Alaska Spring

I have the honor of singing with the Alaska Chamber Singers, and on April 21 and 22, the Chamber Singers will perform the *world premiere* of a new choral work by Grammy-winning composer Libby Larsen, entitled Alaska Spring. Scored for SATB choir and string quartet, Alaska Spring is a setting of five nature poems by former Alaska Poet Laureate Tom Sexton.

You can read more about Alaska Spring in this article I authored for the Anchorage Press. Also check out the full transcript of my interview with Ms. Larsen, and the 49 Writers’ blog for my (excerpted) interview with Mr. Sexton. Here is a longer version of the interview with him.

Hope to see you at the premiere of Alaska Spring! Click here for concert details.

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Dereliction

The barn nextdoor,
picturesque in decay,
dilapidates
apodictically from
its center out.

The slide nextdoor,
disconcertingly tall,
abides disuse,
derelict but erect
aluminum.

If you were here,
under black of the night
we’d slink nextdoor,
surreptitiously swoosh down the slide
to land in snow.

Or bake a pie
for the neighbors nextdoor
and ask about
their barn.

———–

This is an experiment in meter about the historic Colony barn and vintage playground slide nextdoor to my house in the Butte. The barn has an entire webpage devoted to it! Unfortunately, you can’t see the slide in any of the pictures. I’m working, on and off, on a series of poems in various meters about some of the quirky landmarks in my neighborhood.

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Excerpt from Denali Essay

This is an excerpt from an essay I’m writing about the female experience of climbing modern Denali. You prepare for years for a climb like Denali, physically training to a super high fitness level, and learning and practicing a gazillion technical skills. Then once you’re on the mountain, surprisingly, the hardest thing is, well…

————–

Take Ski Hill. It was just the third day of the trip. Our six-person group was climbing the gentle rise to Kahiltna Pass. I was hydrating well, and by the first snack break of the day, I had to go — you know, Number One. Now, if you’re traveling on a snow-covered glacier, you can’t just unrope, walk around the corner by yourself for privacy, and pull down your pants. Unless you’ve probed out the area and know that it’s safe, you should stay on rope, or at least stay where you are, so that you’re not walking unanchored on a weak snow bridge over a hidden crevasse. So what’s a woman to do? Enter the Freshette.

In theory, Freshettes rock. A Freshette is a feminine funnel for urinating. It’s plastic and pink (because coloring it pink makes it less gross?) and has an extension tube and is “anatomically designed to contour the female body,” according to the manufacturer’s website. You just stick it into your pants, extend the tube all the way out, and release. It’s like a fake penis! Imagine: freedom from squatting, freedom from filthy public toilets, freedom from baring your bum in cold weather or mosquito-thick woods. In theory, I could use this Freshette to quickly and easily tinkle on the mountain without having to unrope, unharness, or unclothe. In theory.

In reality, Freshettes dribble. Or rather, I dribbled. Into my undies, a little down my leg, and into my ski bibs.

I swear: I practiced with the Freshette before Denali, just like the manual told me, first in the shower, then on the trail with clothing. I experimented with different positions and angles, and sometimes it worked for me, but half the time I dribbled. On the mountain, it’s not like I could easily wash out my ski bibs that evening and then expect that they’d dry overnight in the freezing cold tent. I was stuck smelling like urine. I was just glad we didn’t have beets the night before — or worse, asparagus!

We lunched at Kahiltna Pass, buried a cache of gear, then headed back to camp at the base of Ski Hill. By late afternoon I had to go again, and by our last snack break, I just couldn’t wait any longer. For our break, our leader decided that instead of probing out one area for everyone to gather to snack, our two rope teams would just “parallel park” so that both rope teams were still safely stretched out, but next to each other, only about 10 feet away. So the second rope team sidled up to my team, and there was Nick, a guy I barely knew, only 10 feet away from me, and there was me, with little choice but to pee next to him.

I just couldn’t do it. It didn’t work. Between the embarrassment of having to do my private business so close to a near-stranger, the bladder-debilitating fear of dribbling again, my anxiousness at keeping my chilly teammates waiting, and just the oddity of trying to let go while fully clothed and standing, I could not release. I had to hold it until camp. Nick must have thought I was nuts.

I would guess it’s not such a big deal for a guy to pee on rope; you just, you know, whip it out and go, right? But a Number Two on the rope — well, that’s just challenging for men and women alike. Imagine, if you will, that you’re on Denali, and you have a big bad bowl of chili one night. The next day on the rope, you find yourself having to go. A lot. So on the trail, you’d have to stop your team, get your portable toilet bucket off the elaborately-packed sled behind you, and explode in wide open view of the shivering cold, impatient teammates just 60 feet away on the rope. Glacial mountaineering is not for the irregular.

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For Caitlin and Chris


This is a poem that I wrote for my friends Caitlin and Chris and read at their wedding ceremony. I’m normally not a rhymer, but slightly saccharine seemed right for a wedding.

———–

There’s poetry at first in love,
A seeping simmer in every touch.
You’re bathing in each other’s breath,
So potent is the crush.

There’s molten gold in every glance.
Every curve is memorized,
And every word in every text
Is thoroughly analyzed.

You’re aware of every molecule
Comingling when you kiss.
Your very hair is tingling.
The stuff of sonnets, this.

But then, one day, the flush will fade
Like gravy cooling off the stove,
And your once perfect shared pulse
Will jumble into a prosaic slog…

          Of traffic, budgets, meetings, mortgage melee,
          Forgotten leftovers forfeit from mold.

          Then kids arrive, then middle age.
          It’s hard to summon smolder from muffin tops, baby spit up, bald spots;
          Hard to keep kindness with cracked grout, dog puke, and carburetor clog.

          Those memorized curves — become rolls.
          And there’s no bathing in garlic breath.

          Schools  scabs  snot  strep splinters stitches sprains lice…

          Wrinkles.
          Graying.
          Atrophy.
          Disease.
          Loss.

But in the end there’s verse again
In gentle daily rituals,
A lifetime of holding hands,
Of tenderness habitual.

Through the clutter of quotidian,
Chaotic stress, and doldrum days,
You restore each other’s quietude.
Affection steadfast stays.

There’s comfort in companionship,
Your constant friend, abiding trust,
The sepia memories of a life,
A peaceful susurrus.

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A Gull at Requiem

The wind is smart with seaweed, salt, and mold.
I push my slumping body through its pulls;
it flails my rubber coat with brackish gusts.

I trudge along the beaten crescent beach,
impounded by gray granite headland walls
and cymbal-smashing dies irae waves,
past stinking heaps of purple mussel bones.
The tangled seaweed sinews snare my shoes.

          A memory
          of watching Perseid from here with her
                    recedes,
          a decrescendoing recessional.

A lighthouse wails a single French horn note.
Some ten tones up, a seabird imitates,
a matted gull on guano-crusted rock.
With depthless marble eyes he watches, blank,
not me, not sea, but nothing, everything,
and cracks the note apart atonally.

He’s not a raven, thrush, or nightingale;
his song is neither love, nor prophecy,
nor soulful fling, but empty piercing shrieks,
          of endless, apathetic sea,
a cacophonous anti-melody.

There’s nothing here but mildewed requiem.
I turn back to the cliff-hid path for home.

 

——————-

Update: This poem has been published in the Winter 2011 issue of Cirque, a literary journal for the Pacific North Rim. You can view and/or purchase Cirque online at www.cirquejournal.com.

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The iPhone

So much depends
upon

a hot pink
iPhone

streaked with thumb
oils

beside the black
smart key.

 

Yes, this poem was more than inspired by William Carlos Williams’s wonderfully simple “The Red Wheelbarrow”. For the record, I own neither an iPhone, nor a car that would ever recognize a smart key!

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Bearanoid

A few weeks before my wedding, my mother-in-law-to-be phoned me with a whispered horror. 

“Lorelahhh,” she whispered. My name is pronounced Laura-LIE, rhyming with stupefy, but Marion’s Virginia drawl turns any long I into Ahhh.

“Lorelahhh. Ahhh am worried about this hike you’re plannin’ for your honeymoon in ANWR. Ahhh don’t mean to be…” she cleared her throat in embarrassment, “… indelicate, but bears are attracted to… to… menstrual blood.”

Her voice began rising in volume and hysteria. “You need to get on the Pill to stop your period, Lorelahhh, or else you and mahhh son will have bears stalkin’ you the entahhhre hahhhke! Ahhhh am so worried; ahhh just can’t sleep. Ahhh am going to have a heart attack!”

Bearanoid. Characterized by an extreme and/or irrational fear of bears, i.e., any of the mammal family Ursidae, having coarse, heavy fur, rudimentary tails, and plantigrade feet, and feeding largely on fruit and insects as well as on flesh.

Despite Marion’s warning, I did not get on the Pill, but somehow the bears did not stalk Jason and me on our honeymoon trek in the Arctic. Incidentally, we never saw a single hunk of Ursidae on that trip, only plantigrade bear tracks in the river bar.

To be clear: there is no scientific evidence suggesting that menstrual blood attracts grizzly bears, or black bears, for that matter—only polar bears. I should know; I googled it. 1 So, I doubt I would’ve been stalked by any grizzlies on my honeymoon, even if I had painted stripes of menstrual blood across my face. And really, I haven’t done that since college.

I hope I don’t sound bear-flippant, because I’m actually not that far down the bearanoia scale myself. In fact, I would be quite happy if I never saw a bear on a hiking trip again. I like knowing they’re there—just, you know, one valley over or something.

Take my last backpacking trip in Denali National Park. Jason and I were hiking upstream along the Teklanika River when we saw the first three bears: a grizzly mama with two cubs, about 500 yards ahead, at the river’s edge—exactly where we wanted go. The adrenaline spiked; menstruating or not, I have no wish to encounter a sow defending her cubs. But no big deal, we told ourselves. They hadn’t seen us, and we were still far enough away. We climbed 1000 feet up to a bench above the river, keeping our sights on the bears, then moved upstream from above, at this point 1000 yards or more away from the family.

A mile or so later we spotted the fourth and fifth bears. They, too, were down in the river bar, 1000 yards away, and unaware of our presence. Call us bearanoid, but we fretted, wrung hands, gnashed teeth, and altered course again to stay far, far away. The bears never saw us, but they were a stressor I personally did not savor.

Up to the Teklanika headwaters we walked, over a pass, and down the Refuge Valley to the Sanctuary River, where we planned to hike downstream a bit and then get in our packrafts to float languidly to the park road. But before we got to the river we saw our sixth grizzly of the trip, lolling about on the river bank, exactly where we wanted to be.

By this time, we were feeling less bearanoid and more bear-annoyed. I mean, c’mon, really!? A sixth bear?! Why can’t the Park Service just FedEx these bears to a zoo or something so that we hikers can enjoy our wilderness in peace?!

The line between bear-aware and bearanoid is subjective for sure. I think I’m appropriately cautious on a hike. The bear spray is always just a hand-twitch away. Overnight I always store food in a bear-resistant, odor-proof container. When bushwhacking I like to sing “99 Bottles of Ginger Ale on the Wall”—loudly and off-key. Studies show that grizzly bears are repelled by bad singing. 2 For that reason, I never hike with singers from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

But for all these precautions, my mom thinks I’m just plain crazy for hiking in bear country at all. I think my mom is crazy for driving a car in Manhattan. My mother-in-law, Marion of the Menstrual Warning, thinks I’m crazy for leaving my front door unlocked during my period, lest a really perverted bear seek me out. I think she’s crazy for shopping on Black Friday.

And I don’t think your bearanoia is just a function of how long you’ve lived in bear country. My realtor, a life-long Alaskan who grew up in Dillingham, is aghast that I’d hike in the Arctic without a firearm. She tells everyone this—really, everyone. She interrupted an otherwise intense real estate transaction to tell the escrow officer all about it.

I’m not going to get into the debate about whether you’re safer in bear country with or without a firearm, but I can promise you that if I ever tried to shoot a charging bear with a gun, I’d wind up accidentally hitting my foot or something.

Now, I can see how your bearanoia may be a function of your troubles with bears. If I were one of those NOLS kids recently mauled by that grizzly, I’d never go into the woods again. Ever. I’d take up coin-collecting and the Jane Fonda Workout.

I have a friend, born and raised in Alaska, who swears he was stalked by a grizz for hours one time up and down Bird Ridge in the Chugach. A few years later I went backpacking with him, and he was yelling “Hey Bear!” every three counts on the dot, in forest and tundra alike. I could’ve played a spritely Chopin waltz to his metronome of bearanoia.

This friend has since retreated to Florida, where he has only to worry about alligators and the truly fearsome humongous flying cockroaches.

By the way, I have hiking friends who certainly consider me bearanoid in turn. I admit it: on that last Denali trip, our detours around those bears were probably extreme. But again, what’s bear-aware, and what’s bearnoid?

I know people who sleep with their food bags, because who can be bothered with heavy bear-proof containers and storing food away from camp? They think bears in Alaska generally aren’t acquainted enough with human food to enter a human camp. But remember that woman who was mauled in her tent in Gates of the Arctic in 2008 by an obviously food-seeking bear? I think about that horror story when I carry my food every night 100 paces from where I sleep and 100 paces from where I cook (the so-called Bear-muda Triangle Method).

I know another woman who does store her food away from camp, but in a flimsy, smell-porous nylon stuff sack. I don’t want to meet the bear who sniffs out the unprotected food in her bag and gets a taste for Cool Ranch Doritos. Just one crunch, and it’ll shake down every picnicking hiker in the state, looking for more.

I have another friend who leaves bear spray at home when he’s hiking with three or more people. The argument is that bears leave large groups alone, which may be true most of the time, but try telling the seven people in that Gates of the Arctic group to ditch their bear spray on their next group trip. They used bear spray to chase the grizzly off the aforementioned woman who was mauled in her tent.

As I write this, I’m talking myself into Jane Fonda and coin collecting. Apparently the US mint is releasing a Denali National Park coin in 2012. I wonder if there’ll be a bear on it?

No, really, bearanoia won’t keep me indoors, won’t drive me to the NRA, and certainly won’t get me on the Pill. For the record, I jest about the whole FedExing-the-bears-out-of-the-national-parks idea. Truly, I think humans have a responsibility to respect and conserve wildlife, including predators, and besides, UPS is so much more reliable.

But no matter what you say, I’m not abandoning my bear spray, or my bear-proof food container, or my Bear-muda Triangle Method; they’re worth the weight on my shoulders and the small inconvenience.

I guess I am pretty bored with singing “99 Bottles of Ginger Ale on the Wall” through every stretch of alder, though, so here’s a ditty I wrote on a trek last year through the Talkeetnas, to be sung to the tune of “God Bless America.” Sing it badly and off-key to better repel the Ursidae.

        God, bless the grizzly bear,
        Beast that I fear!
        Please don’t eat me,
        Or beat me.
        I’d like to live to hike another year.

        You are hairy,
        And so scary
        With your claws as
        Sharp as spears…

        God, bless the grizzly bear!
        Please stay away!
        God, bless the grizzly bear
        ‘Cause I have bear spray!


1 Gunther, Kerry A. (May 2002). Bears and Menstruating Women. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.yellowstone-bearman.com/menstruation_data.html.

2 Not really. I’m just making that up.

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