My thirteen-year-old friend, A.C., went with me today to fix the waterline and pump water to our holding tank on a hill above our floathouses.
Wearing a Hoonah Fisheries bill cap, pink flannel work shirt, and a wispy black chiffon skirt, all she needed was to shove on her XTRATUF rubber boots and grab the vegan, cruelty free purse my artist sister, Megan Duncanson, had painted and sent her as a gift. A.C. goes nowhere without it, or the valuable contents it carries. But we'll get to that in a minute.
When we got to the waterline that follows a trail through the woods, we found that the wildlife--deer or a bear--had knocked it down. After leveling it we found that a connection was leaking. A.C. handled it. "Duct tape can fix anything," she insisted, and took charge of a large roll of it. Who's arguing?
When we got to the dam, she asked if I'd allow her to start the pump. "Jamie taught me how to start the generator," she said, mentioning my oldest brother who she lives next door to in the nearby village of Meyers Chuck. "This looks like the same sort of thing."
It pretty much was, so I told her to go for it. She just needed to fill the tank with gas first, which she promptly did, looking quite fashionable in her wilderness-girl-chic style.
Once she'd filled the pump she went about starting it. Happily, since it was summer it didn't have to be primed, like in the cold winter months. It also didn't need ether to kick it in the pants. A.C. pulled on the recoil a few times but the pump was positioned too high for her to be able to pull on it as strongly as needed.
I changed places with her and it started instantly. I told her, truthfully, that she'd warmed it up for me. It doesn't usually start that easily, even in the summer months.
We escaped the racket of the pump by going down on the beach and I suggested she reveal what she had inside her purse. I'm sure my readers would be fascinated to know what a wilderness girl thinks is essential, especially if she was to get lost in the woods and thrown back upon her own resources.
A.C. obligingly pulled items out, noting them aloud as she perched them on a drift log: "...a pack of cards, a foil packet of Pop Tarts, assorted bracelets..." Then she held up two small bottles with an air of significance. "Two different shades of fingernail polish."
"A girl likes to look her best, even if she's lost in the wilderness," I suggested.
"That's very true," she agreed without smiling.
A.C. pulled out a large, roughly cut...black rock?
"And a large chunk of obsidian," she remarked.
"What's that for?"
"You never know when you might need to make a bunch of arrowheads." She pulled out a wad of napkins that had ink stains on them--I thought. She corrected this impression. "They're napkins with symbols written on them. In case I get lost in the woods I can leave them behind so that people can follow me and find me."
"Smart," I said, wondering why I'd never thought of it.
The was more: jewelry, hair pieces, a gigantic play diamond ("A girl can never have too much diamond"), a solar-powered, hand-crank flashlight, a mirror ("To help people find me when the sun flashes off it") and so many other items that I lost track. I kept expecting her to pull a floor lamp and a potted palm out of it.
Finally, though, we had to shut off the pump and then head home before the tide came in and cut us off from the floathouses. Before we left, I took a final shot of A.C. with one of Megan's Florida Flamingos. If you'd like to know more about Megan's purses and/or art, check out these links: www.livinthemadlife.com - www.madartdesigns.com
An early memory that I treasure and often revisit is of when I was about eight years old and I was staying with my grandparents at their cabin in Meyers Chuck on a dark fall or winter day. It was overcast, windy, and raw outside. The water was a dark, angry grey, slapping at the boats moored at the dock across the harbor and rocking them, making the bells on the tops of the trolling poles ring out. Inside the house the wood stove was crackling and a pot of fragrant coffee perked on top of it. My grandparents were quietly reading books and exchanging comments while I was curled up on the couch coloring.
The waxy smell of the crayons, the rough texture of the paper in the coloring book about fairytales, the picture of a young man attempting to strike a flint stone and my grandmother's explanation of what a flint stone was and why it had been so important--she knew that as a bush kid I'd appreciate the need for fire in heating, cooking, and lighting--all come back to me in a flood of warmth accompanied by a deep sense of security.
It's not a lone memory. My mom always loved coloring and she brought us kids up to color alongside her, particularly during those cold, dark days when we couldn't play outside. I have many memories of all of us grouped around the table or on the floor with the stove emanating heat and an audiotape playing The Lost World or Wind in the Willows as we shared stubby, broken crayons, squabbling over whose turn it was to use the peach or sky blue.
We were in perpetual awe at my mom's intricate coloring and asked her how we could color like she did. Her reply was always the same, "It's just practice. The more you do the better you get at it."
We all tried, but I don't think any of us ever really believed we'd be as good as she was. And, to be honest, we never did attain to her level. Her ability to put light and shadow into a bland, flat drawing, to bring people and images vibrantly to life, is, in my opinion, without parallel. Many was the time I'd give up coloring for the greater pleasure of watching a scene come to life under her skillful fingers.
All of the children who have stayed with us get hooked on the joys of coloring. Twelve-year-old A. C. Darden, who visits us regularly and spends summers with us (along with her brother), asked if we'd get her a coloring book based on the Archie comics, her favorite reading material. We were able to do so and when she visits us in these cold days she takes pleasure in spending quality time with Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Reggie in summery Riverdale.
"What's your favorite part of coloring?" I asked her.
"The colors," she said firmly.
My mom said she'd have to agree. "It's all about the colors. I can remember the very first picture I colored," she added. "I was about three, I think. It was of a chicken and an egg. I remember trying really hard to get the colors just right and I must have colored it really well--I think I was shading even then--because the adults all raved about it."
With that kind of validation, not common from adults to children when she was growing up, she became addicted to coloring, and not just for the pleasure of it.
Long before the current adult coloring book fad, before therapists found out the soothing qualities of coloring and recommended it to their patients, my mom always turned to her coloring books whenever she was going through a stressful time (being often entirely alone in the wilderness with five kids, for example), and especially when she's coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Dr. Nicki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC, writing for The Huffington Post, says that "There are many times when I suggest adult coloring books to patients and they look at me like perhaps we should be switching seats. However, time and again, they come back to me and tell me how beneficial they find them to be. Many psychologists and therapists 'prescribe' these to patients for various reasons, and many occupational therapists presribe them as well!"
As additional good news--my mom is always worrying that she's on the verge of complete cognitive disintegration--Dr. Martinez also maintains that "coloring has intellectual benefits as well. It utilizes areas of the brain that enahance focus and concentration. It also helps with problem solving and organizational skills. This may sound strange, and like perhaps the usefulness is being stretched, but it is all true. Our frontal lobes are responsible for these higher level activities and functions of the brain, and coloring detailed pictures activates all those properties."
Plus, she adds: "Coloring utilizes both hemispheres of the brain, right and left. When we are thinking about balance,color choices, applying colored pencil to paper, we are working on problem solving and fine motor skills."
My sister, Megan. A Duncanson, a world-renowned artist, created her own coloring book titled "In the Garden." (Available at Amazon and elsewhere.) In the front matter she wrote a dedication to my mom, saying, "She raised my four siblings and me to appreciate the arts and we would spend endless hours coloring in stacks upon stacks of coloring books as children. It was one of the most memorable and enjoyable parts of my childhood growing up in the remote bush of Alaska."
I feel the same way, and, in fact, I'm getting the urge to pick up a coloring book and start coloring to ward off the cold and short days of winter.
Note: A version of this story appeared previously in Capital City Weekly.
I decided to put up a new category called Re-Purposing after I went to do a blog post on the subject and realized I had way too much material for one post. Re-purposing is a way of life in the bush where it's hard to get access to materials, especially on the spur of the moment. Besides, no one in the bush likes to throw anything away if they can possibly give it new life as something else.
Take, for instance, the picture (above) that I'm going to use for all of my "re-purposing" posts. My mom loved her charmingly old-fashioned alarm clock, so when it unexpectedly flat-lined and couldn't be resuscitated, she decided to re-purpose it as a picture frame and put in it a not so American Gothic moment between her and my dad when we first moved to Alaska. I think it looks terrific.
For myself, I recently realized that I needed a mobile, smallish bookcase that I could put my library books in. Usually they're stacked on the table, or next to my bed, or wherever I can find a clear space for them. But I wanted them all in one place that was easily accessible and could follow me wherever I needed them.
Looking around, I spotted a battered suitcase that I was getting ready to throw out.
Suitcases have a rough time of it in the bush. This poor thing has been hauled in and out of skiffs, wheeled up and down steel-grate ramps and the warped planks of docks, and been soaked in salt spray. On one memorable return trip, after landing in the village via floatplane, a local offered to give me a skiff ride home. When we got to where the tide rips get bad and started bucking into eight and ten foot waves, the local decided he'd had enough.
Instead of returning to the village with him, I asked him to let me off on the nearest rocks with my luggage. I had so much that I had to do a relay hike over the rocks: Walk ahead so far and drop them on the rocks, then go back for the rest, and repeat--for over an hour. This suitcase got dragged and bumped over every rock, barnacle, and weathered chunk of drift wood in the area. But it survived to travel another day. ( In addition, my Maine Coon Katya made her displeasure at my leaving known by attacking the case with her claws whenever she got the opportunity.)
Because of its faithful, uncomplaining service I was loathe to destroy it, but since its zippers no longer worked, there was a hole in the back, and the front was Katya-clawed, I didn't know what else to do with it. Until it struck me that here was my mobile bookcase!
All it took was an hour of sawing a 1x6 piece of spruce into sizes that would fit inside the suitcase as shelves, nailing them together, fitting them inside the case, and then spray painting them black to match the luggage. And voila! I had my mobile bookcase to shelve my library books in.
The painting in the background is my sister Megan's art. For more of her paintings go to www.madartdesigns.com.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)