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Alaska Snapshots

Even though I’m in Minnesota right now, I’ve still got Alaska on my mind. Here are some snapshots from the summer:

 

I sleep in late, then staOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgger to the outhouse through bright sunshine. Dogs raise a ruckus up the hill, and I pause on the porch. Movement through the aspen just above – a big moose. The dogs howl again, engines rev, and the moose clops down the road, gangly legs akimbo, before crashing off through the brush and into the pond with a splash.

 
Soup bubbles on the stove. Britta leans against the counter and gazes outside at the spruce trees. The dwarf birch bush at the corner of the cabin is illuminated with ripe summer eight o’clock sunshine, and its round shiny leaves seem to give off light, not just reflect it. Spider web silk transects leaves and limbs, light traveling its length in glancing ripples. Insects catch the light as they swarm.

dry cabinPhoto credit: Britta Baker

 

I spent a pleasant few minutes this afternoon burning used toilet paper in the old paint can in the outhouse. I worried about flames leaping from the can and licking at the old snags of black spruce, so I stayed and babysat the fire, side-stepping the thick curling smoke as it wound through my legs and poured into the aspen stand.  Though I now smell like sweet smoke and my eyes sting and burn, these are some of the few moments I can spend outside without mosquitoes swarming. Instead of their fleeting gray shadow-bodies, the light floating shadows of ash.

 

The night starts to get darkish by 12:45am. Still eerie dusky-white skies outside, but reflections grow in the windows and lamps are needed. Starting to get an idea of how quiet and spooky this cabin can be, as the cat stares out the window with an unblinking concentration, body tense. I peer out. All is blue shadow layered on gray, my reflection clearer than what is outside. A big moth flaps at the screen.

Dusk in denaliPhoto credit: Britta Baker

 

An evening layered in gray and white. Rain on my windshield, blackening the road in two tire stripes. A gulf of white off north and east as I drive to Healy. A gray owl flaps to a spruce, pinions and pinnacle.

Just off the phone with Lauren in DC. Behind her voice I heard the city – sirens, car horns, people, traffic. Movement and texture and color: a different world, so far away from my rain and owls, spruce and mountains. Outside, what I hear: the gritty sound of a car going up the gravel road. “Matzo! Matzo!” the girl calls her dog. A plane low in the sky. The roar of a four-wheeler. The rain has stopped, though the clouds are still white and wet-looking. Mostly I hear dense silence.

lousewortPhoto credit: Britta Baker


Midnight and we are drag-our-feet tired as we get out of Ol’ Blue and slam the doors. A white and brown spotted horse stands in front of the cabin across from us. “A horse!” we whisper to each other, delighted. One hoof is delicately raised as it looks at us through the dim gray light, ears forward. We pet its damp neck, its soft rippling nose. It feels sweet to lean into a large animal, warm skin, the solid weight, and feel it brace you.

 

Labrador tea and dwarf birch paint my bare legs with rain as I walk down the path to my cabin in the midnight July cloudy light. Eggs cupped in hand at this hour glow like the moon in the blue dusk.

 

Old guys in Rose’s Café wear camo jackets and baseball caps and button-downs.
“I don’t like living in Anchorage.”
“Stankorage,” chortles his pal.
They joke with the waitress, the only one I’ve seen when I come here. There is an ease, a long familiarity of people with the place that I like.

 

I hear a strange sound outside – a chirring, a high kikiki, distant cooing. Movement embedded in sound. It makes me restless and avid to see what is making the noise. I step into boots then go out on the porch and look up. Ragged lines of tiny black silhouettes, close enough to see wing beats, and the long outstretched necks. Hundreds of sandhill cranes passing overhead, skeins of bird yarn unraveling in the wind. My neck grows sore from craning.

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Scrape Ol’ Blue at 5:30am, then drive south to work. Stars hang like pendulums in the clear pre-dawn sky. The sky lightens incrementally, by degrees. The mountains are black, and a thick white bank of fog is suspended above the Nenana river, tracing its contours below the mountains.

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Filed under Alaska, Cooking, Denali National Park, Home, Nature, Seasonal Life, Snapshots

Transitions

I haven’t written in a while. It’s been months, in fact, months of upheaval and transition. When I wrote last, I lived in a small apartment in Missoula, Montana, was surrounded by an abundance of dear friends, and worked several part-time jobs, none of them enough to make ends meet. The last time I had a chance to think, the lilacs were heavy and purple in my backyard, and I stared at them from my yellow couch, which at the time sat on the porch before moving to a new home. The late spring sun soaked into me, and I let it roast my shoulders, imagining that this was all the summer I would get.

Since then, I have moved out of my apartment of five years, packed away most of my belongings, said too many goodbyes, drugged my cat, and driven 2,000 miles (cat in car) from Montana to interior Alaska. I don’t know when I will return to Montana. I drove north into winter, from flurries in Jasper the first night, up into the high mountains of British Columbia, to cold nights and frost heaves in the Yukon, and into a blizzard and two feet of snow in Denali. I have moved into a dry cabin, purchased my first car, and started two jobs. I have watched the snow recede from around my cabin into deep yellow puddles as the weather went from twenty degrees to seventy-five. From icy wind whistling through the cracks in our log cabin, we’ve seen an influx of mosquitoes and flies. In the last two weeks, the aspen have greened with sticky buds, and the puddles have soaked into the tundra, and flowers have exploded everywhere. On a hike recently, we found rich purple Pasque flowers – harbingers of spring! – wind flowers, rock jasmine, alp lily, the beginnings of Lapland diapensia, pink wooly lousewort, mountain avens, low-bush cranberry blooms. Even better than the flowers, though, more fitting with my mood, was a large mound of coyote scat, white with hair and chipped bones. I leaned over the scat and poked at it with a stick, touched the hard ivory fragments of bone.

Now I sit at my table and stare out at white spruce and my outhouse and green aspen. I sip wine and try to think about transitions. But there is something indigestible about the move I just made, something that sticks in my throat. I swallowed this move whole, both the parts that I needed, and the parts that claw me on the inside until I bleed. It is wrong to leave friends I love, friends who sustain and nurture me. It is impossible to turn my back on the low golden hills of Missoula, the towering cumulus clouds, the easy camaraderie of knowing a place well. I hug Alaska friends in greeting, but the goodbyes are still too fresh, and I tear up though I should be joyful. Oversized mosquitoes buzz my head at night and I curse their blood-lust, though my brief pain is their sustenance.

So here I am. Still reeling. Trying to figure out where I want and need to be.

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Filed under Denali National Park, Home, Montana, Nature, Seasonal Life, Self, Uncategorized, Work

Home #1 – Making Mahshi

Another series, this one about home.

Tonight, after a long day of grading geosciences essays, I wander into the kitchen and uncork a bottle of wine. The sun fades behind a lattice of trees outside the window. I pour wine into a small green glass and my headache starts to dissipate.

I rummage in the fridge and pull out eggplants and ground beef, then dip into the cupboard for some rice and spices. I slide a jar of tomatoes from the shelf and set all the ingredients on the counter together to admire. Mahshi time.

Mahshi is a traditional Middle Eastern dish that literally means “stuffed.” Which is approximately how you feel after you eat it. You can stuff almost anything; zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, turnips, grape or cabbage leaves, or eggplants. I ate it often when I lived in Palestine. Tonight, I will stuff three slightly wrinkled eggplants purchased at last Saturday’s farmer’s market.

First, slice off the stems and heft the eggplant in your palm. Hollow out the insides with a good sharp scooping tool. Feel the weight of the shiny purple eggplant lighten as the pile of guts grows on the chopping board. Dip the empty eggplants into a bowl of salt water, then set aside.

Mix rice, ground beef, butter, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper. Don’t pay attention to amounts. Tonight you are an Arab cook. Shake in just enough until it looks right. Roll up your sleeves and mix it together by hand. Let the hard grains of rice grit against your skin, feel the soft red beef give beneath your palm. The spices might temporarily overwhelm you with homesickness, but that is ok. Lean against the counter, close your eyes. Remember.

To be in a place is to touch it, to inhale and consume it. It becomes you. You become it. This is not an exaggeration.

Inside of you grow olive trees, back-lit by a hot sun. You contain shimmering blue Palestinian skies and dusty rutted roads. In your corners, you still find dust that settles on skin, on leaves, on tomatoes. The tunjara on the stove is full of mahshi, steam rising from its silver sides. Your dear friend stands by the stove in her flowered house-dress and slippers. She showed you how to shape the lozenges of rice and meat, how to poke them into the hollowed vegetables. Leave an inch of room for the rice to expand as it cooks. No matter how many times you cook mahshi, you will never get that practiced capable twist of your fingers that she was born with.

Lay the stuffed eggplants into a pot, and cover them with crushed tomatoes and water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Lift the lid occasionally to poke the eggplants, and breathe in the aromas.

When the rice is cooked and the eggplant parts readily beneath a knife, serve heaping dishes to your loved ones. Sit together, jostle elbows as you cut into the mahshi, spilling rice into the tomato sauce. Breathe deep, take that first bite. Now. You are home.

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Filed under Cooking, Home, Palestine

Snapshot #1 – Minnesota winter

My life has been a string of love affairs with place. As I’ve considered how to write about these places, I’ve been inspired by my friend Lauren, who is an excellent, thoughtful writer and blogs here. Lately she’s been writing postcards: brief lyrical essays accompanied by an image. I am intrigued by this idea, and have started thinking of the places I’ve loved in terms of a series of snapshots, which I define as image-ridden, slightly longer lyrical essays that tell some kind of story.

This series is also a shout-out to Alaska writing night folks. For those of you who don’t know about writing night, imagine you are sitting in a cozy RV, sipping a generous glass of red wine. Outside, cold rain patters on the roof and drips into the willows. A moose might wander by with a calf or two. Tonight, the theme of writing night is “snapshots,” interpreted loosely. We lean over our notebooks and write.

 Snapshot #1 – Minnesota Winter

Many winters, the snow drifts and piles up while we sit in classrooms under buzzing flourescents and watch the dark sky out the windows. School often lets out early, and we straggle out, scrape off cars or pile into humid buses, and disappear along the road. Highway 19 connects Winthrop, Gibbon, and Fairfax, three points on a straight east-west line on the Minnesota state map. Fairfax is home, Gibbon is the drive-through town of only eight hundred people, and Winthrop is church and high school.

Dad teaches at the high school, so rather than sit on the bus with my peers, I often wait and catch a ride with him. In the winters it is dark outside by the time he locks the physics classroom with its curled yellow posters of the periodic table on the walls and its smell of dust and chemicals. We trudge out through feet of snow to the car.

This particular ride home, before pulling away from the curb outside the school, we have to break through the deep drifts around the wheel wells. The car rocks forward, backward, slides on the packed snow. We need momentum to break free.

With a whine of the engine and final spin of the tires, we lurch up and over the mound of snow and find the churned snow and deep tire tracks which indicate the road.

On the road out of town, it is dark all around . Snow particles race past broken beams of light. I want nothing more than to lift off, away from this straight edged road, to soar away from the tiny farms and patchwork fields, and see what else is out there. I imagine I am going into hyperspeed, that we fly past stars and ringed planets and long-armed galaxies and into the vastness of space.

WCCO lists off counties with winter storm warnings and school district closures. “Renville… Sibley… Brown… Nicollet… Le Seuer…” Everything around us is closed in by the storm.

The road is slick and ridged with sculpted drifts. We don’t meet any cars. We slow to forty-five, edge to the center where the lines flick by, barely visible. The car shudders as the tires hit the wind-packed drifts. The windows fog.

Several miles past Gibbon, the road disappears.

Before the searching headlights, all is snow, swept rounded shoulders and ambiguous humped elephant shapes. Two, three feet deep in places. No tire tracks show the way or give us anything to follow. The car bucks and rocks like a ship through the drifts. Thick snow falls, presses heavy and wet on the windshield. Dad slows the car to a crawl, then stops. He rolls the window down, cranes his head out. Flakes flutter in, fall in a lush layer on the car seat, on his corduroy pants. His glasses are wet and fogged when he comes back into the car, his nose red and scrunched up as he tries to see. He opens the car door, sticks his foot out, sweeps it back and forth to find the road underneath.

We stop, open the door, locate the road, inch forward. Ten, fifteen feet at a time. This is how we find home, hours later.

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Filed under Home, Minnesota, Snapshots