Before herring season weather arrives, I enjoy harvesting cottonwood buds. When I pick the sticky buds from the branches, there’s often still snow crunching beneath my feet. But, every day, I make it a point to harvest — especially when winter is hanging on. Harvesting makes me present for the small changes that indicate spring is creeping in.
While some look to the groundhog for signs of spring, I look to plants.
I wish I could predict how this year will be. For many of us, there are so many uncertainties. When will spring be here? When will the herring arrive? Will the salmonberry crop be good? Will I be healthy? Which family members will choose to get the vaccine? How will the ferries be running frequently this summer? How will the economy be? Despite our uncertainties, we make plans. I make plans.
With every vaccination I see on social media, there’s also a plan. Someone wants to visit grandchildren. Someone wants to be teaching in the classroom again. Someone else just wants to avoid getting sick. With every plan there’s hope and it happens to coincide with the change in seasons, from winter to spring.
With all of this snow on the ground this year, it doesn’t feel like winter will be over anytime soon. But I want to remind you all, dear readers that spring is around the corner. In another month, many of us will use the nickname herring season weather, which means, in a single day, we have all types of weather: sunshine, hail, snow, rain, snain and back to sunshine again. For the Tlingit, herring weather is a sign of spring. We’ve planned harvesting herring every spring for thousands of years. We planned our fishing seasons and berry picking excursions. The Tlingit names of our months indicate there are seasonal harvesting plans. March is Héen Taaxáx Kayaaní Dísi, Month-when-underwater-plants-bud.
After a year of living in Juneau in a small bubble consisting of my partner and I, we are thinking about our local plans. What does that look like? We already worked hard before the pandemic and now it has forced us to work a lot harder to survive. Being self-employed and owning a shop downtown, we’ve had to transition to online sales, delivery and pick up. I don’t have the time to be sick for weeks and I don’t want to suffer long term side effects. So I live in respect to myself and others and try to make choices to protect us all.
At Planet Alaska we plan to continue our Hike, Harvest, and Heal program outdoors in small groups with masks and physical distance. Our cottonwood harvesting classes start soon and we’ll include winter harvesting tips, and spring greens harvesting classes will start shortly after. Typically we travel all over Alaska teaching sustainable harvesting and get to spend time with family and friends, but last year we couldn’t. Like many others we’re conducting hybrid classes via Zoom and small groups outside. But I’m making plans once most Alaskans are vaccinated: I want to harvest with my family in Wrangell. But despite my plans, I’m nervous about the meager ferry schedule and I’m still not comfortable getting on a plane. Some may say, “Don’t live in fear” but I think of it as “I’m living in respect for my elders.” I make choices that don’t put them at risk for COVID-19. Admittedly, harvesting last year only in Juneau, and not with family who I normally harvest with, weighed heavy on my heart.
Our elders have sacrificed so much to make a place for me in this world. I have an intense need to repay them by protecting them. We all make different choices and for me, even though I’ll have immunities from the vaccine by then, I can still potentially acquire the virus and pass it on unknowingly. My grandfather will also have immunities built up by then through the vaccine. We’ll listen to the science and make my quarantine decisions so I don’t expose my family. My plan may look less than desirable, though, since I may not be able to hug my sisters and nephews because their children probably won’t have the vaccine by then and children can be asymptomatic carriers. I’m not sure yet how to navigate visiting my grandparents on my dad’s side. My grandmother lives in long-term care. My grandfather lives at my aunt and uncle’s and they are not physical distancers or mask wearers. My grandpa on my mom’s side lives with my mom and step-dad and they’ve been their own bubble since March. I will be the first person they let into their bubble.
This summer, I’ll get to walk along the trails my grandfather built while working for the U.S. Forest Service in Wrangell. I’ll get to touch the marks he made in the boardwalks and his original style picnic tables. My grandfather is among many elders who literally built Alaska. And, like many Alaskan elders, they watch from their windows as people go about their lives as if their lives and sacrifices are no longer important. Being born in the 1930s and 1940s means my grandparents experienced past epidemics here in Alaska and have been surprised at the behaviors of others who don’t seem to want to protect them. It’s as if Alaska no longer cares about Alaskans in the same way as the Alaska they built.
My hope is we can finally come together again when everyone who wants access to the vaccine has had access to it. As new more contagious strains sneak into our state, I encourage Alaskans to think of the Alaskans who built this state and are experiencing their golden years isolated. The choices you make affect others. Think: I’m living in respect for my elders.
I know I don’t want to be a person who passes COVID-19 to any elder or anyone at all. This last year has absolutely sucked in so many ways.
Plans fell through and plans had to be adjusted. Yes, I’m a person who makes plans A,B, C and I’m always ready for Plan Z, but this was a hard year. As I watch the snow fall today I close my eyes and envision the warmth and green of spring. I daydream about spending time with my grandfather in Wrangell again. We get to have coffee in the morning together on the deck watching the seals pop their heads out of the ocean. We get to drive out the road and go harvest together. We get to play cards and dice.
He will be 81 years old when I see him again, and I’m planning on listening to his fishing stories and picking berries with him.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.