked at an organic dairy farm, waking up at 5 a.m. each morning to milk cows in all kinds of weather. She came home smelling like cows, her Carhartts filthy, fingertips raw, cheeks ruddy. She was a Smith College graduate who was well-read and super smart, but while her job was grueling, something about it satisfied her soul.

Living at the old schoolhouse I benefited from the labors of all my neighbors. Honey, eggs and bread made their way to my door regularly. But the thing I enjoyed most was the fresh raw milk that Lucy brought home in glass jugs.

Later, after several years away, I moved back to Vermont and lived in a huge house in a rough-ish neighborhood in an old industrial town. It was not the bucolic, pastoral Vermont I remembered, but I grew to love it there too. One of my housemates, Karen, worked part time at a dairy farm and, once again, I found myself privy to the wonderful secret of milk delivered right to your kitchen. Every Monday, Karen would bring home a gallon jar of raw milk and leave it in the refrigerator for everyone to share. And again, I had fresh bread delivered to my kitchen as well. On Sundays, our neighbor Birdie would bake loaves of sweet white bread and leave a steaming loaf on our countertop. Slathered with honey with a glass of cold milk to wash it down, it was heaven on earth.

I started thinking about milkmen. Anyone who grew up in the era of milkmen will tell you, with more than a trace of nostalgia, how wonderful it was to wake up in the morning and have jars of milk with the cream still floating on top waiting on their doorstep. In some parts of the U.K., this is still common. In America, it's a thing of the past.

Many of the Norman Rockwell-esque features of bygone America wouldn't work well in today's fast paced culture. But milkmen, I think, can and should make a comeback. Can't you see it? Farms flourishing outside New York City, truckloads of fresh milk trucked into central locations each day, and delivery boys and men (and girls and women) loading the glass bottles into milkcrates mounted on their bicycles and maneuvering through early morning traffic (or up country roads) to bring it to restaurants, homes and businesses. We get our newspapers delivered, and our mail... why not our milk? It would stimulate the local economy, help struggling dairy farmers and develop a strong farm-to-table link while enhancing the convenience and freshness that consumers value.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rainy day

I am getting soft.

When it rains, I watch the drops pattern the gray sky from behind a window. I sip tea, warm and dry and comfortable. I cannot bring myself to get up and run outside, to conjure joy from discomfort. What would compel me, when I am so comfortable in here? It is more than comfort. It is complacency. Now that I have the choice, I only go out on the sunny days, when the water is calm, when conditions are fair. But there is a part of me that rebels. What joy is there in being apart from the weather? Force me outside in the cold rain! Make me ride my bike in it, spray flying in my wake. I want to arrive with soaking hair, shoulders steaming, face flushed. I want to drop my head to the pillow at night, muscles tired. Make me paddle in it, my boat slicing through the clouds, rain dripping from my hood, fingertips raw. Make me hike in the mud, in the snow, until water soaks my socks. Give me anything, Lord, I'll take whatever you throw at me, but not complacency. Not this. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Something bigger

When my thoughts become difficult to think, and unproductive too –- when I lie at night and think of the words I want to say to him, the insults I want to hurl, the apologies I want to seek –- I wrap myself instead in the mountains and the sea, those two disparate worlds that meet here at sharp angles. I close my eyes and imagine the fiddleheads unfurling in the forest while I sleep, the rocks on the beach turning over themselves, turning, turning as the tide pulls in and pushes out, breathing, the whole earth breathing and pulsing while my body, close to sleep, strives for the same. We breathe together, the earth and I, resting when it's time to rest and growing when it's time to grow. I close my eyes at night and escape consciousness into a dreamworld of possibilities. The light grows longer and longer each night, and while my cells and neurons regenerate, ferns spread across bare ground, shoots of fireweed and lupine stretch higher, the starfish in the sea crawl across beds of mussels and clams looking for food. Eat, grow, move, search, die back – we are all in this together. When my thoughts seem like the biggest thing around, I lay back and let the mountains envelop me, squeezing out everything else, their white snowfield arms encircling me, tucking me deep into the green folds of their forests.

I think of Edward Abbey. For 227 pages now, I have been incredulously admirable of his solitary life, and finally, I get a hint that there is more: “I strip and lay back in the sun," he writes, "with nothing between me and the universe but my thoughts. Deliberately I compose my mind, quieting the febrile buzzing of cells and circuits, and strive to open my consciousness directly, nakedly to the cosmos. Under the influence of cosmic rays I try for cosmic intuitions – and end up earthbound as always, with a vision not of the universe but of a small and mortal particular, unique and disparate … her smile, her eyes in firelight, her touch.” Later: “I walk among thistles and coarse dying goldenrod … and ponder the meaning of my solitude. Reaching no conclusions.”

If Abbey can reach no conclusions, what can I, mere mortal, hope to come up with? Even with the shadow of mountains and emptiness of wind and eternity of the sea all around me, there are no conclusions to be reached. But I can still surrender to the earth, let it grow and push itself into the crevices of my consciousness, let it wrap itself around me like a choking vine, a vine that continues to leaf out and unfurl its tendrils while I sleep, soundly, striving for peace. 

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