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Harriman Expedition Retraced


expedition log



Sheila Nickerson

Poems from Feast of the Animals: An Alaskan Bestiary

Black Bear
Sometimes I visit
in the neighborhood of man.
Sometimes there is something there
that pulls me, scents that bloom
bigger than berries, a promise.
There, in the alleys, streets,
and on the porches where they live,
they chase me, as if I had grown
giant as the darkness of the woods
with teeth as sharp as winter cold.
Spruce Grouse
All winter, we listen to our trees,
never straying.
But in April, we change.
Rising up, we plummet, strut, drum,
dancing with the wild sap --
a courtship all must envy.
With summer, it is done.
We are content
to fold ourselves in spruce
and wait upon our trees.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce Grouse wood engravings by Dale DeArmond.
Click image for a larger view.

Sea Otter
Kelp. You gave me kelp
and the sweet meat of shells.
Mother, I take my child in my arms
and hold her in a lullaby of fur,
a feast of sea urchin,
the roll of the rocky shore.
Kelp. You gave me kelp,
and I give my child love. 
I can kill a crab with venom,
feast on its flesh.
With no bones, I am free.
I can change shape, color,
give up an arm, shoot ink,
flow into a small hole.
But when I hatch my young, I die.
There is no escape from the egg cave.


Octopus wood engravings by Dale DeArmond.
Click image for a larger view.

Tufted Puffin
I am always masked,
ready for the dance.
Watch me dive from cliffs,
fly under water.
Watch me, watch me,
on the sea's great stage.
And afterwards,
in the final act,
my beak becomes a rattle
for a dancer's glove.


Puffin wood engravings by Dale DeArmond.
Click image for a larger view.

Sea Gull
Bonaparte's, Glaucous-winged, Black-backed,
Iceland, Ivory, Ross's,
Sabine's, Herring, and Slaty-backed:
I come in many shapes but am the same.
They call me scavenger,
but, Mother, you gave me all the coast
to guard, to clean, the tides to chase,
a work endless as the waves.

Land Otter
They have made of me a monster,
Kooshdaka, taking the souls of men.
But when we leap, four of us together,
onto the evening dock, playing games till dark,
the child of man watches and wants to join.

I know the deepest holes.
My mother told me
I would never lack darkness
in which to hide and grow
the whitest flesh
in all the northern seas.
Out of my black heaven
comes the power to move tides
and call small fishes home.
All I have to do is wait
patiently on ocean peaks
and in the mouths of autumn creeks.

Brothers and sisters of the snow,
we grow white in our round, slow way,
feeding in shallows when we can.
If we move slower than the ice and cannot breathe,
we drown. But when we're free, we sing,
whistling our way across the northern sea.
Mother, you gave us rivers
to explore. We travel the Yukon
past its salt, even to Alaska's heart.

From wetness to wetness
I weave the summer tapestry:
Muskeg, lake, bog, and pond,
an embroidery I unravel
in the fall, then place with care
in the lacquered sewing box of winter.

Sea Urchin
Within my spines, a succulence
beyond telling,
the desire of otters,
the meat of the wild tides:
When you find my empty shell,
more delicate than crabtracks,
look to the feasting sea.

Harbor Seal
Born to swim with the tide,
I rode out on my mother's back,
but I can't stay away from the shore.
I like picnics,
the pups of man playing on the beach.
I can't stay away.
And those who look
into the world of my eyes
cannot look away.

Sea Lion
I roll through the fields of herring,
free of weight.
Nothing keeps me from turning.
I am free.
Only the killer whale,
twisting my heart to fear,
can make the weight come back,
can drive me from grace.

Last sighted at Shishmaref,
I keep from the eyes of man.
But when the ice is lonely,
I climb out with my beauty.
I cast my beauty like starlight
over the frozen glass of the sea.

For my slowness, mother gave me
these, my quills, empty and barbed.
Often, from the bushes, she has watched
while I flayed them at a foe.
And always there are more;
like berries after cold, there are more.
She said it would be so:
never winter without spring.
For my slowness,
She said it would be so.

Woolly Mammoth
I burrow beneath the earth,
wherever I choose. One night a year,
I am allowed UP to breathe
and roam the tundra that once was mine.
If I should breathe at any other time,
I would die on the spot;
and that is why my unexpected bones stick up
from streambeds and places of surprise.

Having turned from white to black
and having made it all,
having brought light to earth,
I have nothing left to do
but laugh -- or take it back
when all the laughing's done.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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