Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cottonwood Balm in the Garden and on the Glacial Moraine

It's a green, green world in Homer.  The trees have leafed out completely, still in their baby clothes, the soft innocent green of spring.  And our jeans and socks are muddy with garden dirt.  It's imbedded under our fingernails; it's lodged between our toes; it falls out of the cuffs of our pants.  It's followed us into the house.  According to the Alaskan version of the Good Farmer's Almanac, and the sourdough wisdom of the south central coast, gardens go in on Memorial Day weekend in Homer, Alaska.  Today, I stopped by the Wagon Wheel, one of the oldest stores in Homer, which sells plants, baby chicks (Pick Up Chicks Here says the sign), dirt, fertilizer, pots, rakes, tools, pets, pet supplies, eggs, and an eclectic selection of health foods and supplements, including chocolate covered halva bars that come in a big flat, like the kind that hold donuts.  When he first moved here, over thirty years ago, Craig used to ski down from Crossman Ridge, above Homer, to the Wagon Wheel ever couple weeks for supplies, and he always bought a halva bar.  They haven't changed, and neither has the Wagon Wheel.  The same person's owned it all these years, a willowy, shy woman with long, wispy hair, in dun-colored work clothes, a Russian scarf tied under her chin.  She looks like a black-and-white photograph from 50 years ago, part Selkie, part lean and hungry, wind-whipped homestead woman.   This morning after yoga I stopped at the Wagon Wheel to look for more carrot seeds, and they were gone.  Over half of the little shelves on the seed carousel were empty, snatched up by Homer's crazed gardeners.  Luckily, the neighbors had extra for us, and now our garden is finally in, and my muddy clothes are in the washer.

Last summer, to maintain some semblance of normalcy in his life, Craig grew a garden even though he was rarely home, between research trips on the boat and rescue trips to Cape Cod to help me through treatment.  The kids helped seed, weed and harvest, and as a result, we're still eating carrots, potatoes, beets and parsnips stored in our neighbors' root cellar, and raspberries, blueberries, salmon and kale from the freezer. On the surface, it erases the break in continuity, summer after summer growing a garden, harvesting and putting up food, the seasonal round that perhaps grounds us to place, to this chunk of earth, more than anything.  But the discontinuity is real.  Though I repeat the same movements, run my spade along the rows to furrow the ground for seeds, kneel to drop the seeds in, though the robins and hermit thrushes rummage through the leaves along the garden fence, though the wind blows from the southwest in the afternoon, I sense in my heart that break, like a rift zone.  The earth beneath me has shifted along a fault line, and I straddle it.  

These earthquake images arise because I just finished a book called Walking Home, by Alaskan writer Lynn Schooler.  In it he describes a solo journey he took from his home in Juneau north by boat along the wild coast to Lituya Bay, then on foot several days through grizzly country to Dry Bay and back.  The occasion for his pilgrimage was the death of his friend Luisa (from breast cancer) and the breakdown of his marriage.  The coast he walked lies over a massive fault.  It's a volatile region of frequent earthquakes.  He quotes witnesses who survived an 8.4 earthquake in the 1950's.  In Lituya Bay, as a result, an 1800 foot tsunami sheared the forests off the slopes.  Survivors watched the mountains heave so violently, slabs the size of city blocks broke off their faces and the face of a glacier, and plunged into the bay, generating the enormous wave.  I think about the couple whose boat rode up that wave, rose up over the hills surrounding the bay, along with a maelstrom of broken-off trees, the leaves and branches stripped by the water's power.   Up and over the bay's entrance the wave threw them.  They survived, but did they recover?  The woman's hair turned white within weeks.  Lynn Schooler anchored his boat in Lituya Bay, kayaked to shore, hefted his pack, ducked into the thick forest, and started walking.  Days later, after a terrifying encounter with an injured grizzly, he turned back a few miles early, drawn from his solitude to the human world, to home.  The book ends just before his re-entry.  So we don't get to know what that was like.  Could he explain, could anyone really hear, really comprehend, the story he returned with?  Would it be any less translatable than a tale of being abducted by aliens?  I don't think so.

My friend Carl has a story like that.  Maybe we all do.  I took a break from gardening on Sunday to go across Kachemak Bay with Carl, our neighbor, and his best friend Pat.  It was our first hike of the summer.  I was torn, wanting to help Craig in the garden.  But something inside me urged me to go for the hike.  Later, I overheard Craig telling someone on the phone that I seemed to be "trying to make up for lost time," doing so much, because I'd missed a whole Alaskan summer.  Is that why I jumped in Carl's boat with my backpack and crappy sneakers and left the garden undone, left my blog unwritten, my book project untouched, the workshop I'm to teach in a week unplanned?  We landed on the opposite shore of Kachemak Bay, in a wind chop, then anchored the boat offshore.  Carl carried me on his back so I wouldn't get my crappy sneakers wet in the salt water.  The hike took us off the beach through coastal forest and then onto a glacial moraine, a gravel flatland of very young cottonwood trees and alder shrubs.  The air was thick and sweet with the scent of Balm of Gilead, their leaf resin.  In Lituya Bay, when Lynn Schooler landed his kayak, he breathed in that same perfume, wrote that "the smell was enough to get drunk on."  After the lichens and grasses colonized the ravaged ground (in the case of Glacier Spit, ravaged by ice; in the case of Lituya Bay, ravaged by waves) and built up enough soil, cottonwoods and alders took root.  They're the scrappers of the arboreal world.  Just as in Biblical times, my stepdaughter makes a healing balm of Homer from the sticky buds.  As we hiked across raw, scraped earth, the pale green leaves of the cottonwoods like a new skin over the glacier's wound, Carl told us his story.

Last spring, flying his ultralight plane with his 15 year old daughter, his carburetor iced up, the engine lost power, and they crashed into a stand of 150 foot tall redwoods, destroying the plane.  The impact knocked them both out.  When Tatie came to, her father was bloody and unconscious under her, the plane in pieces all around them.  They had to be rescued by helicopter.  Miraculously, their physical wounds were superficial, and soon after, Carl was flying again.  But when he returned to the crash site a few days after with a pilot friend, to see if anything could be salvaged, he choked up.  Several weeks after the crash, flying in tandem with a student, man with a few hours under his belt, he almost crashed again.  The student, whose hands were on the control bar, wrongly, and without Carl knowing it, pushed the bar up to get lift, and instead, the plane stalled, tipped and fell 500 feet.  Carl thought they'd hit an air pocket.  That's what scared him, he said.  Until he realized it was "pilot error," something controllable, he'd felt his first real terror:  the very air, on a clear, calm day, could betray him without warning.  The way the earth did the fishermen anchored in Lituya Bay, when they watched mountains writhe.  The way my body did when my healthy cells mutated into cancer.  As we walked in the sun, Carl explained the physics of flying, of lift, of wings, of air moving over a curved surface and accelerating.  "How's your fear of flying?" he asked.  "Oh, about the same," I admitted.  "Maybe a little better."  A few years ago, Carl took me up in his ultralight plane, and I clung to his back like a limpet, in moments letting go of my fear, my attachment to the earth, enough to let my heart fly out my mouth, and to follow it with my eyes as it raced along the treetops.  Carl explained carburetor icing in detail to us, but perhaps to himself, too.  What causes it.  How it might be avoided.  But mainly he told the story in minute detail.   But did Pat and I get it?  Could we/?  His brush with death, how it rushed to meet the belly of his plane, a green blur?  "I don't know if I passed out," he said.  "I don't remember the crash itself.  Maybe my mind just shut down."  Now his mind loops through the physics of flight, hooks knowledge, knits it in, and that's how Carl flies again, even knowing what he knows.

There are days when a brush with death is overwhelming.  Maybe Craig is right, and I'm trying desperately, futilely, to make up for lost time.  Lost time is just that:  lost.  The rift, the gap, the discontinuity, can't be erased or repaired.  Or maybe I know how everything can change in an instant:  a plane goes down, the earth heaves along a fault line, a cell divides and never stops.  Maybe I'm making up for potential, future lost time, an even more ridiculous notion.  I want it all:  to be on the boat with the whales, to be across Kachemak Bay on the glacial moraine with Carl and Pat, to be writing a blog entry, to be writing my book, to be preparing for the classes I'm teaching next week, to be baking bread, to be kneeling on the damp earth in the garden, to be running on the Homer Spit, to be doing yoga, to be drinking tea with my friend Jo, to be talking on the phone to my sister or to Lauren, to be flying to Fairbanks to visit my stepdaughter.  More life, more life, frantic for it.  I want it all, more than ever, and trying to do it all, I lose myself, and I lose my way.  This morning, I'll admit it, I even said out loud terrible words to Craig.  "Sometimes I think.  Well, not sometimes, just now, this minute.  That I've been given a second chance at life, and I don't deserve it.  I'm going to blow it."

But more life isn't the point.  It's the epiphany I'm after.  It's the story told again and again, or written down, or remembered while walking or gardening, that yields the jewel.  The story is the second chance.  Not only to live each moment, but to hold it.

Our hike took us to the edge of a glacial river, swift, gray, twisting along a wide gravel outwash.  To get across, we climbed into a metal hanging basket suspended from a thick guy-wire.  We hauled ourselves over the river by pulling on a rope.  The metal basket swayed with each yank.  I watched the river pass under us and didn't think once, "What if the wire gives way?  What if we fall into the river?"  Though I knew that water was cold enough to kill in minutes.  Though I knew that anything on this earth can fail, give way, including the earth itself.  We climbed out of the basket and continued our hike.  What I remember is tiny clumps of deep blue violets growing on the bank.  What I remember is walking single file through across the moraine on our way back.  What I hold are the cottonwoods, balm for the rifts and raw and weak places just under our skins, behind the strong muscles powering us along.



1 comment:

  1. you and all the world deserve your second chance, and a third and a fourth, for all you are giving to the world in each of these writings, and just for the fact of your breath, your life, out there, far away from me, but such a balm for me, and so many others.