Meandering Through the Tundra

via Daily Prompt: MeanderMeander

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The variety of plants on the islands of the Aleutians, and particularly on Unalaska and Amaknak, are amazing during our summers.  Starting at the beach and reaching the very tips of the mountains, the absolute green will shock the eye.  And, if you take a trek from the beach to the tips of those mountains, you will witness a rich progression of plants, some extremely sturdy, some incredibly delicate, and all obviously well adapted to the environment.  Habitats seen are typical of those seen in most coastal zones – coastal beach, meadow, marsh, sea-side cliff, fresh and saltwater lagoon, stream, lake, higher slope and high rocky cliff.  Probably one of the most amazing, and by far the easiest methods of discovering the plant life of an Aleutian island, is to simply take a seat in the tundra.  You will be astounded with the number of wildflowers, mosses, and grasses within a one-foot square area, completely within the grasp of your hand.

Aside from the simple beauty of the plant life and the importance of plants to the wildlife of the area, plants have always been important to the indigenous people who have inhabited the Aleutians for millennia.  Though too numerous to list here as there are hundreds, they include both medicinal and edible plants.  Medicinal knowledge of the plants is the one aspect of Unangan healing capabilities that survived the advent of outside contact.  Absent today are the advanced surgical abilities of the Unangan/Unangas, as well as the practice of acupuncture.  The demise of both was due to the devastation of the population within 60 years of contact with European invaders.

As a part of most indigenous lifestyles, subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering sustain the lives of large populations in rural Alaska.  In the Aleutian area, we have relied upon the traditional harvest of natural resources for thousands of years and have passed this way of life, with its long-established culture and values, or the right way to live as human beings, down through generations.  Medicinal knowledge and use of native plants requires precise knowledge of the environment, the seasonal patterns of medicinal plants, where they grow, when to collect them (at their most potent stage), how to prepare them, and how and in what dosages to administer them. In our region of the Aleutians, the Unangan used this knowledge to cure illnesses, alleviate pain, heal burns and bone fractures, and fight infection.  Traditional medicine is intrinsically holistic.  Conventional medicine is only beginning to conceptualize looking at health, healing, and medicine as a complete circle.  So, when I see plants, or simply discuss them, I immediately think of their value, not in terms of simple beauty, but to solve and balance health needs.

Overseeing all the showy plant activity is the beach rye grass, a sentinel of great stature and elegance, which when used by the Unangan/Unangas, showed its traits of great utilitarian strength in the work baskets and mats that were made from the grass.  Then it surpassed that strength with the delicate weaving of the smaller, more decorative items, common in the post contact era, such as decorative baskets, wall hangings, and wallets.

Walking from the water, one of the first plants you will encounter is Honckenya  peploides, locally known as Scurvy Grass.  It was the plant that saved many a Russian explorer from certain death, as it provided huge concentrations of vitamin C needed to cure or keep scurvy at bay.   Although it tastes best as a young plant, even the bitter old plants will give you the vitamins that you need.  It was also used as a good healer for skin conditions, so was typically made into an ointment.  Scurvy Grass is a wonderful beach stabilizer and can be used in gardens for a great ground cover.  It will remind you of succulent species seen in typical rock gardens.

Senecio pseudo-arnica, or what we call sunflower, was commonly used to help heal wounds.  Its sturdy stems and leaves are important to keep the plant from succumbing to the wild winds coming off the sea.  During its blooming stage, it sports bright yellow petals.

The trio of umbels most closely associated on Unalaska Island, Ligusticum scoticum L. ssp. Hultenii, (Beach Lovage), Angelica ludicda L., (St. Paul Putchky), and Heracleum lanatum, (Putchky), each has an edible and medicinal component.  Beach Lovage is the plant used as wild parsley, though it is much more exciting than boring old parsley.  It has a definite peppery flavor which lends itself extremely well in spicing seafood.  We would never think to cook our fish without using lovage.  Medicinally, the seeds are used to make a tea for indigestion.  Angelica, whose edible qualities are not really used here in Unalaska, is best known in European cultures as a candy.  In Unalaska it is prized for its ability at soothing sore muscles and joints, for clearing up infections, and, most surprising, healing the burn of the related Putchky plant.  Cow Parsnip, or Putchky as we call it, is a wonderful wild celery.  Care must be taken when gathering and eating, as the sap reacts to sunlight and will burn your skin.  Roots of the Putchky plant were used as a poultice to help draw out pain.

The many uses of the Achillea borealis (Yarrow), from blood coagulator to blocker of the common cold makes one wonder about the use of plants as medicines and how the uses came about.  Many elders remember the fragrance of yarrow tea steeping in their childhood homes and will sometimes just drink a cup without having any ailments.  The sweet smell of the blooming Sanguisorba stipulata (Sitka Burnet), and its equally sweet tea from the leaves that is used in the morning as a “pick-me-up” contrasts with the stinky fragrance of Fritillaria camschatcensis (the Chocolate Lily), and its edible roots.  Called a wild rice, the roots were collected, boiled, and stored in oil for winter eating.  They could also be dried and ground for use as a “flour”.

Wormwood, or Artemisia unalaskensis; A. globularia; A. tilesii, A. arctica, was used extensively for diminishing pain from rheumatism and arthritis.  The leaves and stems were used either fresh or dried to switch the skin during a steam bath.  The volatile oils from the plant entered the bloodstream through the open pores in the skin, easily passing through the vessel barriers.  Oils and salves were also made from the plant for joint and muscles aches, as well as infections and rashes.  A tea was made from the plant and taken sparingly, as a cure for chest ailments such as bronchitis and asthma.  Its tall, leafy, somewhat silvery appearance is used to fill in flower arrangements.

The absolute beauty of the orchids on Unalaska Island, including Cypripedium guttatum (Lady’s Slipper), Dactylorhiza aristata (Purple Orchid), and the extremely rare Platanthera tipuloides, or Bering Bog Orchid, are not to be missed. The medicinal qualities of certain orchids are no longer remembered.  The berries that we gather to eat and store each year have values that go beyond filling the belly and providing us with much needed vitamin C.  Outside of the medicinal uses, just the simple act of picking berries is therapeutic to the soul. The berries most commonly harvested include the salmonberry ( good for sore throats and tooth infections), high bush blueberry (used to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure), crowberries(used to cure eye infections), nagoon berry (so good to eat, you wouldn’t think of doing anything else with them), and the bog and mountain cranberries (of course, used for bladder infections, but also for colds and bleeding gums).  With the advent of berry season, inevitably come the fall colors as our meadows and mountains take on the task of showing colors from the palest greens, to the yellows, oranges, and brilliant reds.

When you live on an island, you begin to realize the true importance of the environment.  Its health represents stability and wellbeing.  In the worldview, the entire environment is made up of tiny subsections of local environments which are under each of our local care.  The Unangan/Unangas believe, as do most indigenous peoples, we are here to take care of and preserve the environment for those generations not yet seen.  Just meandering through our tundra makes this concept a simple one to understand and to promote in your heart as well as your mind.

Blink

Goosevia Daily Prompt: Blink

I was sitting with my mother this past summer during an early evening in June.  My husband was discussing some of the finer points of the agenda for the 75-year Commemoration of the bombing of Dutch Harbor and the evacuation of the Unangan people.  Events were to include a memorial ceremony, historical presentations, personal stories, many luncheons and dinners, and flyovers by historical aircraft.  The commemoration of a little-recognized part of history is significant and educational not only for those connected to World War II in the Aleutians, but for a much broader international public.  My mother, who was 87 1/2 in June, had been 12 years old when the events of WWII enveloped the islands that she called home and changed her life forever.

On the morning of June 3, 1942 and continuing June 4, Japanese planes rained bombs on her home town of Unalaska and the Navy and Army infrastructure that had been constructed for the protection of Alaska and the lower 48 states.  Within a month, her family was split apart as older siblings joined the military or, in the case of her two older sisters who had married servicemen, were evacuated to their husbands’ families in the lower 48.  She, three of her siblings and her mother were forcibly evacuated to an abandoned fish cannery in Southeast Alaska.  Her father, not being native, was not allowed to accompany them.  They were not allowed to return to their home until late in 1945.  Although the war ended, and things were supposed to return to normal, nothing was ever normal again.  Families were smaller, having suffered the loss of 10 percent of their population in the detention camp.  Economies were changed as industries that had been in place prior to the war had disappeared.  Many Unangan homes had been ransacked by the military personnel and were unfit for habitation.  The trust that they had in their government was badly damaged.  My mother’s family was never, ever all together again after July of 1942.

So, a 75th year commemoration was a pretty important event in the life of my mother.  It would mark a time when she knew that it most likely would be the last time she would see any of her friends who might come back for the commemoration.  Only a handful of original evacuees remain living in Unalaska, so she was looking forward to seeing her now distant friends.

As she sat in the living room of the home in which she grew up, a drone of engines, starting out faintly, grew louder and louder, soon passing directly over the house.  She turned toward us and in a surprised voice said, “The Japanese.”  In the blink of an eye, with the sound of the plane engines, she was transported back to what was, most certainly, a hellish part of her life.

 

Diversity

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In looking at this picture, you might not even think that there is much diversity in this group.  They are all wearing beyond comfortable jeans and footwear.  They are sporting the same t-shirt with various pullovers for comfort.  They are sporting sunglasses and hats for shade…except for the kids who haven’t learned the virtues of protecting skin and eyes yet.  They have all come together to support a common cause and to play a common game.  (Well, common game in an uncommon location;  tundra golf…not for the faint of heart.)  You wouldn’t think that so many different cultures could be represented in such a small group, but without going into their personal backgrounds, I will just tell you that they represent everything.

On this day of reflection I like to think that America was brilliant at being a model for diversity and inclusiveness.  How that changed mimics the changes we see on a local level.  Learning about different cultures, with the result of respecting them, opens the door for open minds. Take a lesson from indigenous cultures who for millennia were inclusive of all people no matter their beliefs, skin tone, or gender identification and/or definition.  Although I now believe that our ability to pass on values of diversity acceptance has become more difficult, I still believe that our ability to truly appreciate and celebrate diverse cultures stems from the generosity of those who choose to share their values and their dreams with the group as a whole.

Carve

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAvia Daily Prompt: CarveCarve

Lined up around the edges of the studio, rough cut stone takes up the under spaces along the walls.  Under the finishing desk, mounds of stone hunker down, seemingly forgotten.  Under the ledge that acts as a shelf.  Bone and wood haphazardly stacked on shelves along the wall.  A moistened finger brings out the color of the stone… a piece of soapstone with the colors of jade.  Back in the corner, a find of alabaster.  I am always fascinated when she “sees” something in a clump of stone; amazed that she won’t pull a piece out until her vision is clear.  How does her mind work to decide to make that first cut with the handsaw, taking off the stone she won’t use?  Completely self-taught, she finds a balance, not only in literally making the stone stand on its own, but in the other materials that she brings to the carved stone, each piece a brilliant carving in its own right; each piece a part of herself, the story she is telling about her people, past and present, and the environment in which she thrives.

The Meaning of Family.

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My family ties got a little broader and tighter this past week.  I got a chance to meet my mother’s sister’s son’s grandchildren.  Our family has relatives far-flung all over these United States.  It was not a conscious decision for my mother’s family to disperse in all directions from the Aleutian Islands.  It was, instead, due to a forced evacuation of all Native peoples from the islands during World War II.  My mother’s older sister Myrtle ended up being sent to her military husband’s family in the deep south.  After the war, they eventually ended up settling in Nevada and raising 3 children.  The kids had several chances to visit as they were growing up and these visits stuck like glue in the mind of the oldest son.  He made several trips as an adult, once with one of his children.  Several other times with his wife.  The time before this trip, to spread some of his mother’s ashes in the family plot, to be reunited with her mother, father, and brothers and sisters who had preceded her in passing.

On one of these trips, he was in Unalaska during the time that our Traditional Knowledge summer camp was taking place.  From that experience sprang the seeds of an idea to have his grandchildren experience their roots and learn about their indigenous culture.

Dennis and his two granddaughters arrived the day before camp began on a day with the fog hanging halfway down the mountains and after having spent two hours in Cold Bay, Alaska waiting for fuel.  They were unfortunate to land in Cold Bay after 2 Japanese military planes had emptied the fuel trucks of all fuel.  Two of his children were to arrive three days later.  His daughter, the mother of the girls, and his son, both of whom had never been here before.  They had the true Aleutian experience of flying to the point of being directly overhead, and turning around to return to Anchorage because they couldn’t find the airport in the fog.  Well….not a true Aleutian experience because they actually made it onto a flight the next day and landed.

Oh the girls had an experience like no other.  The fish – baked, smoked, made into lox.  The octopus.  The fish pie.  The sea lion.  Learning to weave.  Making masks.  Learning some Unangam tunuu, the Aleut language.  Songs and dance.  And the son and daughter?  Hiking some of the trails made by their ancestors some 8,000 years before.  Climbing above the clouds and watching the landscape and village magically appear as the clouds dissolved.

But the real magic was in the sharing of family and history.  Seeing the bonds forged between a great, great aunt and great, great nieces; between great aunts and great niece and great nephew; between cousins and second cousins, and beyond.  The magic of feeling a kinship with virtual strangers.  The real magic was in the wistful expressions on the day of departure.  The strange pulling at the heart strings that the islands give to people who come here with their hearts wide open.  Yes.  And the promise of returning again someday.

Happy International Women’s Day – Celebrate your feminine

Basketwoman by Unangan artist Gert Svarny

Basketwoman by Unangan artist Gert Svarny


In 1910 an International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. Clara Zetkin, leader of the Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, proposed that every year in each country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands.  Thus International Women’s Day was born.

In my strong, matriarchal society of Unangan women in Unalaska, I have had many stellar examples upon which to base my life attitude.  My mother, Gert Svarny, continues the values and ethics that her mother Alice Hope instilled in her.  Even my younger sister and my own daughters have taught me a thing or two about strength and character.  I am lucky to have a public reference about my grandmother to show my children and grandchildren how devoted she was to her community, by the love shown her at her death.  In his book Moments Rightly Placed, author Ray Hudson writes:  Then on the afternoon of December 4, 1966, Alice Hope died in Washington state.  The next day a service for this deeply loved woman was held at Unalaska, and when her body arrived five days later,  Anfesia (Shapsnikoff) assisted Father Ishmael Gromoff in yet another service.  Anfesia stayed all night with her departed friend, in the company of the Hope children and grandchildren and friends, until the service at the church on December 11th.  Anfesia noted in her diary, “had Liturgy with Mrs. Hope’s body; after funeral service walked her up all the way.”  Carrying the coffin the length of the village from the church to the graveyard was an act of uncommon devotion.

Who is the woman, or women, in your life who have guided you on your path?  Gentlemen…this is a question for you also.

Unavoidably in love with plants

I have come to the possible conclusion that when I post something to a ‘page’, it doesn’t get recognized by wordpress as a real post. Tell me if I am wrong. I have posted the above titled piece on my Subsistence page.