Grass No. 23 - Life In Nome, Alaska

Grass
Grass No. 23 - Life In Nome, Alaska
By Hudson Gardner • Issue #23 • View online

A NOME LIFE
For the last three years I have tended towards a rural life, finding it both rewarding and challenging. Along the way I’ve met other people who have left the city to do similar things, whether it be farming, hiking, ranching, art making, or wandering.
I feel there is a need to get back to a simpler, more basic way as cities and modern life grows ever more crowded, hectic, and expensive. I admire people who have the courage to move away from the place where “everything is happening,” turning their back on the perceived benefits of city life to pursue single-mindedly their idea or impulse to find meaning in other ways.
Ashley, an old friend of mine from Nebraska, and her husband Yona recently moved from Philadelphia to Nome. She agreed to answer some questions about her life there. Thanks Ashley!
"We both were yearning for an adventure and an experience to step out of our comfort zones in hopes of reconnecting with each other and with nature."
1. Describe Nome from the perspective of a walk, or your daily routine starting in the morning, what you notice along the way, etc.
The Bering can be seen from most points in Nome since the tundra slants towards the distant hills, eventually leading into the mountains. I am constantly looking at the sea and the way it merges with the sky. I live a stone’s throw from the water and I find myself stopped in my tracks just looking. There is a window in my kitchen and bedroom that overlooks the deep blue water, and it is right there as I walk out my front door. When I look at the water I am not thinking of anything, only looking, and I like that. There are three roads that go out of Nome, the Nome-Teller highway, Council road, and the road that leads to Pilgrim. Each of these roads will direct you about an hour and a half out of town on narrow, gravel precarious roads that often have dropoffs on either side with no guard rails. Nome is not a part of the Alaska road system and these roads all end around 70 miles out of town. They stop plowing only a few miles out of Nome in the winter and so these roads are mostly used for summer camping and hunting sites. There is a strange feeling you get when you realize that with a little snowfall you are stuck in the 8 square block town of Nome. You can take an airplane to get out, and there is the sea, but this too freezes over in the winter suspending water travel.
All structures are on stilts and have metal roofs. The homes are built on stilts so the permafrost doesn’t melt and sink the structures. A lot of structures are very slanty and sideways on the inside because the stilts sink even though they are raised from the grount. You see a lot of homes with shimmied pieces of wood that are squeezed under houses the raise certain areas. I like the way this looks.
When I get up in the morning to go to my job it is completely dark outside. Because it is so dark and I can’t see much, I hear the ocean’s roar in a way that I can’t hear during the day. It’s amazing how when one sense is limited others are enhanced. I am entranced and also a little weary as I walk to work down front street with a roar coming at me from the left side. I imagine that it is a bear’s roar sometimes.
2. How did you find out about Nome, and decide to move to there?
We found out about Nome when my husband Yona was searching for places to complete his psychology internship. We both were yearning for an adventure and an experience to step out of our comfort zones in hopes of reconnecting with each other and with nature.
Yona had previously lived in the Canadian arctic and feels connected to the north and the challenges and beauty associated with extreme environments. I’d never been this far north and the idea of being someplace new and remote deeply intrigued me because I was in a place with my life and art that yearned to be shook up a little.
Yona is also working on Little Diomede Island and Whales (the westernmost tip of Alaska), and I hope to travel to one of the villages soon.
3. Has it been challenging to live in a such remote place?
It’s been challenging but not in the ways that I thought it would be. I was afraid that I would be lonely and perhaps a little bored when the cold set it but I haven’t had any time to be either of those things because there are so many interesting people here that share their skills. It is also incredibly beautiful here and there is so much to do on the land such as fishing, picking berries and kivuit (muskox fur), combing the sand for seaglass and washed up bones. I’m currently taking a creative prose and poetry class, a sewing class, and yoga that is taught by community members. I’m also teaching a drawing class. There is a deep embedded sense of community here that is really beautiful. People are eager to share.
There are also parts to living here that are very emotionally challenging. The Native Alaskan people of this region suffer from very severe historical trauma – stemming from the infiltration of western systems, disease, monetary economy, and other things that were not a part of Native life and value systems. I’ve been learning a lot about the region and the history, and I feel awakened to what colonialism and racism is in a way that I never fully grasped before. I working through a lot of questions and feelings about these matters right now.
4. How much would you say “making a living” affects your decisions in life?
I struggle with this question a lot in my daily life. I’ve always felt very compelled to make a living in the traditional sense of having regular paid work to support my practice as an artist and my desires to explore new places. I know this scenario isn’t unusual. One part of my has a lot of envy for people who live lives of freedom by inviting spontaneity, chance, and exploration in their lives- all in the name of art and spirit. I think that these people are very trusting of themselves and the world in a way that I am not at yet. I’m working on that. In another sense, I need stability and groundedness (which I find through stable work and structure) for my art and personal life to thrive. My art is about relationships, love, crisis, womanhood, and domesticity that is filtered through some subconscious distorted backchannel, and so maybe my instinctual needs for groundedness is set in place to fuel my art. I hope that is it.
5. How much do you need to be happy? Have you found that in Nome? Have your needs changed?
I’m not sure how much I need to be happy, but I am always searching for a flame inside myself in the form of passion or inspiration. I’m finding that here in the land and in the way that I am learning about myself because I have more time to think. I think that the act of making a geographical move makes you examine your life in a way that enables you to make forward movements while examining what you’ve done in the past and how you feel about it. I feel that I am able to make decisions about my life with a clear hear here, and I like that. I think it might be happiness.
6. I have been working on understanding this problem for a long time: how humans, who are born of nature, have created (essentially) unnatural constructs such as cities, politics, etc. When did we leave nature, what was the beginning of our disconnection? Do you have any ideas on this? And is an attempt to re-connect a reason why you moved to Nome?
I’m thinking a lot about how to have a genuine experience in nature. The desire to connect with nature in an authentic way feels related to my desire to connect with a younger version of myself. Children instinctually connect to nature until they learn to disconnect in order to pursuit some form of structure in society.
I feel my best when I am in love, making art, expressing and not thinking, and having experiences in nature. I think a lot of humans would say they also feel at their best when they are doing that. I think we left nature when we starting making without connecting. We also left nature when we forgot what real fear is. Love is scary when it is unraveling, but that is what makes it love. I think nature is the same.
There was much intent in our decision to move to Nome that stemmed from me and Yona’s desires to connect. We saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves, our relationship, our art, our belief systems, and nature. It’s all related.
7. Tell me what you are making in Nome (jam, salmon, etc)
I am making so much jam!!! I spent months picking tundra berries (a low-bush tundra blueberry), crowberries, salmonberries, lingonberries, and cranberries. I have made a lot of jams and sauces that I’ve canned, and frozen a lot of berries to do other tasty things with in the winter. There was a couple weeks when I picked dozens of boletus (porcini) mushrooms that I dried and sauteed and froze. I’ve also been picking tundra tea and it has an amazing herbal flavor that also scents the berries because they grow right next to it. I am cooking a lot of salmon. We bought a deep freezer when we first moved here with intentions to fill it so that we could eat from it all winter long, and we succeeded in filling it within the first two months of being here. We made a goal to not purchase any meat this year because of the damaging effects the meat industry has on the environment and climate.
8. Have you picked up any interesting local terminology, new words, interesting place names?
There isn’t any local English terminology that I’ve caught on to yet but there are many Yup’ik and Inupiaq speakers in our region and so there are a lot of words from those languages that are used that I am still trying learn. There are a few food items which I do know of that are particular to this area that I’ve tried. Muktuk - whale skin and blubber. Seal oil - rendered seal fat that is used to cook with and make ice cream with. Eskimo salad - combination of muktuk, salmon roe, crab, peppers, seal oil.
9. Do people ever say “when in Nome...?” -__-
When muskox find their way into people’s yards you might hear someone saying “when in Nome!”
10. Can you tell the story of a memorable foray into the surrounding landscape?
I am in love with berry picking. For months I would go out onto the tundra rain or shine to collect as many berries as I could. I would get a rush each time I went out and have the most vibrant internal monologues that made me feel so joyful. On the tundra the ground is soft, squishy, and unpredictable.The moss lays like a carpet across the tundra and I’d like to believe it is a divider between two worlds. The world that sits above it and the world that rests below. When I pick berries I am often perched upon or laying across the moss. Occassionally, my fingers will slip as I am pulling a berry from its stem and the berry will fall into the moss. No matter how much I search for the berry it will never be found. I like to think that the berries and moss have a sense of humor and the moss swallows the berry into it’s underlayer where other fallen berries are and together they are doing something very special that us humans will never get the chance to experience. I love this! It is best to crawl on the moss when picking berries. This is the best method because sometimes the moss will give way and sink beneath your feet. If you are on your hands and knees you can slowly slither across the tundra and after a while of being out your body learns to move with the moss and the moss begins to trust your body as it holds you up. You also want to be low to the ground so that you can see the berries. The colors turn on when you are at eye level with them and as your vision aligns with the low bushes they begin to trust you and as they do they become more vibrant making it easier for you to pick. I love it so much!
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Hudson Gardner

Writing & Photos covering place, ecology, and existence.

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