More and more lately, the Deep Thinkers have been struggling with the possibility of alternate realities. They have begun to suspect that whole worlds might exist side by side while unaware of each other.
My Corner of Alaska: Reality? Let's think about that for a minute 020117 AE 1 For the Capital City Weekly More and more lately, the Deep Thinkers have been struggling with the possibility of alternate realities. They have begun to suspect that whole worlds might exist side by side while unaware of each other.

Tenakee Springs. Photo by Brooke Elgie.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Story last updated at 1/31/2017 - 7:44 pm

My Corner of Alaska: Reality? Let's think about that for a minute

Reality? Let’s think about that for a minute.

More and more lately, the Deep Thinkers have been struggling with the possibility of alternate realities. They have begun to suspect that whole worlds might exist side by side while unaware of each other. They think maybe facts can be true and not true at the same time. They’re wondering if “reality” is the hard and fast thing that we’ve been taught it is. It’s a hard sell when they try to explain it because most of us are still struggling to get used to even the simplest, most self-evident, aspects of our everyday version of reality…like the fact that the health of a stream measurably affects the health of every living thing within miles. No matter that those who pay attention to such things have been telling us so for decades — or that the sages of nearly all our religious traditions have been saying it for even longer. Sometimes it seems that our whole species could be classified as slow learners.

On the other hand, we deal easily enough when different versions of everyday reality come beating on our doors all at the same time. If you’re waiting for your water lines to thaw so you can do three weeks of laundry, even the gut-wrenching tragedy of young women in the Middle East being kidnapped into sexual slavery is a less substantial kind of reality than the morning temperature on your own front porch. If you find yourself having settled in a village so small that no casual visitor goes unnoticed, even desperate dictators willing to poison their own people are less real than the purely local issue of how to provide emergency medical service with an impossibly small number of volunteers.

Every morning in our house, news of those other worlds comes sliding in as we try to wake up slowly over the morning coffee. They feel to me like reports, weak and distant, about events “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” “Black holes,” you say? What about our helipad, which the Coasties say isn’t safe to land on?

There is no doubt our realities as Alaskans differ from that of our friends and families in what they often insist on calling the “real world” of the lower forty-eight. It is particularly so for those of us who have chosen to live beyond the roads, on the islands, sometimes even off the grid. Weather and season, rather than work weeks and paydays, are the events by which we mark the passage of time. Even simple terms like “vacation” take on different meanings. A bush person has the same need as the urban one to get away, to see something different, to go someplace warm for a few weeks, but there is no “putting in for the time,” no asking for permission. Time away is still worked in around the myriad realities of day-to-day life. But ask anyone who lives in the bush what they do for a living and you will very seldom get just one answer. It’s more likely to be something like “Oh, I fish the crab and the black cod openings then do some guiding and hunting in the fall. Winter is when I do my artwork.” Ask the same question of an urban person, even an urban Alaskan, and you are likely to get the one word label that appears on his personnel file.

Realities differ in depth as well as breadth, too. Let’s face it, reality often barges in demanding that we drop everything else and deal with it, like it or not. Because there is no one else to do it, the bush person is much more likely to tackle a problem where the city person would call for help. It’s not that she’s smarter or braver; it’s just that there is no one else to call on. A few years back, our generators suddenly quit and all the lights in Tenakee Springs went out. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The whole power plant was brand new and Bob, who takes care of the generators, was over in Juneau getting a bum knee looked at. The only other person who had hands-on experience with the new set-up was out on his boat. Within minutes a half-dozen women and men were up at the un-naturally quiet powerhouse. There was a half inch of pink anti-freeze solution on the floor and every warning light on the new computer controls was blinking. To make matters worse, the emergency number that the engineers had left was nowhere to be found.

Fortunately, one big diesel engine is a lot like another and every fishing boat has one so it didn’t take long to sort out the problem. A pump had failed; coolant had run out and the automatic controls had shut the whole system down before any harm could be done. The woman who runs the fuel dock knew where the stock of coolant was kept and how to siphon and pump it. Others set about replacing the coolant and finding the spare pump. A not-very-mechanical writer began mopping the floor before somebody fell.

Did I mention that it was mid-winter and evening was coming on? While a few of us still use wood heat, most have converted to the new modern oil burners and, without electricity, they had already gone cold. Unless this got sorted out pretty quickly, most of those at home would soon be sitting in the cold and dark - including several single elderly people. Two groups dispatched themselves to check on those living to the east and to the west of town.

In another sign of the new times, replacing the coolant and the pump turned out to be more straightforward than convincing the computers to allow the system to re-start. Soon enough, the local computer wizard and his adolescent acolytes were in the control room mumbling over the pulsing lights. Eventually, the correct incantations were found, the generators barked back into life and, section-by-section, the lights in Tenakee came on again. During the whole affair, the closest we ever came to help from outside was when one of the guys stood, hefting the new pump in his hand, and said, “Well, I’ve never replaced one just like this but here goes.”

On my own annual visits Outside, I am often struck by the feeling of being on a carnival midway with noise and flashing lights everywhere clamoring for my attention. “Hey, there, fellow! Over here, over here! Step right up! Three for a dollar and everyone’s a winner!” My first few days always feel like being trapped in a twilight zone of non-stop TV commercials in 3D surround sound at full volume. After a while I get better at filtering it all out and can begin to enjoy the granddaughter, the bookstores and the coffee houses. Then, it always takes a few days when I get home before I can drop the filters that kept me sane down there and once again begin to notice my own, chosen, “reality.” An extended family of orcas went cruising by just this morning, heading east into the low sun, their breaths bursting in fine spray, fracturing the slanting light into pale rainbows of color.

It looks at the moment as though we’re all in for a period of new political reality. In a distant place, far to the east in our own country, a whole new world of people seems to be emerging. Fixed in their own myths and under the impression that they have been given vast control over our future, they seem determined to create a new reality for the rest of us. No matter that their chosen world almost completely isolates and insulates them from us. Deaf to the protests that penetrate their fortresses of self-deception, they plot and intrigue against each other over symbols of influence that have meaning only inside the beltway of their own exclusive reality. They might as well be bickering over golf scores in a game that doesn’t involve us and from which we are excluded anyway. Most of us see through it. Those thousands upon thousands of peaceful, smiling, women, men, children and dogs who marched last weekend know better. The letter-writers, the petition signers, the organizers, the quiet meditators and pray-ers all know it, too. Sure, we all carry our own reality around with us and yes, too, we are all in this together. That is as it should be. Black holes? Well, maybe. Right now, the important thing is to not break faith with each other.


Brooke Elgie writes “My Corner of Alaska” from his home in Tenakee Springs.