A forested far shore crosses the photograph, treetop scraggle drawn tight like a black ribbon across the frame. A perfect midline.
Water and sky mirror each other across it. Thick saffron clouds bloom against pale blue on the glass of the water exactly as they do in the depth of the sky. But in the water floats a wooden kayak and in the sky hangs a white contrail.
The photographer sat in this kayak. She snapped a shot of the bow in front of her on the water, shoreline beyond, sky beyond that. Because her kayak has a peaked deck, the center seam running its length makes a vertical line up the frame. She aligned it with the white streak of the contrail; the two verticalities mirror one another. Call and response.
Centering everything, the photographer captured a mathematically precise x-y axis charted directly upon the land.
The photograph is on display at the Alaska State Museum. I am at the museum. Because of the weather—rain pelting ice in a stiff, dark wind—I have come down from the mountain early in the day. At odds with winter (where is the snow?) and at odds with solitude (why always alone on a mountain?), I stop at the museum. Temporarily I abandon my crampons, my dog, and even my headlamp. They sit in the car. (Dog, I say to the dog. You stay. And I’ll be back.) She’ll be fine. So will the crampons, the headlamp.
Still, separated from these, I could be anyone.
So I am someone studying a photograph. Studying this photograph, perhaps because its two axes strike me as wry. Self-conscious. A centered x-axis of shoreline, a centered y-axis of kayak and contrail—precision here is a set-up, but for what? The composition of the frame is so controlled I imagine the photographer deploying an array of engineering instruments to center the lines with utmost mathematical precision, beeps and dials and lasers measuring, adjusting, counter-adjusting.
Of course that is unlikely. A kayak has no room for the assemblage of wires and switchboards I imagine.
More likely, it would have gone like this: the photographer pushes off from shore. Paddles for a time. Watches the light change as the northern evening unfurls, slow at this high latitude. Notices a contrail in the sky. Maybe feels a pang. Or maybe not. Considers the visual effect, and lines up her kayak as an echo, a reply, a restatement of that same straight line. Snaps a photo.
It would be an unremarkably gorgeous landscape shot were it not for the eerie x-y algebraic control of the frame. Reflexively, my head turns. My chin draws an inch back. My eyes narrow.
During this snowless early winter of 2017, I take a quick airplane hop from Juneau to Sitka. The last time I went to Sitka, perhaps five or six years ago, I traveled by ferry. A pal and I strapped our kayaks onto his Subaru, drove onto the ferry in Juneau and off in Sitka, and paddled around in waters I knew not at all, waters my friend knew even less. We camped for a few days but had a weather scare and ended up cold and wet but safe in my uncle Dave’s guest room. We watched the pounding rain out the window. Listened to weather advisories on the marine radio. Killed time looking at maps.
This time in Sitka, I arrive with hiking boots instead of a kayak. When I get off the plane I want to shake the airport tension clinging to my hair, my clothes. Uncle Dave understands. He and I take a trudge at low tide out at the end of Harbor Point Road. We train our binoculars on seagulls and trumpeter swans, let our toes grow numb. A high-pressure system has this mountainous coastline locked in a spell of cold and clear. We can see forever, but it’s well below freezing, not much above zero, and the skin of the sea has begun to thicken here and there with rafts of slush. The low sun throws a blinding white across the water and a glare on the barely snowcapped mountains. The black muck of low tide shines, frozen beneath our feet.
Sitka’s got squid now, Uncle Dave tells me.
I’m watching a single swan who is head-down, bottom-up, tailfeathers skyward, black feet poised like outriggers.
Sitka didn’t used to have squid.
Now it does.
The swan I’m watching makes slight adjustments to its upside-down balance. I imagine its snaking white neck curving and jabbing underwater and its flat black bill scooping around in the muck.
The young people go up Silver Bay and jig for them, for squid. Cut them into pieces and freeze them for bait, says Uncle Dave. Maybe some people just fry them up too. Why not. And humpbacks really go in for the squid. Whales are smart; they’re not going to pass up a new food source just because it’s new.
I miss the moment when the swan rights itself. Maybe I blink. Jostle the binoculars for no reason. Now it is a classic white boat of swanness, exquisite curve of its too-long neck regal, black bill held high. Royalty. No sign of muck-scooping.
I ask Uncle Dave various disjointed questions, faltering after each. So . . . where did the squid come from? How big are they? What color? Have you seen them? Who found them? Does Silver Bay like having squid in it? Are they welcome there? The conversation could be going anywhere. Just . . . why are there squid?
Uncle Dave doesn’t make up answers. He only says what he sees, and even then, he doesn’t go so far as to say everything’s changing, but it is. Everything.
The photograph gives its clouds over to the warmth of low yellow light. But the sky behind already anticipates the pall of night. And the water reflects all of this upside down: the dashing yellow arrival, its sweep upon the bellies of the clouds. The firm, understated blue. And the blue’s dignity, its eggshell perfection.
It is a photograph of twoness. Of reflection up and down, reflection left and right. It is a photograph of a doubled and doubling world.
Bill McKibben suggests with the title to his 2010 book that the planet we now live on is best understood as “Eaarth.” Deeply familiar to inhabitants of Earth but profoundly—chemically—different. A close relative, an inexact double.
Of sea-sky chemistry, this is what I gather. During the past two hundred years of industrialization, the pH of surface ocean waters has fallen by 0.1 pH units. Because the pH scale, like the Richter scale, is logarithmic, this represents about a 30 percent increase in ocean acidity. And since 1970 carbon dioxide emissions have increased by roughly 90 percent; global carbon dioxide levels are now well over four hundred parts per million.
Chemistry aside, the mind can always set its anchor on the image of blunt volume. I recently learned Antarctica’s ice sheet dumps 219 billion tons of ice into the ocean each year. That rate has tripled in the last decade.
The x-y axis brings back memories of calculus camp out at the Shrine of Saint Therese. High school juniors and seniors, big graphing calculators, a weekend’s worth of camping gear. After lights out, in our rows of sleeping bags on the cabin floor, we sketched “kiss my asymptote” bumper stickers by headlamp.
In the museum photograph I see no asymptotes flattening their wings toward the distance of the margins, no parabolas curving up or down or any other way. Just that bold x-y axis.
Of penciling out calculus on reams of graph paper, I remember one last thing. You can set the x-y axis down arbitrarily. Anywhere on the paper. But once you do, it governs meaning across the whole grid.
The x-y axis also recalls a literary theory. Were we to chart this essay onto those same pale blue grids over which I pored as a teenager, we’d chart narrative along the x-axis, expressing actions and events as values of x. And we’d plot ideas vertically, expressing insights as values of y.
Therefore, if this museum photograph were a literary graph of events and ideas, we might say that the silhouetted shoreline happens, and that the kayak and contrail think.
Soon I’ll go home and shower. I’ll lay out my gear to dry for tomorrow. I’ll listen to the marine weather forecast in the evening. I love that robot voice, how nonplussed he is in repeating high of thirty-four and 100 percent chance of rain and small vessel advisory over and over and over, from Cross Sound down Chatham Strait, from Lynn Canal to Point Retreat, from Stephens Passage into Taku Inlet, mapping the archipelago on a loop. The marine weather forecast robot man is my lullaby, another uncle. He is reliable—even as he announces, between the lines, that nothing is as it was, that nothing is predictable, that a break in the pattern is the new normal.
Two vessels of transport mark the photograph’s vertical axis. One preindustrial, one industrial. One human-powered, one reliant on fossil fuels. One designed to transport the lone individual; one designed for cargo, both human and non. One so close in the frame you can see the grain of the wood as textured and expressive as a face; one so far distant it isn’t even visible. We see only its unmistakable trace in the sky.
Yet both transport. In this, they share common cause: both kayak and airplane derive from the impulse to journey, to depart, to go.
What’s more, both kayak and airplane extend the scope of the world a human body can access. Both permit us to launch off the land into an aqueous medium, be it ocean or atmosphere. And I think there’s something about shoving off from solid ground that many of us crave now and again. There’s something out in the ebb and flow of fluid places we sense we’d do well to remember.
They go up Silver Bay on full moons, come back with squid. Salmon are eating them. Whales are eating them too. It’s a new food source that’s moved in, so it’s good for everyone.
His tone, of course, is dark.
We understand this new nourishment as an unspooling.
The way we talk, some things get said and some go unspoken. In Utqiaġvik where another uncle lives—Uncle Geoff—some folks don’t even use the phrase climate change any more. All seasons of the year are seven, eight, nine degrees warmer than they were when today’s Elders were the agile youth, supporting the community with their hunting, their sewing, their building, their medicine. Uncle Geoff and his community are busy learning how to live on another planet. No, Utqiaġvik doesn’t call it climate change; rather climate changed.
This is a photograph of precise division and balance. My day isn’t making sense, but the photograph’s mathematical control offers an antidote of orderliness. It is easy to look at. The eye travels horizontally. The eye travels vertically. Vision appreciates these simple seams, neat travel corridors up-down, down-up. Left-right, right-left. How easy, thinks the eye that has always loved algebra and the predictability of its x-y axis. How easy, thinks the eye, overlooking the composition’s similitude to crosshairs.
I dreamed recently of a man made of ice. I knew him. Well. Seeing he’d come again—after such a long absence, after all we’d been through, and now made of ice—I grew furious. The metaphor struck me as trite. Don’t think you’re showing me what you’re made of, I said, taking a stab at his gall. You’re only showing me what you think you know about yourself. Later in the dream, I smashed his head.
Shattered ice flew across the carpet and now I wonder, had I observed more keenly, if that broken ice began to melt. I wonder if the shards grew glassy with a scrim of water, the idea of wet shuddering on every surface.
But at another point in the dream he was not made of ice and I had no fury. His presence was somehow free of context, our backstory gone in one clean rinse. I felt only the frictionless synchronicity with which we orbited a shared center of gravity, tracing and retracing one another’s arcs in perfect revolutions. Physics, math, balance. Call it love.
Waking, I shuddered. Right then I felt my independence as a hard brace worn too long. The one made of ice, then, is perhaps not him at all. Yet it occurs to me it is not safe, in a warmed and warming world, to depend on what is frozen.
I go out Silver Bay but not to jig. To clamber up Bear Mountain with an old friend who grew up in Sitka, who’s in Southeast because he’s also visiting family for the holidays. What else can we do when it is clear and snowless? We hike up, up, up, steep, steep, steep, mostly trailless through forest holding to near-cliff. I learn the mountain formation across the bay is called Sugarloaf. The name is delicious and new in my mouth, though my friend assures me this is a common name for blocky-looking mountains everywhere. And I learn that down bay toward town is a mountain called Verstovia. To the right, one of the Sisters. Another Sister lies in the ambiguous beyond. As we climb, I keep saying I think I see her now, but my friend corrects me: no, she’s not in sight, she’s more that way.
We perch at the very top of a huge landslide where we have a line of sight on Mount Edgecumbe. It’s an island volcano. A mountain topped with a crater rather than a peak. A classic form of volcanic geology, a classic form of Japanese painting. Plunked out in the ocean where it’s easy to spot, form unmistakable so it can’t be confused for anything it isn’t, its symmetry a balm to the scattered mind.
And of course no balm at all, for it is a volcano, and no matter how many cherry blossoms the form evokes, a volcano remains a vent through which the earth explodes.
We dig our heels into the moss on Bear Mountain and face out toward Mount Edgecumbe in the distance. Looking afar permits us to rest by anchoring our balance, which wavers each time we dare glance down—straight down the landslide chute—at the wrinkled glaring skin of Silver Bay. Where young people jig for squid.
Has my friend heard of young people jigging for squid down there? Has he gone along with anyone, jigged for squid himself? It’s very, very cold, and though we’re not above tree line yet, it’s breezy. We don’t chat long before we need to move again.
In mathematics, the point at which the vertical axis and the horizontal axis cross one another is called the origin. Here, both x and y equal zero. In other words, the origin is the point from which an action is about to occur, the point from which an idea hovers, about to think.
These coastal mountains’ literary tradition, oral, goes back to the beginning of time. It stems from the origin. Another way of saying it is that this place’s literary tradition goes back into the time of glaciation, to the human migrations through an archipelago edging the ice sheet.
As a student of literature, I learned to differentiate between oral history, legend, and distant time. Oral histories depict relatively recent events. Personal narratives fit here. Legends recount a deeper history of transformation brought on by culture heroes. Reaching farther back even than legend are the distant time stories.
Reality was more malleable in distant time than it is now. For example, sometimes distant time orcas dive deep and walk around in human form where they live together in houses.
Sometime the mouse is a grandmother. Sometimes the glacier demands respect, and sometimes a human marries a bear. The rules of present reality aren’t set in distant time the way they are now. The woman who marries a bear, for example, makes the best of it and has a family. Because things don’t work out for them in the long term, the story marks a pivot point (one of many) in the world becoming as it now is: humans and bears no longer intermarry. But a complicated kinship persists.
The heart of what I learned is that as a body of literature, distant time stories trace the incremental transformation of a far-off, malleable reality into a fixed one. The one in which we presently live.
Or the one in which we used to live? I am thinking more and more often about that ancient malleability because it reminds me of the planetary flux of the present, the geochemical tumult of our seas and skies, how the established rules lose traction as deep patterns in the cycle of the seasons break underfoot, leave us walking on jostled fragments, glimpsing familiarity among the pieces.
I called the Sitka Fish and Game office recently. What’s with the squid? I asked. Common market squid, I learned. Opalescents. No bag limits or possession limits in place because they’re new. Regular sport fish permit will do. And people are indeed jigging for squid in Silver Bay, but don’t forget they’re also jigging down at the docks. The squid like the harbor lights.
The Sitka Sound Science Center also noticed the squid. Down at the Science Center, they know of a couple trollers keeping track of what they find in the bellies of caught salmon. They also know of a troller who gives salmon stomach sacs to a university professor so she can keep track of what salmon are eating.
There’s no disagreement, really. There never used to be squid around here; now there are. So it seems my uncle’s basic gesture—watch what the young people are doing—is wise. We just don’t know which among the old teachings will buoy us through life. And which practices we’ll have to invent as we go, as the world’s rhythms shift and tumble underfoot.
On the other side of the continent, they talk about a muskrat and a turtle. Back when the world was only ocean, when it was water from horizon to horizon. The world was watery like that for ages until one day the muskrat dove deep, scooped up a ball of mud, and the turtle offered her shell to bear the weight of it. Hence Turtle Island, as North America’s been known since then, which gave us something to stand on. Something good and solid so that one day, over on this side of the continent, a raven could steal the sun, moon, and stars out of an old man’s boxes and toss the first light up into the sky.
A muskrat scooped the mud. A turtle held it up. And a raven brought the light. History converged so that now, all of us land animals have something to blink about when squid come swimming up to the surface of Silver Bay on the full moon.
Anyway, out Harbor Point Road, it was no muskrat. It was a swan. A trumpeter. White feathered ass pointed to heaven, sturdy bill sifting underwater. Searching for just the right bottom muck to bring up into the day’s blazing cold sun. We don’t know yet what it’s making, but we linger at the edge of its beach, gathering hints as best we can.
At some point in my middle childhood, I paddled alone from my family’s protected campsite on the beach and headed toward the open water of Cross Sound. It takes no time for this fjordlands world to swallow us, for the human scale to fall through the cracks. And so no one watched child-me round the point into the glassy swell of open water for the simple reason that we were too small for one another to see.
I encountered a group of Steller sea lions riding that same powerful water. If I was in a trough, they’d already be riding up the wall of the next swell. I’d watch them as they rose, level with my boat, then level with my torso, then with the space above my head, suspended in the aqueous slope and breaking its surface to breathe their growly gravelly breaths and stare down at me. Then the passing swell would lower them and raise me to the top of the ambiguous fluid world where for a moment I could see the horizon, the trollers fishing miles out, nothing but the Gulf and the Pacific between any of us and Asia. Perhaps I was eleven. The experience made me, created me.
That is not altogether true. Before the experience, I was myself. After the experience, I was myself. So what I’ll say instead is, perhaps everything in me cinched down. I became more set, shed a malleability I may or may not have really ever had. I remember thinking, This is where I want to die. Not an ominous idea at all, just a sensible touchstone I’ve carried into an unpredictable adulthood. This is where I want to die.
What pulled me around the point straight out to sea? And why did it mark me so?
Well, what child is ever not pulled outward and subsequently marked? Silent shifts in a person are the stuff of which we’re made. It’s a scoop of muck, if you will, lending early shape to something young and landless.
After that day in Cross Sound where alone in open water predators circled and did me no harm, after we all rode that swell turn upon turn, neither colliding nor capsizing, after I caught sight of that water’s bodiless horizon over and over, after I tried and failed and tried and failed to memorize its farthest undulations, after I reached out and touched nothing—after that experience, I became more sure of the things that do not, as it turns out, have a center at all. Because I still remember a far rolling place where the earth simply isn’t. Where no treetop scraggle stretches its ribbon of clean division between sea and sky. Where there is no unraveling double, no twin, no symmetrical repetition shaving its origin down to zero. Where there is just space for a beginning, and it never holds still.
The photograph, titled Blissed Out, is the work of Naknek-based video and image maker Anna Hoover.
Bill McKibben’s 2010 book is called Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
A statistic is an artform. The ones appearing in this essay come from FiveThirtyEight’s Significant Digits series, June 14, 2018; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Environmental Protection Agency; and ocean physicist Peter Wadhams’s 2017 book, A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic.