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Because the Stars We See

Are Not the Stars That Are There


Daryl Farmer

Its January 1999, a clear night in the Alaskan interior.


Im standing on ice-covered Sixmile Lake, the night snow
reflecting a clear winter sky. The lights of Nondalton Village
shine in the distance, and even though its a moonless night,
there are shadows. It is a place of astounding marvel, but
mostly, I just want to get on the next bush plane flight out,
back to Joan, back to our apartment in Anchorage.
It was November when I moved to Nondalton to take
a high-school teaching position, even though Joan was just
weeks into her job in Anchorage. What it means is that we are
living apart, and, because Ive had all I can take of missing
her, Im thinking of a different home, my Colorado home,
the home of my youth. Homesickness can take many forms.
Sometimes it helps to yearn for something different for a
change. You take the geography of love and transfer it to a
distant landscape.
So I stand out on this lake and long for Southern
Colorados San Luis Valley, so desirable in its unavailability.
I spent four years there, my college years, in a town called
Alamosa. I am thinking specifically of a dark pre-sunrise
morning spent walking in the shadow of Mount Blanca in the
Sangre de Cristo Range. The day before, Id made the mistake
of telling my friend Christine that men were naturally better
athletes. She challenged me to a tennis match. I found out later
that shed recently taken second in a statewide competition.
Her victory was swift and effortless, and my chauvinism was
forever cured. Wanting to redeem myself, I suggested a bicycle
ride to the sand dunes, which were some 30 miles away. It
was already mid-afternoon, and we planned to spend the night
camping. Christine had to work at 8:00 the next morning, and
I had a kinesiology class. Wed need to get up by 4:30 a.m. if
we were to make it back in time.
Might be too early, I said.
Yeah, said Christine, and anyway, youre probably
sore from all that chasing around the tennis court.
That clinched it. We strapped camping gear to our racks
and pedaled east on Highway 160.

Nondalton is a small Athabascan village in Southwestern

Alaska. The people here rely on a subsistence lifestyle, a diet


of dried fish and caribou. I was hired to replace a teacher
who had chartered a midnight flight and left, e-mailing his
resignation later. The consequence of this was probably the
loss of his Alaska teaching license. Such a license requires
a long process of administrative paperwork, extra classes, a
background check, all at a substantial expense. The teacher
was in his first year. He had lasted fewer than three months.

What had driven him away? When I asked the superintendent who interviewed me, he shrugged, said that the
teacher had some emotional issues. He said nothing about
the principal, about his abusive rants, his erraticsometimes
intimidatingbehavior. About him I would have to learn the
hard way. But that all comes later, after this night Im talking
about here.
In Nondalton, Im an outsider. I dont hunt or fish. I have
never ridden a four-wheeler or snowmobile. Im not an outcast
so much as an amusing oddity. But my sense of belonging
here is as great as anywhere Ive lived. Do we ever, any of
us, really fit in, our homes, our work? In Nondalton, I inspire,
not unlike stray animals and small children, generosity. I offer
little and accept much, yet people still smile at my presence:
Jimmie and Olga Balluta still welcome me with a fresh pot of
coffee each time I show up at their door; Louie keeps inviting
me to his sweat lodge; Ida and Dennis and his brother-in-law
allow me to sit in with their band, no matter how many times
I miss the chord changes.

Try this for dichotomy: I live alone, yet am happily married.


Actually, its probably correlative. When I do see Joan, we dont
waste a lot of time worrying over toilet seats and dirty socks.

So. Christine and I rode our bicycles out of Alamosa, our

shadows growing longer in front of us as the sun was setting.


By the time we got to the Great Sand Dune turn off, about
halfway, the sun was just above the horizon. In that valley,
temperatures drop quickly in the evening, and we stopped to
put on the warmest clothes wed brought. Though sore, we
increased our pace, trying to keep warm and beat the dark.
There was little traffic on the road, and it wasnt dark for
long before a moon rose, lighting our way. A scuba diving
instructor once told me that he liked night diving best, that
it was a peaceful comfort, like a return to the womb. Thats
what riding that night felt like. Once darkness fell, there was
no reason to race against it, and, the destination obscured, the
ride felt peaceful, effortless.

Officially, my role in Nondalton is teacher, though many


people, Im sure, think of me as the guy with the camera
around his neck. Saturday mornings, tripod in hand, I take
long walks along the lakeshore, shooting photos of the
landscape. I also take pictures of grandchildren for the elders
and of elders for the grandchildren. Later when Im asked to
teach a class on entrepreneurship, I help the students set up
a photo studio.
2008 fall/winter | 6.2 isotope 43

Technically, I teach English and social studies, but I


spend probably too much time talking to my students about
the sky. I like to tell them about how the stars they see at night
arent the stars that are really there; that due to their distance
and the rate of the speed of light, when we look into the night
sky, we are actually looking into history. I do try, at times, to
teach the required subject matter, but lets face itits hard to
care about a dangling modifier when faced with the reality of
a nightly witness of a time warp.

Consider

all the men throughout history who have left


their families behind: soldiers off to war or those who joined
expeditions of discovery, sometimes gone for years, before
phones or even telegrams and letters. What must that yearning
for their lives back home have felt like for explorers such as
those on the Grinell expeditions in the 1850s? Chauncey Loomis
and Constance Martin write in their introduction to Elisha
Kent Kanes Arctic Explorations that such men ...must have
felt deeply the great distances between themselves and their
homes and suffered a sense of hopelessness, especially when
they brooded on a second winter in the arctic. Or Lady Jane
Franklin, whose husband Sir John sailed away on an expedition
in 1846, and when he hadnt returned by 1848, spent the rest
of her life in an obsessive attempt to convince the Admiralty
to continue to search for him. In Alaska today, especially for
those who work the oil fields near Prudhoe Bay on the North
Slope, its not uncommon for men to be separated from their
families for months at a time. What Im doing is small potatoes
compared to all of that and still I long for my home with Joan,
had forgotten how such longing can lengthen each day.
I imagine the standard line is that Joan deserves better,
but quite frankly, she deserves exactly what she has in me. This
is a woman who once rode a bicycle solo from Jasper, Alberta,
to Missoula; canoed the Macal River in Belize; backpacked
through the grizzly country of Montana and Alberta. Now she
hops bush planes to serve the speech therapy needs of Alaskan
villages, includingwhat I refer to as her conjugal visits
Nondalton. That she describes me as her Alaskan man living
in the bush fits her perfectly.

It was pitch dark when Christine and I pulled into the

Sand Dunes parking lot. Against law and judgment (I dont


condone it), we carried our sleeping bags into the dunes and
slept there. In the moonlight, we saw tracks in the sand.
What do you think those are? I asked.
Mountain lion, she said, matter-of-factly. Christine
was from Boulder, where a mountain lion had recently chased
a jogger up a tree. Whatever fear I felt couldnt keep me from
sleeping, and the next conscious thought I remember was my
watch alarm, waking me at 4:30 the next morning. We rolled
up our sleeping bags and loaded our bikes. By then the moon
was gone. Of the items we hadnt thought to bring, one was
a flashlight. Another was a tire patch kit. The latter I realized
roughly two miles later, when I heard a slow and steady hiss,
then felt my tire rim wobbling against the pavement.

On my return from the lake, I stop at Jimmy and Olgas


house. I walk into their kitchen, help myself to coffee.
44 isotope 6.2 | fall/winter 2008

When I first moved to Nondalton, I was told that their


house was a coffee shop. My second day there, Id walked in
without knocking only to find myself in the middle of a living
room, adjacent to a small kitchen. Jimmy and Olga were each
sitting in a Lazy Boy, watching TV. When they looked up at
me, they seemed unsurprised by my entrance. I introduced
myself, told them that Id heard I could get coffee here.
Sure, said Jimmy, theres a fresh pot on the stove.
Then he turned back to the TV.
I stood, feeling slightly disoriented. I looked around the
kitchen.
Do you have mugs? I asked.
Olga looked over at me. Youve been in a kitchen
before, she said. Youll find them. I opened the cupboards
above the stove and was relieved to see Id found the mugs
on my first try.
Now, Olga sits at the table with me. We talk about
the school. The Ballutas granddaughter, Kristy, is in my
class. Kristy has already scolded me once for talking to her
grandparents about her. Olga asks me about Joan. On Joans
last visit, Olga taught her how to make Athabascan ice
cream, called nivagi, a mix of sugar, frozen berries, Crisco
(traditionally, northern villages used whale blubber) and
whitefish.
Its not good, you two living apart, Olga reminds me,
as if I hadnt noticed. Teachers in Nondalton rarely last beyond
a year or two. She knows that, in time, Ill be gone, too.
Theres dried fish in the frigerator, says Jimmie,
gesturing without turning from his perch on the couch where
he is engrossed in the TNT Movie of the Week, an ill-advised
adventure-comedy starring Charlie Sheen and his half-brother
Emilio.

The tire quickly deflating, I slowed my bicycle to a stop

and stood straddling it in the darkness of morning. Christine


pulled up next to me.
I think I have a problem, I said. This was in 1986.
There were no cell phones. Christine worked as a receptionist
in the athletic office and had to be back on time. I had known
Christine for more than a year by then. You know how people
look at a situation and say, Well laugh about this later?
Well, Christine was the type that didnt believe in waiting that
long. Laughter is a way of making any dilemma seem smaller,
and when she was finally finished, we decided for her to go
on ahead without me. I would walk, at least to the highway,
where maybe I could hitch a ride home, hopefully in a truck
that could also carry my bike. We said goodbye, and I watched
as she disappeared into the darkness.
Its rare, anymore, such moments of absolute silence
as surrounded me that morning. What I had was a dim view
of the lights of Alamosa on the horizon and a barely visible
fading white line that helped me see the road as I pushed
my bicycle southward. For the most part I was blind to the
landscape around me. We think of landscape in visual terms,
but think of the calming sensation of pre-dawn air, of rustling
grass, of the chirping of insects, the scent of sage. Over the
nearly 10 miles that I walked, pushing that bike, I stopped
frequently to listen, to purge my mind of the noise and chaos

it had been carrying. The natural world is a powerful place,


and at times that morning, I falsely interpreted that power
in terms of fear. No emotion can tap into that corner of the
brain thats responsible for creativity the way that fear can.
Some of the time on that walk had been spent thinking about
waysmost of them somewhere between highly unlikely and
impossiblethat a man could die while walking in complete
darkness.
But I look back now and realize this: At no time, probably,
have I ever been more safe.

Student loans, car loans, credit cards, years of living

in trendy Western towns where the pay paled next to the cost
of livingit has all taken a toll. Debt. It is a slow-moving
quicksand that started creeping ever so gently between
our toes years before and, despite desperate maneuvers to
wriggle ourselves free, had slowly pulled us downward. By
the time we arrived in Alaska, we were up to our hips and
maintaining. Thanks in part to the job in this village, we are
stabilizingnowhere near free, yet no longer living in fear of
submersion.
I was actually courted for this job. Despite the fact that
Id been out of the teaching profession for three years and
that, technically, I am yet to be certified by the state, I was
offered more money than I had ever made in my life. The
district paid my flight out and has agreed to pay my way home
when I leave. They are offering more incentives to coax me
to stay on. The single biggest problem facing bush schools
in Alaska is the lack of stability created by teacher turnover.
This year, more than 20 percent of village teachers will
leave their jobs. More than a third of the principals are new.
Often, the new teachers are fresh out of college, looking to
gain experience that will help them get a job in Anchorage
or Fairbanks. Teachers will sometimes take a job expecting
a quaint Alaskan Disney-esque adventure. Instead, they are
confronted with perplexing village politics, heartbreaking
social issues, a teaching load outside their field of expertise
and an isolation they are unprepared for.
I have a student in this village who points at me every
day and says, You watch yourself, Daryl Farmer. Youre a
long way from home.

There is a story that

makes the rounds in Alaskan


village education circles. A high-school student in a Northern
Native village, after repeated incidents, is finally expelled
after showing up to school drunk one day. On the way
home, he encounters a woman and two small children being
attacked by a polar bear. The young man runs home, grabs
his gun, goes back and kills the polar bear, saving the lives
of the woman and children. The young man immediately
becomes the village hero, and the principal is castigated
by the community. How could he expel one so brave and
courageous? Family members demand that the student be
reinstated. The principal holds his ground. His classified staff,
all of whom are from that village, stop showing up to work.
His certified staff whisper their support, but fear retribution
from the community. Gunshots are fired at his house one
night while he sleeps.

For his own safety and sanity, he is whisked away late


one night in a chartered plane. A true story? I was once told by
an Indian elder in New Mexico: Truth is irrelevantall stories
have meaning. I do as my student suggests. I watch myself.

We are at your mercy, said the superintendent when he

offered me this job.


When I told Joan that, she said, Desperate men have a
way of finding each other.
Weve been married for eight years. We metboth of
us fresh out of college and working our first professional
jobsin a small town in eastern Colorado. It was a cowboy
town, the kind of town where Copenhagen and Budweiser
were considered two of the major four food groups (and if
youd put sugar in your coffee that morning, youd covered
them all). The idea of finding love was laughable at best. But
there she was anyway, standing in my classroom doorway. As
a speech therapist for the district, she was there to see one of
my students. She agreed to go out to dinner one night shortly
thereafter, whereupon I discovered the following: She listened
to jazz, had a weakness for Golden Retrievers, craved spicy
foods, dreamt of living in the South Pacific, enjoyed camping
and river rafting and understood the importance of a wellplaced sacrifice bunt.
We were married within two years.
About a month before I asked her to marry me, I warned
her that I had unorthodox dreams. I suggested that if she were
going to bail, now was the time. I told her that she would
never have a normal life with the likes of a guy like me.
In other words, I gave her an out.

I believe that hours spent walking alone beneath a clear

moonless sky can forever change your perception, can move


you past the reliance on sight, can force you to feel your way
through the world. If that bicycle tire hadnt gone flat, I never
would have felt it. I never would have purposely set out to
spend an early morning walking through the high desert of
southern Colorado in late September. I never would have
moved far enough beyond the fear to recognize the power for
what it was.
Without knowing it, I stored that feeling away. I held it
inside me. I moved on. I forgot about it. I studied my kinesiology. I graduated. I got a job.
I recognized that feeling immediately, though, the first
time, years later, that Joan walked into my life. Same blessed
thingfear, power, beautyall of it.

The irony about our debt is that I consider us both to be

unmaterialistic, at least by normal American standards. In


this village, I have no television, no answering machine, no
radio. There are six books on my shelves. I have no bedding
save for my sleeping bag. I have six shirts and two pairs of
jeans. My extravagances are a used laptop computer (only
cure there is for penmanship like mine) and an old Canon
camera with two lenses.
The bills keep coming. We pay the minimums, which
cover little more than the interestour fee for the privilege of
our own foolishness. Quicksand.
2008 fall/winter | 6.2 isotope 45

If I decide to stay, I tell Joan on the phone one


night, part of the curriculum Ill be responsible for will be
economics.
Ha, she says. Thats a good one.

Youre in a position to ask for things, my principal

tells me one day. Hes retired from the Army, had been in Iraq
during Desert Storm. Later, after some disturbing behaviors
berating teachers in front of students, throwing bizarre temper
tantrums, expressing his love for the married school secretary,
whose husband worked on the North Slopethe district will
buy out his contract and force him to leave, six weeks before
the school year ends. The year before, his contract had not
been renewed by a different village district. I know none of this
until later, but when I arrived here, he was already receiving
a fair amount of grief from the community concerning those
teachers who left, one of whom Ive replaced.
For example, he continues, what if we agree to give
you a three-day weekend every month and pay for your flight
back to Anchorage? Its a decent offer. I tell him Ill consider
it. Truth is, he has no authority to offer such things.

That morning in Colorado, as I pushed my bike along

the highway and the darkness began its slow dissolve into
daylight and the black of Colorado night turned into dark
blue and I could see the silhouetted form of Mount Blanca
slowly emerge in the distance, I suddenly heard the distant
howls of coyotes. Manic in my sleep-deprived state, I resisted
the strange urge to join them. The Big Dipper had moved
behind the mountains. The light spread, gradually, then in
slow changing huesgreen, magenta, pink, red, orange
the sky burst into brilliant orange, causing me to squint and
blink. Soon I could distinguish the whoosh of scattered traffic,
outlines of buildings. In short time I made it to the highway,
where there was an old abandoned brick building. I stashed
my bike inside it and prayed it would be there when I returned
later. It was. I walked to the highway and stuck out my thumb.
I was picked up by an elderly Hispanic man, a God-delivered
angel of a man, whose mission clearly was to see to it that I
was delivered to my class on time. I made it back into Alamosa
and onto campus at exactly 7:58 a.m. My class was in the
athletic building, and when I got there, there was Christine,
sitting behind her desk. She looked at me and laughed.
I had a feeling youd make it, she said.

This from a male student in Nondalton in an essay


that I assigned:

...Remember how you told us about the stars and


how you can see history when you look at them.
Well, thats how I met my girlfriend. The night we
met we walked along the lake. You know what, Mr.
Farmer? It turns out you can see the future too.

My Uncle Charley, not long before he died, told me

of a time when, as a boy, he rode a mare through the rugged


country of northwestern Colorado for several days. He slept
on the ground. He, too, spoke of the stars.
46 isotope 6.2 | fall/winter 2008

Edith remembersshe was there, he said gesturing


toward my aunt.
How could I have been there, she snapped. I didnt
even know you then.
You were there, he said softly. You have always been
there.
Not long after that, I dreamt of walking beneath a starry
sky along side a woman with brown eyes. It was before I had
seen that landscape, before I had ever met Joan.

In December, I was offered a substitute job in a town

roughly a 90-minute drive from our apartment in Anchorage,


in the Matanuska Valley town of Houston. It would still
have been too far to commute, but I could have spent every
weekend and part of every week living with her. The pay
would have been less than I am making in Nondalton, and we
would have needed a second car. The job was in a large school
district. The average class size was 36. Thats a lot of papers
to gradean unrealistic amount.
Think about this: If you forced 36 schnauzers into a 30
foot room, and expected them to sit quietly for an hour to
an hour and-a-half, without reasonable heat or air, the People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would, rightfully, raise a
ruckus. And yet, those kids...
My average class size in Nondalton is nine.

That morning in Colorado, while I was walking, a

coyote crossed the road in front of me. It was early, just as the
light had shifted slightly enough to reveal shadows. The coyote
glanced over coolly, barely acknowledging my presence as it
passed. I thought, as I walked, of all the explorers who had
longed in vain for some epiphanic moment in their ventures
into naturesome message that their lives had meaning, that
we are each something greater than a speck of dust on infinity.
Time and again they came up with nothing but more longing
and a wisdom they couldnt express. Perhaps the power of
the natural world is in its sameness, its patience, its brutal
honesty. There is a moment in Willa Cathers Death Comes
for the Archbishop when Father Valliant tells Father Latour:
The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so
much upon faces or voices or healing power coming
suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our
perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment
our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there
about us always.

One value of a landscape, I think, is in the way that it

awakens a deeper sense of connection to what is there about


us always. Our feet touch the ground and we feel the wind, the
rain, the cold, the sun. Flora produces oxygen, and we breathe
it in. Through our expirations we reciprocate, and when the
relationship is considered, all notion of isolation falls easily away.
Communion with landscape can regenerate a fractured spirit, can
adjust imbalance back into alignment. Can heal us, whether or
not we even realize we need it. One does not have to look long at
our current culture to see that a little healing is in order.
Ever since that bicycle broke down, I have made it a

point to look up at the sky, every single night. And because


the stars I see are not the stars that are there, I feel richer,
somehow, just for seeing them.

If the quicksand devours us, there will be nothing


material left in its wakeno home or furniture or fancy
electronics. Our compiled trespasses have all been ledgered
under the category of experience: plane trips, hotels,
restaurants, automobile mileage, film, the expenses of trying
to live the life of a photographer and travel writer. Credit
limits have been graciously extended to accommodate. There
was the bayou boat excursion; autumn drives along the
Maine coast; Winter Carnival in Quebec City; spring break in
Guanajuato; David Sanborn and others at the Winter Park Jazz
Festival. Such expenditures as these defy repossession. Not
that concerns have ever been voiced in that regard; generally,
we are referred to by our creditors as valued customers.
Would you change a thing? I ask Joan one night.
Yes, she says. All of it.
Really? I ask.
No. None of it, she says, and I understand. Either way,
she means it.

I leave

Olga and Jimmie and walk back out onto the


lake. Is it part of a grand scheme that we can never fully
understand and define the ways of God? I connect these stars
that arent really there and create constellations. I wonder if
He is best thought of as waterbetter when flowing free like
a river than held within the constraints of some man-defined
doctrine. That He remains just beyond reach is perhaps out of
necessity. Given the opportunity, would we not contaminate
Him? Dissect Him? Attempt to harness His power for our own
ill-advised gain?

It is 15 degrees and dark the next morning in Nondalton.

The glitter of the snow-covered ground seems to mirror the


stars as I walk to work. My walk home at the end of the day
will also be shrouded in darkness. Out my classroom window,
sometime during third period, I will watch the sun rise over
the lake as my students write quietly in their journals. In the
three years before moving to Alaska, Joan and I have lived
in nine states. I have worked as a writer, photographer,
tutor, substitute teacher. I have alwaysoftentimes contrary
to rational thoughtrelied on instincts to carry me. I am
grounded only by stars, driven by change, carried by love.
I wonder to what extent the comforts we strive for actually
hold us back. What if what we most seek is shrouded inside
that which we work so hard to avoid? Perhaps every conflict
and struggle is nothing more than a search for clarity. I think
of faith as a concept that is defiant in the face of security.
For isnt it faith which allows us to laugh about flat tires, to
move forward into the darkness, to understand that love is a
longing which will carry us home? And it is perhaps these
landscapesthe ones where we live and the ones for which
we longthat best replenish our spirit.
My contract here will end in May. When I return to Joan,
I will carry this moment with me, much as I carry her with
me now.

Banana Slug
Carol Was

This slick creature polished


in chartreuse yellow
slime glistens
as it slips, foot-long,
like jelly creeping through layers
of redwood duff, centuries
of trees. For every oozing
inch the body moves, four
antennae wriggle, read
the air. The slither, grind,
climb vital as ocean,
fog, mist, it cleans
the forest floor chewing
leaves, animal droppings,
plants, hunger
creating new soil. Strange
how necessity so naked
can be a thing of beauty,
exuding goo
in the mouths of predators,
protection since
time primordial.
How the forest swallows
me with every crunching
footfall, sound lost
under this dense canopy, air
barely moving. Can it see
even the lowest branches?
I watch this snail without
a shell, glide in perfect
silence from the base of a mosscovered Sitka spruce toward
my scuffed boots, new growth
to devour, the tongue coated
with several thousand teeth.

2008 fall/winter | 6.2 isotope 47

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