Who are your favorite water gods and why?
Sedna, the Mother of the Sea in Inuit mythology, has always struck a chord in me. She refused to marry the suitors who offered themselves to her, so her father took her out in his kayak and threw her overboard. When she clung to the side of the kayak, he chopped her fingers off. She drifted into the sea and her fingers became the seals, whales, and other creatures the Inuit people hunt for food.
There’s something about this story that reminds me both of female saints, like Winifred of Wales, who decided to become a nun rather than marry a guy named Caradog, who beheaded her (it fell to the ground and became a freshwater spring, incidentally), and of some of the more gruesome Grimm’s fairy tales, like “Catskin,” in which a king wants to marry his daughter because she looks like her dead mother, so she runs away in a coat made of cat skins. In these stories there’s the beginning of the question about who controls women’s bodies, and the women always suffer physically for their attempts at autonomy.
Sedna becomes the sea goddess through sacrifice, and populates the waters with her body parts, so she’s a creative force, and in that way, benevolent. Unlike the saints, who sacrifice themselves for a patriarchal god figure, and the princesses of fairytales, who usually happily marry some other guy, Sedna can be vengeful, withholding bounty to hunters who don’t show her respect. She hunkers down in the depths and keeps control of her body (think: body of water). I think of Sedna now, when the threat of more oil drilling in the Arctic looms, the sea ice thins drastically each year, and imagine how the Mother of the Sea will show us all who’s really in charge up there.
What do you think about the bottling of water?
I carry tap water around in a metal bottle, or, if I can’t find that bottle, mason jars. I’m lucky my city has clean, drinkable tap water. Bottled water is a necessity sometimes—when wells fail, when sources of potable water become contaminated, when there’s a natural disaster and municipal water sources are compromised. I live in earthquake territory, so we have bottles of water stored in our emergency kit.
But for the giant flotillas of plastic roaming the Pacific, I would say that bottling water is not such a bad thing, but do we really need millions of those little plastic buoys out there, or crunched into landfills, for that matter?
And then there are water rights, and the owning of natural water sources by companies like Nestle, whose CEO has said that water is not a human right, but should be owned and managed by companies such as his own (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEFL8ElXHaU)—great stewards of public well-being that they are. I think Nestle is utterly full of shit and prefer not to support their endeavors.
Be a Girl Scout; carry a canteen.
What are your ocean-crossing stories?
When I was about ten I was obsessed with Amelia Earhart. I read all the biographies I could find on her in the library. I remember the way I couldn’t sleep the night I watched the Unsolved Mysteries episode about her mysterious disappearance. I can still picture the speck on the globe where she was supposed to land, but didn’t.
When I was sixteen, my dad took me and my older sister to Hawaii. It wasn’t crossing an ocean so much as landing in the middle of it. I was quietly certain we would all die for the entire plane ride.
One of the early chapters of my novel, GLACIERS (which Tin House published last year) is based on the ferry trip my parents made from Seattle back to Alaska, when I was an infant. I have no memory of it, only photographs and family anecdotes, but I, like my heroine, Isabel, sometimes imagined the journey. I haven’t taken the ferry back to Alaska since.
Isabel’s parents returned to Alaska soon after she was born. They had lived in Washington for four years, since Isabel’s older sister, Agnes, was born. They lived in a dumpy apartment over a drugstore in Bellingham, then in a cooperative household in Seattle, with three other families, several cats, and a blind Labrador retriever named Little John. Isabel’s father was a musician who had dropped out of music school. He worked odd jobs and gave the occasional guitar lesson. Isabel’s mother stayed home with Agnes, cooking and gardening with the other women in the household. With one child, the family might have gone on like this. Isabel was born on Valentine’s Day 1979, and within a month her parents decided to go back to where they had grown up, where her father could get a good-paying job on the North Slope.
Isabel doesn’t actually remember, but she imagines the voyage now, twenty-eight years later. The ferry from Seattle was crowded with other families, not Alaskan families but the kind of loose-minded travelers who pointed and photographed without really seeing.
Like other great creatures before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death, so distant and unimaginable, was a spectacle not to be missed. The ferry slowed where a massive glacier met the ocean; a long, low cracking announced the rupture of ice from glacier; then came the slow lunge of the ice into the sea. This is calving —when part of a glacier breaks free and becomes an iceberg—a kind of birth. The calving sent waves, rocking the ferry. Hands gripped railings and feet separated on gridded steel. There were shouts of appreciation and fear, but nothing like grief, not even ordinary sadness.
North of Juneau, the boat lingered near some rocks. A voice announced that below, starboard, was the wreck of the Princess Sophia, sunk in a storm just before the armistice. A gale whipped the ship over some rocks and tore her open like a can of salmon. All aboard died in the oily, frigid water. Only the captain’s wolfhound, which made the dark, impossible swim to shore, survived. He shivered and howled among the rocks until rescuers carried him away. Only a few yards of mast were visible above water after the ship went down, and the wind and waves had driven the bodies of passengers and crew miles along the coastline. The travelers, pondering this tragedy, lined the rails to peer into the water. Somewhere beneath them, they contemplated, were the disintegrating remains of a boat not so different from the one they were on. What did they expect to see in that water? Their own wavering reflections stared gravely back at them.
Isabel’s family sat in the commissary during the viewing of the Princess Sophia, eating sandwiches with no lettuce.
Only a few grainy photographs remain to tell the tale. In the first, she is dressed in hand-knit blue wool. The smallest living thing, even smaller than the gulls. Her father holds her, his back against the railing, her mother and Agnes to the left. Behind them: deep dark water and stony sky. The porpoises that sometimes surfaced are not surfacing. The whales that sometimes arched smoothly over the waves are not worrying the water’s fractal plaintiveness. Other photographs are notable for what is absent: her mother, who was the photographer, only appears at the beginning of this story, for the family portrait, then disappears.
The steaming boat eventually harbored. There were long hours on land in a car, north, then south again, down the peninsula to Soldotna, named (some said) after the Russian word soldat for soldier. A small city on the Kenai River known for its salmon and halibut fishing, and as a gas and bathroom break on the way to Homer.
Outside town was the homestead of her father’s grandmother, Agnes, her sister’s namesake, who had died the previous summer. Three rooms with a woodstove and running well water. A small garden with raspberries and a weedy patch of Sitka strawberries. An acre of woods. Her mother made the beds with felted-wool and down blankets. The cast-iron pans and chipped china came with the house. Her father hung a rope swing for her sister from the tallest tree. Her mother started seeds in the greenhouse. The aspen and birch were just opening up, shuddering off the cold.
Have you ever drowned in one way or another?
I have experienced deep depressions in my life that felt like drowning. Particular years stand out: 14, 16, 19-23. Those were all dark years when it was difficult to keep breathing.
What was your favorite water body as a child and how did you engage it?
I spent the first ten years of my life in Alaska, at the delta of the Kenai River and Cook Inlet. Cook Inlet is part of the northern Pacific, and I think it had the most influence on my mental and spiritual geography. I loved going to the beach with our dogs, having weenie roasts over a fire on the shore, hunt for shells or agates. I loved it, but I also knew to be afraid of it. The ocean will chew you up and spit you out—it just happens to be ravishingly beautiful about it.
My mother dated a science teacher for a while who had a daughter, Elsa, who was about my age, nine or ten. One day in late winter—almost spring—he took us girls down to a beach on Cook Inlet where a geologist friend of his was working out of a little trailer next to the bluff. The tide was out and there were icebergs marooned all over the beach. I don’t think I had spent any time on the beach in winter before, and I didn’t realize that ice floes and icebergs could get beached like that. It was a magical scene: the gray waves pummeling away out toward the horizon; the colony of gigantic icebergs squatting on the shore like huge ice sculptures, like ice shacks, like a village. Elsa and I went flying over the beach toward them. We licked them, we picked at them, and of course, we climbed them. Its wind was biting cold and wet. Eventually Elsa’s dad called us to the trailer for cocoa and we blithely skipped inside. We made cocoa on a paraffin stove and were burning our mouths on it when I looked out the little aluminum trailer window. The tide had come in—had been stealthily creeping toward us the entire time—and was carrying off our icebergs like they were made of Styrofoam.
I’ve never underestimated the ocean again.
After watching this video “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” how is water connected to your consciousness? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAvzsjcBtx8
I crave the ocean. Last summer I started taking my son to the beach almost weekly, even though it’s almost a two-hour drive each way. Everything became lighter, faced with the ocean. Nothing carried the weight I felt before I was there. We would wander the beach for hours, the rhythm of the day set for us like a metronome. Being on tidal time is something akin to being in dream sleep. They call our brains’ energy patterns “waves” for a reason, and I’d like to think it’s because that movement is elemental to us.