Harvest in the Pacific Northwest

At the beginning of August many of my Pagan friends celebrated the first harvest, commonly known as Lammas or Lughnasadh (from the Celtic calendar system). That observance has never meant much to me. I am not a farmer, and have spent precious little time in places where early August means first fruits of any kind. Now in Washington, it means the height of summer, and I spend my summer time waiting for the days to cool.

As August passed I began to have half-formed thoughts of salmon. Had my father said anything about his catch this year? A good catch means smoked salmon.

Lo and behold, a box arrived in the mail yesterday. 9 pounds of hard smoked, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, that my father caught, cleaned, filleted and smoked himself. I realized this to me is harvest. August is when the best fishing occurs in South East Alaskan waters; this is when the abundance arrives.

Vacuum packed for longevity.

Vacuum packed for longevity.

We’re not yet to the autumnal equinox for the spirit of the season to truly shift for me, but we’re now at the end of summer. In Washington the salmon are running, traveling upstream to spawn. The green chiles and tomatillos, strong bitter greens and garlic are appearing at the farmers’ markets. I stock up on these. I try to make as much salsa verde as possible to store through the winter. Something about tomatillos feels like edible sunshine to me.

But Salmon is the Life Giver to me.

Growing up my family was a subsistence fishing family. I don’t think I thought of this way until long after I’d moved out of Alaska. Many families fish all summer to fill their freezers. In a land where food costs are exorbitant (everything is shipped in from ‘Outside’), salmon was ‘free.’ I remember sitting at the dinner table thinking ‘UGH. Salmon? AGAIN?!’ Not until I moved away to college did I discover that fresh salmon was a meal of privilege. I imagine that Montana ranchers feel similarly about grass-fed beef.

Salmon, halibut, crab – these are gifts of the Alaskan waters. They nourish me, the salmon especially; they connect me to my roots; they remind me that the waters and livelihoods of Washington are intimately connected with those of my homeland. When Celtic legends speak of the Salmon of Wisdom, I understand that deep in my bones. When Northwest Coast peoples tell stories of the sacrifice that salmon make for the people and how important the salmon are to traditional ways of life, I understand that. In a Christian way of thinking, every bite is a Eucharist.

So I offer up first fruits to the gods, to the Spirits of this place, and to my family. I thank my father for sending me this annual gift. I thank the Salmon and the Waters. I work toward preserving those waters. I nourish my family with bounty of this Land. We are what we eat, and we are people of Salmon.

Hail to the Harvest! Thanks be to the Mighty Salmon!

Land as Lover

Inspired by The Spell of the Sensuous I want to explore more personally what Land and Place mean to me.

David Abram talks about geography as a container. More than just mountains that enclose or fields that spread out, land shapes our views of the world, our experiences with future places, how we perceive time and seasons, how communities function, and how we relate the non-human world. I see this so clearly from my own upbringing in Juneau, Alaska. It has so profoundly shaped me that, even though I’ve not lived there for a decade, I still consider myself an Alaskan first – even before being an American.

My friend Jennie came to visit from Seattle. She thought having an actual end of the road was hilarious. 1994.

Juneau is small-ish in population, but spread out over a 50 mile strip of land, clinging to 3- and 4,000 feet tall mountains, hemmed in by glaciers and water ways. You cannot drive in or out. It sits in a fjord, in one of North America’s largest, oldest rain forests. Black bears in your backyard, deer eating your garden flowers (that bloom for about 6 weeks), porcupine, whales, bald eagles, ravens larger than any I’ve ever seen elsewhere…. all normal inhabitants.

How did these things affect me?

The mountains and water, the ice fields and forests helped me feel safe. Of course, you could die if you hiked off trail or went boating in bad weather. I went on one epic hike when I was 18, a hike that was supposed to be about 9 or 10 hours (from Sheep Creek up and over the ridge and down Mount Roberts). It ended up taking us 18 hours. I nearly slid off one of the peaks into a gully from 5,000 feet. It’s not a gentle landscape! And yet…. I felt, still feel, that with proper respect (which includes preparation) I was safer there than in most other parts of the world.

A picture I took of my dad in 1987. On our boat somewhere in SE Alaska, fishing at sunset.

When I left Alaska for college I couldn’t wrap my head around how it was possible to cross a street and be in a different town. It took me many years to understand that. Perhaps this is why maps and geography are so important to me. I want to know the shapes and boundaries of towns.

I felt something divine in the land. I was a Christian in my teen years, and yet I still felt God’s existence and presence in the land around me. It wasn’t just an idea that God had made the land, but more that the land was an expression of God and he comforted me and spoke to me through the land itself. I’m not sure I could have articulated that then.

I grew up around people that used the land. They used it to feed their families; they used it for their occupation. By ‘using’ I mean, they worked with the land. The men and women I grew up around knew that the land was the source of their livelihood, whether that was building infrastructure during the opening of ANWR and the pipeline in the late ’70s, or working as fishermen. The land provided….. and the land, if not worked with, if not respected, could take away as well. There is no power over the land in Alaska, only power with.

Me, hiking the Chilkoot Trail between Skagway, AK, and the Yukon, Canada. Most people take a week to do this. My crew did it in less than 3 days. Not sure that was wise… 1999 (I think).

In fact, that’s one of the things that amused me when I lived in Wales – there was nothing that could kill you in the land. Sure, you could get too drunk and fall off a cliff. But the weather is generally mild and none fo the animals were predators of humans. If you got lost on a hike or walk, just keep going and you’ll hit some one’s farm. Get lost in Alaska and no one will see you again.

Our friend Tim (may he be at peace) took this of me and Jennie. He led us hiking under the Mendenhall Glacier. This part of the glacier has since melted far away. 1995.

Something else that has affected me my entire life is the disparity of light in the seasons. I never suffered seasonal affective disorder, though I know many people who do, who have, or have some variation of it. We have 18 hour days in the summer with extended twilight; 18 hour nights in the winter. Until only recently I’ve always felt that the days were never long enough in June, never dark enough in December. This was especially hard for me when I lived in California.

It rains so much in SE Alaska that autumn is truly only 10 days at the end of August. Spring is about 2 weeks at the end of May or early June. October was always my least favorite month. It wasn’t until I lived in Washington that I learned that October is AMAZING. It is now my favorite month. Perhaps this is why fall is now my favorite season. Autumn makes me giddy! Spring is also a joyous surprise every year. Grow up with only two seasons, and the 4 season climate is something of a revelation. Each year I get two extra seasons! It’s like nature gives me a present every three months!

Light, dark, rain, water, fish, mountains…. I was in love with my Land. In fact, for over a decade I felt like I was in an adulterous relationship. Alaska was my lover and I was cheating every time I flew to Washington to start another year of college. I was cheating when I moved to grad school in Berkeley. I figured Alaska was my childhood sweetheart and I’d be back when I was ready to settle down. I always, always intended to return.

Me visiting Juneau in March 2004. Mendenhall Wetlands and my then dog, Dawson, named after the town in the Yukon.

This rather dysfunctional relationship with my Land, as foundational and beautiful as it was to me, also kept me from diving deep into other lands and places. It took me a long time to settle into the Bay Area, into Washington. The only places that were never a struggle for me were Ireland and Wales. If I’m honest, that separation from Alaska made me feel broken.

What was wrong with me that I couldn’t adjust to other places? Why was I so overwhelmed in cities? I did just fine on an intellectual level: I loved the energy, the opportunities, the food, the excitement. But at a core level, I was so deeply overwhelmed, like there were was too much buzzing, too much noise, too MUCH all the time. Why did I need trees the way most people need food? No one else I knew (other than people from Juneau) wanted to return to their home towns. Everyone wanted to flee. Why was I unable to function in cities? I felt like I was failing as an adult. It’s not something I ever really talked about, but I felt it. My two-week vacations home once a year were not feeding my soul.

I needed to break up with Alaska. Moving to Wales, not moving back to Alaska, was a good first step. And finally, at some point while there I realized that Alaska was a part of me and I took my Land with me where ever I went. I may have to spend the next 25 years working to know the land I’ve chosen as home now, but it’s possible. I no longer feel broken. I feel full and blessed to have been given the gift of Place and Land in a way that seems rare these days.

Dispatches from the Great White North

It’s been three years since I’ve been back to my hometown, Juneau, Alaska. My relationship to Juneau is complicated. I wrote about its formative qualities in the early part of my spiritual biography. I’ve never been away from Juneau for this long. It’s as if I have new eyes, and yet my senses remember: the way the water smells here, the feel of this beach, my legs know how to respond to the sea, my eyes know how to spot whales and eagles at 300 yards, my ears recognize the wake of the cruise ships and the sighs of the whales as they come up to breathe.

The one question I have  is what the hell the crows are talking about. My parents’ property is overrun with crows. It’s the worst it’s been in 15 years, they say. The crows are eating all their lettuce in the garden; the broccoli is entirely pecked to death. The crows yammer from morning until night – which here is about 3am (yes, I woke to the first birds chirping, at 3am precisely) until twilight, about 11pm. I have no idea when they sleep.

There are very few ravens out here on the island this year. But they are in town – hovering around parking lots and on lampposts. In Wales I was hard pressed to tell the difference between ravens and crows without a good hard stare (beaks are different, and the shapes of the feathers). Here, the ravens are massive. A few people in Wales tried to convince me that ravens were large, but oh no. The ravens here are 2-3 times the size of crows. If a raven and I have to face off, the raven always wins. That people groups around the world revere them and connect them to strong forces (The Morrigan of Ireland and the Trickster figure in Pacific North West Coast Native traditions immediately come to mind) is no surprise at all.

A view from Paradise Point on Shelter Island, Alaska

Sitting out on the beach, feeling the wind, watching the water, smelling the air, retraining my eyes to the myriad different shades of green and grey, I am struck how unmagical it is out here. That’s an odd thought coming from me! I mean, of course it’s magical – how could such natural beauty not be magical? Yet, there is a lack of mysticism. The land is too rough, too wild to be mystical, at least in a Western Mystical Tradition sort of way. There is something more primal and wild, less rational and thought through out here. Any magic gained here comes from listening, watching, and getting dirty. My senses may be attuned to this place, but listening? I’m out of practice with these particular languages.

The kind of magic that exists here, the first magic I ever knew, is not even so much ‘magic’ as it is interconnectedness. My father, one of the least religious people I know, is perhaps the high priest of this kind of magic. I don’t think he views it like this, but he knows this land like the back of his hand. I know that’s a weak cliché, and yet….. I mean it. He knows the trees, the plants, the fish, which type of fish heads attract the most and best crabs. It comes with a lifetime of paying attention and getting one’s hands dirty. Coming back here I realize how much I know about this place wherein I no longer live, but also how much I don’t know or understand about this place. And that reminds me of how much I have to learn about my new adopted home in Washington State.

I want more of this kind of ‘magic’ in my life. I know it’s the kind that comes slowly, over years, not just seasons. Pass up no opportunity to explore, watch, listen, feel. Fear not any weather or landscape. Sometimes I wonder about the other forms of magic. Some kinds I’ve experienced myself, other kinds I wait to experience. But this kind, this primal interconnectedness is a form I know exists. It is the touchstone I return to, much like Alaska itself. It is like a mother to me: I go out confidently into the world, knowing that I can always return if I need to.

A love song for Juneau

I haven’t lived in Juneau, Alaska, for over a decade. I’ve spent little more than a handful of weeks at a time there. Home for me these days is Olympia, Washington. I’ve just recently returned from a ‘long weekend’ in California, a stunningly beautiful part of the world. There were six ladies present: three of whom live in California (two in the Bay Area, one in the LA area), two in the Pacific North West (me and one in Seattle), and one who lives in Alaska – Anchorage. But five of us are from Juneau, four of us have repeatedly considered moving back. I got to thinking.

Map of Alaska

For those that know me in person forgetting that I’m from Alaska is impossible. It is a part of my identity on par with being human or female. I am not my body, I am not my sex, yet I am completely embodied in those ways, and part of that embodiment is my upbringing in Alaska. It is because of my complex relationship with Juneau that I consider Place a form of spirituality.

Old growth forest, photo by Pat Costello

First, there’s the Land itself. Juneau is nestled in the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rain forest. It covers all of SE Alaska (with the exception of Glacier Bay, which is run as a national park). We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of miles of old growth forest, ice fields, and fjords (the largest, deepest fjords outside of Norway). There’s a reason all of those massive cruise ships sail through every year: the place is impressive.

It’s also wet, dreary, mostly uninhabited, expensive, difficult to get around, and isolating. Juneau, the state capital, is unreachable by car (unless you put it on a ferry). Boat and plane are the only way in or out. This particular aspect of growing up in Juneau messed with my head until my mid-twenties. No matter where you go in Juneau – doesn’t matter the neighborhood, an 18 hour hike, north or south along the 60 miles of road – you are in Juneau. So when I went off to college and tried to wrap my head around land based communities, it was tough! I mean, how can you be in a new town just by crossing the street??

Looking at Mt. Juneau and town, from Douglas Island, taken by Pat Costello

Around middle school, from ages 12-14 or so, I hated living in Juneau. Judging from the tv (always the best reflection of Real Life) life happened in California. opportunities felt far away. But that passed and I had more freedom to drive and hike and camp. I developed my own connection to the land and the waterways. I could recognize land formations, had my favorite fishing spots, knew which trees had eagles’ nests, knew when to avoid what places to avoid bears.

The play of light in the summer months was especially sublime. Alpine glow – the sun setting behind the various mountains but reflecting on the snow-capped peaks of the taller ones. Long, lazy June twilight, when the sky is dark for maybe 2-3 hours. Long, sunny evenings fishing in a cove, watching seals, otters, dear, eagles, ravens, all have their play too, while the sun reflects gold off the water. Northern lights in February or March.

Northern lights over Juneau, taken by Mark Kelley

And of course, there were encounters with bears and humpback whales. One reminding me I might not be at the top of the food chain; the other reminding me some mammals might be just as social and smart as us humans.

I could wax on and on about the glories of Alaska (and I often do), but that’s not what my ladies weekend made me think of. I thought of the community. I’ve never met people from any other place who feel as I do about where I’m from. Most people I know dread their high school reunions, are maybe in touch with one or two or three people from growing up. They’ve kicked their hometown to the curb and moved on. I am in touch with hundreds of people from Juneau (thanks, Facebook!). My oldest, dearest friends are those I’ve grown up with. We might not live in Juneau anymore, for various reasons, but it’s a bond that we’ll take to our grave.

The Ladies (I’m third from the left)

My 20th high school reunion is next summer (all reunions ever in Juneau occur over our most important holiday, the 3rd/4th of July). I cannot wait. My husband didn’t even attend his 10th reunion. Me? I’m psyched for it. In fact, my husband and I are strongly considering a third child, but I’m insistent that we not get pregnant August through December of this year, because I don’t want to miss the reunion! It’s ridiculous, planning my childbearing around the reunion, but there it is: I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Talking with my friends, ladies who are like family to me, brought several things home to me. The first was how happy I am not to be moving anymore. My family has settled in Olympia. It’s not Alaska, and it’s far away from a lot of people I love, but I’m not moving. I need to the stability to be a better friend. I’ve not been the friend I want to be, and I want to change that.

The second thing was the deep sadness I have in my heart that my children are not born and raised in Alaska, in Juneau. Olympia is a great fit for my family. My kids will be able to experience some of the natural wonder parts of Alaska when we visit. One week in the summer and the odd winter break aren’t really going to be enough (by my standards), but it’s something. What the kids won’t ever have, no matter how long the visits are, is the sense of People. Of Place. Of being From Juneau. Maybe Olympia is a place that people love to return to. We’ll see. I recognize that I’m speaking quite prematurely. But I’ve lived in a lot of places, traveled quite a bit, met people from all over, and I can say with certainty that there is no Place like Juneau.