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?
This effort continues. A few days ago one of my advisors sent me some musings on structure, and suggested that one format this work could take might be a “series of blog posts… to your friends and colleagues… about or stemming from The Salmon Project.” He may not have meant the idea literally, but I’m going to experiment with what it would feel like to use this space to help put form around my thoughts. I’ve been working from an outline for weeks, but it keeps getting bigger and more complicated, and what I may actually need to do is write a series of small essays that can gel into something larger.
This is an experiment, but I’m going to move ahead with it and see what takes shape.
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…
It’s 10:10pm and it’s dark out, which seems magical after the brutal six weeks that bracketed solstice. I love summer, but a toddler and 11pm (and 2:45am) daylight are a terrible mix.
This last week has felt intense. I’m in a period of fast-firing ideas and planning. These times are part of my flow, and have been for many years, and I’ve learned to just ride the wave of their productivity. Good things can come from them, like the impetus to build a new library or to sprint on a new initiative. Alternately, nothing can come of them, and that’s ok too. I learned long ago that “no-go” is a really good finding in a feasibility study, if it means you don’t waste years and tons of capital on a crappy idea.
I told a friend today that I feel like I’m coming up out of water. My previous experience of this was when Auggie was about four months old and I realized that he was past the intense infant stage and wasn’t going to suddenly perish. This time the emergence feels like it’s more about me. This is my own self arriving back into the world, with thoughts and desires that are independent from my motherhood and my child. I feel hungry again, craving some sort of project I can bite into, own, and kick ass on.
I also feel that familiar sense of creative tension and insecurity that comes when I’m beginning to push my bounds beyond my own confidence zone. This is the space that I once termed the “mind fuck,” where you get intensely uncomfortable and panicky because you’re out of your own bounds, but if you can stay there and ride it out you explode your own limits and expand into the new space you’ve created. This place sucks when you’re in it, but I’ve learned to recognize the pattern and to know that I’ll get through. What comes beyond almost always is intensely gratifying and results in very good things.
I feel sorry for C., who will come home after his summer away seeking the grounded peace of home, only to find me in this phase of intense reordering and striving. My challenge will be to be present for my own self in this time of growth, while also giving him the space he needs to breathe and come down to earth.
Last fall my academic, left-brained understanding that climate change was a real thing turned into a right-brained, slow rolling and visceral horror. It was kicked off by Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper and fed by the dark, woeful months of winter. It took me about six weeks to get through the crushing misery of it—the terror of the realization that, in fact, climate change is not going to get better and, no, we are not going to pull it together in the 12, no 11, no 10, no 9 years that remain for us to “mobilize like we did during WWII.” Yeah, we could. But we won’t. And everything is going to happen that shouldn’t have to, and my son is going to live through it.
I’ve been drawn to the dystopian writers for nearly all my life. I read Stephen King’s The Stand at a critical moment of intellectual development, maybe age 13, and my whole imagination was shaped around the fantasy-slash-inevitability of catastrophic collapse. Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood and James Howard Kunstler, even Justin Cronin, paint possible futures that seem realistic, if full of monsters—literal or figurative. I’ve been fascinated and have turned pages hungrily, drawn in to the chaos of the world blown to bits, trying to imagine how that would feel and be to live through something like end times, or something like the time After.
But all of that curiosity and morbid fascination gives way to something very different in this space of parenthood. If I allow myself to stay with the reality of our current, very real horror, my heart shatters into a million pieces. If I don’t pull away from it, but let myself actually feel it, it hurts so much.
I’m not afraid of death, but I’m afraid of watching my child suffer.
I spent my late 20s and early 30s, the years of one’s life that are so steeped in optimism and hope, reading Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver and Bill McKibben and thinking that it was good, we were figuring out, we could move forward armed with knowledge and conviction. In the months after Obama was elected, as the economic system was melting down and the disconnect between our consumption-crazed lifestyles and the actual (lack of) sustainability of our ways of life seemed so very apparent, I waited with bated breath for him to speak the truth to us, from his solid seat of clear electoral mandate. I wanted him to stand up and use his rumbling voice to tell us that we had lived too extravagantly, in a way too out of touch with what the Earth could actually sustain, and in ways too disconnected from the real constraints of economies and natural systems. I wanted him to summon the vision of Kunstler in The World Made by Hand, and let us know that it was okay to let go of the fantasy of endless growth, and to live well and with less.
He didn’t, and it broke something in me that has continued breaking ever since. I guess that’s hope, or belief in the possibility to right this massive system, or optimism. But it has given way to something else that feels more calm.
This winter, in the depths of my grieving, in the aftermath of Bendell’s paper and David Wallace Wells’ Uninhabitable Earth, Auggie and I picked up Thunderfeet, a children’s book about Alaska’s dinosaurs. And in reading and rereading it, I found a measure of peace.
Somehow, I managed to make it through my first four decades without really wrapping my head around the fact that dinosaurs once lived on the land that has become Alaska. And certainly I had not considered what the climate might have been like in our prehistoric neighborhood, or given much thought to what other animals or flora had lived here, or how the air felt, how the sun felt on those prehistoric backs. Reading Thunderfeet over and over, with that monotonous zeal that only a toddler can compel, allowed me to let go bit by bit, and relearn the lesson that things will rise and fall over the eons, and that our presence here on this planet in this moment is just a tiny blip. Yes, we are wiping out so many more of the planet’s beautiful species in this horror we have created. But we will go, and something else will rise up, and so it has always been.
The Alaska State Museum just opened a new exhibit on this very topic—dinosaurs and climate change. The Alaska polymath Ray Troll paired up with paleontologist Kirk Johnson and created a wild, imaginative backward look and a clear-eyed, call-it-like-it-is examination of this, the 6th extinction. It’s a beautiful exhibit, and I left feeling like I was breathing fresh air. This year, 2019, seems like the year when we’re all waking up to our climate disaster on planet Earth. But I find it such a relief to finally feel like I’m not alone in my concern. I know many or most people will still march blindly along but, more and more, some of us will no longer be by ourselves. I’ve been thinking of it as realism, but recently I’ve heard Margaret Wheatley refer to it as clarity. I prefer this. To call it realism sounds like an admonishment. Clarity is a personal state, and also an invitation to kinship with others who feel that something is clear.
We’ve brought Auggie into a world that will be starkly enumerated—140 million climate refugees by mid-century, 10 billion people on the planet, 2 or 3 or 5 degrees warming. It is my job now to do what I can—teach him what I can—that he may live through this experience with clarity and his spirit intact. It’s possible his will be the last generation of humans, though it’s not likely. But his world will be incredibly different from mine, and my work as his parent is to give him what he needs to live in it as a whole world. It’s the only world he will know, until the day that he or it gives way to what is next.
Two nights ago Auggie slept the best night sleep he has had since his birth. Asleep at 8:30pm, awake once for some light stirring and inquiries (“Mom? Immy? Papa?”) before returning quickly to slumber. I woke at 5:00am to find Chris gone from our bed—into Auggie’s room during some night waking, I assume. I picked up my Kindle and read in the growing light while listening for the sounds of the two of them. Then at 6:15am I heard Auggie’s bright bell of a voice: “Uh oh!” I popped up and went to him. No Chris! Just my beautiful little son sitting in the glow of daylight that seeped around his blinds. Another day begun, and a solid night of sleep under his belt.
Eventually Chris emerged from the basement guest room and I shared the news. A few minutes later he asked me if I was relieved. It took a minute before I realized what he was asking, which was whether this felt like a milestone.
I suppose it could, and I appreciate him framing it as such. It’s funny that it didn’t strike me as that right away, though. I suppose everything feels like a meandering stream of progress, rather than a set of major accomplishments. I knew one night he would sleep soundly the whole night through. Yes, at times that seemed impossible or impossibly far away. But I have never doubted that one day we would arrive. And I suppose that day may have been yesterday.
It’s easy to place caveats on one’s so-called parenting successes. Maybe it would have felt more monumental had I not crept into his room when I heard him stirring in the night and spoken softly to him for 5 minutes, before falling asleep in his chair. Or, maybe it would count if I had been able to return to sleep quickly once I moved to my bed, rather than lying there focusing on my breathing for another hour. Maybe it would have felt important had I slept all the way until his waking hour, rather than coming awake at 5:00 and being unable to fall back asleep.
In any case, dreams of relief and major corners turned did not endure. Last night he woke four times, and I staggered to his room each time to try to resettle him. He grasped my hand in the dark, holding it to his chest as his breath would slow and sleep would retake him. My longest stretch was four hours, and this morning I have the familiar weariness of the long work of parenthood.
But right now he’s asking me to use my knees to make a fort of the blanket on his bed. So I will put down this computer and do so, because his sweet little smile is the sunshine in my life.
I have words boiling up inside of me. Words that want out. The first pages, chapters, paragraphs of stories clutter my hard drive. There are characters who spend days, a month, even years pushing out of my fingers. Each time I start I think, this is it. This is the time I will get to the end.
But in more than 15 years of writing, I’ve only ever ended a story one single time. I have two novels partly written. I have dozens upon dozens of first, second, even third chapters. I have the shells of short stories. But I have only one, tiny completed piece. I’ve struggled with this for years and years, and I cannot say why I am so stuck.
I love to write. I love to put words together. I love to try to conjure meaning out of associations and ideas. I even think that I am sometimes good at it. But I thirst to create a tale. I thirst for characters to walk out of my mind, and onto the page, and then on down the road until they reach a place worth stopping.
The truth is, I’ve never known the ending to anything I’ve started. I can always imagine the beginning. It often starts with characters, who I feel like they are my own flesh. There is always a place that I can see and smell, a place I inhabit behind my closed eyes. I can live in those people, those landscapes, like they are my own. I can hold them in my arms, feel the complexities of their emotions, of the changes in the weather. I know their history and how they arrived where they are. It’s so rich, so real, that I set aside my doubt and charge forward. But I inevitably lose it. I fill with despair. I cannot bring them down the road to the end of a journey. I simply cannot.
I have tried outlining. I’ve tried sketching, bubble diagramming, using index cards. Most frequently I have just written, hoping to see where the story goes. But nothing in my imagination can make the end come.
Sometimes I’ve asked myself whether I’d be better with non-fiction. Whether that would fulfill me, let me practice the craft. Maybe if I can just write what is, rather than imagine what could be, I could arrive there. But the only non-fiction that tempts me for my own writing is memoir. And I don’t feel that the lessons of my own life have any finality to them, or that they warrant sharing. There is nothing profound in how I’ve lived, and no profound insight worth pointing to. I feel barely fledged, eyes still shut, bumbling around, narrowly avoiding harm at all times.
Sometimes I wonder if this is because I failed, for so long, to create conclusions in my own damaged journey. Perhaps it’s because I woke up each day for many years and followed a path that I knew to be untrue. Perhaps I felt powerless to make changes because of this very difficulty I have in imagining endings. to end it because I have this critical lack of imagination, of drive to get to a conclusion. And in fact, when the end to that particular situation came, it wasn’t because of action, or a path I chose. One day I just decided not to do what would be needed to make it continue on, and it ended.
To write honestly would mean to write about what I really feel, what I really experience. It would also involve trust. Trust that I could arrive at an end, and trust in the uncertain space between here and there.
I want to pick up a story—any story—and see it to its end point. If it’s 8 pages, if it’s 75 or 400, I want to know that I can start it, and finish it, too. But meantime, here I am. Stuck. But practicing. Still practicing.
I went and rode the chairlift at Eaglecrest this afternoon. Just two rides, just two runs. I was feeling unsettled and didn’t feel like staying, but I appreciated the time on the lift, as I always do.
There is water pouring off the mountain right now. It warmed up by 25 degrees over the last two weeks and creeks and waterfalls are emerging. The snow seems to be disappearing from the ground up. There are dark blue stains underneath many stretches of snow—stains where water is running down the slope beneath what remains of the snowpack.
There is a waterfall off to the left when you’re riding up the Hooter lift. I had no idea it was even there. I suppose it’s frozen most of the time that I’m up there, or else that there’s no liquid water to cascade over it.
It feels early for Eaglecrest to be closing up. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen many of these rocks and trees and bushes that are sticking up through the snow. Normally the mountain is closed before they emerge. But this year we had such limited snow fall that there’s not much forgiveness once the warming happens.
I appreciate the mountain so much. I’ve ridden those lifts hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of times in the 30+ years since I learned to ski up there. The lift ride centers me. I look at the familiar mountains that surround the ski area and I feel like I’m being held gentle hands. I recall one time, when I was about 15 years old, being up on the Ridge with my friend Jack. It was so beautiful that day—spring, like it is now, but in a different, snow-abundant way. The sun was out, we were hiking, still growing in our hearts and minds and bodies. I remember standing at the edge of a cliff and thinking that if I were to go over it and disappear, it would all be alright, because everything was just perfect. I needed nothing more.
Adolescence is a confusing time. It shocks me to remember the peace and equanimity I felt that day—I’m guessing it was unusual to feel so calm and comfortable in those tumultuous years. But I find those sentiments difficult to find and to hold in my adult years, too. I do recapture them quite easily when holding Auggie or laughing at ridiculous gags with him.
But I appreciate Eaglecrest for giving me a chance to ride those lifts and breathe quietly for the 7-minute stretch, over and over, through all these years of my life.
I just opened up an old saved draft and found this post, below. Written when A. was only 5 months old. And I’m startled to find that the observations and the end of it could be written today. There’s something humbling in that, to recognize that I am consistently me. To see that with all my work and effort, the words that spill from my fingertips describe a steady state of being. One characterized by self-doubt, some ego, and a set of passions (writing, for example) that show up again and again. But also, that same sense of weariness of the repetitiveness of my worries and my own mind. But I have to say, reading it made me smile. This is the money quote:
The ping-ponging is one of my signature characteristics, and I’m happy/sad to see it return… The heavy cycling on a certain set of thoughts or beliefs—this is a hallmark of, well, me.
There’s something that tickles me about this. It’s like slapping my own self on the back and saying, “Hey old girl, there you are again. Gotcha!” (The fact that I even can be tickled, rather than break down into tears, is due, for sure, to the fact that the daylight is back, and with it my stable emotional health.)
It’s also interesting to see how my focus has shifted. In the seventeen months between when I drafted this older post and today I’ve settled in certain ways. I was tormented for a very long time about the “where” part of my equation. And while I still have hopes of living overseas with Chris and A., and while we still talk of traveling, I feel more like Juneau is the home base. Though I’ve yet to really dip my toes into the community, outside parenting circles, I am in a constant churn about what I want to do and how I want to engage here in this place. So my mind is calling Juneau home. And is a difference.
The other thing that is not present in my writing below is my deep sense of concern about the future of our little blue planet, and the implications of that concern for the choices I want to make, personally and as a family. I think that part of the reason I actually feel at home in Juneau is that I feel this place—or at least coastal Alaska—is a relatively good place to be as things get more difficult. This is in contrast to other places that had my attention, like Oregon or Washington. Watching the summer of fires rip through the west really cooled me on the idea of living there. That and the 100+ temperatures.
One hope I have for this blog, should I be able to start practicing and succeeding on its pages a little more than I have, is to begin to explore some of the questions, ideas, readings, and themes that come to me on this subject of climate change and A.’s future. But again, this morning, I’m still just exercising the muscle. So again, I’ll just hit publish. So that this post doesn’t languish for 17 months.
In six days A___ will be 5 months old. I just had to go back and delete and re-write the second half of that sentence because I am so used to referring to him as “the baby” that it spilled automatically out of my fingers. And yes, he’s still a baby. But 5 months is something different and new. He’s full of attention and curiosity and laughter and the light bulbs go on daily for him. (Two days ago he learned to play peek-a-boo. Yesterday he figured out how to find and insert his pacifier in his mouth all by himself.) So while he’s clearly still “the baby” and will be for some time, he’s a different kind of baby than the little ones that are so dependent and so intimately attached to you at all times. When I put him in his jump-up he knows to jump—it’s no longer an accidental behavior. If I stick him in his car seat and pop the pacifier in his mouth he spits it out and gets mad because he knows that I’m actually about to ignore him for some period of time. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that he has an intellect and understands sequences of events, as well as cause-and-effect. It’s lovely.
At the same time that he is developing, I feel I am finally coming up out of water. Lots of things are different in my life. Gone, for example, is my sense that I can always maintain a baseline of cleanliness around my/our house. Also, I find that I need very little clothing. (I’ve been rotating the same 5 striped shirts since A___ was born.) But despite the changes and differences, I’m getting aspects of myself back—good and bad. I find that I’m beginning to fret some of the same old things that I’ve always fretted. What do I want to be when I grow up? Should I run for some sort of political office? Can I write a novel and actually finish it? Should I go back to school? Can I live a rooted life and also experience the adventures and travel that I’ve always craved? These questions are back in my head, ping-ponging around. The ping-ponging is one of my signature characteristics, and I’m happy/sad to see it return. Happy because it means I’m thinking about a different set of things than the immediate needs of my infant. Sad because they’re characteristics of myself that I find tiresome or tiring or that I wish sometimes would go away. The heavy cycling on a certain set of thoughts or beliefs—this is a hallmark of, well, me.
I miss the exercise of pondering something, then sitting down and crafting it into words and paragraphs and ideas that make me feel proud.
I think nearly every day about writing. And I think nearly every day about things that I want to share, discuss, expand upon. Perhaps part of my paralysis comes from the meatiness of the things that are on my mind. I have the daily swirl, yes—the new words from little AHK, the daily task of getting me and him out of the house for something that fulfills one or both of us. But I also spend a lot of time, these recent months, thinking about the big picture of the world, and the intimidating future we are creating for ourselves here on Planet Earth. At the advisement of a wonderful mentor I’ve been trying to make daily notes of “unexpectednesses” that come at me on this subject. But that’s to prime my pump and get my brain churning. Three lines scribbled nightly doesn’t qualify as writing.
So I miss this blog.
As I type right now, little AHK is sleeping in the next room. I don’t know if he’ll give me 20 minutes or 2 or 75. But I think to exercise this muscle I’m going to start by hitting “publish.” Then I can return and write about something else, something more. But the baby step is to publish. So here it goes……