A Choice

There are moments in life that shine into that liminal space between who we were and who we may be. In those spaces are opportunities to sense the world in new ways.

The choices we make are powerful. Camus said we might choose each day whether we want to step into the arena of life or remove ourselves from it. People suffering from chronic pain see the world differently. Pam Bealer had to live with the daily pain of multiple sclerosis, and she eventually decided to choose to end that struggle rather than prolong her Earth-Life. She told me she had made peace with that decision about three weeks before she and her husband Eric, “by their own free choice and will,” committed suicide.

We were in the homemade wooden dory that Eric had made, traveling over cold water filled with kelp and the chop of waves in Greentop Harbor on the western side of Yakobi Island, located in the Alexander Archipelago not far from the mouth of Glacier Bay. Eric Bealer was an exceptional artist, his wood engravings— inspired by the elemental forces that surrounded him— well-known and much sought-after in the galleries of southeast Alaska. The rocky cliffs surrounding us had the kind of primal beauty Eric etched into his woodblock prints. As the waves crashed with their unending rhythmic booms beyond the breaks, Pam told me in a calm and decisive way she no longer feared death. “When it is my time, I will go.” She meant it.

‘Letting Go’ by Eric Bealer (courtesy Sitka Conservation Society)

This conversation with Pam and Eric Bealer occurred when I traveled to Greentop Harbor on Yakobi Island with my dad in August 2018. We had come to visit a cabin that my great-great-uncle Joe Scott had carved into the Tongass National Forest on land that had become the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness in 1980. Like the Bealers, he had come to Alaska to live an authentic life, a life centered on his connection to the land. 

He had been born in Iowa in 1902, and the family story goes that in the early 1930s, Joe and his father had a falling out, leading to Joe not returning to Iowa until his father passed away in the 1960s. Joe was known for holding a grudge for a lifetime.

Though he seemed a hard man on the exterior, Joe was soft-hearted and social with those he trusted. Monthly, when he went to the nearby village of Pelican to get his mail, including his hometown newspaper, The Maquoketa Sentinel Press, he dropped off flowers he grew for people in town.

Greentop Harbor is still home to three cabins; Joe’s and two others. One is managed by the National Forest, you can rent it for $40 a night. According to the logbook, about six to ten people rent it per year, mostly kayakers and the occasional wandering Joe Scott relative. There is a third cabin between Joe’s cabin and the Greentop Forest Service Cabin, last owned by Pam and Eric Bealer.

When Joe built his cabin in the 1940s Alaska was the frontier of America, not yet a state, though it has been home to the Tlingit and other indigenous people since time immemorial.

Tlingit history is the root human history of Yakobi Island, of Sitka on Baranof Island, and Southeastern Alaska. Unfortunately, those human roots and indigenous names were left off the maps, when the Tlingit were left out of the negotiations between the Russians and Americans as they discussed who would own the lands that make up southeastern Alaska.

Joe Scott wrote a letter to the US Federal Government asking them to grant Alaska statehood. Finally, when statehood came in 1959, Joe, and other Alaskans, got their wish.

Seemingly, the salmon were still plentiful, the land still empty. There was little thought about regulations, conservation, or respect for the indigenous people who called this northern Eden home. Though by and large, the collective Alaskan mind did not choose to change, the continued damming of rivers, overfishing, and nutrient depletion of those rivers and the ocean inevitably led to the end of an era.

In a local news interview with Joe in 1987, he talks softly, with a sense of regret and acknowledgment, about how the salmon weren’t coming like they used to, about how the dams had changed these places forever. He talks of aging and reflects with a palpable longing that he can’t go into the mountains and hunt a buck like he used to. Time has caught up with him and with Alaska. Joe passed away in March 1988.

A Room with a View. Photo by Matt Hainstock

 

There are people in this world who will show you paths and ways of being that you didn’t even know existed. In our world of increased specialization, technological and social isolation, and the continued separation from the physical environment, it is easy to forget that life can be pretty simple, in a hard and laborious kind of way.

Pam and Eric Bealer had forged a homestead near Pelican, Alaska; a one-hour boat ride down the Lisianski Strait from Greentop on neighboring Chichagof Island. Both were artists. Their farm ran on muscle power and determination. Pam told me that when electricity gets piped in, they tend to head for the door. Eric added that people’s brains seem to go out when the lights go on.

The Bealers were in thoughtful moods the day I met them, Eric was his gregarious, non-stop chattering self, and Pam was reflective and humorous. His chatter resembled a red squirrel, which he explained by saying, “My totem is a red squirrel, and Pam’s is a brown bear, and I keep repeating that imagery in my art, just like life.” The pairing made sense.

Eric gave me a tour of their small plot in the forest; the shed with the chickens, his woodworking tools, the fence that he’d crafted from twisted logs to frame the garden and their walkway up to the house.

To me, it seemed like Eric was a magician with wood. A true master. He built practical objects such as boats, fences, and bridges, and of course, also created his exquisite woodblock prints; by using the old ways—slow, hand-carved, inked, and then run through an old heavy printing press, with a story of its own. Eric captured the Alaskan landscape in an ethereal way, a way that comforted you in black and white.

Eric showed my dad and me some of the prints he had in the cabin. While he explained his creation technique, he pointed out the hearts, the shadows in between worlds, a bear’s reflection, a dragon that looked like a raven, and laughed about the appeal that his work had for the tourists in Sitka, who purchased his prints at the Sitka Rose Gallery.

“They love glaciers and hearts. I’ve sold more prints of hearts and glaciers than anything else I ever made.” He laughed again. The cosmic joke is that what calls to us seems so obvious. Love and beauty. People are fools for it.

‘Swan Song’ by Eric Bealer (courtesy Sitka Conservation Society)

 

It was a beautiful September day: half clouds and half sun. We explored the beach where Joe Scott had found a whale with a harpoon still stuck in its side, Whale Beach. The harpoon is in the Sitka museum, and two of the whale’s rib bones adorn the shed next to Joe’s cabin.

Pam was hopeful. She’d been looking for a glass float, the kind Japanese fishermen used extensively before plastic floats became the standard. She’d been looking for one her whole life, she said. Maybe today would be her day.

We walked through the flotsam, the beach gathering kelp and shells and the cold water foam that lapped up on the small shoreline. We talked about the land and how people have made their living in these spaces, both in the past and in the present. I asked questions, and Eric was more than willing to share his answers gleaned from years of calling this part of Alaska home. Pam walked slowly and explored the edges of the beach, poking among the driftwood, hoping to find a float, clearly lost in thought.

After a while on the beach, Eric suggested that we visit Power Island with its flat rock, from which one can view the spectacle of the Pacific crashing against the black lichen cloaked cliffs. He said, “You might see an orca or sea otters going about their business if you’re lucky.” Then added with a zen-Buddhist kind of chuckle, “It’s a spot one might go to meditate on world peace.” He had the kind of laugh that creates joy and goofiness out of all that seriousness people carry around.

On the way to Power Island, Pam and I talked in the front of the boat. She let me know that she wasn’t scared of death, that she had made her peace with the world and death and her condition. That when it was her time, she’d know and wouldn’t hesitate. Eric chimed in emphatically that he would go with her. That she wouldn’t have to go alone. That this world wasn’t worth living in without her.

I nodded, not really understanding the depth of the moment in real-time. No one had ever told me they would commit suicide together rather than travel this world alone. I could see on Eric’s face that he didn’t want either of them to go alone. I imagine he didn’t want to worry about getting lost in the unknown if they went at different times.

Pam didn’t find her glass float that day. I could tell she’d expected that the narrative might work out perfectly, a belief she might have manifested something into being.

The photograph of Joe Scott that had been hanging in the “wrong cabin.”

On the day my dad and I left Greentop on a floatplane, we said goodbye to Eric and Pam. They gave my dad a black and white photo of Joe Scott with a backpack and rifle; chest puffed out. His gaze is strong in the photo as he searches the distance with his eyes. The photo had been hanging in the wrong cabin for many years, and the Bealers felt it should go home with us.

When the floatplane pulled up, Eric and Pam grabbed the rope and pulled it in, wading into the tide in their brown Xtratuf boots. The pilot and the Bealers had an Alaskan conversation that felt more like an ideological knife fight than one of pleasantries.

Where you are froms and who do you knows were exchanged. The pilot and the Bealers had lived in similar spots but in different periods of development. The pilot was a big fan of roads, electricity, clear-cutting, and basically “progress” in its many forms, while the Bealers were for slowing down, going back to the earth, taking care of what was, and trying to stop the tide of destruction that has come over Alaska.

When we had our belongings on the plane, we said goodbye to Eric and Pam and thanked them for their hospitality. They had taken us into their home—their carefully chosen place of refuge—had been generous guides to a place that meant so much to them and now meant so much to us.

There was a depth to what the Bealers shared with us that somehow connected the legacy of Joe Scott to the present moment. An expression by people from different, overlapping time periods, with different ways of showing a deep love and care for a place.

‘Surge Bay Puffins’ by Eric Bealer (courtesy Sitka Conservation Society)

 

When the news that Eric and Pam had committed suicide reached me at my home in Colorado, it hurt and felt surreal. The moments and conversations we’d shared were deep and meaningful. They were moments steeped in depth and the culmination of lives lived and choices made.

The Bealers had shared their sacred spaces. Shared their art, food, what they loved in life and their connection with two strangers. I feel lucky that I was able to meet them, to share that moment in time with them, and think of them often.

Sometimes I wonder if Pam found a glass float before she passed into another world. I hope so. I’d like to think that even random human lives have movie script endings, sometimes. That life is filled with moments that come together like a dream.

Post Script

The passing down of someone’s life and core beliefs is not an easy thing to internalize. To be a bit metaphysical (which Pam and Eric certainly were), I have felt their presence in spaces beyond the normal context of my daily existence. They’ve inhabited my dreams, and I’ve felt them riding the wind when I’ve been in deep, wild, and transitory places. I’ve felt them when I am in the glaciated mountains of the Pacific Northwest, in the deep, old-growth forests. I’ve felt them while finding the tracks of a bear, listening to the chatter of a red squirrel on its midden of pine cones in a cedar forest. I think about the Bealers in those moments. I think about life and death and powerful choices.

Eric and Pam Bealer, Yakobi Island. Photo by Matt Hainstock

Pam and Eric Bealer passed all of their material possessions to the Sitka Conservation Society’s Living Wilderness Fund. Their cabin and garden will go back to the land over time, reintegrating into the trees, water, and soil that they came from. The Bealers will be the last people to inhabit that cabin.

The deepest thing you can do in life is to make a choice to live your life fully. To wake up each day and engage in the natural, deep, earth-world that is outside your door. To push beyond the pains of human life and keep trying to make the world a more beautiful place. Sometimes that choice means acknowledging that you must let go, you must slow down. To love a place and people, and for them to love you, you must be there.

You must be present.

The Tongass

Photo by John D’Onofrio

 

At a staggering 16.7 million acres, Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world—and by far the largest of our National Forests, more than three times larger than any other unit in the system. It is home to ancient stands of Sitka spruce, Alaska cedar, western red cedar, and western hemlock. Old-growth trees are vital for supporting salmon habitat as they provide shade that keeps streams cool as temperatures rise due to climate change.

In late November of last year the U..S Department of Agriculture proposed restoring long-standing protections (the Roadless Rule) for the Tongass, after the Trump administration abruptly opened nine million acres for road-building, logging, and development in 2020, despite widespread opposition from residents, southeast Alaska tribes, the commercial fishing community, and tourism-centered businesses. According to the Forest Service, among public comments received, 96% supported keeping the Roadless Rule (originally created in 2001) in place.

Fishing and tourism account for 26% of southeast Alaska’s economy, while the timber industry accounts for only 1%. And according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the U.S. Forest Service lost $16.1 million on timber sales in the Tongass in 2019 and more than $1.7 billion since 1980.

Matt Hainstock is interested in the connections between places, people, and ideas. Calling different watersheds, ecosystems, and communities home, his favorite moments are connected to glaciers, old growth forests, and the open prairies.  

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