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Unnaturally Natural

A fine rain is falling, but its presence brings only smirks. In most places a steady rain would spell the end to any bonfire. But not here. If you’re going to wait for a nice day to play outside you could be waiting a long time. Besides, it’s not every day that Kim Heacox turns 66 and you’re asked to play percussion for a medley of Beatles tunes with the names changed to some variation of “Kim,” “Kimmy,” or “dude.”

After a final rousing chorus of “Hey Dude” we pile our plates with the ridiculous bounty Hank Lentfer and Anya Maier have pulled out of their garden and the woods of Lemesurier Island. Of the six dishes on the table (including deer and two types of potatoes), only the Macaroni and Cheese did not originate within ten miles of the plates. Guilt free food at its finest.

Hank has a fire going and we crowd around, impervious to the precipitation that is still trying to crash the party. Someone has fashioned Kim a crown from construction paper, and after his second beer he begins to issue edicts:

Edict #1: “Pee off your porch at least once a day.”

Edict #9: “Pee off your porch at least twice a day.”

Edict #21: “There shall be an edict #22.”

The most adorable monarchy of all time.

It’s not the first time that I’ve gathered around a fire with these people and marveled at how on earth I became their friends, and now their neighbor. Both the Heacox’s and Lentfer/Maier’s are within a well thrown baseball of our property while wunderkind Zach Brown and his ambitious Inian Island Institute are just down the aquatic street.

As we talk and the beer flows, the cloud adorned ceiling drops lower and lower until the fog is perched on the tops of the Spruce trees like a hat. The guitars come out. As sure as there will be rain, there will be guitars at a Gustavus gathering. Van Morrison, Buddy Tabor, and more Beatles rise up to meet the clouds. In a world that seems to have spun out of control the handful of us around the fire seem temporarily insulated. The fog wraps around us like a blanket, shrouding us from the insanity that has become American politics. Fear melts away, anxiety vanishing with every verse.

In my slightly inebriated state I look around the bonfire, convinced that I have discovered the meaning of life.

As humanity turns to a more urbanized existence, I wonder if we’re robbing ourselves of one of our birthrights. Like processed sugar, man has not subsisted off a diet of high density living for that long. Certainly not long enough to evolve a tolerance for it. It would be nearly impossible to emulate this sort of gathering in Seattle, let alone New York, Boston, or countless other meccas. But after living as either nomads or in small, tightly woven communities for so long, it’s hard to imagine that an essential part of what makes us human is lost when we are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of others. Yes, people have parties in the city all the time. But in the stoic and lifeless walls of a building where eyes drift to iPhones every couple of minutes, does this feed the tribe desire seeded deep within? Almost every person who visits Gustavus falls in love (though most insist they could never live here). And yet few can put their finger on what it is that attracts them. Perhaps the cocktail of tribal bonding and wilderness setting flips the switch within that we have been steadily burying since a certain industrial revolution.

Hank plops down next to me. I’m only partially joking when I say he’s the blueprint for what I want to be when I’m 40. I used to envy people’s cars, now I envy Hank’s garden and root cellar which are an aspiring gardener’s fantasy. His garden is no more than 600 square feet, but from it he, Anya, and their daughter Linnea grow enough potatoes, carrots, and beets to get them through the winter. It’s late June and they’re still chipping away at last year’s potato harvest. Their freezer is stocked with deer from Lemesurier (affectionately referred to as “Lem”) and halibut. I gobble down deer roast and answer questions around my fork.

“You got the shitter set up yet?” Hank has the gift of brevity in addition to gifting us their old outhouse which has the dimensions and weight of a medieval battering ram.

“Not yet, I still need to get it into the woods somehow. But it’s upright and we got a tarp on it to keep the rain off. I still feel like you christen it for us.”

He laughs and Zack plops down next to us, clinking the Obsidian Stout in his hand against the one in mine.

“We just had the septic in our place go out.” He says, eyes in the fire. “We thought that the pipe was just frozen for the winter but…” he takes a long pull on his beer, “turns out that it’s… seeping into the yard.” He sighs and smiles. Nothing keeps a smile off Zack’s face for long. “It’s incredible. The work and effort that we go through for the luxury of pooping indoors.”

I look over Hank’s shoulder to where Anya sits listening and we share a smile.

“Every time we hang out we talk about where we shit.”

Me and Brittney’s first decision when we bought our land was that we would rock a composting toilet forever, save 15 grand digging a leach field and installing a tank, and score free manure in the process. If it’s good enough for the Lentfer/Maier’s it’s plenty good for us.

Zack’s still mulling the incredulity of it all. There’s a bit of Socratic flair in him, questioning everything. “It’s so unnatural, and then it goes into a tank and gets shipped to where? Seattle?”

Hank nods and Zack shakes his head, “so unnatural,” he repeats.

I look around the fire to where Patrick Hanson is strumming out “Into the Mystic” while Jen Gardner and Linnea sing along, Kim is on edict number 30, a couple of people from out of town stare as if they’ve just landed on the dark side of the moon, and the fog insulates us from it all. Perhaps we seem unnatural to the world. Perhaps our willingness to do our business outside, eat the food we grow, and play hopscotch with the poverty line is crazy. But darn it all if it doesn’t beat two hour commutes and cookie cutter homes on a tenth of an acre. I like being the crazy one, the unnatural one. Because in doing so I think I’ve found that in reality it’s the most natural instinct we have.

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The Parson Island Relay

The breath catches in my chest, my legs wobble, and my arms shake. I try to take another step forward and feel the ground slide beneath me. Mud and its ally gravity pull me to the ground. My elbows bounce off the cedar boughs and spruce branches that carpet the hillside, my head bangs against the cardboard box in my arms. I groan and lay motionless for a moment, grateful that no one but the trees and squirrels were present to see my fall. The sound of a humpback surfacing floats through the trees from Blackney Pass 100 feet away. I roll over and look up at the tops of the trees, massaging my chin and wiping sweat from forehead.

For the last twenty minutes I’ve been participating in a maniacal relay. In the six cardboard boxes are batteries. Batteries that are getting heavier every time I pick them up. Between the soothing breaths of the humpback and my more labored ones, I’ve developed a rhythm. Fifty steps. Drop. Return. Grab the next. Fifty steps. Drop. Return.

Paul and I had unloaded the batteries on Parson Island, the island across Blackney Pass from Hanson Island and OrcaLab. Now he’s scurrying back to the lab to grab Brittney to monitor the boat as the tide falls. Free us to  move the tedious batteries up to the Parson Island camera site. As we move the batteries into the woods we’re already panting, sweating, and shedding our wool sweaters. It’s a quarter mile to the camera site, most of it uphill.

“They say,” Paul gasps, “that battery technology has really improved the last few years…” he weighs the battery in his hands, “I don’t feel a difference.”

I have to agree. I could wait for Paul to get back so we can carry the batteries up the hillside together. But I’ve never been patient.

Which is why I’m laying on my back, staring up at the treetops, letting the remnants of last nights rain fall from the needles and onto my face. Despite the burning in my legs and the distance still to go, it’s impossible to not be moved by the sublimity of the scene. An eagle chitters and the humpback explodes to the surface again, its breath sounding like a trumpet, the echoes bouncing off the rock cliffs. I smile and permit my eyes to close for just a moment, feel my spirit sink into the forest floor. I could lay here forever.

“Everyone deserves to see this.”

Which is coincidentally, why I’m here in the first place. The new camera atop the Parson Island cliff demands more power than the eight Kirkland brand car batteries can provide in the winter when the sun disappears for days on end. The batteries in my arms should help the camera stream throughout the winter with minimal help from the balky generator stashed under tarps and rocks.

Fifteen minutes later, the batteries are at the top of the hill. The sound of an engine floats across the water, Paul’s back. We relay the batteries together. Past a thicket of Salal and around Cedar trees. The sunlight moves through the forest, the only marker of time as the afternoon wears on.

“After scurrying over rocks, hauling batteries up hills, and everything else you make me do,” I say, “I’ll never be able to have a real, respectable job… thank you”

He laughs and claps me on the shoulder, “come on boy, no rest for the wicked. And apparently,” he lifts another battery into the rubbermaid tub we’re using as a sling, “we are really wicked people.”

As we work the humpback continues to trace the Parson shore line. It’s surfacings the perfect background music. Soothing and relaxing to counteract our labored breathing as the relay continues. Finally we break through the salal bushes and onto the cliff overlooking Blackney Pass. The water has become a mirror. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so calm, like liquid glass gently vibrating. I can hear the mutterings of murre’s. Random rays of sun stab through the clouds like knives and illuminate the gentle rain that has begun to fall. I’m struck dumb by the beauty. How can this not change people? We unpack the batteries and begin to hook them up. Maybe this camera will.

Thirty minutes later the job is done. With our arms full of soggy and decomposing cardboard we move back down the hill. I know this trail far too well now. Walking it twelve times will do that. We board the boat and disturb that perfect stretch of water. The humpbacks have moved away from Parson Island toward Johnstone Strait. Any day now they’ll swim east down the strait and set course for Hawaii. Leaving us with the sea lions and harbor seals for company.

We leap neatly from the boat and onto the rocks and look out over the water. Brittney gasps. An incredible rainbow has sprung into being. As Paul motors away back toward Alert Bay he slow the boat, his phone extended through the window, photographing the picturesque scene. Even after forty some years it’s still not old to him.

I sit down on the rocks and drink it in. This. This is what makes me happy, fulfilled. Hauling batteries through the woods, humpbacks in my office. Porter gives a soft meow and jogs up beside me, rubbing his face against my arm. My hand goes to my forehead and I feel the dried sweat glued to my skin. Now if only I could find some hot running water around here for a quick shower.

We Have Neither the Plans Nor Disguises

My last Christmas in Eagle River I went to the same holiday party that I’ve been going to for years. No longer though, was it acceptable for my friends and I to drag the TV into one of the bedrooms, hook up the Gamecube, and beat each other silly in Super Smash Brothers, taking time only to race back upstairs through the maze of grown ups for another piece of pie. Now in our mid 20s it was time to negotiate through the kitchen, making small talk and drinking enough to make it all seem interesting.

Balancing a plate of food I bumped into person after person I had hardly spoken to since high school. Time and again I would compress the last five years of my life into a succinct three minute presentation. That I had graduated college, was not in grad school, and was working seasonal jobs and globe trotting as much as possible. Most were receptive, some excited at the prospect of spending a winter on an island isolated from the rest of the world, understanding the romanticism and beauty of living a simplistic life for months at a time. Others, did not.

As the night wore on and we continued to shift conversation partners, I bumped into a man I hadn’t seen since high school. A middle aged father of two, he had for a time been a volunteer in the youth group of my church as I was growing up. And so I began my presentation, summarizing my summers on whale watch boats, farming in New Zealand, and my upcoming year in British Columbia and Orca Lab. Anyone whose ever given a presentation, at school or work has felt the wriggle of insecurity as you begin to talk, and know that it isn’t going to end well. His face evolved from one of surprise, than shock, and finally, condescending.

“How old are you now, David?” He asked.

“25.”

“When are you going to start taking life seriously?”

I pause, taken aback by his bluntness. What would constitute taking life seriously? Did I have to make X amount per year? Or own a house of a certain square footage? Or perhaps I had to have a job that I didn’t love. I avoid a philosophical debate and chose to just announce that I’m happy with my life, young, and having fun.

“Well, yeah,” he allows, “but it’s like riding a skateboard.”

A skateboard? Whatever he had in that glass I wanted some.

“You see those 13, 14 year olds riding around and that’s ok. But if you see, like a bunch of old guys riding around on them… you can’t do it forever. You start to wonder when they’re going to grow up.”

Convoluted and ambiguous metaphors aside, my pride began to flicker, my eyes narrow, the cocktail shrimp on my plate forgotten. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard inquiries such as this. About once a week during the summer, some older man would try to explain to me why I couldn’t go on this way forever. But there was something about hearing it from a man who knew me, someone that I had been friendly with that made this time different.

But as I walked away a few minutes later, I began to feel pity instead of anger. I imagined if one of his kids came to him someday with the same wanderlust that had overtaken me. What kind of reception would he receive?

It is a very American ideology. That we must have a plan, that we must be secure, safe, comfortable. We build walls of comfort and safety and along the way, forget what it means to be alive. But it is all ok, because it has been deemed acceptable and normal to live this way. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, retire, die. It is a blueprint followed by most, and for many, perhaps that’s ok. For some, maybe they are perfectly happy and content to live in the same house and go to the same office every day for forty years, punctuated by their annual two week vacation.

But for a growing number of the younger generation, it isn’t. We’ve seen too many of those walls turn into bars, a prison with no escape. Guarded by the henchmen of mortgage, debt, and car payments. Maybe they’d be happier if they pulled their old skateboard out of the closet from time to time, gave it a whirl, and remembered what it felt like to be young and free. As I’d neared this age of reckoning and college wound down, I began to feel this noose begin to tighten. I wondered if there was another way, a different trail down the road of life. Bumpier, perhaps, but a lot more fun. Slowly I loosened the noose until finally I became ok announcing that there was no plan. That I wanted to be an environmentalist and a writer and as long as I was doing something to better the wild world and wasn’t curling up under park benches at night, it’d be ok.

And so to the man that I doubt will ever read this. I plan to ride that skateboard until a wheel snaps off and sends me careening into the briar patch. Who knows, maybe it’ll never happen, maybe it will. But every second is going to be a fulfilling ride that I wouldn’t trade for anything.