Barrow Bonfires and Divination Diversions

“Thus in fear and trembling

The superior man sets his life in order

And examines himself.”

Of course I find myself on a Wednesday afternoon snowstorm in Barrow, Alaska, learning I-Ching divination.

What else would I be doing today?

Someday, this pent up anxiety and these timely research skills that only the truly neurotic possess  are really going to come in handy for me. Maybe even come in handy for the world.

As of right now, though, I’m hearing shit, then reading shit, then wondering what the hell I got myself into, then reassuring myself I’m only here for another month, then recognizing the larger social issues outside of myself and feeling privileged and selfish, then rationalizing that my health is just as important as anyone else’s, and looking out for my own health doesn’t negate my empathy for others’ situations, then causing tensions with the hierarchical dynamic of this current lifestyle by doing exactly as I fucking please.

Today we went over to work on constructing the tundra garden at Laura’s house. And we were told that we were building cold frames for the garden once we got there. And we were using the old wood we had gathered yesterday.

Which wouldn’t have been much of a problem for me ten months ago. But a year of outdoor work has taught me a few things, and I feel that I have a bit more knowledge on the project than the ones leading it this time.

So there’s this big pile of treated lumber that we hauled over in her yard. That I was a bit concerned about yesterday, but figured that we would have a safe way of managing it. In Willits we used treated wood, and they made us wear respirators and goggles. The carefree reckless hippies who climbed around barefoot in forty foot trees with us pruning the orchards, held regular naked hot tub parties with every illegal substance under the sun, lived in peeling lead paint houses, did not use carbon monoxide detectors and assured us there were not any asbestos in the kitchen, but there might be in the warehouse we were working on. My time spent in Willits was one of the hardest experiences of my life, partly because I was not in a balanced place to begin that winter. Add onto that the toxic spill in town covered by Erin Brockovich twenty years earlier, and the fact that our whole water and food supply came from around that soil, and I was having a rough time.

They attempted to shove every fear I had aside, laughed at all of our protective helmets and gloves, but made sure we understood that when we were cutting treated lumber, we needed to be careful.

And then in Sacramento, we came in contact with treated wood many times. Every Thursday we would go out to Deer Creek Hills and build signage along the trail, using the treated wood as posts. And Fred, our sponsor out there, had already cut the posts to size with protective gear in a safe environment, because he didn’t want us being exposed to it. When you cut the treated wood it splits the little fibers of the wood that have been pressure washed with toxins to prevent rotting, and lets the sawdust into the air to be inhaled. He told us though this wasn’t an issue since they were now cut, we should all still wear gloves, because the chemicals on the outside were still pretty bad for you.

And then, half of our team worked with Matt at camp Pollock to create new floor legs for the warehouse. And Matt made sure he and everyone else working on that project had respirators when cutting the treated wood legs to size.

All of the wood we’ve worked with over the year was new wood, and the wood in Laura’s yard is from the 1980s. I brought up the fact to Laura that we would need respirators, and she said that we wouldn’t need those. All of the chemicals had leached out after all of these years from sitting outside.

Which is probably true, but I wasn’t ready to start breathing in old, polluted wood on a Wednesday morning, blindly following someone I met last week, who didn’t have a degree in construction science.

The thing about permaculture, and conservation work that really gets me is these people who are using toxic things in the hopes to create organic things. Why not throw the toxic wood out, and use real wood that rots? Or just anything else? I would rather replace a garden gate every few years than use something that leached arsenic into the ground, absorbed by my potatoes that I put on the kitchen table for my friends and family. Use something that is a little bit safer, and closer to the nature that you’re trying to recreate? Stop trying to make things permanent. Try to make things safe.

Treated wood has been being produced since the 1940s, but the chemicals used to treat it were recently switched to “safer” components in 2003. That means that the old wood we are using in Laura’s yard is treated with a lot more toxic substances than anything that we cut in Willits, or Sacramento. It’s chock full of chromated copper arsenate (CCA), containing arsenic- a well known carcinogen. Health concerns following a study of drinking water quality in Florida led the industry to change the chemicals used in the wood for residential purposes in 2003. Watersheds in Florida, much like in a lot of Alaska, are comprised of very shallow ground water sources. All of the boardwalks and waterside construction in Florida were using this treated wood, and it was increasing the levels of arsenic in the water at an alarming level. Today treated wood is produced with “more safe” toxic chemicals.

Treated wood is only used in the USA, as it is considered a health hazard to almost every other country in the world.

I asked Laura about the wood, once we realized we were about to start cutting it.

“We’ve always been required to wear respirators in the past when cutting this wood.”

My teammates backed me up, recounting our past experiences with the treated wood and safety precautions for our own health.

“Everyone in Barrow uses this wood for everything. In the 80s they dumped a bunch of it up here, and it’s used all over. All of the toxins have washed out from being outside for years. The boardwalk circling the lagoon, our drinking water source, is made out of this treated wood as well.”

She explained that years ago, people were worried about the quality of their water, because of the treated wood leaching into the reservoir. But the Fish and Wildlife service said the wood was safe in proximity to the water.

I wasn’t sold. If the toxins had all flushed out after 20 years, why was the wood not rotting? The purpose of the treatment was to keep it preserved, and it was still doing its job. Alyssa tried explaining to Laura as well, that it wasn’t the boards themselves that was the concern, it was the cutting of the boards. And the carcinogenic dust that was inhaled into the lungs.

Laura said she had dust masks if we wanted, but there were no respirators in Barrow. And then the boys grabbed the saws and went to town. And I briskly walked back to the van.

I refused to be around the sawdust until I learned more about the wood. I wasn’t ready to make big health decisions at 9 am without a little more information.

I called the EPA back at home, and a wonderful woman answered all of my questions about treated wood objectively and scientifically. She told me we should have respirators just to be sure, and if the wood had been out in the elements for years most of the toxins had probably been released, but you couldn’t be sure of anything without a lab testing. She asked me what we were using the treated wood for, and I told her a garden.

“A flower garden?”

“No, a vegetable garden.”

“You need to be sure to line the walls of the garden with plastic, or foil. Or use a sealant on the wood. The toxins leach out about an inch or two from where the wood lays. Don’t plant any root vegetables next to the wood.”

I told her where I was, and she was super excited to be on the phone with me.

“Barrow! Resources are definitely hard to come by in Barrow, Alaska. You’ve got to use what you have, I guess…”

She tells me, definitely don’t burn the wood, though. And I think about all the bonfires that the town has planned for us, with mentioned treated wood.

It was beautiful and easy and informative, and I am now that person who has the EPA hotline on my speed dial.

I understand that you can’t really afford to be picky in Barrow. But I just always feel that if I have a choice, I want to take it. And I feel like I have a choice here, and my skill set could be better matched in other areas. I called the women’s shelter in town, and am going to help out Friday night after work hopefully. This is where I want to be, where I will put myself out on the line a little bit. Not for creating a toxic wood garden frame.

I just planted cilantro and basil in our new window garden that I made during last week’s workshop. It’s made of plastic, and definitely lets out toxic chemicals whenever the sun heats it up as well. I can’t escape every danger, but I can choose which ones I want to engage at the time.

I love what we are doing here. I just want to make sure we do it in a safe way.

I think I’m really going to check out law school in ten years. I want to deeply learn the issues of the people first, so that I can more accurately represent situations. And being out in the wilderness this year, and seeing how rural America can put production ahead of human health is one big learning experience.

Back at the library with my I-Ching books. I went to the back corner of the library, between the bookcases, to toss my quarter, ready to scribe my results. On first try, I tossed the quarter up and it fell directly into one of the heater grates.

So I used the pen in my pocket to achieve the desired mystic results, spinning it on the floor of the library, and creating an imaginary axis crossing into yin and yang.

After conducting this ritual, I headed back to my table with exciting promises of insight into life’s mystery, a translation of the ancient Chinese text waiting for me next to a stack of other books I’ve picked up over the course of the afternoon.

I’ve only glanced through the I-Ching once before with a friend, but never realized it was a form of divination until this afternoon. And now I’m reading the future. Or, more accurately, the present.

My hexagram turned out to be the “mountain-mountain” symbol. Looking it up, I discover that this fortune is referred to as “Ken,” which roughly translates to “keeping still.”

Before flipping the coins, you are supposed to come up with a question. And then your hexagram answers it. And my question was about my safety. And about that big lagoon and the ability of polar bears to swim at a speed of six miles per hour. And chemicals. And everything else that haunts me.

And the I-Ching told me to be still. Which is kind of what I knew it was going to say.

I’ve got to clear my mind. I’m letting myself get way too invested in the drama up here. And I need to zoom out, and take a look at it all from a clear perspective.

I mean, it’s still a real thing. We are living in a rural village in Alaska on the Arctic beach. Polar bears are a thing. But do I need to let it ruin my time here? Do I need to let old CCA wood ruin my time at work? Do I need to check everything, call the EPA regularly, buy a jeep and a gun, and trade housing with the boys to feel safe and be happy?

“Thus the superior man

Does not permit his thoughts

To go beyond his situation.”

There’s a journalist by the front counter at the library on the phone with a contact, trying to verify data.

“I want to show the climate change in Barrow…No, I’ve got to get it this way…”

I bet he’s neurotic as well. Most good writers are.

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