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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Smoky Bay

Air Date: Week of November 17, 2000

Alaska, smoke and memories: former firefighter Geo Beach tells how one morning, it all came together.

Transcript

TOOMEY: Commentator Geo Beach used to fight fires in Alaska. When he smells smoke, it provokes a lot of memories. But they're not always recollections of destruction.

BEACH: The other day I woke up and dreamed I walked outside into an Autumn morning in New England. The air was full with the smell of burning leaves, and the sun cut down through blue air and underlined the edge of the atmosphere. That air carried maple leaves red as Canada and stone walls and the wake-me-up bite of Maine apple cider. And brown and orange leaves drifting on the side of the road and burning in piles in the back yard.

But after all, it wasn't New England. Just a few miles from my Alaska house, an old campfire had caught hold of the black spruce along the shore of Tustemena Lake and erupted into a forest of flame beneath the cool face of the glacier. And the smoke poured down onto Kachemak Bay like soup in a bowl. Kachemak Bay: the name means "smoky bay" or "smoking bay." It's an Aleut derivation describing coal seams that used to smolder in the bluffs that front the north shore. Right before my very nose Kachemak Bay was being reborn in smoke. And in an alchemy of imagination I was transforming a hidden wealth of memories -- old autumns along the North Atlantic, with leaves like gold tossed to children.

The day before I had flown back to Alaska from Los Angeles, from urban smog to this wild land's fire. I had gone down to cheer the marriage of an old friend, but first I needed to find a gift. And before I went to the wedding I remembered a poem by Tom Sexton. It tells a friend's story of how one spring, when he lived at the head of this bay, lightning struck a seam of coal that baked the clay around it red all summer. After winter storms washed it from its cliff, he would find shards scattered on the beach.

Before I packed my bag for California I bought a pottery bowl that captured a circuit of salmon swimming around the brim, and brought that as my gift. When I returned home from the wedding and woke up in that smoky dawn, I thought again about this Alaskan shore, where a slow fire transforms the earth. It's the gift of gods to see in mud a usefulness. And that smell of smoke rekindled some near-forgotten days from my childhood. That's another smokey Kachemak magic: to make out of the past a vivid present.

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: Poet and former firefighter Geo Beach lives in Diamond Cape, Alaska, overlooking Smoky Bay.

 

 

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