Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Month: January, 2015

Balance from Division: the water of Potter Marsh in Anchorage, Alaska

A note: although this blog normally only concerns itself with people, places and things in California, occasionally the Californian who authors it goes out of state and see places and things elsewhere. And then writes about them. I wrote this essay last September. I’ve updated the verb tenses for the below post.
This essay was first published in Aontacht, book 7, issue 1

Potter Marsh, in Anchorage Alaska,looking west

In September of last year, my husband and I visited my sister Emily, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. On the 22rd of that month, the day of the equinox, she urged us to get out and see things. “Go south,” she said, in her decisive way. “Go to Potter Marsh. It’s a wetland. It’s beautiful.” Emily knows what I like: water. We took her advice and drove to Potter Marsh, or Hkaditali in the native Athabascan language, which means “Place of the Driftwood.” The driftwood they referred to used to be washed up into the marsh. It still would were it not for a railroad track that keeps the two watery sites apart. As we drove to the marsh, my husband and I saw the work of thousands and thousands of years of glaciation and rain: sharply carved, incised mountain ranges that were shaped by water, both liquid and frozen.

We pulled into the parking lot and looked around. From the lot, I could see the long, blue water of Cook Inlet. The water in the marsh wasn’t visible yet. A man who was leaving told us there were bald eagles roosting in the trees on the north end. “You from here?” he asked. We told him we were from San Francisco. “Welcome to Alaska,” he said. “This marsh is great for birding.” He secured his toddler in a safety seat for the ride home. My husband and I walked into the marsh.

Potter Marsh exists as a freshwater marsh now, but it used to be an estuary. It’s part of the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Refuge, which stretches for 16 miles along Cook Inlet, southwest of Anchorage. The slopes of the Chugach mountain range rise above the marsh in the east . The foothills are dotted with houses, and riven with watery streams. Three of these creeks flow into Potter Marsh: Rabbit Creek, Little Rabbit Creek, and Potter Creek. In 1917, the Alaska Railway built an embankment for the railroad track and so impounded the fresh waters of the creeks. This division ended the marsh’s existence as an estuary, a place where salt water and freshwater meet and mingle.

It is an oft-quoted fact that estuaries contain some of the most life-sustaining habitat on this earth, equaled only by rainforests and coral reefs. Some estuarine conditions still persist in Potter Marsh. In nature, it’s tough dividing whole ecosystems, especially when they’re as watery as a wetland. But the partition happened, and now where there was once a mingling of different waters, there is a freshwater marsh on the east and a saltwater mud flat to the west. The heterodox, estuarine nature of the place has changed.

There’s a lot of water in Alaska, especially in September, which is the tail end of the rainy season in Anchorage. “It sort of rains all the time,” my sister told, sounding both exasperated and proud. This seems miraculous to me, a Californian, who is living in a state which is enduring its fourth year of drought. “Forty-three percent of Alaska is wetlands,” a friend of my sister’s told me. My sister’s house (built long before she moved to Alaska) is situated over a now-buried creek which used to be former spawning grounds for salmon. There’s water everywhere you look: in the streambeds, trickling out of cliff walls, falling from the sky: it’s a very pluvial place. The mountains of Alaska loom over broad flat lowlands, which were made by rivers scouring silt and carrying it in their water columns; this silt, which was the mountain’s rocky skin, got dumped on the lowlands the minute the grade changed and the water was forced to slow down.

The ocean is a master builder, too, using its vigorous tidal prism to push finely ground sand and silt ashore. The tidal fluctuations in one arm of Cook Inlet, by the way, are among the highest in the world with a mean range of 30 vertical feet. There’s a tidal bore that surfers have discovered. “It’s kind of dangerous,” another friend told me. “But it hasn’t stopped the surfers.”

From 1917 to 1971, the marsh was a place of little interest, an accident made by man. To construct the railroad embankment, the builders dredged silt from the estuary, creating deep pools which are now freshwater ponds (and still slightly brackish; as I said, it’s hard to partition water). In 1971, the Alaska legislature decided to recognize what salmon, eagles, ducks, and other animals had signaled through their stubborn habitation of the marsh, namely, that the site had maintained some ecological integrity, even in its mutilated and partitioned state. You could argue that the animals created the refuge first, simply by refusing to leave. The legislature took its cue from the animals and legally formalized an informal and semi-historic ecological arrangement.

In Potter Marsh, nature exists on its own terms. This is the meaning of the term “refuge.” Human activity is limited. There is no hunting. No fishing. No domesticated animal can be grazed there; no mud, silt, sand, oil, or any other mineral from the marsh can be extracted. No houses, office parks, or hotels can be built along its ragged edges. What there is to do in the refuge, most days, is watch, listen, and learn. You can stand on the elevated boardwalk that the state built, and peer through the viewing glasses to try to identify all there is to see.

And all that one can see the marsh is enabled by water. Transport, habitat, nursery, nourishment: water builds, water moves, and water shields and protects. From conception to death, the waters of Potter Marsh maintain life and seek balance.

Although the waters were divided, the capacity of the wetlands to support life remains. It isn’t clear from the available studies how much biodiversity was lost after the building of the railroad: a lot, most likely. The salinity gradients changed. So did the water quality. The rapid urbanization of Anchorage and the surrounding areas infused the water with oil, leached minerals, and other nasty mid-century toxins. But the creeks that run into the marsh and fill the freshwater ponds support a cohort of flora and fauna that are dependent on each other. There is a food chain. We wouldn’t have seen two bald eagles sitting in cottonwood trees on the northeast end of the marsh if there were nothing there to hold their interest. One was an adult, with a shining white head. The other was a dun-colored juvenile. Both cried out at least once, with their odd, high-pitched cry. The juvenile, perhaps sensing the eyes scrutinizing him from the viewing deck, flew away. Bald eagles lose a bit of their innate dignity when they take to the air they fly with great, loosey-goosey flopping strokes, so huge is their wing span. But the power of their wings is remarkable.

Bald eagles, of course, eat salmon. And the salmon, that deeply totemic creature of Native American and Celtic cultures, are present in the marsh. The marsh is spawning habitat. Two culverts, put into place by human beings, link the marsh with Cook Inlet, creating access between the two formerly conjoined sites. We might have been unaware that we could actually see the salmon, were it not for a chance encounter with a little boy named Adrian. He told us in an exultant tone that, if we liked, he’d show us a salmon. Together, we peered over the railing. Below us were a few darting fingerling salmon—juveniles—and the ruddy, glistening back of what appeared to be a coho salmon.

“He’s spawned out,” said Adrian’s grandmother, who was standing nearby. I sensed exhaustion coming from the fish, although this might have just been my overly empathetic projection. But maybe not; if anything on this planet has a right to be exhausted, its gotta be a spawned-out salmon. They’ve swum hundreds of miles while their bodies slowly disintegrate, all in the service of reproduction. The grandmother, who was Native American —“Aleut,” she told me— said that the salmon was disoriented. “He’s confused,” she said affectionately. “Usually, they aren’t in this pond. They’re over in that one,” and she waved her hand southward toward another pool. It was really something seeing a salmon dying, in the crystal clear water, a native of that place, coming back to a point of origin that was greatly changed but still existed. The water hugged the salmon’s body and rocked it side to side with the current. We walked on, along the boardwalk. The late afternoon sun shone on the water in the deep ponds, making them glint like silver glass.

A creek rushed underneath us, flowing from the marsh downstream through two steel culverts. We glanced over the railing again, just in time to see the strong body of another salmon flash past us, swishing its powerful tail, pushing its way past the opposing current, moving upstream in the ancient pattern. It could do this because it had the means: a stream that flowed and an instinct to swim, a quality closely associated with the west, and the element of water. That was what I saw in the marsh that day: the persistence of instinct. This marsh was heavily engineered and divided critically from itself, and yet the ancient urge to reproduce and die in the traditional way still led the salmon from the ocean to the marsh. We could tell what here, long ago, by what is here, now.

In the living waters of her womb the salmon swam, insistent and instinctive. We watched it move away from us.

Balance can be achieved between two objects of unequal size, my husband once told me. That’s true, I thought. I just witnessed that. The salmon was small compared to the size of the ocean. The creatures in the marsh were in some sort of equilibrium with each other, and in relationship with two enormous hydrological systems, one riverine, the other oceanic.

Nature is plastic: it makes endless adaptations, seeking balance. This capacity can be pushed too far. What would (what will) change if the freshwater flowing down the mountain dries up? What will happen if the rushing bore tide inundates the marsh? Both things are likely to happen, someday. What deal will be struck then?

And what would we be without water? Would we live without instinct, dry-brained, and witless, a wandering species with no home to return to and no way to live? It’s a horrible thought, and yet, it might happen. I’ve seen large swathes of California go up in flames. Communities in West Marin in California have had their wells run dry. And as of this writing, there is no rain in the forecast for California.

Water needs balance, from us, really: balance between the city and the wetland, between real need and mere desire, between what rains (or does not) down on us from the sky and into our homes and bodies.

Balance can be achieved between two objects of unequal size. A raindrop and a human body; different objects, vastly differing in size. What is that relationship? What can, what will, that balance be?

Potter Marsh, looking east

 

– Written on Mabon, 2014 and re-posted on the first day of the new Snow moon, January 21st, 2015

 

Ready to wear: vintage clothing and the ILGWU.

I got an early Yule giftie: a lovely vintage dress, given to me by a friend. The dress itself is an artifact from the history of unionized labor. It’s likely that a skilled garment worker living and working in New York City put this dress together.

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The gift dress came from a vintage clothing store called Tippiecanoe’s, which was housed in an old beach cottage in Laguna Beach, CA. Three flights of rickety steps took you up to a room that smelled of cigarette smoke, mildew and old wood. The best clothes were kept in a small room to the left of the entrance. It was crowded with clothing: ratty furs, suede gloves, boxy silk shantung cocktail dresses, narrow-soled Sabrina heels.

There would be women’s suits from the forties, sober and mannish, yet feminine, with wide lapels and A-line skirts. The Adrian-inspired dressing gowns were my favorite. They had wide shoulders, billowing sleeves with leg-o-mutton cuffs and tightly fitted armscyes. And, most tantalizingly, there would be wasp-waisted “New Look” dresses made from thick satin, or pebbly wool crepe, or lightweight wool, sometimes in pristine condition, mostly moth-eaten with a tattered crinoline dangling below the hem. They were still beautiful and structured expertly, with the tightest and surest seams I’d ever seen. Often the only thing that was still intact were the seams.

I viewed all of this glamour through the eyes of a slightly overweight goth girl who loved fashion illustration, especially Rene Grau’s illustrations for Vogue. I knew what these dresses demanded: an elongate spine, slim hips thrust forward insouciantly, a narrow ribcage, a small waist and a curved neck rising elegantly from between the crest of the clavicle.

I couldn’t give the dresses any of this. I was five feet four inches tall, and stout, thanks to my pot habit and the late night fast-food trips my friends and I took through the Naugles drive-through at 3 in the morning.We’d stuff our faces with cheap Mexican food and chocolate milkshakes, ravenous after partying all night.

I was feral, yet a part of me felt strongly that these dresses must have something to do with me. We were both allied in our desire to be seen, elegantly poised, out in the world.

justbetsyblackdress

I did manage to find some garments that fit me. A near-pristine Jacques Fath petticoat was one. Another was a silk shantung three-piece suit, an Oleg Cassini-knock off. I wore it to work, to parties, anyplace that would have me. I wore dresses and coats that today I’d only wear at the opera, dresses that probably garbed housewife-socialites in Lido or debutantes in Glendale. I waltzed around in the underground scene wearing these clothes, taking them into social situations they weren’t made for, like the illegal one-night-only dance clubs of Los Angeles and Santa Ana.

I still find treasures. Last week, I found a navy-blue jacket, made by Alvin Handmacher, from his “Weathervane” line.

(Does anyone remember the color “cerise”? Not fuchsia, not magenta, but a soulful pink infused with deep blue. My mother had a gorgeous cotton velvet skirt which I wore during in eighties-era Orange County. I loved how the color set off my dyed blue-black crew cut and pale skin. I called it pink once in front of my mother, and she quickly corrected me. “It’s Cerise,” she said, dragging out the last syllable: Ceer-eeeze. “It means cherry.” It was a very popular shade in the fifties, she told me, and one of her favorite colors because of the way it set off her dramatic coloring achieved without my level of artifice: chestnut brown hair, pale skin and snapping dark eyes.)

Back to the gift-dress: it’s made of pin-striped, densely woven cotton and it has an extremely fitted waist. I have a nuanced relationship with fitted waists, as anyone with a short waist does. I approve of the design’s dictatorial editing of my torso: the tailored, nipped-in waist organizes the terrain of my stomach and hips into two sharply edited geometrical shapes— an inverted triangle resting atop an upright one. It has ten darts around the waist and two hook and eye closures that ensure that the dress fits snugly.

More interesting, to me, are the assumptions that drove the design of this dress. One is that the young lady who purchased it would willingly wear a girdle and bra that tipped the breasts up and straight forward, allowing the space between the bosom and the hips to emerge. She was assumed to be out and about in the vita activa, public places of work and action located outside the confines of private domesticity. She was probably a mid-level, worker of some sort (a clerical worker? A teacher?) who needed a well-made, affordable and becoming dress to waltz blithely out into the post-war world.

The other of course, is that there would be garment workers who had the skills to handle all that meticulous tailoring. (Try hand-setting a dart, sometime. It isn’t easy.)

There’s a large label in the dress that reads Gigi Young New York. Manufacturing tags, sometimes made from a SAM_4014high-gloss sateen, are usually sewn into the collar of the garment and often have the designer’s name spelled out in a brash script: Lilli Anne from San Francisco. Eleanor Green of California. Irene (I’ve seen this label a few times, and, I think, actually owned a few garments. I had no clue what I had.)

A month ago, I found a mint-condition, navy-blue cashmere trench coat. The word “Ransohoffs” tells you everything you need to know about the provenance of the coat: It was manufactured for Ransohoff’s, the glamorous department store made famous by one very uncomfortable scene in the film “Vertigo”. It’s a dream of a coat.

These labels, the imprimatur of industry leaders who made it big in the heady mass-production years following the war, were not the only historic markers sewn into the garment. Often I’d find a small label bearing an unusual insignia sewn into the side seam. The label had an abstracted symbol of a needle pulling thread with tiny words arranged in a circular pattern around the letters ILGWU.

I know now that this is a label for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the powerful union founded in 1900 to combat dismal working conditions of workers in New York City. This small label was sewn into place by a unionized worker working in New York’s and Los Angeles’s garment districts. They worked an eight-hour day, with a union contract, in (hopefully) safer working conditions than had existed previously, doing the work to mass produce these highly designed pieces.

1348816860_official-seal-of-the-international-ladies-garment-workers-unionRose Pesotta, an anarchist labor organizer, was sent to Los Angeles from New York in 1933 to organize the supposedly un-organizeable Latina workers in Los Angeles. The powerful Associated Apparel Manufacturers of Los Angeles insisted on ignoring the state minimum wage of 16.00 dollars a week and instead preferred to pay their workers a wage that was sometimes as low as .50 cents a week. Rose PesottaPesotta wrote a book about her experiences organizing labor on both coasts.

In the second chapter of California Here We Come! she described the crazily inefficient manner in which dresses were manufactured in “open” (non-union) factories: women were given the “freedom of the building” which meant they were forced to wander around the multilevel factories looking for work. “Doors leading to staircases were left unlocked, so that they could take the elevator to the top floor, ask at each shop if there was work, walk down to the next floor, and repeat the performance until, if lucky, they found a few days’ employment for the price offered.”

The idea that the women were unable to stand up and fight back was proven false: Local 96 of the ILGWU was given official union recognition in September, and went on strike a month later, in the famous 1933 strike, shutting down the garment industry for 26 days. They won the concessions they’d sought from the employers. By 1950, which is about when my Gigi Young dress was made, most garment workers in New York and Los Angeles were unionized. They sat at their machines, attaching the swank labels of their employers as well as their own ILGWU bug to dress after dress. The label is a another assumption embedded into these dresses: that there would be a union, and no more horrible deaths by fire or industrial accidents. And no more unpaid labor.

It’s hard to tell, without access to the ILGWU archive, which garment manufacturers cooperated with the ILGWU. My Gigi Young dress, which probably cost about ten dollars has no union bug in it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t union made. In fact, as I write this, there are dresses for sale from online vintage retailers that list Suzy Perette (the parent company to Gigi Young) dresses as having the union bug sewn inside. I think it’s probable that my dress was made in a union shop—it’s a design from the early to mid-fifties, which in when the garment industry was mostly unionized in New York. The availability of other union-made dresses from this time on second-hand vintage clothing sites is enough to reassure me on that point. But without research at the archive, it isn’t possible know this with certainty.

But. If the gorgeous Gigi Young dress is union-made, it exposes the untruth in the idea that in order to purchase a gigiyoung beautiful, affordable, well-made garment, some worker somewhere has to suffer.

My dress, along with every other piece of vintage clothing I own that has a union bug sewn into it, puts paid to that awful lie. Every dress, every coat is better made with higher quality fabrics through the skill of fairly paid workers who had recourse to collective decision making. The dress could have retailed from between from 6.00 to 10.00. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a 60.00 to 80.00 dress, which is comparable to today’s prices. I’d certainly never find anything like it for sale in today’s department stores produced by a worker who had union representation, a contract and a decent paycheck.

The impoverished vision that only hires the most desperate worker in the most unregulated environment turns out, with depressing precision, crappy and hastily produced clothing, dispirited in design and construction. The fabric is horrendous, too: it’s adulterated with Lycra (blech) to provide stretch. This innovation, which serves to soothe women’s fears of being the “wrong” size, also usurps the skill of the unionized garment worker who could actually tailor clothing. Ah, for the days of precision darting!

The crappiness of today’s clothing is matched by the illusion, promoted by manufacturers like INC, or Guess! that because we can afford the clothes they sell, we are somehow well-garbed and living in an age of unheralded luxury. We are not. My beloved grandmother, petite, blonde and reflexively anti-union, sailed in and out of Bullocks Wilshire, when she could, purchasing dresses that were union made and which suited her trim figure. Today she’d be confronted with slip shod dresses with the barest trace of design. The union bug has disappeared and the clothing it has left behind has nothing to recommend it.

The aftermath of the 2012 Tazreen Fashions factory fire. Photo by Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Let me pause to wipe the beads of sweat from my brow (the above peroration has been brewing for some time). If you want the precision of a waist seam that defines your waist to perfection with twelve darts- six in front, and six in back-surrounding it- you must pay for it. And maybe this is what people should do. Find out how much it costs, truly costs, to make a beautiful garment under decent working conditions. Shop vintage if and when you can. Consider bespoke clothing whenever you can, especially for clothing you know you’ll wear for years. Or learn to sew. (The above mentioned anti-union, beloved grandmother was a dab hand with a needle, and made many of her own dresses, probably as many as she purchased.) Find out what it costs in terms of time and labor to make this princess-seamed dress, a classic design from the fifties. Or, for those of you who prefer to stay in the present moment, perhaps this un-constructed Lynn Mizono pull-over dress is more your style.

Take any pattern you want to a skilled garment worker and find out much it costs to be well-dressed. And then pay for it.

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I wrote this whole thing, and then found this excellent article written by Elizabeth L. Cline in 2011 that really breaks it down, to wit: “In 1930, the average American woman owned an average of nine outfits. Today, we each buy more than 60 pieces of new clothing on average per year. “ Fabulous. And here’s her book. I’ll be purchasing this, but NOT from Amazon. Special order it from your local bookstore. They’re still out there.

-written in San Francisco, CA, on the night of the Wolf Moon.