Finding life in the cycle of death

Finding life in the cycle of death

When we lived in Alaska we had wild roses in our yard. One fall my little seven-year-old daughter and I clipped the rose hips off the bushes, dried them, and then ground them up to make tea. It has a faint flavor, sort of citrusy and pink. It’s the Alaskan way, to use what’s near to hand in order to live.

As a vegetarian, I was never terribly fond of the hunting and fishing obsession of my fellow Alaskans. But after fourteen years living in their midst, I learned that Alaskans find life in the cycle of death. There is something honorable in killing a moose for food. Native Alaskans thank the animals they take for sacrificing their lives in order that the group can eat.

But they don’t just eat moose. They use every part of the creature, for clothing and art as well as for food. Those animals live inside the community, nurture the people from their stomachs to their souls.

If you go to Anchorage or Fairbanks you’ll find huge bears, the product of skillful taxidermy, in the gate areas of the airports. Massive, toothy, frightening bears. They stand in defiance of the danger and risk that wild Alaska poses for the people who live there. But I’ve always been struck by the sad irony of those trophies. They are not the Alaskan way. Alaska natives don’t live in defiance of the wild. They live in harmony with it.

There is no honor in carcasses, glaring out at travelers, speaking of the power of humans over nature. Still, there is a kind of awe in them. Having been five feet away from a grizzly in the wild, I can testify to the fear they trigger. I was inside my car, but I knew if that grizzly so desired the metal between us wouldn’t have been much of a deterrent.

One year a pipeline worker happened upon a sleepy polar bear. He was mauled and killed in moments. The general feeling in the state seemed to be, “let sleeping bears lie.” There was an eerie kind of nonchalance about the death. Several people said, “That’s what Outsiders get when they come up here and don’t understand nature.”

The Outsider who died, a Texan who commuted to the slope for his pipeline work, a few weeks on and a few weeks off, was just doing his job. I found the reaction more unsettling than the tragedy of his death.

But I think I understand the reaction better now. Context will help. He didn’t live in the state and paid no taxes. He was involved with the oil business, an industry that has made life in Alaska possible but that is troublesome nonetheless. Alaska is a kind of colony for the oil companies. They come in, extract, destroy, make millions and leave behind a token of their profits. Alaska is made both richer and poorer. I doubt any oil worker has ever prayed thanks to nature for the product they extract.

The polar bear, of course, felt nothing. It was disturbed, threatened, and it took care of business. Nature does that without flinching.

The first week we moved to Anchorage the local paper published on the front page a gruesome photograph of a male bear devouring a young bear. A female had taken a step or two toward her cub but then moved away, powerless to defend her young. Tourists at a bear watching station were there to observe the carnage.

It’s the cycle of life and death, always on the forefront in Alaska. Survival comes at a price.

This summer my husband and I took a road trip out west. I wanted to see my old stomping grounds, the scrubby dessert and a huge sky overhead. As we drove through Oklahoma we sound cows grazing, some in picturesque scenes. A group here among the few trees, lying down, munching on grass.

As we approached Texas we saw more and more cows with less space between them. Outside of Amarillo we saw a packing plant where hundreds of cows were kept nose to rump in fenced shoots, leading them to their inevitable end. They were prisoners waiting for execution after which they’d end up on grocery shelves.

I prefer the Alaskan way, where people kill the animals up close, clean and gut them, the gore up to their elbows. I prefer the gratefulness shown to nature for the sacrifice. I prefer the clothes and art that result from the slaughter.

And, as I sit here looking at the rose hips on the bushes in my back yard I consider making tea.

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