Photo by Seth Kantner: Play time in Kotzebue.
This morning I’m boiling stinkweed, the Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos’ favorite medicinal plant. My wife, Stacey, has the flu; China, my daughter, is getting over it. The windows are steaming up. Around the bottom edges of the glass the hoar frost, thick from the recent cold snap, is melting and pooling on the frames. The forty-below stretch, with its squeaky snow and dead calm, has vanished.
Now the wind buffets the house again. We’re having the first blizzard of the New Year. Outside it has warmed up 70 degrees—a switch but still not bikini conditions. Snow, blowing snow, freezing fog, the National Weather Service says. Wind 45 knots, visibility one-quarter mile. China and I are itching to get out and get some wind under our gills.
Last summer, the stinkweed grew lurid green and huge. Here in the Northwest Arctic all the shrubs and berries and plants seemed to be on steroids. The stinkweed, or Artemisia, made clouds of pollen—more than I’d seen before—and seeds by July, a month early.
My mom learned from the Inupiaq how to harvest and use the plant. Unfortunately, my “traditional” knowledge is more tangled. Nowadays the elders’ information has gotten that way: some people say pick the early leaves, some say harvest the plant late in fall after it has turned brown, some say put it in the microware and then the freezer. July seemed too early to be harvesting, and I couldn’t remember: were the seeds important or just the leaves, and was I supposed to hang it upside down to dry? Or was that traditional knowledge from pot-growing friends?
I make Stacey a tent with a towel draped over her head. The water in the cooking pot is tea brown. Astringent steam rises into her breathing passages. Somehow I’m not convinced this year’s crop is as strong as previous years. Maybe I’m wrong though. China and I tiptoe out of the room, pull on boots and mukluks, overpants and jackets, hats and hoods and neck-warmers until only our eyes are showing. The door is buried to my thighs. Outside is a frenzy, the snow-filled air at times making it hard to breathe.
This is just a storm. Yet unconsciously, something about the amount of snow gives me a twinge of concern. I lean close to China and shout, “Hope this doesn’t go on for a week.” We struggle upwind to find the dog, and then tumble with the gusts, find a towering drift and play king of the mountain.
Later, I hear we’ve broken three records today. Record warm for this date; most precipitation in a day; record snowfall in twenty-four hours. No one that I know of is counting those record tall stinkweeds.