Friday, May 8, 2015

Not Walden




My first two months in Juneau were idyllic. Fresh from the steel and concrete landscape of my home city, I was intoxicated with the sheer quantity of nature. I’d expected mountains, I’d expected ocean, and I’d expected forest, but there was no way I could have been prepared for the vastness and immediacy of all three. Even when I leaned against the marble columns at the entrance of the state capital building, I was within easy walking distance of wilderness. Mother Nature loomed over me and I reveled in her intimate proximity.
In mid-April, within days of arriving, I managed to rent a one-room log cabin with a curtained bathroom and a sleeping loft. Set alongside a picturesque stream and up against the green-drenched forest, the cabin seemed to embody every rustic daydream of my youth. I imagined myself as a modern day Thoreau, and the stream as my Walden Pond.
I spent the next five weeks learning how to keep a fire burning in the cast iron wood stove that heated the cabin. In between whispered curses, shivering, and repeated jostling of the smoldering firewood, I tapped out the entire first draft of my book. Words flowed out of my fingers and onto the screen of my laptop with an alacrity they’d never shown in a better heated, more civilized environment. The novelty of my situation set free a downpour of words that mirrored the heavy showers of the temperate rainforest outside.  
By late May, the pile of firewood on the porch had begun to dry out and I was finally getting the hang of making fire. Rain gave way to several weeks of sunshine and I put my manuscript aside in favor of adventuring with friends. I was, after all, in paradise and there were ice fields and glaciers, fjords, hidden bays, and beaches. When the rain returned, more of a drizzle than a downpour, I had blisters on top of blisters from the new set of boots I’d broken in. I was weary from too many late night bonfires, too much companionship, and too many miles of hiking. I looked forward to the sedentary task of revising my manuscript, and to the solitude of the cabin, with a giddy sense of optimism.
It took less than a morning of revision to squelch my giddiness and after two days, my optimism hung in tattered shreds. Where had all my lovely words gone? Where were the clever turns of phrase, the layers of symbolism, the rich characters that I’d rejoiced in? They were gone and what remained were only hollow echoes. My disappointment tasted sour, and vaguely rotten, on the back of my tongue. In the long days that followed, I pored over my manuscript, tweaking and shifting phrases and sentences until my head spun, but that vague rotten flavor only grew stronger.
I was a week into revisions when an absent-minded stroll down to the stream beside my cabin revealed that it wasn’t disappointment I’d been tasting all along, but in fact, the rank stench of rotting fish. Several cadaverous salmon bodies littered the stream bank, half-eaten and covered in buzzing horseflies. The sight of empty eye-sockets and putrefying fish flesh sent me stumbling and retching back to the cabin where I brewed a cup of peppermint tea. While helpful in settling my stomach, the tea did nothing to alleviate the stink. Once I was aware of the source, I couldn’t stop smelling it. I couldn’t stop smelling it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Over the next few days, I stopped working on my manuscript. Instead, I filled the cabin with sweet-scented candles, the flames flickering day and night. I brewed and drank cup after cup of peppermint tea, and I smeared essential oil of clove beneath my nostrils, but nothing blocked out the rancid odor. Nothing washed away the sensation of having that smell somehow lodged inside of me, lingering in my nose and throat. Instead, the stink seemed to thicken and linger, mixing with the sweet scents I tried to combat it with, melding with them until peppermint, clove, and candle wax were inextricably linked, in my mind, with the smell of decay and death.  
I watched from my cabin window as more and more salmon arrived, half-rotten but still swimming, still flapping, still struggling up the shallow stream. I watched them strand themselves in shallow eddies, thrashing against the rocky stream bed where they slowly suffocated. I assumed, of course, that this bizarre incursion of ocean-going fish, and their subsequent deaths, was a sign of something dire. Perhaps the fish were lost, their brains damaged by too much pollution. Or, maybe they were confused by the sonar pings of too many ships. There could be some enormous predator just off shore, driving the terrified fish up stream. By the time I worked up the courage to call one of my new friends, I was more than halfway convinced that I was witnessing a sign of end times.
My worried phone call was met with laughter and a brief explanation of the reproductive cycle of salmon. The salmon were spawning, laying and fertilizing eggs right there, outside my cabin. No, the adult fish couldn’t be saved. No, there was nothing that could be done about the smell. No, there was nobody I could call to come clean up the mess. The dead salmon were an important part of the environmental niche. Wild animals and the flow of the stream itself would take care of the clean-up before winter began. Wild animals? Oh, you know, otter, mink, eagles, ravens, and bears. Bears? Yes, bears. My friend instructed me to keep my distance from the bears, to avoid getting between any cubs and their mama, and to stop trying to cover up the smell of decomposing fish. I was wasting my time with candles and essential oils. It would only get worse before it got better.
I hung up the phone feeling both relieved, and much more worried. On one hand, the dying fish, while macabre, were perfectly normal and natural. On the other hand…bears. Sure, I’d wanted to see bears in Alaska, but I wanted to see them from far away. I wanted to see them from a boat, or a plane, or a car. I did not want to see them from my home.
As though the bears had overheard my phone call, I saw the first two late that very evening as dusk settled over the cabin. In the dim light, the two animals were little more than silhouettes. I watched them lumber gracefully along the stream for at least two minutes before retreating to the sleeping loft where I huddled, trembling, under my blankets.
As my friend had predicted, the smell of rotting fish grew stronger as the days progressed. I also began seeing bears alongside the stream each day. I became more and more isolated, too afraid to make the short walk from the front door to my car when there were bears nearby, and too distracted by the stink and by my fear to concentrate on revising my manuscript. Besides, I rationalized; there was no point in revising something I loathed.
I finally reached my breaking point in July. I’d been putting off leaving the house to go grocery shopping and was down to crackers and a jar of sweet pickles. I spent all morning peeking out my windows and waiting for the right moment to make my exit. Finally, in the mid-afternoon, there was a break in the bear activity. I checked every window twice. Not a bear to be seen. I grabbed my keys and wallet, opened the door, prepared to run the fifty feet to my car, and came to dead stop. There, on the porch, was a porcupine the size of Shetland sheepdog! The creature faced me, blocking my escape route, and with a gleam in its shiny black eyes it began to hum the melody to “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”. With slow deliberation, the porcupine waddled across the porch, down the steps, and into the nearby brush, still humming. I turned on my heel, went back inside, piled my clothes and laptop into my suitcase and walked out of the cabin by the stream, never to return. That place was not Walden, and I was not Thoreau.