Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The birds

The birds began to arrive in mid-April, and that set off an excitement so intense in town that it was almost possible to physically feel it trembling through the town. The birds, even more than warm temperatures, even more than south winds or melting snow, are the heralds of spring. They are the ones that let us know that it is time to switch gears and start thinking about spring activities.

The longer I live here, the more it becomes part of my rhythm, too, that I change my habits and behavior depending on the season. It just feels natural, now, that we yuraq (traditional dance) in the winter, and it would feel a bit off if we danced, now. My body responds to the growing light, as well, and I begin to have so much more energy, so much more desire to get a whole bunch of things done when the light stays for so much of the day (Right now, the sun sets somewhere around 12:30 am and gets light around 3.... as far as I can tell. I'm mostly asleep at those times, so I miss all the dark! It will only get more intense, since we have a month until the solstice). Anyway, I find myself hankering after spring activities, also, wanting to be out on the tundra, wanting to be out on the water. I see waterfowl flying above and I get a taste in my mouth for that rich, fatty skin.... I like that I'm acclimated to living here, not just mentally but in body, too.

So soon after we started seeing little snowbirds flying in flocks around the tundra, the ptarmigans began to go close to town, and when people were ptarmigan hunting, they began to see ducks, geese, and other migrating birds coming back. The ducks and geese are mostly what hunters take, and there are some species that are closed for hunting, but occasionally a hunter will take a swan or a crane, as well.

My favorite shorebirds are the arctic terns, as they are the longest migrators -- I think they fly pole to pole. Their wings are so long, thin, and arched.... they are amazing. They have a double-pointed feather tail, and their cry is so interesting. They say, "Kee-aarrrr", with a really gutteral almost-growl at the end. I also love the snipes (yes, there really are snipes, those of you who are victims of the infamous joke-snipe-hunting), because they fly really high into the air and dive, and the wind over their wings makes a haunting hooting sound. I first heard that sound when I was in Scotland, on a wonderful night at the standing stones called Calanais on the Isle of Lewis, and my friend and traveling companion Tanja and I thought they must be some kind of spirit. Even though I know better, now, I still feel a rush and thrill of other-worldliness when I hear the hooting of the snipes diving.

Snipes swimming on a pond, picking off little waterbugs.

Tundra swallows visited us, as well, for a few sunny days, and roosted all over our porch. They were amazingly brave, not shy of our movements inside the house at all, and Esther could watch and talk to them through the window without them flying away. In fact, one day we opened the door to our porch and there were five of them basking in the sun, and they were so slow to fly away that Esther almost was able to pet one. They are such beautiful black and iridescent blue swallows, sweet birds. Local lore says they bring luck to us when they roost on our house, so I guess we have been blessed with a lot of luck!
Roy went hunting for waterfowl for many days in a row, and he brought home a bunch of birds, mostly white-fronted geese. After my experience last year plucking, I had made a vow to myself that I would pluck the geese the day he brought them home, because they are so much easier to pluck the first day, before the skin starts to hold the feathers fast. I guess before I tried plucking them, I never thought about how much work and skill is involved in plucking and doing a good job of it. Fingertips get sore, and wrist and palm muscles get tired, especially if there are many to do at once. The first night, when Roy brought home 4, I plucked a few and put a few in the freezer whole, on the advice that they will last longer without getting freezer-burned into next year if they are whole. But I wonder what it will be like plucking birds that have been frozen?

After that first night, when I plucked them inside our arctic entryway porch and inhaled a whole bunch of floating down, I decided that the next time, I would pluck them outside. I called around to community people I trust, and asked them if it was considered OK to pluck birds outside, and they said I could do it if I was out a little bit from town and the wind was blowing the feathers away from town. The next time Roy brought home 3 geese, and Esther, fellow-teacher Holly and I started out with the birds in a gunny sack for the side of the school next to the bay. It was a great experience! The tundra is so soft and accommodating to sit on for long periods of time, and the wind blowing the feathers away is great. I found that I had to sit a little cross-ways of the wind, not with my back to the wind, or my body would create an eddy in which the feathers would fly right back into my face! The only downside is that my fingers got cold and therefore tired faster. But I have found that doing the bulk of it at once is a good plan, and then doing the fine, little work of plucking the head, wings, and smaller feathers can be done later, when getting them ready to cook.

Here is my teaching comrade Holly plucking her first goose; we are outside behind the school. The picture below is all the feathers from the geese we plucked that evening, when we were all done.

One Friday evening, the night of graduation, I went straight from the ceremony to my favorite bird-plucking spot, and several students came to check me out. They ended up helping me pluck, just for the fun of it, and I was so glad to have their help because it had started to get cold. Mists were rolling in from the ocean, and the air was just heavy with its chill. There were swans swimming, so elegantly, on little ponds near us, and their white feathers stood out even through the mist. It was such a beautiful sight, they were nearly ghost-like, sliding across the ponds through the mist.

A flock of swans out on the tundra -- they're far away, so even though the picture is little, you can tell how big they are!

When Roy brought home the most birds at one time, 13 in one day(total I think he caught 25 birds this spring), I had a lot of work in front of me. We gave some away to relatives, and then put some in the freezer, but I still needed to work on several that afternoon. It was a sunny Sunday, and Esther wanted to go out with me, so we walked with the birds to behind the school, where the bay is a few hundred yards away. There were several ponds in between the hills where I was sitting and where the bay began, and birds were alighting in the ponds here and there. There was no danger of Esther walking all the way to the bay, but I let her wander and play around near me; there was lots of driftwood for her to climb on, and dirt for her to dig in, etc. A pair of swans alighted in the pond nearest to us, and she noticed them right away. She marched right up to the pond's edge and hollered, "Nice a meet you, swans!". So precious. When I think of what she is possibly missing out of city life, such as swimming lessons or kids' orchestra concerts or some kind of preschool, I feel badly about it, but then I think, "what city child has the chance to experience these things, and to interact so closely with such a wild environment?" and I think it just has to be OK.

Coming soon will be our adventures in egg hunting... I can't wait!

Friday, May 25, 2007

March & April at the Beach

With the addition of a honda to our lifestyle, we have been able to go out to the beach regularly and experience all the changes that it experiences over the spring thaw. The above picture is in early March, when everything was still frozen. We drove out to Nuvok, "The Point" where the beach extends into where Hooper Bay meets the Bering Sea. We saw icebergs frozen in place, and seal hunters out on the edges of the ice. Here Esther, Roy, and Odin Jade (dog) go exploring on the ice, with seal hunters' sleds and snowmobiles in the distance.

Into April, the ice & snow began to thaw, and while it was still chilly, a lot of times still below freezing, there were some wonderfully warm afternoons that melted a whole bunch of winter away. One of the first outings we took to the newly-sandy beach was to sight-in my new .22 rifle (yes, I'm now a gun-owner) I'm going to use for purely subsistence reasons. Here I am learning to sight it in, and then here is another picture of Roy shooting the rifle with his high-school age brother James Jr. looking on:

Pretty soon, we were having cookouts and campfire evenings at the beach. The beach is so amazing because it is never the same any two days you visit it. Sometimes there is nothing washed up except pebbles and seaweed, and other times it's covered with starfish, sometimes a million jellyfish, and then there are the cool finds, such as big bones or carcasses. When the migrating birds started to arrive, the beach was (and is, still) a great place to bird-watch. We have seen lots of ducks and geese, all manner of gulls, some arctic terns, plovers & pipers & snipes, and once we even saw an owl. In fact the owl flew in towards Esther and I while she was playing in the sand and I was building a fire, and it flew in towards us from the water, almost like it was birthed from the waves. It flew towards us and checked us out, hovering over us for a few seconds, and I felt very pierced by its gaze. Then it flew off, so gracefully and powerfully. It wasn't a snowy owl, but a smaller cousin, with a white bowl face, kind of like a barn owl. I'm not sure of the english name for the owl, because people I've asked about it have only known the Yup'ik name, which (forgive my spelling!) is Anipaqsuaq.

We had a great Saturday evening at the beach in April with our friends Marta, Katie & Moses, when we had a campfire cookout, flew my kite in the wind, and saw a rotting walrus carcass. The ice had receded a lot by this time and with the sun on the ocean, it just looked like paradise (what it is to me, that's for sure). Check out all these pictures from that afternoon/evening:

Esther is creating a sculpture of starfish in the sand...

Here's the finished product -- she's very proud.

So proud she'll wear them! :)

Here is the grody walrus carcass. We poked around at it for a while, trying to find out if it still had tusks, but, no luck. :) Stinky!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Bladder Festival

So the big culmination of the Yuraq dancing (see previous post for description) is the Bladder Festival in mid-March, often called the Louis Bunyan Festival in recent times. But most people still recognize it as the Bladder Festival, the time of the year when all the bladders of the seals caught during the year, dried and filled with air, are sent back to the sea. Helen Smith, an elder I've been speaking to lately, told me that they used to poke a big hole in the ice and push the whole cache of bladders through, and the bladders would sink without any weight attached. She said the cache of bladders would never re-appear later in the year, never wash up on the beach like many things lost at sea do. They believed this was because the spirits of the seals resided in the bladder, and sending the bladder back to the sea would let those seals hunted and caught be born again into new seals. I don't know if anyone in the village still does this with seals caught in present-day, but it's memorialized with this festival.

During the festival there is lots of Yuraq, traditional dancing, with Hooper Bay groups and visiting village dance groups. I was slightly nervous about dancing with the group, because I knew it was alright that I had practiced with them, but I wasn't sure if it was OK if I performed with them. So I went to a woman who is Esther's great-aunt and also in the group, and also a teacher-aide in the school, and asked her if she thought the group would want me to perform with them at the festival. She said "Yah! If they didn't want you to dance at the festival with them the would have already told you to get off the way in the practices. Anyone who practices with us enough is free to dance with us." So that made me feel better about dancing with them, but I was still nervous during the performances and made a million wrong moves.

Sorry my back is to the camera, but I didn't get too many good pictures of myself dancing. Esther, on the other hand, looks great in this picture, so that makes up for it. I try to stand on the end to try to not draw attention to myself! :) As you can see in the picture that begins this post, the rest of the group looks fabulous. This is all in the new school's gym, by the way.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Our Winter Activities

This winter we really got into what outside and traditional activities we could enjoy. It feels like things came together for us, Esther and I, as far as what my vision of our lives could be, this winter: Esther is old enough to join in, and our new house location is really very conducive for us to have access to lots of things. I just realized that I can put a picture into this blog post itself, so check out the images attached -- or that I hope to attach when I'm done writing.

First up: My new Yellow Honda!

Here is Esther, all decked out in her cold-weather gear, sitting on my brand-new "Honda" -- all ATV's, regardless of their make or model, are casually called "Honda" in Hooper Bay. It's totally been our ticket to ride this winter, letting us go out to visit the beach, visit relatives, and explore the frozen tundra beyond the village. It's a freedom I haven't known when I have lived here before; I definitely am a bit sad to see the days of walking while pulling Esther in the sled behind me go, but we did a lot of that, and now we can join in with more community activities that happen outside of town, like ice-fishing, or manuking.

Yuraq -- traditional Yup'ik dancing
Many of you know how entranced I've felt about Yuraq since the first time I tried it, in Pilot Station, and I haven't ever felt like I've reached the same level of involvement since I left that village in the spring of 2000. It was such a great experience that led to so much understanding of Yup'ik people and village life, and brought me so much acceptance that I have been eager to try again, here in Hooper Bay. This year I set it as my goal to participate in one of the two local dance groups, and I wanted to bring Esther with me, to have her growing up around this strong tradtion. We joined the school group and danced often with them, and Esther tried her little baby best and was precious. In this picture she is holding dance fans and wearing a qaspeq, often spelled kuspuk. This type of dancing is done by waving fans or your hands in motions that tell a story, while bouncing in one place. There are both women and men dancers, though women often dance standing up and men often dance kneeling down (though there are no strict gender roles). Mostly men sing and drum the songs, and the words of the songs tell the stories that the dancers tell with their motions. The songs are repeated several times, each time getting more lively and fast, with the dancers dancing more animated each time. It's totally a thrill-- quite a rush to dance in front of an audience. And I've felt wonderful acceptance from the dance group, and I feel honored and priviledged that they allow me to dance with them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Christmas 2006

Taking a Christmas Eve walk, Mom takes a turn pulling Esther and our Christmas Bread-gifts in the sled.

I know it's far in the past, but I still think a recounting of our Hooper Bay Christmas is in order.

Over Christmas my mom came to Hooper Bay to visit. She flew in on a morning bush flight a few days before Christmas, and it was lucky she was scheduled in the morning, because a swirling snowy groundstorm rose up just as she was arriving, and no other planes came in that day. It's such a typical experience to be weather-delayed, so typical that it's amazing to actually make it into the village without a delay, and so we were so grateful to begin our visit right as scheduled.

We had a fairytale snowy Christmas, and even if we were still in my old trailer under wierd water conditions, we made it really great. I was really glad to have a change of scenery from the Koskey family farm, because, though Christmas there is really idyllic, it would have brought so many memories from last Christmas when we lost my dad. Although we thought of him often, it wasn't as painful as I think it would have been if we had been in Indiana. And although we didn't have a tree, I decorated the living room with lots of lights and colorful paper stars and snowflakes, and we sewed and embroidered stockings for each of us and all of Esther's close-by Alaskan cousins. It felt very festive -- especially when Santa came and piled up the presents!

Speaking of Santa, Esther was at a perfect age for Santa this year. She was so into talking about him, wondering about him, and planning for him. We set out cookies and carrots for Santa and the reindeer before bed. Esther had pictures of reindeer on her pjs, and she decided to feed the reindeer on her shirt some of the carrots we had set out:

She went right to sleep when I told her that Santa would come only if she was sleeping. However, an hour or so later when I was getting all the presents out of their hiding places and setting them out, I shut a door too hard and it woke her up. Mom, who had already gone to bed and was in the room with Esther, said Esther sat up from sleep like a shot and shouted, "Santa!" It was all we could do to convince her to go back to sleep until morning.

And once she did wake up, she was amazed and so happy to see everything. She loved opening presents and was excited by each one, sent from near and far -- everyone was so generous and sent her so many nice things.

I cooked a turkey that day and had several of Esther's cousins and aunts over for a full dinner, and everything was just perfect. Here are Jasmine, Esther, Avery, and Alex -- Jasmine and Avery are her cousins and Alex is her uncle, Roy's youngest brother.

Our Christmas tale is not complete, however, without the recounting of the PUPPY. We adopted a puppy, Odin Jade, from the family of one of my students right before Christmas. I was not aware of how much work puppies are! And my memories of Christmas are fraught with time spent trying to get him to pee outside. We decided to call him Odin Jade because we couldn't decide between the names, and Esther says it so cute. He has grown into a good dog, and we finally did get him potty trained pretty well. He has a fondness for eating yucky stuff and puking it back up in the house, though, which is totally sick and reduces my fondness for him. But,anyway, as his story started around Christmastime, I wanted to include him in our story.

Esther holding Odin Jade the day we got him.

Jasmine pushing puppy Odin in the doll stroller.

Big Guy: Odin Jade in early May -- he's such a quirky dog, always crossing his legs!
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