Evening now. I'm trying to wrap up these dispatches from Prince William Sound, as we are going out on the boat again tomorrow. We just returned from a cook out at Bill and Jane's house, on their "lawn" overlooking Kachemak Bay. Right before we left the party, Doug arrived in his wheelchair, pushed by a friend. Doug, a welder and former commercial fisherman, was one of Lars' first boat skippers (our son Lars fished on salmon seine boats the past several summers). A few years back, Doug, an athlete, was diagnosed with ALS, what used to be called Lou Gehrig's disease. He was/is in his fifties.
When we got home, Craig and I just sat in the car in the driveway for awhile staring, absorbed in our own thoughts about Doug. Doug had been wrapped in a warm, faded, plaid pile blanket. He sipped a gin and tonic from a straw, surrounded by friends around the fire. All these years of his body's demise, he's been "doing it" with a glow, a radiance, that's like a pool of evening sunlight. You just want some of it to land on you. But tonight, he looked different. I don't know Doug, but I thought about him often last summer, when I was going through my health travails, wondering how he was doing. He's a part of my small community, but it's more. That radiance of his, his grace, had moved me.
I know I only saw the public face. I know there's more. It's strange to say it, but at times, for instance, at a concert put on by two local young jazz musicians and their teachers, his aura was that of a resurrected man, not a man facing a death sentence. At the concert a couple years ago, the stand-up bass player, a seventy-something black man who once played with Miles Davis, turned to Doug, who sat in his wheelchair in one of the front tows. His eyes never left Doug's as he made that bass wail, sing, cry, mourn, defy, rage, die, and rise again. He improvised an otherworldly music that seemed a language only Doug could understand. The way they stared at each other: like the music came to Marcus through Doug's eyes. The rest of us disappeared. The bassist and Doug were the only ones in the room. That was when Doug still had his full voice, the use of his hands. His voice is raspy now; he looks tired.
Sometimes "doing it" is simply showing up, in the cold wind off the glacier, to sit by a bonfire while a friend directs a straw of gin and tonic toward your thirst, and another offers a spoonful of black beans toward your hunger. "Can you move my hand over there?" Doug asked a friend. Raw wind, raw life. Another broken halleluiah, of broken chords. Of all the things I witnessed today, that gesture, a friend lifting the mittened hand, tenderly placing it down again, will linger longest.
Now back to the Sound:
Evening coming on again. A clear sky overhead, with a waxing moon close to half full. We came back around the north end of Montague Island into Montague Strait because of the weather forecast, which predicted an easterly tonight. But it never materialized. Tonight we’re anchored in one of my favorite spots, a tiny cove tucked into the center of Green Island. No wind. I’m drying sheets of green algae from the clothesline over the stove and on the oven rack. I peeled it from the rocks on the beach. I just got back from a hike alone through the woods. Still now, after dark, a kingfisher chatters (there’s always one here, and often a loon, and regularly seals and sea otters). Dusky Canada geese nest on Green Island. It’s a kind of refugia, its shallows supporting all kinds of life, from clams to orcas. And even though it’s in the middle of wide Montague Strait, which is not a place you want to be in stormy weather, it’s a completely protected anchorage. The low relief of the forested island doesn’t create the williwaw gusts of the steep-sided bays of Knight Island.
I beached the kayak and hiked up into a forested peninsula, just a thin finger of island but thickly carpeted in moss. The trees aren’t as big as those on Montague, but still large enough, too big to wrap my arms even a third of the way around. I followed deer trails, and gathered devil’s club shoots for tomorrow, which is my birthday. Kelp, devil’s club, and the cod Craig caught today: the makings of a feast. I thought I’d feel safe and relaxed on Green Island, since it doesn’t have brown bears living on it, but I felt strangely unnerved. Perhaps it was because I was wearing Craig’s glasses, which aren’t quite right for my eyes. Perhaps it was the intensity of the silence. The last light shone on the water and on a few small islands across the channel, so I hiked to the edge of the woods to sit against the moss-coated root-shoulders of a hemlock.
I smelled something acidic, thought it was my imagination. On the moss where I sat were ropy wads of what looked like owl scat, but filled with deer hair, and the bones of a fish. I kneeled on the moss and looked down at a few green-winged teal turning in circles near the rock face. Some movement of mine startled them into flight. I felt the silence of the place press against me on all sides, press against my ears. Across the channel, geese cackled, but the silence was separate from that. It was thick and weighty, like honey. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a place so alive underneath me, almost breathing, and it scared me a little. I felt like a trespasser. I started to wonder if a brown bear could have swum across the channel between Montague and Green Islands. Or what if a hermit lived on the island, unbeknownst to anyone? I wanted to find peace in that forest but I felt uneasy. When I got up, I found the source of the acidic smell: a pile of some animal’s scat, a rather large pile, wet and filled with fish scales, hemlock needles, and moss. I poked at it with a stick, held my hand above it checking for warmth. Luckily, it was cold. But it smelled acrid and fishy. I suppose it could have been a large river otter’s scat. But perhaps a bear did live on the island.
I felt relieved when I stepped out of the forest again. I stopped often to listen, but heard nothing, no wind, only the trills of a few varied thrushes high in the trees. Back above the beach, I walked to the forest on the other side, another peninsula. Again I followed a well-worn deer path and along it found a beautiful antler, walnut brown, and ridged, like a carving. I carried in my hand like some kind of protection. Maybe it was night coming on, and being alone, but the uneasy feeling returned once I entered the forest again. I hiked up a rise and down to the beach on the other side, the beach facing Knight Island Passage. A pair of oystercatchers scolded me, then settled themselves on their rock.
The sun had set and the sky above Knight Island was tinted with what seemed like every shade of rose I saw in the Bronx Botanical Garden last summer. My brother Andy and his wife Kathy took Craig and me to the neighborhood where I was born, along Fordham Road, and we saw our old apartment, and the building where my father worked, and the market in the Italian neighborhood where my mother shopped, and then we walked through the gardens, where my mother and grandmother brought us each day to play. It was our back yard. It was our “nature.” In the sky tonight I saw its roses.
This is my nature now, this place, and it’s true that in reality, I’ve always been a little bit afraid of it. I’ve been caught out in storms, lost in the woods, startled by black bears, adrift with a broken down engine. Hiking in Prince William Sound alone, I’ve always felt watched. Sometimes it’s been comforting. I’ve even fallen asleep in muskeg meadows in the rain, tucked up under a mountain hemlock tree no taller than I am. But often I’ve stopped during my solitary rambles to listen for footfalls, for crashing in the underbrush, and I’ve looked again and again over my shoulder. I’ve listened hard for voices in the wind brushing the island. But I’ve never felt the earth itself breathing like a sleeping animal under my body as I did tonight, the ground not solid, but sentient, shifting. I’ve never felt the silence itself breathing. Maybe it was being on the boat all day, in the swells. Or maybe that spot on Green Island was one of the earth’s thin places, the ones the Celts talk about, where the barrier between the material and spirit worlds has worn away.
It was in this place, Prince William Sound, where, in my early twenties, I took step after step not past my fear, but hand in hand with it, extending my boundaries further into wilderness, further beyond my own limits. I’ve entered these woods all my adult life with love and trepidation, with relief and tentativeness. I’ve rarely felt completely safe, except on the boat anchored up in Sanctuary Bay, or here, in the middle of Green Island, or in the kayak, observing that world of the other from the safety of the water. Or on a sunlit beach. Perhaps there’s something this place has to teach me now about fear. Fear on Green Island, like the island itself, was an alive, animal presence.
Before anchoring here, we hung out all day in Zaikof Bay with the hydrophone down, venturing out to the middle of the Entrance to listen and scan, then retreating out of the swells. Again we heard very distant AB pod calls. They must be somewhere north, in the wide open mid-Sound. We walked this morning on Montague Island, in that forest of ancient trees, coming out at the edge of a muskeg meadow. Pine siskins surrounded us. I sang to Hanuman. We walked along the trail I visualized last summer. I said to Craig, “This is where I walked with Hanuman.” We ate salad for lunch, and my friend Mike, the man I described earlier, whose cup hangs at Resurrect Art in Seward, called from his satellite phone, from the Aleutians, to wish me a happy birthday, not only from him, but from two orcas named Floppy and Digger.
It’s 11:26 pm. In 34 minutes I’ll be 48, but in many ways, I’m still being born. I take pictures of myself in the woods and stare at them. Who are you? I ask. It’s not just my short hair, which is fine now, and slow-growing, not thick and long and weedy as it was most of my life. It’s something else in my face. That person, she knows things I don’t know yet. I haven’t caught up with her, with where she’s been. Maybe I followed her into the woods tonight.
I woke at 4:30 am, got up briefly to sit at the table and read the day’s entry from the Book of Awakening. A sea otter dove off the bow, up and about, foraging the bottom for clams or crabs or fish. I liked today’s reading particularly; Nepo writes of being like a bird who rides out storms by finding their calm center. He writes of breathing through metaphorical storms in that way. He writes about life moving constantly back and forth between storm and calm, between spirit and matter. I find that daily on the boat. Some hours are simply grueling, when the seas are rough and we’re running a transect sideways to the swells, or when my body’s aching from inactivity. Other moments are incandescent, like last night, scary but on the edge of something bigger and more powerful than any narrative detail of my life. After reading, I crawled back into bed and breathed my way through a storm of thoughts, imagining that calm center within the cyclone of my fears. And I fell back to sleep. And woke to Craig heating chai on the stove, an absolutely clear and still morning. The smell of cinnamon in the chai drifted down to me, and I thought of cinnamon toast, which I made when I got up. We fried duck eggs, and I stored all the dried seaweed in a jar to send to Lauren.
The cell phone rang, and it was Lauren, calling from Cape Cod to tell me she had good news. Her lymph node surgery showed no sign of cancer. She starts chemo tomorrow. And then she sang me a birthday song. You too, I wanted to tell her, are just being born, Lauren. Out of fire, out of pain, out of grace. Happy birth day to you.
Craig and I paddled to shore and walked the beach, riling up the pair of oystercatchers again, then back down the back of the island through the woods. They were young, scrappy woods, not like the open, mossy pathways of old growth forests. This woods was thick with blueberry and rusty menzesia brush and young slender spruce trees. We pushed our way through branches that snapped and slapped us in the face. Each day, more buds emerge. More birds arrive. No hermit thrushes yet, but the woods were alive with song and fox sparrows, varied thrushes, siskins.
And now we’re searching again, motoring slowly down Montague Strait in the sun. The air’s cold and sharp, but the sun’s warm, a great feeling on the skin, bracing. Montague Island on this side has snow almost down to the water and is riddled with avalanches mussing up the smooth snowfields flaring from the cornices along its spine.
It’s evening in Lucky Bay. We dropped two shrimp pots in the bay’s mouth, and we’ll see if we have any luck tomorrow. In two hours my birthday will be over. We anchored up and what felt like a final birthday present was the level of the tide, at a perfect height to allow us to kayak down the tidal river in to the lagoon, what my friend David Grimes calls the Sound’s inner sanctum. The tide floods in and pours out through that river, creating a waterfall. But at tonight’s high tide, the rocks forming the falls were drowned, and we paddled right in. It was a great birthday, no whales, but calls from my sister and her family and my brother. And a cake Craig baked, and fresh cod and red rockfish and steamed broccoli and Devil’s club shoots, with its sharp forest flavor, earth medicine.
On Point Helen beach, I found a patch of black sand, took off my rubber boots and socks and jacket and did 48 sun salutations, one for each year of my life. With each one, I called up memories of myself at that age. Some salutations were a relief to complete, for the hard memories that arose. The year of my friend’s suicide was one. The year of my divorce. I slowed way down for last year’s sequence, giving it ample time to mark its passing, lowered myself slowly as I could to lie face down on the sand. Three eagles rode the strong northwest wind, twirling above me. The waves lapped behind me. The northwest wind buffeted my right side. My feet dug pits into the black sand. I wanted to lie on that beach for a long time. There are black bears on Knight Island. No human being lives there. I felt safe, at home in the world. It’s complete. The Sound has taken me back in.