Ship Of Fools
Thirty years ago a dear friend of mine moved from Philadelphia to Chitina, Alaska. At the time, it seemed like a pretty dramatic decision, and, now that I’ve spent a week in the southeastern portion of that extraordinary part of this earth, it feels, in a way, even more dramatic.
Alaska seems to beckon to people who don’t quite feel at home in what we might think of as the “normal” regions of the planet. Given Alaska’s vastness, its long seasons of light and dark, the enormous amounts of annual precipitation, the ruggedness of so much of its terrain, its relative inaccessibility by land, and therefore its isolation, and the palpable presence of so much wildness, the extremes that characterize its environment seem likely to be attractive only to the sort of people our culture might be likely to think of as misfits. People with a couple of screws that have worked their way loose, maybe someone trying to run away from something, a love gone bad, a swindle, a posse, a foreclosure, too much time on a battlefield. Someone hearing voices. Or maybe it’s just that when you go to Alaska you find the places in yourself where the screws have begun to come loose, or you recognize that you’ve been hearing those voices all along, and you feel some longing, great or small, to leave “normal” behind, and “light out for the territories.”
That wildness. It’s inescapable in so much of Alaska, and when you come face to face with it, and find how alive you feel in its presence, in a way you’d maybe never experienced before, you realize as well, how hard “civilization” has worked to banish that in the lower 48, and now suddenly if you tried to banish it again, it would be like cutting out your heart.
So, as it happened, I found myself in Ketchikan, on the 4th of July, heading out of town for a hike in the rain forest, just as the Independence Day Parade was rolling into town, and in some way the encounter felt like a head-on collision. Here was yet another town, amongst the ones in which I’ve found myself on this date over the years, calling forth its scrubbed hands and faces, its purest hearts, its noblest yearnings, in hopes of finding Jefferson, Franklin, Washington ringing in its ears, stirring in its heart.
In considering the occasion I couldn’t help recalling the story I digested, in my earliest years in public school, of the founding of this country, a story which began with the lonely voyages of people leaving the kingdom of Great Britain to escape their own pasts. Many versions of the story, to be sure, emphasized the religious persecution that drove the pilgrims to abandon everything they’d known of home, and, no doubt, there were plenty who’d had some taste of that. Other accounts, though, every bit as convincing, took note of these adventurers by characterizing them as misfits, bums, penny-ante crooks, drunks, ne’er-do-wells, and desperadoes. I suspect there’s a dose of the truth in both tellings, and the difference could perhaps be just one of perspective. The stories emigrants might tell of their own leavings will certainly be colored by how they might wish to be perceived, not just by others, but in their own minds, as well. The stories told about emigrants might just as easily be focused around how different “they” are from “us.”
The 4th of July beckons us to remember how lucky we felt, as children, to live in a country in which right and wrong seemed to be so clearly delineated, and in which it was so easy and so normal to feel right. And it was, for the most part, a country in which right and left were no more than positions, along a political spectrum, that served to ensure balance; all positions were held to be legitimate and respectable, and those that held them were revered and included as valuable members of the community. The 4th of July also encourages us, in the here-and-now, to celebrate as though nothing in this perspective has changed since we were children, despite the fact that the most powerful voices in our current government, in response to the strong concerns being voiced by a very large number of its citizens, with regard to the directions it has taken in economic policy, foreign policy, and environmental policy, have gone out of their ways to characterize anyone offering a different point of view as being morally deficient, unpatriotic, un-American, and, just possibly, on the side of the enemy.
Years ago, in the brilliant, satiric comic strip Pogo, one of the characters (perhaps Pogo himself, though I seem to recall it was the owl Churchy) declared “We have met the enemy, and they are us.” And isn’t it breath-taking how different that might sound, depending on one’s perspective?
My hike in the rain forest began with a short, rapid excursion in a Zodiac to an island west and a bit north of Ketchikan, and in the course of the ride I got a good look at a number of Bald Eagles, and a very large Golden Eagle, as well. They do pretty well, still, in Alaska, and it’s good to know they’re making a comeback in the rest of the country. We’ve chosen such a creature as a national symbol for the reason that it can stir our hearts by its very magnificence. Humans need that, and if we are to survive all the foolishness for which humans are so well-known, we must take care to protect that which moves us so.
Our travels this summer included not only Alaska, but also the Okanagan Valley in eastern British Columbia. Okanagan is part of the northeastern tip of the Sonoran Desert, which extends through the southwestern U.S., and down into Mexico. The soils in Okanagan are quite sandy, but there’s no shortage of water, apparently (at least for now) for irrigation, and the area is famous for fruit orchards, and, more recently, for vineyards featuring the more well-known European wine varieties: Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Ehrenfelser, Kerner, Muscat Ottonel, Zweigelt, Dolcetto, Sangiovese. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Not all of these are particularly successful. In fact, few, really, produce wines of much distinction. But the industry is young, and the market is clearly quite vibrant. And there’s plenty of marketing savvy at work, so the distinctiveness of the wines may not be too much of an issue. The tasting rooms were bustling.
The best wines I tasted there were a couple of Rieslings, and a couple of vintages of one producer’s Pinot Noir; the former were exceptionally well balanced, and the flavors just wouldn’t quit. The latter left every other New World Pinot Noir I’ve tasted, over the past 33 years, in the dust. There were other wines that were good; mostly they were Pinot Gris and Pinot Blancs. One winery’s Cabernet Franc seemed to offer some of the pretty aromas that characterize the variety in Bourgueil and Chinon, but they were truncated by the presence of too much new oak. There’s that marketing savvy, again!
Turn Your Radio On!
If you’re in a certain part of the San Francisco Bay Area (I’ve got a feeling it’s not a big part) that can receive the signal, which probably includes West Marin and Southwestern Sonoma County), at 9:30 am on Tuesday July 26, I’ll be on KWMR to talk about wine, and play a couple of songs. Hope you can catch it. (You can listen, online, at: www.KWMR.org)
I keep thinkin there’s some plane I’m supposed to catch,
But I know it must be too late, now;
Aw, but you know, when I hear that First Bird sing
Nothin else matters all that much, anyhow.
First Bird copyright © 2003