Saturday, January 26, 2013

deep roots

A version of an assignment I worked on last fall when I was staying at my friend Theo's cabin:


Euclid Farnham's wife is trying to shove a head of cabbage into the refrigerator.

“This is not working,” she calls from the kitchen, her head buried in the depths of the appliance.

“This is not working,” Euclid repeats to himself, rising from the rocking chair by the woodstove 
where he's been discussing, among other things, how history and conservation are two sides of the same coin. He shuffles into the narrow kitchen. Seventy-nine years old, he's lived in this house his entire life. His family inherited it “down to the kettle” in the throes of the Great Depression.

“And the squash is getting gooey,” Priscilla Farnham mutters from within the fridge.

“The squash is getting gooey,” Euclid repeats. “What do you need me to do?”

“Take this.” Priscilla shoves an armload of fall produce at her husband. “There's no room in the crisper. We should never have bought those grapes.”

“Our problem is we have the world's smallest refrigerator,” Euclid explains en route to the pantry. “Look around this room. We have seven doors and two windows. Where do you put anything?”

“Oh, hell,” Priscilla says from the kitchen. There's a loud thump. Just then the phone rings – an old-fashioned, actual-bell ringer. It's a library group asking to book a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus at their Christmas party, roles that Euclid and Priscilla have been playing for decades despite the fact the Euclid – lean, with a gray mustache and thinning hair – needs a good deal of padding to fit the part. He takes the call and makes a note on the calender.

“It's a real ordeal, getting involved in all this stuff,” he says wryly, sitting back down. Not only is he the only Santa anyone can remember, he's also served as town moderator and president of the Tunbridge Historical Society for more than 30 years, and recently retired as cemetery commissioner and president of the Tunbridge World's Fair, an annual agricultural event. He's been a justice of the peace, the town lister, the trustee of public funds, a dairy farmer, a maple syrup producer, a soldier, a Republican, a Democrat and an author. The one thing he has not been is a father.

“I'm the end of the Farnham line,” he says. “That concerns me, it really does.”

Farnhams have been in Tunbridge, Vermont for eight generations – since before statehood in 1791. Euclid's ancestors walked north from Connecticut alongside Ethan Allen's family after the Revolutionary War, hauling their belongings on horseback through the forest until they reached the present site of Tunbridge. They've survived a Mohawk raid, fought against a dam that would have flooded the town, and lived through natural disasters that nearly did flood it. Euclid describes events from the early 1800s as though talking about yesterday's Red Sox game.

“My family's been here so long, I grew up with all this history,” he says. “If I don't write this down, a lot of it's going to be lost. It's the roots of the community.”

In Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, the western writer Wallace Stegner writes about the “deficiency of community” and lack of “deeply lived-in places” that can result from the transient, mobile culture of the American West. Coming from a nation built by pilgrims and pioneers, Americans have long searched for identity and opportunity by taking to the roads, trails and highways. Leaving is in our blood.

Staying is less romantic. Staying means grappling with sustainability. It means preserving resources. But when you stay, your history sinks like taproots beneath the land until you become part of a place. You remember, for instance, what the forest looked like before the American chestnuts and elms all died. You know there used to be salmon and eels in the First Branch of the White River, because your mother told you how she sat on the banks and fished for them. When you know these things and you care about a place, you have the power to protect it.
For decades, though, the Farnhams were the exception, not the rule, even in blue-blooded New England. Throughout the 20th century, droves of families and young people left Vermont in search of richer soil and better opportunities, and the population of Tunbridge dwindled from 2,000 to less than 790 by the 1960s.

Even Euclid's grandfather left for a while. In 1880, Grandfather Farnham was swept up with the great migration west, joining millions of others who left their homelands and sought new opportunities and better futures by pushing ever further into the new frontier. Grandfather Farnham found himself drawn to the the fertile, boulder-less expanses of Kansas, but his own father, a Civil War veteran, wouldn't let his son out of Vermont so easily. 
“In a last desperate attempt, he took a train as far west as he could go to convince him to come back,” Euclid recounts, his gray eyes flashing. “He was successful, thank heaven. I've been in Kansas, and it's long and flat and boring. I'm glad I'm not in Kansas.”

Euclid is glad he's not anywhere else but on Whitney Hill Road in Tunbridge, Vermont. In the 1950s, he spent three years in the army traveling through Europe, and in the early 1980s he spent a month exploring National Parks west of the Mississippi. 
“It's great out there,” he says. “But I just – I just missed the hills of Vermont. I missed the hardwoods. It's a silly thing, but growing up with the maples and the beeches, when I got east to Minnesota I felt like I was home again.”

Today, the hardwood forests that Euclid loves are changing, along with nearly everything else. The state has turned from staunchly Republican to staunchly Democrat (a move Euclid applauds), many of the old family farms have been hacked into smaller and smaller plots, and much of the old pastureland has reverted to forest. 

“It seems like everything is happening to our forests,” he says, ticking off the diseases that have swept New England trees in his lifetime. “We lost our chestnuts. The elm trees are gone. The butternut trees are well on their way. The beech trees – well, the reason I'm burning beech this winter is I'm told to burn them for wood or they'll die anyway. It seems like one species after another is going.”

Seasons have changed drastically since he was growing up. Winters are warmer and natural disasters are more common. Sugar bushes and apple orchards are suffering. There are fewer fish in the rivers and the rivers themselves are less stable due to decades of human intervention. 

But today, a second wave of back-to-the-land revivalists buying land in Vermont, and they're doing it with the radical intent of staying. The local stigma against “flatlanders” is lifting, and demographics are slowly shifting. Euclid's neighbors on Whitney Hill Road now include a young law student who put his career on hold to build a cabin, a Jamaican farmer (the only black man in town) and his artist wife, and a publishing agent who's no longer chained to New York City thanks to broadband internet. None of them have roots in Tunbridge. But they all want to stay. 
The recorded history of Tunbridge, Vermont currently resides in its entirety in a cramped office in Euclid Farnham's house, but within the year a new fireproof room will be completed at the local library and the collection will be moved. Euclid and Priscilla are deciding what to do with their house – a piece of living history itself – when the time comes. Meanwhile, Euclid is working on his third book about Tunbridge history, preparing to leave eight generations' worth of research, observations and anecdotal knowledge to his new neighbors. He hopes it's enough.

“If we lose our roots,” he says, “then future generations have lost a lot.”

Thursday, January 24, 2013

where the wild things are

Why does it matter that we preserve wilderness in the United States?

Some people argue that we need to preserve wilderness for its own sake; others that wild places heal and replenish the human soul, and are necessary to our very being. There is a current wave of “neo-environmentalists” who argue wild places have economic and social value and should be preserved for those reasons. The point can also be made that wild plants and animals may hold medical secrets that could benefit humans, and there are countless other reasons stretching across time and literature and academia. But none have held up against our ongoing march toward progress.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline from Alaska ruled against afederal Fish and Wildlife proposal to protect a 187,000 square mile chunk of the Arctic – an area larger than California – from oil and gas exploration to preserve rapidly shrinking polar bear habitat. Judge Beistline's ruling was applauded by nearly every public figure in Alaska: Governor Sean Parnell called the ruling a victory against “the latest in a long string of examples of the federal government encroaching on our state's rights.”

I have never been inside the Arctic Circle, and I have never seen a wild polar bear. I do not have personal experience of the financial and physical struggles of families living on Alaska's North Slope. But I like to think that I have a degree of empathy, and I've worked closely with Alaskan teenagers who have come from such families. I've spent many weeks in the wilderness with them and many hours paddling canoes and talking with them and I think that in the process I've gotten a glimpse into life in villages of the far north. It doesn't sound easy. But a line has to be drawn somewhere.

Though I haven't met with a polar bear in the wild, I have watched one at the Chicago Zoo – a massive creature with a range of hundreds of miles in the wild, forced to swim in circles in an artificially blue pool in 90 degree heat in the middle of Chicago. I've also encountered a good number of wild Alaskan brown bears, and their smaller black cousins. I've paddled a canoe next to a swimming brown bear, watched them snatch salmon from a river and spied on them through binoculars as they lumber over brown tundra. And I have seen enough other large animals – sharks, manta rays, whales, wolves, moose and buffalo in the wild – to know the contradictions that exist in such creatures: violence and grace side by side, power on one side of the coin and fragility on the other.

In response to Judge Beistline's ruling, Gov. Parnell issued a statement that he is “pleased the State of Alaska was able to fight off this concerted effort to kill jobs and economic development.” Meanwhile, environmentalists elsewhere in the U.S. have raised their collective megaphones to express outrage over the decision, protesting on behalf of the bears. All well and good, but their voices aren't heard in the one place where it matters most: Alaska, which, as a state, sued the federal government for trying to intervene in local affairs. Alaskans know that a bunch of liberals in Washington D.C. don't know shit about what goes down in northern Alaska. It's a different country up there, a different culture. And when students are dropping out of school to hunt walrus to support their family, it's hard to turn down development that brings jobs and hope to a region still struggling to define itself in the modern world.

In New Zealand, where I am spending six months, there are no large native mammals. The only native land species of any substance were the moa – large emu-like birds that were hunted to extinction by the Maori – and the Haast eagle, which died along with their main food source, the moa. True there are dolphins and whales in New Zealand's waters, but it is utterly strange to tramp through thick forest, beneath towering peaks and glistening glaciers, in deep valleys that seem as wild and remote as you can get – and not have the slightest fear of running into something that can kill you. Edward Abbey said that it ain't wilderness unless there's something big out there that can kill you, but perhaps he had never been to New Zealand. It's plenty wild down here on the South Island, but you can cook dinner right in your tent without fear of a bear attack and walk barefoot up the trails without worrying about a snakebite.

In a way, it's freeing: a hiker's paradise, free of danger as long as you bring the right clothing and don't get lost. It offers a relaxed sort of wilderness experience, and that's a nice change after spending months camping in bear country. But imagine a world where all the wild places were like that? It would get boring pretty fast. Part of the allure of spending time in the wilderness is not knowing what you'll see, what you might run into around the next bend. There's a sense of trepidation and excitement. There's the knowledge that you're not the biggest, baddest thing out there.

So why preserve wilderness? Because it's of value to use as a species, because we need it as much as it needs us, economically and spiritually and ecologically. Preserve wilderness for its own sake, in the spirit of altruism. And preserve wilderness because I personally do not want to live in a world where buffalo are nothing but a roadside attraction on the outskirts of Yellowstone and polar bears swim in hopeless circles in Chicago and people can walk in the wild places without any chance of encountering something that bigger than they are, something very much alive and breathing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Alaska journal, part 2

Dug this out of my journal from the summer, back when I was in Alaska.
4 August

Another month, another program. I forget what it was like, to not be fully absorbed in your job, to not live, eat and breathe it. In a way, it is too consuming: I have little time or inclination to write or be creative. That part of me falls away as easily as a label peeled off a bottle, and I wonder whether I have the self discipline to conjure it back up when I leave. Do I need the structure of a writing job to live the life of a writer, or can it be like flipping a switch: wilderness guide one week, writer the next? How are these two parts of me conjoined, and where do they diverge? Most importantly, how can I connect them?

On the other hand, it is a blessing to be fully present in each moment. I am absorbed by the girls in this program, the guide team, the group, the expeditions, the daily tasks and routines – every piece of it requires my undivided attention until the extraneous thoughts drift away into the cobwebbed corners of my mind. Today I was doing paperwork and looked at the date – 8.4.12 – and had to pause to consider how unreal is seems. Has it really been nine months since my heart was stomped on like a burning cigarette on a cold night? Now, days pass and I hardly think of him except with a twinge of regret that it wasn't what I'd hoped it would be. But I am glad to be here and doing this again, and glad to have the freedom afterward to go anywhere, do anything.

14 August

Time, as usual, flies, and I have little of it to spare for writing. Two guides and five kids is a demanding ratio, and in the evenings I like to sit and talk with Jesse. But there is so much I wish I could write down, because I know that without writing, it will become lost. It is not the words that count, looking back at it years later, but the act of writing itself, as if sitting and making yourself aware of where you are and what it smells and tastes and feels like is more important than the words themselves. I remember being about 9 years old and sitting behind a dresser, writing in my diary while cookies baked in the kitchen. I wrote about school that day, but what I remember most is the moment I put pen to paper: the smells of Christmastime, the grey slush outside the window, the toys on the floor. We cut and paste together our lives in this way, words and old photographs coalescing until we develop stories, memories, explanations, selves. 

Last week, we attempted to hike 3,700-foot Mount Etolin and made it to approximately 1,300 feet, or roughly one mile in four days of hiking. Since there was no chance of summiting, we were able to come down a day early and dry out at the floathouse: we were soggy to the core, filthy and stinky. All the girls got their periods at once and I didn't pack nearly enough tampons, and everyone was drenched to their socks and underwear within the first hour of hiking. How to possibly describe such rank wetness, with no dry place to escape to? We slogged through mud, slept in wet sleeping bags, hung wet clothes from our bodies. It was one big fat bucket of suck, and yet, there were moments: bending over with a 70-lb pack on to lean on my trekking pole and noticing how alive the forest floor is, how much life thrives in the wetness that drives humans away. Hair-like worms waving, centipedes skittering under leaf litter, tiny spiders and beetles and nameless insects crawling and dangling and jumping. Everything fetid, fecund, alive; growing, rotting, struggling to carry on.

And let us not forget the black flies. The hoards of no-see-ums that erupted fro the muskeg pools upon our arrival, enlivened by the first human prey they'd likely seen in their brief, miserable lives. They dropped into our food by the hundreds, flung themselves into our eyes, noses and ears; invaded our tents and brains and sanity. Let us not forget them.

Then today, for the first time in 20 days, we awoke to sunshine. Beautiful beach, fire, dry everything. We are on the move agin, circumnavigating Etolin Island. I move my home every night, carrying what I need from the canoe to the woods, setting up my tarp and sleeping bag again and again under different trees, in different forests – all different and all, somehow, the same.

17 August

I'm sitting on the long flat-rock beach of South Etolin Island, watching the tide creep closer to my feet. We are staying here for three days for reflection time, and it is nice to rest from the rigors of expedition. The embers of the morning cook fire crackle and the occasional salmon throws itself out of the water and lands on its side with a smack. Ravens fan the air with their heavy wingbeat and, as in a Grateful Dead song, the eagles fill the sky – four adults and two juveniles swooping back and forth, dropping feathers along the beach. The woods are like a park here – flat and mossy ground under a canopy of widely spaced cedars and ancient spruces. The sun is shining and the sky is blue for the fourth unbelievable day in a row, and I'm living in shorts and a tank top. Life is grand. I do not doubt for a second that returning here was the right decision, that ending a two-year relationship and quitting the lodge were all right in some roundabout way and that this is the track my life is going to take: wandering, loopy and beautifully unpredictable.

The water is a flat powder blue with ripples of electric teal wavering toward the rim of sky. The sky itself is wide and blue and the horizon is a haze of blue mountaintops and blue islands. It is a whole landscape painted in shades of blue, a blue that is alive, flecked with silver and light, always changing.

Later – Walking back from across the long beach at twilight, Jesse's figure as he stoops by the water to wash the dinner pot is striking – a lone silhouette against an enormous backdrop of sky and ocean. It is sometimes easy to forget, being part of a group all the time, that we are essentially the only people on these distant, scattered beaches; that we alone make these untouched islands our home. I am more comfortable walking barefoot across this beach with a drom of water collected from the creek than I am on any city street. Stumps and trees and rocks become my landmarks. It is not a life I want to live forever, but I will always miss the simplicity of gathering water from a stream, cooking over a fire and sleeping under a tree.

There are no unsacred places – only sacred places, and desecrated places.” – Wendell Berry 


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

skipping winter.

I am skipping winter for the third time in my life, and for the third time, it is unsettling. I don't get homesick anymore, not really – not the way I used to. But there is always a part of me that suffers pangs of yearning for the cycle of seasons. Home, more than anything else, is embodied by the feeling of the seasons as they pass.

As I move from place to place, I make trade-offs. No place has it all. I leave the northeastern corner of the U.S. to seek bigger spaces and new horizons, to expand my perspective on things. It's something that I need to do. I cannot stay there – it feels cramped now, too tame for the tastes I've apparently developed. But when I'm away – in particular when I'm far away – and I'm reading a book or watching a film, I am sometimes struck by images of the seasons as I know them. Of northern hardwood forests bare and empty in a monochrome landscape. A sap bucket hanging on a tree. Smoke from a chimney on an old house, evaporating into a frigid galaxy of stars.

It is not only seasons, but history. New England is strong on history, and growing up there it was imbued in my understanding of the place. If I were to take someone to my hometown now, they would would see only the Dunkin Donuts on the corner, gray snow piled against slushy sidewalks; towns bleeding into each other, a vast network of roads drawn willy nilly in the days before urban planners existed.

I see these things too, and yet I see beyond them, into the past. I see my ancestors, who worked outside in all seasons and came to depend on their cyclicality. I see farther north into Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine, where the past is closer at hand and people still live intertwined with the land. My vision is blurred by moments from my own past: a candlelit night in a cabin drinking elderberry wine; a fiddle's notes slicing through a steamy room while dancers shake the 200-year-old floorboards; snowshoeing on winter afternoons filled with silver light and the long shadows of birch trees.

These things are not visible at first glance. They reveal themselves slowly, over a lifetime of exploring, of pulling back the curtain little by little. I brought someone here once, and grew frustrated that he did not love it as I hoped he would. Ultimately, his rejection pf this place became his rejection of me. But you cannot understand this place until you've experienced it in every season – and each week, each month is a season unto itself. They form a rhythm that is vital to my very being. I know there are other places with other seasons. I know that fall in southeast Alaska means not crisp blue days and bright leaves but rather a descending darkness and a steady cold, gray drizzle. This is not any less authentic than the fall I grew up with; nor is Hawaii's warm, rainy winter any less a true representation of winter than one with sleighbells and evergreen boughs hanging on doors. I know this, and yet I cannot believe it to be true: winter is snow, fall is harvest, spring is earth and summer is green. That's simply the way it is, in my mind: all these other places I go to can only approximate the brilliance of seasons in New England. There may be greater wildernesses, more beautiful landscapes, more laidback cultures. But seasons. They mean so much to me. 

 Winter in New Hampshire

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

water power

There used to be a boardwalk. Now it is closed off, rotting, ridden with holes and plastered in slippery leaves. It has been raining for three days now, really raining, the kind of rain that can only occur in a place that receives upwards of seven meters of rain a year. Three days ago the sky opened up and water began pouring out of it in the way it might during a tropical afternoon storm or a monsoon – a kind of rain that comes quickly and leaves a short while later. But this rain doesn't leave. It continues unabated for days.

On Monday, having played board games, baked, done yoga, ate and watched moves for far too long, we gear up. Everyone digs out the most protective, waterproof combination they can find. I wear my dry suit, neoprene booties, neoprene gloves, a neoprene balaclava and my diving mask. Then we pile into the back of the van and drive to Bowen Falls.

At 160 meters tall, Lady Bowen Falls is three times higher than Niagra Falls. It's fed by a glacier, but the sheer mountains surrounding it lack soil and thus do not absorb rainwater, so when it rains hard like this, Bowen floods quickly. The mountains funnel rainwater into an ever-swelling river that churns through an alpine valley, then shoots like a firecracker into the sky before dropping over a ledge the height of a 50-story building.

Bowen Falls is not only a magnificent example of hydrology, it also supplies the community of Milford Sound with drinking water and electricity. About 150 people live in Milford Sound, and every time one of us flushes a toilet, drinks a glass of water or takes a shower, we are using pure, untreated glacier melt-off that has been locked up in ice for 30,000 years. Humans arrived in New Zealand 800 years ago, so the water coming off Bowen Falls has never before touched another human being. This astounds me. In London, they say, the water coming from the tap has already been cycled through eight people.

We're lucky here. Not only because we can turn on the tap and drink glacier water (as well as brew beer from it), but because when it rains hard and there is no work and the one road into this place is closed off due to rock slides, we venture into the most raw, wild display of nature I have ever imagined. We can go under Bowen Falls while it is flooding.

I've known this for weeks. I think I'm ready. I've been warned to cover every possible piece of skin. I'm expecting it to be intense.

But nothing can prepare me for the reality of it. We pile out of the van – seven of us, five kayak guides and two friends – and walk along a narrow, crumbling piece of asphalt, the start of the old trail. On one side is the loamy, pulsing ocean; on the other, a cliff dripping with ferns, sphagnum moss and rivulets of water. We reach a solid metal gate and climb over it, like teenagers sneaking onto the football field at night. The boardwalk on the other side curves against the ocean for a while, then disappears into the forest. As we follow it deeper toward the falls, water becomes the only sound. Rain pelts the leaves and splatters into a forest that has become swampland practically overnight.

The wind picks up as we approach. Bowen Falls creates its own winds, gusting over 100 kilometers per hour at its base. Trees become gnarled bonsais, their branches and trunks swept away from the falls and frozen in fantastic shapes as if reaching their arms toward the sea in a plea for help, a desperate attempt to get away from this reckless display of power.

Then there is nothing. Even with a diving mask, I cannot see anything but driving water against a backdrop of gray. I can hardly breathe; I must constantly spit out mouthfuls of water. There is no sound but the roar of the falls. I concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other, battling against the force of the wind, leaning into it with all my weight, trying not to lose sight of Ricki's orange jacket somewhere ahead. At some point, the boardwalk ends, and we struggle on. Often the wind knocks us over and we sit, clutching tussocks of grass, helping each other crawl forward. We cannot talk or see each other's faces, aware only of the vague blurs of color and groping hands that we know belong to fellow human beings.

The force of the wind and water is overwhelming, breathtaking, astonishingly powerful. It is like intense heat or cold: impossible to describe until you've felt it for yourself. I feel like there should be a TV camera on me, like I am a foolish meteorologist risking life and limb to deliver a report from the middle of a hurricane. But there are no cameras. There isn't even the sensation of wetness anymore. Everything else drops away until there is only the rush of adrenaline coursing through our veins and the understanding that for all our bravo, mother nature is able to knock us and anything we build swiftly and surely on its ass. 

 (Above: Bowen Falls when it's decidedly NOT in flood.)

 (Above: Paddling under 150-meter Stirling Falls as it empties into the ocean.)
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