The snow had finally given way and the river – coursing through Alaska’s lesser known temperate rainforests – ran high. Up ahead a hummingbird elevated and descended repeatedly amidst church-bell blueberry blossoms, boring its needle bill in and out. Unmindful of my approach, it sucked its nectar with aplomb while the spruce overhead bled what was left of the morning rain into mosses and witch-finger devil’s club.
Brown bears wear the trail smooth all summer and fall, seeking sockeye, pinks, and cohos, and fishermen wear it further in pursuit of the same. The hummingbird, a rufous, let me get within feet then raised out of the bushes, flying to the snow-beaten salmonberry stalks lining the other bank. The bird bounded from one stem to the next, looking for starry pink blossoms that hadn’t quite bloomed. Giving up, it lifted above the twisting alders before buzzing upstream, and I pressed toward the first of several sun-friendly willow brakes that hopscotched the danker conifer realms.
Bear droppings lay along the last of the spruce-shaded trail. Dark and fibrous, they reflected the vegetable-rich diet of spring, and looking down on one, I noticed a wolf, too, had been here. Four torqued tubes of moose and beaver hair, vole fur and bone fragment crisscrossed one another in a fresh bear print, while the canine’s own deep pads had left tracks in the mud where the first willow clearing began.
By late spring, moose cows range thick along this watershed. Willow growth is lush in the soggy ground and the big animals come here to drop calves, nursing them as best they can on milk and buds. Losses, though, are high. Wolves and bears have their own young to fret, and a thousand generations of knowledge, along with ever keener noses, lead both species to these same broken meadows to sniff out the humid musk of moose placenta and track the easy, weakened feast at its source. I looked up. Five ravens – myth-makers to the native Tlingits, as well as the land’s carrion eaters – were perched high in a cottonwood, watching. They, too, knew what played out in this country.
Pulling a water bottle and energy bar from my pack, I listened to a fox sparrow whistle deep in the willows while a ruby-crowned kinglet warbled atop the spruce wall across the meadow. After swallowing half the bar, I raised the bottle to drink.
We’re new to this, all of us. Whether banished from Eden or evolved from hunting and gathering is irrelevant. Either way, we’re a collective eye-blink from integration. There was a time when I wouldn’t have fussed much over sparrows or hummingbirds. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been alone, but in a band, right here, tight-knit and stitched by kinship. It’s no energy bar that would’ve sustained me, but knowledge, the same knowledge as the wolves and bears. My clansmen and I inhale, deep, through the nose, scenting words, sentences, orisons. Another breath. There it is, sticky and fresh. We fan out. She’s lying down, worn, licking her slick and floundering calf in birthy grasses. The bears are out here, too, and the wolf pack, but we find her first. A couple of quick yips by the discoverer and the rest come running – barefoot, hungry, strong. The mother tries to rise but can’t. She’s speared and the calf clubbed. Some members cut the animals up while others spread out in the brush, crouching, protecting. We’re grateful, and express so in some old, abandoned way. Divinity, I imagine, meant something else then.
I put the pack back on. A pair of orange-crowned warblers, competitors, had joined the kinglet and sparrow in song. Upstream, over the spruce tops, the sun caught the snow on distant peaks.
I enjoyed this, I knew, all of it, and was comfortable, even deeply moved, in these places – forest, desert, anywhere – but didn’t belong. None of us do. That world is gone, the language lost, and as I looked off the bank into swollen waters I wondered if I hadn’t burned up most of my life decoyed by a defunct god.
It’s hardly new, this sheared linkage. Unsettled by technology, people persistently look rearward, lamenting the lifestyles steadily bleached by whatever gizmo of the day is in their hands, from chariot whips to iPhones. Each mechanised leap forward breaks away equal shares of terrain behind us, and we mourn. Today, blitzed by the digital age and the innovative flood wrought first by steam then internal combustion, we tend to mark such crippling nostalgia from people like Henry Thoreau or the Romantics, for whom the source – nature and our fundamental indivisibility from it – was grossly jeopardised by the Industrial Age.
Like humanity itself, though, the practice has no definitive origin. Socrates feared writing would wreck the human mind, and millennia before, unrecorded, it can be assumed the yoke and scythe roiled the human soul as much as today’s pixels and touchscreens. Even fire-on-demand likely spawned regret.
Standing on the river bank, I tried to put the current malaise of myself and so many nature-charged people in that context, but couldn’t help seeing this long lineage as a wave, one generated nearly at the start that is just now compiling to break. Even standing within it, we appear so decoupled from our quintessence – that original seamlessness in nature – that both our and its existences seem just that, separate entities.
We say it so often. However slick, however comfortable, our modern lives may be, they’ve leached away our vital interior. We know something critical is gone, and I knew it too by the river, but watching dark water move over stone, now a varied thrush hop from moss to limb then back again, then half a salmon skeleton – ribs cuddled around a nest of alder-snagged flood debris – I wasn’t sure that I or anyone else really understood what was gone, only that it was.
A jet flew overhead, descending into the village a few miles away, one of two daily flights in and out. Turning, I headed for the truck, knowing I yearned for something I couldn’t define while being dependent on things I wished I wasn’t, an ambivalence that had far greater potency than expected.
Born lucky, I’d always been a happy sort, well-grounded and largely immune to the depressive fogs that hamper so many I know, particularly in what we’ve increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene. Unable to shake the detachment I’d felt on the river that day, then, was something new, and as the weeks gave way to the short summer it became a concern.
My job with the state fish and game department kept me constantly in the woods, often alone, monitoring salmon spawning grounds. Normally I felt at ease there, as close to myself and the world as could be hoped, within fingers’ reach of that coquettish god I’d chased since childhood. Now, though, sloshing in streams shaded by spruce, listening to birdsong while watching the first salmon stage their fertility rites, I felt alien, alone, like a deer scratching ash in a burnt timberscape. Scratch enough, though, and revival comes, though when and of what I couldn’t know.
As so often happens, nothing dramatic did it. I didn’t climb a breath-taking peak nor repair to a remote lake for a healing hermitage. I simply moved through the same woods I always had, where the birds and the trees and the fish had lost what for me had been their lifelong enchantment. In a moment, though, during the sockeye run, in the normality of my job, it all returned.
The stream is named for the fish I meant to count, and if you’re looking for split-second majesty Sockeye Creek isn’t much to see. The land is flat and tree-shrouded. No Half Dome rises here. No Grand Canyon sinks nor Old Faithful spews nor Bering Glacier churns. No god on the half-shell. In a few spots I could jump across it, and for most of its length it runs no more than five yards wide. You have to walk this place, sitting from time to time, watching. Do it enough, learn it by years and seasons, and the old questions seep through like mist.
Floods had left generations of spruce trunks tangled in jams and crisscrossing the current along its length, and I worked my way up, over, and under the slip-throughs and catwalks that I always had, clicking fish off on the little device we called a tally-whacker. With no sockeye in a normally reliable pool, I cut across the bare gravel hemming it, noting a shred of rapidly drying milt – torn, buff-white, marred with a spider-burst of rotting blood – stuck to the stones, a lone vestige that the mink and jays hadn’t scavenged from a bear kill.
Coming to a large windthrow, I straddled one leg on each side and laid the rifle carried for bear protection on decaying wood. Tiny mushrooms, filaments of them with dew-drop heads, black in the stem and orange at the tip, were clustered in front of the gun. I had no idea what they were called, only that above the gurgling waters their delicacy of form belied a rapine for what the old tree still retained. For all its elegance, life’s every cell is complicit in a feral symbiosis, and if I was taken by the mushrooms’ frail splendor, it wasn’t lost on me that their wormy mycelia had been devouring this tree long before it toppled.
A sockeye finned in the pool above, then another. Still sitting, I ran a hand across my head, pressing sweat. July. Birdsong declines, but a fox sparrow husked a few notes from the salmonberries across the creek, lacking the lustful declaration of a few weeks before, while below, caddis larvae moved about the stream bottom inside the makeshift pebble tubes meant for self-protection, their bent, mechanical legs dragging them forward. Downstream, a grey, unimposing dipper dropped off a rock to enter the water. Emerging, it gained another stone, extracted a caddis from its dwelling, then swallowed. Nature seems so peaceful at times that we believe it to be so, and I wondered if joy wasn’t life’s only say, the rebellion against all that we – from people to buntings to tadpoles to stoneflies – don’t see, and may never comprehend.
Standing, I resumed the count, clicking off sockeyes. Some stretches were clean, not many fish and not many blow-downs, while others were choked with both. I came to the drowned forest where the channel had shifted some time ago, inundating trees in one line of wood while leaving the old route dry. The mountains, miles away, are visible here. The creek bed opens the forest in such a manner that a gravelled, timberless draw can be seen between two ridges. The slopes face south, and every year the same melt pattern lingers in the shadiest joint they share, one vertical line intersected by a shorter near the top. This cross clings through mid-July, and I looked upon it. Pure white save round the edges where the earth’s heat and burning sun ate the snow away, a run-off channel below it ran turgid, carrying flecks of mountain downslope. Standing there, in the jostled creek bed, with the peaks deliquescing in the distance, you can rightfully amend the old haiku: Though the capital may fall, the mountains and rivers remain. At least for a time.
When I reached the sickle-shaped pond where the count would end, I stepped out of the dark woods to enjoy the sunshine. The forest beyond the pond gives way to muskeg, a spongy, mossy morass. I stood at the water’s edge while the creek whispered behind me. A few tree swallows coursed above the water, nipping the surface. The sun had triggered a hatch, and midges found their way from water to air. All along the short beach bleached salmon relics, translucent, lay scattered among gray broken stone. Gill plates and ribs, a few jaw lines. Sockeye, pink, and coho. The valley of dry bones.
Squatting, I laid the rifle down then bowled my hands, splashing my face. Across the pond a tribe of monkshood grew from the sedge, their purple, downward frailty veiling the poison inside. A salmonberry stalk drooped nearby, weighted by a dozen fruits hung over the water. Rosy on top, green-revolving-to-red on bottom, the pimpled berries absorbed the sun, tempting bears, birds, and people. It starts with plant life, all of it, while plant life starts with that unfathomably far-off solar fission, and I realised that this was probably as close as I’d come. In all that searching, in all that god-crazed, purpose-crazed hounding that had slow-cooked most of my life, I wasn’t sure if I’d found anything at all, only doubting if we’ve ever really improved on truths we knew from the beginning, that the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog after all.
Piercing and persistent, a familiar sound cut the air. I stood. Not many birdsongs are unwelcome, but the monotone screech of a lesser yellowlegs is one of them. They stand atop dying evergreens alongside wetlands, scourging all comers with their well-developed alarum. This one, though, was hurt. Large for a shorebird, they’re otherwise unremarkable, with a needle bill, plump body, and stilted legs. Such a one now circled the patch of marsh that led from pond to muskeg. Normally their legs stick straight behind, but here an appendage dangled below in sad inutility. Stammering its protests downward in atonal succession, the bird ascended with each circumference, as if it could out-wing its fate, but it was no matter. It looked to the grass below, circling the circle of its own demise.
The swallows just then were as pleased with their lot as the shorebird was agitated by its own. Many more had gathered to revel in the reap of midge-life. They twittered about, arcing and slicing, intercepting the insects’ uncertain careers. Rise and descent, rise and descent, filling themselves with food. You understand joy when you see it, and as the swallows continued snapping midges from the air I sensed it as well, rising up to the burning blue, a stiff challenge to whatever indifference glowered upon them.
‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.’ Shakespeare gave that to Hamlet, and it’s become increasingly accepted since that we’re the divinity he implied. Maybe that was intended. Regardless, we seem to have as little control over how our ends are shaped now than if there is indeed outside agency.
As both master and slave, then, we press on, currently bound to destroy much of the world in which we developed all the old gods and all the old ways, the fossilised fragments of which so many of us seek. Watching the swallows, though, and witnessing the yellowlegs feather out the last of itself high above them, I gave myself over to the present. The future, I finally understood, can’t be known, and the past, enticing and instructional as it may be, is no oracle. The present, however, offers joy, our sedition, and the opportunity to marvel what’s at hand.
I’d moved to Alaska from New England, where settlers colonised Plymouth nearly four centuries before. The land there is changing, at least some of it. Commercial cranberry farms, operating for two centuries, are giving way to cheaper operations out west. In a few places, Plymouth included, people are restoring the bogs to their natural state. Excavating 200 years of human-piled sand, they weren’t sure how to re-vegetate the newly relieved wetlands. They didn’t have to. Dormant seeds sprouted from the peat, weaving their reeds, mosses, and grasses as if the English had never showed. Two hundred years of dark, a season of sun, then revival.
I’d lament the loss of life, I knew, the vanished species and all the rest, but seeds, it seems, have patience. How the devolution of modernity will play out is unknown, but everything dormant within us and without us will, eventually, germinate, giving rise to new gods and new ways, however shaped by the old. We’re not the wise ape, but we are the storytelling one, and will find, as we always have, fresh myths to sustain us. In the meantime I had the present, and birds and insects and fish with their own ways and myths before me.
Mike Freeman lived in Alaska for many years. This essay is adapted from the memoir Neither Mountain Nor River: Fathers, Sons, and an Unsettled Faith.
Photographs by Nate Catterson.