Goodbye, Our Season
Goodbye, Our Season
In August a bear ate my friend. A brown bear, a Russian bear. Rain was coming down and cold when they told me "A bear killed Michio in Russia." Michio! My friend. Friend to half of Alaska, wilderness camera artist. What are the words to tell of the vacuum of loss, the sit-down holloness that loss pumps in?
This friend, Michio Hoshino, was the Ansel Adams of Japan. His photographs of Alaska touched our national magazines and corners of Japan I'll never know. His photographs were vast valleys, shoulders of mountains, stringy rivers cradling a lone animal in the land's arms. He made millions long to touch the face of wild land.
But here we didn't care about that. Here along the Kobuk River it took us a long time to hear of his fame in Japan. Here we liked him because he was Michio.
I don't know where I met him. I am lost trying to write his pictures to strangers. Tonight all I can think of is that I hardly knew him. Most of us remember him forgetting things; mittens, his tripod, yellow blocks of Kodak film. He would arrive late, weeks-or a year-after he said he was coming. He'd say "Hi, Sess," blink nervously, drag his camera bags into a pile, and mention that he came to photograph fall colors. Someone would point at river banks, golden leaves stiff on the ground. "I'm too late?" he would ask, humble, polite. "Get in the boat," I'd say, not wanting him to dissapear for another year. "Come down to the igloo. We'll see something." As if I knew. He knew. He wanted the leaves, but he knew the land after fall colors was the land getting ready for winter. Behind that humble smile was a genious for translating light on the land into emotion, into the hugeness of what is wilderness.
"Sess." He rustled in his bags. "Tonight I cook."
"Sure, Michio, what will you make?"
"You know what is honeymoon salad?" I shook my head. "Lettuce alone." He made curry that night. The sunset distracted him, and the rice boiled over. I moved to lift the lid-he nearly jumped over the table. I don't remember his words, only how fast he moved, stopping me from insulting the integrity of rice.
"I don't think I will marry now," Michio told me on a later visit, beside a campfire. The woman had to be Japanese, that was understood, and he spent a thousand times more time with bears and moose than Japanese womes. His book Grizzly was a family photo album of bears. Moose, an intimate panorama of the giants. And his later books, published in Japan, even more stunning.
"I'm 38. Too old to marry." He paused and blinked. "Sess, do you know what is a sattelite bull moose?" I, who grew up in the wilderness, didn't. He told me a satelite bull was a moose that was too old, or too small, to fight for a harem. Instead he circled and waited, and when two mighty bulls crashed their egos and antlers and fought, there was his quiet chance.
"I hope I can be a satelite bull." Michio smiled.
A few years later Michio married Naoko, and the last time I saw him he carried a picture of a baby son so cute I wanted to steal the photo.
That was an August ago. He spent the night at my fish camp. My wife and I and Michio sat in the tent and talked. He was writing about me. I asked if his acclaimed essays were to translated to English. He shook his head. "Impossible. They would not be good."
A week later, on the Kobuk river at sunset, he was waiting for caribou to cross. I arrived with a boat load of Eskimo friends. Michio stood in front of histent, rice cooking, Nikon 600f/4 on its tripod. He joked with my Eskimo "mother," Mary, saying he wanted to take her to Hawaii for her 50th birthday. On the north shore, a line of caribou waded in. Everyone hushed. The sun was fire in the clouds in the west. The caribou turned back and splashed to shore. "Oh I came for this picture."
"You almost cry," Mary teased, Native-style, right on top of the truth.
The herd ran the beach, no light in the north behind them now. I thumped an oar against the boat. the herd ran back and waded in. Michio forgot us, forgot the world and his rice. The line of bulls crossed under the distant sun clouds. They swam bunched close, their antlers clacking together in the stillness. He swiched camera bodies, shot more film and finally stood. I'd never seen anybody so jubilant. He checked his rice.
And now, this fall. The arctic summer fades and leaves the first stars, the first darkness. The memorial services are over in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Japan, and places I don't know. We sit close in our tents, our cabins, our towns. Near the light we talk almost everynight of Michio. We look at bears with different eyes. I've spent my life with bears more common than house pets, wacthing the natural terror of the food chain, and yet have never had a friend pulled out of this modern world, back into the nature. It adds to the loss, something unsettling, primal.
And now, this fall the caribou come, the leaves float off the birches, and the bears look for blueberries, and i miss you, Michio. I am left on earth feeling petty and stupid, worring about the age on my hands, the people that I want to like me, the ground squirrel diggin under my tent. I don't know what that Russian bear was thinking. I don't know the whole story, why you were in a tent while the Japanese film crews and Kamchatka bilologists were in a cabin? Why six men counldn't scare the bear off. I only know I miss you, my friend, and I will for a long time. I miss you like a season. And I know this land does not miss anyone, but if it did you would be one.