Today brings another poetry episode of Voices of the Tongass. Berett Wilber's collection of poetry,Lesser Known Marine Mammal's Lesser Known Love Songs, is inspired by her life in Southeast Alaska. To hear Berett read hear poem, TheContingencies of Chance, scroll to the bottom of this post.
the contingencies of chance
where does the outside end?
when the air enters your lungs?
in the beds of your fingernails?
let yourself feel
up against the edges
of your skin, fear
will rip your lungs into sails,
tear down the lines between things and
breathe yourself in:
the scent of lilacs at night,
the silver of the river at our ankles:
the oxygen in your blood is
already just air
and so you are
already just everywhere.
we are vessels, pitchers, open bowls
and the sheer strain of living
tears holes in us
that we cannot repair ourselves.
we can only fill each other:
give yourself away.
(you become hollow if you
board yourself up
if the walls inside of you echo,
splinter through them).
the tiny sutures of your eyes,
your voice: rope yourself to the world.
it will stain you irreparably and you
will build yourself into it,
stretching spindly bridges
until they crumble and fall.
in the moments
where you have to strip back the paper
of your walls, and
raze the scaffolding of your life
to the ground -
curse if you must.
but if you would like to keep yourself alive,
open your mouth
and pour yourself out.
the world will never demand less of you.
we were not meant to stand empty for long.
This week on Voices of the Tongass, John Straley talks about what it means to succeed in the Last Frontier, from building a career to building a family. To hear the show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post.
John Straley's father could not have predicted that moving to the Last Frontier would turn his horse-shoeing son into an intellectual. "He always thought I was better suited to be running a chainsaw," John says. "He was very proud when I became a writer, but he thought it was good that I had a back-up career as a laborer." John's father needn't have worried. While John didn't take the most traditional path to being one of Alaska's most celebrated modern authors, he certainly took an effective one. "Being a horseshoer turns out to be a good motivation to be an intellectual. Your back motivates you to read books." While it also might have helped that there weren't many horses around, any way you look at it, he seems to have subverted his father's expectations. From being a private eye to a youth conservation leader, there are few corners of the community that John has not have a presence in. And of course, his experience means has led to a life as no literary slouch: he has been published many times in many genres, serving as Alaska's writer laureate between 2006 and 2008.
But, like any reputable laborer, John isn't one to dwell on success. After almost forty years living in Alaska, he's come to value his work not by the quantity of his audience, but by it's quality. "I've been in a fancy hotel. And waited in the lobby for my driver and a Lincoln Town car to take me to a bookstore," he says. "I didn't make enough money that day to change anything. If I can give a reading at the library here, I'm happy. That's as much audience as I need. if I can go to a friend's house and read their kids to sleep, that's as much as I need."
And like his own father, John has learned to have his own expectations about being a father subverted. Attention to accurate description, necessary qualities for a writer and a poet, had some different effects when it came to fatherhood. He tells a story about teaching his son Finn some of the everyday joys of the Alaskan experience with his wife, Jan. "When we lived in Fairbanks," he tells us, "she got a hand lens, and when a mosquito landed on Finn's arm, she showed him what happens when a mosquito lands on him. Vividly. And when he steps outside the next day, and the screen door is just black with mosquitos, he starts screaming because the air is filled with monsters that suck his blood." There is a significant pause while John reflects. "This was a mistake," he admits.
But for any listener who has the opportunity to hear even a few of John's stories, it's impossible to believe that parenthood in Alaska was all tribulation - far from it. Near the end of his interview, John says something about the life he has built in the Alaska that rings true, even for those of us who have not spent nearly as much time in the wilderness as John has. "We've stayed here for now, jeez, almost 35 years or more," he says. "It's just become a fabulous part of our family. It changed all the stories I've written, the poems I've written. I'm sixty years old. I'm just happy to be alive. I can't imagine living any place else."
Listen to the show:9_LWL_JOHN_STRALEY
This week on Voices of the Tongass we get to hear from Sitka native Torin Lehmann. To hear the show, scroll to the play bar at the bottom of this post. To read about the challenges of remote life, and why Torin feels lucky to be facing them, read on.
Photo By Berett Wilber
Torin Lehman is 23 years old and has the best commute in the Western Hemisphere. Maybe even in the world. It helps that the only way to get to work is by float plane. "We take off and we start heading south, fly over Camp Coogan. If it's really cloudy sometimes we'll have to fly all the way around the tip of the island, around Chatham. But if it's a sunny day we can fly directly over the island. When you get up there it's just mountains as far as the eye can see. Sometimes we'll fly closer to see if we can spot any goats or bear or deer, and on the approach into Deer Lake you can see the cabin and an awesome natural log jam at the mouth of the lake." Torin is a seasonal fisheries technician for NSRAA, and we managed to catch him for an interview on one of his rare days off in town. He works at a remote release station for coho salmon at Deer Lake, on the eastern side of Baranof Island. His job entails raising a stock of 2.8 million coho salmon until they're big enough to be released into the ocean, which is an eleven month process.
When he's not feeding millions of coho fry, Torin still has to find ways to stay busy. Fortunately, growing up in the Tongass has given him a lot of practice at creative entertainment. "I remember being six, seven years old and running around in the woods pretending I was a knight or a soldier. You're given this stretch of land and you kind of build a story for yourself to interact with, you go out and use your imagination to build upon that." Torin thinks that the place he grew up and the amount of time he's gotten to spend outdoors contribute to the creativity he now has when it comes to life in the Togass. "I think growing up here encourages you to go out and explore and use your imagination and be creative with your surroundings. Down south, one of the things I noticed, at least with the friends I made, was that the things to do were to go to the mall or play video games." Experiencing life "down south" reminds Torin how lucky he feels to be from Alaska. "How many other kids got to go whale watching from the minute they were born til now?...It teaches you not to take things for granted because there are millions of people who don't get to enjoy the things we do here."
Even with a lake full of tiny fish to keep him company, and no matter how creative he gets, Torin is out for weeks at a time. It can feel isolating. It's hard to see his friends and family in Sitka, let alone maintain the connections with people he knows outside of the state. For people who live in the Lower 48, this might not seem like a big deal, but for many young Alaskans, it's a major challenge. If you grow up in a small town, you know that maintaining good relationships with people you care about can have a huge impact on your happiness. "You know, I went to school in Maryland," Torin says, "And trying to keep in touch with people from back there…" he trails off and shakes his head. "You have to work at it. On the East or West coasts, if you haven't seen a friend in a while, you can just hop in your car. Here, if you want to see someone you went to school with, you have to buy a [plane] ticket, and figure dates out." For young people in Alaska just entering the job market, it makes trying to find a balance between their relationships and the place they live both frustrating and expensive.Despite the challenges of rural life, Torin still has a great attitude. His approach to staying positive is close to the hearts of Sitkans of every generation: "Living in Sitka, you have to enjoy the rain, that's for sure. But it definitely makes the sunny days that much better," he says. As we all know, Sitka has had a particularly sunny summer, and the night of Torin's interview is beautiful. "I'll probably go to the gym for a little bit after this, go on a hike with the dogs," he says with a smile. "Have a beer. Watch the sunset." After all, it is his weekend.
This week's show takes us under the breaking waves for a night dive with Taylor White. To hear more about Taylor's relationship with the ocean, read on. To hear her episode of Voices of the Tongass, scroll to the bottom of this post.
photo by Berett Wilber
Taylor White is 22 years old and she shares her office with a killer whale skeleton. She is the Aquarium Manager at the Sitka Sound Science Center. Whether it's describing a night dive off the coast of Baranof Island or a kayak trip launched from her front yard, Taylor talks about the ocean like it's a member of her family. It has drawn Taylor back each year to dive and snorkel her way into a job. "Leaving the ocean made me realize how much I wanted it in my life," she says about her four years spent studying marine biology in the frustratingly landlocked Eastern Washington.
"I always wonder about how I would be if I grew up in a suburb," Taylor says. She wouldn't call herself a hard core crazy outdoors person, but because nature is literally at her doorstep it has become an integral part of her life. "I think any place where you grow up shapes who you are." More specifically, Taylor feels that growing up in Sitka, Alaska, has grounded her and given meaning to the way she lives her life. "I'm appreciative for the perspective that Alaska gives you...you're more a part of it, and more a part of the natural process than you would be in other places...Those sorts of experiences that don't happen in other places." Like the summer her friend got attacked by a bear while biking. "They make you stop and think about the place in the wider picture….it just makes you think more."When Taylor thinks about her four years in Washington, she remembers feeling pressed to meet deadlines and "living life not necessarily day by day." One of Taylor's favorite things is landing in Sitka on the narrow runway that juts out into the water. Her first stop in town is at Sandy Beach, where she loves to run into the water, no matter the season. "When I come back here it's kind of nice to just stop and find my place again, instead of getting wound up with what I might call less of living and more of just doing." She adds, here I think I live with more of a purpose and I understand better where I belong in my community, and in my surroundings, and that's because of all those experiences of growing up and going away and coming back."
If the play bar doesn't pop up below, try clicking the link.
This week's episode of Voices of the Tongass takes us deep under the surface of our coastal waters. To hear Tory O'Connell share stories from her underwater research career, scroll to the bottom of this post and click the play bar. To read more about why Tory chose to make her life in Alaska, read on.
Tory O'Connell's perspective on the ocean is usually reserved, well, for fish. Though she was raised in New Jersey, she first came to Alaska in 1978 to work on a bowhead whale survey in the Chukchi Sea. Her first gig in Sitka was working as a diver biologist for a rockfish survey earning $100 a month. It was the very beginning of the commercial rockfish fishery in Alaska, and Tory's life was about to become seriously entwined with one of Alaska's most colorful vertebrates.
"There's a little two person submersible called the Delta. It's this little yellow submarine, and originally in 1985, I was aware that there was this program called The National Undersea Program, and we were trying to figure out how many Yelloweye Rockfish there were. It was hard because they live in rocky habitats and deep water - normally you would just troll, but that doesn't work in rocky habits. And you can't tag them because rockfish have a swim bladder that inflates at the surface. So I got this idea to use the submersible. We wrote a grant and it surprised everyone when we got it." And so, Tory began to use the Delta to dive down and count Yelloweye Rockfish.
Flash forward to the present. Sitting in Tory's office at the Sitka Sound Science Center, her innovation and success no longer seem surprising. Tory is one of the premiere marine experts on the bottomfish of the Pacific. She has traveled all over the world talking about how to record and sample hard-to-find species in hard-to-access habitats, and racked up more than 600 dives in the Delta submersible, from California to Alaska. And though she has been SCUBA diving in almost every place she has ever been to, she says that the diving here at home is hard to beat. "Sitka, the outer coast of Southeast Alaska, has some of the best scuba diving in the world," Tory says, adding that while the water is not very warm, the visibility in deep water can be up to a hundred feet.
And there's more connecting Tory to this place than the time she's spent underwater. When we asked Tory how living in Alaska has changed who she is today, her response was that raising her two daughters in Sitka has had the most impact on her. "It's hard to figure out what's because of Sitka. I think I have become a better person because my children are such great people…I think this will always be home to them."
Because Tory grew up on the east coast, she can see how growing up in Sitka has been a different experience for her two daughters. "Popping tar bubbles with your feet in the summer in New Jersey. That I miss. And I miss downpours, thunder and lighting, I miss that in the summer and fall. Real bread, I miss real bread...fireflies. But on the other hand you get phosphorescence. And [Margot and Chandler's] experience has been pretty rich here...I can't imagine my life without Sitka."Tory isn't the only one who feels like her life is intertwined with Southeast Alaska. Many Alaskans found their way here in their early twenties, like Tory, and came up with ways to stay. Tory started out as a research assistant making barely enough to get by, and in a few short years she was the point person running the Rockfish survey project. For Tory, Alaska was and is a place where she could make opportunities for herself, and literally choose her own adventure.
How have you shaped your life in Alaska? How has Alaska shaped you?
Today's episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Ben Hamilton about becoming a filmmaker in Southeast Alaska. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Ben, read on…
Ben Hamilton, a native Texan, never thought of himself as someone who lived in Alaska. But recently when a stranger asked if he spent the summers here, he had to stop and think about it. He was living here this summer. And lived here the summer before. And, as it turns out, Ben realized that he is a 24-year old filmmaker who has spent the last six summers living in Southeast Alaska, very far from both Texas and from what the average person would think of as a thriving cinema industry. But getting into the wild has given him opportunities he couldn't have found anywhere else. He talks about his first film, Echoes in the Tongass, as his second film school. "I spent more hours on that movie than I did in classes," he says. "The Tongass is definitely a media resource for me. There's so much that I've filmed here that it's been a huge resource. Financially, without the Tongass, I don't think that I would have worked here, without question. For most films you need a subject with conflict and a narrative. Wilderness area doesn't necessarily have a story, unless there's a human story behind it. Humans working to protect a conservation area from a threat? It seemed like a story worth telling."
Not only did his work help spread a message of conservation for the Tongass, but the Tongass also helped spread the message of Ben: in particularly, the quality of his work. "Now with National Geographic, I'm considered an Alaskan contact. I'm currently in talks with the BBC to help coordinate Southeast Alaska shoots," he says. "Which is crazy. But if you spend enough time in a place, you get to know it."
Ben represents a new type of subsistence lifestyle in Alaska. He makes his living from the land, and what he shoots out in the wilderness he still has to pack to town on his back. But what Ben can bring home are not anything that could fill his freezer. Instead, they're the stories of the land that he has grown to love, stories that are shared with people all over the world in order to show them what a temperate rainforest or a calving glacier looks like, and why they're worth protecting. And getting to see more wilderness than 90% of the residents of Southeast isn't just nice for Ben's viewers. "I have no doubt that living in Sitka has changed who I am," Ben says. "There are definitely moments where I just think this is the most beautiful place in the world. I've been so lucky. On one of the most incredible sunset nights I've ever seen, we saw aurora borealis and the Milky Way. Before that I had never seen stars in Sitka." How did he find the secret to stargazing in cloudy Southeast? "You just have to stay late enough until it gets dark. To wake up in the middle of the night to see the sky filled with stars? That was a magical night."
This week's episode of Voices of the Tongass features,Squid Fishing, a poem written and recited by Berett Wilber, who was born and raised in Sitka. Her collection of poems, entitled Lesser Known Marine Mammals Lesser Known Love Songs, won the departmental prize for poetry this year at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she has been a student since 2011. Many of the themes and images in her poems are drawn from her experiences growing up in the Tongass, from the ocean, and from everyday life in Sitka.
To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. Check out our Voices of the Tongass page, under the media tab, to listen to all of our shows.
Don't forget to tune in to Raven next Thursday during Morning Edition!
it's snowing fat and white in denver and i am meeting your mother for the first time. she is burning the turkey and the salty steam, that comes out of the oven rich and wasted, takes me straight back to the ocean, straight back to
squid fishing in the dark, heavy nets billowing in the black currents, until the skipper flips the switch and every surface of the boat shocks itself alight, a tiny marble palace bobbing in the sea, shining steady from across the waves.
and then the searchlights, pouring down into the water, strike opalescent gold - the first clouds of squid, pulsing up from the gloom to where we are silently gripping the slick rails, waiting for the call, boots glowing on the wet deck.
when your mother takes her shoes off and pours herself a glass of something shallow and shimmery to drink, i float off the coast of california in my mind because you laugh like a lighthouse searching for a ship to save and you fan the turkey with your hands, and in this moment, it seems love is not so far from fishing, and we are not so far from squid -
that breathless search in the inky dark, and the phosphorescent promise of rising to the light.
To listen to Berett read her poem, click the play bar below. If you don't see the play bar, try the link.
Today's episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Bailey Brady about growing up on a float house. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Bailey's stories, read on…
At 20, Bailey Brady has had fewer chances than most to get her feet planted firmly on the ground. A native Southeast Alaskan, Bailey spent her formative early years living on her family's float house. "It's your own personal island!" she says. And it has shaped Bailey's perspective in a unique way: for here, there's not just one right way to do things, even in terms of a foundation. "It creates different expectations for me, for a house, and what you can do with it," she says to us. The fact that we are sitting at a reclaimed restaurant booth on the back deck of her family's current on-shore home, walled in by recycled windows and a salvaged glass door only serves to prove her point.
For many kids (not to mention their parents), a float house might seem like an incredibly limiting perimeter. "To go into town you had to take your skiff in," Bailey says, "And I was little, so it was just one trip in a day to go to daycare. Then Mom would come pick me up and skiff out again. Other than that, regular life. Just in a house that floats on the water. " But Bailey says it taught her how to be creative, even if she couldn't step off her front porch. "You find places to go on your float house," she says. She recounts the places she would explore: the big deck, her dad's big troller, which was tied to the float when he wasn't out fishing. And Bailey was no stranger to fishing herself. Whether it was with her Spiderman rod or just trying to fish her cat Marbles out of the water, she always found a way to stay entertained on the water.
And now, living in Sitka, to Bailey it seems like her space to roam has significantly expanded. And while some people might feel penned up by the very real city limits, Bailey still sees endless possibilities. "You've only got fourteen miles of road and so you appreciate it a lot more. You make a lot more out of those fourteen miles. Living on an island is such an amazing experience - you're a little bit more limited, but you have a lot more opportunities at the same time and I think that really shapes people in a different way."Bailey herself is proof of that - her ability to find creative opportunities and possibilities that are often overlooked by others are evidence that the places we grow up shape who we are, from our values to our outlooks on life. And even for kids who didn't literally grow up on the water, Bailey is a great example of the power of perspective. Your physical boundaries can only restrict you as much as you allow them to - and unlimited adventure can be found in even the smallest quarters.
If you don't see a play bar below, try using the link to play this week's show, produced by Caitlin Woolsey and Berett Wilber: LWL_BAILEY_BRADY.
Today's episode of Voices of the Tongass features a story from Carina Nichols about growing up fishing. To listen to the show, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more of Carina's stories, read on...
Carina Nichols is 26 years old, and is currently working to become an optometrist. Behind the desk of the local vision clinic Carina seems perfectly ordinary. However, she is not like other optometry students. Her career path took took a long detour on her family's commercial fishing boat. She and her twin brother Ryan were seven weeks old when they started fishing. They eventually became the crew of their family's freezer-troller, and they spent every summer fishing out of Sitka, Alaska. So how did Carina find herself interested in optometry?
"I have really bad vision," she says, "And my parents were really struggling with getting me to be excited to go for walks or be out on the boat." What they didn't realize was that Carina literally couldn't see what they were trying to show her. "They would tell me ‘Look at the whales!' and I would be looking and looking, and I would see a stick float by the boat, and I would think, Wow, that must be a whale, they sure are boring." When Carina finally got glasses, her whole world changed: "Some humpback whales were jumping by the boat and I went crazy. I couldn't believe that that was a whale. I had to go wake my mom up and say ‘You gotta come see these! This is just the most amazing thing!'" Carina's experience gave her a huge appreciation for being able to see the world around her.
When Carina talks about her plans for the future - optometry school, working to help people, spending time outside, probably even fishing - she is calm and collected, unlike many people her age who are struggling to find direction in a gloomy economic climate. When we ask about her positive outlook, she attributes some of her focus to her years on the boat. "I'm definitely am not afraid to work hard for what I want. Fishing is a lot of diligent hard work, and you have to dig in if you want to be successful with it. My parents were really big proponents of working for what you want instead of just getting it." She laughs. "We had rain gear real young."
And Carina says she hasn't left fishing forever. Her ideal future? Work in the winter and spring, go fishing in the summer. Maybe when her twin brother Ryan gets his own boat, so the two of them can finish what they started at seven weeks old. She would love to come back and work in Sitka, she says, and being out on the water has never stopped being important to her; she feels closest to her home when she is out on the boat and away from the lights of town.
Voices of the Tongass premiered this morning on Raven Radio!
This week's episode was a poem called Physical Love, written and recited by Berett Wilber, who was born and raised in Sitka. Her collection of poems, entitled Lesser Known Marine Mammals Lesser Known Love Songs, won the departmental prize for poetry this year at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she has been a student since 2011. Many of the themes and images in her poems are drawn from her experiences growing up in the Tongass, from the ocean, and from everyday life in Sitka.
Did you miss it? Do you want to hear it again? Just hit play on the track below. All episodes will be available here at the SCS website.
To hear more Voices of the Tongass, tune in to Raven next Thursday during Morning Edition.
physical lovewe will never touch anything in our whole lives. our electrons and protons whirring around each other in a series of missed connections so close they feel solid - my palms gripping the splinterless oars, the sway of the rowboat on the water, my wet feet close enough to put in your lap,
this is all just sensation.
we will also never hear each other. the words that you speak will never come to me as you mean them. they will be necessarily twisted through their journey in the internal tunnels of my mind, mere translations that will account for the specific friction of your vocal chords but also, science tells us, your posture, the shape of your mouth, and the exchange of the muscles in your back as you pull us out towards the center of the lake.
sweetheart, i am losing myself in all of this - but what i'm trying to say to you is:
there is a wilderness between us. and it is deeper and more vast
than any of the forests and deserts and mountains that we could cross in this life or any other. we will never be able to escape the bounding boxes of these bodies, leave ourselves behind long enough to make the journey towards that soft pink space where we are each tucked safely and separately like conchs inside our shells.
what I'm trying to tell you is:
this is why my wet feet are in your lap, my ice-cold swimming shoulder pressed against your warm one.
every shiver you shiver from the chill collected in my skin, is a path through the wild. an unlikely victory for the impossibility of our proximity.