Late last year, a friend asked me if I’d like to visit her in Alaska. I used to live in Alaska so it’s not foreign to me, but she was talking north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. I, somewhat hesitantly, said OK.
She lives in Wiseman, AK. Wiseman is remote and small. Incredibly small. In winter, 11 people live there, in summer, 22.
I knew 5 things about the Alaskan Arctic: cold, northern lights, the pipeline, hunting and bugs. There are two kinds of bugs in Alaska, annoying and very annoying. The Arctic has a third kind, bird-sized! The only part I was stoked about was the Northern Lights. When I lived in Alaska previously, I had been too far south to see them.
We decided I’d visit in May. It’s too bright up there in May to see the Northern Lights. My enthusiasm about this whole trip was fading, but I did want to see my friend…
About a month before the trip she called me. “I need to talk to you about something…”
Those words generally don’t precede good news.
“When you are visiting, we are going to meet a guy named Jack, he has lived in the Arctic his whole life. He lives a subsistence lifestyle, which means he hunts his own meat and grows his own food. He is very serious about animals. We’ll go to his house and there will be skulls and antlers everywhere. When we are in his living room, you can’t sit on any piece of furniture without sitting on a pelt. His wife has a business making jewelry out of animal parts. I want you to know in advance.”
“Blaine, are you there? Will you be ok with that?”
I am a vegan. I don’t know what you think when you hear the word vegan, but I am that. I always have been. I was raised in meat-centric Oklahoma, but I never understood eating meat. As a child, as I would pet my cat, I would ask my parents, “if we have so much food like bread and vegetables and rice and beans and fruit and salad, why did an animal have to die for us to eat?” I didn't eat the meat; I just moved it around my plate. When I was 12 years old, I announced to my family that I wouldn’t eat meat or even have it on my plate anymore. And I didn’t.
I am that vegan. I even lead a group in Boulder called Vegan Ladyboss.
My anticipation for the Alaska trip took another huge nosedive. I spent the next few weeks stressing about the visit with this Jack guy; but I still went, promising myself that this was the perfect time to put my yogic skills to use – to arrive with an open mind and practice nonjudgement.
I have to say, my friend prepared me well. When we went to his home, there were skulls and antlers and pelts everywhere. We hadn’t been there 5 minutes, still standing outside, when he opened his outdoor freezer and proudly showed us geese he had just killed. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.
We entered Jack’s home and he shared a lot about his life and upbringing. He has a two-month growing season where he tends to his vegetables in enormous gardens. He grows mostly root crops but also iceberg lettuce (which he jokingly said is “appropriately named”) and over 650 pounds of potatoes!
His whole operation there runs off solar and wind power with water from a well. He spoke of hunting a lot, and interestingly, not really for himself. I mean, you don’t need to hunt too much when you are feeding two people. Jack is on many governmental boards and committees in Alaska regarding hunting and the selling of hunting licenses. He is invited to these groups because he has “traditional ecological knowledge” – TEK. He knows all about animal headcount and if the seasons have been good or poor for animal repopulation. He knows, intimately, the cycles of how the animals live, how many offspring they have, and how they nest and move.
Jack is angry, and I mean ANGRY, about how the state of Alaska makes money off hunting licenses and actually sells more licenses than there are animals alive to hunt. Don’t even bring up trophy hunting… And there are a lot of issues for him about how sport hunting is done, like flying around in a helicopter to spot an animal overhead and then landing to shoot it. Outside of the time he spends on his own survival, he spends almost all of his energy fighting these practices.
We stayed with Jack for a couple of hours. I definitely had my squirmy (and slightly nauseous moments) but, honestly, it was interesting.
I think my friend was worried I was not OK, so we didn’t talk about it for a couple of days. Those days gave me time to reflect.
People sometimes ask me, usually because they are trying to start a debate with me, if I put tires on my car (most tires are made with animal products) or if I eat honey, or something along those lines. For years, this has been my answer. “I am not perfect. For me, being vegan is not perfection – it is doing the least amount of harm possible. I try not to harm myself, or others, or animals, or the planet. It’s impossible to do absolutely no harm; but I try my best, and I am always trying to learn and be better.”
If that is my measuring stick, do the least amount of harm – then Jack kicks my ass.
I try in every area of my life to be non-dogmatic, to question my assumptions, to stay open. But I’ll admit it was tough in this situation. Even though Jack hunts and kills animals, he is passionate about saving these huge swaths of land and protecting the animals that live there.
Meeting him helped me to understand that there are a million ways to save the planet. No one belief system is better than another. And when we hold in our heart the same desire to help the world, that expression can take many forms.
Why am I vegan, really? It started in childhood because I didn’t want animals to die – and I still am fiercely passionate about using my voice for these voiceless beings. It has evolved though. When we harm nature, we harm ourselves. There is no separation. We are nature, as are the animals, as is the entire planet. We’re all one big pulsing, breathing life. The extraction of fossil fuels, the condition of our oceans, the way we do industrial farming, single-use plastics – it all matters, as does our role in it.
In EMYoga, we study nature, gleaning insight from its infinite wisdom of respecting cycles. The lessons are endless and I just got another serving. Like a new little tree, first poking its head out of the safe home of the underground, the more we move outside our comfort zone and into new experiences, the greater we will grow.