Part 1: Eating, Naming and Becoming
You learn much about eating when you live in very isolated or remote places in Alaska. Grocery store prices are triple what you would pay in the lower 48. Selections fluctuate depending on weather and access to cargo. I had my initial experiences with Alaska-bush-food-shopping in Metlakatla. During the winter months of 2016, their ferry was down due to needed repairs. Float planes were often grounded because of harsh winter winds. In January, I remember walking into the only grocery store on the island and seeing empty dairy cases, food shelves and produce aisles. I had stocked my pantry with spaghetti and sauce, peanut butter, tuna fish and canned soup just in case such a situation occurred, yet I still felt utterly unprepared. That is when I started truly thinking about how I was going to sustain the quality of life I wanted while residing and working in the Alaska bush.
While living in Met, I was fortunate enough to be friended by a local woman named Ann Clark. She introduced me to subsistence; living off the land. Together, we harvested abalone, seaweed, beach asparagus, thimbleberries and more. We brought back to her house what we had gathered and then she showed me, step by step, how to clean and cook it. Her abalone chowder made with coconut flour was the best I have ever had and I lived in Boston, a city famous for its chowder, for more than a decade.
Ann's abalone chowder.
I learned from her not to depend on grocery store shelves as I couldn't rely on them. Too, the food I did find there was either older than the expiration date or more expensive than the gas to drive to the beach where a plentiful amount of food was waiting for me.
Part 2: Canary of the Sea
Sitting at my kitchen counter here in Barrow, I can see a dozen or more abalone shells, harvested from one of Ann and my outings, in a bowl above my refrigerator. They remind me of what Ann taught me and what the locals here have already begun to share. I wrote in an earlier post that I have now eaten boiled muktuk (whale (agvig) meat) called uunaalik in Inupiaq, pickled uunaalik and bearded seal. I didn't participate in harvesting those foods, instead they were shared with me at community dinners and events. Yesterday, while attending the first session of a science college course offered at the elementary school I work at, I added another name to that list - sisuag (Inupiaq) or beluga whale, the Canary of the Sea.
Excerpt from my diary:
Dec 3, 2016
Breakfast - stir-fried beluga, called
sisuag in Inupiaq, and donuts.
sisuag in Inupiaq, and donuts.
-------Second diary excerpt:
Eating that which I said would never go into my body due to its beauty and my thought that it had thoughts, but now it is done - beluga is within me; part of me.
The scientist just showed a photo of a polar bear feeding on a beluga whale it pulled from the ice and sea. I have become that; the hunter, yet also, the hunted. A polar bear would feed on my belly and bones, too. My step-father, Barney, who was born on the Seneca Indian Reservation in Upstate, New York said that when he was learning to fish his grandfather told him, "When you catch your first fish, eat its eyes. The fish eyes within you will help you see what the fish sees and show you where they run and spawn. That is where you should go and fish. Let the fish become you and you the fish."
So many thoughts running through my mind as I listen to all that the scientists are sharing while still thinking about choosing to eat the beluga or sisuag. They tell us that the beluga whale is also called the "Canary of the Sea," as it sings songs with a wide range of pitches. The poet and writer Charles Bukowski wrote the famous line, "there's a bluebird in my heart." There is a sea canary in mine and in my belly.
What I am trying to get at is that if we participate in eating as just an act of gaining nourishment, then we disconnect ourselves from the great truth that eating a creature merges them with us on both a cellular - proteins, iron, vitamins, etc, and (I believe) a spiritual level. Add to that that my co-worker said that beluga oil heals - it heals when you place it on skin and it seeps into the tissue membrane...so clinical and lengthy for a diary entry...slow down. Beluga is slowly digesting within me and my body is absorbing its fats and proteins, all of its great gifts - my body, mind and spirit are grateful.
I am thinking now of a favorite book for children and all-aged readers. I am thinking of the book, "The Story of Jumping Mouse," a Native American legend retold and illustrated by John Steptoe.
The mouse in the story is on a brave journey to find and arrive at the "far-off land." Along the way he encounters various other animals. First he meets Magic Frog, who gives him the name, Jumping Mouse.
As Jumping Mouse continues on his journey, he encounters others who have lost some part of themselves; parts significant to their wellbeing and lifestyle.
He meets a bison blinded by poisoned water that he drank. Jumping Mouse names him, Eyes-of-a-Mouse. Suddenly, the bison's vision is restored and it is joyously grateful. However, Jumping Mouse can no longer see. Next, Jumping Mouse encounters a wolf who has lost his sense of smell. Jumping Mouse names him, Nose-of-a-Mouse. Immediately, the wolf starts to sniff and celebrates again smelling the scent of the pine trees. Jumping Mouse has lost his use of his nose. He can not see or smell, but he continues on his quest to find the "far-off land."
He wakes the next day and is saddened by all that he no longer has. He begins to cry. He then hears the voice of Magic Frog, who was earlier in the book killed and eaten by a snake. The rest of this remarkable story follows below:
"Magic Frog, is that you?" Jumping Mouse asked, swallowing his tears.
"Yes," said Magic Frog. "Don't cry, Jumping Mouse. Your unselfish spirit has brought you great hardship, but it is that same spirit of hope and compassion that has brought you to the far-off land."
"You have nothing to fear, Jumping Mouse."
"Jump high, Jumping Mouse," commanded Magic Frog.
Jumping Mouse did as he was told and jumped as high as he could. Then he felt the air lifting him higher still into the sky. He stretched out his paws in the sun and felt strangely powerful. To his joy he began to see the wondrous beauty of the world above and below and to smell the scent of the earth and the sky and living things.
"Jumping Mouse," he heard Magic Frog call. "I give you a new name. You are now called Eagle,
and you will live in the far-off land forever."
***Sisuag is now part of me. I honor that and am as thankful as the bison and the wolf were for their gifts, as well as the eagle for its. If I was given a new name by Magic Frog or Jumping Mouse, it might be Sakig-of-a-Sisuag, lower jaw of a beluga. The lower jaw is considered a significant part of the whale meat and is offered first to the captains and then the assisting crews in the hunt; perhaps it was offered to me. I do not know. I do know that thirty minutes after I ate the beluga meat, my jaw and teeth tingled. I remembered a tooth ache I had had a week or so ago. I thought of my co-worker telling me that the sisuag would "heal me." I was aware of this connection - between her words and what I was experiencing in my own lower jaw. That settles it and Magic Frog would agree. Sakig-of-a Sisuag is my answer.
We write stories about what we experience. Naming those experiences when it comes to eating creatures of the sky, the field and the waters honors the gifts that they give. Too, I will now always think of Jumping Mouse when I eat sisuag or beluga. This is the gift of good stories. They weave into our memories calling to us like Magic Frog to weeping Jumping Mouse. They remind us of where we came from, the experiences along the way and confirm our arrival.