Between the mid-1980s and 2012 it was my avocation, and good fortune, to spend ten days to two weeks in early winter watching marine mammals from shore. For most of those years it was just me with enough field equipment to max out the series of progressively larger float planes that took me to my little island site.
I chose an island for the psychological boost that it was more secure from late-denning coastal brown bears. You know the ones I mean, those big, almost black, bullet headed boars. When you see one prowling the beaches, shoulders rolling, toes angled in, sniffing for that last big meal to tuck in before winter, even if they’re a mile away you think, “Aw Jeez, I wish I hadn’t seen that.” and you don’t look again or take a picture in case he might connect through the lens and come over.
If you’re thinking, “An island wouldn’t matter. Bears are great swimmers.” You’re right. But modest delusions come in handy sitting in the tent at night with: an air horn, pepper spray (two cans), a flare pistol, a loaded shot gun and with Tibetan prayer flags strung all around the tent perimeter on the theory that bears are suspicious of flapping things and might be less likely to cross them. Even with all the activity involved in setting up camp it always me took a couple days to breathe easy.
Weather drives everything at that time of year. Wait, sometimes a week, for weather to clear so the plane can fly you in with extra food, extra fuel, extra books, enough for two extra weeks in case you need to kick back under consecutive storm fronts rolling in from two thousand miles across the Pacific.
A rumble high overhead—then silence—means gravity has dispatched a hundred pound scoop of wet snow from seventy feet up a spruce tree. Those make an alarming whump! when they land. You hope they’ll miss the tent or least miss the stack from the wood stove. (They almost always miss.) Southeast wind gusting over fifty makes a tent vibrate like tents in those old black and white videos of National Geographic explorers in outer Mongolia. A hundred yards of guy wires stretched tight every which way, tied to trees, exposed roots, or eighteen inch tent stakes, implies you’re not going to blow away but the place might tear or break a pole and get flattened. With that in mind you extinguish the gas lamp, let the stove go out and wait by candlelight. And wait. And wait. Outside something pops. You go out to fix it by headlamp. Check all around for bears, who are smart enough to be somewhere snug. Go back in. Dry off. Wait some more.
The weather clears. Temperatures drop and it’s drop-dead beautiful. Snow on the mountains glows orange in the sunshine. There are loons and rafts of sea ducks. Deer walk the beaches. At night, with no street light for fifty miles, stars are brilliant in the Winter Hexagon: Sirius the dog star, the Twins, the Pleiades, Taurus the Bull charging Orion. Wind begins to blow from the north. It will be rocking on the water tomorrow and everything’s going to freeze. Tenting in the old wet/freeze/wet when it’s dark most of the time, among animals bigger than you—that don’t need you to feed them—sets a person thinking about mortality.
Even as physical efficiency in setting up field season improved, the mental inventory of risk and close calls over the years began to counter balance it. Getting killed wasn’t the worry so much as feeling unprepared for whatever comes after. At one of life’s supreme moments you don’t want to slip on a cosmic banana peel and fall sideways down the stairs.
Without realizing why, I’d start brooding around mid-October. I’d put things off and drink more alcohol. Some nights I’d stay up late listening over and over to the first twelve seconds of a 1966 recording of Joan Baez singing, ‘Farewell Angelina’ because she hits a note in there that reminds me of a humpback whale note I heard in 1989. Two interesting questions came out of those late-night sessions* but in terms of getting ready to go, listening to Joan is less productive than it sounds.
Such was my head space one October day when I happened across a flyer announcing a Tibetan Lama was in town. That very night he’d speak at Northern Lights church about the Bardos; the progression of birth, life, death, and the interim phases between death and rebirth. That was right up my alley. I usually sit near a back corner at public talks so I can bail out discreetly if things go off the boil, but that night I went and sat right up front.
After an engaging thumbnail outline of his profound topic the adept man invited people to a three-day retreat being held over the weekend. With no clue about what to expect I signed up. Have you ever been to one of those things? The Buddhists place high value on silence and meditation. Follow the breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. When you’re alone, or in the woods, or on the water, not talking is a given. No one talking in a room with five dozen people is amazing. After a few hours, wondering if circulation would return to my legs if we ever stood up again, my contemplation narrowed to fighting down a spontaneous Tourett’s response and keep myself from yelling, “Blaaaaahhhhggghhh!” to see if the lama would jump. On the second and third days I was more settled.
The next week in winter camp, with some of that settled mind still intact, gave time to reflect on some take aways from the Bardo weekend. If we have a good life now it’s because we did well in our former life—lucky us but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. To practice right living in this life improves well-being for ourselves and others. Time just before death, moment of death, and the time just after death are auspicious. I think of it as the times just before, during and after winter equinox. With practice we can prepare for the transition in order to stay steady on a righteous path and avoid traps and pitfalls that could send us to off into a new life that would be a set back.
Sitting with local Buddhists during the following year was deeply satisfying and provided a foundation to help navigate losses of friends and loved ones.
Some wonderful Juneau characters made the transition this year. Three community mentors among them were Lisle Hebert, George Lunda and Kimala Fordham. In their passing they left us tools to help make our way. I don’t suppose I’ll debate politics again without thinking of Lisle with his passionate, respectful humanity. I’ll think of George whenever I eat smoked black cod or halibut and remember him during a full storm a hundred miles off shore on the western ocean. Ninety knot winds and forty foot seas in a forty-six foot wooden boat. Through superb seamanship he brought everyone home safe without bragging or fanfare. He was already off to the next thing. Kimala, master teacher, encyclopedia of how to gather good energy from the Universe, and let go of bad energy which blocks energy flow in the body. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people will remember her in their daily practice of Tai Chi, Qigong, the Five Elements, somatics, breathing exercises and right living.
This time around equinox is a good time to reflect on our fortune being here in this place where the dual landscape of wilderness and humanity resonates to enrich our souls. Lucky us. As for me, this is a good time, with the freezer full and wood stacks two years ahead, to settle in, and breathe, and listen to whales.
*Two questions that came out of those sessions: 1) Whales can live longer than we do. Would a singing whale’s voice mellow over fifty or sixty years like the sweet, subtle changes you hear decade by decade in Joan Baez’s ‘Farewell Angelina’ between the sixties, and now? 2) Listen to a recording of Nana Mouskouri singing ‘Farewell Angelina’ in 1967. That note is there, the song and voice are nearly the same as Joan Baez’s except Nana is singing in French. This raises the question; ‘Do whales in different parts of the ocean sing the same song in different languages but people can’t tell the difference?’