I was kneeling over on the firm surface of the ice under the mud, my back flat, and my arms spread out in a V behind me. I had been like this for some time, inspecting the 1×1 m plot for seedlings. First I’d look at each of the colored toothpicks and make sure there was still a seedling next to it, then I’d look for seedlings that didn’t have a toothpick, and insert a new one next to each one, the color dependent on the date, and the little token on its end (heart, clubs, diamond, spade) dependent on the species. Then I’d scoot through the mud to the next site, maybe on organic soil, maybe on mineral soil, and start again.
If I had thought about it, perhaps I would have been aware of how cold my knees were, the pressure on my heel from the buckling of the rubber boots, the persistent tickling of my hair on my face in the breeze. Or the batting of mosquitoes off the back of my neck. Or the pervasive quiet that a breeze causes on the gentle rise of the coastal plane in Alaska, where the broad expanse breaks into the glacial foothills before the abrupt rise of the Brooks Range. Quiet like ears ringing, a constant cottoned sound of blowing. More likely, I was thinking of why it is that the grasslike Carex seedlings, only 3 mm tall, could fool me into marking them as Eriophorum, but that by the time they reached 10 mm. I could see the difference in their veins. So many data, so many notes. It was exhilarating.
But then Jack the Ripper appeared, and I learned what trust and faith mean.
~ ~ ~
Every morning I drove my rig from the Toolik Lake camp to my research. Leaving camp felt good: I was getting away.
Camp was too noisy. I slept in a noisy tent; rainflies had all been destroyed by the wind, so each of the 15 to 30 of us rigged up tarps that sounded like shotguns as the wind cracked at them day and night. The tents were up from the lake in the flat areas scattered close in, but the labs and mess trailer all lined a narrow abandoned airstrip. Too many people were too loud, day and night in the arctic summer light, with their too weird music and their merriment that had to be exaggerated to be heard over the two generators. They were almost all aquatic ecologists; I was the only terrestrial one, with the exception of an occasional passer-by checking a plot, who might take a sauna with us and spend a night.
Even though it felt good to get out, getting to my destination costed me effort. I had to put the shells back in my shotgun, pull all the gear into the rig, get food for lunch, fill a thermos, make sure I had work supplies, then put on my rubberized bib rainpaints and rubberized jacket. I’d walk out into the wind and cold to check the oil and the tires and the gas. It was cold, the rig was cold, the sky was white with cold, the hills to the west white through the fog and blowing mist. The Brooks Range to the south might have shown, or it might not have, depending on the sky.
I’d have to drive through gates, each with its own quirks of locks and hinges, which meant opening them then driving through then getting out again and locking them behind me. I went out two locked gates to get to the Haul Road, and then I drove about 8 kilometers toward Prudhoe Bay (a couple hours north).
I’d turn off the Haul Road into MS 117, a “material site,” or staging area, used first during pipeline construction but still in use for staging. It was used for gravel mining, storage of gravel and metal and Styrofoam parts and trailer units and all manner of odd huge items: staircases, mobile trailers, metal parts of large machines, and wooden ties that had been used to support the pipe during construction. Sections of 1.3-meter diameter pipe lay in orderly rows. There were spools, empty or with cable, so huge my rig was small when I would drive it by. Trucks would drop off more debris, rearrange it; I was used to the ironic activity focused at MS 117 on the middle of the north slope of the Brooks Range.
I used a third key to get into the Material Site 117, then about 2 kilometers into it, I used a fourth key to go through my fourth locked gate. I wound down across a vale at the head of the tiny Kuparuk River, then back up and around to where I would park in the roadway. Beyond was a hilltop splay of upland tundra, the shrubs up to my shin. A slanting plain of wet tussock tundra stretched south, east, and west.
I would think how far I could walk before I would smell cigarette smoke or see a cigarette butt: months, I would think. I had walked to the Atigun River one day, that flowed east-west there, and separated me from the Brooks Range to the south. I had carried mosquito repellant, a water bottle, iodine tablets, and my spray mace, but no food because of the bear danger. I’d been instructed in case of attack, to curl up and let the bear gnaw my skull because grizzlies could not crack the skull of an adult. I had left camp around 6 in the morning and driven my rig to the site, then walked, clapping loudly in the tall willows when I was in the river’s gorge, walking, singing, walking, walking, walking, until I finally reached the Haul Road around 10:30 that night. A trucker had given me a lift back to the spur road toward camp.
But even on that walk I could not shake the feeling of crowds. I could not get clean or get totally away.
~ ~ ~
After I parked, I would carry my gear to the edge of my site so I wouldn’t have to return to the rig until the work was done. I would set everything down, then I would lie on my back on the wet cushiony tundra. The mist blew over my face and I would nap.
And there I would be alone, for long days, month after month.
But I wanted more solitude.
There were always thoughts, unless I crowded them out with data or with awareness of physical discomfort. It was summer, or really, spring through winter, as I was there from late May through late September. The snow still clung in icy drifts when I’d arrive at camp, and it had come back for over a month before I would leave in the fall. Survival seemed very important to me because I was 22 years old.
Now survival means something different to me, altogether less heroic and more accepting.
~ ~ ~
One day a big truck made its way onto the horizon. It approached my site, then parked behind my rig. On its enormous flatbed was a Caterpillar D10, the largest tractor I had ever seen. It walked off the ramp, then worked its way to a quarry pit a hundred meters away. It worked noisily for about a week. Then the tractor was left moved back to the material site and abandoned, another metal item on the fringe of the orderly discards.
A couple weeks later, I was in my V position, nose down, when I heard a voice. I looked up. Hovering too close to my pile of gear, and between me and my rig, was the scrawny man. He wore coveralls and oversized, bulbous leather boots. The boots matched his face.
“What do you girls do?” he asked. I had always been alone, but he asked in the plural.
“Hi,” I responded, having been taught to be nice to people even when there were warning signs. Besides, where could I go?
I said I lived at the camp at Toolik Lake, which he already knew. I explained I was studying seedling establishment for my masters degree. That did not appear to interest him.
Then he told me that he and his buddies had been watching me with binoculars from the material site for the past few weeks. He said they knew all my habits—that I kneeled in the mud for long periods without moving; when and where I napped, ate, had my coffee.
It was hard to know what to say. I walked him toward my rig, which I then leaned against. I placed the bag-covered clipboard on the hood. I had left the shotgun next to the plot where he had disturbed me, but I had rolled it in its plastic bag in case there was precipitation. To have taken the shotgun would have appeared aggressive, which I did not dare.
He told me he was ripping gravel. He asked me to come see the tractor close up.
He invited me up into the cab.
I climbed up and into the one seat with him. What else could I do?
He said his name was Jack.
Jack-the-Ripper, I thought. But I did not make the joke out loud, in case it was too close to the truth.
~ ~ ~
He started the rumbling engine. He put down the rippers, which were steel teeth 1.3 m long that broke the bedrock into gravel. We lumbered to the center of the pit, ripping rock as we advanced. Then he drove us to the verge, farther, farther–and I thought we’d tip over the slope, tail over head. I was quiet; I was still. He edged the tractor even farther.
When the sensations were as bad as they could be–sitting atop a colossal moving tractor breaking bedrock, snuggled tight in the cab against Jack the Ripper, both of us about to tip on the side or flip over, behind two locked gates my camp-mates had no keys for, four gates from camp, and no one keeping track of my whereabouts–he backed the machine, and turned it toward the pit’s center.
We communicated with shouts over the double-racket of the engine and the breaking gravel. He lifted an earpad to listen as I thanked him meekly and said I needed to go. He put down the earpad and laughed, took his hands off the controls while grabbing mine, and placed my hands on the two levers. He motioned for me to pull. The teeth pushed hard down into the rock and the tractor surged forward.
Then he directed me onto more of the controls. I was now steering the Cat, controlling its speed, and ripping the rock. I tried to smile. What else could I do? It felt so awful, but it felt so good.
And finally, Jack let me out. I said goodbye and thank you. He was there for three more days. We waved or nodded a couple of times, but said nothing more.
~ ~ ~
Now I’m 61. The tundra isn’t so cold anymore, and the scientific trends I later published may no longer pertain. Some of my seedlings would be large by now; most would be dead. Now I’m faced with other things to worry about, related to mortality of loved ones, and their mental and physical health; issues of whether society has given up and is flowing over the floodgate, and if so, how do we go on. More and more I am filled with questions on how to accept into me the beauty on Earth, and what to do with it when it’s there.
But at age 22, I had made walls to protect an inner calm that I strove to access, a solitude that I longed to own but could not, even in the remote retreat of my study site. Jack the Ripper appeared at my walls and ripped them down.
His violation was not the first, the worst, nor the last that I would experience. And as during other violations, there was no relying on shotguns or mace. I touched an inner self, and not the solitary one–and I listened to it. “Have faith. You must trust.” At that point, it was all I could do.
I cannot ascribe a motivation to him. I can only report the outcome. He forced me to share what he had power over, I acceded, and once he was done, he was done. I think that mostly he just wanted to share his big toy with someone and I was there. We were known to each other, and so we became equals: Barb-the-graduate-student annealed to the cold Earth as I made order of the natural world, and Jack-the-Ripper breaking bedrock in service to his profession. Afterward, we could nod or wave. I was lucky. I have not always been so lucky. Like so many people, I have my “me too” stories.
Jack the Ripper did not try to teach me about faith and trust, but I learned from him how to find them, and I survived.
Thank you, Jack.