Microcosm

The previous year, the seas were too rough to land on the volcano. We explored other islands: Little Tanaga, Atka, and Adak, of course. We went to places overflowing with life when our plan had been to search carefully for the even the smallest signs on the near barren slopes of the active mountain.

The following year the seas were impossibly calm, and at night we watched a blue bioluminescence trail in the prop-wash and wake of the Fish and Wildlife boat. We landed at both Kanuji and Kasatochi, the old and the new. Kanuji has been worn to a cinder held together by grass and guano. We don’t know how old she is. Records in the soil are confused; there is always an island, somewhere, remaking itself against the more casual zeitgeist of the planet.

Kasatochi, heavily weathered since the 2008 eruption, still maintains its skirts, a broad pancake of clastics and ash cut by gullies and beaten by the surf. A forest here is lupines and dew. An animal, any animal, an insect flying by the nose, is something to be captured and cataloged. The microcosm does not survive. The sky and the sea flush across its edges, carrying migrants: driftwood, plastics, a skiff with an outboard ferrying the curious, auklets who don’t care what the island looks like now. They know which flank is home.

—Thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service; UA Museum of the North Entomology Collection (Kasatochi, 2016)

Burritos in the Dark

A flashlight wanders about the room, and another, maybe in Natalie’s hands, near the machines. Her face is a moon. The espresso machine functions for a little while longer, that part that makes us warm. Orders are made. Natalie smiles like she never does when the lights are on, and everyone else has gone invisible.

I pull my headphones off, ears free to see, because I expect the staff to ask everyone to leave the building—because that would be safer. Back into the cold near zero. Below, maybe, but the snow’s pretty in headlights and blue in the shadows.

At least I’m sitting in a corner. At least I never need the mains to power the laptop. At least I’m not trying to write by hand. That would be annoying. And I’m thinking this is something greater than the strip mall, greater than the block, the way the power cycled before cutting out before never coming back. No transformer bang, no surprised gasp or broken glass. Held air remains warm. I assume the traffic outside makes its own rules.

In the office next to the café, a power supply warns everyone the world is in mourning. My eyes adjust. I can see a man across the café by the light of his phone. Maybe he hasn’t noticed, yet. Headlights slash across the table tops and dart between the chairs, a driver seeking safety now the road is open for road warriors and wolves.

The baristas discuss travel, cultural immersion, and learning languages. They talk about affording their own skis. But renting is okay. It’s the cost of a movie ticket each time. And when the world ends, you get to keep these things.

The machines have run out of steam. No one is coming in now. No flickering OPEN. No tail lights parked by the doors. We’re a dark hole by the side of the road, nothing ever here. In a mystery, someone winds up dead once the light comes back. Weak sun. Ice fog. On my right, a coat is being zipped—up—funny I can tell which way. The detective asks everyone to think about footsteps, which direction they went, the weight of soles, the width of gait. Everyone says the same thing. No one went anywhere. A couple bought burritos with cash and went from register to door with flashlights in hand like they trained for this sort of thing. Everyone else waited like cats—for any sort of scurrying.

Fool Echo

I’m just glad another kid is out of the house. I don’t have to read that story again, don’t have to worry I’ve missed something. I have missed something. Something is always missed. But now he is gone, sought his fortune, founds his minor treasure and I don’t have to love him so much anymore.

This is a natural effect of submissions and short-story publishing. Before the kid is released into the world, I have to love her to death, love her more than anything else I’ve ever released under its own recognizances. And then, immediately, I have to not care, because slush piles are strangers barely making eye contact. Don’t thrill because you think she smiles, because he appears to like the style of your bag. The sublime is primed by the music coming off his mobile, by the next chapter of the book she’s aching to sit and read.

—because when the kid skulks back in the dead of night, the door stays locked. Go. Get back out there. Chin up. It’s math. It’s subjective. There is absolutely no space for tears.

So, this time she’s not coming home. Accepted. Published. Printed. Nothing has changed, but that somewhere out there one in thirty was glad to meet you. Then the telephone rang. It’s good. Enjoy the last couple fingers of scotch and a pinch of confidence. Been saving it for today. Then later, some other kid needs putting to bed. Not going well. Not going willingly. That’s okay. Love this one. Never loved anything more than this fool echo.

Lead

When we fly into Utqiagvik (Barrow), we come across the ocean, and on Monday there was a wide lead open northwest of the point and clearly visible on the descent. The whaling crews were setting camps. Everyone was excited the the season had begun, but the winds did not remain in our favor.

The next day we drove snow machines out onto the ice, mapping the trails of the whaling crews. But the lead was closing. The crews were hurrying towards shore. The lead may have been a mile wide at the start of the day, but by evening kilometers of ice sheet had snapped shut. It would remain shut for a fortnight.

Two days later we went back out on the ice. No hope of getting to the open water, but Kate wanted to put a hydrophone down through a crack and listen for whales. Where two days before one captain had set his camp at the edge of ocean, the landscape was now jumble ice and pressure ridges where the sheets had crushed back together.

We found water, but the slush was too thick and too deep to sink the hydrophone. We fell back, a half mile closer to shore, where there was a significant crack in the sheet. There we listened to the ocean under the ice, and ourselves, restless on top. From below, the sheet was a massive drum head and our slightest scuffle was clear as bells at night in the dark water below.

We listened to the alien, spiraling tones of bearded seals, but we heard no whales. The lead and their breathing corridor closed, they passed farther out to sea.

—Thanks to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; the Cooperative Institute for Alaska Research; the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research; University of Alaska Coastal Marine Institute & School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (2013)

Old Wars

Iron goes back to the earth when it is no longer required for war. It evaporates. It puckers in the fog. Rust becomes both hollow pustule and hard blooms. When the fighting and the waiting for the fighting is done, the leftovers go the way of pestilence and famine, half poached and half made, like art, become brief flowers on an old grave.

—Thanks to the National Geographic Society; Arctic Institute of North America; Columbia University; National Science Foundation (2016)

Up Close

Up close, the colors are richer, the subject clearer, traditional ideas of composition replaced with edge to edge canvas favoring gesture over context.

Which is interesting, because when we think of artists and art making — context pretends to be important to us. Young artists ask their mentors: When do you work? For how long? Is the door shut? Do you listen to music? Morning or night? Public or private? Inside or out? Most artists are particular about this — which makes the questions largely irrelevant except that the answers teach us that there are options. We never need to make art just one way — though I’m told if you paint from photographs, never admit it. Maybe it’s the distancing. Culture is mean.

But bring your fingertips to the medium, fingers close to the nib and the paper. Get yourself close as you can to the work — remove all context, which is both personal and private. The details are what’re on exhibition. The university studio, the museum lobby, the student center common room, the cabin in the woods — have been reduced to this, not even an artist standing in a room, just hands and tools very close to wood, paper, metal, fire, textile, acrylics. This is the level of the tactile, close enough to feel the knurling, the woodgrain, the vibrations, the heat, the imperfections in the fabric, the cool of drying watercolors, cedar chips, oils, and grindstone.

Write and draw, paint and hit things with a hammer. Stay close to the work. Children know this already. We do wrong by telling them to stand back.

—Thanks to UAF Native Art Center; Sheldon Jackson Museum; UA Museum of the North Fine Arts Collection; Selena Alexander; Earl Atchak; Sonya Kelliher Combs; Mercy Cleveland; Daniel Ogan; Adam Ottavi; Teri Rofkar; Ron Senungetuk; Turid Senungetuk; Teresa Shannon; Glen Simpson; Suzi Silook; Alfred Skondavich; Sara Tabbert (Alaska, 2002-2012)

No Name Cove

We watched the troll on the hill throughout dinner and the sunset. Now, we stand outside the tents at one in the morning, looking East to where someone’s torch or headlamp is flashing across the hills and setting the fog ablaze. It’s coming towards us now. Then it is gone, fallen in to a cleft. “So many stars,” says Jannice, looking up.

Looking down, I admire all five of our tents hiding in the tall grass of the beach-front hollow, sheltered from the wind by a ridge of stones and storm thrown logs. The camp light in my tent makes it glow, a beacon-green tortoise hunkering in the tall grass. If I turn it off, we will be invisible.

Josh and Suzi have gone to intercept the wanderer with the light. “Spirits,” Suzi said, I think, as she left with her headlamp and broom handle. Josh, also with a headlamp, carried a driftwood cudgel we will think will be useful tomorrow, walking under an eagle’s nest to the North. Jannice says, whoever is out there in the dark called Suzi’s name just once. Now they don’t appear close enough to hear us shout back.

—Thanks to National Geographic; University of Stirling; Arctic Institute of North America; Columbia University; National Science Foundation; UA Museum of the North Herbarium (Unalaska, 2016)