This book is a hidden treasure — one of those discretely placed, long undiscovered gems whose beauty leaves you a little breathless when you happen upon it. You wonder where such a gem could come from and you know there must be others. A gem such as this could not possibility exist alone. Somewhere, you think, there must lie a whole treasure trove waiting to be discovered.
This is how I felt on coming upon Ray Hudson’s remarkable memoir of the three decades he spent living in the village of Unalaska, on one of remote Aleutian Islands, also called Unalaska, where he taught elementary school, studied the art of basket weaving, learned to make wood block prints (one of his own prints adorns the front cover of the memoir), listened to and recorded the stories of the elders, hiked the length and breadth of the hauntingly beautiful island and committed himself to learning all he could about life in a place where few Americans ever venture, let alone live — and if they do, count the days until they are able to leave.
Ray Hudson is not one of these. He is that rare soul who falls in love on and with an island whose ardors few can withstand, let alone love. He marries there, settles there, and comes to feel that his destiny is forever tied to the place, so much so that even long after he departs it, he cannot leave behind the feeling of home he found in the place. As he writes in the epilogue to this book, “The Aleutians . . . continue to draw me home. Unalaska remains, as I wrote in Moments, the one place I have never left.”
What could have inspired a young man who has recently graduated from university to make such a radical break with urban life in Seattle, WA, and leave behind all he knows? What would motivate him to eschew conventional understandings of success in order to travel so far from his home? Hudson moved to the Aleutian Islands to serve as a Bahá’í “pioneer,” someone who leaves their own home for a distant place where he or she might be of service to the local people. Hudson went to fill a need — for an elementary school teacher — and in offering this service to the children of Unalaska, he shared the central conviction of his faith: that one does not live for oneself but for others.
But Hudson’s service as a Bahá’í pioneer is only a small part of the story — or perhaps it is more accurate to say it is just one strand in the weave of the basket. The story Hudson tells embraces a much larger narrative that evokes a now largely vanished world dominated by the close and unwavering ties of blood and community, and by seal hunting and by fishing, a world indelibly shaped by the strategic importance of the Aleutian chain to the military as well as the proximity of the islands to Russia, whose Orthodox Church missionaries found fertile ground in the hearts of the island’s people. It is a world in which small things loom large and in which basket weaving is as much a spiritual practice as it is an art.
It is into this unusual world that Hudson seeks initiation by learning basket weaving himself, but Hudson is told by Sophie, his first teacher, that he is not ready: “After I made my request, she gave her kerchief-covered head a quick shake and fired back, ‘Ha! No! You have no patience!’ She shut the door.” Hudson persists, however, and after some time, once Sophie judges that he has sufficiently mastered this virtue, he begin his “lessons”:
Sophie’s reluctance to teach me basketry may have reflected the way she herself had learned, for when I asked who her teacher had been, she said she had just watched other weavers. She had learned by watching.
My first lesson was appropriately brief. We were in her kitchen, where the walls shone with high-gloss paint, the linoleum floor glowed with fresh wax, and every surface that could be polished — including the top of the oil range — glistened fiercely. I sat at her formica table drinking tea and enjoying a slice of fresh bread whose crust had been glazed with milk, while Sophie, sitting across the room, worked furiously at what appeared from that distance to be a snarl of grass. Suddenly she threw it at me and ordered, “Now you do it!”
It is not easy for Hudson to learn to weave baskets merely by observation: first, he must learn the art of seeing. In the following description of a hike across the island, we witness Hudson as he perfects this art. Hudson’s prose reaches its greatest heights when he invokes the singular beauty of this unique chain of islands, its geographical peculiarities, its wildlife, its landscape, particularly its flora:
I finally left the pond near the summit and started down the trail to Ugadaga Bay. The September outing provided a descent through seasons. Thin echoes of spring gradually were covered by the effulgence of the end of summer. Where the trail began, there were still late blossoming iris, their purple rags gathered into gold knots. Spent blossoms drooped like wax. While most had berried, a few mock dogwoods blossomed, their four white petals stained reddish brown. Blue violets and purple orchids were rare now, but spindly narcissus anemones still flowered late, desperate, wildly articulated. The trail wore through fractured rock where silver and black lichens attacked the undisturbed surfaces. With a growth speed about zero, these single-petaled, black, petrified roses took decades to reach a two-or-three-inch diameter. Locked inside them was a deep magenta dye. Among the rocks, delicate heathers grew with their lanterned blossoms and varnished leaves so diminutive they formed a short-napped carpet.
In Moments Rightly Placed, Hudson shows himself to be not only a seasoned naturalist but also a lay anthropologist — someone without the training perhaps but with deep instincts about how to enter into the life of another people, gently and by humbly earning the right to do so. Hudson is not an anthropologist, but an anthropologist would be fortunate to have his literary talent. In the end, what Hudson’s book offers is a study of a people made up of well told stories rendered in a prose that sometimes verges on poetry. Perhaps the genre Hudson is working in lies somewhere between memoir, anthropological study, oral history, and poetry?
This is not only a beautifully written book, but also a humorous and engaging one, as in the case of this story about one of the traditional dances of the Aleutian seal hunters:
“Akaiya! Akaiya! Behold! Behold! When the hunters had been at sea for awhile and finally sighted land they would exclaim “Akaiya! Akaiya!” Dancers would shout this, turning their wrists as though they were rowing a skin boat. When John Golodoff sang once in this way, all you could hear was his voice and the shush, shush of the gut raincoat moving on itself. Once, as his singing gained speed and his movements grew more and more agitated, he asked someone to open the window. The crowd was locked in place and again he broke his chant asking to have a window opened. No one moved until he stopped and got angry then someone rushed to a window and everybody laughed. They had thought his requests were just part of the song.
Not that the endorsement of this book by a literary figure of note or by a well respected publication should be required as an enticement to the enlightened reader who is well aware that his or her firsthand experience of reading a book can alone determine its weight on the scales of literary merit. I will add however that Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder does praise this book in the foreword Hudson somehow has found him agreeable to write. Moreover, Publisher’s Weekly describes the book as “deeply moving.” May we all, as authors, be so supported and celebrated!
To conclude, let me say that this book is a treasure worth discovering — and cherishing. In it, Ray Hudson offers the reader a rare account of a host of unusual experiences in an exceptional place, experiences that have as their foundational motive a desire to give service as a Bahá’í pioneer but whose scope entirely eclipses the narrow, often prescriptive agenda set by the well wishing but unadventurous missionary. All I can say to those would aspire to write in a similar vein is: read this book and learn from its emotional authenticity, its lack of sentimentality and its absence of pedantry. Study its splendid prose, and emulate the humble, loving spirit that informs and moves this narrative forward.
And yes, there are other gems. You have only to peruse this issue of e*lix*ir to find them.