Friends from Shishmaref after an afternoon of blueberry picking. Gathering a cupful or two of these small, tart berries growing in scattered clumps across the tundra was work… the fun kind. The following morning, we celebrated with a stack of blueberry waffles.
Accustomed to the six and seven-foot tall blueberry bushes of Oregon where Barbra and I had picked berries by the bucketful when I lived in Astoria, we were surprised to learn that blueberries were growing right under our feet on our walks through the tundra near Shishmaref. “There’s lots,” one of my students told us. “We’re going to go tomorrow. You guys can follow.”
“Follow” is the village English way of saying “come along.” And sure enough, once we learned to key in on the unmistakable Autumn-red of the bushes (if ground-hugging plants that top out at six-inches can properly be called bushes), we began finding an abundance of small, perfectly ripe, deliciously tart berries. The comparatively thick, woody stems of some of these bushes suggested that they had weathered quite a few seasons near the Arctic Circle. Growing among the blueberries were crowberries (locally called blackberries) and low bush cranberries. Elsewhere in the far north, including in Europe, there are cloudberries, perhaps the most delicious berry on earth.
We walked along in the late summer sun, finding patches of berries here and there, crouching and kneeling to pick, and then moving on to find another patch of tell-tale red. Birds were out sharing the bounty – or maybe the insects associated wtih the fruit: lapland longspurs, white-crowned sparrows, savanah sparrows, and other small birds.
The pause that refreshes. A berry-picker gazes across the open tundra on Sarichef Island where Shishmaref is located, snacking on a bag of berries that probably aren’t going to make it all the way home. The red leaves near her feet? Yep. Blueberries!
Feathers puffed against the cold, a female McKay’s bunting warms herself in the radiant heat from a rock. Daily highs are reaching the teens and even the twenties now, and today’s sunshine stretched from sunrise at 7:00 AM to sunset at 11:13 PM. The midnight sun is back, and so are the birds!
Gripped in the heart of winter, an Arctic landscape can be one of the quietest places on earth. Save for a few hardy ravens that manage to make a living off dumpsters and the local garbage facility, most birds head for warmer climes. There are no tree branches for the wind to whistle through, no dry grass to rustle, and on the coldest nights, even the village dogs huddle up and stay mum. Dark settles in, and the waiting begins.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve increasingly been hearing the welcome twitters and chirps of flocks of the snow birds of the north, snow buntings and McKay’s buntings. It’s been weeks since the last windstorm, and these days we can feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. It feels… wonderful.
I’ve always admired passerines – songbirds. These snow buntings have become some of my favorites.
As the snow melts, interesting things are being uncovered.
I think it was Agatha Christie who stumped me with a story of a body which had been found lying by a puddle of water with no murder weapon to be found. Though I puzzled over this, I couldn’t figure it out.
Today as we walked around our village, we heard a loud crash, almost like thick glass shattering. We turned to see fragments of a large icicle smashed on the ground next to the school. Looking up, we saw clear, sharply pointed, pendant masses hanging menacingly. These icicles were substantial–their girth the size of pop cans. Hung next to each other, they resembled monstrous fangs ready to devastate.
(Ready for summer!)
As the end of the school year nears, I think about my first graders and what they have accomplished this year. When I first accepted the job in Shishmaref, I was told I would have a special group of first graders. That’s about the extent of what I was told. For a variety of reasons, my students had to master many kindergarten standards in addition to their scheduled first grade standards. It was a tall order for six-year-olds. I feel like a very proud mama. I’ve seen amazing growth in my ten young charges. They have blossomed into readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and artists. I can’t help but wonder about their futures. At the beginning of the year, they couldn’t contemplate their future (or articulate it). Now they talk about becoming teachers, pilots, operators of large machinery, hunters…
The end of a school year encourages me to wonder about former students as well. This year in particular. The very first class I bonded with was my first 6th grade class at Sutterville. They were a special class for a few reasons. One of the strongest reasons was that they were so tightly bonded. Did they stay in touch more than any other class? I wonder. They were already very level-headed young people. Many had a maturity about them that is unusual for that age. I’ve heard through the grapevine that a couple of them are going to UC schools next year. That makes me so proud. I’m sure that I represent a fleeting time in their young lives and have little importance any longer…which is healthy. But I wanted to send the message out to the world that I am thinking about all of them and hope that they all are on a path toward whatever they define as success. With much love…
With big bright eyes, one of my students announced that his dad had gotten a polar bear. He insisted that I call his dad so I could go see it. So, right after school, Jack and I headed out to talk to the hunter. The previous day he had been out seal hunting a few miles south of Shishmaref and had seen lots of polar bear tracks. He found one of the bears and proudly came home with the fourth polar bear in his lifetime. Telling the story, he concluded with a smile, “My daughters have already put in orders for ruffs!”
The skin was laid out, its mylar-like hair glistening in the sun by his home. It was easy to see why polar bear hair was once a highly valued material for fly-tying. But for how silky the fur looked, it felt surprisingly coarse to touch. The paws, of course, were huge, and the foot pads were thick and tough and leathery. Stroking the fur and foot pads with our bare hands, we felt a connection to the vast miles of ice this bear had traveled, the arctic cold and wildness, the remoteness of this place.
It’s time to “play out.” As in the lower 48, the kids are sensing the end of school is near. State testing is done. Our school carnival and Inupiaq Days are done. Summer is just around the corner.