Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Wild Life

Two months ago today we moved home, to The Moose Lodge, into The Wild.  Following our Wild Dreams into The Unknown.  This week I took a moment to write, to reflect on how we got here, the questions, the doubt and ultimately the faith we cultivated, faith that made it possible to do something that seemed impossible.  To change our lives, forever, for the better.  
Back when we lived in the city I would ask myself questions like “Should we get an annual pass to the Anchorage Museum?”.  The new Imaginarium at The Museum is incredible, and we know the guy who created the original put yourself in a bubble machine.  He was a boy scout at the time and it was a project their group took on sometime in the 1980s.  He grew up and went on to become an engineer in the petroleum industry.  Naturally.  In “Town” they have things like the Imaginarium  Boy Scouts, and The Zoo.  

I wondered, is that museum pass, with weekly play dates filled with friends, picnic lunches at the park, and mini-adventures in The City going to give them everything they need to thrive in every possible way?  

Would my children be missing out on something critical, something important if we left The City and moved into the middle of nowhere?
Or would they be missing out more by not experiencing wild places and living among nature?  Would the trade-off be worth it? 
Were we making a GIANT mistake?  
I mulled the same question over in my head about the annual Alaska Zoo pass, which we had for two years and went just about weekly since it was a couple miles from our Lupine House on the Anchorage Hillside.  
Were frequent trips to the zoo a reasonable substitute for experiencing animals in the wild?  Was it enough to stimulate their growing minds and put them in touch with the natural wild world?  
One very memorable story time in the greenhouse at The Zoo in February with my father-in-law, Gord, brought us into the lives of the wolves of the zoo.  Story time was led by the wolf woman, their keeper who raised them from pups.  I always thought their keeper, the wolf woman looked just like my dear friend Amy. Being in the wolf woman’s presence, I felt somehow Amy was there and not nearly 5,000 miles away at graduate school. My friend Amy is not a zoo keeper and she is not the wolf woman, but Amy is a woman of the wild and is someone who I admire for her ability to walk in both worlds eloquently and with grace. It takes a special kind of talent, a respect for the world and all things that occupy it in order to have such genuine exchanges with people and with the land. Amy was one of my teachers, someone who inspired me to get in touch with nature on deeper levels than previously experienced.  To know the land.  To hear it speak.  To revel in the awesomeness that is nature.  To simply exist. To breathe.
It takes all kinds of people to do big things.  People who long to be in big cities, to learn, to grow in formalized ways.  People who are driven to attend graduate school and  specialize in a particular field of study.  I am fortunate enough to count these inspired, driven people as friends.  Friends, former students and colleagues are all going to graduate school, getting masters degrees and Ph.D.’s, refining their stroke in order to better leave a mark on the world.  They choose education accepting the challenge that comes with mastering something specific, something hard, something that ignites a passion in their lives and changes their understanding of themselves, of the world. Then those of us back home wait and hope they come back and change our world here at home, cheering them on along the way and trusting they will find their way, their path in the world, even if they never return to Alaska. Because Alaska is like the Hotel California, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.  It sticks with you, following you around wherever you go.  
It takes people in living in wild places to do big things to.  Doing big things, sometimes meaning we do little things. To be advocates of the land, the animals, the water.  To be a voice for the wild places.  Life takes so many different kinds of people, driven to do so many different kinds of things.  A delicate balance.  
I think some people take on these kinds of journeys with the intent to create real lasting change in the world, but for the most part I think people just hear their own personal Call of the Wild.  They don’t know what it means, exactly, but they have the faith that if they respond and go with their passion, follow their instincts, that the path will reveal itself.  The wild may be graduate school, or a major opportunity to be a make-up artist for Chanel in Manhattan (congrats again, Jessica!).  Or the wild could be the literal, moving someplace wild to simply know it, to live with it and not in competition with it.   
  I am here because I answered my own personal Call of the Wild and by some miracle my husband and I heard the same call, at the same time.  Our journey here is hard to explain. While it is true it was an intention to be someplace wild to manifest our wild dreams into reality, we never thought we would find our place here.  In the interior. Where it gets colder and darker than any place I have ever imagined.  A place that makes Southcentral Alaskan winters look balmy, like springtime weather in the Interior.  This is where I start to feel like something divine, something destined, some invisible force brought us to this place, and not to Haines instead where we both wouldn’t have minded being.  It’s a lot warmer in Haines in the winter.  
The reason we are here, in the Interior, is a reason that exists outside of ourselves, outside of our family.  This place needed a family.  The land we bought (if you can ever really own land), this Moose Lodge as we call it, needed a new generation of homesteaders, because if this place was lost something important about the history of this land would also be gone. The Last Settlers.  The last homesteaders in the nation came here, to this place.  A place in some ways so inhospitable, the land was given away to its original occupants.  In her book The Last Settlers by Jennifer Brice, she explained that the land was never exactly free, there were application fees and paperwork fees, in all I think it was roughly $32.50 that would be exchanged for a 5 acre parcel of this wild land.  Though technically the land is free in a sense, because living here gives a person a certain sort of freedom from the buzz of the city, the perpetual motion that moves life along in fast-forward.  Slowing things down has afforded us the opportunity to really appreciate one another and to appreciate our experience as it unfolds.  
We came here because we thought the experience the land could offer our family would be extraordinary in the ways of science, exploration and discovery, even if the learning didn’t take place at the Imaginairum, and the animal watching involved real packs of wolves, wild, untamed and did not take place within the safety of the zoo.  While we’ve yet to see wolves, we have seen signs, like those on the trail last night on an ATV ride where we spotted caribou tracks, and wolf tracks.  We watch our beaver swim across the river, back and forth, cashing food away for the winter.  In the morning the Magpies and Grey Jays come for a breakfast buffet atop the compost heap, which sends Honey into fits.  Honey does her best to think like a bird, to be the bird, in hopes of finding her wings so she can fly.  I have never met a dog who believed she could fly before, but Honey certainly tries.  Lurching herself off steep embankments in hot pursuit of the birds, flying through the air effortlessly.  When she hits the ground again, a sort of puzzle look washes over her face, the realization that she is not flying by here, planted on the earth.  
Deep down I was scared we were making a big mistake moving here, leaving the safety of the city, but ultimately I had to meditate on how I really felt. I had to quiet my mind and run, and bike a lot to hear the voice, the Call of the Wild.  It was an ordinary Thursday night when we heard the call.  A bedtime browsing of Alaska real estate, a former hobby, mostly of Parke’s, but from time to time it was something I entertained as well.  The next morning we booked the Caribou Cabin in Tok and packed our bags and prepared to head North.  We headed out and never looked back.  Sure we had to come back, to pack, to prepare, to conduct the business that would free us up, and give us our imaginary wings so that we could fly back here, to this place that fills us with awe and wonder.  Open conversations. Fears. Discussion. Research. Confirmation. Affirmation.  Faith.  Imaginary wings.  
We unlocked our cages and headed out somewhere where we feel very small in contrast to the landscape. It’s funny feeling small and insignificant in the world can actually be a good thing, it opens up possibilities and paves the way for living a life focused around the awe and wonder of nature, the simple joy of being alive.  We are but tiny specks among the vast wilderness and the wilds of the Interior.  A place like this could swallow a family whole. There is something life affirming about feeling small and at the mercy of the landscape.  A metaphor for life really.  You can plan, prepare, and have a contingency plan in place, in the event something goes awry, but ultimately you are at the mercy of the elements, events that unfold and throw a curve ball into your life.                                       
          Whatever this experience will turn out to be, I know one thing, it will be an Experience.  A memorable one at that.  A worthwhile trade off.  A free unlimited pass to nature.   No renewal fees, no reapplication period. No contemplation, no questioning if we should, or should not.  We made the choice and it has planted us here, grounded us in this place. We are here and the wild is literally out our back doorstep.  No safety net.  This is plan A, B, and C.  

Jon, 4.19.08

My friend Jon Dykstra is a talented musician and educator.  Back when he was a musician full-time he was in a band called Yukon Ryder who frequently toured Alaska. On trips up to The Cabin in Denali, my parents would stop in to Talkeetna to watch them play, when they were in town.  My mom is an original Yukon Ryder fan.  Back when I was in high school she played the CD “Respect for the Cold” over and over and over again.  Until I wanted to break the CD in half.  A few years after I moved out on my own I was listening to KNBA and found myself singing a long to a song, every word, every note.  I couldn’t place it.  Then the break came and the DJ said “Yukon Ryder”.  Of course.  I was only 20 and already becoming my mother.  Later it came as a surprise when I started working at Cook Inlet Tribal Council that Jon worked there as well. I got to watch Jon and his wife Julia introduce their babies to this world, to become a family. Two independent spirits, bound together by marriage, children.  Finding their way, following their path wherever it might lead.
Julia, 4.19.08

  When Parke and I started dating in October 2006 I had a feeling he might be that person I needed with me on my journey through life, that partner to choose a path with and walk on.  That year for his birthday I gave him two Yukon Ryder CD’s.  He listened to the music on his own, it spoke to him in the way I had hoped and the rest as they say, is history.  
Jon and his wife Julia played our wedding and instrumentally played me down the isle, arm in arm with my dad while my mom stood there choking back happy tears.  They sang Big Head Todd and The Monsters song “Bittersweet”, which summed up our feelings of marriage.  We were excited to go into this “thing” of marriage, but we were mostly convinced it wouldn’t change us that much, that we would still be the same people, only I would have a new last name.  We knew that marriage represented some sort of symbolism and made an effort to have our ceremony represent us, and so we asked my friend Amy, the wild woman who walks in two worlds, to marry us.   As soon as we said our vows, Amy sprinkled cornmeal at our feet, corn is sacred to Native Americans and represents a deep connection to the land.  She then tied our wrists together with a silk scarf and announced we were bound together, for life.  Dear friends read passages, blessings they wrote for us to mark our commitment to one another.  We stepped outside and Amy smudged us with sage while we stood outside in the cool Alaskan April afternoon sunshine.  Cleansing our bond, waving an eagle feather to swirl smoke around our beings.  Ceremony.  
Amy, 4.19.08 
Something happened that day, something spiritual.  We instantly felt different.  Standing on the other side, there we were, married.  We were changed, bonded, bittersweet, more sweet than bitter. We set out on a journey with hopes of finding our way back to the land. The cornmeal was symbolism of the journey we would take together, an inspired journey supported by our family and friends.  People who have showed us the way in small seemingly insignificant ways, and in big, clear, direct ways.  On our honeymoon we drove to Haines, a new place for both of us to explore together. On the way there we stopped in Slana and placed a stamp in our honeymoon road trip journal. We were here on April 21, 2008.  We promised to come back one day to explore this wild place, and five years and 6 weeks later, we did.  Only we decided to skip all the “getting to know the place” business and just move here and figure this place out as we went along.  

Yukon Ryder’s song Respect for the Cold sums up life out here in this wild place.  You have got to have Respect for the Cold.  I found this snippet of a YouTube video that features the song, Respect for the Cold.  Interestingly enough, some of the scenes featured in the video resemble places and things on our property.  The kind of cold it gets out here commands respect in every sense of the word.  Without respect for the cold, you might wind up dead.  
Somehow we found our way home to this log cabin propped up on the hill, overlooking the river, the lakes, the mountains, a 260+ degree view of the Wrangell and Mentasta mountains.  This place needed a voice.  Even if it is my small voice writing here, talking about the beauty that exists in nature.  Speaking for the wild places left on earth, not just The Moose Lodge. In fact my adoration of nature is adoration for all of nature, not the simple adoration of a singular place.  
        Living at The Moose Lodge has given me a deeper appreciation for place and a deeper respect for the land, the wild. A growing respect for the cold, which come January will reach new lows and heights of human experience surviving despite temperatures of -50, or colder.  Nature itself holds such an expansive variety of wild indescribable things.  Things you have to be out here in order to experience.  Intense cold is the price we have paid for the beauty that surrounds us, the freedom it has afforded us to live out The Wild Dream.  To take big risks in hopes of big rewards.  Faith that we will find a way to make it out here in The Wild.  
I awoke the other night at three a.m. and went to the kitchen window to sneak a peek at what I have started to call the Mystical Mentasta Mountains, because of their majestic, magical displays of light play with the moon.  Their snow capped peaks reflecting moonlight back on to the clouds, clouds that seemed to be illuminated from within, puffy dumplings floating effortlessly through the starry night sky, casting light upon the Mystical Mentastas.  The Mentastas are worth waking up in the middle of the night just to watch.  Stunning in their own right during the light of day, they take on a new appearance in the middle of the night as the cold night the air above their snow capped peaks swirls with a visual sort of magic.  A trick of the eye.  Apparitions.  Magic.  One of the more perplexing mysteries is the glow of city light that sometimes hovers over the dark vast middle of nowhere.  A glow that reminds me of the Anchorage City lights view up on The Hillside.  Except we are surrounded by wild places for miles and miles, the occasional town a bump in the landscape, for this place has retained its wildness and has a glow that comes from nature, the glow of the wild.  
When you are surrounded by this kind of beauty, the words just come.  It evokes all sorts of creative energy in the spirit and makes me want to know this place in a way I have never known anything.  I am less afraid of things.  Facing those Wild Things of my worried-brain. The “what ifs”.  I feel like things are in a clearer perspective.  The important things in life and the less important things.  Realizing that not sharing this place with others, through words and experience, would be the real shame.  The important thing isn’t pursuing perfection in words, in story, in life, it is about sharing the experiences, learning from one another, and finding our way on.  
     I am perpetually mystified by nature, realizing the imperfections of The Wild, I no longer think that my writing needs to be perfect. Our house doesn’t need to be perfect.  Living a wild life means accepting the imperfections and moving forward. Nature has room for imperfections, life doesn’t unravel because something is different than we expected it to be.  Life marches forward, imperfections and all.   Embracing what life has to offer and not worrying about doing everything perfectly has been liberating, and in order to embrace it in this way, I believe I had to be here in this place. Here. Now.  There is no reason to ask “why?”, the answer is “because”.  “Just because”. Because The Wild said so, and here we are.  
I’ve done all sorts of things that have surprised me lately, acts that have allowed me to cast my type A, perfectionist seeking ways to the wind and settle for a more relaxed way of being.  A sheet of plastic shelf liner tacked onto the plywood shower surround, to keep the shower spray from wetting the wood, marks progress in our lives, with ourselves.  
       Perviously we would have taken a sledge hammer to the whole works, went without showers, made multiple trips to Lowe’s, Central Plumbing and Heating, and then a call to Larry, our contractor.  The Moose Lodge is too far away for Larry to come over, and even if he did we wouldn’t have the money to pay him.  So we’ve been finding creative, temporary solutions.  Prioritizing the projects as best we can, but not letting it get us bent out of shape.  No need to get excited about some wayward shower spray.  It’s not a big deal.  Oh, the washer is leaking...okay, let’s throw down some towels and take it as a sign that we needed to unpack some of those boxes and clear out this room.  When you live in a place as imperfect as The Moose Lodge and you have children and animals, it doesn’t take long to realize you are in The Perfect House.  This place is bomb proof.  
On November 3, 2002 a 7.9 earthquake hit Mentasta, which sits just 15 minutes down the road from us.  The Moose Lodge remained in tact. If a 7.9 earthquake can’t take this shack down, our two wild children, two dogs, and crazy wild cat aren’t going to either.  There is a sort of freedom that comes with that.  It’s priceless.  Coming from the perfect house, to this place of imperfection has been liberating.  It is what it is, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything it is not.  The roof sheds water, when the light switch is flipped lights come on, the well water is pure and the showers are hot.  We own this place. We never really owned our other homes, we had a big mortgage shackled to our ankles.  
I am pretty sure the Labrador House would crumble in a 7.9 earthquake, and if it didn’t crumble because of the earthquake, it would have because of us and our stressed-out ways and desire to maintain the integrity of the place, to preserve its perfection. A moving target, impossible to maintain.  Perfection is the most fleeting of things.  It practically vanishes before your eyes.  Then you go off chasing it all over again for reasons you cannot explain.  
A house can take a lot of stress; high winds, heavy snows, heat, and blistering cold.  What a house can’t take is chronic stress from its occupants.  When you start to rip away at a house it loses something, you change it.  A house like that can never be home.  You have to love where you live.  If you love a place, the changes you make are done with love.  As a result, you improve it in both tangible and intangible, hard to capture.  Food is the same way.  You can taste it if the preparer didn’t love the food.  Everything is better with love.  
Two months ago today we came home to The Moose Lodge.  We fell in love with this place before it was ours. Now that we are here we feel positively head over heels for this wild majestic place. Knowing it in new and different ways every day. It feels like where we belong. As a result we are trying to be very mindful about projects we tackle at this place.  We’ve opted to take time to get to know this place for a while before we decide what could be improved, what pieces and parts should be altered for the better.                            
        Changed in a way that maintains the integrity of the space and improves its physical value and the feeling you get when you occupy the space.  Changes made with love.  We want every room in this house to feel like us. However quirky, mish-mashed, and cobbled together.  The end goal is rejuvenation.  Our bedroom project is in its early stages and has already been turned on its head, brought inside out, and back again.  The result is something better than we had ever imagined.  Time.  It takes time to figure things out.  We didn’t take time before, we just did.  Because that’s what you do, you do things to make things better.  Do, do, do.  Now we think, think, think, before we do.  Then we just “do”, focusing in on one thing, one singular task.  Absorbing ourselves in it and giving it the energy it needs to be done properly, while being frugal and finding ways to cobble things together while enhancing the whole, feeding it our love, making it home..  
Living here at The Moose Lodge, I feel this stronger sense of the preciousness of life.  Perhaps because I am more intimately connected to the circle of life. I observe it now, fully taking it in.  Focusing in on small things I never noticed before, and zooming back out when the small starts to feel big and difficult to comprehend.  The beauty of an aspen with its quirky branches, long solid trunk, reaching up to the sky to shake hands with the sun and wave at the clouds.  Out here in the wild things die.  The once green, then golden aspen leaves now lay in a black blanket across the forest floor.  
        We find bones all over the place. Bones of dead beavers, caribou, moose.  Animals that lived and died out here in the wild.  The seasons change and we’ve slowed down enough to really take them in.  The ground has started to freeze, when you walk on the trail, thumping your boots down hard, the earth sounds like a drum.  Hollow. Radiating some inner-invisible force, a force that cannot be touched, or seen, but felt, heard.  The leaves go through their natural life cycle, falling to the ground and freezing, still. Their final resting place. Waiting to be reborn. A seasonal examination of the natural lifecycle of all living things.  The trees feed themselves.  The land sustains them.  New trees are born.  The cycle continues.  
Living this way has connected me more intimately to nature.  The quiet wildness of this place allows for the contemplation of the importance of life.  The significance a single life holds.  The meaning of a tree.  A river.  A life.  I believe we all hold a secret power within ourselves.  Each of us has the capacity to change our world.  Transform our experience.  
We have been home for two months today and the observations I have made as a result of simply “being” have been priceless. I would argue they could not have happened in any other context, that we had to be here in order to experience this.  The knowledge, the feeling that there would be no suitable alternative, no substitute for this wild experience.  Every day we exclaim “Today was the best day of my life”, ordinary days have transformed themselves into extraordinary ones simply because we have slowed down enough to take note, to silently observe, to think, to be.  
Last summer I pulled a book off one of Parke’s book shelves, it was Deep Water Passage by Anne Linnea and found the entire book spoke to me in its own secret ways. Here are some of the things that stuck with me and have helped to guide me on my way. 
“Listen.  The earth speaks wisdom. Tells when and how to move.  Sets a cadence for the rhythm of our days, our lives.  Unleashes the wildness within.”
“To grow beyond the expectations we’re raised with is a radical act necessary to the claiming of one’s full self.”
“There comes a time in our lives when we are called to believe the unbelievable.  If we allow ourselves to believe, we open the door to the infinite possibility of who we might become” 
“The instruments of our bodies, when fully tuned and aligned, move with a grace and rhythm that is holy. In that holiness we are capable of our greatest actions.  In those actions our lives become Spirit Song.”

Chart a new course.  Don’t let your wilderness flame flicker and fade, answer your personal Call of the Wild. Even if it takes you to Harvard, New York City, or into The Wild.