Begin Something

The nasturtiums are in on the frenzy

I don’t know what woke me at 4:00 this morning, but I found my water glass empty and went barefoot onto the deck to fill it from one of my blue jugs. There was an owl out there, singing a night song in the clear rinse of a new day. I didn’t look for it, just listened as I drank a full, cool glass, refilled it, then came inside. I laid my body in my nest, stretched and shifted, closed my eyes, opened them. For some reason, I couldn’t settle down.

I like that expression – settle down. This context makes me wonder if it comes from the way birds fluff their feathers over their feet when they roost for the night. Even if it doesn’t, that’s how I’m going to imagine it from now on.

I’ve never been a good sleeper. I think I love Alaska’s summers because they give me permission to be as wakeful as I like, to sleep when I’m tired and work or play when I’m not. Deep winter is like that too – the sun designates no particular time for productivity, so my body, with its irregular desire for rest, can have free rein.

Daazhraii just leapt up and went to the door, ears and head high, featherduster-tail atwitch. I have earplugs in because Geoff is here and he is snoring, so I didn’t hear anything, but when I went to the door to answer the plea in those brown dog-eyes, Sylvester the camprobber was perched in the alder that taps the east edge of my deck. He had not “settled down.” His eyes were bright and his feathers were smooth and the branch he was clinging to was still swaying. He must have been raiding the kibble, kicking up a clang from the stainless steel dish. I let Daazhraii out, and Sylvester skedaddled. The dog is curled up in the corner of the deck now, nose in his tail, ears up. Let the squirrels and jays come scrounging, he says.

Silna must have heard it too, but she doesn’t seem to care who shares her rations. She is still curled up behind my knees, neat as a pin, shifting slightly when I stir so I’d hardly know she was there. I call her my liquid dog because of the way she pours herself into cuddles and nooks. She will sometimes bury her nose in my lap so thoroughly that her hind legs come off the ground and she slithers, upside down into the cradle of my legs.

When I am done here, with this early-late writing, I will get up and put on yesterday’s overalls. I will go down the steps and to the woodpile and choose a chunk of firewood to chop. When it is split, I’ll peel the bark away and fling it into a growing mulch pile. The split wood will join the rest in a drying stack. That done, I’ll do a few push-ups and brush my teeth. That will mark an official start to the day. I like having a routine that gets me out of bed and dressed and moving in the mornings.

Geoff flew in from Arctic a few weeks ago so to that we could go dipnet at the Kenai river mouth like we always do. Usually, that whole excursion is routine, but this summer it was different. Driving through the Nenana canyon where most of “Denali” is boarded up in mid-July felt strange. Not hugging friends was excruciating, and so was the worry that came with deciding to hug them anyway. We skipped showers at the washateria and tried to do all of our grocery shopping in one go. I learned that one of my favorite restaurants had closed up for good this summer.

But mostly, it was fine, and when the weather was fine it was lovely. We had some nasty weather on the river, but it cleared up most days, and there were a few absolutely sweet days of sunshine in Clam Gulch, where we set up camp.

I went running on the beach there with the dogs, and tried harnessing them both together for the first time. Silna didn’t really get the point, but we had a good time dodging the eagles that dotted the shore, hunched over fish carcasses.

One afternoon, after a run, I walked into the surf to rinse off and stopped short. Something was raising the hair on my arms. I looked up at the seagulls, down at the froth, behind me at the shore and across the inlet at the volcanoes of the Aleutian range. Set net buoys bobbing orange in the middle distance. Clear sky, fireweed and beach grass, dun bluffs, glacial erratics. Beautiful and inviting, all of it. Silna was up the beach, relaxed, gnawing on a salmon spine. My feet went numb in the water while I tried to pinpoint the source of my alarm. Finally, my eyes landed on the curl of darkness under the crest of each breaker. I was unsettled by the way the afternoon sun put the shadows in front of the waves. It seemed unnatural, uncanny. Something Atlantic embedded deep in my animal brain rejected the west-facing beach, argued that I must be in a dream of some kind. I tried to push past it, but I couldn’t make myself go in deeper than my thighs. I dunked my head under, swam a few strokes in the shallows along the shore, scrubbed my body a little, then walked out, relieved in an animal way.

We got our fish (Alaskanism? Does everyone talk this way? I’m not sure I like it, but I think in these terms in spite of myself). All but one. I like to think of that one as one of “our fish” too, the one that goes upriver and spawns and dies and completes the cycle of plenty, ensures a future harvest. The one that ties us to that cycle.

Terri was along, dipnetting for the first time, and she couldn’t get enough of the fishing, but when she whacked the salmon and clipped their gills and tails, she would whisper “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I told her to say “I’m grateful, thank you, thank you,” instead, but I don’t know if she was really listening.

This is a moment of bounty in the north: plenty of time and light and food to thank the land for. The nasturtium on my deck is in on the frenzy, tumbling over the tabletop in a cascade of blossoms all tangled in the mess I never seem to manage to clean up between projects. A few weeks back, I harvested morels with some friends in last year’s burn on Murphy Dome. In a few more weeks, I’ll be picking cranberries on the tundra. This weekend, I’m driving up the Steese to fill whatever containers I can find with blueberries, and after I chop wood this morning, I’m going to fire up the chainsaw mill and start some lumber drying. Plenty to be grateful for.

Alan and I went up Murphy Dome yesterday and found a nice ridgeline trail fringed in dwarf alder. It seemed to go on forever, and I think if I hadn’t promised Geoff I’d be back, we might have walked miles farther than we did and come home late in the scraps of dark.

We drove up there for the shooting range that Alan found on one shoulder of the hill. It is quieter and shorter than the borough-maintained range in the valley, a perfect place for me to get some practice. I’m pretty skittish around guns. I think, if I didn’t need to know how to use them, I’d just pretend they didn’t exist. But I do need to know how to use them: I eat meat, and I want to keep eating meat, and to do that I need to be able to kill an animal myself and say thank you, I’m grateful, thank you. And if I’m going to do that, I want to do it as kindly, as quickly and surely, as possible. Caribou opens on the Steese soon, and I want meat in my freezer, especially now with all of the pandemic-uncertainty. I want to learn this thing, even though it scares me.

“Let’s get you warmed up,” Alan said, and firmly put the .22 in my hands. He knows he has to hold me to my word on the matter of guns, that I’d wheedle out if I could. I plinked the target a few times and started to relax.

Alan is a very good shooting teacher. He is that rare person who can break down a skill that has come to be as natural to him as walking or talking, and explain it in clear pieces to the raw novice. He’s good at noticing how people are feeling and helping them build confidence. When he could see I was ready, he took the .22 away and handed me my rifle, the one he bought for me to use and had me dry-practicing with all winter. I hadn’t held it in at least a month, and it felt heavy and awkward. He must have noticed how I was standing, so stiff and uncomfortable: “Check it to make sure it’s safe.” I did, and as I worked the bolt it started to feel more familiar, lighter.

I practiced, actually firing that rifle – my rifle – for the very first time. My first two shots weren’t great, but the next two were better. Alan moved my hands, my shoulders, helped me remember. He was warm and gentle and said all the right things, noticed and said so when I did things well. “Good hand position there, nice and relaxed.” “Good shot!” joyfully. We held hands and walked down together to check out the holes in my cardboard target.

We determined that I would be lethal to a caribou that was standing perfectly still fifty yards away. If such a thing comes to pass in a few weeks, I’ll take the shot. “And I’ll be there, backing you up,” he said. Alan. All the right things.

He’s awful cute and just as sweet.

“One shot from a little closer, so you can finish strong.” And I did, and we put the rifle away and loaded the dogs up, but the day was too beautiful and the dirt road was too inviting, so instead of heading back to town, we bumped farther out along the rutted dirt road and found the ridgeline trail.

In a few weeks, I’ll go out there for cranberries. Now, though, the upper reaches of my spruces are aglow in earnest and it’s time to chop wood, set aside this early-late writing, and begin something.

Use Every Part of the Spruce Tree

Yesterday, I slept in a little past nine. Silna spent the night curled up inches away under my cot, stirring now and then, while the light dimmed behind the hills to the north, then brightened again.

Alan showed up while I was still tucked in. “Brrrr. It’s in the low forties this morning,” he said

“No wonder I’m still in bed, then,” I said, “It’s chilly outside the covers.” But I flung them off anyway. We had plans.

Plans!

Some weeks ago, I felled a really big spruce. I was super thrilled; there isn’t much that makes you feel more awesome than all that weight hitting the forest floor and rebounding into your boots and knowing you did that. That is your boom.

Nicole, Reggie, Alan, and I peeled it with a drawknife and a hatchet, using the blade of the hatchet like a spud knife to take off huge, wet strips of bark and cambium. Our pants and gloves became soaked with the watery sap and the slick blond logs slipped through our hands like fat salmon. I loved it, that joy of messy work that feels so clean, somehow.

Some of the middle pieces of the tree went to a raised garden bed, notched, log-cabin-style. I learned then that notching is not as easy as you might think and that chiseling wet wood is much easier than chiseling dry. I broke my first chisel working on that project, but I got my tomatoes and squash in before they busted free of their pots.

Some of the smaller-diameter pieces I left long. Those, in company with some lengths from another tree, will make the posts for the loft I aim to build later this summer.

The remaining pieces, cut into six-foot lengths, have gone to the mill.

Milling!

Milling is hard, dusty work. The Alaskan mill mounts on the bar of the chainsaw and steadies it as the chain rips down the length of the log you’re milling. The posts are marked with measurements, so you can cut the plank to a preset width. Alan has been helping me, which I’m extremely grateful for. It is not a one-person job.

When we start a new log, we set the mill to three inches, nail a 2×6 flat along the top, then slide the mill along that to create a straight first cut. The resulting pieces of “siding” are an inch and a half at the thickest point, and structurally useless, but Alan made a cute planter-box out of some of them, and I’ve been saving others to dry and use as paneling on a future project.

While you are milling, the chain digs out a cut the width of the bar through the log and sawdust flies thick. It mixes with the hot exhaust from the saw and tickles in your nose when you inhale it. It smells like a paradox – clean, fresh spruce shavings and fumes from burning petroleum. Even through the earmuffs, the saw roars too loud for any overhead jet to cut in. You don’t look up. The mill and saw vibrate in your hands clear up to the wrists. You are fully absorbed, physically, back bent, nose, ears, hands busy. Your mind is free for a while.

I love that.

After each cut, one of us shovels the sawdust into a sled. I’ve set some aside to mix with wood glue to fill the cracks in the floor, and the rest I’m using to mulch the muddy parts of the trail. With all this rain, I’m glad to have so much of it.

Milling takes a lot of gas and a lot of time, and it’s amazing how quickly your chain dulls, running long rips like that, but you end up with great lumber. I’m drying some of the widest pieces, hoping they’ll be straight and wide enough to make a countertop. I’d like that, to be able to say that I sourced my kitchen counter on-site. So far, though, most of the planks have gone to the boardwalk.

When it was half-finished, I let the test-walkers try it out.

Geoff freehand ripped an incredible set of bog boards for my wagon to roll along last year, then constructed a notched-log support system for them. It was a really magnificent feat of chainsawing, and they’ve worked perfectly, but it’s always been a goal to plank them over, and as of tonight, it’s done.

This summer has been a lot of that: planking the bog boards, finishing the deck, finding permanent solutions to the problems I had to figure out as I went along. There is insulation yet to lay in, a retaining wall to build, and a mosaic to create in the hearth-pad, but I’m chipping away at it.

From my very clean chimney to (hopefully) yours,

Keely

P.S. I ate some really tasty spruce-tip scones recently. Shoutout to Nicole for her culinary stylings.

Birthday Gunfight

We raised the yurt and sunk the power pole the weekend before I started grad school at UAF.

It was August, still warm but past the peak of mosquito season, so as soon as the walls were hung and the doors were mounted, I set up my cot. It had been months since I’d had space of my own, really. I arranged my water bottle and a book I had to read for one of my classes on the edge of the crate that contained my new wood stove, then added a candle, since it was starting to get dark again and I didn’t have electricity yet. Moved in.  I didn’t mind that the wall covers were still flapping loose.

All that first week I went to orientation at UAF, then came home and cooked my dinners on a fire, burning the ends of 2x4s and slash from trees we’d felled to clear the site for the platform. It would be a few days yet before I had a cookstove, and weeks before I had electricity. That Saturday night, orientation behind me and a new semester ahead, I curled up on my cot, now pushed against the wall, pulled a candle close, and tried to read a little before sleep. I had to get through the first couple-hundred pages of an anthology for my first class on Monday.

As usual, the noises of the night slipped through the gaps in the walls and penetrated the thin cover over the lattice. During the day I could hear the wings of ravens flapping overhead. At night, the owls and the rustling of rodents in the duff still startled me, though I was getting accustomed to the company.

This particular night, though, voices from outside broke my concentration. They seemed to be coming from the forest all around me, which wasn’t right. I have a road on one side, a trail on another, and an empty, forested lot on a third. I couldn’t make out what the voices were saying, but they sounded angry. I reached for my bear spray and tucked it into the lattice in easy reach, marked my page in the book, blew out the candle. The doors were locked, but that didn’t matter much. The wall covers were still open at the edges, and, since I didn’t have stairs or decking yet to make the doors an easy access point, I’d been getting into the yurt by climbing through the gap in the hard wall underneath my one glass window. It was open to the woods, a big enough gap for a cow moose to get her head through, an easy point of entry for anyone smaller. I wished Daazhraii was with me, but he was in Arctic with Geoff.

I listened in the dark, breath quiet, as the shouting escalated. I thought maybe some folks were parked up at the nearby trailhead and partying along the path. Periodically, they’d quiet down for a while, and I’d start to relax, but then I’d hear a burst of laughter or a snatch of conversation, sometimes yelling and cursing. Just before eleven o’clock, I thought I heard gunshots. I stayed absolutely still while my fear wrestled with my self-control and my rational mind. My fear won out. I reached for my phone and looked up the number for the police station. They referred me to the troopers.

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it or put anyone out,” I said, just above a whisper, “I’m not sure it was shots, but it really sounded like it.” And if someone nearby was shooting, they weren’t doing it responsibly. It was dark, they were close, and my walls were made of fabric. 

“We’ll send someone to drive by in a while and take a look. Thanks for calling,” the woman’s voice was tinny and felt too loud coming through my cell-phone’s speaker. When she hung up, the darkness around me seemed to get bigger and the thin walls seemed to evaporate. I felt completely exposed, lying there waiting, listening for the sound of a car on the road. The partygoers seemed to have calmed down, and all I could hear now was occasional, muted laughter and chatter. I started to feel stupid. Was I such a wuss that I couldn’t make it even a week alone in my own home? Was I still scared of the dark like I was when I was little? Had I heard what I thought I heard, or was it just my imagination? Should I have called a neighbor, late as it was, instead of calling the troopers? Should I have gone out to investigate? I lay stiff and tense, waiting. Every few minutes I’d check the time on my phone. 11:30. Midnight.

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…

I almost jumped out of my skin when they started singing, then I felt a wave of embarrassment tow me under. I was a complete idiot. Mortified, I called the troopers back. “Yeah, I called about a half hour ago… they just started singing happy birthday. It’s just a birthday party. I’m so, so sorry.”

Later, I found out that three people were shot at that party sometime after midnight. No one was seriously injured. John filled me in after he read about it in the paper on Monday. I thought he was kidding at first because I didn’t hear a thing. I must have slept right through the gunfire. I guess the birthday song must have put me at ease.

The Birthday Gunfight. It has a kind of legendary status in my mind.

I was pretty freaked out but I stuck out the next few nights, phone and bear spray clutched tight, and pretty soon the yurt began to feel safe: John made things happen every day while I went to campus: he built the outhouse, ran wiring, paneled the wall under the window. After school, I hung insulation, buttoned down the walls, chopped firewood. We teamed up to put in the chimney and I think that first fire made all the difference. Suddenly there was an inside that was warm and dry, and an outside that was separate, pushed away.

The walls are still fabric, and they’re still too thin at times (think -45 F, more on that soon, I promise), but they offer plenty of protection in ordinary circumstances, and I am sure I’m the only person in my neighborhood who has heard a moose clopping across the nearby paved road at two in the morning, the only one who can be certain she sat up in bed to listen as the very first of the sandhill cranes spiraled overhead and proclaimed that spring had come to Fairbanks.

Adventurers, Nurturers, Skijorers: We Want You!

Yukon Flats School District is looking for a secondary teacher for Arctic Village next year. I am off to graduate school, so my position will be opening up.

UPDATE: As of 7/11/19, according to ATP, my position is still open at Arctic Village School, as is the K-4 position. Please feel free to apply here through ATP and to contact me directly if you have questions about the job or the community.

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We want you! And no, not at all in a creepy, axe-wielding way!

As you can imagine, I’m kind of invested in finding someone right for the job, so here’s my honest pitch:

It’s an impossible job, but it is worthwhile. Teaching here is grueling and wonderful and infuriating and heartbreaking.

Sometimes it is easy to get lost in frustration: there are administrative failures and cultural misunderstandings and frozen pipes galore. There are a million and one things that are out of our control.

Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the pleasure of exploring the wild, magnificent Arctic Refuge that abuts the village and to forget why we must come back to work on Monday mornings when the wolf tracks lead in some different direction around some other mountain and the sunset is creeping farther north every evening. 

But we do come back. The kids have an unbelievable amount of love to give and a tremendous need to see it returned.

If you think that kind of experience might be for you, read on.

I know I am not at all the same person that I was when I began.

 

What does the job actually entail?

Right now, I teach grades 4-12. My classes are Algebra Fundamentals, High School English, Reading, Elemiddle (4-7) Language Arts, Elemiddle Social Studies, Art, sometimes P.E., sometimes Keyboarding, sometimes Drama.

There are extras that aren’t technically part of the job. Geoff and I both run a detention/study hall for an hour after school gets out each day. One evening a week, I run a board game night. I used to open the school for sewing two additional nights a week.

All of that, more or less, is flexible.

Geoff also teaches 4-12, and we have divided it up by content area in the past. That could be done differently, depending on the skills and interests of the new teacher. Regardless of how the classes are split, you’ll be working closely with Geoff. Don’t be shy about shooting him an email if you’re interested in the job. The school’s contact info can be found on the district’s website.

Now, the job description probably says something vague like this: prepare and provide curriculum-aligned lessons for assigned grade levels and content areas.

The fact is, you will write a lot of curriculum. You will teach grade levels and content areas that you are probably not certified to teach. You will do a million things at once, and you will be derailed constantly, so don’t bother making rigid lesson plans.

The negotiated agreement says our work day is from 8-4, that we get regular prep time, and that we have sick days that we can use at our discretion.

If you’re only planning to work from 8-4, you’re probably not going to do right by the kids. The school has a unique place in the community and in the kids’ lives, and you will be a huge part of that. That doesn’t end at 4:00.

If you want to take a lot of sick days or be rigid about your prep time, you’re going to screw your colleagues over. There is no one else in town who can really cover your classes. Sometimes, there is no one else who can even supervise the kids.

Fair Warning:

The Obvious

This is the bush: Everything comes in on the plane. The small store stocks mostly non-perishable foods. Gas costs $10 a gallon.

 

This is the arctic: It gets really cold here. Make sure you have long johns.

 

The Less-Obvious

Water:

Water here comes from the river. It’s filtered and treated at the washateria, then pumped over to the school and the two teacher apartments. Every other building in town is dry, and people haul or pack water from the washateria’s outdoor spigot for home use.

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Most people in town use an outhouse or a honeybucket at home. The school and the teacher apartments have running water and flush toilets. For showers, adults go to the washateria. Students are allowed to shower at school in the afternoons. We provide towels.

The kids don’t have the best oral hygiene and hand-washing skills, and they could, arguably, benefit from more showers.

Geoff and I live in a dry cabin, and I find I prefer it. There’s something essentially cleaner about not having a bathroom at all.

The Vibe:

There are four teachers here: an elementary teacher, two secondary teachers, and a special education teacher, all from outside. Our classified staff is all local. Many of them are quite young and awesome. In the past, we have usually had a pretty genial work environment.

There is a lot of male energy at school right now. Mark and Geoff get along pretty well, most of the time, but adding another man to the mix might be tricky. We could really use a woman in my position, if only to provide an alternative role model for the kids. Besides, someone needs to keep a stash of pads in her desk to hand out in times of need.

At the very least, if you are a man and you want this job, please consider calling or emailing and setting up a time to chat with both Mark and Geoff so that you can get a feel for how you might fit into the testosterone dynamics.

Special Needs:

About half of our kids are in Special Education. Almost all of our kids are behind by one or more grade levels in reading and math. It’s a very challenging teaching situation.

Tribal Land and Law:

Arctic Village is located right on the boundary between ANWR and a huge chunk of private property owned by the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government. Teachers live and work on tribal land by the forbearance of the tribal government. In many ways, we have a different set of rules and expectations from any other residents of the community.

Non-members cannot go out exploring (skiing, snowmachining, hiking etc.) on tribal land without a tribal member as a chaperone and/or permission from the council. It’s easy to get out and enjoy the wilderness in Arctic Refuge, but it’s important to know where the boundary lies.

Non-members are held to a different standard when it comes to adhering to the rules and laws that the council and tribal government have put in place. This is a dry village, but drinking is common. The rules are not enforced except when they are, and if someone in the community has an issue with a teacher, or with teachers in general, or with outsiders, it is easy for them to cause a lot of trouble for an outsider who doesn’t take care.

When you have guests, it’s important to notify the council that they will be arriving. Even following this guideline, my guests have experienced some harassment. It is never the most memorable part of their experience – Arctic is stunning, the kids are charming and sweet, and most people are warm and welcoming – but it is frustratingly consistent.

No one tells you these things. There isn’t a manual or a packet for incoming teachers. Coming from outside, I assumed that I was expected to do what my neighbors do: when in Rome, do as the Romans. That just isn’t the case here, and no one will tell you that straight-up from the get-go. I have learned how to behave by trial and error and observation.

Housing:

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There are two apartments in the old school building. The one-bedroom apartment will be occupied next year. It looks like the two-bedroom might become available, but if that happens, the district will be hiring an elementary teacher in addition to a secondary teacher to replace me. Unless they find a teaching couple or two teachers willing to be roommates, someone is going to have to live in a dry cabin.

Rent for the two-bedroom apartment is $1,150 a month including heat, water and electricity. It’s possible to leech off the school’s internet from there.

Rent for a cabin in town is about $400 a month, maybe less, but you’re responsible for all of your own utilities, chores and maintenance. It’s not easy, but I think it’s worth it.

Most of the homes in town are heated exclusively with wood. It is probably possible to buy your wood from some dudes in town who bring in money that way. It’s also probably possible to pay someone to pack your water, maybe even buck and split your firewood (high school kids are great candidates for this). With a snowmachine and a chainsaw, it’s feasible to do all of this yourself, although it does add an extra heap of chores.

Perks:

Here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. I’m going to gush for a little while.

Beauty and Adventure

Arctic is stunning. My pictures can’t do it justice. Photographers, artists and the daydreamy be warned: you may find it hard to focus on school.

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Not focusing on school.

I’ve gushed pretty endlessly about this aspect of Arctic and of Venetie for years now, so if you want to know more, just read some old posts (suggested tags: Chandalar, firewood, snowmachines). If you’re an adventurer, make friends with Geoff (hint: he likes disaster movies and talking about man toys like cordless heat guns).

The wilderness adventure potential of this place is unlimited. I’ve been looking for the limit for years now, and I haven’t found it yet.

 

People and Culture

Arctic kids are the sweetest kids I have ever worked with, anywhere, bar none. They will hug you and love you and want to visit with you all the time. They’re ridiculous. If you like kids, you will love them. If you don’t like kids, find a new profession.

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The adults in the community are, for the most part, equipped with awesome senses of humor. You won’t see much of them unless you get involved with community events or attend sewing night, but getting to know folks is well worth the effort.

The elders are incredible. They have memories of a time when the Gwich’in were still traveling seasonally and living a mainly subsistence lifestyle here. They can tell stories that make the hair on your neck stand up, and they have skills that are quickly becoming rare. It’s a pleasure to hear them speak to the kids.

If you’re into it and can find the time, there are opportunities to get familiar with Gwich’in culture. The kids have language instruction a few times a week, several people regularly attend sewing nights at the school and do traditional beadwork, and there are people in the community who are glad to teach others to cut caribou meat and ice fish. My classroom is fully stocked with literature by and about the Gwich’in people, and people in town are proud of their heritage.

This is a critical moment for the Gwich’in. Congress has mandated leasing for oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge, and the leasing area is in a sensitive place for the Porcupine caribou herd. Many adults and elders in the community are active in opposing this development, and you will find that passions run deep on this issue.

You Can’t Beat the Food

Everyone in town goes bananas for blueberries in August. I believe one woman picked thirty gallons of blueberries last summer. Lingonberries, known around here as cranberries, are harvested a little later in the fall.

 

There is very little, in my opinion, that rivals the taste of fried caribou meat and lingonberry chutney.

Throughout the fall and spring, sometimes even through the winter, caribou are active in the area. Caribou meat is lean but tender, and very flavorful. If you are a hunter, as a resident of Arctic Village you are entitled to take ten caribou in season. If you are not a hunter, you will have the opportunity to buy or trade for meat.

 

 

In the spring, holes are drilled in the Chandalar where it bends just upriver from town. Everyone enjoys ice fishing as the days warm and lengthen. Sometimes we take the kids up on skis and spend the afternoon making too much noise on the ice. I’ve never had any luck, but I hear grayling is delicious.

Other locally available foods include waterfowl, moose, ptarmigan and rabbit.

Flexibility

 

I have a dog that will cry incessantly and eat my boots if he’s left alone. We’ve worked it out so that he can be in a kennel just outside my classroom window all day long, which seems to work for him.

When the weather’s nice, we often take the kids skiing. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen during their thirty-minute P.E. block: we are able to retool the schedule to work with whatever activities we have planned, even on fairly short notice.

When I wanted to do stained glass with the kids, we were able to order the supplies and build a class around it.

Our secretary has been bringing her baby to work since she was just a little smushy bitty thing. Now she’s three and sometimes appears in the classroom doorways, asking for her mommy, wearing nothing but a diaper. It’s charming.

There are advantages and disadvantages to living and working in the bush, but you can’t beat it for flexibility.

Compensation

The pay and benefits are decent (by lower-48 standards).

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We Want You:

If you have a sense of humor.

If you are someone who likes to play board games with kids.

If you have an imagination.

If you are interested in getting outside.

If you are someone who is willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.

If you can think on your feet.

Interested?

If you think you might be interested, get in touch. I can answer your questions frankly or put you in touch with the folks who can.

 

Shook-up world: What is the value of wilderness?

Like so many people, I am dazed by the events of this week. On Tuesday night I went to bed in tears, shocked and frightened by the outcome of the election. Trump’s campaign always felt like a prank to me, and now it feels like a prank that got out of control and set fire to the house with all of us trapped inside.

My fear stems from the following:

  • We have just sent a message to every secretly bigoted and misogynistic creep on earth that we, as a nation, condone abusive behavior and expressions of prejudice. This, more than anything else, frightens me.
  • I heard yesterday that Mr. Trump has expressed an interest in allying with Russia in Syria. Although I thought I remembered hearing that Russia was no longer backing Assad, I couldn’t find anything in a short online search to confirm that recollection. It is horrifying to think that our country might lend support to a criminal head-of-state who has used chemical weapons against his own people.
  • We have empowered a science-denier to make policy decisions that will have an irreversible impact on the environment.
  • Mr. Trump will have the opportunity to appoint as many as three supreme court justices.
  • Mr Trump will appoint a cabinet. I keep hearing rumors of a Secretary of the Interior with oil interests (Forrest Lucas, Sarah Palin) and an Energy Secretary with financial interests in fracking and in the Dakota Access Pipeline (Harold Hamm). I’m trembling here at the hem of ANWR.
    I understand that our Department of the Interior is responsible for managing federal lands in the best interest of the American people, for industry and recreation as well as conservation, but I am not convinced that the economic and political benefits of developing oil and natural gas are always worth the price we pay.I have not been persuaded that the potential benefits of developing mineral resources in ANWR outweigh the potential cultural and environmental costs. I know that this state runs on oil money and that my job and many, many others depend either directly on the oil industry or on the state budget. I know that it has never been demonstrated that the Porcupine caribou herd would be disrupted by development in the 1002 area. I know that the pipeline needs to maintain a minimum pressure or be permanently dismantled, and that with Prudhoe Bay producing less than in previous years, we need a new source for oil if we want to keep it open. I know that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has vowed to open the 1002 area in ANWR for drilling, and there will never be a better opportunity.  I expect the onslaught to be immediate and forceful, and I know that my students and their families are not prepared for it.

I’m trying to channel my anxiety into action. I’m reading endless articles and teaching my class with a renewed passion for civics. I am trying to cultivate a diversity of nuanced opinions among my students, who are usually, to their detriment, of one mind. I told the kids today, as I have been telling them for months, to bring me their voter cards when they turn eighteen and I’ll bake them each a cake to celebrate their power. I want the kids to know how the government works and how to influence it. I want to spend the next four years building up to a huge celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage. I want to get my students informed about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline and in contact with native kids, like them, whose environment and heritage may be threatened by oil development. I also want them to understand – really understand – the perspectives of people who don’t share their views, including those who wish to develop oil resources. I have never been so motivated to get my students writing clear, cogent, persuasive essays. We have such a long way to go, though. They are miles behind and not catching up quick.

But, after all, why bother with all of that? What is the value of wilderness?

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Wilderness is valuable for its power to make us feel small. We spend so much time in human-built environments, perfectly made to our scale, that we forget how we diminish in the presence of  mountains and tundra, how we disappear in the course of rivers that churn with mud and power. When I am out there, I am no greater than one of seven-billion ice-crystals lying under an unknowably deep and vast sky.

It is valuable for its beauty, if you believe that beauty has value.

It is valuable for subsistence and cultural diversity, if you believe that subsistence and cultural diversity have value.

It is empowering.
How does it feel to stand in a silent, snow-filled valley, hundreds of miles from anywhere?
It feels like hugging the sun.

It is valuable for its complexity. As Carl Sagan reminds us, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together” (thank you, Symphony of Science). We have so much yet to learn from the systems that interconnect in wild places. It is not enough to take pictures and samples to fossilize in a lab somewhere: the complexity of nature demands space, time and variables that cannot be simulated or artificially preserved. By eliminating wilderness, we preclude the full expression of these complex systems and curtail our studies and potential scientific knowledge.

The variation – the biodiversity – that powers the miracle of evolution also powers the miracles of medicine and technology: we look to biology and ecology for answers to our most difficult human challenges, and, without wilderness, those answers have no place to live.

And what about this wilderness? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? What is its value, specifically? I try to be pragmatic, and I think I am. I can see my way all the way around most political issues. I can see what people who want to develop the resources in the 1002 area see. Economic growth is important. Jobs are important. Energy independence is important. But vast, untouched and untouchable wilderness is inherently valuable for its power to command our respect and awe. Arctic beauty is important, more so as it dwindles. Culture and caribou are important. Unique biological and ecological processes and systems are important. And the only difference that really matters between these things and those things is that these things are available nowhere else in the world.

If by cultivating economic growth, jobs, and energy independence we compromise the biodiversity and cultural diversity of the planet, we pay too high a price.

In other news, ahshii. It’s snowing.

At last.