The Unfathomable Love
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;
The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.
From “Darkness” by Lord Byron
Most times in my life, with lights flashing on behind me, three in the morning darkness, drinking, I would have been terrified, the future collapsing like Byron’s masts fall from ships, but I simply handed them my license and registration.
Fifteen years ago, I took a plane to Karluk, Alaska and left my home town. Karluk became a part of my heart, a part of my self and the story I tell about who I am. I am part many places. I had almost moved away from my home town one other time to live with my father in Idaho. This time, just 21, with a need to run away, to get lost, I left without even saying goodbye to the land, the smell of sycamore fading. Byron talks about that “selfish prayer for light” in the forgotten passions gone to dreaded desolation. Yes! When there is no clear fight, no clear enemy, there is no retreat or falling back to fortresses. You simply run in the dark. In Karluk, I liked how you walked around with trepidation at all times because bears, big brown bears lurked in night. Never fear, but awareness. Death, real death, not adrenaline death, not high-mountain-summit-attempt death, or hanging-from-a-rock-cliff death, just the possibility was always around each tuft of grass and bend in the trail. Rather than always carry a gun, I opened my senses and listened to the wind through the nettles and the late fall rustle of the drying cow parsnip flowers.
In the spring, in Karluk, everything emerged from snow; the trash, the oil barrels and broken boats bud into reality until the grass, fed on 20 hours of sunlight, paint the landscape beautiful. It is not a picture of a place, but the process of it I began to love. My awareness branched out into the landscape. I worked each day along the river, my aunt Martha this beautiful strawberry blond whirlwind of a person moving with all emotion; Cecil and his quiet listening, speaking into his hands, his striking long black hair sweeping from the cigarette smoke; my cousins coming back to their home and their own family bicker we all have; Cecil’s father, Nicky, driving the diesel tanker truck back and forth to the dirt runway to meet the plane or bring fuel to the village generators; sitting in windows watching, with binoculars, the eagles spiral on thermals, scanning the hills for bears, the tide pouring in and out from the lagoon. Salmon ripple the water as thousands pour through each movement of the moon.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” Chico grumbles at the police officer.
“Your passenger tail light is out.”
“Oh, yeah, it has a loose connection. I thought I fixed that.” He asks for registration and I apologize as I dig through the pile of paperwork tucked into the door pockets with receipts for repairs and copies of American Poetry Review. I hand him the Utah Safety Inspection where it shows all lights worked 3 months ago.
“I’ll be right back.” His light shines into the pine-paneled 4X4 van, and only my surfboard, wetsuit, and batteries for the solar panels are inside. He walks away and I can hear the radio call in my Utah driver’s license.
There is a lot of research on rites of passage ritual, about the liminality of people unable to reincorporate back home as a different person, a new person. We leave friends and family and try to come back redefined. I knew I had to leave home the first time because I was drowning in the darkness, my mind reeling in the fog’s nighttime creep onto land. I have never been a partier, not one for large social events, and prefer the quietness of the stars at night, but the loneliness of the mind can get the best of us, even surrounded by people; however, Karluk changed that real quickly.
Within one week of being there, John wants to fight me one drunken night, the next morning his brother Dale comes over accuses me with a gun displayed on his hip about stealing a propeller from a boat; later that same day their dad, Sonny, dies from eating bad clams he went to go get for all of us to have a clam bake party—he saved our lives; the whole village goes on a bender, and people fly in from other villages to join; my Aunt just lost her neighbor and best friend and we have a full house with her richest and most generous client and his co-workers, but everything is grief. Bears try to dig up Sonny from his grave and Dale sits watch with a gun all night, but we make up about the propeller issue and become good friends eventually with more adventures: “logging” with his boat, killer whales, catching skates, his beautiful family. Mostly it is Cecil, Dale, Nancy, me, and who knows who else, drifting around in a boat during high tide until the fog comes in, drinking, smoking. When the fog would come in, it saturated the landscape, water dripped off the metal roofs of the abandoned village where someone would drop me off, where my Aunt still lived, Sonny’s house still empty. I would listen to their boat as it raced back to their side of the lagoon, hear someone set the anchor in rocks, and walk up the dirt road to their house. Often it was Cecil driving, and he drove his little gray, eventually windowless, pickup he had rolled over once, back up to his house the two dirt blocks it was from the beach. In the morning he would drive back down, get in a boat and race across the lagoon, even at low tide, and be there for coffee in the morning and to take clients fishing again. However, at night, when I turned off the diesel generator that powered the lodge and house, only waves from the Shelikof whispered against the rock beaches. I would breathe in the quietness, I could feel it.
As the police lights shine into my van, I am thinking about the night prior, out at Los Cumbres observatory looking at M3, 10 billion years old and the possible 60 moons of Saturn and how they would make tide tables chaotic and surfing them a real talent, and a woman orbiting my mind, taking the very moment away, and me needing it gone—to launch it out into stellar nothingness, too often looking into the “mad disquietude” of a dull sky. I need solitude and I can’t find it. The Google designer who now spends his money on telescopes and observatories he places around the world has a company logo that says, “we keep you in the dark.” The solar eclipse just passed through and I thought about how horrific that must have felt to a people who watch the sun, the weather, the tides, and the moon because life demands it. Do we have knowledge or more ignorance now? Should love ever feel lonely?
I would fly out of Karluk during the hard winter months, say goodbye to Cecil, Dale, Nancy, Tinka, Nicky, Mary, and anyone else who might come out the day I loaded onto a plane and flew out across towards the cape and circled back around over the lodge, up the river, and out. I would always look for bears along the banks. Each time, not sure when I would be back or if I would ever be back.
If I did arrive into Karluk thinking the “world was void,” “a clump of death—a chaos of hard clay,” I always left better, with a bit of faith in the land, an eye to the stars. How does solitude in nature sometimes make you feel less alone than a crowded room of friends? The cop walks back to my car, hands me my license and registration and tells me to get it fixed. I drive back to my Uncle’s warehouse, park the van and stare up at the stars, realize this is not a return home, light pollution blocking the details, fog rolling in; I go inside to the empty, windowless warehouse room and sleep. I have been away from real wilderness for too long. The universe may have no need for the lakes, the rivers, the ocean, the tides, the moon, the waves, the wind, or the clouds, but I do. The infinitesimal reality and impalpable immensity of it all grounds me.