My happy place is not fictional, it is not an ice cave, it is not an imaginary meadow. My happy place is real, it is where I formed my sense of self. It is where I feel a deep physical and spiritual connection to the land.
I spent many years away from my happy place. I moved across the continent and south and then north and then west again. When I started having children I yearned to bring them home to be with my family and learn how to pick berries from the tundra. During each visit, we loaded up a picnic, hoped that the dirt road hadn't rutted out since the last rain, and went on my favorite drive.
First, we drive across the mouth of the Nome River, which isn't actually in Nome, Alaska. Fort Davis is a traditional fish camp at Nome River. My father's family camped here and I remember watching my grandmother sweep the one-room camp floor with a duck wing. One summer I caught a humpy with my aunt, I could see the fish swimming, destined to come to me with a hunk of flesh missing from its humped back.
There is a long stretch of driving, we always talk about spots that were good for berries, stories connected to the people and the places. The drive follows the land right above the beach and when I was young, Cape Nome was intact, as far as I knew. Over the years the gravel mine has harvested the cape to build roads and jetties and sea walls, now the cape is reduced and exposed and raw. We used to drive up over the cape, now we drive through it, along the ocean's edge.
Cape Nome marks the beginning of Nuk. Nuk means "the point" and it is an ancient traditional fishing ground on a sand spit formed after the ocean swallowed the mouths of two rivers. The landscape and scenery at Nuk are amazing and it offers everything, the ocean, the wide sandy spit, Safety Sound, and in the distance jagged mountains. I always hope for clear skies so that I can see the mountains.
The granite of Cape Nome, sediment from the submerged rivers, and the ocean currents formed Nuk's barrier spit. The spit is about 4,000 years old and there is evidence that indigenous people began camping and fishing for as long as the spit has existed. I wonder if the changes in the shape of Cape Nome are causing erosion along the spit.
Traditional homes were permanent sod homes that were almost completely subterranean. At Nuk, these homes had more than one room, with a living room, kitchen, and bedroom connected by short tunnels. I like to think that we were inspired by the shik-shik (ground squirrels) that live there, too. The walls of the sod homes are gone but the foundations and main entrances are still there and we call them the mounds.
As soon as school was out, we went to fish camp. I played in the sod home mounds, imagining where people sat, where they cooked, where they lit the seal oil lamp, where they slept. I ran from my grandmother's little yellow camper trailer, through the moss and lichen and berries, across the dirt road, and played on the beach. I would find smooth flat stones and build my own homes, not always square, not always round, and in a way, I was trying to understand the meaning of houses and home.
I have so many vivid memories of the long arctic summer days that I spent there. I used to umak a plastic baby doll in the back of my kuspuk/atigluk. On a cold windy day her plastic body wouldn't warm up against mine and I told my mother that my baby was cold. She thought I was speaking figuratively but I was being literal and she laughed that my imagination was so strong.
I would stare into the smooth clear water of freshwater ponds and wonder about the names of all the plants and moss. One day I found an elder cooking a strange fish in her cast iron skillet over an open fire. I had never seen a flat fish before and I cautiously asked her questions, she answered with short words that only made me want to ask more. If it was a pancake fish, did it taste like pancakes? Did you gut it? Why does it fit perfectly into your pan?
When I go to Nuk now, I am transported across space and time to those memories. Being there it can feel as if no time has passed. I breathe in the same air, I get the same sand stuck in my shoes, I run my fingers along the same blades of grass, I look at the same beach peas and wonder again if they taste good.
I belong to Nuk. I was nourished by its berries and fish. The sun warmed me and the bears and foxes in the night scared me, reminding me that they need this place, too. Being there is spiritual and healing and it makes me feel whole to be there again.
My connection wasn't formed only because I was there as a child during that pivotal age of determining my sense of self, it was formed because of the sod mounds. They are a symbol that this is a good place and that my relatives and ancestors loved this place, my love continues an unbroken story.
In college, I wrote a paper about Nuk as an exercise in environmental history. I learned that my father helped excavate some sites with his archaeology professor, that our people had pottery and their shards were stolen from the mounds for someone else's keepsake. I don't have keepsakes like that, I have something better, a sense of place.
In order to treat the earth with respect and reverence, we must all form this deep and lasting connection with our homes. A sense of place is the foundation of our relationships with the land. We can have more than one happy place, and we should. We should be able to find beauty and meaning and health in every home. We don't need to have a historical tie to the land, but we do need to know that the land wants us here.
How we ensure this sense in our children? I bring my children to Nuk in the hopes that they become just as attached as I am, but last summer they complained that we take this drive every year. But, I know that they look forward to being on the tundra, they talk excitedly about picking berries and visiting family.
There are two important ways that we build a meaningful connection to our homes. We need to gather wild food so that we form a physical and tangible bond. We need to thank the plants and the animals for taking care of us. Gathering food helps us know when our happy places are doing well. Harvesting food is also a way to gain knowledge that is overlooked and undervalued. It's empowering when you really think about all the information that goes behind finding food: location, timing, plant and animal identification, storage, and most importantly, how to sustainably gather food.
The other important way to build a sense of place is to make memories with our family and friends in these places. Involve your loved ones in the process. Our ties to the land should be shared.
I don't mean to put Nuk on a pedestal, my backyard is a happy place, too. It's where I grow berries, vegetables, and potatoes, I pick wild berries, I sit on my bench when I need to think. Nature is there thriving and growing in urban places, too, and everyone deserves to feel connected and grounded.
The world is home, be happy in it, you belong here.