A Balance Between Dark and Light

Gothic Christmas Ornament
My daughter made my new favorite Christmas ornament, a balance of light and dark. (She sells these on Etsy at  JailerCostumeShop).

In the cold, starry darkness of Winter Solstice, life’s breath becomes visible, vaporous music. The body’s tropical warmth pushes back against the chill, sustaining life. Fingers’ frigid ache is a reminder of their worth. It’s both the longest night of the year and the promise of returning light, completely both, without contradiction — my favorite day.

Why is Winter Solstice my favorite day of the year? Why the longest night, not our other solstice that bears the longest day? Maybe it’s because I was raised with an overabundance of light. Maybe I didn’t have enough opportunity to celebrate the sacred darkness. I’ve noticed that many of us were brought up on a steady diet of light-stories and were taught to avoid, exclude, or even fear the dark. Seeking a better balance, many of us begin to search out dark things, especially in the winter. Take Krampus, for example.

Krampus is a Christmas demon celebrated in parts of Europe, the dark counterpart to bright Saint Nicholas. In Austria, on Krampusnacht (December 5), people dress up as the part-goat, part-human creature, romping with horns and long tongues among crowds of people, whipping them with little birch switches. Krampus is rapidly gaining popularity in the United States. 

The origins of Krampus are thought to be a Pagan ritual designed to dispel the ghosts of winter. In old Scandinavia, Yule was the solstice time when the ghosts of the dead were believed to return, so people left out food and drinks for them overnight. Yule ghosts evolved into one Yule Ghost, and eventually into Krampus. The American Santa Claus comes mostly from St. Nicholas, but not completely. There’s a little Krampus in Santa, too. Krampus bells, which announce his arrival, bear an uncanny resemblance to sleigh bells. Does the custom of leaving cookies and milk out for Santa come from feeding the ghosts of Yule? 

Consider that Santa is said to put coal into the stockings of naughty children, while Krampus leaves birch sticks. Why do we have such dark customs at Christmastime? Is it to frighten children into acceptable behavior? Is it to teach them that there are scary things out there? It’s hard to navigate through a world that’s too safe because we can’t learn what to be wary of. Or is it to remind us that life isn’t fair? After all, if you’re out on Krampusnacht, you might get smacked with a switch, even if you’ve done your best to be good. But there could be a balance here, too. Coal and sticks are both fuels. Both can be transformed, with a spark of will, into light.

There is a hazard in dwelling too much on dark things. Those of us susceptible to depression can vouch for this. But there’s also a hazard in dwelling too much on the light. Light is beautiful, but only when it’s real and not a veneer that comes out of desperately avoiding the dark. As a child, I heard a lot of light-stories, most of which aren’t even true. At Thanksgiving, we were fed turkey and cranberries along with light-stories about how there was nothing but joyous feasting between the Pilgrims and the Indians. The light-stories left out Europe’s disrespect and disease, genocide and grave-robbing, ungratefulness and self-righteous destruction. Light-stories remind us to chin up, always look on the bright side. Everything will (magically) be alright. With this steady diet of light-stories, no wonder there’s so much violence, so many dark-stories howling to be heard. The more we deny the darkness, the more it grows out of control and crushes in around us. And how are we told to respond? By looking on the bright side, of course.

I recently heard a podcast by Sam Yang on feeding the “gray wolf.” He tells a parable where a Cherokee elder describes two wolves inside him — a light one and a dark one — and the wolf that “wins” is the one he feeds. Sam points out how this was a bit of cultural appropriation. The actual Indigenous story was about feeding both wolves, not just the black or white one. If a person only feeds light or the darkness, there will always be a war between them. They are two sides of the same thing, and you need to feed them both so neither wolf gets hungry.

On this Winter Solstice, I invite you to embrace both bright Saint Nicholas and dark Krampus. I invite you to honor the holiday gifts and lights as well as the loneliness and want that always swirl around with them. And I wish for you the gift of the Winter Solstice: that beautiful balance between the dark and the light.

Tribeless in McDonaldsland

Golden arches, a redhead clown, over a gazillion hamburgers served. McDonald’s — a prime symbol of Corporate America — and a big chunk of my cultural heritage. The white-privilege powers of my childhood wanted such things for me — symbols of progress, financial success, the American Dream. Back then, people believed in The American Dream enough to sacrifice the bulk of their inherited culture to it. The American Dream is a beautiful dream, that’s for sure. It’s a wonderland where if you work hard enough, you can have everything you want, and if you have it, you deserve it. And the more you have, the better off we all are. Growing up, I was told I was part of this dream.

img_3505-e1529266380598.jpg

The sagebrush in my front yard lives quietly among neighbors’ daffodils and bluegrass lawns

I didn’t realize that when they said “part of it,” they meant I was part of the hired help. The American Dream only fully belongs to elite white men, those born above the glass ceiling who will do anything to stay there, or those few select others willing to sell their souls to get there. The American Dream never really belonged to the rest of us, and it never could. We’re support beams, cooks and cleaners, carpets, ego-props, wanna-be’s. We can try, but most of us aren’t allowed to be anything else, because the American Dream needs a lot of support in order to exist. So the best many can hope for is to be ballast at the bottom of the pyramid. The very best others can hope for is second place, even if they are brilliant and born into privilege.

The culture I inherited is a trademarked, artificial culture, peddled on cereal boxes, milk cartons, and billboards, by housekeeping magazines and smiley television spokesmen. It’s a culture that will feed you laboratory chemicals, and you will like them. You will even ask for them. As I grew, I came to question this culture, reject it, stand against it. That’s one thing the American Dream culture really hates, and I was punished for it, like a sagebrush is punished for sprouting in a suburban yard.

The powers of my childhood wanted me to be a daffodil. I was dressed up and primped, taught the correct placement and usage of dishes and utensils at the table, directed to use polite words and sharply forbidden to use others, and as a girl, thoroughly instructed in the arts of deference and obedience.

No matter how hard they tried, it didn’t stick. I couldn’t be a daffodil, and I couldn’t figure out why. I tried, I really did, but later learned that my efforts were doomed to failure. I was a sagebrush, not a daffodil. Ironically, wild sagebrush, an iconic part of the American west, don’t fit into the American Dream. If domesticated and corralled in ceramic pots or botanic gardens, sagebrush can be tolerated. The best I could hope for was to be tolerated. I was in good company. I was tolerated — or not — along with other mentally ill, with atheists, people of color, indigenous, contemplatives, lesbians, philosophers, and a rainbow of others.

So, rather than keep trying to change who I was, I set out on a journey to reject the American Dream and as much of the culture that went along with it as I possibly could. But what culture was left? What had my parents and grandparents lost by embracing McDonaldsland? In my veins is the blood of Algonquins, Irish Clans, Gauls, and Vikings. Going back far enough, all human beings come from such indigenousness. This indigenousness was the best weapon I had to do battle with McDonaldsland. But how could I embrace it without the culture, language, and connection to my ancestors? What could I do, cut off from my power? How could I survive when the dominant culture was still trying to eradicate sagebrush, even as its unbreakable connection to beautiful things like sage-grouse was becoming apparent? 

I’m still asking this question, still digging for clues, still searching for indigenousness, unearthing and embracing snippets of the cultures I lost. And when I find a snippet, I treasure it like a person who finds an unmelted piece of beloved jewelry in the wreckage of their burnt home.

The Old Red Bike

This year for my birthday, my husband, Joseph, reunited me with an old friend. I’d been wanting to ride my bicycle to work, but the years had deteriorated it to the point I couldn’t ride it anymore. Instead of finding a new bike, Joseph had my old friend restored, and he gave me a lot more than just a way to work.

Joseph understands that there are memories in my old red bike’s chrome-moly frame. It was made before most people knew what mountain bikes were, before these machines had titanium stems or shock absorbers, before my young dreams of adventure in mountains, deserts, and forests turned into old memory.

Some of my memories are still on its fire-engine-red frame, so Joseph asked that the frame not be repainted.

20180418_183404

He understands that I still love the sticker from Alamosa Schwinn Cyclery because it takes me right back to the frigid February day in 1984 when we newlyweds spent everything we had to order these wondrous new “Rockhoppers.” Some of the rusted little pits in the paint must have come from rides in the South San Juan Mountains, where I collected samples of the flora of Colorado for my early botany classes at Adams State College. Some must have come from the gravel roads of the San Luis Valley.

Some of the pits, too, must have come from pebbles and sand at the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. We arrived early in the spring of the bike’s first year and asked the park ranger on duty where we could ride. He asked to see the Rockhoppers because he’d heard of them, and he admired them as he told us that the best place would probably be the four-wheel-drive roads at the park. Who could have guessed that the Canyonlands would soon become one of the great mountain bike meccas in the United States?

Joseph knows I love the California licenses adorning the frame below the Schwinn sticker because they are memories of California. There, I studied botany in grad school at the University, and I rode my red bike all over the Berkeley Hills and beyond. During those years, we had no car, so I even rode the red bike to the grocery store.

Joseph remembers how I pedaled this bike all over trails in California until I became too big with our first child and had to switch to hiking instead. He remembers how we mounted a baby seat on the back so I could take that little child, Kerry Joseph, riding. We explored trails along the Missouri River in South Dakota until I grew heavy with our second child, Lorien Rose. Not long after, back in Colorado, she was the little one on the back of my old red bike while Kerry rode alongside.

I rode to work at a plant nursery when the children were small and to my job as an ecologist as they grew older. I rode in the desert, in places with names like “Rustler’s Loop” and “Widowmaker” and sometimes in the mountains through groves of pine and aspen. This bike saw some wildflower-filled miles near the black bears and coyotes in the Ponderosa forests near our home northern New Mexico, where I tried — and failed — in a career as a schoolteacher.

These days, I need to be reminded to surround myself with the things I love. I need to remember that more adventures are possible. Joseph understands. This is why he restored my old red bike for me, taking care not to paint over any memories in the process.

 

Total Eclipse of the Sun

Yesterday, we got back late from a long drive – or was it a short campout? – to a wild place in the middle of Wyoming. We had gone there like hundreds of others to witness the total eclipse of the sun. I had chosen the most remote place I could think of under the band of totality: the Gas Hills, thirty miles or so north of Jeffrey City. Jeffrey City swelled decades ago during the uranium boom but is now nearly a ghost town. The road north is all dirt and gravel, with ruts that challenged the abilities of our rented sedan.

IMG_2153

The light looks like early evening, but the shadows look like midday a few minutes before the total solar eclipse in the Gas Hills of Wyoming

On the drive up, we stopped at the visitor’s center in the small town of Baggs, Wyoming, and the docent there told us that Thomas Edison had witnessed the last total eclipse in the area in 1918. It was on this trip near here, she said, that he came up with the idea for the incandescent light. She looked skeptical. So did I, but I now understand how a totality could spur the mind of a genius in such a way, so I’d like to believe it’s true.

IMG_2156

The moon’s darkness approaches from the west

Nothing is ever exactly as you think it will be. No photo or video can really capture the experience of a total eclipse of the sun. It felt like the air temperature dropped ten degrees as a chill set into my hands. There was a scattering of stars in the midday sky, and crickets started to sing. The moon’s diffuse shadow engulfed us from the west as the sun’s light blinked out and in an instant, my solar viewing glasses went completely dark.

IMG_2171

No photo can completely do it justice, but this is the best my iPhone could do

Pulling the glasses away, there was the corona, an iconic image high in the sky. What had been over my head but completely invisible to me for the past fifty-plus years was now revealed. It looked like a crown of vapor, a thin, glowing mist, immensely beautiful. It was a glimpse of a star from the heavens as it sent off its molten gases into space, but it was also oddly familiar, as if this image was somehow carried in human DNA. After only a couple of minutes, it was gone. One of the moon’s huge craters revealed a flash, followed by a sliver of searing light along the sun’s rim. The moon shadow’s darkness raced away to the east, and it was like late evening again. The crickets went silent, and three antelope in the distance went back to their grazing.

Within the hour, the day had fully returned, and we were – along with thousands of others – headed south toward home. The drive back was complicated by traffic, and we didn’t get in until after 11:00 pm, but the ancient dance between the sun and moon was well worth a little trouble.

The Upcoming Totality

A few of us are headed up to Wyoming today. The weather forecast is favorable to see the total solar eclipse tomorrow morning! It will be my first opportunity to see a totality.

Even if you are outside of the totality, nature can still put on a good show. During the eclipse in May 2012, the totality passed south of us. We looked through a pinhole camera at an image of the eclipse projected onto the sidewalk in front of our home. The real surprise came when we turned back toward the house, finding it bedecked with little eclipses!

Shadows of eclipse on the house

The points of light created by gaps in the canopies of trees can serve as pinhole cameras and create quite a beautiful display. I wish all eclipse seekers and travelers a safe and happy day tomorrow!

The Abandoned North: Part IX – Reintegration

Waves

Waves on the Bering Sea

The Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife research vessel, is contracted for the duration of our work on Amchitka Island. However, we have no weather delays, and our long days allow us to finish our field work about a day ahead of schedule. This affords the boat’s crew the opportunity for a short break before they pick up the next scientific team. After loading the ATVs and other gear onto the boat from the dock, the Tiglax heads back to Adak Island.

Me and Danika

Me, Danika Marshall, and the Aleutian Weather

At first, all is well. I had applied a scopolamine patch to prevent motion sickness early in the day. It was doing its job admirably, as it had on the voyage out to the island days before. As the boat comes out of Constantine Harbor into a growing storm, those with more sense have already retreated to their bunks, but I go up to the wheelhouse to chat with soon-to-be-captain John Faris (Captain Billy Pepper will retire at the end of 2016) and enjoy the ocean views. At first, the waves are about 6 feet (2 meters) high, and they are all coming at the boat from roughly the same direction. So far, so good. As the Tiglax approaches Amchitka Pass, the swells grow, and they begin to pitch the boat in random directions – front to back, side to side, and everything in between. It is not a huge storm, but it’s big enough for me.

Motion is greatest at the top of the boat. With no warning, the boat lurches, and I am hit in the stomach with a surge of nausea. I stagger down two flights of steep nautical stairs, grip the handrails in the narrow hallways, and make my way back to my bunk in Stateroom #4. After lying down, I feel better pretty quickly. The scopolamine is valiantly doing its job holding the nausea at bay, but it doesn’t give me any good sense. As soon as I feel well, I head to the galley for dinner. It’s not a smart plan.

After storm

Adak Island after the storm

As the night wears on, the waves grow, and we all run a real risk of being pitched out of our bunks onto the floor. That never happens, but I roll from side to side like a bottle in my bunk for most of the night. It is quite a challenge climbing down from the upper bunk and finding my way along the hall to the bathroom, all the while being slammed into walls from various directions. At this point, I am questioning my desire to ever climb aboard a boat again, but by morning, my seasickness is gone. We approach the port of Adak under clearing skies and calmer waters, though I doubt any of us got much sleep. While most of the team stay in their beds, I enjoy breakfast and coffee with Craig Goodknight, who was the only passenger to experience no seasickness at all during the voyage.

Mt Moffett

Mt. Moffett comes out of the clouds on Adak Island

The team spends the night at the Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse in Adak. Fish and Wildlife employees do a lot of research in remote locations, and some wildlife refuges maintain bunkhouses for them. Earlier in the summer, we had all stayed at a bunkhouse at Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge in northern Colorado while we took our required ATV training course. But the house on Adak is a little different. Because it is so remote, guests  bring food with them, but they don’t tend to bring it back out. The kitchen cupboards are filled with all sorts of canned and boxed food, and there seems to be a historical collection of noodles. There is no way of knowing how long various items have been there, so I suspect that the foodstuffs accumulate faster than they disappear.

Rat traps

Trust me, rat traps are a good thing

One thing is for certain … the pasta collection gets no visitors who are rats. Fish and Wildlife takes rat control very seriously on the Aleutian Islands. Historically, seafaring vessels brought invasive rats to nearly all of the islands, and where there are rats, there are fewer nesting birds and other desirable, native species. Fish and Wildlife has worked hard over the years to  eradicate rats from as many islands as possible, restoring valuable native ecosystems in the process. While I chuckle at the rather obvious rat trap arranged between the refrigerators at the bunkhouse, I appreciate that it’s there.

Bald eagles

Eagles perched on Adak’s beach rocks

During our short stay at the bunkhouse, Danika, Craig, and I take the opportunity to walk the length of one of Adak’s beautiful beaches. There we see plenty of life, including a pair of bald eagles who are not particularly wary of us. Patches of blue sky appear overhead from time to time, revealing the slopes of Mt. Moffett and even the top of the more distant Great Sitkin, hovering like a disembodied head over a layer of  misty clouds.

We board the flight to Anchorage late in the morning but find that the flight from Anchorage to Denver has been delayed.

Disembodied head

The peak of Great Sitkin

 

We have all been up for a long time when we finally make our connection to Grand Junction. It will take some days for me to feel normal again.

On my first day back in the office, a co-worker who was a member of one of the monitoring teams in 2011 asked me if I was having trouble “reintegrating.”

This was a perfect description. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized it. I’d been vaguely troubled, distracted, and mildly ill since I’d returned. Some of my discomfort was residual dizziness from the scopolamine patches, and some was general haziness from jet lag, which I seem to be prone to, especially when traveling from west to east. But some of it was actually reintegrating.  It wasn’t easy to transition from such a strange, remote wilderness back into my  familiar, everyday life. Evidently, it happens to a lot of people who have made this journey. The Aleutian Islands are a beautiful, haunting place. I still feel their pull, like a mysterious gravity, a quiet tide.

Hulten

A marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) resting on Hulten’s flora of Alaska. During my adventures, I spent late nights in the stateroom aboard the Tiglax identifying the plants I’d seen on Amchitka Island. This image is a fitting ending to the story of my adventures there.

The Abandoned North: Part VIII – Amchitka Island: Natural Beauty on a Small Scale

Shoreline

Amchitka Island shoreline

Some of the first things I notice when I arrive at Amchitka Island are all of the coral-reef colors of anemones, sea stars, fish, and kelp that can be seen below the dock in Constantine Harbor. It reminds me that the Bering Sea is a richly diverse place in spite of harsh conditions on the  surface.

Nootka lupine

Nootka lupine

There is a lot of natural beauty here, but it isn’t like the stark, volcanic mountains, waterfalls, or wild ocean spray of many of its neighbors. This part of the island is quite flat, although there are small mountains in the distant wilderness area that I can’t glimpse through the heavy clouds.

Board

A tiny ecosystem on an old sawn board, with an urchin shell ornament

 

Amchitka’s beauty is on a smaller scale: flowers, lichens, mosses, birds, and urchin shells. Whole communities of mosses and other tiny life forms are even developing on the tarmac. On the island’s soils, in low areas that have been undisturbed for at least a few decades, thick pillows of peat have formed, with their own complement of plant life.

At higher altitudes, the ecology becomes more complicated. In these exposed areas, winds dry out the soils and plants, creating bands of miniature shrub communities built around crowberry plants that alternate with with bands dominated by tundra grass. Neither is considered to be a climax community by ecologists because the bands shift over time, a constantly morphing patchwork of slow-growing life. Different still are the verdant ecosystems near the ocean. There is huge diversity here, if you stoop down and look closely enough.

Runway

Bryophyte communities growing on Amchitka’s abandoned runways

Mooring

Plants along the shoreline near a rusty battleship mooring

One of my favorite experiences on Amchitka Island was witnessing flocks of Aleutian Canada Geese. They look like miniature replicas of the large flocks I see migrating in Colorado, complete with their striking black and white heads. But these have white collar feathers, and their honks are higher pitched. Every time I hear them, it makes me smile. Aleutian Canada Geese were listed as endangered in 1967 but upgraded to threatened in 1991. They recovered enough to be delisted in 2001. In the early 20th century, trappers brought nonnative foxes to the Aleutian Islands to expand the fur trade. These foxes decimated the nesting grounds of the geese. Lots of people worked to remove the foxes from the islands and relocated populations of the birds. These included efforts on Amchitka Island, where the geese were once extinct.

The human footprint since the 20th century on the Aleutian Islands is heavy and undeniable. But, here as everywhere, nature eventually creeps back into the works of human beings. My trip to Amchitka Island has reaffirmed for me the need to continue to attend to the remote places, the need to help them heal. Maybe they are the most important places of all.Chimney