Three life lessons for Arctic gardeners

Seth Kantner
Johanna Tickett plants her garden in Shungnak with assistance from young helpers.
Seth Kantner
Linnea Wik plants a garden for elders in Kivalina.
Seth Kantner
Joe Swan stakes out an ugruk hide near his family’s garden.
Linnea Wik
Hailstone sisters drive the boat from Noorvik to Kiana.
Seth Kantner

For nearly 20 years now, June has been my traditional time to travel to villages, running Maniilaq Association's garden project.

When the ice breaks up on the Kobuk, I have to boat away from my birthplace and lifelong home and go to work. The land is lit in sun, the river flooding, birds singing and the beavers busy all night in their lakes. It's a bountiful and beautiful time of year and I don't much want to leave.

But I grew up with a tradition of folks seeking summer work -- commercial fishing and construction jobs -- and this job is a short-season one, linked directly to endless sunlight. As a result the work is manic and rewarding and stressful -- like in nature, I guess -- all those blueberries and fireweed and louseworts leaping to life in spring. All the spruce tips greening, the willows and alders and birches leafing out, swans and geese and loons laying eggs and thousands of caribou having kids. None of them waste a moment and I enjoy their tight schedule.


Lesson one: Everything needs love and care

After spending breakup on ice and walking the tundra, every village I travel to is an incredible oasis of wrecked equipment. Trucks with flat tires slump where they died; new snowgos, wrecked snowgos, upside down half-dismantled snowgos; boats buried in tall young willows and four-wheelers in all stages of death and disrepair. Lurking back in the brush are the yellow monsters, heavy equipment randomly rusting behind homes and office buildings -- backhoes and dozers, graters and dump trucks and loaders left after countless construction projects over the decades.

Landing in Kobuk, my assistant Linnea Wik and I hurry down the steps of the Era Alaska Caravan into sweltering heat. The pilots race to unload case after case of Pepsi. I marvel at the irony -- how these pilots stay in great shape, handling so much canned pop.

This heat wave arrived directly after a frigid fog off the coast ice. I'm wilting and lusting after one of those blue cans though I don't drink pop. Linnea has been in California; she smiles in the sun and carries boxes of plants across the dusty gravel.

I head for the shore, to search for our program rototiller. The sun burns my shoulders. The leaves are green along the riverbank. I wish a cloud would appear in the sky. I spot the handles of the tiller in Alex Sheldon's yard. Shedding sled dogs rise in the heat to growl at me.

I've known Alex since I was a kid. He's an Inupiaq man, handsome and humorous. Fifty years back he was friends with Linnea's and my parents -- back before all this clutter came to the Arctic. Later he ran the Iditarod, and one winter borrowed my lead dog, Murphy, around the village. Now he's out of town and the recent flood has made rubble of his yard. The red Troybuilt tiller is forlorn, packed with mud and grass and wet caribou hair. When I pull the starter I hear sand grating. The exhaust coughs up orange rusty water. It's depressing. I used to love small engines and this one needs a lot of that now.

Linnea and I give up on the machine. We haul shovels and rakes and her pride and joy -- her broadfork -- to Nina Harvey's garden to till the soil. Along the sleepy street we acquire a young man on a bicycle. He rides circles around us. He's wiry and thin and talks more and faster and louder than villagers generally do. "I'm Guy Moyer. The Guy Moyer, I like to say, since my grandfather Guy Moyer passed away. He was a great gardener. I'm contemplating having a garden. I'm cultivating the thought."

Within a few minutes Guy makes use of my entire repertoire of little big words: nemesis, detrimental, exponential, dichotomy, etc. "I'm like an XM radio," he says. "What channel do you want to hear?"

For the next two hours while we work, he rattles on. Nina gets worn down by the chatter, or overheated, and she climbs the steps up to her house. Guy tells stories, always returning to details of stealing carrots from his grandfather's garden, the joy of plucking a large one, the feel of rubbing it clean on his shirt. He even does a Rambo-like imitation of himself as a 5-year-old, making a night raid on Guy Moyer's famed garden. He crouches behind fireweeds, pretending to inhale the "longs" he used to find (unfinished cigarette butts) and then sprints toward the rows we've tilled.

"I call them aisles," he says, moving fast. "Not rows. I looked for the little markers. You know why? To find the carrot aisles."

I find myself wishing for a pencil, to write down his words. My memory is useless for these things; my mind like one of those automatic toilets at the Anchorage airport -- WHOOSH -- flushing randomly before I want it to, everything gone. I wish someone would line this dude out with his own Inupiaq comedy show on TV. From the far end of Nina's garden the sunshine of Linnea's smile agrees with me.


Lesson two: Talk to your plants

From Kobuk, George Douglas boats us and our plants down to Shungnak. Before we leave, Guy offers George a pound of bread yeast. Apparently the Kobuk school gave out pounds of it this spring. "Thought you might want to make pizza," Guy says. George says no thanks, he has plenty. In my mind I'm thinking, "Yeah, right, guys. You're talking home-brew."

George swings a blue 36-pack of Pepsi into his boat. "It's the quality, not the quantity," he says when I question him about his purchase. I nod, wondering about sunstroke. Maybe I have it.

The boat ride is splendid, just in time to save me from melting. At Shungnak we disburse plants and then hide out in the clinic, letting the sun swing north.

At 9 p.m. we head to work again. Shungnak is more wrecked vehicles, with a backdrop of stunningly beautiful scenery, the tundra a huge green fling to the mountains at the pale blue edge of the sky. It's stifling out still, the Death Star glaring from the north. Linnea and I assist a woman named Johanna planting her tilled silt soil. She has a cloud of kids and quickly more show up. It's fun, but stressful with so many little feet trampling around the unfenced garden.

"I could plant?" a little boy asks. He's 8, maybe. I start to answer, but from the lake in the middle of town I hear the chortling call of a grebe. I pause, call to the bird. The serious little boy asks what kind of duck it is and I tell him of searching for grebe eggs when I was a kid.

"Let's go look," he urges. "You want to? Come on. I find some last year."

I'm surprised. I remember my brother and me searching with kayaks. The eggs weren't easy to find. I'd like to join the boy, to acknowledge and encourage him. But we have work to do. "We have to work," I say.

When we are done, George strolls up wearing trunks and a tank top. He hands me a shopping bag. Inside are huge wedges of homemade pizza, hot still, with corn meal on the bottom of the crust and fresh red peppers, olives and pepperoni on top. Open-mouthed, Linnea and I stare into the bag, not believing our fortune.

We stroll toward our next job, famished and searching for shade. Finally we sit on a dusty plywood box to eat. The little boy appears again. He has a grebe egg in his hand. How did he find it so fast? "Let's go look more," he urges. "Come on."

"I have to work," I say, agonizingly. "I know it doesn't look it, sitting here eating. But we have to." I explain how to check if the egg is good -- with a cup of water -- and that a floater should go back in the nest.

The little boy goes away again and an old friend saunters up. He tells us the boy's name, of him setting rabbit snares by himself and how it was he who found the man down along the river. He tells of suicide and hardship and abandonment. "He's the one who found the body."

In sober silence we walk down to Wesley Wood's old garden. It's cooler there by the water and Wesley's daughters and relatives are turning the mucky soil. The bugs come out and join us. After midnight Linnea and I carry our tools up the hill. Some of our plants left outside have been stolen. Kids play by the steps of the tribal office. One of them is the little boy. "How to grow?" he asks, so serious.

I hand him a cabbage start, explaining as best I can. Our plants are drooped, wilted yet again today. I'm hot and tired -- so impressed by the boy and nearly hopeless at the situation.

"Here," I say. "These are the roots."


Lesson three: Love your garden

In Ambler, after disbursing plants, I chat with Gladys Jones. She tells me her and Lawrence are building a log cabin at camp now. Previously, they built their own home and then a grocery store too that they manage together.

Her words and accomplishments seem surreal here in the dusty and worn tribal office. "Where did you find such an energetic husband?" I joke thoughtlessly.

"I think it's me," Gladys says with a small smile. "And I want to study to be a physician's assistant. It's good being busy."

Later, the villages and people begin to blur. In Noorvik, we rent a boat ride upriver to Kiana. The drivers turn out to be two smiling teenage girls, Tinmiaq and Iriqtaq Hailstone. "We've just did three more episodes for our reality show," they tell us proudly. I nod blankly; I've never owned a TV. I'm worried about these cabbage plants in the open boat The girls turn to Linnea, explaining the show.

Working in Kiana late into the night, we're accompanied by two girls, aged 4 and 5, Danielle and Shayden. One is the other's aunt. They're sun-cooked, red-cheeked, their bare arms and legs lumpy with bug welts. They watch and help and never complain, all the while squinting and scratching and waving away mosquitoes. Only once Shayden holds out a can of WD-40, asking quietly, "This one is bug dope?"

In Deering, Marlene Moto wears a back brace like something out of a science fiction movie. Somehow she scurries across a maze of dog diggings to point out where she wants another garden. She stands staring off across the distant sweep of land, like she's done that every day of her life.

In Kivalina, at the last garden, my new tiller won't run. Again Linnea happily presses her human-powered broadfork into the soil. I give up and join her. Beside us the Swan ladies cut blubber off ugruk hides. Laughter drifts over from their work. Old Joe Swan putters with the little tiller engine. "You got the power," he croons to it.

"Is he a rototiller whisperer?" Linnea murmurs.

"I've heard of talking to plants," I tell Joe. "But not to engines."

"I'm more accustomed to hearing people swear at them," Linnea whispers again.

"Oh, you have to talk to them," Joe says. "You've got the power."

Smiling, Linnea and I turn back to the soil. Occasionally we pull out a shard of glass, a chunk of rusted steel, caribou teeth, a .22 cartridge. Suddenly I remember something Guy blurted out up in Kobuk. "I like to stay positive," he said. "Too many people here hook both wires up to the negative terminal."

I think about those words, and my past and future, our region's past and future, as we continue gently pressing tiny turnip starts into the dark earth. And watering them.

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.


Seth Kantner
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