There were no cell towers—only a satellite phone on the arch of an island known as Harvester in Shelikof Strait, a thirty minute skiff ride from Kodiak’s Larsen Bay where our bush plane landed. The Fields family are the only human inhabitants on this bit of Alaskan wilderness. They spend every summer setting salmon nets, then gathering their catch, three times a day, seven days a week. At the mercy of God who controls weather and waters and all living creatures, they survive by grace. They take in and send out, each hand-picked fish they pull from the sea. Every year. For generations. How blessed are those who feed.
On Harvester Island, the slice of paradise I left a week ago, twelve writers gathered from all over the United States to learn, write, share, eat, and relish wonders most of us don’t experience in our own parts of the world. For me, life-giving truths were harvested as much as stomach-filling fish.
I traced the contour lines of purple morning mountains with my index finger on the stretched sky, thanking God for soft curves and sharp edges, of landscapes raw—and people, even rawer, at least sometimes shown. There is always wonder and blessing if we look long and close enough. And love always softens both the seer and the seen, sooner or later.
The taste of salty lips from sea told me I was no longer on my own fresh water Great Lake. How good is the exploration of unfamiliar territory—land, water, and soul—discovering beauty everywhere for those who seek—discovering gifts unexpected when we stretch and step out of our comfort zones.
Red salmon pulled from morning waters, filleted right there on the beach, she humbled me as I touched her just-stilled tail and laid hands on her roe-filled belly, giving thanks for life created and given to bless. May I be like her, willing to die for the feeding of others—if not body, surely ego.
Playful sea otters diving, rolling, and back-stroking their way through their days reminded me to lay back and float when so often I flounder, fighting what is. How good it is to know the soul’s buoyancy when filled with God.
Harbor seals bopping like black apples, eyes watching pointed lenses clicking, taught me the necessity of observing our surroundings and allowing others the blessing of seeing us as we are, not as we like to portray, as we maneuver our way through our days.
Fin whales arching gracefully, blowing water spouts—they reminded me to breathe deeply as I descend into life’s depths. Always, always remember to surface, to exhale, to breathe deep again. My mantra. Life is but a breath.
Two bald eagles nest each year in the same spot. The couple reminded me why I have mated for life and spend my days nurturing lives who often nose-dive and need parents who plummet from heights to depths to catch and help the weak fly high once again. We all need those with stronger wings than ours at times, to keep us from crashing upon the rocks of life, don’t we?
And I wonder. How do those who’ve mated for life survive all the inevitable squabbles—the irritating differences—the heart-breaking losses? I think those of us who survive remember who we are, really, and why we’re here, actually—to give more than we take and to be thankful, always learning, always growing—in the best of times and, more so, in the worst of times, catching freedom of self-forgetfulness like talons tight and never letting go, consuming goodness of every soul, feeding the fledglings, feeding ourselves more. Yes, the purpose of raw, piercing commitment . . . It’s worth the agony at times, is it not?
By far, the greatest Harvester gift came to me in human form—creators who relish words written, savoring a smorgasbord of delicacies. Truth seekers. Beauty makers. Honesty, vulnerability, transparency—a concoction of key ingredients creating intimacy with human and Divine. Who would run from such soul food? Only the scared—the scarred—in need of healing.
And those who were present without words written? They are creators too. Creators of divine dishes that left me embarrassed by my moaning aloud. Creators of hospitality, welcoming and serving all who came ashore with coffee—or tea—or a hug—or just—one—kind—word.
Like the international journalist I sat beside at dinner—the one who lived in Iraq for a time and interviewed hundreds of fleeing people. The one who holds vastly different political views from my own. We talked and questioned each other in peace. A rarity. A blessing. An expansion of both, I believe. I looked in her eyes. Can we look straight into the eyes of those so radically different and still love—still find our common spiritual core? Yes. Better than the best dessert is such fellowship.
And then there was the rough, weathered fisherman, all deeply wrinkled with wild eyes and long, graying hair. His harrowing tales on high seas thrilled and his telling of numerous, near-death experiences made it next to impossible not to believe in a God who saves.
At the end of my Harvester week, I stood at the end of the spit, exposed by low tide. Raising both arms in abandon, exposing my core vulnerable, I gave thanks for life’s lessons imprinted—soul tattoos. I want to remember, to never have removed, to give thanks always for how much I’ve been blessed by creators and creation—by our Creator who woos, wanting to catch in love embrace all who run scared and seek to be full-filled.
We are all creators, made in the image of God, and the best creators create not to inflate self, but to enrich others, a reciprocity of grace.
No smallness of soul.
No need for envy or fear.
Collaboration. Even with outhouse art, all spontaneous.
A continuous ebb and flow of give and receive, timed and tendered according to each need.
And there’s no scarcity of love in life, really.
All will be as needed.
We can believe.
We can rest in knowing.
Each piece of creation, however different, however seemingly dissonant, fits into a wondrous whole. This IS the kingdom of God here on earth.
So how can I bring the beauty and truths of Alaskan wilderness into the wilderness of soul where hearts still cry and hopes still die?
I will remember the wild island of grace in these overcast days I now see. There will always be tears this side of heaven, in sky and soul.
And there will always be joy, a foretaste of heaven vanquishing all the hellishness here.
I am determined. I will practice joy.
Because there’s always joy in the midst of pain. There can always be the knowing even in the absence of feeling.
The Ying and Yang—the ebb and flow—this is true life. And embracing both yields a life lived well.
Tears mixed with joy—like when old Uncle Leif’s breath slowed last Thursday, hours after I returned home. A solitary tear trickled down his cheek, eyes closed, as family gathered ‘round his hospice bed, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd psalm—as a daughter with angelic voice led the singing of Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art. And old Uncle Leif—the burly man who used to lift me off the ground with his big bear hugs—he breathed his last at 3:30 PM and left this world, peacefully passing into the ever-loving arms of God. Tears and joy—a holy mix of perfect completion.
This is life here.
The whole tangled, stunning, mysterious mess of glory.
But there’s a holy harvest waiting.
Let’s reap the abundance we have even now and send it off to our waiting, hungry world. Our only sure investment in this world is our sure investment in the world to come.
Over and over again.
Until there is no more need.
Paul Willis and Leslie Leyland Fields—our workshop leaders. Check out their books on Amazon.