Montanan - Volume 13, Number 3
Village Timeby Debra McKinney
ut here in Teller, a village of 280 northwest of Nome, Alaska, people shake their heads at the frenzy of city time. Here, life operates on village time. People go to bed when they need to go to bed. They get up when they need to get up. Things get done when they need to get done.
When Ken Waldman, a poet, musician and traveller from Juneau, passed through, we got off on the subject of village time over supper. "Village time," he said, "is where yesterday and tomorrow intercept."
He thought about that a while. "Maybe its more like last week meeting tomorrow. No, thats not it either. Last year meeting the day after tomorrow? Its just theres a warp-a warp only to white eyes. If youre from the village, its just time. Its natural to the place. Things slow down...but you can always catch them in your field of vision."
"The longer you stay," he then told me, "the more youre drawn into it."
Thats true. I often dont know what day it is, nor does it matter. My husband, Paul, has a teaching job to go to, but I dont have to be anywhere. I have bread to make, dogs to walk, dinner to fix and the occasional writing deadline. Things get done when they need to get done. Time, Im figuring out, is like the yellow line on a lonely back road. When you have it to yourself, you tend to stray from the boundaries.
It hasnt been easy going from days where Id be so busy Id forget to eat, to days of open ends and possibilities. As a journalist for the Anchorage Daily News, Id lived the marathon life so long, it became natural to operate "on screech."
Clocks are, after all, human inventions. They first appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century and became common by the sixteenth. With them came a whole new sense of order and demand for discipline.
But here, where seal hunting takes precedence over doctors appointments, nature still leads the charge. Time is in the hands of the fish, the animals, the weather and the moods of the sea. When the ice goes out in June, fish-camp season begins. When snowstorms shut down the 72-mile gravel road that connects our village to Nome, isolation season begins. And it lasts until the snowplows set us free in May.
Im not saying no one makes an effort to be on time around here. On Sunday mornings, the church bell rings fifteen minutes before eleven oclock to help people make it to services on time. And if kids are late for school, theyre not allowed to play in community basketball games that evening-a major blow in a village with no movie theaters, restaurants or even paved streets to roam. But here its possible to live without time breathing down your neck.
In the old days, the people of this region-the people of Kauwerak-named the twelve moons of the year after the ebbs and flows of life in the North. Nuwaitoivick (April) was the time caribou fawns were born. Segkuitoavick (September) was the beginning of ice-forming. Saintaovick (December) was the time for ivory carving.
These are people still in tune with the rhythm of nature, to the same physiological voice that tells geese to head south in the fall and north in the spring. Life here proceeds in accordance of natural law, not human law. Heartbeat prevails over the ticking of wound springs.
Nature writer Peter Steinhardt writes of what we have lost to the tyranny of the clock. "Once we learn to subdivide our lives into minutes and seconds, we seek to master time...Life no longer moves at the pace of wood smoke and river eddies. We leap from event to event and shorten experience. The Eskimo hunter once stood motionless for hours in subzero temperatures, waiting for a seal to surface through a hole on the ice. We have lost that ability to sit still."
I am still learning.
Debra McKinney 79, who wrote for Anchorage Daily News, now lives in Teller on the Seward Peninsula. She won a $10,000 DART award for coverage of sexual abuse victims and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on Native American alcoholism. In 1989, she received a Young Alumnus Award.