Monday, June 6, 2011

The Landscape of the Earth, the Landscape of the Scar

I'm sitting at my friend Karen's kitchen table in Fairbanks, Alaska.  I flew up here for the weekend to visit my stepdaughter Elli, who is working as an intern for the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council for the summer (she's the one who just graduated from Whitman College).  I lived in Fairbanks for twelve winters, from 1988-1999.  I'm not the only one who counts time in winters when referring to life in Alaska's interior, where the trees begin changing color in August, where the ground begins to freeze in September, where the first snow sticks in early October, where a sub-zero cold spell hits in November, where the temperature plummets to 40 below zero in January and locks in for weeks, where the sun crests the black spruce forests for a little over four hours a day and the air is blue during the heart of winter.  What was most humbling about living here was watching the wild animals and birds carrying on their lives no matter the cold and dark:  moose, ravens, red squirrels, chickadees, owls, and many others.  They co-existed in the boreal forest with us. Wimpy humans, to survive Fairbanks winters, we relied on super-insulated houses, wood stoves stuffed full of birch logs, mukluks or bunny boots for our feet, cars plugged into an outlet all night so the battery wouldn't freeze.  Moose, it seemed to me, just moved more slowly in the cold, as though the sharp air might cut them if they weren't careful.  

One sub-zero morning, heading to the outhouse (I never had running water in Fairbanks), I heard a faint chiming/clanking sound, like wind chimes.  Sound magnifies when it's forty below zero.  The air has teeth, sharp as a glass shards against your face.  I stopped on my porch and looked around, trying to find the source of that unexpected music in the morning quiet.  I traced it to a moose grazing on willow branches in my garden.  Its dewlap, the long, pendulous flap of skin and hair hanging like a beard from its neck, was dred-locked with balls of ice that clinked together as it moved its head up and down.  That dewlap, it turns out, is sometimes called a bell.  Unlike a moose, I moved fast in that cold, skiing fast, biking fast, walking fast with wood in my arms, hurrying to the outhouse with its styrofoam seat that saved my butt from freezing.  That morning, the moose rang its meditation bell, stopping me in my tracks, forcing me to stop, turning my sight, my ears, my skin, from inside to outside.  It was a relief then, as it still is now, to be taken out of myself, out of the echo-chamber of my own head.  For me, the wild things can do that like nothing else.

Yesterday it was a red squirrel.  In the afternoon, I drove over to my old neighborhood, known as "Cloudberry," on the outskirts of Fairbanks.  My friend Sean has built several cabins of varying sizes in the lowland forest, and he rents them out, often to graduate students or environmental activists working for organizations like Elli's.  When I lived there, it was a true neighborhood, with weekly saunas, volleyball games, potlucks, gardens, an extended family of young and middle-aged and old folk living without running water, and sometimes without cars, walking narrow winding trails through the woods to visit one another.  

I parked my car in front of Sean's magnum opus, a four story structure he and his parents built themselves over ten years, called "Cloudberry Lookout Bed and Breakfast."  Sean and his wife Sharon hadn't arrived yet, and the lookout was empty.  This is the first year it's not operational, and I wandered through the familiar space, which was unfamiliarly quiet and dusty, peeking into the "Owl Room" and my favorite, the "Angel Room," after its antique bed with an oak headboard upon which a carved angel looks down and guards your sleep.  I climbed the four-story spiral staircase all the way to the top, with its glass cupola, the "aurorium," built to lure Japanese visitors who believe it's good luck to conceive a child under the aurora's light.  What Sean didn't figure was that many Japanese smoke cigarettes, and Cloudberry Lookout was unequivocally smoke-free.  But many story-telling nights were held up in the aurorium.  Story-telling was another aspect of life in the neighborhood.  We had no TVs.  We lit candles and listened to each other's tales.  Whenever I come to Fairbanks and see Sean, he asks:  "So, do you have any good stories?"  From up at the top of the B&B, the view is beautiful in the subtle Fairbanks way, the boreal forest gently sweeping to a distant ridge, the Mayo's hay fields bright green against the dark green of black spruce, the pond below the B&B tea-colored, reflecting an iris tinted green by the reflections of surrounding trees, and a pupil of sky.  It's a view that, like the moose, always settles me down.  It's like a hand or a song smoothing a moose or bear's angry hackles.  I climbed back down the winding stairs, my hand on the railing smoothed and waxed by many other hands, and made a salad in the kitchen, and then Sean and Sharon arrived and we sat on the porch and ate from a communal bowl.  And then we took a walk through Findley's Forest.

The boreal forest, from above, seen from a plane or from the aurorium, isn't grand like the glaciated mountains across from Homer.  And seen up close, it isn't grand, either.  The spruce trees are spindly, canted at odd angles by the permafrost they grow from. The ground is a thick, uneven matt of moss, cranberry, heather, leather leaf, bog orchid, and club moss.  Moss hummocks of scrubby, scruffy plants are islanded by pools and rivulets of tannin-brown water.  The air’s still, damp, and abuzz with the songs of Swainson’s thrushes and the buzz of mosquitoes.  Stopping to muse and chat was not an option yesterday due to the ravenous insect hoards.  Sean taught me, years ago, to love this landscape, what builders and developers consider (thankfully) marginal land.  A few inches below the saturated, black soil lie ice lenses, permafrost.  He'd walk me down his "trail system” for hours at a time, meandering through the forest, following red hanks of yarn he'd tied to branches here and there along an (at best) subtle indentation in the forest floor.  He'd studied, memorized and named this landscape's features, aspects I otherwise would have missed:  "the Cloudberry rift zone," an area with a distinct "ledge," where the earth stair-stepped down abruptly from forest to bog, "the Mariposa Grove of the north," a stand of tall, straight white spruce with eight-inch diameter trunks.  Where we hiked yesterday, a place called Findley's Forest, a make-shift boardwalk winds through the wetlands, past hidden cabins where legendary figures like Gordon Wright, a composer and pioneering environmentalist, and Findley Abbot, the forest's namesake, and the "Fairy of Findley's Forest," a shy, blonde French hermit, once lived.  Sometimes I'd find the fairy's red wheelbarrow hastily abandoned by the side of the trail.  

Sean led me down a side-trail I hadn't seen before, a slightly inclining path out of the black spruce and into a more open stand of white spruce and aspen.  Absorbed in conversation and in trying to keep my feet out of muddy spots, I didn’t see the squirrel.  Sharon pointed it out.  It was perched on a branch, holding a spruce cone by its tip in its jaws.  It dangled there as it stared at us, and then it grasped the cone with both paws and began to work it round and round, like a hungry kid munching on a corn cob.  The boreal forest offers up that kind of gift.  Ordinary and heart-stopping.  An animal observed in the pure act of being itself, being alive.  Boddhisatvas, enlightened beings who, in the Buddhist tradition, choose earthly incarnation to guide others to enlightenment, are supposed to do that:  by the grace and example of their lives, teach us how to live.  So I suppose that squirrel, and that long-ago moose, its bells still ringing in my ear, might be Boddhisatvas that I’ve met.  Be here now, they say.  Be yourself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about landscape the last few days.  How the body is a landscape, too.  And how much of ourself is body?  How is my relationship to my body an aspect of being myself?  Breast cancer challenges one's relationship to the corporeal.  I talked to my friend Karen about it this morning.  We're both in our late 40's, a time when we straddle, still, youth and middle age.  She runs marathons, walks and bikes to work.  We watch our bodies change but often can forget we've aged until we look close in a mirror.  I told her about losing all of the hair on my body, how that, coupled with losing a breast, stripped me temporarily, last summer and fall, of a sense of myself as an adult woman, a sexual being.  It reminded Karen of a line from a Marge Piercy poem:  "sexless as a pine board."  I learned, living through that stripping away, what lay underneath those trappings, not so much the pine board, but the tree without its leaves.  

I am still coming to terms with the new landscape of my body, still navigating a terrain of loss and change.  There's the scarred part, which marks a missing piece.  But that landscape is also a place I run my fingers over each day, searching for dreaded features.  And though I've heeled and can bend and twist myself into various yoga pretzel asanas, nerve twinges and aches remind me every day of what happened there.  I have to consciously straighten my back, work my shoulders back from the hunched, protective shape they want to take.  I tried to explain it to Craig the other day my relationship to the "landscape of the scar."  He told me he sees me whole.  He doesn’t pay attention to what is not there anymore, but focuses on what is.  Living within this body of mine, though, what is includes the scarred part.  My body doesn't allow me to forget.  After a particularly honest and difficult conversation with him, I wrote this:

The Landscape of the Scar

is a place, a terrain, a plateau.   No one wants to go to.  No hand, no eye.  If you were to look, you’d see:  like a prairie, it’s not flat.  If you were to place your hand there, you’d know its topography: uplifts, bony escarpments, remembered lakes.  You would read its map.  The scar is a red uneven road across uneven land.   My own trek along the road:  an uneven path.

I wear a prosthesis.  I wear a nightshirt.  Sometimes I feel the cup of a hand reaching for what’s not there.  And then the hand remembers.  Then it stops.  Sometimes the hand is my own.  Memorizing new terrain.

This landscape is an absence, a leveled place.  Before it was razed, it was an older land.  Now it’s young again, like a glacial moraine.  It’s the absence of the trees.  Now a low fog rolls in and covers the land.  Can you love that new terrain?  Some days, thank goodness for the fog.  And the untrammeled alongside. 

Let it go.  But how?  How to let go of the earth?  There’s a muscle, I feel its shape under my palm.  Where the drain tube, a depression, a tundra pond.  It’s a shrew’s skeleton buried by centuries of moss.  It’s arctic, pingo, sinkhole.  Once, when first in Alaska I saw I book I loved: Caribou of the Barren Land.  I turned page after page and studied and fell in love.  How the tundra, flat, treeless, traversed by bands of insect-tormented caribou, birthed in a couple months a continent of birds.  Flying up, fanning out.    Snow owl crouched a top its nest.  Vole, lemming, wolf.   Caribou running, running, swimming, neck deep crossing a silty river, eyes red-rimmed, wild, running for the sea.   Then the snow covering it all over.

This is the landscape of what is.  This is my barren, my beautiful and pure land.


My graduate school friends who still live here, fifteen years after finishing their degrees, perhaps owe their long tenancy to discovering the quiet wisdom of the boreal forest temple.  Many of those friends yearned, for years, to find an easier place to live:  easier to grow food, easier to be in true wilderness, easier to hunt or fish, closer to family.  Fairbanks is in so many ways a hard place, a place of compromise.  Civilization and wilderness abut one another, and often, not in pretty ways.  But running the other day with Elli and my friend Jon into Goldstream Valley, him stopping every few minutes to point out to Elli and me a subtle, blooming flower or the song of a bird – lowbush cranberry, calla lily and water hyacinth beside a pond, an almost invisible stalk of miniscule orchids, tufts of cotton grass which he reached down to run his fingers through as he passed – I recognized how he’d grown into a deep and abiding love for a landscape he’d struggled to come to terms with.  Like an arranged marriage that turned out good, familiarity and intimacy over time had coaxed devotion between him and the boreal forest.  To paraphrase the words of St. John of the Cross, from "Dark Night of the Soul," the lover had become the beloved one, each into the other.  Part of it, I believe, came from his own recent brush with mortality, a heart problem.  Recovery slowed him down to almost a crawl.  When I lived in Fairbanks, he’d been an indefatigable athlete, mountaineer, skier, runner, climber, kayaker, builder.  After his heart surgery, and as a result of his medications, he had to slow down to the pace of a winter moose.  Running behind him, I realized he’d recovered his body, his stamina, his strength, but more wondrous, he’d healed into his own heart into the forest, into home, into a lovely and difficult natural world that included him.         

In his book, Still Here, written after his stroke, Ram Dass wrote:  "Healing is not the same as curing, after all; healing does not mean going back to the way things were before, but rather allowing what is now to move us closer to God."

Jon showed me that.

Yesterday, after a “brunch” at Jon and Lou’s cabin that began at 11:30 am and ended at 5 pm, another friend, Larry, asked our small group:  “So three of you have gone through major brushes with mortality and the modern medical system in the last year.  Do you feel it was worth it?”  I’m paraphrasing what was a more eloquent question.  But it’s close to the essence of what he asked.  (Larry, like all of my Fairbanks friends, doesn't bother with small talk.  He cuts to the chase and asks questions it often takes a while to think about before answering).  In our younger days, not one of us could have imagined chemo, heart surgery, defibrillators, radiation,  and pharmaceuticals in our lives.  We lived close to the earth, healthy, fit, and pure.  We rejected "Western medicine," including health insurance.  I answered this way:

“For one more day in Prince William Sound, I’d do it all again.”

Jon described bird calls, the first birds of spring, his joy at being alive to hear them, healed enough to embark next week with Lou on a six-week raft and hiking trip in the Brooks Range.

Lou expressed her gratitude for the preventative treatments that insured she would not, like her sister and niece, die of breast cancer.  But she reflected also on the sad fact that in our world, not every single human being has the resources to receive the best medical care, to choose their hospitals and doctors, rejecting those who aren't compassionate or smart enough.  Such things should be human rights.  We puzzled over our luck, our privilege, grateful and uneasy.  "What am I going to do with my one wild and precious life?" Mary Oliver asks in a poem.  For me, that's the daily question as I move forward.  

I find myself at this moment, in my mind, back on the porch, watching the moose in the garden, its bells jangling in the burning cold.   I step away from that 20-something girl paused at the railing, stopped in her own tracks.  I part from her and, in my new body, take the steps one at a time, moving very slowly.  I walk toward the moose, being led by what is now, bringing what is, my landscape, my body, my spirit, closer to that messenger of god.  I pray to follow the bells of the moose, deeper into healing, into the forest that is truly myself.

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