Monday, March 29, 2010


8 p.m. and all is well (Bobo Ramadan on the right)

On his favorite perch, listening for critters (since he can't
see them now) - Summer 2009

Snoozing on the summer porch - last summer (2009)

Strutting his stuff at home on the summer porch - July 2009


This has been a long week for Ian and me. Our old cat, Bobo Ramadan, is getting ready to pass on. Slowly. Reluctantly. Or maybe that is just how I imagine it. Even our young boy-cat is confused by how much his companion is avoiding him now. It is a difficult time.

Bo is 16 years old now. He has slowed down in the way all things slow down as they grow old. But, with him, it's more complicated than just aging. He has diabetes and must have daily insulin injections which he's not pleased about. He's also blind now and tends to walk into things or stumble down the stairs, his green eyes thick with cataracts now.

We thought he was on his final leg when we brought him back home a year ago from my son's home. He was pitifully thin despite eating maniacally at every chance, first devouring his own food then moving over to the other cat's bowl and devouring half of his portion too. The young cat had never seen such debauchery and stepped back to watch the gluttony with what I might call a kind of reverential wonder. The old cat continued to eat ravenously AND to lose weight in the first few weeks, but then the veterinarian upped his dose of insulin and he evened off for a while, plumping up a bit, and leaving a good portion of the other cat's food to the other cat. "Even so," the vet warned us back then, "he probably won't be long for this world." And even as it saddened us, Ian and I both think that there's a kind of rightness in him coming home to die quietly, among those who love you. So we prepared ourselves for the worst even as we, secretly, hoped for the better.

And he did make a recovery, of sorts: once he was here in the quiet of our old farmhouse. He spent all last spring, summer, and early fall sitting out on the summer porch all day, dozing off on his cozy perch and watching the squirrels and birds – or trying to watch them, as much as he could, given the cataracts. But, even when he did manage to "track them" by following the direction of their noises, he lost interest quickly and settled back to doze in the sun. Baby birds were hatched in the low tree limbs last spring and he didn't have any inclination to plunder the nest or frighten the mother bird. They came and went as near to him as they wanted and he just stretched and yawned and settled back to sleep. Spiders and bugs, which used to be his daily "kill" obsessions as a young cat, made their nest and webs near him or, on occasion, crawled right over him and he didn't seem to mind. He has gone, in these late years, from being a fierce stalker and killer to being a genial resting-place where even the oldest enemies can come close again. And that is, perhaps, the lesson the elderly have to show us: how it is possible to grow in wisdom even as we shrink in stature.

Now, he is beyond eating and takes in only a few laps of water at a time before he exhausts himself and must crawl back into the warm closet alongside my flats and tennis shoes and the beautiful, expensive high heels I once loved and keep now though I can no longer walk in them. He likes to lie curled up on the wooden floorboards there and to feel the heat that builds up from the copper pipes running through the back of the closet. It's as close as he can get to that "womb-feeling" again. And he clearly likes the fetal feel of it there in the warm darkness.

The old cat cannot make it over the lip of the litter box now sometimes and just relieves himself as close as possible to the box so, even as we gather the cleaning rags and sponges, the disinfectant and the green apple spray, we praise him for getting close. No heroic gesture goes unnoticed in this house. And when he jumps onto the bed with us at night, making that little cat-cry of pain that he makes when he puts all his effort into leaping up, we let him curl against us and we whisper to him in that old way we used to when he first came to us from the pound as a five-week-old kitten. We drop our voices to barely audible and coo at him in baby-talk as he tries to "fix" us, once more, in his sight: Good boy, Bobo Ramadan. Good boy. What a pity sing you are. . . .

**A note about this posting: I had to reload this posting today in order to fix some of the photos which weren't showing up and, when I did, I lost the two comments by Christine and Ernie. I am still learning how to manage the digital world of print and the learning curve is steep. Many apologizes to Ernie and Christine!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Day Six, Final Entry: Two Stories ("Where The Wild Things Are (Still)"

Muskox in defensive position, Nunivak Island, 1935

Close-up of muskoxen in defensive formation

Muskoxen in the wild, 2005 (Photo courtesy of Loretto Jones)

Day Six, Final Entry: Two Stories

In what will be the final hour of daylight here today, I will take the slippery curves of Yankovich Road and drive out to the Muskox Farm, hoping to get a farewell glimpse of the muskox. When I get there, I will pull the car to the shoulder, far enough off the shoulder to be out of the way of any other driver who might be driving this road near sunset, or as far out of the way as the snow berrn allows. I will have to make my way over that 3-foot high berm if I want to stand near enough to the fence to get a look at the herd, or any remnant of the herd that might venture in my direction. Since the farm has 130 acres of fenced pastureland and boreal forest, there is only a slim chance they'll be near the fence along the roadway or within eye-shot of it. But I'll be there, bundled and shivering in the late light of a day whose temperature sits stubbornly at the -13 degree mark, and I'll be there because only there it is still possible to see this animal living in a hospitable "refuge" today whose ancestors roamed the high arctic steppes over 20,000 years ago alongside sabertooths and wooly mammoths.

How the muskox endured and how this particular remnant of the species has come to live among humans in the 20th and 21st centuries is a story not meant for the faint-of-heart. Much of the story is riddled with starvation, hardship, attacks by natural – and unnatural – predators, forced relocations, disease. It is something of a heroic tale, this journey, and worth the retelling even if some of it is cloaked in myth and science, even if it comes forward out of prehistory and can only be deduced.

Here is an Inuit story about the muskox that was told to me when I first arrived in Fairbanks:

The people of western Hudson Bay tell how two hunters went out one day to find something to kill in order to feed the people who were hungry. On their way, two muskoxen appeared to them. These muskoxen had taken off their skins and were standing rubbing the skins to soften them. While they were rubbing, they were singing praises of their country. They sang of the beauty of the land in winter, how they wandered and slept and foraged in the long dark days of winter and how they always stood in light in summer. The two hunters stood apart from the muskoxen and listened to them singing, and they marveled at the beasts.

While they were singing, the muskoxen heard a pack of dogs and quickly put their skins back on and ran up a hill where they could defend themselves against the dogs. Soon after they reached the top, the hunters found and killed both animals, taking for their own the carcasses, the hides, and the song.

Here is another story about the muskox:

Fossil evidence suggests that early ancestors of the muskox crossed the Bering land bridge to North America around 90,000 years ago. During the early Ice Age, muskoxen could be found as far south as modern-day Kansas, but as the ice and tundra receded and moved northward, so did the herd. It survived what remained of glacial time by exiling itself to the ice-free areas in the northern arctic islands and Greenland, away from prehistoric peoples who were, primarily, hunters and gatherers. The early natural predators of the muskox were wolves, grizzly bears, and the prehistoric dog, all of who hunted and feasted on them.

Back in the Paleolithic warming, when the glaciers receded, giving way to boreal forests, other prehistoric animals moved south, as did humans. The muskox, however, retreated farther north, into the arctic tundra and the barren steppes. So, too, did its early natural predators: wolves, grizzly bears, and the prehistoric dog.

Muskoxen are similar in size to modern-day bison: 4 – 6 feet tall at the shoulder and 6 – 8 feet in length and the bulls are significantly larger than the females, just about the size of a Volkswagon. They have rounded hooves which allow them to move through shallow snow without sinking, to be agile on rocks and rocky steppes, and to aid them in foraging under the snow crust. They also have sharp horns – both the male and female – which curve downwards and then upwards, like large hooks. They use these to dominate other muskoxen (usually during mating season, in August and September) and to fend off predators.

Evolution has also equipped the herd with a way to survive in the harsh winter environment of the arctic: a coat of hair and under-hair. The coat consists of two parts: long, coarse outer hair – called "guard hairs" – that grow from the back and sides and reach almost to the ground, covering the short legs and protecting the animal from rain and snow. The second coat is known as qiviut and it is the lightest, warmest wool in the world, insulating the animals against temperatures that can reach as low as -100 F. This qiviut goes for $175/pound on the knitter's market and is known to those from Alaska, colloquially, as "Arctic Lace." It is in high demand and rare to come by since each adult muskox sheds only about 6 pounds of qiviut each spring. Still, 6 pounds of this qiviut is sufficient to make around 60 scarves or "smoke-rings," those one-piece, round head scarves that drape to the shoulders.

If the old adage holds – the one about a rose being a rose by any other name – then perhaps the terrible misnomer of "muskox" is a minor one after all. The muskox is not an ox nor does it have musk glands. The Latin name, Ovibos moschatus, is derived from the words ovis (sheep), bos (ox), and moschatus (musk). In truth, the muskox is closer to the sheep than it is to the ox and, while it does not have musk glands, it does have preorbital glands which secrete a scent used to warn members of the herd that danger is approaching. The Inuit call the beast by a more accurate name – oomingmak – which means "Bearded One."

Muskoxen are social animals, living amiably in herds, in each other's company. The survival rate of those who wander too far from the herd is, predictably, right around zero. The Alaskan wilderness is filled with tales of lone wolves and rogue bears, but there has been no evidence of a single muskox which survived while living apart from its herd.

The muskoxen are herbivores, feeding on sedges, grasses, lichen, and willows. Since green plants are only available in the arctic for a brief few months each year, the herd must paw through the frozen snow to feed on dried grasses that remain underneath. Often, the arctic ground is filled with craters where the larger bulls have broken through the snow with their hooves or, if needed, with their heads, to forage. Even under starvation conditions, musk ox will not eat meat or fish – and for the muskoxen, winter starvation has visited the herd often.

Late winter and early spring are critical times for the herd's survival: in spring, fat reserves are low after the long winter and, even in winter, such factors as worn teeth, old age, parasitic infection, and unusually fierce storms may force the herd, or much of it, into starvation.

All of this affects the mortality rate of the herd's offspring. Muskox females generally bear their first young at the age of three, living in "harems" of other females who are all under the protection of a dominant bull. The mating season in August and September means that the 8-month gestation ends sometime in mid-to- late April. By then, a hard winter and lack of food may have put the mother and her unborn calf at risk.

When time comes to give birth to the offspring – typically one calf – the female separates herself from the herd. This is dangerous, since it means the mother and the infant are susceptible to predators. But within a few hours of being born, all else being equal, the infant is able to suckle, to stand on its own, to eat grass, and to follow its mother back to the herd where it will have a few months of available food and milk, as well as the protective attention of the mother and the herd.

The Fatal Flaw

Every heroic tale I have ever heard or read turns around a single strength of the hero which, in the end, also becomes his fatal flaw: the thing which makes him great is also the very means of his undoing. The muskox is no different. The story of muskox survival is that it beat the odds in predation for so long because of its instinct to "close ranks" when danger approached. The herd, sensing encroachment or an attack, formed a stationary line facing the predator and then backed into a circle, or semi-circle where the rumps touched. Protected inside the circled herd were the young. If wolves or a bear came close, the agitated muskoxen would stomp and roar, and the dominant males often were seen rubbing their heads against their forelegs: a gesture that both warned the herd of imminent danger and also terrified the approaching predator.

The muskoxen, both males and females, would leave the circle only to rush at the attacker, often driving the predator away with a show of united aggression. If the predator got close enough or lucky enough to fatally-wound a musk ox, the herd would instinctively move to enclose that dying, or dead, one in the circle. The herd never leaves one of its own to be taken or eaten. That behavior has an almost-sacred primacy in the social order of the herd. Because of this – because muskoxen never left one of their own to the mercies of the predator and would fight to the death to insure it remained untouched or uneaten – they often simply wore out their predators who gave up, limping off in search of prey that was simpler to take down, one more likely to be terrified into scattering, a prey who would more likely let one of their own be "sacrificed" in order to save themselves.

But their story doesn't end happily. Not here anyway. The very strength of the herd – that ability to form a unified front, a tight line, which protects the young, and to stand against its natural predators – was the very behavior that made it more susceptible to its rifle-bearing predators. In the 1850s, whalers and trappers slaughtered whole herds of muskoxen, down to their young, in order to obtain the meat and skins they wanted. It wasn't simply a matter of being greedy, of trying to take that many animals at once; it was just that, as long as even one beast stood against them, they could not get close enough to gather their kill.

By the late 1800s, the muskox was extirpated in Alaska, disappearing here as it had earlier in Asia and Europe; its numbers were also declining in Canada and Greenland by the early 20th century. The muskox was moving, like other Paleolithic beasts had thousands of years ago, into world-wide extinction.

A Post Script to the Story:

In 1930, 34 muskoxen in Greenland were captured and moved to Fairbanks, Alaska. Once there, however, the herd was troubled by disease, by high infant mortality, and by general bad health. So in 1935 and 1936, all survivors and their calves were transported to Nunivak Island and released. Nunivak Island is a permafrost-covered volcanic island: tundra spotted with dwarf willow trees. More than 40 rivers drain the tundra upland. Brackish lagoons ring the eastern and southern shores, and steep volcanic cliffs dominate the northwestern shores. It seemed a perfect environment for the muskox, but a mysterious virus continued to plague the herd for many years. In 1979, Dr. Robert White isolated 16 muskoxen on Nunivak Island and flew them to Fairbanks where they were quarantined for a year in order to determine that the virus was no longer viable. They, and their successive offspring, settled into the Farm on Yankovich Road – 134 acres of homestead land donated by Mike Yankovich – where they became a part of the "muskox domestication program" conducted by the Large Animal Research Station, funded in part by a 1979 grant of $411,000 from the National Science Foundation for Polar Programs.

Even so, the muskox may not have continued its steady return from extinction had it not been for an ingenious idea by anthropologist John J. Teal, in 1964, an idea to "marry" the on-going well-being of the muskox to the Native Alaskans of the state's poorest coastal villages. A cooperative made up of 250 women knitters from these villages spins and knits the qiviut into scarves, smoke-rings, and hats, which they then sell on the open market. Because of the warmth of the qiviut and the beautiful texture – superior to that of silk or cashmere – the knitted goods bring in top dollar prices on the world-wide market and the money from the sales is returned directly to the villagers who support themselves with the revenue.

"Most of the animals [at LARS], except muskox, are tame and therefore extremely useful in nutritional, metabolic, physiological, and behavioral studies."
- Large Animal Research Station website

Even in captivity, it seems, the muskox resists "domestication." Even in captivity, something in the muskox resists "being extremely useful" for the studies of others, even the most well-intended others.

Saying Farewell:

Just as the sun is setting behind the treeline, just as the field grows shadowy, I spot something in the distance, something dark moving through the ice-fog. They are just far enough out that I can't quite make out the details of whether they are male or female or some mix of the two but, given their large size and humped shoulders, they are, clearly, muskoxen: three of them moving across the field towards something only they can see.

In this brief moment, the exhaustion and the cold fall away, as does the sense of impending disappointment that has been building in me for six days. My heart shudders in my chest and it is difficult to breathe. I push my numbed, gloved fingers through the fence to steady myself long enough to watch them move over the far rise, passing into the thick fog again and disappearing, flickering in and out like ghosts, like apparitions from some ancient time.

I feel tonight much as I did ten years ago when the muskoxen first lumbered into view: as if I have seen something that visits a human life only occasionally, something that goes on, as always, keeping to its own ways which are not my ways or yours, something so wholly itself and separate from me – like love or God – that I cannot fathom it, something that could both do me in and could save me somehow. And maybe that is the beast's best gift: that we – who are a people who so need certitude and assurances and guarantees before we invest any part of ourselves in anything or anyone – cannot know which of those two, at any given moment, it will be.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Day Five: "Where The Wild Things Are (Still)"

Wary-eyed mother, watching over her infant, 2009
Mother and baby walking together at LARS - 2009
Mother & infant, taking a rest, LARS - 2009

Day Four, 2009 - evening:

No muskox made an appearance at the farm again today. I stood out at the road's edge for as long as I could bear the sub-zero temperature and, again this morning, nothing moved in that field except the wind. I begin to despair that I won't see them on this trip. I leave tomorrow night on the red-eye flight home to Pennsylvania and it will be summer when next I return to Alaska. To see the muskox then, I'll have to stand with the crowds of tourists at the fence, all taking photos of the distant beasts grazing in the green fields or staying in the shadows of the boreal forest that borders the farm. Visitors will be brought in by the busload and van-load during the summer months, and there will be noise and chatter and pleasantries and the strong attar of Cutter's mosquito spray. A summer visit to the muskox won't be what a winter visit will be.

Photos on the LARS website today show three new muskox babies born in April to the dams that staff members affectionately call Yakutia, Ravn, and Jalapeño. These photos of their new babies must have been taken earlier, sometime in August maybe. By September, there would have been less green foliage on the ground, maybe even a dusting of snow, and certainly less strong daylight.

Within forty-five minutes of their births late last April, the babies would have been standing on their own and nursing. They'd have been handled, weighed, and checked over thoroughly by the staff of the farm who would have been careful in their examinations, making certain the newborns were "viable" and thriving. If needed, medicine would have been given, and vitamins. All three of this year's babies had weighed in between 18 pounds and 21 pounds, and they'd all seemed hardy. The staff at LARS would have been particularly diligent about caring for those babies, about making certain they were well and thriving. Not one of them can bear even the thought of another winter of grieving mothers.


Big babies, all three of them, and yet so babyish, so sweet-faced, looking up at the camera while their wary-eyed mothers watch the photographer for any signs the baby might be in danger. It is easy to be smitten with affection for the big-eyed, softly-furred babies; it is also easy to be smitten with affection for the muskox mothers who are tender and attentive, and always watching the crowd, wary of strangers, of humans in general, when the babies are outside with them. They look, to me, much like human mothers look after giving birth to their young: an odd mix of tenderness and latent ferocity.

They may be domesticated, these muskox, but they are not domesticated in the way cows or sheep or goats are domesticated. They have a deep vein of ancient wildness running in them, something that does not easily tame or give over to human notions of what it takes to survive. They are reluctant participants in this domestication project. They do not trust humans. They are uncomfortable too with people, even with those who tend them and feed them and watch over them at LARS. No wonder, given their history. . . .

Continuation: Day Five, 2009

Today is my last chance to see the muskox. I am being brave about the possibility that they will not appear again, that I will be hanging there, at the edge of that fence, knee-deep in snowdrifts, waiting for something that came to me once but which does not come again when I need or want it most. It's a wretched day: -13 degrees and sunny enough to melt the top layer of snow into a hard crust of ice. "Back-breakers" is what we used to call days like this when I lived and worked here. Back-breakers. Pelvic-busters. Spine-shatterers. Even when we strapped the ice-grippers onto our boots, we knew they weren't sufficient to keep us intact if we took that spill on solid ice. We held onto cars and to rails and to each other, whatever was available. If one seemed to slip or stumble though, we let go. That was the rule. Better only one go down hard than the whole group end up busted to pieces and in traction or surgery.

To console myself today, in the face of what is looking like inevitable disappointment, I am going over what I know of muskox and their long history in the arctic and with humans. It's a story I know well enough by now. I'm holding to it today like a child holds to a story when he's lost in the woods. It may not end happily-ever-after but, even as children, we'd mostly known that part of any story was untrue. I hold to that story today, and tell it to the waitress in my favorite local restaurant – The Bakery – where I have come to warm up and have my morning cup. I have known her for many years now, that waitress, and I have come here, this morning, to say hello to her again – and to say farewell to her again.

I know it could be otherwise: I could come here one day expecting to see her moving from table to table, smiling, chatting up the regulars, making a fuss over their children and babies. I don't know her last name or where she lives. This restaurant where she works is our only meeting-ground. She is accustomed by now to my fickle comings and goings. Still, she greets me with that bear hug that sends the air rushing from my lungs. Still she brings me, without asking, hot coffee and two little bowls of half-and-half creamers because she remembers I like my coffee sweet with lots of cream.

We play the same game we always play: she asks when I'm coming back to stay. I say, Who knows? Maybe one day. Maybe not. She says, you gonna tell me that story about the muskox again sometime? I nod and say, Sure. Anytime. When's your break?

But she can't afford a break, not with work like this. Not with the measly tips I see on the tables here: pocket change. A few silver coins. Big meals. Big appetites. Small tips.

So I look beyond the almost-daily injustice of her job and the bone-weary exhaustion she must endure in her work, and she stands there smiling down at me at the table's edge, holding her near-empty pot of coffee, listening to the story I tell as if she's not heard it fifty times already over the past eleven years, and she listens again as if it's the most astonishing thing she's ever heard. That's how I tell it here again for you, for her, as if it were a new story and I am telling it for the first time. . . .

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Day Four: "Where The Wild Things Are (Still)"

Day Four:

This morning, I am planning another drive out to Yankovich Road, to the Muskox Farm of the Large Animal Research Station (LARS). I drove out yesterday at dusk, but there was only the empty white field and the zero-degree cold. Nothing broke the deep silence there except a few ravens quarreling with each other.

I've been hearing, for some years now, that the muskox babies had been foundering, some stillborn or dying shortly after birth. The mothers grieved hard and long and would not eat and would not be consoled. There had also been an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease earlier that had threatened to deplete the herd. Lately, I've heard rumors of some kind of intestinal or stomach malady that was causing terrible wasting in the full-grown animals and failure-to-thrive in the young. But this is all hearsay. I have come to see for myself how they are, IF they still are. What I know of muskox, of their herd ways, does not tell me how they will fare as domesticated animals. I sometimes suspect that being "domesticated" may be what is doing them in, the way I sometimes think that being "domesticated" has felt like an undoing for me, but that may be only my unusually-high sense of drama rather than anything based in fact.


On the final morning of the campus interview in 1999, I'd been given a bit of time to myself. I had been offered the position at the university that morning and I was "thinking about it." To take this job would mean a drop in salary and a move across the continent – far from family and friends – and the university would only partially pay for the move northwest. I would move from a 1/1 teaching load to a 3/2 teaching load. The new position, I was reminded by the department head, would also offer full medical benefits and retirement options - both of which I already had under my husband's employment benefits. But none of that seemed significant enough to make me hesitate. Something was "off," though; I could feel it, even if I couldn't name it.

As it turned out, when the offer had come, I wasn't certain enough anymore to just shake on the deal, to accept the position. As it turned out, I'd need some time to consider the offer. I'd told the department head this and he'd seemed surprised.

In truth, it had surprised me too. I'd always half-believed in the old romantic notion that I was setting off purposefully for something, and that I would embrace it when it came to me, whatever "it" was, particularly if the "it" happened to be something filled with unusual opportunity as this job and its move to the arctic would be.

I had always lived my life by going full-throttle, headlong into whatever opportunity had presented itself, wildly wanting to pursue the unfettered, unshackled life. . . or at least the kind of life that hadn't chained itself to a job and a house in lieu of the world's mysteries and adventures. This kind of opportunity was what I'd been longing for, something extraordinary that opened to a woman who'd been living an ordinary life in middle America.

So why was I hesitating? What, about this place, this job, this offer had not moved me sufficiently that I was ready to throw everything to the wind and move off to the far edge of the continent, far from the literary life I enjoyed and far from my family and friends? My sudden lack of commitment that morning was perplexing so I decided to distract myself by heading across campus to the library, to do a little research on those muskox.

And that, according to some, was MY undoing, maybe, that first tentative step towards knowing. For me, such moments are always a bit like running into an interesting-looking fellow in a sidewalk café in a strange city where you're vacationing or working. He smiles. You smile back. You say good morning. He nods and says, It IS a good morning, isn't it? A few days later, you're sharing a table at that coffee shop, calling each other by name, him ordering your morning cup of coffee so it's there when you arrive, weary from a late night's work and feeling in need of caffeine. One day, you say you're from the Deep South; he says he's from New England. You ask about snow; he asks about swamps. Then you hear about his blind sister; he hears about your missing brother. There are sad stories and heartaches in everyone's life, you decide, but his life has had its particular heartbreaks and you are curiously moved by them, and by him.

Thus begins the heart's thaw.

Next, there's a trip with him to his hometown, to the steel-mill community where everyone knows him still and calls him "Buddy;" then he goes with you to Louisiana, to find again the sagging house where you had been a little girl, to that town where the only thing that recognizes you now is the crumbling brick of the fallen chimney. He helps you find that old clapboard house where you woke each morning to the summery-rot fragrance of the magnolia tree and fell asleep each night listening to your grandmother and her sisters telling the family secrets to each other in the little parlor across the hall.

You admire his joy; he sees your sorrow. Then, almost before you know what's happening, the two of you are standing in a candlelit church and saying I do, even if you aren't certain just what it is you – or he – will do before you're done with each other.

That's a bit how it goes in my life, with men AND with knowing. I'm drawn to them both, a moth to her flames. And it is always the story of each which, strangely, draws me in; the story fixes them for a moment so I can see them for what they are, not for what I want them to be or imagine them to be because, let's face it, I am a woman who lets my imagination take the reins quite often. It is the wild, dark horse that sends me galloping towards the precipice and, if I let that horse run too wild too often, it will take us both into the abyss. I'll mistake the dream, the imagining, for the life and, in doing so, will miss the life entirely.


My grandmother Fleecy used to warn me: "Linger too long in Babylon, girl, and you'll forget who you were in the wilderness." Maybe I needed a reminder that morning of who I was in the wilderness, to just forget that dream of who-I-might-be in the brightly-lit Babylon of a new job, or a new "adventure," or wanting to be thought of as a woman of "intelligence" rather than a woman of imagination. Maybe I wanted a reminder. It certainly felt like I needed something that morning, but I could not, at that moment, have told you what the "something" was that I needed so much. I had that tar-pit, deep-swamp feeling in me: I was probably going to turn the job down, to stay with the life I knew, the safe, predictable smallish life that at least afforded me the luxury of having little anxiety even if it didn't offer me much in the way of anything else. It would be awkward to turn down a job I'd worked so embarrassingly hard to win, but that was my inclination. In the meantime, I'd fill the remaining hours with a little research: that old safety-net of the awkwardly-socialized person, that talisman to ward off the kind of thinking that comes to me when I am deeply and utterly alone and a little untethered.

That final morning in the university library, what I'd begun to think of as a closing door suddenly swung wide on its hinge. I went looking, "following my gut," as my people put it, when I might as easily have just tended to the business at hand, when I might have, just for once in my life, tended to the more practical bread-and-butter needs of my life for once. In doing that, I might have gone blithely on imagining what I wanted and never really have known it. And the double-edged blade of knowing is that once I know something, it's impossible to un-know it ever again. It begins to exert a certain influence on me.

And what I knew in that library, that morning was this: their story is my story. Or it is at least close enough that it resembles something that I've come to think of as "my story."

I had been about to put down stakes on a tract-home in Babylon rather than staking out a homestead in the wilderness. I'd gone to Alaska looking for a job instead of a way of life, of living. I had been almost-seduced into believing I should aspire to be something other than the ordinary woman I was: a woman in love with words, with stories; a writer interested as hell in people and how they are – we are - all the funny, quirky ways in which we can be good-hearted AND wrong-headed; I'd been about to take a seat at the banquet-table among enemies rather than enjoying the bread of contentment with a good book. I was someone might feel more at home in the wilderness with the wild locusts and honey. I'd almost thrown the baby out and kept the bathwater. There was so much I hadn't seen, of myself, of what was possible. And there, in those pages, I was locked in again to the fury and the glory of a story – those muskoxen's story – to that enduring and relentless tale of what is almost slaughtered and then, miraculously, survives – some remnant of it anyway – long enough to make its slow way back from the brink, back from that precipice we call Extinction. . .

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Day Three: "Where The Wild Things Are (Still)"

Muskox in winter

Day Three

When I rise this morning, there is fresh coffee in my friend's kitchen, and cream in the refrigerator. The house is warm and the bed is comfortable and there are beautiful quilts to sleep under at night if the house gets chilly. From every window, I can see trees and treetops - birches and tall spruce - and the snow is white and sparkling in the early sun. I am remembering, this morning, my first visit to Fairbanks and I have decided that having a good friend with a spare bedroom is an asset when you come to visit this town. My friend, Lillian, is known as "Dr. Corti" at the university, though she retired this past year. When we taught together, our offices were next door to each other. I could smell the tea steeping in her hot pot each afternoon. She could hear my music through the wall. We'd worked together, alongside each other, much the way women have since they entered the halls of academia years ago – though not so terribly long ago that we aren't still a minority there – and have been glad for each other's company in a place almost wholly-run by men.

What can I say here that won't get me into trouble or sound like some kind of petty stereotyping of men? Men, by nature and by nurture, are accustomed to quarrelling and bellowing and threatening, trying to bully their way – or argue their way – into the alpha-male position. It's how they've come to understand the world, and the workplace, even in academia, is a microcosm of that larger world. They have had years to get very good at what they do. It is their "club" after all. And while I like to think I can "fence" with the best of them, I confess that I often prefer the easy quietude – and the certitude – of my female colleagues. I enjoy their laughter and the way they seem not to forever be competing with each other. I admire the way they make, of their offices, a comfortable space for themselves and the students who come to see them.

Of course, there are always exceptions to these example of ambitious and overbearing men: I'm thinking, in particular, of my colleagues Dr. Mark Box and Dr. Burns Cooper, both of whom are unassuming, intelligent men with inviting offices, both of whom manage to be inspired teachers, impeccable researchers/scholars, and both of whom have a moral integrity that is rivaled by none. And haven't we all, by now, seen faculty professors who are women who are also ill-behaved?

In the earliest years of my time at UAF, when I was just "tenure-track" and not yet tenured, Lillian was one of my favorite people, as a colleague and as a friend. She still is. And she had been one of two women who had been charged with "entertaining" me on that second cold afternoon ten years ago while others had gone off to teach their classes.


The three days of my campus interview visit in 1999 were a whirlwind of activity as I was handed off from one small group of faculty members to graduate writers to the next group of faculty hosts. There was, I discovered quickly, more than just a polite question-and-answer interview process for candidates hoping to teach in this program. The potential hire had to be "hardy," undaunted by the long months of darkness and the weeks of sub-zero temperatures. We three finalists – all women – were being "tested" by the climate and the conditions and the hectic pace. If any one of those overwhelmed us, if we showed any weakness or distaste for the "far-north life," the job wouldn't be offered; it would go to someone hardier. Most of us knew that early in the campus interview.

I had certainly figured out that the new poet would have to "hold her own" and stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the scholars and critics who made up the majority of the faculty in the English Department. So what if I had a book out? So what if I'd had two prestigious fellowships in poetry? Big deal, that I had a terminal degree. What they wanted to see was that I knew the tradition out of which I came, the one in which I wrote. . .and, if I was fortunate, out of which I would teach. There would be no "faking it" with these scholars: know the theory; know the terminology and use it. Relentlessly. Be clear about what your specialty is. Respect others' fields of study and expertise. Know your place.

It was the work-place, real-world version of the instruction I was given as a girl growing up in the deep South: Speak only when you are spoken to. Otherwise, silence. And for heaven's sake, smile. But not too much. You don't want them to think you're dim-witted. Or needy. Stop wearing your heart on your sleeve. Keep your personal life and tastes to yourself; let the mystery prevail.

So what if, by the time you've come and gone again from anywhere, no one can claim to have known you? So what if you are near-invisible no matter where you go? What if you feel most alone on a city street full of people and less alone in a wilderness? So what if you must console yourself all winter and spring with your work: student papers and graduate theses and lesson plans? So what if you end up serving on endless committees and putting together a tenure file instead of writing and having a life in the larger world as you'd imagined you'd be living? And what if your writing gets sidelined again and again because you've spent all your creative energy on student work?

Again and again over the years, I have asked myself if they were worth it, those wild beasts I'd come face-to-face with at the roadside on that interview visit? Were they worth the five years of endless student conferences and classes and meetings and committees and readings and pot-luck dinners. Did they provide a balance for me, somehow, those beasts I saw for the first time when I stood boot-deep in a snow-bank and watched them lumber out of the ice-fog towards the fence that separated me from them? What did they see in me that humans hadn't, that I hadn't? Or did they just sense another kind of beast in me, something a little reckless and fenced-in like they were, some part of me that needed to be brought back from the brink of extinction? What made me think they had come that morning, stepping out of some more ancient age, to meet me at that roadside?

To hear the caretaker's version of the "attraction" between the beasts and me that afternoon, it was an old physiological drive that sent them grunting and huffing and lumbering towards Lillian and Renee and me. He'd heard them rutting and had come out to warn us.

Back away, he'd said quietly. Don't do anything sudden. They're agitated. I'll be out in a minute.

We did as he said, backing off to what we thought of as a safe distance from the fence that separated them from us. When he joined us there at the roadside, he'd watched them as he questioned us about what might have agitated them. No, we hadn't talked to them or thrown anything. No, we didn't have food. No, we hadn't shaken the fence.

Finally he asked, Are one of you menstruating?

Lillian shook her head vehemently and said she was beyond all that now. Renee laughed loudly and said she wasn't "beyond it" yet but she wasn't having her period now. That left me. I nodded and sighed.

Me. It's me.

I'd been standing among them all, barely listening to the conversation, surprised and a little pleased that a man had said the word "menstruating" without getting squirmy and uncomfortable. I thought it probably had something to do with him being a biologist. Biologists tend to prefer accurate terminology over the less-accurate euphemisms others use like, "being on the rag" or "wearing my cousin's red dress" or "falling off the roof" or even "having that time of the month."

The young man went on then, nodding in the direction of the muskox, speaking to me: That big fellow nearest the fence – all that huffing and snorting and rearing his head – that's mating behavior. Courtship is what that is. He "wants" you.

Mating behavior? Courtship? Wants me?

I felt my neck get warm, then my face, and I knew it for what it was: I was blushing. Brightly. Just as I had in my childhood, wearing my embarrassment on my face. But neither of the two women I was with seemed to notice or care. They were laughing. All the way back through the snowy ditch, through the drifts at the roadside, back to the car, the two women laughed and repeated the tale. . .and I was pretty certain they'd be repeating it later to the rest of the department too. I imagined the tale being told in the conference room later that afternoon as they gathered to decide which of the three finalists would be a better "fit" for the department. And I imagined the laughter all around the table. I'd be forever known there as the candidate courted by a muskox. A real arctic romance tale: shy little Southerner comes to Alaska and the beasts go into rut. So much for making a good impression. So much for being silent and letting the mystery prevail. . . .