Encounters – Five Excerpts from The Heart of the Sound.

by Marybeth Holleman

South Culross

It is a rainy afternoon in Picturesque Cove. I sit inside the small dark cabin, reading by candlelight from David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous about how our language creates a perceptual boundary which has separated us from the natural world. I stop to let this idea sink in, and look out the window to the brighter light outside. The dark wood frames dripping green salmonberry leaves and my son.

Jamie stands on the porch in his green rainsuit, cawing to crows in his sweet six-year-old voice. He makes another sound, higher in pitch, sharper, and repeats it. Then he opens the heavy wood door, enters and says, as he begins to poke at and blow on the fire, “Communicating with those seagulls for a second.”

Clouds Port

Out the window of this Cessna 206, the weekly mail plane to Chenega Bay and Tatitlek, I see clouds in the water, light and dark. The light clouds, blurring into gray-blue water, are blooms of jellyfish. Great blossomings of pale white moon jellies, pulsations of light. The dark clouds, they are Pacific herring. Eight inches long, they swim in schools of a million or more, a sudden flash of their silver undersides confusing predators. In April their spawning turns the waters of bays and lagoons milky white; from sea and land and air come those who feed on their roe. Over forty different species—bald eagles, brown bears, humpback whales, tufted puffins—all depending on such small fish with such big lives. From above they are dark water; from below they are sky. I sit in the floatplane and imagine the view from down there, from beneath those millions of herring. One dark cloud flashes silver, a bolt of lightening in a sea of blue.

Mink Island

We beach the boats and find a narrow trail, follow it through devil’s club and blueberry, up. Out onto a muskeg meadow, to a faint trail of pale green sphagnum moss smoothed over. Not for footprints but as a slide, a trail leads from one small muskeg pond to another, some no bigger than a foot across. The ponds are still water, deeper than they look, sinking soft brown bottom. We take the faint slide-trail up through one then another meadow, to a ridge lined with blueberry bushes and dwarfed mountain hemlock. On our bellies, we peer over and see, in the next meadow, in a bigger pond, three river otters splashing and diving. Three shining brown bodies, slender as my arm. The biggest has a salmon in its mouth. It dives in a sinuous arc, a soft splash wafting across the meadow to us. In seconds, it pops up empty-mouthed. The smallest slips under the water and resurfaces with the fish in its mouth. Then all three leap into the pond and are gone. I turn back to the way we all came. That trail we traced here, it was made by this otter family, a slide they’ll follow on their bellies back down to the sea.

Picturesque Cove

Low tide, and the shallow cove is nearly drained. We haul the boats high on the beach, dragging their hulls across a field of dead and dying salmon. The acrid stench of decay fills the air as persistently as a cloud of mosquitoes on caribou. Their bodies, some crippled by death into grotesque forms, have faded from brilliant red into the same mottled gray as the mud that now holds them. A swarm of glaucous and herring gulls hop and flap, pecking at the worn-out bodies, snatching eyeballs from those still living, leaving them blind in their last moments.

Above the beach ryegrass, I walk the trail to the cabin. Beside it, the stream is clogged with fins like daggers carving water. At the sound of a splash, I turn. A few feet away stands a black bear, salmon in mouth. It lifts a shaggy head toward me, the small round ears twitching, then it gallops, bowlegged, out of the stream and up the near-vertical bank into the woods.

I run to the cabin and latch the wooden door.

Later, I step out on the porch to hang wet clothes. A black bear in the stream, another on the bank, both freeze. I freeze, too. They stand no taller than I, but are thick with fur and muscle. If one were to lunge forward toward the deck, it would have me.

The bear in the stream breaks the trance: it swipes at the water with a wide paw, catches a writhing fish, dashes up the bank. The other enters the roiling water, high-stepping to avoid slipping on salmon.

Far into the late-summer evening, the bears fish the stream right beside the cabin. They must know I’m not a hunter. They must know that bear-hunting season arrives after the salmon are gone, when they fill their bellies with salmonberry and blueberry instead of fish, when they begin dreaming of long winter nights in dark dens.

Harrison Lagoon

Jamie and I wander back into the cabin after a session of skipping stones on the beach. Inside we find two rufous hummingbirds, frantically bumping into the window. We had left the door open—and now they want out, to that feeder filled with red nectar they see just the other side of invisible glass. We try to shoo them out, waving our arms, Jamie waving his hat. We are all four of us—mother, child, two hummingbirds—a frantic blur, and then Jamie and I stop and approach them ever so slowly. They are shimmering red and green bundles of energy, fluttering and bouncing off the window like rays of color emanating from a sunlit prism. I reach out my hands, a slow glide, encircle and catch one. It’s a tiny thing in my hand, silky and light. It’s as if I’m holding only air, except for a soft quick pulsing, the hummingbird’s breath. I coo softly to it, “Everything is fine, it’s OK,” as I walk to the door, out the door, and then open my hands and watch as it rockets out, landing on a blueberry branch. Jamie says, “Let me catch the other one,” and I do, helping him cup his hands around it. I watch my boy’s face as he feels that finite pulse; watch him as he releases it back into the infinite blue.

Marybeth Holleman is author of The Heart of the Sound, co-author of Among Wolves, and co-editor of Crosscurrents North. Pushcart-prize nominee, her essays, poems, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, and anthologies, among them Orion, Christian Science Monitor, Sierra, Literary Mama, ISLE, North American Review, AQR, The Future of Nature, and on National Public Radio. She runs the blog Art and Nature at www.artandnatureand.blogspot.com. A North Carolina transplant, she has lived in Alaska for over 30 years. www.marybethholleman.com

The Heart of the Sound was published by the University of Utah Press (2004) hardcover and University of Nevada Press (2011) paperback.

Image by Amar Athwal.