Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fool's Gold --- a poem for the day.

This is a poem I wrote a while back in the long tradition of Robert Service, but with an Alaskan twist.  Perhaps this might also serve as a prophetic,  poetic, or pathetic warning to those giant gold mining operations in SW Alaska.

Graves in the village of Kokhonak, Alaska

 A poem by Don Rearden

A tough old miner
with a silver beard
a story I’m sure
you all have heard
but I’ll tell it again
for those of you
who don’t believe
that it’s true.

They called him Dusty
from the look of his clothes
and from his body
an awful stench rose.
He washed himself
‘most every leap year
with a gallon of whiskey
an’ a grin ear to ear.

Alone on the Yukon
with the fever for gold
Old Dusty dream't only of
that big Mother Lode.
One cold night while prospecting
beneath the dancing Northern Lights
the old miner came across
the strangest of sights

there in the shadows of the Aurora’s glow
sat the skeleton of an old Eskimo.
Dressed in a fur parka
made from caribou and bear
with a shiny white skull
and a ghostly-like stare.
And clenched in the bony hands
of this long dead Eskimo
was a birch bark basket
that gave off a bright glow.

Dusty crept close,
for he wasn’t afraid
because a dead man is a man
whose debts have been paid.
He’d heard all the scary tales
from the Eskimo lore
and he ignored them all
as he had before.

Well the Northern Lights
they waltzed in the sky
like spirits crazed
like demons awry
but Dusty didn't see the dance,
all he did was stare.
He had to see what was
inside of there.

He pried the basket
from the skeleton’s hand
not knowing or caring
he was on sacred land.
He opened that basket
and his eyes grew wide
he couldn’t believe
what sat there inside.

He blinked three times
and his face turned red
inside was a gold nugget
the size of his head.

He gave a great holler
that echoed for miles.

He danced a little jig
and his face was all smiles.
“I’m a very rich man!”
He said with a grin,
“And I won’t have to work,
never ag’in.”

“I’ve done discovered
my fortune in the land of snow
all thanks to this old
dead Eskimo!”

With a big heave
he tossed the basket into his pack
and walked towards town
without looking back.

And in the pale light of the Aurora glow
sat the skeleton of the old Eskimo.

All night Dusty walked
he was headed to town,
on his back was a pack,
he couldn’t put down.

Now packing that monster nugget
was an almighty chore
and it’s weight with each step
grew more and more.

Old Dusty he struggled
and his legs grew weak.
The chances of getting to town
began to look bleak.

Then a voice broke the silence
of the frigid night air,
“Don’t stop now, Dusty, why we’re damn near there.”

That voice stopped Dusty
dead in his track
it came from the basket
in the pack on his back.

The old miner’s heart
pumped blood full of fear
again came the voice
and this time quite clear,

“Get me out of this basket
you stinky old fool,
you’re breaking an old sacred Eskimo rule.”

Now Dusty was scared
he tore off the pack
he wondered if he should
take the gold back.

Slowly he opened the birch basket wide
stricken with pure horror at what lay inside.

The giant gold nugget was no longer there,
and all Dusty could do was just stare,
there with a grin and an eerie white glow
sat the skull of the old dead Eskimo.

The skull began to writhe and thrash,
the jaw opened up and the teeth gnashed
Then those shiny white teeth moved quick in the dark
and now my friends comes the scariest part.

There are rules in the North
that you must live by,
those who do not
frequently die.

One rule is don’t steal
from the Eskimos' dead - all
they found of poor Dusty,
was his smelly old head.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Today's Poem: After ANWR

My poem for you today was published in Chronogram and won the Alaska Public Radio Network's poem of the year several years back. I read it on the air, but can't seem to find the link to it.  Enjoy.

Would they drill baby drill here?

After ANWR

Of course no one in New York was excited
when they discovered oil
beneath Central Park.
My strangest Alaskan find in Central Park. Balto?

The various  Natives,
the Manhatten Islanders,
the Bronxers and Harlemites
were concerned about the pigeons
and the bums

their daily migration
from the park to the dumpsters,
they – being the pigeons and the homeless -
would be disturbed by the drilling

The last of the reserves
in Texas
the gulf of Mexico,
and Alaska
had long been sucked dry

the wild horses,  the manatees, and the caribou

They drew a line in the concrete
Central Park was sacred land

There would be no drilling there
not ever
Central Park was sacred land.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Ghost in the Parka

The Ghost in the Parka

Let me share with you a Halloween haunting back when I lived in one of the little Yup’ik villages on the tundra of southwest Alaska. The sun slipped beneath the horizon, my sisters and the other little kids were back from trick-or-treating, and it was our turn, the teenagers, to race down the narrow dark boardwalks between houses to fill our own plastic grocery sacks with candy.

I don’t even remember if we had costumes, but I do remember that it was a fall like this one, with no snow, and tall grass lined the boardwalk like two moving walls that whispered in the winds. We grabbed candy inside the first house and when we came out and started to the next, someone spotted something strange emerging from the tall grass. A traditional Yupik parka, with the hood up, no hands or feet visible, the thick fur ruff obscuring the face, appeared on the boardwalk behind us. We sprinted to the next house, not sure what to make of the parka, but not quite willing to admit to the adults inside what we’d just seen.

Back outside the little parka appeared again and again between each candy stop, each time giving us a good scare. We’d all grown up hearing the traditional stories of such haunting and we had a sense that we were being played with, but none of us were brave enough to approach the little figure or to question who or what was toying with us.

The last batch of houses sat on the far north side of the village, a walk that would require us to travel down a considerable span of darkness, right past the abandoned (and haunted) teachers’ quarters that everyone in the village avoided and didn’t even like to speak about. As we made our way down the boardwalk towards the last cluster of houses the little parka appeared behind us, and when we entered the arctic entry to the house, I remember looking back and seeing it standing there mid-way beside the teachers’ quarters, blocking our passage home.

When we came out, the parka was gone.

As we passed the building, we expected the parka to jump out in front of us or behind us, but it didn’t. Someone gasped and pointed, and there in the darkness beneath the building, near one of the steel posts that held it above the permafrost, the parka sat upright, waiting. It sprang towards us with a cackle.

We screamed and ran for our lives, and behind us the parka followed, growling and roaring. We fled in terror, but the scary sounds in our wake turned to laughter --- and legs and arms popped out from the squirrel and moose skin covered coat and soon a face emerged from beneath the parka’s hood.

My good friend. Ever the prankster. A boy with a contagious giggle and a hyena-like laugh. Loved by everyone. Afraid of nothing and afraid of no one.

Not a soul in the village would have gone to those lengths for an all-night prank like that. Not only was he foregoing his sack of free candy, but he spent that spooky black night alone, hiding in the grass; even hiding beneath the haunted school buildings despite all the traditional Yup’ik monsters and spirits also lurking in the same shadows, just to hear our terrified squeals.

A few years later we lost our prankster friend. I heard he managed to climb out from the black scar his snowmachine left through the river ice, but in the cold and wind he couldn’t escape death’s icy grip.

I try to comfort myself with the notion that he feared nothing. That even in the face of death, alone and cold in the howling tundra winds, he could find a way to giggle and that he wasn’t scared. And while his death still haunts me, over twenty years later, I am comforted by the fact that his trickster spirit survives. Each Halloween I think of him and imagine if I stare hard enough into the shadows I just might catch a glimpse of the ghostly fur parka waiting to jump out and chase me.

Bio: Don Rearden lived in haunted school buildings on the tundra. He never actually saw a ghost, but heard them playing basketball, and once watched as one of those heavy grey filing cabinets clicked and rolled open in front of him. Apparently ghosts enjoy a good game of one-on-one, but still even in death must deal with paperwork.

[Originally Appeared on the 49 Writers Blog

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Today's Poem --- Alaska Headlines

I fell off the blog wagon for a while. Funny how life does that. For today, just a poem. Something I wrote a while back.

 These were all real headlines, except for the ones I crossed out...

Headline: State of Alaska*

December 1935

Women Kill Wolf Near Ketchikan

December 1936
Eskimos in Alaska still

leave cherished items

Paddles, Tools, Pots, Pans

on the graves of their dead.

June 1937

Miners Dig Up Story of the Past

conducting searches for minerals
found hundreds of skeletons and skulls
prehistoric mammoths, horses, musk-ox,
wolves, and saber-toothed tigers.

January 1938
In Nichols Bay, 25-Foot Octopus Stalls Boat
small steam launch stalled
octopus attached to the propeller.

October 1939
a discharged soldier taught them
Indians at Hootznahoo,
the science of distilling liquor.

November 1940
Record Day’s Catch
seventy-two seals in one day,
a Prince William Sound Record.

January 1940
A Hanging at Juneau . . . 7th in Alaska
thirty-seven-year-old Indian,
paid the supreme penalty
for killing his mother-in-law in a drunken rage.

May 1941
Recent Census
population at 72,524.

February 1942
Wartime Blackouts
Cities practice
several hours of the night.

June 1942

May 1943

Eskimo Troops Aid War Effort

modern rifles instead of spears,
Eskimo troops act
as scouts and lookouts.

June 1944

Aleut Children Spurn Candy for War Stamps

The storekeeper at the evacuation colony
Says he stocks war stamps
Instead of than candy
to keep the young Aleut customers happy.

June 1945

Barrow’s First Talkies Flown in by Army

An Eskimo woman watched
scantily clad women dance for the first time
“Now we know why our store is always short of cloth. 
People outside must be really hard up for cloth!”

March 1946

POWs Choose Atka

Twenty-five Attu Aleuts
survive Japanese imprisonment, decide against returning home,
choose to live on Atka.


Navy Pushes Barrow Oil Search…Early Results Encouraging

There’s Lumber in Wrangell’s Future

1947-----------Pork Chops, Whisky, Cheer Stranded Flyer. Fur Rich Natives on Spending Spree. Voters of Statehood . . . 9625 to 6822. First Woman to Climb McKinley. Eskimo Hunter Surprised from Behind.

94,000 Civilians
 in Alaska

Trapped Behind Iron Curtain…Alaskan Eskimos Held for Two Months. Raging River Relents. 17 Days Adrift on Bering Strait Ice Floes.  It’s All-out War Against Wolf, Coyote. Air Force Bombs Ice-Choked Interior Rivers. Wolf Bounty Now $50.

Man Stabs, Kills Bear.

April, 1950.

Ingenius Eskimo Repairs His Own Watch.

March, 1950.

Inventive Indian Masters Balky Motor

49th STATE

Oil Biggest Well Yet.

$4 Million Oil Leases. The ‘Iron Dog’. . . A Threat to Alaska’s Historic Dog Team. Death of a Dog Musher. Grizzly Wrecks Plane. 118 Rural Schools. Fierce Gales, Mountainous Seas…Boats Lost…Three Sailors Missing.  Perils of the Hunt…Walrus Attacks Boat.  Whaling Fleet Idled.

Skookum Jim’s Legacy

She Recalls First Whites to Visit Her People

Man Eating Sharks Invade Southeast Alaska. Free Farm Land for the Asking?

Ice Box for Eskimos

Gas Find. Major Oil Find. Milestone for Oil. Big Tonnage Gain for Anchorage. Oil Well in Cook Inlet Fuels 14-month Fire.


Eskimo Chiefs Convene

First Bank Robbery

Boom in Oil Drilling.


1965. 67. 69. 70.
Alaskan Totems – Heritage in Peril. Live Network TV for Southeast Soon.  Pipeline Project Bogs Down. Alaska Grows.
Highest Pay.                        
High Bids For Land.                         
Alaskan Boating Deaths
Exceed National Average.


Law Okays the Pipeline,
Cost Spirals to $4.5 Billion

Cash for Natives


Four Year University for Barrow this Fall

TV for Eskimos Good News and Bad News

State Mistakes Cost Millions: Native Corporation Got Oil, Gas Worth $500 Million

March 25, 1989.

War Touches Banks of Remote Kobuk River.
Alaskan Falls in Battle.
Soldotna Man, a father-to-be,
Killed in Action.

ANCHORAGE, 240,258.

Group Appeals to Halt Timber Sale, Says it Threatens Birds. 
State Doctors Told to Watch
for Bird Flu.

Alaskans Prepare for 2000 Census.
                                    Pipeline Shooting Trial Set in Fairbanks, 2001.

ANWR’s Dead, Say all Sides, 2002.

2003.                                     2004.
Suicide Strikes Village.                     
Alaskans At War.
Drilling Plans Irk Native Whalers.
Alaskan Guard Heads to Kosovo. Leaving for Iraq. National Guard Troops Depart for Training and Middle East. Japanese War Planes Return to Alaskan Skies. Anti-terror Unit Comes to Anchorage.

Wounded Alaskan Recovers.

Saving Ourselves.             Urban Bear Attack.

Save Yourself.             Bears’ Attack Kills Eagles.

Oasis of Hope.
Bear Attacks Lead Officials to Ban Fishing at Night.

Wildflowers with the Natives
Plant with the Native Society
Plant Society with the Native
Celebrate the Native Plants
Natives Celebrate. Wildflower Celebrates. Wildflowers with Natives Celebrate Society.  Society Celebrates. Natives Celebrate Society. Native Society. 
Society Celebrates Wildflower Plants with Natives.

Celebrate Wildflowers with the Native Plant Society

*A catalog of actual headlines from Alaskan Newspapers, 1935-present. Taken from Bits and Pieces of Alaskan History and The Anchorage Daily News.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What we can learn from the Spirit of a Little Warrior

Thanks to so many of you, particularly the generous folks from the YK Delta, the book auction was a success. We raised a bunch of money to help Torin & Helena.
Margaret Chase won out in a heated last minute bidding war for over $400 --- all of which has been put into the Seketl'e Jacobs fund at Wells Fargo, where you can still make a donation.
A Little Alaskan Warrior, Seketl'e Jacobs
Margaret's daughter's name, Panika, will go into my new book. I can't thank Margaret enough, along with all of you who checked out the auction and put in a bid. Quyana-cakneq! Many thanks.
The spirit of Seketl'e Jacobs continues to inspire so many of us. He fought an epic battle and taught us all a little something about life and love in the process. Cherish those who are close to you, especially the little ones, and when you yourself feel blue, remember how this little warrior fought with all he had and pick up the fight where he left off and don't ever give up.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Help Seketl'e Jacobs! And Get Your name in My New Novel!

Seketl'e Jacobs

Get your name in a novel and help an Alaskan baby!

Seketl'e is just three weeks old and his condition is called hepatic hemangioendothelioma. It is a rare condition of the liver, with his being more rare due to the abnormally large size of his liver. He is at the Children's Hospital in Seattle and will be getting a liver transplant; he has been placed at the top of the donor list. The surgery is expected to take place in the next few days.

This is an auction to help Seketl'e Jacobs, son of Torin and Helena Jacobs. If you win the auction you will have your name used as a character in my new novel Moving Salmon Bay, and receive a signed copy of an original manuscript, and a signed copy of my debut novel The Raven's Gift (Penguin Canada, 2011).
*This is an unpublished novel going out to editors in the US next week.

All proceeds will go towards the fund in Seketl'e Jacobs name at Wells Fargo.
(Even if you don't win the auction, please donate to the fund at any Wells Fargo or Wachovia bank.)

About Moving Salmon Bay:
Moving Salmon Bay offers an intimate glimpse in the contemporary lives of an impoverished rural community suffering from the effects of global warming: melting permafrost, failing salmon runs, and rising seas. Readers will fall in love with the eclectic tapestry of unique characters and their struggles as the strands of each of their stories converge in a powerful story of redemption and hope. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sustenance For Sale... A poem

I wrote this poem Jan 10th, 2011 after reading about an auction happening in NYC. I couldn't bear to instigate the outcome...Only today to learn it sold for 4.6 million.

Sustenance For Sale

In New York City a Yup'ik mask
sits in a display case
as they ready for auction
whispers of prices in the millions
for the mask of sustenance
this very mask that brought 
the warm southwinds

three lifetimes of winters ago
a Yup'ik man crafted this mask
with feather, sinew, wood, bone
transporting the shaman
to a world where he could 
speak with the spirits
bringing seals and spring

and now, when the gavel drops
that sustenance will be sold
to the highest bidder

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

2011 Resolution: A poem a day for a (half) Year

My 2011 resolution was to write a poem a day for the whole year. I made it six months, right up to the birth of my son and his subsequent five day stay at the NICU. Great material there, but writing poems was the last thing on my mind. 
So I came away with half a year's worth of poems, and a few of them aren't bad. I'm posting this one today as I think about my good friend who is enroute with his wife and three week old son to the Children's Hospital in Seattle. I feel so fortunate to be holding my boy in my arms today, and I hope my friend gets to hold his soon too. 

(A poem from Jan 3, 2011, after a prenatal checkup)

"1 in 1000 of my Children"

I heard your heart today
for the first time

a thousand characters
I have fathered
a thousand plots conceived 

always dreaming, to do
to my readers
what your heartbeat
to me

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Avoiding Dirty Diapers: How to be a stay at home dad and writer...

 I'm currently writing this blog post on my iPhone, sitting in a rocking chair, holding my son, and singing the most ridiculous song to him. I have always been good at multitasking when it comes to writing projects -- a screenplay and novel always in the works, along side a myriad of student essays to grade -- but this is a whole new beast.

After I heard the news we had a baby on the way I sat down and wrote a new book. Mostly just because so many friends and family insisted that once we had a kid "everything would change" and they followed that great bit of wisdom with the inspirational, "good luck getting any writing done."

So now, as I enter my first real week as a stay at home dad and part-time professor, I am also doing my best to continue my writing projects (all while practicing the Continuum Concept), holding Atticus in one arm, typing with the other...

[Some indefinite amount of minutes later...]

Sorry, you wouldn't know it, but I had to break from writing to feed and take my boy to the bathroom. He's three months old and hasn't had an accident in his cloth diapers in over a month. That is too much information, I know, but I share that with you because the same people who laughed when I said I was going to be a stay at home parent and write also laughed when I began potty training him at one week old. I felt that if people in other parts if the world could do it, so could I. And I did.
So here I am, son passed out on my shoulder, now typing on my phone with both hands. I'll slip over to my computer and post this, then perhaps begin work on the new novel I've been researching for a few years or dust off that old novella and see if I can't breathe some life into it. I'd better go now, I may only have a good ten or twenty minutes to write, but nonetheless, just like staying home with my boy, it will be good.