By Tama Baldwin
The package of jasmine rice was what pushed me over the edge. Ten ounces of aromatic grains grown and harvested in the Thai Highlands and sent by barge and train and plane and truck to my local food co-op. And there I was in my kitchen in Iowa City boxing them up again along with other dry goods so I could mail them to myself care of General Delivery Kotzebue, Alaska. The goal was to simplify my travel essentially, to make certain that my days in the Aldo & Leonardo Residency were uncomplicated by domestic tasks in a new place. If I were merely traveling this summer I might have just rolled with the local fare, but there is a lot of work to be done in the next month and the creative soul has a literal appetite all its own and my cheap and easy food favorites will help me feed it. And yet I couldn't keep myself from tabulating the miles those grains will have traveled--in addition to the miles I have just traveled. I am in Anchorage now, visiting friends for the weekend before heading north on Monday. We are going to hear Linda Hogan read her poems on Sunday night, yet another thing--like the rice--that feels less like a luxury than a necessity. There she will be, at the podium, having herself flown thousands of miles to bear witness to her readers, many of whom have also--like me--just accumulated thousands upon thousands of frequent flyer miles.
For all my critique of the Anthropocene I am utterly an agent of it, from the industrialized agricultural products that form the core of my diet to my love of travel. I know the formula by which we balance our sociological and ecological responsibilities is not that simple. My modern life gives me creative liberty--the opportunity to pursue a deeper understanding of the wilderness--and still that understanding has caused me to question the means of my inquiry. Arctic Alaska is one of the last places on earth where people still have the opportunity to pursue a subsistence living--though among the many changes that have occurred in the last hundred years--that way of being has been under assault in large part by the world I currently hail from, which I now tend to see not so much through the lens of ethnicity or nationality, but by means of what I can only name as an ecological identity. I am from Iowa, the land of the corporate farm, a place where a true hunter-gatherer would likely starve given the paucity of animal habitat and forage fit for human consumption--if, of course, she could hunt and gather long enough to keep from being gunned down by irate landowners or arrested by the police force those landowners have purchased with their taxes. I've been so dialed into the industrial grid for such a long time I fear I've lost sight of my ecological origins--which I believe has profound implications for our collective future.
It's a sad small gesture I know, but I decided to call my friend Jay at the last minute even as I was packing and ask him if he would give me a fishing lesson. He is, among many things, a consumate fly fisherman, as well as a person possessed of sufficient savvy to understand exactly what it was I was asking of him. He knew I wanted to know at least a little something about subsistence, and he has a deep understanding of the history of the sport he loves so much it could be said his love borders on obsession. He took me to our local hunting and fishing goods store and helped me pick out a rod and spinner and a pile of lures, a different type for each species of fish he thought I might have a shot at catching. He taught me how to tie an improved clinch and to set the drag and how to cast as we trolled the farm pond deep in the heart of the Circle 7 Ranch where he has attained the property owner's permission to fish. It was late on a Friday night at the beginning of July--that exact point in mid-summer when the tomatoes in my kitchen garden start to grow like teenagers, in fits and starts, falling all over themselves in awkward tangles that I will not be able to smooth out by the time I return from my long neglect of them in late August. The fish were cooling themselves in the deeper pockets of that pond, pockets whose location I couldn't begin to fathom, which secretly relieved me because I was worried about what would have to be done should I actually catch a fish. I worried that my line, ten pound test, wouldn't be strong enough to keep hold of what I caught and that the fish might break away with the hook in its mouth, which seems to me a causal yet unforgivable kind of cruelty. Don't worry, Jay said. It's strong enough. Just keep moving. You've got to find where the fish are. And so I cast--paused-- and reeled, tipping the rod downward and swiping it left and right to simulate prey, but try as I might there was not a fish to be found. Maybe they are not here I said. Maybe they died in this horrible heat, but no he assured me they were there. Look, he said. There's the nest of a Blue Gill--I saw a broad divot in the sand just off shore, a whorl of grass--but no fish. I didn't know fish had nests. I also didn't know fish ate fellow fish of the same species which he soon demonstrated when he took my as of yet untested rod and made a quick cast on my behalf. The whole pond knotted up around the lure the instant it hit the water and the drama was launched, the little fish he had hooked instantly attracting the attention of a much larger member of its own tribe. He swears he's had fish try to steal fish he's caught as he's reeling them in, and I suppose I believe him. Hunger is still the rule that trumps all other rules. I love the familiarity between the two words lore and lure. It's through story-telling how we learn how to be both within ourselves and our larger communities, and so I suppose this is how I hope to reconcile the carbon expenditure that is my travel far from home this summer. May insight come to me by whatever means-through the lens of my camera or the casting of my line or the sharing of ideas, meals, memories.
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