Sunday, June 26, 2011

heading out

It's been less than three weeks since I arrived in Southeast Alaska, but it feels like it could have been four times that long. I suppose it's because there have been so many changes and developments while I've been here. My surroundings have changed incrementally as I've traveled from Fairbanks to Haines to Juneau to Sitka. Juneau, the town I grew up in, felt oddly alien now that my family have all moved away and I was visiting for work. A day or two before I left, I went out and visited "the glacier." It was so scrawny and anemic--hardly the valley-filling outwash of serrated ice that had been a backdrop to my childhood. Maybe some older Southeasterners have similar impressions of today's yellow cedar forests as ghosts of what they once were. Low snowpack has taken its toll on both glaciers and cedars.

This project is changing and evolving daily, as is my understanding of the subject matter and methodology. Lauren, Kate, Paul and Caitlin, one by one, have "evolved" from folks I knew only abstractly to real-life colleagues; to fun, interesting, and exciting people. Even the way I look at the Southeast rainforest has changed a lot since I arrived in Haines on June 5th. There are quite a few plants around here that are extremely common, yet just weren't charismatic enough to pry their way into my head. There's one called goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) that probably lines every single roadside in Southeast. Till recently, I had only a vague consciousness of it as a leafy, weed-like thing growing all over the place. Now, when I walk around town, I find myself paying as much attention to plants and trees as to streets, buildings, and mountains. There's goatsbeard and cow-parsnip next to that buttercup species we can't identify...and is that western hemlock or mountain hemlock growing above those plants? Occasionally, me and Kate (she's also focusing on understory plants) have been waylaid for many minutes trying to ID some roadside herb...or worse, stumping ourselves on a non-native plant in someone's yard, which wouldn't be in our plant guides and which neither of us would have much chance of knowing. We're probably in the early stages of understory neurosis...

I'm thinking about my experiences, and about the changes so far this summer, because I know these first few weeks have been only the tip of the iceberg, the "crown of the cedar," compared to what we're about to learn and experience. Slocum Arm is still pretty abstract to me. I've never been there. I know what it looks like on a map, and I've filled in that map with general impressions of the Tongass, Chichagof Island, the Gulf of Alaska, forests full of dead cedars. But I don't have any idea of what it actually feels like to be in Slocum Arm. I don't know what it will be like to stand on the beaches (are they rocky? gravelly?) and look across the fjord at rounded, glacier-scoured mountains reflected in the rippling ocean water. I don't know how I'll feel when I'm in the middle of a stand of dead cedar, clawing my way through six-foot-high blueberry bushes just like our friend the brown bear. I don't know how I'll feel after ten straight days of counting and measuring those six-foot-high blueberries. And, I don't know how the four (sometimes six) of us out there will relate to each other after two weeks of working and living together in the woods, in the brush, on the beach, on the ocean.

By the time we come back from this first trip, I'm sure my understanding of everything about this project will be totally different than it is now. It even seems likely that my entire understanding of the Southeast Alaska rainforest will have thorougly changed--if not right away, then at least by the end of the summer. I'm looking forward to it! ...I'm writing, of course, with the assumption that the brown bears and all the capricious spirits out there accept us as their guests, and let us live with them for a little while.

- Odin

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