Plums ripen off our porch. Meantime I’ve been thinking about killing goats. They’re up in the alpine as we speak, dotting the cliffs, tawny specks on the snow fields. You’ll see one, then another, and, of a sudden, scattered, a whole herd, hanging out, munching away, goating around, kids and nannies, billies at the fringes.
The wildlife biologist Steve Bethune here in town has split the island up into individual areas, watersheds I guess, which are either open or not. Once a nanny gets killed, the areas are automatically closed. (Generally you can take 4 billies, one nanny.) A friend and I have been mulling over the best way to get a couple billies.
When we crossed the island a month or two back – here’s a piece I did for Sierra Magazine, more on this brazen trip below – we saw maybe 30 of the creatures. They appear from afar as white dots, orbiting around cliffs and green hillsides. Difficult to spot, near impossible to sneak up on. 300+ yard shots. Heavy hides, big horns. I’ve scouted them out on both sides of town, but need an inflatable boat to get to the open grounds on the east side, and more time to properly plan for this bushwack north of town, especially this late in the season. So it’s been about watching weather, setting aside ample time for a hunt, allowing time to hunker down if need be. I feel like I’ve eaten enough of Primo Levi’s Bear Meat for a lifetime, done enough stupid shit. Plus, it all changes when small mammalian bipeds wake up wide-eyed peering around for you, wanting to make waffles with salmonberries. You just gotta be there in the mornings, it’s all about the mornings. (Springsteen, my idol, as I just discovered, makes this exact point in his memoir.)
Two days ago a buddy came into the garage, said he had just been alpine deer hunting, and came across a herd of goats on the next ridge over. Gulp. He wanted to take his fishing boat out, anchor in the bay, then climb early the following morning. Get up, be back by dark. It’s a walk in the park, wheelchair accessible. Easy pickins. It was a Saturday. I didn’t have my goat tag. There were no hot springs waiting at the end of it, as with the island.
And, to be honest, the trip seemed planned in haste, advertised as too easy. I had taken a fall while climbing a mountain, and would need to go to the range to make sure the scope hadn’t gotten knocked out. Instead I watched my Eagles beat the Pigs for the first time in five games, and worked in the shop on planing yellow cedar for the Adak caprails.
Last night, the boys still weren’t back from their hunting trip. His wife got in touch – she had received a pic of them with a goat from the mountain, where they must have snagged some service. 10 pm still not back – they started down the mountain apparently at 1 pm. She was able to track their GPS waypoints, and see they were about halfway down the mountain. They hadn’t filed a floatplan. Sitting here by the fire with a buddy considering what to do. Weren’t sure if they had headlamps. I ended up telling her to put Search & Rescue on standby, which she did. They arrived back at 4:30 am in the morning.
It frustrated me – why do we put others through this? These dudes should have gotten their shit together. Put in a contingency plan. I mean, even going out to Indian River, futzing around on the Middle Sister for deer the other day, I’ll tell folks what’s going on, when the drop-dead time is for calling SAR.
Except I’ve been thinking, here in this rare, beautiful time alone at the house, as I work on completing this novel describing a shipwreck, a group of 28, then 26 men alone on a black sand beach in 1813, struggling over how best to survive, I’ve been thinking much on the politics of telling people what to do, what not to do. The efficacy of it. Whether it even works or not. As I bat around the house working on cleaning out closets, the garage, to make us lighter as we begin to consider a move back to the boat, working on the boat, which has been killing it on AirBnB (above a shot of Raph Shapiro performing on deck) over and over on the question: what should I do. What should others do. How much is there, should there be an overlap.
Should should should.
When back east (where the girls are at this moment, on the Jersey Shore – here’s HMJ with water ice) Rachel and I got into a heated discussion with my family over present-day politics. My sister advocated for hate-speech rules. That there’s no need for violence in the face of white supremacy, no benefit to a Trump presidency. (I was arguing that Trump forces the racist motherfuckers out of the closet, forces this country to have a conversation we’ve been eliding, ignoring, since the Constitution, on slavery, on race.)
What became clear over the course of the discussuion was this obsession over how people should act, language they should use. It always came back to that. And if they weren’t acting in an acceptable manner, well, there would be no conversation. Full stop.
Since then, I’ve been doing my best to limit my telling of others how they should be. Which is difficult when you’re teaching, as I’m doing at the moment, for Stanford online and University of Alaska. But it’s also a classroom exercise, giving my students as much breadth in the learning process, while setting up some very hard boundaries if they stray too far. Outside the classroom is another story. I’ve been taking time on the boat setting skates, getting out and about, freezing food for the winter, cloudberries and halibut. Hunting, with little success. But my god do we have a lot of halibut.
So, as my friends were out on the mountain, and the wife of my friend called and texted last night, I wanted to tell her I’m sorry, no person should be put through this. They have a one year-old son. My friend washes windows in town. His family should not have to fret about him not coming home.
Anyone who has a bit of time and interest in Alaska should read Tom Kizzia’s In the Wake of the Unseen Object. (Here he is slaying sockeyes on the Russian River, on a recent trip we made.) In his chapter Forest Primeval he goes north, north of Nome, to a village where he discovers the God of How Things Ought To Be. It strikes me that some liberals (it’s true, I think the right has changed this into an awful word, when it shouldn’t be – whoops, there we go again) worship this god, or at least feel like they have some direction connection to it, her, him. This is how it should be on gun ownership, this is how it should not be. Cutting of secondary growth is right, but this stand no. The idea that the other side should have a seat at the table for this conversation, should be able to have a voice in determining the rules of conversation – no chance. Liberals always bemoan how folks in the fly-over states always vote against their own interests. How do you happen to know their interests? Are you telling them their interests?
I don’t think it’s a surprise that democrats have fragmented into identity politics, these little city-states of private interests each fighting for their own time at the mic. I don’t think it’s a mistake we have a president now who triggers a feeling that end-times are near, because he could care less about how things should be done. Make a deal with Schumer and Pelosi on the debt-ceiling? Sure. Am I afraid of hurting Mitch and Paul’s feelings? Not really.
I’ll never forget being in Oakland with Rachel, almost being run over by this woman in her Nissan Leaf. It was around 10 pm, a sidestreet. Rachel was pregnant at the time. I grabbed her as the car accelerated towards us, then skidded to a stop just before mowing us down. A woman in yellow plastic glasses, short, graying hair, and a knit sweater began yelling at us. Didn’t we know that we weren’t supposed to cross in the middle of the street? Of course I yelled back. Slapped the back window of the car as she floored it past us, north to Berkeley, I’m sure. I mean, getting mowed down by an electric vehicle. What a sad way it would have been to go. And by a washed up old hippie no-less. We stood there in shock for a minute or two, before hustling to the other side of the street. I mean, if she hadn’t decided to set her foot on that brake pedal, we might not have had this wee creature right here.
Why do folks on the left get so angry? I’ll tell you why. It comes from this rising certainty that humans are irredemiably flawed. That we royally fucked that whole garden deal, that a snake with the bloated head of Rush Limbaugh and the saggy snakeskin of Donald Trump tempted us with the apple of not giving a shit. It’s an anger at people for embracing that fall. As Rachel and I have said before, friends (such as the dude who went out hunting yesterday) who are more conservative, who generally have less money, are far more giving, kinder with their time, generally easier to be around. Here’s what they don’t like: being pushed around. Told by others what to say, what to do, how to conduct themselves.
As someone generally on the left side of the spectrum I have a certain amount of patience for these lectures, I do know they’re coming from a good place, a concerned place, an engaged place where folks measure their time on this with coffee spoons, not spending too much here or there. But my patience runs out quickly when folks begin suggesting that a) it’s morally wrong to eat meat, and, much worse, b) it’s morally irresponsible to have children. It astonished me, I have to say, over these number of cruises I did over the summer, that so many of the folks I met, many Trump supporters, could have cared less over the details of my life (aside from their own interest in Alaska.) They didn’t sit in judgment.
Anyways, enough of that.
I’m away from the kids, and it pains me, though the time to write and mull and get my butt kicked in jiujitsu by Coast Guard rescue divers and scout mountain goats and hike the island and consider beach hunts and eat plums surely is welcome. I mean it’s a frikkin gift. I’ve been able to get three quarters through the new novel, work on articles, create lesson plans, update this blog. But I miss being out on the boat with them, doing all those things we get up to. Haley has become very good at helping me gas up Haley’s Comet. I miss my wife. We should be together, as we will be very soon. Wednesday I fly to the east coast.We will pile in a rental car, motor north to Eagles Mere, where I’ll give a class at the new Chautauqua Arts Conference, then south for a reading at the esteemed Malaprops in Asheville, North Carolina, where my mentor and great human being and great friend Richard Powers will be. We’ll turn west to his cabin in Tennessee, stay a couple days before another long jag south to New Orleans to see my buddy Justin and Dana and their new addition. As far as how the kids will perform in the vehicle, jury’s out. We have 14 miles of road here on the island, and they get antsy after like two miles. Traveling over a thousand? We shall see.
But returning for a moment to the morality of having children. To morality in general. To telling others what they should do. I wanted to say that I have come to believe that those on the left would do better to just mind their own damn business for a bit. To live good, responsible lives, pay more attention to those around them. To real people, living and breathing folks, rednecks, hipsters, millenials, you name it. Quit judging so much. Jesus. It’s exhausting for everyone.
Because here’s the thing, and I know this: you get caught in a pickle, and need someone, you’ll be surprised at who’s there. I’d say, of our friends, those who have less, who work harder, and who are more conservative, who are not all love and good feelings, who don’t make a big show of their lives – these are the ones who are there when we need them. The ones offering to babysit. Sharing meals always, reading my book even when they don’t make a practice of reading books, nevermind literary novels. It’s something I can’t stop considering, thinking about.
Recently a kid flew into town wanting to cross the island, as we did. A friend at the gym who had done it before us took a look at him, and refused to give him coordinates for the way across. Not a chance. He just seemed out of it, she said. Too lighthearted.
This hit home. When we crossed – it was incredible – a couple of our friends split off, wanting to do the trip in a certain amount of time. (Here they are at 7 pm stepping into the fog.) Despite ingenious hiking, picking trails I couldn’t have picked on a clear day, they ran into trouble, took the wrong descent. Were without water, without tent, sleeping bags. And it got me thinking on the difference between trying to do a trip, especially one without a trail, in a certain amount of time, as opposed to being open to waiting on the weather, pushing when you need to, hanging out in the tent when you need to. I had a longer piece about it, but decided not to publish, for a variety of reasons.
So we come back, as we always seem to do, to goats. Goats in the alpine, chewing away at deerheart. I think of Nick Jans, his book of essays Last Light Breaking. His great essay “Traveling Like Clarence.” “Too much bullshit,” Clarence, an older Native man, tells Nick. Too much bullshit weighing you down as you travel. Too much bullshit weighing down your head. You think too damn much. Just live and laugh for a while. Don’t be so hard on yourself, on those around you.
We are moral creatures, it’s what separates us from others. I think of my wayward father, his love of sitting at the head of the table and setting loose the moral hare for all of us foxes to chase. What should be done in that situation, how would you act? Important questions.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful for my moral compass. It’s good for telling direction, for understanding, for example, that we’re slowly killing this planet. But it’s not so good for shoving down the throats of others.
In the meantime, in the words of my mother, you do your best, and that’s about all you can do. We work hard, take care of one another, take care of our friends, try not to pull punches in our lives. My wife, incredibly, was just given the job as magistrate in town, a true game-changer. Soon enough the four of us will be back together again, for our trip south. I’ve resolved to do some good blogging along the way, about our trials and tribulations, all the silliness that goes on in that car. We looked into an RV, too dang expensive.
And as for those goats, we’ll enjoy our plums this fall, let them critters graze for one more season. Have a few more kids, enjoy it.
Next fall, plum torte & goat curry. Watch out.