I've lived in Alaska for 17 years, but I'd never been to Nome. With distances as vast as this state's, I haven't been many places, but hope to change that. First off, props to my husband's architecture firm who completed the Richard Foster Building in Nome last year. It houses the Carrie McLain Memorial Museum, the Kegoayah Kozga Public Library and the Katirvik Cultural Center -- three entities with individual histories and voices that united to create a space of beauty and heritage. We came to attend the grand re-opening, now that all the museum exhibits are fully installed.
This structure, like others built on permafrost, is erected on stilts. Unlike other places in the world, stilts in the Arctic have little to do with one hundred-year flood plains and everything to do with drifting snow and -- more importantly -- the heat generated from the building itself, which will melt the permafrost beneath.
Think about that for a bit, then consider the large-scale consequences. Of course, the most blatant destruction doesn't point fingers at single buildings, but, in part, to the actions of an entire world.
Maybe Nome sounds familiar, but you aren't sure why. If I explain it's the official finish line to the 1,000-mile long Iditarod sled dog race, this might jog your memory of its recent history, but the area's deeper culture spans thousands of years. If you study the map below, it begins to build a picture of Alaska that most people don't fully understand. What I've seen on some language maps referred to as "Eskimo" doesn't exist on this one. And what might seem like an empty, stark landscape is full of culture and tradition that resonates in the various arts practiced by its inhabitants, native and non native.
The work of Alaskan artist, Sonja Kelliher-Combs, hangs prominently in the Katirvik Cultural Center's entryway, with additional work in the gathering room. Sonja grew up in Nome, but is now based in Anchorage. Her work is immediately identifiable and much desired; I feel even more of a pull to it now that I've been to the landscape of her childhood. (Please visit her website and body of work. Hers was some of the first Alaskan art I encountered 17 years ago at the Decker/Morris Gallery when I moved to Anchorage from Vancouver, Canada, and thought, "Hang on, this place might be ok").
Her work still punches me in the gut.
I was so honored to bring my children to Nome, even if it was for a short time. I'm honored they have the privilege of growing up in Alaska, honored we get to live and work here, inspired by land, culture and an extreme, changing climate.
Children who come from this place will be forced to solve problems we can't yet imagine. Crossing cultural divides with grace and empathy is a major piece of their future. Understanding consequences is another. Taking risks is another part of the equation.
Some of the largest storms in the world begin in the Bering Sea, but consider the origins of the greatest sea change.
If you think this post prods at a lot , you're correct. I'm thinking about all all of this, all the time.
One year ago on this blog.
Ice. (Because, Alaska).
Two years ago on this blog.
Splitting open the idea. (The brave seed to the Inheritance Project, which I continue to generate work for, and therefore blog less).
Three years ago on this blog.
A history of chaos. (And here's where I'll reveal my own #metoo, although the extent isn't divulged in this post, and feel I'll never do more than dance around what still has very little clarity for me. I understand so much about women's silence, and am grateful I had the choice and resources -- emotional and otherwise -- to simply slip away).
On March 24, 1989, the super tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef -- a charted location in well-traversed Alaskan waters, a known marine hazard -- spilling nearly 11,000 gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Accounts list wildlife fatalities as high as this: 580,000 sea birds, 5,500 sea otters, 200 harbor seals and 22 orca whales. Fishing families lost their livelihoods, many marriages didn't survive this environmental, financial and community devastation. Think about the long term effects of that last part.
At the time, I was about to graduate from high school thousands of miles away, on the cusp of my own self-centered life, with television images shaping the memory of this thing I never experienced. 6 months later, I would meet my husband. 28 years later, we are bringing our children to this place. Still wild. Still seemingly pristine. But probably a shadow of what it once was. We are not a part of that collective memory. Our experience is in its infancy, this, only our 8th season on these waters.
We have been cleaning beaches for 4 of those seasons. 2 adults, 2 kids (sometimes a few friends), a couple of double kayaks or a dingy, and a roll of contractor-weight trash bags ready for unfurling, snapping and often re-use. We've found everything from rubber gloves to Happy Meal toys, rusted wheels to cargo nets to balloons and syringes, and more exploding styrofoam buried in moss and seaweed than I care to recount.
We've also found dead animals.
We clean up trash because it's there and because we see it. Does it make a difference? Not really. This year was our season to leave much of it behind -- our shore vessels too small to safely transport large objects back to our boat. Our boat too small or too full to safely haul objects back to the Whittier harbor for recycling or disposal.
This area (above) used to be a neatly stacked detritus pile above the high tide line on the east coast of Perry Island (outside of Day Care Bay), but it's a jumble this summer -- animals, weather and perhaps other well-meaning beach goers to blame. Despite the sprawl, much of it is bagged and contained, waiting for pick up...but we don't know who intends to do this work, where the money or man/woman/kid power will come from. We've watched it grow for 3 seasons. We remove what we can, when we can.
At other locations this summer, we've been the ones to haul and stack items above the high tide line. These are hiked-to beaches, reached through bog and mosquito forest, spilling onto rocky shores or weather/tidal conditions too unsafe to land a dingy or kayak -- a description that fits so much of Alaska's 6,640 miles of coastline. We've left bright markers (like that green plastic container), but don't know who to share them with or who will see them.
We tell ourselves we'll go back for retrieval. When it's safe. When there are more of us, or better, less of us on the boat.
We've found human forms. Mythical and unreal.
We've found evidence of celebration. And fragile, intact reasons to celebrate.
I've read that the spilled oil is still there, black sludge just a few inches below the surface on various gravel beaches. Of course it is. It has to be. I haven't dug for it, but sometimes I'm convinced I smell it.
But how do you distinguish one smell when low tide is such a combination of the beautiful and terrible?
30 years from now, this place will have changed again. My children will return, or not, but theirs will be the voice of recollection -- so much louder and insistent than my own. They will describe salmon streams filled with enough wriggling bodies to bump and lift their kayaks, family hikes with so many piles of bear scat and obstacles back to the boat that by the time we return, it takes an hour for the hair on the backs of our necks to settle. They see more animals in one morning out here, than some children see in a year or more. Their earnest childhood conversations are peppered with words like "juvenile," "sign," "habitat," "species," "identification." I was still breast feeding Astrid when we began the first tentative journeys into Prince William Sound. Our children are now 11 and almost 9.
Their perception of abundance moves forward from this point in time. It breaks my heart to know they will recognize a difference some day.
* * *
To view a NOAA timeline chart for post-spill recovering species and habitats, click here.
We aren't alone in this endeavor, here or elsewhere. There are a number of other people all over the world who also clean beaches. I follow some of them on Instagram. They are a mixture of scientists, biologists, wandering gypsy souls and artists:
@kittiekipper -- Ghostnet Goods
@joannaatherton -- UK coastline
@kellyalance -- Central California coast
@balloons_blow -- BalloonsBlow.org
To read more about our family commitment to clean beaches, check out the blog sidebar category
Beach Work, then scroll past this post, which will show up at the top.
One year ago on this blog:
Two years ago on this blog:
My lovely friend from France, Aude Franjou, sent this message to me today:
Dear Amy, I have read again your Instagram post of yesterday, and you looks so sad and lonely at this moment (...) I really hope every thing are for you, yours children and husband all right...no bad news?...no trouble?...
And while I had written an off-hand comment on Instagram about feeling lonely in my studio life, what she really saw -- if there was anything to see in this photo my daughter took -- was me grimacing while I worked, the crinkle in my forehead deepening, because for the last 3 weeks I've been in horrible pain.
When I was nine, I broke my two front teeth in an accident at a friend's house, and when I say it's the gift that keeps on giving, I'm dead f-ing serious. Most recently, my beautiful 10-year-old-finally-I-was-at-a-place-in-my-life-where-I-could-afford-it veneer on one tooth exploded, leaving me with a horizontal crack millimeters away from meeting in the middle and maybe/probably sloughing off. Like, you know, while you're on vacation. Did you know there are a number of dentists in Lihue, Kauai who specialize in dental emergencies? There are. I programmed their numbers into my phone before we left Alaska, but I never had to use them.
I talked about memory in another post called A History of teeth. How it is fleeting. Reshaped again and again. But going through this at 45 -- the shots (were there 3? or 4?) having my veneer and the crown beside it pried off, cracking and splintering, filling my mouth with shards and exposing the brown nubs beneath, then wearing a one-piece-double-tooth temporary affair, much like a rabbit tooth a few shades too white for two weeks while the "real" crowns were created -- it all returned me to my 9-year-old self.
Vulnerable. Wanting to hide. Unable to sleep.
And reminded me how the body, how pain, holds memory.
We've discovered that what remains of one tooth has a fracture disappearing beneath my gum, leading into the root. I may have 10 more years with this stub, or 20, or a handful of weeks. My dentist said if I feel intense pain ("You will know..."), we can't opt for a root canal on such a fragile shard, that it would be better to take it out completely.
A dental implant is a process, involving a number of frightening steps, and time. Suffering.
But for now, I have two new crowns. Lovely, ever so slightly different from the former, flatter on the bottom, a little too perfect, with a different curve along the backside that I can't keep my tongue off of. They are an unknown maker's idea of what my teeth should look like. This hand different from the one who fashioned them 10 years ago. Different still from what my natural teeth would have been like, if given the chance.
Working along the ghosts of women, other unknown makers whose cloth I use in my own work, makes me think a lot about the luxuries I have, as a woman, which they did not. 100 years ago, I would have broken my teeth at age nine and they would have remained that way, turning brown, decaying and eventually pulled due to infection. And I would have screamed for them to please pull the teeth, because this was the place I was in just 48 hours ago, before I returned to my dentist with my molded night guard mouth piece (I'm a clencher), which didn't fit the new crowns, and a plea for pain killers to take the edge off the ice pick that had lodged in my gums and was now probing my sinuses and reaching molars.
I'm not a pussy. I have a ridiculously high pain threshold. I had two natural childbirths, the second was frank breach. That's right. I delivered a frank breach daughter, the effect of crowning twice, with no pain medication, an anesthesiologist standing by in an operating room filled with flustered nurses and about 20 other people who'd never seen an actual frank breach delivery, also my husband, my midwife, a good doctor-friend and a perinatologist who was a BAD ASS, who'd done deliveries like this before and used her entire body to corkscrew that girl out of me in one elegant movement that my husband still demonstrates for friends. Ask him. He'll do it.
Did I mention I also had an undiagnosed 12 mm herniated disk in L5 at the same time, and my foot had gone numb 2 weeks before she was born?
It's still numb because I have permanent nerve damage.
The threshold. It's high.
This is not a good thing.
But this time, I was ready to ask the dentist to pull it. Pull. It.
Within 36 hours of taking antibiotics, it's now become clear I had an infection. That exposed crack a conduit for whatever bacteria wormed its way deep inside the root.
And isn't that the way? How pain starts as something humming with each heartbeat, then a pulsing hot throb and finally a snap of unspooled threads reaching far beyond the epicenter? And when relief comes, if it comes, it settles like an animal at your feet. Blinking and sighing.
So, Dear Aude, thank you for asking. I am fine.
I am fine now.
If you are interested in a sometimes-newsletter (I just sent out my first one even though I've been talking about it for over a year), please visit the contact page. I'm kind of excited by how many people subscribed already. Okay, blown away actually.
If you have subscribed and didn't receive a newsletter last week with exhibition and Inheritance Project updates (shit's happening, some of it I can't even tell you about yet), please check your spam filter and mark me as non-spammy. Because, I'm not. Nothing makes me feel better than an empty inbox.
Well, other things make me feel pretty good, too.
Anyone who has followed this blog for a while -- especially in the summers -- knows my family cleans beaches in Prince William Sound, Alaska. We don't do this in an organized manner. We aren't part of a fleet, or a crew. It's just the four of us and a 29' Ranger Tug, sorting what we can and hauling it back to shore to recycle or chuck. We've messed up the trash count data on monitoring beaches (sorry guys, the sites weren't marked, but we're eager to help in a way that's more beneficial to all parties) and we've annoyed weekend fisherman by adding jetsam to the the dumpsters in Whittier (maybe you could break down your beer boxes and haul empty cans back to Anchorage instead of getting pissed off at a couple of kids and a mom dragging 50+ lbs of net ... also, we got permission from the Harbor Master a long time ago).
So, because of this connection to remote Alaskan beaches/fragile northern ecosystems and their proximity to the North Pacific Gyre, we rarely hit a beach without a trash bag. Even a warm beach.
We spent spring break on the east side of Kauai where we found plastic every time we walked our little swath of beach, plus a few people mildly surprised someone was cleaning it up. Some visitors remarked they hadn't even noticed any trash, and others assumed we would leave our sorted assemblages behind to wash out to sea. Some strode toward us with authority, maybe to tell us not to collect the local coral or shells, but then sheepishly changed direction and averted eyes when they realized we fisted handfuls of plastic.
Don't get me wrong, this was a lovely clean beach. But we found we could perform this ritual every morning, on the same 50-foot stretch, and not run out of material. A sifter would have been helpful.
Among micro plastics, we found 6 golf balls, a tee, a pencil, the brim of a visor and the laundry basket.
We found 32 pieces of plastic tubing, all cut to the same dimensions, in black, grey and green.
We found a pair of men's size 13 tennis shoes near the hauled out monk seal.
We found red bits from gasoline jugs, pink from toys, a mess from styrofoam and rarity in purple.
We found the objects of work and domesticity and excess, objects of hard use and of uselessness.
We found a frying pan, handsome locals and half a green plastic easter egg.
We found other, more beautiful things people left on the beach.
We found handles of razors and toothbrushes, worn to fine picks. We found that not all beach glass is created equal and despite the million times I've asked my son not to, he still fills his pockets with hazards.
We found that my son will always build. My daughter will always embellish.
We found folks poking through sand, looking for kahelelani or Pupu O Ni'ihau -- tiny shells barely bigger than the ball-head of a pin -- which, when strung with monofilament line, are used to make fantastic jewelry. After tales of a necklace allegedly priced at $50,000, my family began looking as well, and now have a sandy ziplock bag with 5 or 10 kahelelani and grandiose plans that far outweigh such a meager haul. But we further understand the worth and importance of such an historic and culturally based undertaking.
We found that a $15 Hawaiian print dress can make a girl forget her sunburn and her sullen brother and their clashing ideas about the built form.
We found new ways to be brave.
And found that a begged-for $4 reef chart might turn out to be the catalyst for a lifetime of self motivation and discovery.
We found that the quest for perfection might eventually make a person sick.
We found that a few days away was enough for some of us to forget the North's pale rhythm, when one morning I commented I didn't think the kids had ever watched the sun actually pop up. My daughter looked at me, insulted, and said, "Of course I've seen the sun rise. I watch it rise over the mountains every morning on the way to school or from my classroom window."
I also found that I wasn't motivated to work much.
If you ever feel a call to arms you could always get in touch with a formal beach clean up crew in your area or in places you visit in the future. Surfrider has several chapters and one on Kauai (not in Alaska). Unfortunately, we missed one of their beach clean up events by a few days. There are other efforts, other organizations.
You could also follow the Meissner Beach Rule: "5 pieces of trash, NOW, everybody....here's the bag...now 5 more..." Be safe and watch for needles and broken glass. Also, don't touch the capped plastic bottles half filled with amber liquid unless you're wearing gloves.
For other posts on cleaning beaches, follow the sidebar category Beach Work and scroll past this post, which will show up there now, too.
Lastly, there are other things to do in Hawaii besides clean beaches. For a Top 100 List, you could check out what the folks at Your RV Lifestyle put together. We don't have an RV in Alaska, but I grew up with one. Our boat feels like one sometimes, but that's only because it's the only time our kids get to eat marshmallows and the kitchen table becomes a bed. Good stuff.
* * *
One year ago: The 9th boxes of mystery.
Two years ago: The shortlist.
I'm sorting through process photographs from the last 2 or 3 years, revisiting images and objects that have inspired me, or forced me to pause, or served as jumping off points. It's been a good exercise and I realize how bombarded I've been with current imagery and noise; I'd jettisoned my own thoughts to make room for it all. It's been good to reclaim moments that still feel pure.
Yesterday someone referred to her need to constantly listen to the news as having the same effect as coming upon a car accident: "You want to look away, but you can't stop staring."
"War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.