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.


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


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.


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.


Bryophyte communities growing on Amchitka’s abandoned runways


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

The Abandoned North, Part I – Bound for the Aleutians


The Aleutian Islands

The Aleutian Islands are a vast, volcanic archipelago that runs west from the Alaska Peninsula towards the mainland of Russia. On a map, the islands are draped like necklace beads between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. People don’t crowd to get to the Aleutians, at least not anymore, since most of the United States military installations there were abandoned after the Cold War. Many born-and-bred Alaskans have never set foot on an Aleutian Island.

It is June, 2016. The desert heat in my home town of Grand Junction, Colorado, is already building, but I am loading bags full of cold-weather gear to board a plane bound for Anchorage. Our final destination is the uninhabited island of Amchitka, one of the Rat Islands in the western part of the Aleutian Chain. The site of three underground nuclear detonations, it is distant, cold, and off-limits without a special permit. It is by far the most remote place I can ever hope to visit.

Sitkin Peak above the clouds

One of the Andreanof Islands in the Aleutian Chain is Great Sitkin Island, dominated by the Great Sitkin Volcano. It is an active stratovolcano with a caldera and dome, last erupting with an explosion and a pale plume in 1974. In July and August of 2013, two swarms of earthquakes were reported at Great Sitkin. All is quiet in 2016 as our airplane glides by.

Every five years, scientific teams are sent to Amchitka Island to perform environmental monitoring for the U.S. Department of Energy, the long-term steward of the detonation sites. I am an ecologist by trade, a botanist by education, and I am fortunate to be chosen as a member of one of the teams. My job will be to measure and record the vegetation growing on landfill covers. Plants are an essential part of the cover design. The landfills contain hazardous wastes that were generated from drilling the holes for the underground detonations. The radioactive materials from the detonations themselves are entombed deep underground – none have ever been detected on the surface, in the ocean, or in the ecosystem. The once-classified detonations are now public record, and you can read about Amchitka Island on the Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management’s website. This blog in no way speaks for the Department of Energy or any of its contractors – this is simply an account of my personal adventure.

Left: The greening slopes of a volcano in the Andreanof Islands.
Right: Meltwater plunges down the black cliffs towards the sea

It will turn from spring to summer in the Aleutians, as we will spend the Summer Solstice there. If there is a warm spell up north, the temperature may top out at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Chilly even in summer. The Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea are not for the faint of heart. But my journey doesn’t begin with Amchitka Island. After a layover in Denver and a long flight, it begins with a night in Anchorage, the land of the midnight sun.