Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Wild Geranium of Musk Ox Trail

I wake up in Homer to sun bright through the curtain at 7 am, then shadow.  When I open the bedroom curtains to take stock of the morning, I see the sky crowded with clouds.  I decide to delay the day's start, and pull my computer onto my lap to write here, on the unmade bed.  Nothing's happened yet.  I haven't botched anything.  I haven't wasted a moment.  I look out the window and wonder what shape the day will take.  How I'll shape it.  How it will shape me.  The balance between.  The clouds shape the shadows and light patches traveling across the land as the wind moves them by the sun.  

Last night, at 11 pm, I pulled up into the driveway, parked, and wandered around in the dusky light checking on the greenhouse and garden.  It was cold, in the 40's, and the plants looked a little hunched against it.  It was the opposite of the contrast I felt the times I drove from Fairbanks to Homer in winter.  Then, I'd leave Fairbanks in 40 below zero cold, and meet air eighty degrees warmer in Homer, and it would make me shed my coat and want to throw up my hands and dance.  Right before I flew out of Fairbanks yesterday, I ran the university ski trails in shorts and a t-shirt.  It was in the seventies, the air and ground dry and hot.  It's 30 degrees colder here, and damp.  As the jet ascended, I stared out the window at a strange fat mass of smoke billowing up over a series of rolling green hills northeast of Fairbanks.  It looked like a thundercloud that had sunk to earth.  It was a wildfire; the boreal forest burning after a lightning strike.  Interior Alaska:  as different from Homer as Nebraska is from the Oregon coast.  

In Fairbanks, people grow tomato plants outside, against sunny, south-facing walls, or on south-facing porches.  Yesterday afternoon my friend Ginny and I sat beside her five-foot tall plants, facing the sun and her back "yard," a small clearing in the birch forest.  Below, I could make out the wooden slats of the lower garden, what had been the raspberry and potato patch.  To the right, I could see the freshly planted vegetable garden.  Ginny sat in a wheelchair, her old familiar L.L. Bean jacket wrapped around her legs, a bowl of brightness -- cherries, strawberries, slim sticks of cheese, blueberries, blackberries -- on her lap.  Her floppy, faded cowgirl hat on her head.  I remember her jacket well.  Its shell is smokey blue, like her eyes, and it's lined with fleece, and many times, when I lived in Fairbanks, when I was in my late 20's and early 30's and she was in her 70's, I followed her, clad in that jacket and wool pants and a Greenlandic wool cap, down the ski trail that led from her land into the woods, a small nature preserve she and her friend Celia Hunter had established.  I had to ski hard to keep up.  Yesterday we sat on her back porch and looked down that trail, and I remembered how many times I'd shuffled up that hill on my skis in the dark, by the light of a headlamp, returning home to my cabin from the university.  I'd lived for several winters in that neighborhood, and Ginny and Celia had been grandmothers to me.  Often, they would spot me through the window and invite me in for soup and bread fresh out of the wood-fired oven.  Staring down the hill, Ginny told me, again, how she'd been, just a few years ago, clearing low limbs along the trail one winter day when a dog team ran into her.  She fell and injured her hip.  "It ended my life," she said, looking down at her legs stretched out before her, her feet resting on a footstool.  "That's the last time I skied."  The last time I saw her was not long after the accident.  She could still answer her door, walk around her house, albeit slowly.  There was no wheelchair then, no walker, no round the clock helpers (her friends), no note on her front door that says:  "If you go inside the house and find Ginny Wood incapacitated, DO NOT call 911."

Ginny's dog, Sheenjek, an 11 year-old husky named for an arctic river she'd rafted and fought to protect, watched us from his perch on the doghouse roof.  Every once in a while, Ginny raised her hand to him, called softly, "Here boy," and his ears pricked up.  It made me sad to hear her say her life had ended, but I knew it was true in many respects, in ways that mattered.  Her home had been her body.  Through their eighties, Ginny and Celia maintained the old log house, hauled firewood from the shed in a sled, skied, walked out to the mailbox, spent summers rafting or hiking, testified at public hearings, fought to save the arctic they both loved.  After Celia died peacefully one morning, dressed in winter coat and boots as if to go out on a journey, found curled up on her bedroom rug like a napping child, Ginny managed still for years on her own.  But the last two years, since the encounter with the dog team, it had changed.  Others planted her garden.  "It's not my garden," she told me as we sat there.  But then, stepping inside to use the "johnny" as Ginny always calls it,  I saw the garden map on her kitchen counter, a hand-drawn diagram.  In her shaky handwriting, each bed was labeled:  kale, lettuce, beets, carrots.  According to her plan, her circle of friends planted, watered, tended.  Over and over she said, "I have so many good friends."  Ginny would die in that house, her garden planted, her paths shoveled, her tea pot at the ready, her mail filed, in that house, thanks to those friends.  I saw that.

For years I'd returned to her house, and not much changed.  This time, though, it looked more "cleaned up," and it made me sad.  Fewer dusty hardcover books.  Fewer stacks of magazines.  No metal bin of paper and another of kindling beside the wood stove.  No fire.  Her daughter and son-in-law, up for the summers, and friends had, it seemed, cleared away much of the clutter I'd associated with that house.  Later, in the airport, reporting on my visit to my friend Sean, I broke down crying when I told him that the cardboard box that had always sat on the kitchen island was gone.  It had bristled with file folders, into which Ginny and Celia endlessly slipped newspaper clippings, articles, photographs, things they intended to carry eventually to the "archives," in one of the log outbuildings on the property.  Whenever I came to visit, they always apologized.  "We can hardly keep up with the mail!"  It wasn't long ago that Ginny still answered every letter, and wrote a monthly column called "From the Woodpile" for The Northern Line, an environmental newsletter.  Always, they expressed dismay at all the piles, all that had accumulated papers that needed to be filed away.  "Archives" isn't a grandiose term for the papers of two women who'd made Alaskan history.  Wilderness in Alaska is what it is now in part because of hours spent in their log cabin, maps spread on the living room floor, Ginny and Celia and their friends strategizing on how to save the rivers, coastal plain, oceans and forests from the forces of "progress," the large scale mining, oil and gas, road-building, bomb blasting and dam constructing that threatened and still threaten to pave, tame, extract, dig, raze the north, that see the arctic as one big mother lode.  In the shadowed interior of their log cabin, I stand within history, my own, and one far beyond me.

Few things truly fade away.  Fog.  Footprints in sand.  Paint.  The cedar stain brightening the spruce planks of our house.  Memories of some faces.  But bodies don't fade.  They are solid, flesh and blood, though much reduced, to the end.  Leaves change color.  In Homer, under my feet in the forest, I hear the crunch of old leaves.  They break apart into smaller and smaller fragments, until they're part of the duff.  But Ginny, always a wiry, lean woman, seemed part shadow to me, part light, like this morning's sky.  The physical Ginny faded before my eyes.  And her house too, and the life and stories within it.  She reminded me of wild geraniums, with their feathery leaves and a blue so delicate, so ephemeral, it's like breath on a cold day.  One wild and precious life -- flying planes to Alaska during WWII, bicycling around Europe and helping to rebuild after the war, building a famous Alaskan lodge, Camp Denali, at the base of the state's highest mountain, guiding clients down Alaska's wildest rivers, building a rambling log house on Musk Ox Trail, fighting non-stop for the earth, skiing every day out the front door in winter, planting gardens, raising a child, mentoring and grand-mothering countless idealistic young people, baking bread, reading books, writing editorials, testifying, chopping wood, waxing wooden skis.  Behind her geranium-blue eyes, still, in another form, one wild and precious life.  Behind a failed body, shadow and light, something more.

Was this Ginny's "dark night of the soul?" I wonder now, thinking of the words to the poem by St. John of the Cross, and the lyrics to a haunting song based on the poem by Loreena McKennit.  The dark night is when, through a journey of loneliness and desolation, a soul transforms from earth to spirit.  A lot of people think of it as a midlife passage.  Was that the fading I sensed in Ginny?  Was that the meaning behind her sad words, "My life is over?"

"And care and grief grew dim
as in the mornings mist became the light
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair"

After I said goodbye to Ginny, I drove to the university trails to run.  I couldn't talk to anyone.  I didn't want my time with her to fade into another conversation, to dissolve into the rush forward toward the plane.  I didn't want it to dim.  I wanted my feet pounding the earth to drum those hours with Ginny, those years with Ginny and Celia, into the landscape of my body, like the hooves of a thousand caribou imprinting the tundra with trails, the memory of their passing.  And this morning, still here on the bed, turning those trails into words, a map leads me back to that sunny porch, where things were passed on that it will take visiting again and again to understand.  So that one dark night may illuminate another.

What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?  I picture Celia and Ginny as they were twenty years ago, sitting with me at their kitchen table, fixing me with their intense blue eyes, asking that question.  Now its time for me to shape an answer with this day.    

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