Unmended Divisions

Sitka, this summer, is very different from last. Blue patches appear like bald spots in the clouds most mornings, and this summer, I can actually move. Whether that means going on a hike or going to the rickety old gym across the street, both places are brimming with movement, which I need need need. At the tops of the hikes here, there's so much to see between the thumbs of fog and lumps of islands, it's hard to make progress with your thoughts. The way down is worse because it hurts. On days when there's too much rain, I go to the gym, where there's a group of women who do aerobics in purple spandex, kicking out their heels and making chicken wings of their hangy white flesh. They do this right under the weights where the rest of us giggle and try to do more serious repetitions. Occasionally, one of the jazzercizers will scream a "Woo!" or a "Oh yeah!" with her fists in the air before the whole cluster grapevines with new gusto in the other direction. So the hikes are hard and the gym is hard, too. Otherwise, I'd just be sitting here alternating between work and my own work and where to put it and creamy chai tea.

We are staying with Nancy and Brent, who own a boat called the Dipper, and fish for days at a time. Nancy lives in shorts and fleece sweatshirts and hangs her brown and maroon laundry on long lines that make a checkered ceiling over the backyard. We cook salmon and albacore, rosemary bread and asparagus over a pile of wood on the dirt ground, resting the grill grate on white marble gravestones.  The man who used to live here made all the headstones for the cemetery at the end of the street, and left the misprinted ones back here, buried under the soil under the bed where I sleep.

The more I'm in this town, the more realistic life here seems. You lug your dinner home from the hull of an aluminum boat, you cook it on the names of people who've done it before, and in the morning, the rain has washed the soot off all the stones and they're renewed to their purpose. Maybe it's a Disney motif, but the "circle of life" theme plays out here with such purpose, the days feel like they are a different version of "functioning" than they are in bigger places.

Last year, in Anchorage, we had this guest speaker named Oscar Kawagley, a man born between the old Alaskan world of folklore and the new American world of institutionalized education (his grandmother didn't want him to go to school because she thought it would make him dumb), who talked about the construction of Yupiaq homes. These dwelling places, still lived in up here, are made without nails or spikes. Each piece fits into the next perfectly--a series of sliding tongues and grooves.

What I remember most about his talk was that each part of the heated, sustainable house has a name. Each piece of cedar, each element to the fire pit is given a specific title so that it renders a specific function complete. The Yupiaqs believed that teaching happened outside of schools, that you teach the very thing itself, not just about it. There is a fish camp up here where kids can go to learn how to tan hides and can their food. The natives believe in the role of elders and environment, echoes I've been hearing in this town as I research its roots and talk to its white-haired characters for my work with the Conservation Society. Still, the division between the people who were here first and the people like me, who weren't, is palpable and impossible to attend to appropriately.

Even though a new hydro plant will bring renewable energy to a town that will perish if it keeps using petroleum, to make the factory means destroying thousands of acres of trees that will take several human lifetimes to regrow. As a nod to the Tlingits, who might never have needed electricity had the whites never introduced it, the uprooted trees will be made into boats and totems for their incensed communities. The late-night drunks in the town are stumbling natives, the man who plays the ukelele at a clean, white cafe owned by a baker from Colorado sings with the sadness of a thousand years.

On the water, the division between cultures is less clear. Last night, I took a trip out to the West Chichagof Wilderness where the curve of a humpback whale surfaced and lower repeatedly right alongside the boat. His split tail fanned out like a flippant farewell each time he dove for food. A sow and three bear cubs stood on their hind legs and sniffed the air when they heard our motors approach, and later, we saw more bears, this time an injured mother and her two older babies, who lumbered through the tall grass and bumped their shoulders against each other to get the next bite. A friend told me you can make tea out of the lychen that gives the cliffs here a green and black bathtub ring. We ate local Theobroma chocolate bars with pecans and raisins and squinted into eagles' nests in the tops of protected trees.

It is amazing to me to see that the world, like this, still exists. And, despite our human missteps, we can still be a part of it.