A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Everyday Extraordinary

[Note: I wrote this essay in March, 2003.  It seems that I was a less sarcastic beast back then -- twins will do that to you, not to mention PhDs.  Life has changed, of course. There was no Facebook in 2003, blogs were not nearly so epidemic, the global population was smaller, and Tamarack Knoll (our lovely 13-person not-really-a-commune, about to celebrate its 10th anniversary) had yet to be founded.  Nonetheless, I've skied to the lake -- Ace Lake -- many a time since 2003, and in some ways the musings below seem as timely as ever, if not more so.  So here you go: everyday extraordinary.]

And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days
--James Russell Lowell

I skied to the lake today. I pushed shut my cabin door behind me - - no latch, no lock -- snapped my boots into old-fashioned 3-pin bindings, and shoved mittened hands through pole-loops. My skis slipped down onto the hummocky nameless trails. Left turn, right turn, quirky dip and drop, the crunching glide of crusted snow -- and I stood in the lake's frozen center, ringed by an audience of black spruce, willow and alder.

I live here, I told myself. The lake is not mine, any more than the snow is mine. But this Alaska woodland is my home. How many people experience such a luxury? Even if I visit the lake every day, the experience is nonetheless rare. I turned my face up into the early afternoon sun, and let the scarcity of this ordinary experience soak through me.

Uncommonness is a form of currency.  Our world is valued according to a human obsession with scarceness; we deride the unwanted and abundant, and covet what we have least.  We rename our world as our values change. Rainforests were dark, forbidding jungles, until we realized they were vanishing. The Army Corps of Engineers worked hard to drain bogs, but the fast-disappearing bogs have lexically morphed into wetlands, which the Army Corps works hard to protect.

In early April, the lake is still solid enough to drive an eighteen-wheeler across, were it not a mile or more from the nearest road. The snow is tracked and pocked from the passage of skis and boots, paws and claws and hoofs and dogsleds, but I stood alone today, inhaling a sense of space that is itself unusual amidst burgeoning 6 billion of our species.  The air hung still and cold enough to crackle dry in my lungs, but the sun-glare off the snow shouted "spring!"

I remember the lake in December, darkly different. Then, even during our three daylight hours, the sun hovers so low as to be muted dawn at noon, and the snow has a dim blue cast to it. Each sunlit minute is savored.   At the year’s zenith, in June, a whining density of mosquitoes amidst the cattails lurks in wait for any red-blooded beast lured by the waterside's succulent greens. The chemistry of mammals has changed little in a million years; I imagine that I taste just like a moose to a mosquito. I wonder how we might feel about mosquitoes if we saw them only singly, and fleetingly. If mosquitoes were rare, would we value them?  The lake is different yet again in September; the edges first crust with ice, just as the cranberries underfoot burst ripe in the uncanny color of blood.  The last drops squeeze from a succinct growing season, eagerly appreciated for its very briefness. Alaskans do not take summer for granted, for it too is in short supply.

I've read that when it was common, lobster used to be a poor man's food. Around the time New England was given that unimaginative name, armored bottom-feeders washed up on the shores in piles two feet deep, and sank into fishy-smelling decay. The grandfather lobsters, sixty or seventy years old, were each 40 pounds of irascible crustacean. Pilgrim children, undoubtedly less virtuous than we imagine them to be, whined at the dinner table as they worked to crack those menacing claws - "not lobster AGAIN!"

Twenty years ago, a different generation of children spurred parents to fight each other at shopping malls to bring home supply-limited cloth and plastic objects with names and birth certificates. I was the only little girl in my class who did not own a Cabbage Patch Doll. I relished that fact as a different form of uncommonness.

But craving rarity is not merely a game for children.  Humans have enslaved whole generations, and consigned thousands of lifetimes to scrabbling and blasting deep underground in a desperate quest for tiny crystals of pure carbon. If diamonds were as common as granite, they would be nothing more than sharp rocks to us -- hazardous rough-edged pebbles amidst the warm and softly weathered beach sands.

I am no different. I have chosen to eschew diamonds and gold in favor of rock-jumbled mountainsides, pawprints in the snow, and the smell of damp moss, but my senses still clamor for the unfamiliar, the out-of-the-ordinary. I have heard scoffing directed at urbanites who want to protect wilderness, irritation at idealists in high-tech footwear, and anger at self-proclaimed environmentalists living climate-controlled lives. But I think I understand the paradox, and the apparent hypocrisy. We humans don't realize what we have until the last of it is trickling between our fingers. When all we see is tangled, thorny, predatory-fanged forest, we dream of conquering the wilderness. When all we see is concrete and girders, we beg to have our wilderness back, our bears and cougars and wolves back, at any price. How can I - how can anyone - learn to value what we already have?

Wanting what we do not -- and cannot -- have may be something unchangeable in the human makeup, as inbred a tendency as speech and fear. We may be eternal questers, dreamers, coveters, hoarders of diamonds and dolls. But while we cannot change our nature, we can guide it. Billions of types of rarity enrich this world, and it is within our nature to reject fickle fads and self-imposed needs. In their place, we can choose to cherish those rarities that will nourish best: the sight of the first robin in spring; the one person in the world who loves us most; the taste of a thousand varieties of wheat near-lost to monocrops; ephemeral streaks of aurora across an arctic sky; the one place, tucked between the mountains and sea, where tens of thousands of caribou give birth.

I ski to the lake, as I have a hundred times, and more. I stand on the ice and watch two squirrels chatter and chase in spring courtship. The average lifespan of a squirrel is only two or three years; for them, perhaps, this is the only spring, the only chilly sunlit day, the only chance. I turn my face up into the early afternoon sun, and let the scarcity of this ordinary experience soak through me.

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