Today we ate a late lunch of re-heated pinto beans and set out, sleds in tow, to move spruce rounds from the edge of the oil road. There are two sleds, both black plastic, one large, one smaller. One holds five spruce rounds, stacked in a pyramid, tilting and tipping on the packed-snow inclines of the trail. The other holds five smaller spruce rounds, stacked in a pyramid, tilting and tipping on the packed-snow inclines of the trail. They both have loops of rope on their fronts- the larger has a red and white striped rope, the smaller has a thin black rope. To drag the laden sleds we step into the rope, pull it across our hips, and walk, leaning forward. Pulling the sled in this manner makes me feel like a pony, and I tell River as much. River, I decide, is a stronger pony than I. I set out in the afternoon to pull fifteen sled loads of spruce rounds from the oil road to the woodpile in front of the cabin. I have done some shaky math, attempting to quantify every little thing like I always do, and have decided that if we each pulled fifteen sled loads of spruce rounds today from the oil road to the woodpile, we can move the whole pile in a day, a veritable mountain of logs. Three hours and eight sled loads later I, with my smaller sled, am tired, and decide in the weakening light of eveningtime to make cauliflower and smoked salmon curry and do the dishes instead. River is a strong, tireless pony, and she says Yes, of course you can make food and no, you don’t have to haul any more wood and sets off down the trail towards the road, sled in tow. The dog Brosef follows along, stick in hand, too old to help and doesn’t have a harness besides. The men on the oil-road sometimes joke, when they see us pulling the sleds with our hips, strong woodsponies- Why doesn’t the dog pull? Why don’t you have the dog pull, ha ha ha.
Inside the dimming cabin I start a fire, though the walls still hold the memory of last night’s oppressive heat. When we go to bed, generally, the stove is still warm, and we don’t want the fire to run out of fuel in the night, so we put a big green log on the coals and shut down the damper and the vent and cross our fingers, knowing that the green log will either catch and burn eventually or it won’t. So it’s heat, and lots of it, or none at all. Last night the log caught, and so we had an eighty-degree night, both of us awake at 2 a.m. to fling off the covers, throats dry, and strip down to our underwear. The walls of this cabin are insulated against fifty-below winters, in spring they hold the heat for days, like a ghost. And the stove itself is huge, a great hulking mass, much larger than reasonable for a 16 by 20 foot cabin such as this one. The stove is so huge we don’t even have to cut some of the logs, we just open the creaking, asbestos-lined iron door and toss them whole into its orange and fiery depths. The stove is, apparently, an “earth stove”, although I call it a “smoke inhalation stove”, because it doesn’t draw, at least not when the door is open- instead it sends out plumes of nasty woodsmoke, which gather like smog in the air above my bunk.
Once the fire is lit in the stove I gather rusty knife and unreasonably small cutting board and set about to chop the head of cauliflower- conventional, of course, and of questionable freshness. There are corn fields in Alaska, no fields of blowing wheat. There is no agriculture at all, save for one small valley near anchorage, where they grow carrots and potatoes for five minutes in the fall, and are always losing entire crops to blight. There was a dairy there, too, Matanuska Maid, but it went under. There are no factory farms in Alaska, either, and no cattle herds. There are no battery cages filled with chickens, no pork processing plants. The cauliflower I am cutting, in the dim and warming cabin, comes from the Fred Meyer in Fairbanks, a few hours’ drive away. The Fred Meyer got it from a barge, or a truck. The barge or the truck got it from California, which is in another universe, three thousand miles south. Everything I eat, unless I hunt it or grow it myself, comes from three thousand miles away.
I cut the cauliflower, precious vegetable, into florets and set it in the cast-iron skillet, where some butter is hot and spitting. The pound of butter in its greasy wrapper came from the cabinet. Before the cabinet it lived in River’s van. When it was in the van the dog, Brosef, got into the butter, and it still bears those wounds, a deep gouge in its center, like the circular hole in a donut. Brosef loves butter and will hop onto the counter and pull the unsuspecting butter off, to lick it from its wrapper on the dirty cabin floor.
Once the cauliflower is sautéing I open a freezer bag of smoked salmon from our friend Kaz. Kaz is an angel, always showering us with gifts and cooking us fried-chicken dinners and letting us read her autobiography which she types in chunks, a story of growing up white-trash on Crisco sandwiches in Nevada near Lake Tahoe. She caught the salmon herself, last summer, and smoked it, and I break off a piece and eat it, delicious oily meat-candy, more precious and rare than anything you could find in the lower 48 anywhere, except maybe hot basil plants in July or homemade goat cheese, or the sickening-sweet stretches of blackberries, obscene in their invasiveness and sheer volume of fruit, along the roadsides in Oregon, in august.
Alaska. At least we’ve got good meat.
I’m not sure if smoked salmon and cauliflower even go together, much less smoked salmon and curry and cauliflower, but it’s what we’ve got and it’s not beans and rice or fish and potatoes, which we’ve both, in our own ways, grown weary of.
A few minutes later I step out in the golden evening light to pee and River is back with her tenth load of wood, and she’s talking to somebody. We’ve got company, she says. Oh, I say, and duck back inside, to collect the unwashed dishes and stack them haphazardly on the table, sweep the onion skins off the crusty countertop and toss them in the stove. I feel like I should tidy up a bit, although it doesn’t really matter. I used to think it did, until River told me a story about what happened the first day the men came to cut wood for her, the old Athabascan men with their chainsaws. They showed up in the morning to buck the spruce and she met them at the trail and stood by awkwardly, unsure of how to help. One of them, Rick, pulled a sausage from the seat of his snow machine, and told her to go cook. It’s ok I’ve got whitefish, she said, and set off down the trail to make some stew. By and by the men ran out of gasoline for their chainsaws and walked down the trail through the woods, gathering in the dirty, cluttered cabin to eat, sitting on the cooler of salted fish and spooning stew into their mouths. When River freezes whitefish she leaves them whole, and when she cuts them up for stew she slices open their bellies and pulls out the sticky, silvery eggsacs and tosses them into the dog’s slop dish, which is a stew of its own sort, sprout water and eggshells and moose bones and cabbage hearts, sitting for weeks at a time in the stuffy cabin to ferment. The eggsacs of the whitefish are, to River, infinitely and immeasurably gross, and she tries not to touch them, even if she is a strong Alaskan pony, raised in the bush on fried beaver-tail and bearfat. And indeed, not even the dog will eat them, and he doesn’t even get up from his bed when the fall with a SLAP into his bowl. And so the men are sitting on the cooler eating stew, and one of them, Rick, the one who gave her the sausage, sees her drop the pouch of whitefish eggs into the dog’s filthy slop bowl, and he stoops over, retrieves the eggs, and eats them.
And so this is why I know that it doesn’t matter, when they come over, if the cabin is messy. And it always is, anyway, because there isn’t any running water, and because River has better things to do, like read about sex magick and commune with nature, and write the sorts of stories to liberate the human race.
The curry is nearly done and I really have to pee so I go back outside and walk to the rear of the shed to squat where the dog poops, out of view of the men. There are two of them, Rick and Timmy, two of the guys who cut wood for us. They are old Athabaskan men and they work on the oil road, Timmy drives a big dump-truck and dumps gravel all over the forest, Rick claims to be in charge of the whole operation. The exploration itself is being done by Doyon, which is their Native corporation. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, at some point or other, gave corporations to the different Native Peoples in Alaska, along with some land. And some of the corporations are ethical, but all of them are capitalist, and some of them, like Doyon, make Total Destroy, and mow down the forest and fill the creeks with gravel, all in the name of petroleum, and newer and shinier snowmachines for everyone.
But what can we say? They’re nice guys. They cut our wood. When we ripped all the squirrel-pee insulation from the sauna and dragged it out on a giant tarp, Timmy was our partner in crime and hauled it to town in his pickup truck, laughing, and dumped it in the dumpster behind the gas station. Rick comes by, albeit unexpectedly, on his snowmachine, and gives us long strips of smoked salmon prepared the native way, without salt, and we eat it like oily candy in the snow.
River’s property is a small piece of land bounded on all sides by a much larger chunk of property, which is owned by a woman who lives far, far away, the daughter of the old man who lived in the cabin through the woods a ways, the cabin with the iron bedstead and sheet metal stove and neat tins of pipe tobacco lined up on the windowsill. This far-away woman’s property butts right up against the oil road. At some point in time Doyon may want that property, and this one, or not. At the very least they could pollute our water by drilling down and pushing contaminants into the water table, which they will most likely do. Any way you look at it, it sucks.
The men leave before I get the chance to ask them to dinner and we eat the curry, and it tastes good. Then River reads from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek while I do the dishes in melted snow water and peppermint soap, and I marvel again at the fact that Annie Dillard could find so much, a whole universe, really, the beginning and the end, a closed loop, safe and limitless, enough- in a dry field of grasshoppers in West Virginia.
“This is what I had come for, just this, and nothing more. A fling of leafy motion on the cliffs, the assault of real things, living and still, with shapes and powers under the sky- this is my city, my culture, and all the world I need. I looked around.”