Alas, it looks as though the melt is upon us. The little creeks and rivulets of runoff are noisy and alive. The shoreline ice is flooded, because the meltwater flowing onto it still has no drainage portals to the lake water below the ice. I may take matters in hand and try drilling a few holes for drainage. The effect of that is sometimes startling, with a little eight-inch hole rapidly eroding out to a two-foot diameter sucking whirlpool. Very cool, for those of us who are easily amused.
Always there is this feeling of bittersweet resignation when the year’s dominant season starts to loosen its grip. Six months of winter grudgingly give way, and we about-face into the other half of the year. Six months into which Spring, Summer, and Autumn are compressed — two months apiece.
Every spring brings a variation on the repetitive theme. One year, with a rapid melt well underway by the first of May, and with a plane whose landing gear had just failed a routine inspection, we opted to go ahead and put that plane onto its floats down at the maintenance hangar, and to bring it back home and land here on the ice surface, on floats. I did that, and it worked out perfectly well, albeit a bit noisy on the vvveeerrryyy long run-out after touchdown. A 3,000 pound sled on smooth keels can skitter a long ways on smooth wet ice. It reminded me of a friction experiment in a physics class. We tied the plane down to the ice — this was back in 2010, I think — and it sat there perched on its floats, only to see Winter make a decisive comeback with temperatures sliding back far below zero. It was nearly the first of June before I finally taxied the plane off the ice edge and into open water near the river mouth.
I must admit that I don’t like the uncertainty of meltdown nearly as much as I relish the mystery and uncertainty of freeze-up. I suppose that is because it is more necessary to try to plan for and predict the melt. People have work to do, in and out flights to make, and there are calls for charters here and there while conditions change by the day and by the hour. The planes sit out on the ice and the changes begin to call for an ever increasing amount of time spent measuring, assessing, predicting, and thinking about contingencies. In late autumn and early winter, awaiting the freedom of freeze-up, we have mostly adopted a mode of just tucking ourselves in, hunkering down, and watching with bemusement the progress of the season. There is a little more tension in the spring, not as much bemusement. When the ice finally says it is time to get the planes onto something solid, you damned well better be ready to move them, and now.
I have been thinking about “Traditional Knowledge” lately, now often abbreviated “TK.” I am forever mulling over the way buzzwords and acronyms rise and fall and get bandied about. Watching the fads and fashions of language is entertaining. It has been fun to see the rise of “reaching out,” for instance. And “pivot” is having its day in the sun. And of course there is the weird morphing of verbs into nouns, and vice versa. “That is a big ask.” “I’m doing an install.” “We need to action that.” “Did someone gift that to you?” English, as my dear wife reminds her groaning pedantic husband, is constantly evolving. C’mon Dave, chill. Pivot. Reach out. Gift people a break. (I will try.)
Like I said, TK is big and it’s been much on my mind. What is it exactly? When it comes to Traditional Knowledge, I keep thinking about our old white spruce friend Lucy.
Lucy is a tree that stands front and center, almost precisely in the middle of our little trapezoid of homestead activity. The tree is a “she” to us, called Lucy now for over 25 years, and I will have to ask my daughters why. They named her, and each of them sometimes climbed up into her wide comforting branches to escape whatever needed escaping on some childhood day. I will never forget the question they asked after the fire, before they had made it home: “Did Lucy burn?” Thankfully, no.
I would guess Lucy’s height now to be just shy of 60 feet, or 19 meters. She is over two feet across at the base. A big tree so close to the tundra. Based upon my own cutting and ring-counting of many dead spruces around here over the years, I am guessing Lucy is around 220 to 240 years old. This past year, she is not doing very well. I think she is what foresters call “over-mature” or “decadent.” Lucy is getting decadent, and the neighbors are whispering…
I think there is an element of that buzzword “traditional knowledge” wrapped up with living in a place long enough to know a tree by name, to worry about her and love her. Call me a tree hugger. It is sad to know that at some time fairly soon we are going to have to consider toppling her, lest she topple and kill someone in their bed, on a stormy night, in the tiny cabin nearby. That was the first building we built here, back in 1987, when Lucy was younger, firmer of flesh, and not quite as tall.
Last year on the eighth of May, we had a windstorm the likes of which we had not seen before. Peak gusts of 52 knots, or 100 kilometers per hour, or 27 meters per second, take your pick. Damned windy. “Whole Gale” on the Beaufort wind scale, with the note: “rarely experienced inland.” Three of us were here that day, and we rushed around for a while battening and securing and ballasting things (including two planes out on the ice), and then we just watched and waited. Some very large cousins of Lucy came down that day, and the ground beneath Lucy on the windward side was lifting as one of her main roots was leveraged upward. But she held.
I should probably consider taking her down soon. There are brown patches in her foliage that we have not seen before. I have no doubt that a cross-section of her trunk, down near ground level, will already show a brown and black center core of decay.
This has gotten me thinking about TK, like I said. Anyone can have TK. That is the biggest point to be made in the bastions of buzzwords these days. TK is simply local knowledge acquired over time spent living in a place. It is not genetic, it is not racial, it is not linked to some presence or absence of inclusivity or political stripe. Wendell Berry said it well, in his essay “The Way of Ignorance” :
The experience of many people over a long time is traditional knowledge. This is the common knowledge of a culture, which it seems that few of us any longer have. To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.”
Another poet and man of letters, Gary Snyder — soon to turn 93 on the eighth of May — is a longtime friend of Berry, and he summed up the path to “traditional knowledge” succinctly when he wrote: “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”
I have quoted that in a post here before, but it bears repeating.
Okay, rambling around here. Wish us luck with our decision about Lucy. Think about your own traditional knowledge. We can all aspire to it. We all need it. It comes from paying attention. The world that matters most is here, around us, not on a screen, not somewhere far away or out there.
Truth be told, I am pre-occupied because at any moment now, or maybe not ’til tomorrow morning, Day 39, the dogs that are in the yard here are going to set up a joyous howl, and we are going to look out to the lake toward the east, across the soggy drifts and pools of meltwater, and there are going to be three dogteams and three sleds and three mushers, on the final half-mile of their journey from here to the Arctic Ocean and back. Read last month’s post and you will know what I’m referring to. It’s been quite a journey, now nearly done.
They made it, and they are within a few miles of here as I type this. Banging and bouncing down the steep trails into the basin of the big lake, where the snow is now mostly gone. We have the signal horn and some red flares handy. And some beer in a bucket of melting ice, in the shade by Lucy.