Thursday, June 23, 2016

The River of Life, and Death

I am not a religious man, but I think moving water is the best thing God ever made.  -Jim Harrison

Standing at the river’s edge, I watch sticks from old uprooted trees quiver in the foaming brown current. In the early morning sun, gulls throw down their shadows, the tips of their wings translucent against the wild blue. They wheel over our heads, dive-bombing fish guts thrown into the river from our cleaning table. They know where the good food is, and argue over every last scrap. 

The moving, life-giving water leaps and tumbles, and I imagine just below the surface long schools of salmon nosing their way upriver, eager to return to their natal grounds, like power-forwards from the sea, fighting like hell to complete another cycle in the wheel of life. It’s so simple, really. In the plant and animal worlds (ourselves included), we sprout at birth and decompose at death, feeding the earth with our compost, completing the endless circle of life that sweeps voraciously through time. 

My community is busy, checking their fishwheels hourly, making all manner of technical adjustments, like the raising and lowering of the wheel as the water level rises and falls, keeping axles on the wheel greased, predicting when the next run will hit (midnight, 6 am?). Who’s to know? It’s a finicky business catching fish. You wait and you watch; then pounce at the appropriate time. It’s all about timing, when the fish decide to come to you, the Native people say. The river has nourished them for thousands of years, my family, only decades. Still, the ritual runs deep.

But this year I take pause to think about our yearly fishing ritual in more detail. In Jonathon Balcombe’s recent book, What a Fish Knows, he overturns our assumptions about how fish perceive. He tells us they have feelings, awareness and a social order that is, in some ways, similar to those of people. Scientific research has shown that fish display tool use (at the level of a 10-month old baby who learns to use a tool to retrieve a toy she can’t reach). Fish enjoy music, have distinct personalities, and feel pain, although he uses the word “suffer,” which I’m not so sure I would agree. Sensory pain is one thing, but “suffering” denotes for me at least, a “thinking about” the pain, another layer of psychological thought placed on top the pain, creating more misery, and I think we humans have a corner on that market.

Studies have also shown that salmon farms naturally have “drop out” fish, growth stunted fish that float lifelessly at the surface of farming ponds. These fish are severely depressed. Why? Because they have given up on life. Their brain chemistry and behavior is said to mimic those of other animals with documented depression.  They are smaller in size due to “failure to thrive” (like human babies who experience stunted growth in the absence of love and affection).

Halcomb goes on to say, however, we shouldn’t eat fish because we cause them to experience an “unpleasant” death, whether by sport-fishing with lures or commercial fishing via nets. Do we then have a moral obligation to assure a pleasant death for fish (and other animals), or should we stop the killing and not eat them at all? Surely we attempt to assure a pleasant death for humans by way of hospice and palliative care that provides relief from the symptoms of serious illnesses. How should we treat our fellow winged, gilled and four-legged creatures?

Upon close inspection though, many of the writers in disagreement with the predator-prey relationship (the circle of life?) have a hidden, or not so hidden agenda. One day, they say, all people will "wake up" to the healthier and more compassionate preference of not eating, or using any type of animal products. No meat, cheese, eggs, milk, crustaceans, fish, leather, fur, or their byproducts. Some claim they intend to be patient with the education process, and are convinced, in a sort of evangelical way, that people will see the benefits of vegan-ism, and will eventually right their "erroneous" thinking on the subject.

I do not consider the life-ways of indigenous people, of whom there are many across the globe, to be erroneous.

The Native people don’t see the taking of animals as exploitation or cruelty. Their worldview encompasses the animal in a symbiotic and spiritual relationship with the human; that one dies for the express purpose of giving life to another. They believe we humans don’t walk outside the circle of life, looking through a one-way mirror at the specimens contained within. We are part and parcel of that circle, during the normal, though violent act of birth; as we live year to year and co-exist with all of life’s pain and suffering. And in the end (death is not an outrage) when we die, however peaceful or terrifying that may be.

My worry is that this homogenous way of thinking, the recruiting of people to vegan-ism, will inadvertently destroy the many varied and unique cultures of the world. The people of various cultures spring up and are defined by the landforms and weather patterns they inhabit. They have their own foods, languages and ways of being. Should the Inupiat people be prohibited from taking whale, the centerpiece of their spiritual life and the lifeblood of their people? Taking away their indigenous foods is exactly how failure to thrive and depression would show up in the people who respect and give thanks to their fellow creatures for granting them life. In all practicality, eating greens at 40 below in the vast, treeless landscape of northern Alaska will not sustain you. Though the skin and the blubber of the bowhead will.

Should those of us who harvest natural food from the living waters be advised to eat artificial instead, like shrink-wrapped meat substitutes? Imitation crabmeat made of fillers, fake flavoring and dyes? I don’t have definitive answers, but so far, I’m not convinced.

I only skim the surface like the gulls wheeling overhead, feeling stuck in this literal world above water, unable to dive deep enough to fully understand the life giving secrets of how we are so deeply connected to the food we eat. But I know in my heart of hearts what is true. Red salmon harvested from the breathing waters of the Copper River is a great gift, representing so much more than a “commodity” or a “resource.” It comes with a lightness and energy that inexplicably ties us to the natural world, a part of something much greater than anything in the supermarket isles could ever provide.

What I do know is life and death spring forth from this land, simultaneously. It is the hunters and fishermen who have taught me, through example, how deeply a people can believe in the sacredness of life, and death. When you take away venerated foods, you potentially destroy a vivid and unique culture. You destroy worldviews in which people do not dictate “right” living to others, but live their lives as people who clearly see and appreciate their rightful place not only in the world, but born of it, as integrated links to the rest of creation.

What to do when, we consider the inner lives of plants and how, as Daniel Chamovitz says in his book, What a Plant Knows, that plants too, have feelings and uprooting them causes pain? That they prefer the melodies of Bach over the rock guitar riffs of Led Zeppelin. That the discovery of talking to plants may prevent failure to thrive. That plants are aware of their surroundings.

What then, shall we eat?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Too Late?

every year he drives down from Washington
parks his camper on the land
spends weeks watching the clapping of leaves in the wind,
how the river goosenecks in the valley, below
and he clears deadfall, walks
the land from all angles, envisions the placement
of a house just so
He has hands that have built things, thick-fingered
rough hewn, hardened
he knows tools: the axe, the pick, and the saw
he thinks of nothing else when he gets back home, to live in a landscape he loves, to create something new from the ground up, but...
But I'm 75, he says
and my son says why bother, insinuating
"you'll die soon"
...and I say to the man, so what?
I say dreams don't die until we're cold and dark, under
I say live that vision in your mind's eye
I say walk your dream, home

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


                          Gliding down a shoot
                           The river's smooth tongue pulls
                           Us into leaping haystacks where

                           Cold water curls and cascades
                           Splashing our faces, drenching our bodies.

                      On the other side of riffles and cobbled rocks
                      We slap the boatman's back: relax, laugh.

                         The green mile wraps it lovely arms
                         Around boulders, downstream
                         In the canyon agave flowers "pup" out rosettes
                         And at dusk, the sacred white Datura blooms.

                             I watch Lauren row in a subtle, delicate manner
                             Reading the water, finessing hydraulics, dodging boat-sucking holes.
                             She is at home and bound to her boat with a calm and
                             Passion, only a Grand Canyon boatwoman knows.

                              In this ancient terrain, I cannot grasp the vastness, or
                               The magnitude of time in the millions of years echoed in
                               Layers of rock, cliffs and slopes.

                                I can only make a grand sweep of my hand, majestically
                                Across the land and say
                                A masterpiece of this scale, the desert, mountains
                                River, are uplifting gifts of deep mystery, history

                          And the memories we made here, exist now...but will disappear

                                  Like rain that evaporates
                                  Before reaching the ground.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Lighten Up and Don't Look Down

     Yes, there's still ice on the river, but we're getting there...

Geez. It's April already. Long time, no post. I'm sitting here looking out the window at pussy willows blooming, the ground snowless; dry and brown as rusty gutters. No rain. It's that edgeless time of year when there are no sharp distinctions, a sort of borderless time when clear boundaries between "this" season and "that," are pretty much truant. It isn't spring, and it isn't winter, and it sure as hell isn't even close to being summer. I'm planting seeds indoors, eager to stick my hands into warm black earth, but the earth in my backyard is still frozen solid. Birds are clearing their throats and chirping, reluctant to sing too loud and get all our hopes up.

I went on a hike with some friends this weekend, a really good one; the panoramic views of snow capped mountains meeting the sea at Turnagain Arm is such a rush. Ten and a half miles, 24,587 steps (I love my IPhone health gizmo) and a couple places on the trail so calamitous I was thankful to have brought my hiking poles. Better to dig deep with, in loose scree, said Mama Bear in my head. 

I voiced a mantra under my breath..."don't look down, don't look down, don't look down" and I didn't, or I would have been toast. Didn't know I had such an innate fear of heights until that moment; the more probable scenario, however, is I'm growing older and as you grow older you, in a sense, digress into being a big fat baby again. Mommy don't let me fall! I had a good mom; she let me fall and that taught me courage and a very useful "stick-to-it-edness", which was a serviceable way of being on this hike and countless others; not to mention the many unexpected obstructions, and various forks on the very short (though at first glance, seemingly long-haul) road of life. 

Wait. I don't mean that; the growing old part. No one "grows" into old age; it's more like you're hammered and forged into a foreign body you hardly recognize anymore. No worries, though.

Something new I've learned. I hold on to things too tightly. Like this blog and my work of creating art. Art that sustains me. A friend recently told me, when I was complaining about having too many balls juggling in the air at one time,  to just let things go. Let my writing breathe, push the ol' photo processing limits (the ones with steep learning curves), get your hands messy at the paint table, she said. Set sail for a distant shore without knowing where you're headed, or where you'll end up. Don't worry so much about "time frames." (who made that phrase up, anyway?) I love friends. They always come to the rescue, no strings attached. They teach me about air, and breathlessness.

I used to think it was a handicap, having too many ideas in my head at one time; what to focus on, which one to reel in and land. But when she told me it's OK to be working on two different projects at one time, hell three, even four (while you're ignoring your blog responsibilities), I felt a breath of fresh air blow into the atmosphere. Sometimes you just need someone to give you permission to run with it and dump all the self-imposed obligations; you know, all the heavy as a bag of hammers, "should's."  My friend didn't lay a hand on bursting my bubble; she just brought me back down to solid ground...easy-like.

So I stopped hugging the slopes, except for the scree covered ones with 300 foot drops. Post when I want; don't when I don't want. Finish projects with a loose grip, and erase that serious smirk on my face, for God's sake. Lighten up. 

It all works out.

           Ice on the river saying,should I stay, or should I go?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cold Blue Steel

The days are short in mid December.

You have to chase light, what little of it is left to catch. 

But without sun there is drama,

a pull to water and sky,

the frosted tips of dead-still trees and bent, frozen grasses.  

At first glance, you think, there’s so much emptiness here. 

As if colorless is akin to depression, a voided wasteland. 

There is noise, daily noise not far away on a highway of commuters. 

There are voles, scurrying under snow mounds, trying to punch out a living here. 

Moose tracks. Your dog in a perpetual zig-zag of ground sniffing

Hoar frost. Old wooden beams. Steel.

You wait for the thunder of a train to rummage steel tracks over the frozen river. 

But your fingers and toes won’t wait long; the hairs in your nose freeze. 

Despite first impressions, there is life in cold places.

Power. Noise. 

And silence.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Winter Moth

Winter Moth

A deranged sky, late November

Raindrops glisten the limbs of trees

Snow, the impossible dream

Archives of winter under my skin.

Let's stay in tonight

Lay back the quilt, olives

A glass of cold beer

Let old leaves tell the story

They know the truth

What ripens late, what

A hurdle the change

From brown to white

What a hurdle the change 

From brown to white, wingless

Warm winter, a newly-splendored thing.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sun. Stone. Sky

    Annie Leibovitz

These pastels, handmade by the late painter, Georgia O'Keefe, were colored with ingredients found in the local landscape at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Everyday on my walk from the casa to the ranch's dining hall for supper, I see these colors in hills and stones and sky. Everyday I am left breathless with the majesty of the natural world.

    Casa del Sol

Indulging in true creativity requires empty time and empty space. In those spaces of time, where the land creates a quickening in your heart, writing and drawing and painting leap forth like kenneled dogs, yearning to be set free. 

The pinks and oranges and purples stun the senses, appearing quickly, then disappearing; an ethereal show in the sky perfect to paint in pastels and acrylics. 

I'm always the first one in line at the dining hall, to have supper at 5:30, because the walk back to the Casa is 2 miles. Light changes quickly, creating shadows and colors that flutter like hummingbirds, present for a few moments, then gone. I have to hurry to get home before dark, before the whole show packs up and readies itself for the next day's performance. Nature really is performance art...wouldn't you agree?

Sometimes I just can't believe my own eyes. As Mary Oliver said: I am a bride married to amazement. My greatest indulgences are innocent:  color, shadow, light, stones, sky, sun, dirt, texture, and all sorts of creatures, both great and small.

I have lost myself, dwelling in Them.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

You know how I like barbed wire

You know how I like barbed wire, how it twists
    Around old wood

How fenceposts lean; how I like to find a good place
To sit down on the sandstone

A mouse ran up the stone, sat right next to me
Whiskers flicking

"Do you know the tall and the dark under?" it said.
"No, I don't think so," I said.

"Just wait. You'll see."

I wonder: are we having a dialogue on the dead, here?

I  hear a hawk screech, or is it
An owl?

Under my feet are millions of voices, but 
All I hear is this brown mouse

Glancing sidelong and running like hell to
Slip into the shade.

*Photo location: Abiquiu, New Mexico

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

It's Time to Say Au Revoir (to summer)

Watery memories of summer, sun streaked and showy
the texture of perfect loveliness

the sea's desire a kind of praise
a creature of summer, herself, rounded

and full, the roll of her hips
the twirl of her hand

water, kelp, mountain, leaf
like a jazz dancer

adorned in improvisations
of quickened light and color and movement,

she glides away casually without looking back
ventures behind a moon of blue and

sways to the decaying tune of September.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Side roads: Marquette, Michigan

    house on Front Street, North

Side Roads

we could rent a sailboat, coast

smooth stone beaches

gorge on walleye cakes, 

whitefish in the soft shell.

we could stop at a supper club in the trees

drift like clouds,

feel boardwalk heat on our feet.

                   Suzi at the lighthouse

we could doze in screened-in porches

watch the sky topple

lightning flash on the lake,

sleep late.

                                 Jonathan, Lake Superior beach

we could push back the lace curtains

watch rain pound church steps

eat ice cream at the ore docks,

go west, turn left.

    crumbling ore docks

we could eat at an old-fashioned lunch counter,

cherry phosphates and baked

macaroni and cheese

we could hike moss covered rocks in a creek bed

climb 100 steps to a lighthouse

run the sand beaches, free.

    In front of Donckers luncheonette

we could walk the curved shoreline, obscured

fragrant of pine, 

recollecting our youth, we could leave our adulthood far

far away, and behind.

    Lake Superior, the ocean without salt, at Big Bay

Sunday, July 13, 2014

graveyard dredge: a poem

It's hard to think now, how men with their

shovelfuls and boatloads and sideroads mixed

the best color, the good rock, the pay streak, the bedrock.

Get a good look at shafts and rigs and steel hammers slamming

below the camp, beavers damming.

Get a good look at 8 square meters of tailing piles

men febrile and fevered, for miles

filling boxes with tools to reshape iron and wood

boxes of household and

grub, and wide metal tubs 

and the women lugging

ladles and bowls, stokeing wood-burning stoves.

They hauled anything they did not fear to lose, except

fingers and toes, 

 a man's body sliced in half

under pressure and hose.

Dead men, like dozers 

driving steam into frozen muck.

Get a good look at men, black-faced with grease

skin drawn tight against bone

scarred by an iron bucket's icy stones.

The dredge monster is asleep now

all rust and bones.

 So much required to pursue their desire

this great force, gold, like a god.

riches flowed

Women drank mint tea from thin rimmed cups

and men, with their restless hands and drunk injury

pierced the ground and staked fortunes,


with their blood.

*Poem and photos originated at Coal Creek Mine on the Yukon River during a writing workshop with poet, fiction writer and essayist, Gretel Ehrlich.