Pushcart 2015: Joni Tevis, “What the Body Knows” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.6

Orion art by Ursula Schneider: "Demarcation Point"

Orion art by Ursula Schneider: “Demarcation Point”

I had tried to prepare – trained, researched gear, plotted distances – but as the little plane surfed and dropped in the thermals, I saw that it wasn’t enough. “What made you want to visit the Refuge?” the pilot asked, and my throat closed. Cliffy mountains on either side, and below. Snow caught in their creases. And marks where hooves had struck stone. “Got a bee in my bonnet,” I said, and as soon as I heard the words I want to take them back. Why did I want to go? I wasn’t sure. More than just curiosity, although I did want to see what all the fuss was about. Wanted to see a place with a bounty on his head, a place outside my ken, a place with no trees or roads or (now, midsummer) darkness. In the cockpit, unlock it swung from a knob, and a picture of the pilot’s kids covered a dial. He belonged here, not me. But the truth was, I had to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for myself: if we waited, I somehow knew that it would be too late.

Maybe I’m still stuck on the last story. Maybe it’s a New Year thing, Janus looking back and forward at the same time. Maybe the symmetry just appeals to me, or I’m really eager to find a theme. Maybe it’s in most good writing, and I just haven’t noticed it until now. But for whatever reason, I see past-present-future again in this piece.

I’m not a big fan of nature writing – or of nature, for that matter. To me, nature is the heat, the cold, sneezy pollen, bugs, and please chain me safely to my computer again. Nature writing frequently waxes poetic and tends towards the panegyric, but how many different ways can you ooh and aah over the majesty of mountains or the interdependence of critters in the wild? I am, however, quite fond of information, and of metaphor, so tell me how the mountains and critters got there, and relate it to some aspect of human history, psychology, life, whatever – and I’m with you.

Tevis includes significant information, and builds in metaphors everywhere.

The doctrine of signatures, which once dominated medical thought, holds that the plant’s appearance reveals its use. Nettle has a milky sap, so it’s good for lactating women. Pine needles resemble front teeth, so a tea made from them promotes healthy gums. This is the same idea behind what anthropologist James Frazer calls “sympathetic magic” in The Golden Bough, his landmark study of belief and ritual. The key tenet of sympathetic magic, he says, “is that like produces like… And effect resembles its cause.”

If like produces like, then where we live, what we see, who we know, becomes crucial. We are not just known by the company we keep, we’re shaped by it. I think it can also serve as a repellent, however: “I don’t want to be that; I want something different” may have generated more change than anything else. Moving away may not be moving towards, but at least it’s moving. First, of course, we have to know something different exists, which is why literature is such a good idea.

We also hear about other interactions with the Arctic over time and culture. “When a person harvests a medicinal plant in the mountains, besides speaking correctly to it, he should also leave a small gift, such as a thread or a match or a bit of tobacco, in place of the plant” is a bit of wisdom from a local native tribe: give something back in its most concrete form. That sounds like an attitude worth cultivating in general, an attitude we’ve bulldozed over for the past century. She tells of mirages recorded in exploration history: “…the men see their distant camps hovering above the horizon. The angle of the light and the curve of the earth made their far-off colleagues seem to walk upside down, heads to the tundra and feet treading thin air.…” The National Snow and Ice Data Center documents many of these phenomena, commonly known as Fata Morgana, which are possible anywhere on earth, but most common towards the poles. Can we trust what we see? And I learned the Arctic is, in the summer, plagued by mosquitos desperate for animal blood. I told you, nature means bugs.

But a non-fiction essay is more than an educational treatise.

As I stand there on the bank, the river leaps along, slicing a new channel for itself, carrying ancient meltwater and grit, catkins and leaves, swelling after rain, tugging the valley this way and that. I cup my hand and drink, wipe grime from my face. Make me different, is the thought I can’t put into words. I don’t want to be the same after this trip. Bolder, maybe, less concerned with things I can’t control.

Tevis’ life is about to be very different, though it’s unclear in the essay at just what point she realized she was just slightly pregnant: “Brooding over these things, eyes scanning the tundra, I sense something strange taking root deep within myself, and insistent wriggle of thought I dare not speak aloud.” Welcome to the future, while standing in the present learning about the past. A future that may include the Refuge, or may not, depending on decisions we will make, on priorities we will decide.

Orion, the original publishing journal, is of course known for “nature writing” but it’s mission is broader than that: “It is Orion’s fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.” They provide an excellent online interview (audio) with Tevis, in which she talks about how the structure of the piece took place over a significant time, and how she chose to fold in the pregnancy. She had a sign over her desk: “Keep it strange” so she wouldn’t “edit out the discomfort, stress, confusion.” And she says something that I’ve come to live recently: “There’s value in going to a place that really is too hard for you….” I might put that sign over my desk.

Eventually, we’ll register for gear at the baby superstore, staring gobsmacked at the wall of wipes and rubber nipples and nail clippers kitted out with tiny flashlights. If only we were outfitting the trip to the Arctic, I’ll think. At least then we’d know what to pack.
     Memories of the truck stop at Coldfoot will come flooding back to me, suggesting the many ways that a chore in a like ours could go wrong. A framed collage of disaster snapshots hung on the wall next to the pay phone. Big rigs jackknife into a ditch; two trucks loading a mangled SUV.… In for a penny, in for a pound; if the inclines don’t get you, the frost heaves will. But what can you do? You can’t stay here.
     And so we’ll tick our boxes, take our chances, and exit the store to face the mystery of what’s to come.

Raising a child is too hard for anyone. And yet we’re here.

From the past of glaciers and rocks, to the decisions of the present, to the promise and anxiety of the future. Nice job. Maybe I like nature writing more than I thought.

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