brontë velez in Southeast Alaska (credit: Heather Bauscher).
For the past few years, SCS has had the pleasure of hosting artists and changemakers of different practices and backgrounds at the Phonograph Creek property left to us by Eric and Pam Bealer. The goal of this project is to connect people to the Tongass and inspire them to create from their experiences, continuing the Bealers’ artistic legacy. The following is a reflection from brontë velez, a black/Latinx social justice activist, artist, and creatrix who joined us in summer of 2020.
Around this time last year, I was returning from an annual fast in southern California, with my elders, to recommit and re-confirm the prayer of my life. The valley that calls me to pray is the ancestral lands of the Paiute-Shoshone people - the land is known as Payahuunadu which means where the water flows.
This naming does not feel tethered to the practice of territorializing or colonizing a place but rather the relational call-and-response that emerges from the wisdom of ecological and ceremonial attention — when reverence, witnessing and tending draw forth worship from you, enough to grant the patterns in a place recognition — to re-indigenize the locus of agency: that perhaps it’s irreverent and audacious to think it’s possible to cast a name on a valley but rather what relationship is fortified when we listen for the agency of the water’s longing to recognize their self through our language and to find themselves pronounced through the gratitude of our breath?
Payahuunadu is also the valley where the Department of Water and Power in LA covertly bought up huge swaths of land in the early 1900s to steal and redirect water from the “Owens Valley” (settler-colonial name for Payahuunadu) to LA. It’s where William Mulholland, the engineer on the aqueduct project famously said during the aqueduct opening ceremony, “There it is. Take it.” His words a reflection that the settler-colonial recognition of water has predominantly been a project of extraction rather than relationship.
Emerging from my fast last year, I along with my friends, partner and co-liberators were invited to southeast Alaska to humbly bear witness to Lingít, Haida, Tshmishian territories in the Tongass National Forest in collaboration with For The Wild and Sitka Conservation Society. I arrived to the crisp, cool air of Alaska reluctantly - not sure if I was making the right decision to go, especially while millions of acres of wildfires burned in California simultaneously. I asked myself if I was escaping the smoke, if I was running away. I felt self-conscious of leaving my community at such a critical moment to be in a geography that I did not call home, especially during the pandemic.
During my discernment process, I recalled a dream I had a couple of years prior when I was invited to Alaska at a different moment with my friend Ayana who is the ED for For The Wild. At that time it didn’t make sense for me to go but I received a dream after the invitation where I was in the Tongass lying naked on the earth and there was a chorus of voices announcing Dr. King’s admonition that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letters From A Birmingham Jail.).
This second invitation to Alaska felt clear to follow that dream into the waking and to trust that the watersheds and bioregions that water me, and that I in reciprocity protect and defend in California with my kinfolk, are not separate from Alaska. To disentangle myself from the story that glaciers being disappeared in southeast Alaska are separate from the water swallowing my ancestral island of Borikén (“Puerto Rico”). To trust that these lands and stories signified by extraction, be it water or old-growth or metals or oil or indigenous displacement or racial injustice are all deeply connected. And that it’s critical now, more-than-ever, to be present to weave the threads and to bear witness.
brontë velez and dancer/artist Stephanie Hewett (credit: Molly LeeBove).
This year, I emerged from my fast with the invitation from Heather Bauscher, SCS’s Tongass’ Community Organizer who supported organizing our time in and with SE Alaska, to offer my reflections on my time there. When Heather invited me to reflect I felt the year cycle, the seasons shift, the preparation for Rosh Hashanah that I was in the year prior when we were invited. As I write this I am in the month of Elul in the Jewish calendar, the last month of the year, preparing with my partner and friends to limb the trees here in Kashia Pomo territory as we prepare for fire season and offering good fire through a prescribed burn this winter.
This year’s Rosh Hashanah will mark a shmita year in the Jewish cosmology of time - shmita occurs every 7 years as a practice in extending the commandment of observing the sabbath to the land. Not surprisingly, Jiordi (my partner) shared with me recently that the Kashia Pomo would burn the land here about every 7 years, another shmita cycle.
Shmita literally means release in Hebrew. The commandment asks you to let the land go fallow, to let the land rest, to release all debts, to offer forth forgiveness, private land is to be returned to the commons, food that has been stored and perennial harvests are to be redistributed to support those around you. As I prepare for my first sabbatical and for shmita, I think of the arctic ground squirrel in Alaska, the mammal on the planet with the longest hibernation. I think of their rest. I think of how deeply I want to protect their rest. I think of a changing climate and if they will be able to rest as long as their ancestors have rested. And if their rest is compromised how does that disturb our and the land’s rest?
I think of the rest of the glaciers and how quickly they are being awakened. What does it mean that our elders are being destroyed in this way? To trust that this is enacting extreme spiritual ramifications on the planet and that we must respond like our souls seven generations backwards and forward through time are at stake. I think of dancing before “Lamplugh” Glacier (who I long to know by other names) last year and weeping before the calving together. I want there to be yellow cedars. I want the bears to rest. I want the salmon and their tired bodies to be able to come home with ease after such a long journey. I want my Tlingit, Haida, Tshmishian and Native Alaskan kinfolk to be protected, for their lifeways, culture, land, memory and wellbeing to be protected.
Can our grieving mobilize the clarity to protect the bioregions who hold us? Can shmita and sabbath renew a radical cosmology within us for mutual aid? Can we extend the land and ourselves sabbath? Can I trust that caring for my watershed in Kashia Pomo territory is the same land as the Tongass? Can I trust offering myself sabbath gives me the attention to show up in right relationship with the land? I am holding these questions with me into this next year. When this is published, the sabbath year will have ended. My prayer in writing this is that by next year, the molecular rearrangements Alaska made in me, allow me to release my complicity with hyper-capitalism, extraction, and living out of right relationship with the earth. May I be devoted to offering the earth sabbath. May the Tongass’ sabbath be protected. Asé.
Photo by Molly LeeBove.
Written by Stephanie Hewett
Last summer, SCS hosted artists at the Phonograph Creek property left to us by Eric and Pam Bealer. The intention of this project was to connect artists to the Tongass who hadn’t experienced it before, as well as inspire them to create art from their experiences, continuing the Bealers’ artistic legacy drawing from Southeast Alaska. These words were written by Stephanie Hewett, an artist and dancer who joined us on this retreat, as she reflected upon her time in the Tongass.
A rare sunny day welcomed us at the edge of summer. Our first attempt at landing in Phonograph just a day before was thwarted by wild winds and lack of visibility. We were denied. Yet on our second try we peacefully landed on the beach, in our newly purchased xtratufs, feeling tricked from the stark contrast between both seaplane journeys. We smiled our way into Pam and Eric’s house, still so amused and grateful to have arrived in one piece. Against a calm wind the sun ushered us out into this new terrain full of mystery and deep beauty.
Our first day working with the land heightened my senses in new and exciting ways. I was taught not to fear the neighboring bears, but to understand their patterns in relation to time. In having to train my eyes to see them, I saw so
much more of my surroundings. The face that appeared in the mountain across the water reinforced the sacredness of the land. I perceived the face as a Tlingit ancestor welcoming me as a visitor. I felt affirmed in my being there. Before navigating the space through an intentional movement exploration I felt called to remove my shoes. The ground was cold yet welcoming. With each step I felt as though I could fully see all of the life beneath me. I could feel the movement not just in my body, but in the land. I rooted myself in the feeling of this soft soil beneath my bare feet, and was reminded to give thanks and deep praise before I am back to stepping on city gravel.
Days later, momma appeared in full force. Her mist became specks on my glasses and even though she began to cloud my vision I could still feel her presence. I couldn’t help but think about what beings lay beneath. I remember the salmon we met in Juneau before Phonograph. A few wedged into the earth yet still alive through movement. I observed a marathon with moments of sprints. A final lunge forced into a slow, committed death, knowing the goal is to birth new life.
Photo by Andrew Thoms.
Written by Heather Bauscher
Last summer we were fortunate to host some very special guests at the Phonograph Creek property bequeathed to us by Eric and Pam Bealer two years ago. The homestead at Phonograph Creek is located 3.5 miles outside of Pelican, Alaska and is accessible only by boat or float plane. We are honored to have the responsibility of putting this place to use while stewarding the lands and waters of the surrounding Wilderness. Our intention is to not only connect people to the majesty of the Tongass but also to inspire their creativity. We hope to find diverse and compelling ways to share these artistic manifestations and engage new audiences as we continue widening our circle. This work is a prayer that the transformative power of the Wilderness can be shared and ripple outward to inspire others to feel compelled to protect this place. Part of the power of Eric’s artwork was to do just that. So it is appropriate to continue his legacy this way, to do work for the West Chichagof Wilderness in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, the home of Eric and Pam, and to “protect this place they so loved.”
Many people have helped us prepare the property for use in sharing the magic and majesty of this beautiful spot. The house has rustic charm and a character that can only be attributed to Eric’s unique artistic style and aesthetic. It is set back in a field off of a point that sits alongside the mouth of Phonograph Creek and across from the sentinel of mountains that line Lisianski Inlet. We wish to utilize this site to provide a place where people can experience Wilderness in different ways. Although there is more work to be done, we were able to host our first guests there this summer.
The collaborators who took part in this pilot creative retreat were chosen for their interest in the experience of the West Chichagof Wilderness and their desire to help amplify the need for action given the recent threats to the Tongass and the repeal of the Roadless Rule. We were given an opportunity to partner with Ayana Young of For the Wild who has shown interest in this project, the Bealer’s story, and has supported Tongass advocacy in the past. At her suggestion we invited Brontë Velez of Lead to Life. Bronte is a black/Latinx social justice activist, artist, poet, dancer, and creatrix. Brontë also brought their partner Jiordi Rosales, a cellist, composer, and lutherie. Jordi is part of the Emergence Project and Steal A Way; a ritual learning-journey fellowship organized by Jiordi and Bronte collaboratively. To compliment the music and spoken word, Stephanie Hewett, a dancer from New York City, also joined them. For the Wild’s production team included Molly Leebove, photographer and videographer, and Jade Begay, photographer and writer of NDN collective.
Photo by Heather Bauscher.
From Juneau they took a float plane to Lisianski Inlet and began almost a week of immersion at Phonograph Creek. We were blessed during those peaceful beautiful days: it felt like the only week of sunshine this summer! With help and support from Bagheera Sailing and S/V Snowdragon II, we departed by sailboat and traveled through the open ocean, and the scattered islands and waterways of the Tongass. We slowly worked our way back to Sitka exploring various bays and learning about karst terrain and the differences between an Old-growth forest and a clearcut that was never thinned.
We also took a detour to Glacier Bay to witness the impacts of climate change. Much like the tradition of Chuck and Alice Johnstone and Jack Calvin, our goal was to immerse our guests in the wilds and the waters of the Tongass to show them what it means to deeply experience this place (and then send them back home as activist ambassadors!). Throughout the trip this dynamic collection of individuals used art, music, movement, ritual, and spoken word to lean into complex issues around the history of the Environmental Movement and Wilderness Stewardship. These artists have helped us begin to dig deeper and connect with new audiences, while expanding our network of advocates for the protection of our ancestral forests.
Upon their emergence from the wilderness of West Chichagof, news that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and decision to remove protections on the Tongass was announced. The group was so moved by their recent experience they immediately mobilized to spread the word on social media, posting videos and even creating a mini film to inspire and connect people to the Tongass. They included a link to our comment tool and we had more than 100 new action takers practically overnight. Post production on the various multimedia pieces of the creative retreat will continue through the winter and likely will be released next year in 2021.
The overall experience of the few weeks we spent together in the Wilderness was life changing and spirit cleansing for all involved. To observe our guest’s awe as they moved through these ancestral forests, as they stood before these elder trees, as they began to comprehend the scale of these great mountains and glaciers, and as they grappled with the magnitude of our human impact was so incredibly moving. These moments of sharing are so deeply meaningful and important. There is a deep connection that is formed through the experience of a wild untamed place. We need to continue to find ways to immerse people in the Tongass, in order to open up new doorways and new relationships, to widen our circles and expand our network of advocates for fish habitat and forest conservation.
To pull this off during the COVID pandemic was no easy feat and I wish to express tremendous gratitude to all who helped move this project along. Thank you to all who have provided support in any stage of maintaining this property, to all those who helped organize this creative retreat, and to support the various Wilderness Monitoring trips. Thank you to Brenda Berry as the very first pilot artist! Thank you to all who helped with the physical work on the property and to all who helped with any leg of transportation of people or goods for these projects. To all of the folks in and around Pelican or connected to the Bealers, we will never be able to express how grateful we have been for your help and your support throughout this journey. It is with gratitude we will present these artistic manifestations as offering and prayer that this forest will be protected and the Wilderness will always remain.
Photo by Molly LeeBove.
Eric and Pam Bealer transcended their earthly bodies in September of 2018. They chose to leave a legacy gift for Wilderness and left their estate to the Sitka Conservation Society’s Living Wilderness Fund. The Sitka Conservation Society considers this a great honor and we are humbled by their gift. We will honor their love of the wilderness through the stewardship of these spectacular areas of intact ecosystems and by working to protect West Chichagof–Yakobi Wilderness so that future generations may continue to be as inspired by this remarkable place as Eric and Pam were.
Pam and Eric with some of their beloved animalsRead more