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A place to see for yourself

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Inian Islands Institute welcomes author and team-member Judith Aftergut as this month’s guest blog writer!

I lean my bike against the worn green wood siding and knock on the door of a house near the Salmon River in Gustavus. It is my second summer near Glacier Bay. My first summer, I worked as a housekeeper at the Lodge. This second year, I plan to write magazine articles and to interview old timers.

A tall man, slightly stooped, opens the door and invites me in. I’ll call him Mike. We sit at his kitchen table and he offers instant tea. He is in his 70s, the age I am now.

I’m young and full of uncertainties, doubts and trepidations. My first question is impossible to answer, especially right off the bat: “What have you learned from living here all these years?” He chuckles, looks at me and speaks a sentence that sticks in my mind for the next 40 years:

“If I tell you what I see, you won’t see what you see.”

This wisdom is not a rebuff but an encouragement to open my eyes. He knows his experience won’t answer my questions; that only my own experience can do that.

I’ve been visiting Glacier Bay since the mid-1970s. I spent a summer on Inian Island. It’s different there from being in a city or a classroom, even an exquisite one, different than learning from the Internet. In the presence of strong tides that will capsize a small boat, of glaciers and rain and bears, you cannot daydream through life, as I often do walking on a city street.

These places are demanding teachers. I learned there to pay attention, stop, and slow down, to notice what was around me while moving on foot or by kayak through a landscape at human speed. Eventually, the result was to see something unexpected.

Seeking the Unexpected

A delicate dryas Dryas octopetala) flower has gone to seed.  Photo by Sean Neilson.

A delicate dryas flower has gone to seed. Photo by Sean Neilson.

In childhood, I loved the stories of people’s lives, what they did and saw and learned. In that process, mysteriously, they somehow became themselves. I interviewed people near Glacier Bay to try to figure this out. How do people find topics that feed their passions and discover questions at the core of their existence? What quest lay beneath the surface of their ideas?

Glacier Bay botanist Donald Lawrence told me his fascination with plants began because of an insightful teacher.

“My piano teacher knew I had no musical talent in music, so he taught me to identify weeds.”  (Take a look at our Backyard Botany Lesson for a simple activity in the tradition of Dr. Lawrence!)

In Glacier Bay, Don and his wife Lib studied the sequence of plants that grew after glaciers receded. Dryas drummondii, a low plant growing in circles, radiates and connects with other Dryas plants. They cover the gravel and visually soften the landscape. Don and Lib discovered that Dryas fixes nitrogen in the soil, the only member of the rose family to do this.

One night Don dreamed that Dryas drummondii had growth rings. He later verified this fact. It is now known that Dryas plants can live for 90 years.

Don is buried a few miles from my Oregon home. His life didn’t show me how to live, but I did learn from him. One day on a beach in Reid Inlet, I bent down to look at Dryas seeds, which float in the wind like dandelions, except that a dandelion seed looks like a small parachute and Dryas seeds more like feathers. At the end of Dryas seed stalks, I saw points like tiny arrows.

“That point will stick between pieces of gravel and stay fixed in strong glacial winds,” I thought. This discovery gave me joy, though I’m certainly not the first person to notice.

Fireweed stalks flowering, 2012.  Photo by Sean Neilson.

Fireweed stalks flowering, 2012. Photo by Sean Neilson.

Once Alaska taught me to be alert, I could tap into the ability elsewhere. Alaskans watch fireweed’s progress from magenta flowers to wind-blown seeds as a measure of summer’s progress. The same fireweed that lines lower Glacier Bay beaches also grows in my Oregon garden, although here it evokes mixed feelings. I remember my attachment to Glacier Bay but pull it up one cloudy morning to plant lettuce and peas.

And then I discover that fireweed has an underground secret: the silky seeds are not fireweed’s only method of propagation. Pull up one plant, and you’ll pull up three. Beneath the earth, individual stalks connect to create an underground community.

“Ah,” I thought, “This is how Dr. Lawrence sees.”

The Skill of Noticing

Once you learn to notice, this skill creates connections in all areas of life. Last spring I read online an article by a long-distance sailor who spotted changes in the sea: an absence of birds and fish in southern oceans near Australia and trawlers catching everything in huge nets. Between Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast, he and his crew motored through floating detritus from towns flattened by the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

I wanted to help the oceans. I felt grief. I also felt small.

Then I read a Facebook post about Zach Brown’s trek home to Alaska from Stanford after earning his PhD. He was hiking up the Oregon coast.

“I’ll find places for him to stay,” I thought. “I can do that for the oceans today, although it isn’t much.”

Zach kayaking in Southeast Alaska with red paddle and life preserver donated by Walt Roberts.

Zach kayaking through Southeast Alaska with red paddle and life preserver donated by Walt Roberts.  Thank you Walt!

I contacted Mike and Maggie, a former Glacier Bay naturalist and ranger in Waldport. They gave Zach a shower, cookies and lodging. I mentioned this to a Portland friend, Walt, and he donated hundreds of dollars worth of kayak gear abandoned by a long-gone traveler. Zach offered to pay for shipping, but I asked friends to deliver the gear on their trucking route from Portland to Port Angeles.

They said, “We would be honored.”

Then Marlene, who lives in Port Angeles and also has a Gustavus cabin, stored the gear in her carport until a friend of Zach’s picked it up for him. Like fireweed, roots underground connected us all, unseen until I looked. That’s how it went.

It wasn’t just the kayak gear. The trek and the story of the Institute drew people to advise and take on small roles. Last summer I met Beth in Gustavus. Her career had been to write grants to the federal government for the state of Wisconsin. The application she wrote resulted in approval of Inian’s non-profit status in a record 2-1/2 months. And another friend’s daughter, once a journalist for the Juneau Empire, is assisting Inian with media. The daughter of my friend from grade school edited the blog post you’re reading.

Field of dryas and Reid Glacier, 2014.  Photo by Sean Neilson.

Field of dryas and Reid Glacier, 2014. Photo by Sean Neilson.

Still another friend, Heather, was part of a team ten years ago that purchased 300 acres in the Columbia Gorge and created an environmental field school and research center. She jumped in after seeing the Inian website. Heather’s experience is invaluable. She’s been through the entire process that the Inian Islands Institute is embarking upon.

Heather said, “If the universe wants something to happen, it will.” But we have to be alert and see the signs, like a fisherman who watches and casts a net in a place where seagulls circle.

Look and listen closely. You may feel yourself pulled to help us as well, or realize you know someone who could. As much as the Inian Islands Institute needs money, it needs contributions of materials and time: people to manage databases, write press releases, arrange speaking opportunities, or offer Zach a bed or bike in whatever town he’s traveling through on the Institute’s behalf. Wherever you are, whoever you are, we can use your help!

Taking the Lessons Home

When I first came to Alaska, young and full of questions, I had no idea it would become central in my life, an aspect of a path I was already following unaware. Now, looking back, I see that path. It circles around Glacier Bay and the Inian Islands. It includes many friends, the Institute and a series of books I’m about to publish. I never wrote those magazine articles, but I found answers to many of my questions from that place. Along the way, mysteriously, I, too, became myself.

Author Judith Aftergut (viewer's right) with friend Kate and grandchild Fiona, Gustavus Beach 2014.

Author Judith Aftergut (viewer’s right) and friend Kate with grandchild Fiona, Gustavus Beach 2014.

Students come to Inian, as I did, at the beginning of this trajectory. What will they have seen in forty years and what will the Institute’s influence be? We will periodically check in to hear about their life paths and about what they are seeing. Watch this blog to hear from students arriving this summer from Earlham College and Stanford University.

This opportunity to come to Inian Island could be the beginning, for them, of a wondrous, long, slow-moving, powerful, life-altering adventure. We hope the experience will help shape their lives the way a glacier carves a landscape. These students might begin to see what their lives are for and what they truly care about.

You and I can be part of creating the path for the Inian Islands Institute, a path we make together. We’ll see the path we make as we go forward, and we’ll see what we have accomplished, looking back.

Judith Aftergut is the author of Everything They Wanted, a Glacier Bay memoir available September 2015. Thanks also to Sean Neilson for his wonderful photographs.

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