Prison

Last week I listened to an excellent Snap Judgment episode about the Covid-19 outbreak at San Quentin prison. Listening to the inmantes speak about their conditions and the impossibility of preventing the spread of C-19 in that setting was heartbreaking, and it whipped me back to a field trip I took in college as part of a sociology course on crime and punishment. The course was excellent. (I think it might have been called Deviance and Social Control or something similar?) On our reading list for the semester was Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the general thrust of which haunts me to this day even if I can’t recall any of its specifics. What sticks with me was that the exploration of how we attempt to discipline the “criminal” mind through the architectural structures in which we cage the human body.

Prisons in New York State, per a Google Maps search on July 30, 2020.

More haunting than the book, though, was our field trip to two New York State prisons. I’m not sure which prisons they were. I’ve looked on Google Maps and there are so many prisons in the state that I can’t figure it out. But one was a maximum security prison and one a medium security prison. Again, it was so long in the past that specifics of the visits have escaped me. But two images, or impressions, registered on me with such sickening clarity that I will never shake them.

The first was in the maximum security prison. We were somehow able to actually go into the prison. I don’t know if this is still possible to do, but at that time it was. The image that is seared in my mind is of coming around the corner in this gray, miserable hallway, to be shown one of the cells. The cell was on the righthand side of the hall, and it was unbelievably tiny—barely larger than the bathroom in my 80-year-old house. Two men lived in it, caged up, locked in. That was disturbing and sickening and made no sense to me, in terms of what benefit that might offer society. But what struck me profoundly was the line of young, Black men who were being walked down the hallway from one point to another. (Work to mess hall? Showers to their prison block?) These men were practically children, my age or perhaps a little older. Every single incarcerated person I saw in that prison that day was a Black or brown man. And I remember thinking, there but for the grace of God go I—and by that grace, I meant and mean, the cosmic coin flip of being born “white” in a nation that subjects the bodies and cultures of men and women of color to extremes of policing and prosecution and imprisonment and destruction.

The second searing impression was in the medium security prison, where the inmates all slept in bunkbeds in a giant room, similar to a school gym or a National Guard armory. There were probably 100 men sleeping in that space, and I remember that our professor had shared with us that the rates of HIV infection were in the double-digits in the facility. (This was the late 1990s, when HIV was still a likely death sentence.) And I remember thinking how many of these young men in that un-surveillable giant room ran an incredibly high risk of sexual assault and being infected as the punishment for their “crimes.” These were crimes, I knew, that I and my fellow students of privilege committed regularly, like buying, selling and smoking weed. HIV for smoking weed. It was unthinkable.

That class forever shaped my views on incarceration and criminality. But that day, specifically, made an overwhelmingly giant impression on me. The immorality and inhumanity of the systems of incarceration was so clear.

Listening to the San Quentin story brought me back to that day. It gave me opportunity to reflect on how much of my views on policing, the criminal “justice” system, sentencing laws, bail requirements, enfranchisement or disenfranchisement of felons, and much more, were informed by that class and that experience. That, in my view, is what an education is good for.

Ego and the Cataclysm

I spent some time over breakfast cutting up a couple of Astronomy magazines. I’d found them in the Little Free Library up the street. I’m always on the hunt for magazines that can be transformed into fodder for my collage work. In the past I’ve found that (small-“a”) astronomy magazines are great for this. The colors, the *BANG,* the cosmos scale of it all. Just perfect.

My clipping from this morning.

Yesterday I cut up some old Dwell magazines. God I love Dwell, but also nowhere is there a more glossy temple to white privilege than exists in those pages. So, it will be good to mix them in with some universe-scale evidence of how inconsequential and banal we all are.

Astronomy is a really wonderful, oddly tactile alternative to Dwell. First, for the tactile aspect: Astronomy is printed on crappy paper that falls apart when you turn the pages; but you nevertheless know that these magazines will hold up over years in toilet-side baskets and in outhouses in some remote-ass places. Second, the low quality printing signals that this is a magazine that is absolutely imperative to the world. The publishers aren’t going to let their access to gloss and fancy advertisers hold up the import of getting this information into the hands of hungry backyard astronomers everywhere. Third, while both magazines would nominally seem to be about the search for the sublime, Dwell’s pursuit represents something extremely egocentric, exclusive, and destructive (inasmuch as all consumer fetishism is necessarily destructive on this limited planet of ours). Astronomy, on the other hand, seeks to situate us in a gigantic universe whose truth renders us utterly inconsequential. And it is that initiation that is sublime, and also so accessible to readers everywhere.

As often happens, the subject matter of my morning deconstructions coincidentally (or providentially: I let you choose) spilled into the next morning activity, reading Maria Popova’s weekly email letter, Brainpickings, which this week featured a lovely book called The Stuff of Stars.

Popova’s missive also included writings on 19th century Nantucket resident Maria Mitchell and her friendship with Frederick Douglass. From there I was carried on to her Universe in Prose project (which of course has a 2020 pandemic version available to all via her Vimeo channel), and from there to a beautiful reading by Roseanne Cash of a most beautiful poem by Lisel Mueller called Drawings by Children. I watched it twice with Auggie, and I wept. I tried to hide it from him, but no go. “Are you sad, Mama?” (Dammit, this kid nails me with that question nearly daily. He’s so damn right.)

Sometimes Popova’s writing is too much for me. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to follow her star-explosion thought processes, or I feel crushed by her intellect. And then sometimes she is exactly the thing that I need. The hunger and the million-thread curiosity that her writing and curating represents humbles me. Would that I could construct a universe of understanding and tangled meaning so beautifully.

The morning was capped by coffee on the porch with a dear friend and decade-long companion in the life raft of waking up to our absurd and tragic world. In our conversation I returned again and again to the reality that we are absolutely insignificant, and that we are called daily to service. Then the podcast I listened to while making lunch as Auggie fell asleep continued that theme this way:

“The humility is that you, an individual person, aren’t going to change the world in a day or even a lifetime. This is so much bigger than you. And at the same time each person needs to show up.”

CTZN Podcast with Layla F. Saad, February 25, 2020. (Transcript on page.)

And now, in this moment, my little boy sleeps soundly and I get to write, to read, and to think in the company of this absurd cat. On this day, as the world burns down around our shoulders and the universe expands at an incomprehensible rate, I can say: life is good.

The Boys Rode Bikes

The boys rode bikes today. Letting this happen takes a tremendous effort in letting go. There are all of the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that run in the head. And then there’s the simplicity of three 2- and 3-year olds learning to accelerate and careen. Learning that wind makes their hair blow when they go even faster. Learning what it feels like to be part of a pack. The contrast in experience for them utterly joyful, and so natural, even after all these months–these not-insignificant percentages of their lives–gone by. A delicious two hours of completely normal boyhood.

I could feel my body relaxing.

It’s such a relief to see the normalcy.

Their return, if fleeting, to normal takes place against the backdrop of Juneteenth. I will confess to be one of the white Americans who had no idea that Juneteenth existed. I’m glad to know of it now. In this complicated moment I’m glad for anything I can learn that can guide me to be of better service in the world. My view is so appallingly narrow. But I see and accept the privileged grounds on which I build my life and that of my son, and it’s not acceptable to do nothing, or the near-to-nothing I’ve been doing for all of my life up until now.

This interview between Krista Tippett and Resmaa Menakem laid down some solid guidance for a starting point.

… White people, don’t look for a black guru. Don’t look for an Indigenous guru. Find other white people, and start creating a container by which you can begin to work race specifically; not race in this and race in that and break bread together and do all that — not that; not a book club. You specifically deal with the embodiment of race and the energy that’s stored with that.

Resmaa Menakem, Notice the Rage on OnBeing

I have his book on order, and while I recognize that we can’t just solve this problem intellectually, I also know I have to start somewhere.

All of the overlapping confusions and pains and intensity of this moment conspire to undermine the beauty of today. But I also cannot let that be. My little one deserves the gift of joy in wheeled flight. And I, his mother, can be allowed to love that moment. To adore him unendingly, and weep when I hold him in my arms for the sheer magnificence of his little being. I also must recall in every moment the love that every mother has for every magnificent, perfect child. I must learn to do whatever I can to make sure the losses and griefs we experience are those of Life, and not those of an oppressing heel–or knee–stepping on our children’s necks.

The Places They Call “Home”

Salmon is our most bountiful wild food source, and we think of them as coming “home” when they return to the streams where we harvest them. But they are at home throughout their range—in the places where they live their seasons of adulthood as well as they gravel where they emerge or the splashing pools where they finally fall away. The challenge of loving the salmon who come home to the place where we wait for them is that we forget about all the parts of their lives that they spend away. They are at home in all those places and they live in all the places throughout their range. We often connect our desire to act—to protect them—to the place where they come “home.” But the home that they need is everywhere where they live.

Baby coho salmon, while still smaller than the size of a pinky finger, spread out over great ranges, sometimes transiting miles or even tens of miles in this juvenile stage. If we imagine them to need only those streams where they have spawned, we miss the enormous complexity of the watery lands that support them. Any Alaskan child who has walked, eyes down, through a forest or field, will have seen these tiny “minnows” flitting about in the shadow of creekside grass, or moving through the dappled light in the rivulet of a stream passing beneath a cottonwood tree. These are the homes of our salmon. These swampy places are no less important than the shallow streambed where we saw the parent generation spawn and die.

We grow frustrated when we attempt to take steps to safeguard our salmon, only to find that our actions in our backyards or in our boroughs or in our watershed don’t seem to be enough. We learn about and focus our efforts on stream bank restoration, for example, but we find that climate change is taking bites out of our fish faster than we can act to restore them. We temper our own harvest, taking only what we need so nothing remains in our freezer at year’s end; but we know that others downstream from us or out in the marine system are harvesting in numbers that surpass our own impact. The feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming. Our individual actions feels insignificant against the 1,000 cuts that strike at our fish.

The salmon is a microcosmic example of our entire global system. Everything in the world around us is spinning faster and faster; our impacts are spiraling out around us. Our desire to rein things in, or to find something sane in the whirl of the storm, feels more and more unattainable, even as we reach for it. 

Our systems are so large, so all-encompassing. Words printed in books of law are meant to encompass the circumstances in a brackish estuary tucked alongside the highway in the Mat-Su, at the same time they are meant to govern the clear-running waters of a snow-fed Kodiak river, or the wide exhale of the Kuskokwim as it drains marsh and grassland and creek for tens of millions of acres of watery land. 

Where do we start amidst all this confusion?

One possible answer, one tiny piece of the puzzle: must reach out and touch our local elected officials. We must ask them to go to their work with our values in mind. These values of family, of land, of the import of the whole system, not just the too-visible places.

Resource Constraint and the Future of Salmon

An important dynamic in Alaska’s salmon system at this time is resource constraint. Alaska’s state budget has been trending steadily downward for a number of years, and state oil revenues and the political climate make it likely that downward pressure will remain. Hundreds of million of dollars in general fund budget cuts occurred in the most recent state budget, with the effect being felt at the level of agencies and their programs—including many that are tied to the use of salmon by the people of Alaska and beyond. These limitations will play out in many arenas, including fishery management, the research that supports that management, and work by the University of Alaska that supports the fishery resource. Smaller but not insignificant programs around outreach, education and use of the resource will also face cuts. 

It’s unlikely that the resource constraints facing Alaska will see a significant course correction any time in the future. The availability of dollars in Alaska is inexorably tied to the amount of oil flowing down the TransAlaska Pipeline. That flow has reliably trended downward since the late 1980s, with small upticks in some recent years. Alaska’s population, meantime, has increased by more than 34% during the same time, meaning that each barrel of oil must cover expenses tied to that many more people. 

At the same time, the research and management regimes that support the harvest of salmon in Alaska have grown, understandably, more and more complex. I say understandably because the instinct to add to the knowledge base is completely consistent with the effort to safeguard the resource. More data points, more fidelity in that data, more places of observation and more robust understanding of the complexities of the fish and their harvest—all of these would seem to point toward better stewardship of the resource. (We could pause and spend some time wondering about the veracity of that thesis, but for now we’ll take the instinct toward greater knowledge to be consistent with more attentive resource stewardship.)

But here’s a truth we are likely to have to face: resources will be fewer than they are today. So what does that mean, when it comes to prioritization and advocacy? Will we advocate for salmon over K-12 education? Will we prejudice renewable resource maintenance over new resource development? Will we do the math correctly when weighing cost and benefit?

And can we learn to manage our salmon with fewer inputs than we have today? What will we relinquish, while still making wise choices in our stewardship?

The Right to Sustain Ourselves

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time trying to jumpstart my own thinking on the future of salmon in Alaska. My goal is to distill the insights and relationships I’ve built over nearly seven years of working with The Salmon Project, to glean some clues about the work of the next seven years, or perhaps the next seven generations.

At this point in my process I still feel stuck. What I’ve taken away from our work feels both insignificant and overwhelmingly large. Sometimes I feel as if we uncovered an entire universe of meaning and connections—things about the Salmon Life and the critical importance of the practice of resource harvest to the wellbeing of Alaskans. Other times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the system that has wrapped itself around our salmon in this state. I question whether a path forward can, in fact, be discerned, let alone acted upon.

Another reason for my stuck-ness, I think, is how difficult it is to set salmon on its own platform, as if it existed independent from other things. It doesn’t, of course, and the “other things” feel like they’re reaching into all arenas in this moment in time.

There are, of course, the mega other things, like climate change and the breakdown of civil society, both in our country and beyond. Then there are the more proximate other things, like the current political climate in Alaska, and the rapid deconstruction of institutions that play roles, critical or otherwise, in the system we’ve developed around salmon.

It doesn’t feel possible to talk about salmon and its next steps without wrapping in these other things. And I think this is because, to me, salmon is about the durability of our humanity. That is, I draw a direct line between our ability as Alaskans to harvest salmon, and our ability to sustain our families. This is sustaining in a most literal sense, as in food on our tables and in our larders. But this is also sustaining as a means for remaining whole in spirit and cultures. I don’t mean the latter in a “woo-woo” way, and I am aware that that language, itself, can act as a turnoff to many a reader. I mean it as a mechanism for maintaining family bonds, family unity, community unity—all things that I think are going to be critical in whatever times are coming.

The ongoing Alaskan bond with salmon is a unique and powerful tie—one that keeps us closer to the land and closer to a value set that somehow I shorthand as “traditional.” Or perhaps “conservative” with a small “c.” When I think about the what’s next of salmon, to me it’s a sense, or lack thereof, of people being able to sustain themselves in times of lesser plenty.

Harder times will come to Alaska. These hard times can arrive in many ways—via economic and political blundering, or via the changes in our natural systems, or via breakdowns of supports external to Alaska. But no matter what, it’s a mathematical certainty that we cannot just improve and improve and improve our quality of life. (And in fact, the quality of life in Alaska has indeed already begun to slip, at least for some, particularly when it comes to personal economics.)

But hard times need not necessarily be lean times, nor need they rupture the bonds between the people living on these lands. I’ve come to believe that necessary ingredients that prevent us from these ruptures include intact wild systems that enable us to harvest wild foods, like salmon, to keep us safe and to keep us bonded and to keep us whole.

It’s this set of connections and dependencies that comes to mind for me as I try to structure ideas around salmon and its future in Alaska. And this feels much bigger to me than a set of policy recommendations or a political agenda. Thus my stuckness.

As has been a theme in recent posts, though, I have to trust in my process to guide me through the stuck-ness. More on this as it comes…

Deep Adaptation

About two months ago, a friend and mentor passed me this article. The author, Jem Bendell, makes an argument that near-term societal collapse is imminent because of climate change, and suggests that “Deep Adaptation” is needed, to get past denial, wrap our heads around this reality, and think about how we want to live in light of it all.

To say that it was perspective shifting would be a lie. There is SO MUCH to write and think about on the subject of climate change and the changes that will play out in my son’s lifetime. I get upside-down when I try to think about how to write about it here. But last night I listened to Iditarod coverage and heard how the mushers are seeing open ocean, all the way to the horizon, on the last leg of the race. I have zero interest in pretending like that doesn’t mean something. We have ring-side seats here in Alaska and I’ve been watching it shift for years.

That is where the earth is going.

(Need something more than open ice in the winter in the Arctic to get you thinking? Try this article by David Wallace Wells, which shares a title with his new book: The Uninhabitable Earth.)

Deep adaptation, to me, means getting honest about the hardship that is ahead, and then trying to imagine how to live through the hardship with kindness and grace. I’ve been taking some strength from Meg Wheatley in recent weeks, who has also shifted her work to this perspective. I like that she’s not trying to fake that it’s all going to be okay.

The Facts of Life


All living systems rise and fall in the cycle of existence: there is birth, growth, flowering, decline, death. The cycle repeats over and over; everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each phase of the cycle requires different behaviors:


–At the beginning, discovery, creativity, learning and invention playfully fill the space of possibility. It is an exciting, high energy time when anything seems possible and hope abounds.
–In the middle, what has been created gets stabilized into complex systems that provide capacity, efficiencies, standardization, and sustainability. Hierarchy and bureaucracy develop and people settle into roles that make the systems work.
–In the final stages of decline and collapse, protection and preservation are essential to save values, ideals, and programs that are being destroyed by the powerful few. As solutions fail and crises proliferate, suffering grows; serving others becomes critical.


This is the cycle of life, irrefutably evident in the history of every civilization. Meaning and purposeful actions shift dramatically depending on which part of the cycle the society is in. Our current global culture cannot be saved by grasping onto the myth of progress or thinking we are unique and different. At this time, it is foolish to strive for innovation and sustainability when what is so clearly needed is protection and preservation.

–Meg Wheatley at https://margaretwheatley.com/2019-warriors-for-the-human-spirit-training/


I’ve been thinking for more than 10 years about the likely hardships ahead. Now I have very strong motivation—in the body and spirit of my little A., to get real about what I will do help our family and community navigate on these stormy, ice-free seas.

A Child in This World

I’ve been uncertain for years about the morality of bringing a child into this world. Now, standing on the cusp of this transformation (but really having already made it), my questions feel all the more real, and equally surreal. I am not without conflict, nor am I certain in many parts of my mind and heart that I’ve made the right choice. At the same time I’m utterly certain of the rightness. I find this illustrative of one of the things that fascinates me most about human minds and emotional capacities—that we can hold two (or multiple) utterly conflicting realities in heart and head at the precise same moment. For example, that we are safe and also in peril (see: our current political situation). That the weather in my northern home is far too warm these days, but that it feels so good when the sun warms my skin. That we are safe in the arms of our lovers, and also are never safe but in our own self-reliance. Or, in this case, that my child seems almost certain to experience unimaginable* chaos in the arc of his lifetime, but that he should still be brought into this world, and be welcomed here, and that we will be able to guard him from it. (*More on the imagined unimaginable in a bit.)

I’ve previously shared the way that very old buildings in Europe evoke a sense of my insignificance in a way I find extremely powerful. Really, experiencing antiquity of any sort reminds us how tiny and ephemeral are our own lives. Even the briefest contemplation of history—whether academically, through travel or discussion, at the knee of our elders, or through fictional doorways like film and literature—makes it apparent that any sense of wellbeing or safety that I/we hold at present is fanciful. And it need not just be a view of history. We can look at the present—Syria or Iraq for example—and see humans whose lives were materially similar to ours just 15 years ago, who now live in chaos, violence, disease and peril that would have been unimaginable (there’s that word again) prior to that time.

Yet regardless of the peril of the moment in time or history, we—We, capitalized—continue to bring babies into this world, to invest in them all our heart and hopes, and to imagine that we can keep them safe, and that their lives will be worthwhile and well lived. We have the capacity to be so reasoned, so analytical. And we also remain animals, driven by deep, biological imperatives of reproduction and nurturing. And for all our intellect and spiritual awakening, we cannot keep ourselves from this thing. We neglect the one choice that would keep our children most safe—which would be to leave them resident in our imaginations, un-conceived, pre-created. Concepts and dreams rather than real humans born into the near certainty of harm.

We’ve made an incredible journey in humanity and health and technology in the span of two or three human lifetimes. Depending on where you sit on the globe, you are well fed, enjoy leisure time, experience peace, are sheltered from violence. But we’ve also carved very close to many ecological and epidemiological tipping points. We’ve drained millennia-old aquifers, have used antibiotics with such poor restraint that there are terrible super-bugs lurking through human and animal populations. We’ve also become a much more “vector” friendly world—with flights delivering disease intercontinentally in mere hours.

In the Western world, we’ve become complacent about the robustness of our political institutions in a way that has weakened them and has made it less likely that we’ll live free of violence, free of armed conflict. Our current presidency is a terrifying testament to the thinness of the veneer of civility, of generosity, of humanity; and also of the real dangers posed by a single megalomaniac given the power of office and the power of the bully pulpit. The seemingly overnight resurgence of anti-Semitism utterly baffles me, and also reminds me that our illusions of safety are just that.

Dark times rise on the heels of periods of great peace and enlightenment. President Obama has said that the arc of history bends toward justice. That may have been true in the past 100 years of Western history, but I do not see that as a given when viewed over the historical timeline of humanity. There is no “given” here. Plus, as we move with complacency farther and farther into this changed climate, we push ourselves closer to that edge. We remove the resiliency of our natural systems. We ensure larger swings of climate and weather and pestilence.

And then we have babies. And ask them to live in this world.

I’m thrilled for the arrival of our son. But feeling this way doesn’t inoculate me against the certainty of his uncertain future. Which is where the question of “unimaginable” comes back. None of this is unimagined. We have a great tradition of writers and thinkers to learn from, as we envision the future our children might live in, and think about how to prepare them for it. This Goodreads list is a great start in the realm of fiction, and many of my favorite books in this line are on it (Station Eleven, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series, The Dog Stars, The Passage series). There are also great non-fiction books to consider. I’m weaker in this area, but I think Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is as good a starting place as any.

I have many more thoughts on this—like, for example, what skills do I teach our little one if I believe this is, in fact, the world he’ll come to inherit? But enough for one day. A gentle snow is falling outside and my yard is full of songbirds and our overwintered hummingbird, and it’s time for me to move into that space of quiet maternal contemplation. Holding two things in my head again.