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. . .