Delivering plants and seeds and rototillers to Inupiaq Eskimo gardeners.
[by Seth Kantner]
It’s midnight in Kotzebue, the evening chilling down, and my assistant, Linnea, and I are still working, rushing in and out of my shed and nearby greenhouse, sorting trays of cabbage and lettuce, zucchini, pansies, and other plants, to pack into boxes to fly in the morning to Kobuk and Shungnak. A lone ice pan floats on the lagoon—the last sign of an early breakup—and the calm water reflects bright blue sky. In the north the sun shines, relentless.
Inside my shed, heaps of trowels and watering cans are strewn about. The floor is gritty with fertilizer and bonemeal. Shovels and rakes lean against the walls. In the greenhouse there is even less room to maneuver, the ground lined with trays of the tiny plants. Out on the road, occasional trucks roll past, and in the distance four-wheelers rev across town. It’s broad daylight; people are out and about, but Kotzebue has begun to quiet for the night. Nowadays many residents have “real jobs” after all.
Twenty-two years ago I started this job running the Maniilaq Garden Project here in northwest Alaska. Since then late spring has meant flying to villages, delivering plants and seeds and rototillers to Inupiaq Eskimo gardeners. It’s seasonal, part-time—the closet thing I’ve ever had to a real job. For a short while it even included sick leave, something I’ve never quite comprehended, and probably never will experience again. (They pay you to stay home and not work?)
“Real” jobs weren’t part of my upbringing. Most villagers lived semi-subsistence lifestyles, and my family, too, lived off the land—25 miles downriver from Ambler, along the Kobuk River, hunting and trapping and gathering. We ate mostly meat and fish, and fed our few dogs the same. We picked berries, and the plants we ate were wild—willow leaves, fireweed, bluebells, lousewort, and others—augmented with sprouted seeds, too: alfalfa, radish, and buckwheat.
When my brother, Kole, and I were seven or eight, we asked my mom if we could plant a potato. She warned us that the soil had to be loosened, and the roots removed. We were barefoot boys, tough, grubby, bug-bitten, and willing to gnaw and sample whatever we found on the tundra. We chopped roses aside on the hill and went after the bigger roots with a Pulaski ax. Kole cut his toe and we rubbed dirt in it to make it stop bleeding. Quickly, we gathered moose turds and fish guts to mix in the soil. Just under the surface, we each planted one small valuable chunk of potato.
Daily, we watered the ground, slapped mosquitoes, and peered close, watching for our plants to grow. One morning stocky green leaves had popped out of the ground. It was exciting, a little bit magic—like Jack and the Beanstalk.
In the fall, caribou were migrating through and cranberries ripe—normal stuff—and our plants added a new dimension to gathering, to dig in the dark dirt for potatoes, each one a bright surprise. We got a pot full—five pounds from one plant and a bit more from the other. “Can we grow potatoes next year?” we begged.
By the time Kole and I were teenagers, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Experimental Farm was sending us a dozen varieties of potatoes each spring to test-grow above the Arctic Circle. Upriver in Ambler, the Cleveland sisters—Katherine, Mercy, and Eleanor—and others grew turnips and cabbages, and my parents, too, had gotten into gardening for food. My dad still shot caribou for meat, but now he was equally excited to haul home the gut piles and scoop blood out of the chest cavities into coffee cans for fertilizer. He made compost piles, bought an Amish scythe to cut grass, and even put fish bones, goose feathers, and the hair slipped from moose hides into the piles.
We planted big gardens, and in July loaded family and dogs in the boat and headed to the coast to live in a canvas wall tent and commercial-fish for salmon. In late August we boated back up the Kobuk. Arriving home after two days of travel, we’d release the dogs and wade through the tall grass, racing straight for the gardens to see what had grown and what had died. Lettuce had gone to seed, a few peppers had dried up, and a broccoli or two had bolted—five feet tall with yellow flowers. But fat pea pods hung over fences, and rows of carrots were sweet and tempting. The purple tops of turnips showed, and under leaves, dark zucchini lurked, big and round as young otters. Up the hill, rhubarb stalks were thick, glowing red, ready for pies.
Gardening back then meant a more varied diet out on the land: greens in the summer, and potatoes, carrots, turnips, and cabbage to eat with caribou and fish into early winter. It was in the late 1970s that the Maniilaq Garden Project started (a much bigger operation than today) run by a woman named Sue Cohn, with a crew of workers. They offered tillers and tools, fertilizers and fencing, plants and seeds, and even greenhouses to folks in the villages.
I was raised to live off the land—to avoid careers and things that led to money traps and mortgages, but I remember thinking: If I ever have a real job, I want one like Sue has.
While we work, I’m picturing Kobuk, where we’ll land first: the village sleepy and hot, HUD houses high up on pilings, snow machines abandoned here and there when the snow melted, and wild rhubarb knee-high, leafy and green along the shore. Under the canopy of birches is Nina Harvey’s garden and nearby her screen tent, where she plants tomatoes, potatoes, and other plants in washtubs and pots and even old plastic kiddie sleds. Sitting in there, she and her sister Mildred, both in their 80s, make birch-bark baskets and reminisce beside the growing vegetables.ow, Linnea and I trade quirky commentary and a razor knife back and forth. We attack a heap of cardboard boxes, slashing the tops—leaving flaps to protect our young plants and for visibility so whoever packs them in the Cessna mail plane will know to be kind to our baggage. Each holds 144 vegetable starters, and we carry the unwieldy boxes back inside to stay warm for the night.
Linnea and I are past 300 plants for Kobuk, 700 for Shungnak, when I straighten up to rest my back and take stock. Shovels! I hurry to tie two bundles of shovels and rakes. “Where oh where do all our shovels go each year?” I comment to myself.
Linnea mumbles a reply. (She’s a natural mumbler, and I’ve spent so much time alone on the tundra that I’m talented at talking to myself.) She’s taping cardboard over the tines of her broadfork.
“Garden Boy can’t like broadfork,” she murmurs. “Always love his Amazon-dot-com haz-mat rototiller.”
“Hey,” I tease her back. “Garden Girl carry that two-handle hippie contraption thousand miles in the sky, sometimes always never use it even once.”
Our joking is constant, and fun, but under the surface there’s something more. We are longtime friends—basically extended family—and both enjoy growing food in the villages and assisting elders and young people who over the years have grown to be friends.
The plants, too, are like hundreds of children, needing attention, and for a few weeks we’re consumed with this intense job—but we can’t help questioning the contradictions: so many shovels lost and replaced each year, the freight costs for shipping plants from Fairbanks, the fuel burnt each day as we ride the sky delivering such basic yet costly cargo. Gardening here was once simple. It was subsistence. But like so many things from our by-hand past, that has changed, and now Linnea and I tease ourselves relentlessly to cover an uneasiness with this strange intertwining of two things that we believe to be better left antithetical—gardening and money.
“Time to rock and roll, Garden Girl.” I’m running by the time I go down the steps; we load the truck in two minutes, a mountain of boxes.7:18 my alarm goes off. Sunshine is bouncing all over the house—it didn’t sleep—and now groggy and confused I wonder why we bothered. I roll off the couch, stumble into my jeans, hurry past my coffee grinder. Linnea is coming down the hall, her hair a wild swirl; I grab my ball cap to cover my unruly curls.
It’s only two blocks to the airstrip. I make comments as I drive. “Why can’t USDA buy us a helicopter? Till the ground with the rear rotor, plant the seeds in the downdraft. Only cost a million bucks—perfect for harvesting the one carrot in Kivalina. I’ll lower you on a harness.”
Linnea smiles, staring out at tiny phalaropes circling in a pond. “You fellas gonna grow?” she asks sleepily. (In Village English this translates to: “Are you going to plant a garden?”)
In truth, our program no longer even has a truck. Over the years the budget has been cut to bare bones. I make it work by collecting a paycheck for only a few weeks, a few times a year; Linnea works only 20 days each June, paid by Arctic Access, a state entity that aids disabled persons and the elderly.
At Ravn Airlines, we stride into the terminal with load after load: rakes and shovels, 13 boxes with open tops, bags of fertilizer, seeds and supplies, and heavy awkward tools. The station manager, Nettie Tabor, greets us. Alice Sheldon and Darilyn Nelson rush in, setting down coffees, sliding into their chairs, already staring at their computer screens. “Kobuk?” Darilyn says.
“Do you have any flowers?” Nettie asks.
Alice chimes in, “How about rhubarb? Mine didn’t come back.”
I nod, and inhale. “Kobuk, yes. But half our plants need to be dropped in Shungnak, this morning. Then we need to be picked up there, afternoon flight—we’ll boat down. I hope. We need to be back here by evening—Oh, yeah, book us to Ambler for tomorrow, please. Return here tonight. I mean from Shungnak.” I trail off, wishing there somehow had been time for coffee.
Nettie is calm, smiling through my litany. The ladies discuss if they need to send a larger plane. I realize what I’ve often realized over the years—without the easygoing attitude of this crew, our ragtag agricultural airlift would never fly. My job wouldn’t be possible. Linnea’s wouldn’t be either—Ravn donates all her
flights for free.
Flying east, in our seats we finally relax. Down below, Kobuk Lake is largely ice-free—weeks early this spring—and ahead metallic lakes and loops of river shine in the delta. Soon the Jade Mountains of my home will come into view, and then Ambler—where tomorrow village gardeners will literally mob us to get the plants we bring, exactly as they did in Sue Cohn’s day. Katherine Cleveland, 75 now, will stride into the tribal building like a tiny storm, welcoming me with what’s on her mind: “Hi. You got fencing? Why you never bring me cabbage last year?”
Folks I know from the old days will ask about my parents, and I announce on VHF that the Garden Project is here in town. Outside, giant orange heavy equipment will rumble past—the multimillion-dollar runway upgrade in progress—while everyone respectfully waits for the oldest gardener in the village, Eleanor. Eleanor will work slowly up the worn steps, half blind, feeling her way with a heavy cane made from a branch or a small tree—perfect for prying a path through the crowd. Her old hands will grip one of the tables, grabbing anxiously at cabbage starts and seed packets. “Turnip? This one turnip? Where’s potato?” And that will be the signal for the frenzy to begin.
Seth Kantner is the author of the best-selling novel Ordinary Wolves, and most recently Swallowed by the Great Land. He lives in northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com.