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Summer reading

While I have obviously not been around the blog lately, I have not been idle. Several rainy days have even kept me inside!

When I have not been here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And most recently, here: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or doing this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been slowly moving through my summer reading list. So far I’ve read Leslie Thomas’ novel, Flight of the Goose, Ernestine Hayes’ memoir, Blonde Indian, two collections of Yup’ik oratory (When I Became Aware and Stories for Future Generations), and Edward Hoagland’s travelogue, Alaskan Travels. For the time being, I’m just going to write about Hoagland’s book, but do feel free to ask me about the others in the comments.

In Edward Hoagland’s addition to the genre of Alaskan travel writing, Alaskan Travels: Far-Flung Tales of Love and Adventure, he makes an off-hand comment that, while somewhat insignificant to the larger goals of the collection, nonetheless is indicative of Alaskan letters, especially as written by a traveler. Near the end of the collection of stories that make up Hoagland’s reminisces of a love-affair with a competent frontier traveling nurse, he writes “Alaskans were generally a goaded group, masked by the beards they grew to ward off mosquitoes” (126). The category “Alaskans,” then, is a purely masculine one, even though Linda, Hoagland’s paramour, is a woman and just as “goaded” (i.e. “born on the wrong side of the tracks: their fathers’ drunks, their mothers’ bruises” [ibid.]). This is not the first time he has used facial hair to distinguish those who belong from those who do not, referencing his own beardless state. Now, of course, “beard” and masking leaves open some interesting room to think about what is going on between masculinity, crisis, frontiers and a haunting of the north by a feminization of the work force, the emasculation of the “last place” to which men can travel to be men—even though Hoagland readily puts this ethos under pressure, revealing the false assumptions and contradictions of these very same migrants. He writes:

Almost everybody in their thirties appeared to be provisionally allied with somebody of the opposite sex. But only in these ultimate frontier areas was the pattern likely to be the old-fashioned system of a bold young man with a helpmate female. Mostly, through Linda, I was meeting women who had fine, well-paying careers—nurse, teacher, social worker—and were living with men marginally employed at temporary, tentative jobs, sometimes because they were Native Americans grasping for a life ring, at sea in a world topsy-turvy, sometimes white exiles from the Lower 48 at loose ends. (135)

Throughout the book, Hoagland reaches the limit of his masculinity, facing impotence when confronted with a cold that was “ominous like an undertow in surf when you belatedly recognize it after enjoying yourself, then realize that the ocean isn’t exhilarated, as you are by your swim and may sweep you off and smother you” (82). After a walk at forty below zero, he returns to Linda “sufficiently awed by the cold to become impotent, despite being zipped securely inside a double sleeping bag and talked to severely by a nurse in a manner one would ordinarily respond to with alacrity” (87).

While working with tropes of cold and darkness that are no stranger to Alaskan letters (think Jack London’s popular short story, “To Build a Fire,” that continues to be taught in schools and anthologized), Hoagland, like “the man” in London’s story, loses his vitality to the almost living, uncaring, malevolent cold. However, what has changed is that it is no longer losing life that is at stake, but the very essence of man—control, sexual prowess, erection. In the previous passage, it is not just the cold that enervates the narrator, it is the cold linked to the female nurse, Linda—the narrator is unable to perform from contact with one and in the presence of the other. While women are doing just fine in the North with high paying if still service type jobs, the men have lost the frontier, they have conceded defeat and are no longer, apparently, masters of their future, the future (“North to the future” is a popular slogan for the opportunities Alaska is supposed to afford).

In London’s formulation, the dog is the inheritor of the North, he has the ability to survive, to fall back on his “canniness”—on buried lupine instinct, reverting back “to the wild” (this is the case for The Call of the Wild, although it is somewhat more complicated for the wolf turned dog in White Fang and the dog in “To Build a Fire” survives through being better adapted to the north along with his return to “the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers”). In the modern arctic, however, it is women that are now running the show, leaving London and Hoagland impotent in their wake.

And in a chilling destruction of the London man-dog survival pact, Hoagland writes:

Yet Joe, too, fed his dogs on dogs. Here he was in this center of dog-raising for profit, theoretically, except that the dogs weren’t selling lately; there were ‘thousands of pounds of dead dogs in this village’ yearly. ‘Why not use them? The team does real well on them.’ Since the Indians [Koyukon Athabaskans] believed it was Huklani, or ‘bad medicine,’ to feed dogs to other dogs, the whole town’s came to him for a dollar apiece when they got old or didn’t pan out. Cardboard boxes of frozen bodies sat in the yard that he would cut into three-pound cross-sections–hair, bone, and all–with his chainsaw and put in the twenty-gallon black bean pot simmering on a tripod over a driftwood fire. (129)

Hoagland comes back to the image of the chainsawed dog at several points in the book–the image seems to haunt him and yet he will not deal with the feelings it brings up directly, each time side-stepping to the next image, person or activity, adhering strictly to the narrative conventions of travelogue to never reveal his own culpability in the images and emotions he offers. Dogs are at the heart of life for humans in the north; they allowed humans to flourish where they would have been hard pressed to do so on their own and they continue to enjoy a special place in modern human activities and representations of the north. Yet Hoagland finds something dark, perverted, and unnatural at the heart of the relationship, representation, or enactment of white men and their dogs in modern Alaska. The black bean pot simmering with pieces of dog are cannibalistic–men who move north to the future are, in effect, killing not only the last wilderness ideal, but themselves as well.

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John Muir and Alaska

While visiting Juneau, AK for the ASLE off-year regional symposium (Environment, Culture & Place in a Rapidly Changing North), I decided to explore my surroundings as much as I could, given my time and mobility limitations. From an overheard conversation on a bus trip to the Mendenhall Glacier, I learned of a nearby hike, about 8 miles round trip–totally doable in an afternoon–with the intriguing promise of “John Muir’s cabin” at the end of it. I had to see it for myself.

Unable to locate a walking buddy, I trusted my knowledge of bears and, also, that a trail so near the university would be well frequented (the latter proved true and the former was not, thankfully, put to the test). I kept myself occupied as I (ineffectually) dodged mud and tree roots marveling at the vital exuberance of a rainforest in early summer, thinking about the legacy of John Muir in Alaska and wondering why, exactly, he had a cabin on a mountain in Juneau.

John Muir troubles me. He is a sensual writer, kidnapping his readers into evocative worlds of touch, taste, sight and sound. He uplifts us to the height of a Sitka Pine as he and the tree whip around in a storm’s frenzy and then, just as swiftly, we are down to the miniscule wonder of an alpine flower. We expand across watersheds, continents, eons! and then contract to the summer lifetime of a single bumble bee.

He writes passages like the following about the arrangement of a group of islands in Alaska’s Southeast:

Viewed one by one, they seem detached beauties, like extracts from a poem, while, from the completeness of their lines and the way that their trees are arranged, each seems a finished stanza in itself.

And yet, while his Travels in Alaska has been influential in helping turn “this far northern area into one of the chief battlefields of modern conservation” (David Wallace, Introduction to the 1998 edition), it was also this book that first encouraged modern attention (in the form of tourism, mineral exploration, settlement and later, the making of Glacier Bay National Park) to the southeast panhandle of the newly purchased Alaskan territory. As any Tlingit (or anyone else indigenous to the area now called Alaska) will tell you, Alaska was not even Russia’s to sell to the United States, let alone the United State’s having the power to remove people living in the areas now called wilderness–the most enduring of Muir’s legacies–pristine and human free that then become tourist only visiting spots. I think the commemorative plaque in “John Muir’s Cabin” explains the troubling, even complicit, nexus of tourism, wilderness ideals, the exploitation of resources and the imaginative project of making a history in a land you subconsciously know is not your own:

John Muir Cabin–USFS

This cabin was built by volunteers in 1980 Juneau’s centennial year, in honor of John Muir the naturalist. In 1879, while exploring southeast Alaska, he observed and reported mineralization in rock in the area where Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discovered gold and founded Juneau in 1880.

Did Muir envision the extent of the infrastructure needed to support access to the wilderness areas he wrote about so intimately and enthusiastically? The wooden boards across trails worn into the tundra, deep with mud. Sturdy bridges across ravines and swift flowing rivers, built from felled trees hauled on ATVs or dropped from helicopters. Cabins (with stoves for winter sleeping, needing wood to burn). Steps built into steep hillsides with wood or non-local rocks. Gasoline powered tour boats. “Facilities” (outhouses, cafes, visitor centers). Paved parking lots.

Muir knew he was writing a travel book. Travel books are written for the profit of the writer so that he can pursue more travel and their function is to tell people about places they have never been–it makes unknown places known, it makes them within reach, desirable, achievable. In this fashion, Travels in Alaska is a colonial text: it appropriates a space that is uneasily owned into the national imagination and encourages visitation, entitlement, ownership.

In a keynote address at the conference from which I was currently, guiltily, absent, Ernestine Hayes (author of Blonde Indian: an Alaska Native Memoir) spoke about uneven power dynamics that are maintained through the rigid policing of culture, history, and art. She spoke about what counts as a “creation myth”, asking the audience (predominantly, but not all, white academics) to think about the creation myths of American culture, the stories told and retold about freedom, equality, liberty, happiness for all. What happens to our own stories when we think of them in terms that we reserve for others, those that have been dispossessed of those very rights? I would add wilderness to our creation myth–the land without humans, untouched, reserved in perpetuity for desire only. Muir is complicit in the settlement of southeast Alaska by people who, like him, thought they had more right to the land than those currently living there because they knew the worth of the land in terms of dollars, souls to be Christianized or the so-called “intrinsic value” of land that has been so lightly touched by the hand of man that those only recently arrived could call it pristine, virgin, pure.

But a cabin built of imported material dedicated to a naturalist that pointed out the gold that would bring future massive resource exploitation–the cognitive dissonance of this project beggars belief, yet here we are, this is modern Alaska. The people traditionally living in what is now Glacier Bay National Park are forbidden to live or subsist within park boundaries, yet logging continues in the Tongass forest, mines operate in the mountains behind the glaciers and receding glaciers reveal new mineral wealth, and thousands of visitors tramp through the wilderness or ride on chugging boats through the inside passage.

If there were no protected places would resource extraction run rampant? If Alaska’s native people had not been colonized, would they make alliances with the oil industry who will let them stay on the land, when Congressional wilderness acts push them off? As a lover of the solitude and serenity that can be found on a well marked path through some lightly touched country, what is my responsibility to the current state of affairs? These are not questions that can be answered in a word, a sentence, an exclamation point. These are on-going projects, for thought an action, for a lifetime. All I can say right now is that I’ll continue down the path to John Muir’s cabin, but I hope I never arrive.

I want to express my gratitude for being made welcome to Lingit Aani. Gunalchéesh. All photos (and their deficiencies) are my own. For more information about hiking to or sleeping at John Muir Cabin, USFS or Hiking Alaska, p. 332-333.

What’s wrong with this picture?

For various celebrations and life events, I often receive polar and/or literary themed gifts. A favorite to both give and receive are sticky book tabs in beautiful patterns, fun prints and creative shapes. To be honest, I often have a hard time using them–especially if they are from The Girl of All Work Co. They’re just so perky it seems a shame to use them for something so mundane as research!

This preamble is just to say, DO NOT STOP GIVING ME POLAR AND/OR LITERARY THEMED GIFTS! I love them! I love them all! Truly, I do. But that is not going to stop me from being the cultural critic I am. As the environmental theorist Greg Garrard once said when introducing the eco/feminist/queer theorist Catriona Sandilands and her book project about the gendered spaces of Canada’s national parks (you can read an article by her here), “cultural studies scholars are no fun to take anywhere.” And they certainly know how to look a gift horse in the mouth.

So what is wrong with the above picture? We have some “arctic friends” happily hanging out together, ready to forever point out an important sentence in the middle of a book for my later retrieving pleasure; a fur-clad Inuk, a penguin, and, uh, a tuna? salmon? parrot fish? let’s say salmon. WHAT?!! A PENGUIN?!

Leaving aside the problematic representation of an “Eskimo” stereotype and the unidentifiable fish, let’s focus on this rather globe-trotting penguin. Despite what you may read on the internet, find in an Etsy shop or discover in a pamphlet celebrating multiculturalism from the ’70s, penguins do. not. live. in the Arctic.

But why does this myth persist well into the second millennium? If it has accurately been documented by Inuit, by scientists, by environmentalists, by all sorts of travelers, that penguins do not inhabit the northern polar regions except in zoos, why do people want to persist with the myth that penguins do live in the north, why is it so effective to label a sticky tab, woodblock or print of penguins as “arctic” in some shape or form?

I readily agree that “arctic” is a slippery term. In Arctic Discourses, the editors go to great lengths to point this out:

According to geographers, the Arctic includes the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Greenland, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. One often used boundary is demarcated by the Arctic Circle (at 66° 33’N), which is the approximate limit of the midnight sun and the polar night. Other definitions are based on climate and ecology, such as the 10°C (50° F) July isotherm, which roughly corresponds to the tree line in most of the Arctic. Socially and Politically, the Arctic region can include the northern territories of the eight Arctic states, including (in Fenno-Scandinavia) Lapland/Sápmi, although by natural science definitions much of this territory is considered subarctic (xii).

Nowhere is it indicated that “arctic” also encompasses the southern pole–except in the name “Antarctica,” which, with the prefix “ant(i)-” means opposite, on the other side from the Arctic.

Now, I do have to admit that as I write this, every time I look up from the computer I see a mug purchased at the Scott Polar Research Institute gift shop with an endearing graphic of a polar bear and penguin. Like this:

When I bought the souvenir mug (because I do like polar bears and I do like penguins and I thought it was hilarious that a scientific research institution had so thoroughly and successfully collapsed the geography between the poles), the sales associate quipped that it’s probably the only place one can find a polar bear and a penguin in the same space. I rejoined that if anyone can bring the two polar species together, it would be the SPRI.

But as the mug and the book tabs demonstrate, penguins sell. People like movies that feature penguins (March of the Penguins, Happy Feet no. ad nauseam, etc. Even Werner Herzog in Encounters at the End of the World, who swore he would not make another antarctic film about penguins, features a penguin experiencing an existential crisis as he heads towards the mountains instead of the sea). There are plenty of charismatic avian species up north that would display beautifully. There is the brightly billed puffin (my grade school mascot!); the snow bunting; arctic tern; the amazing guillemot’s that lay, hatch and rear their young on cliffs that the flightless birds have to jump off of to reach the sea; and many more.

What have penguins got that these birds don’t? They are known. They are endearing. They are non-threatening. They are a shorthand for a set of relations between people and a remote location. They are not predators like polar bears who are also an endearing shorthand, among other things, for climate change and environmental responsibility. Although many penguin species are endangered–some of the most adorable!–they are remote enough, contained enough, talked about enough, people-less enough, to be, when artistically figured, whatever we want them to mean. With a rolly-polly Eskimo caricature that has also been emptied of any engaged relation to actual people living and surviving political, economic, social and environmental upheaval, the penguin assures us that these images are not real. They are a fantasy, a soothing bit of slightly quirky and fun imagination, the Urban Outfitter of exotica.

The perpetuation of stereotypes and misinformation has consequences. When we don’t think about the set of relations being displayed and consumed, when we don’t demand accountability in how species and cultures are substituted, then we risk losing those species and cultures. If penguins still survive in the Antarctic but the puffin goes extinct, who will even know? Accuracy doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t have to stifle the imagination or block the creative musings that stem from “what if…a penguin was to make her way to the north pole…”

Art is never politically neutral, and mass produced craft is even less so. Let’s make a future for these creatures and their homes (in the south pole or the north) from whence we can look at a misidentified “arctic” penguin knickknack as a kitsch curiosity from a less enlightened past. Hopefully, it will be a future full of penguins, polar bears and puffins.

Subhankar Banerjee to speak at Stanford

If you happen to be in the Bay Area next week, stop by Stanford University for a talk by climatestorytellers.org‘s Subhankar Banerjee (I previously mentioned Banerjee and his work here).

Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point

Thursday, May 10th 2012; 6:00-8:00 PM

CUMMINGS ART BUILDING, ART4 (LOWER LEVEL)

Banerjee’s work as a documentarian of climate change in the Arctic has had national coverage; his photograph of a polar bear out on the ice was used as a backdrop for Barbara Boxer’s [D California] impassioned plea for the listing of polar bears as threatened due to climate change on the senate floor and he has been a regular contributor to the HuffingtonPost, garnering no little attention from such luminaries as BP for his efforts. As a photographer and a writer, he persistently pursues a multifaceted, multidimensional, and multigeneric approach to the Arctic—perhaps the only approach that can represent the complex and conflicted area (especially when the complexity of climate change is added to the mix).

On his website, his engagement is thus described:

Subhankar’s Arctic series [of photographs] began in 2000 with a desire to live with polar bears in the wild. Over the years his many romantic ideas were shattered, and his vision has since evolved into a visual exploration of the Arctic’s connection to larger global issues such as, resource wars, climate change, toxic migration, and human rights struggles of the northern indigenous communities.

Unlike Timothy Treadwell (featured in Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man) who, unfortunately, did not give up his romantic ideals about wilderness, bears, and cross-species identification, Banerjee, through the shattering of his romantic ideals, gestures towards a new frame for imagining north beyond the cliché of the romantic sublime. Banerjee thinks through a more inclusive approach to what he terms “land as home” through “ecocultural rights.” Ecocultural rights, according to Banerjee, encompass an understanding of lived environments as inclusive to not only a human right to a flourishing life (often used in the discourse that indigenous communities need extractive resource based economies in order to survive) but also the rights of other species and even systems of land, seas, and other watersheds; in short, an eco-systemic approach that takes into consideration that humans—and human culture—shape our understanding and ability to live on and with the land. This formulation identifies and rectifies what is troubling in the invocation of simply a human rights discourse in pleas for indigenous recognition of homeland and economic and political security. Karl Jacoby sums this up succinctly (in an epigraph to one of Banerjee’s essays): “We need, in short, a history that regards humans and nature not as two distinct entities but as interlocking parts of a single, dynamic whole.”

Banerjee’s essays and, most particularly, his photographs engage these concepts as he frames people, animals, and landscapes interacting and moving through “stories” together. I put “stories” in quotes because as the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words, but they do not necessarily say the same words to every viewer. Banerjee’s lively photographs create contexts as well as spaces for engagements that are not predetermined or determining, but draw forth wonder, melancholy, nostalgia, passion, and love from viewers, whether it is a picture of a herd of caribou, a mother polar bear with her cubs, the proverbial “empty” landscape of a tundra hillside or an indigenous hunter gutting and skinning a caribou.

Banerjee, through his photographs, offers a way in which to come to terms with vast space while simultaneously acknowledging, and refuting, the standard tropological framework that governs how non-Arctic people perceive Arctic and Sub-arctic landscapes. Banerjee reframes the Arctic and Sub-arctic through the lens of inhabitation (rather than through emptiness, loss or waste), bringing the two climatic regions together through how people and animals live in the world together.

Farewells

So far this year we have lost some luminaries in the realm of activism–social, political, environmental. Two worth mentioning in the space of this blog are Martin Murie and Adrienne Rich. Martin Murie was the son of Margaret “Mardy” and Olaus Murie, two pillars of the Alaskan environmental movement. The Muries were instrumental in the lobbying of Congress for the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a region rich in plant, animal, and people history. Mardy Murie wrote about her experiences in the area that became the Refuge in her best-selling memoir, Two in the Far North. She also writes in the book about taking Martin as a toddler into some of the wildest areas of Alaska on scientific expeditions with Olaus, a famed biologist best known in Alaska for his research on wolves in the Arctic. Martin passed away earlier this year and from a beautiful tribute from his former student, we learn a little more about how his parents’ values and dedications survived and flourished in their son:

Biologist, teacher, writer, and ranter, Martin called himself a “varmentalist.” He was an activist for nature and wildness and against war and corporate domination. Anyone meeting Martin at a demo, in a classroom, or on the wrong side of a “No Trespassing” sign found right away that his smile was to the core and his readiness to listen and argue was an open invitation. He had a confidence in folks, in the human animal, that kept him up and fighting for justice. “Because we are sociable, we work together,” he said.

Adrienne Rich would share that sentiment, I think, only adding an insistence on the presence of others marginalized by dominant structures of power: women, queers, the working class. She famously once said: “Art…means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.” She wrote this in her 1997 letter refusing the National Medal of Arts, in protest against the Clinton Administration. She expressed her dismay further, that amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.” Read more about her life and poetic legacy here.

The following poem from the school among the ruins: poems 2000-2004 connects two spaces very dear to me, drawing a line up the coast from south to north in a narrative migration that travels across–and connects–land and people. The poem exemplifies, I think, the work I attempt here on the blog, which is to notice that many stories make up a single life (and can be told in a variety of ways) and that stories connect across lives, lifetimes and places.

There is No One Story and One Story Only (2002)

The engineer’s story of hulking coal
to Davenport for the cement factory, sitting on the bluffs
between runs looking for whales, hauling concrete
back to Gilroy, he and his wife renewing vows
in the glass chapel in Arkansas after 25 years
The flight attendant’s story murmured
to the flight steward in the dark galley
of her fifth month loss of nerve
about carrying the baby she’d seen on the screen
The story of the forensic medical team’s
small plane landing on an Alaska icefield
of the body in the bag they had to drag
over the ice like the whole life of that body
The story of the man driving
600 miles to be with a friend in another country     seeming
writing in a letter difficult truths
Of the friend watching him leave remembering
the story of her body
with his once and the stories of their children
made with other people and how his mind went on
pressing hers like a body
There is the story of the mind’s
temperature neither cold nor celibate
Ardent     The story of
not one thing only.

Aurora on my mind

The following meditation was written by a friend of mine who made the opposite of the usual Alaskan “snowbird” trek: flying up north in the winter only to fly south again in the summer! I was so intrigued by this unusual turn of events, I asked her to say something about her reasons for going north and what she thought of north once she got there.

If you would like to read more about Robin, Leslie and Ziggy’s adventures in the north, check out their blog!

Spring Melancholy
by Robin McDuff

I have spent very little time around snow. I’ve always lived in essentially snowless areas and I have rarely vacationed to snowy areas. This has been by choice, of course. I crave warmth and have not been attracted to those areas likely to snow nor to the things, like skiing, that one does in the snow.

One exception to that was a trip we—my partner Leslie and I—took to Alaska in March of 2000. We wanted to see the aurora borealis, and there is no escaping the need to go to an area of snow and cold for that. So we headed to Fairbanks, Alaska, and ended up rather enchanted with the place. The aurora was spectacular, but so too were the ice sculptures and the dog mushing. And the people we met were extremely warm and welcoming. It was so completely different than anything we had ever experienced and, beyond being too cold sometimes due to inadequate footwear, we loved the place and vowed to return.

Our plan was to stay long enough to experience the change from winter to summer. We were interested in watching the march of the sun, gobbling up six or seven minutes of darkness most days. That said, we didn’t want the full-on winter encounter of limited sunlight and the intense sub-zero cold for many months. But we wanted enough winter, enough cold, to feel that we understood the Alaskan experience better than the normal aurora-seeking tourist. We decided to come in late February, a time when sub-zero temperatures are still frequent but on the wane, and to leave in mid-June, when it is warm and the sun only leaves the sky for 3 ½ hours a day and there is never dark.

Now, I despise feeling cold (as does Leslie.) We own a second home in Hilo, Hawaii—record low: 53 degrees F—so we can escape the winter cold of Santa Cruz, where the very lows tend to be in the high 20s. So most of our friends thought we were nuts to come to Fairbanks in the winter. But we learned from our last trip here that feeling cold is very different than the temperature being cold. As the saying goes, there is no bad weather, just bad clothing. This time, I got the right shoes for the cold. And truly—though I have been out in -10F temps—I have yet to feel any bone-chilling cold here.

Photo:  properly clothed for the weather (all photos by Leslie Karst)

Beyond having good clothing, two Fairbanks facts make a huge difference: there is very little wind and it is very dry. The truth is that I often feel way colder walking on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, when the chill wind is coming off the ocean, than I have ever felt here. (My take-away: improve my clothing in Santa Cruz!)

We arrived in Fairbanks on February 22nd to fairly warm—for Alaska in that month—temperatures. This February ended up being one of the warmest on record, averaging 5.9 degrees. March, unlike the norm, did not warm up as it normally does but was uncharacteristically colder than February, averaging 4.5 degrees. Moderating the temperature for us was the fact that, by a fortuitous accident of planning, we had traded for a house up in the hills north of Fairbanks, an area that is usually many degrees warmer in the winter than the city below. This difference is due to a vertical escape from the nasty inversion layer that hangs in the valley in which Fairbanks sits.

The dominant sight from our home was—and is still, in every direction—snow and trees, mostly birch. It is lovely, of course. It looks so bright and clean. But monotonous, too.

Photo: the view from our downstairs window

Leslie and I opined that stunning as the view is, it would become oppressive to have the same view for the seven months of the Alaskan winter. We love looking out the window, but we both felt it would be nice when spring came to reveal a different look.

Nonetheless while it was here, I was learning to love this snow.  It is light and airy and dry.  You can’t make a snowball out of it in the winter but shoveling it is a snap. If you step into a big drift or fall down, you simply brush it off and no water remains.


I soon found out there were real advantages to living in a snow-covered environment. Snow not only looks clean, it is clean. Our dog Ziggy could romp in the snow or dig to her heart’s content and come back in without us having to grab a towel and clean off mud, as is the norm in a Santa Cruz.

Photo: Ziggy in motion

Night-time is bright. Even moonless nights are never truly dark because of the white on the ground. Driving at night in the snow is much easier than driving on black pavement in the dark. In fact, now that much of the snow has thawed on the roadways, it has revealed rather bumpy roads underneath. I found that driving in the snow was actually quite pleasant.

 

Because for months the temperature doesn’t get high enough to melt the snow, there was very little ice except for here and there on major roadways. So the snow is easy to walk on, and has a lovely crunchy sound.
 

 

 

Photo: from the front yard with houselights illuminating the snow, me and Ziggy

 

I thought that the first signs of spring would make me very happy, but I was surprised to find out that I was, in fact, experiencing melancholy. While I do like that temperatures are now in the 40s and 50s, I am distraught that this means the snow will go away. No more Ziggy running through the snow course I created for her? No more snow crunching under my feet? No more stretches of pristine clean, interrupted only by the occasional animal track?

I now realize that the sun, which will stay up in the sky for longer and longer, will actually be seen less here at the house as the greening of the birch trees will soon block our rays, and our view through the forest. There will be no more shadows of the birch trees on the snow, which will instead be replaced by a sea of leaves enclosing us.

I want the sun as it is now, which can be seen most of the day from our home. The 40s and 50s are warm enough for me. Let time stand still, right now. I can easily deal with the monotony of the snow as long as I have the warmth of the sun. Who needs variety?

Photo: moose tracks through the snow

Ah well, it is but a dream. Time marches on. In just a few weeks, if the weather continues as it is, there will be no snow left. But I will need to return to Fairbanks before the snowmelt another year. It’s just wonderful.

The (Un)Lucky

In honor of Friday the 13th and spooky superstitions at the North Pole, I give you Christian Nyby’s 1951 The Thing from Another World (later remade into the classic 1982 John Carpenter Antarctic horror film, The Thing–we won’t even mention the most recent version…):

 

For a comprehensive list of polar films, check out this great website (complete with genre icons!).

In Nature’s State, Susan Kollin has this to say about the film:

Anxieties about national security and the complexities of human relations with nonhuman nature became the basis of a popular Hollywood film about Alaska…[The Thing] imagines the post-World War II threat as an alien creature, both a Soviet and a nuclear menace. The thing, for instance, literally falls out of the sky, contaminating the land and threatening to destroy American civilization as we know it.

Swimming against the current

Although Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has very little to do with the Arctic, I’ve been thinking about salmon and the north recently and so went to see the film. I’d also read the novel by Paul Torday (2007) some years ago and was curious how it would translate to the big screen. The film beautifully and quite cleverly transformed the epistolary aspects of the novel (letters between Harriet Chetwode-Talbot and Captain Robert Matthews, emails between Dr. Alfred and Mary Jones, internal government memos, and interview transcriptions), showing instant message conversations, words from emails being typed overlaying the characters on the big screen, characters speaking the texts as they write them on their phones, etc. Other than a few changes to the plot that streamlined the story and the introduction of the indispensable Press Secretary to the Prime Minister Patricia Maxwell (Peter Maxwell in the novel) played by Kristin Scott Thomas, the major difference is the fairly predictable upbeat ending (and far fewer deaths) favored by the director (Lassan Halström, Chocolat) and screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire).

Like the novel, the film is centered around the two main protagonists (Dr. Alfred Jones and Harriet Chetwode-Talbot) and their respective relationships to their significant others–Harriet’s relationship is new, passionate and full of love and promise; Fred’s is worn, habitual, unsatisfying, even loveless. While both the novel and film follow the disintegration of these relationships, the film has the more satisfying conclusion of bringing the main characters together at the end. (Also, it is a significant change in the film to make the water for the salmon come from a dam built for agricultural purposes to better the lives of the Yemeni people rather than the natural phenomenon of a mountain river. The dam can then be sabotaged by those fearing “western influences”–later to be rebuilt in a community involvement and education effort–while the flood in the novel is a purely natural phenomenon–with religious overtones, of course–that kills the Sheikh, Peter Maxwell and others).

But the salmon. The salmon are lively creatures that make their material presence felt through “fish-eye” views of the humans (I for one, had the strange desire for the bread crumbs Dr. Jones tosses to his Koi as I watched them tumble into the water through Koi-eyes) and cuts to “within-the-school” shots as the fish swim around in various pools of water (the pivotal moment of the film happens underwater as first one salmon and then the others turn to head upstream). The salmon are also, following a long tradition of animal representations, the figural manifestations of human desire and limitations. The film not very subtly portrays Dr. Jones as, well, a “cold fish” (he doesn’t know how to joke, he is rather regimented in his habits), or perhaps more accurately, a “fish out of water” (he fails at the game of politics, he seems unable to express his emotions), or better yet, as a person who learns how to swim against the current of expectation. Although cuts to fish seem to happen whenever there is an emotional moment between humans, the salmon are not simply avatars for human emotional states. An author once wrote that “The happiness of people has a great deal in common with the happiness of salmon”–identifying what the film would have us believe as well: if first we make the world a habitable place for the optimal flourishing of salmon, then human flourishing will follow. And though many salmon die (and relationships fail) in the process of turning the Wadi Aleyn into a supportive habitat, some of both succeed. There is an interesting tension around wild vs. farm stocked fish and which shall be the messengers of the grand plan of the Sheikh to being salmon fishing to the Yemen–for both Dr. Jones and the Sheikh have an angler’s abhorrence of the fat, raised-to-be-eaten farmed salmon. The climax and the triumph of the salmon and Dr. Jones occurs when both realize that what society has programmed them to do is not what ultimately lies at the heart of life: the salmon transcend their humble beginnings and turn to swim upstream like their wild relatives would do and Dr. Jones breaks free of his enervating stasis swimming circles in his loveless marriage and takes the wilder route of following a path of dreams, miracles and endless possibilities.

Does the film glorify the farmed fish? Does it make fish-farming and the environmental hazards of doing so okay, because the fish will always retain a sense of their wildness, of their inherited DNA that urges them to swim upstream? I don’t think so. Although framed in the shadow of British involvement in Afghanistan and turbulent relations in the Middle East, the film is not that deep either politically or aesthetically. Instead, it is a fanciful romp that explores many sorts of “what ifs” without having to settle on any one sort of future and it takes serisouly what the life of a fish means for the life of a human, humans and fish becoming something other, together.

My one criticism (other than the Good Muslim vs. the Bad Muslim tired trope) is that I’m left feeling uncomfortable about how Mary Jones is written in the film and how she is punished for her decisions. Patricia Maxwell is shown onscreen with her family (husband, three kids, “happily married”) almost as often as she is shown at work. Mary is always leaving or coming from work, barely breezing through her home with enough time to make her husband a sandwich. The one time that having children is brought up by her husband, she is distracted by a text from her office and doesn’t hear him. Ultimately, I believe the audience is supposed to understand that she chooses her career over her husband (and we shouldn’t be upset when he leaves her) and this decision relieves him of the need to support and encourage her to those ends that make her most happy. Captain Robert Mayers (Matthews in the novel) is similarly disappointed at the end of the film as his love interest chooses to follow her dream rather than him, but his loss is pitiable rather than punitive.

Ultima Thule

Awhile back, I entreated you to visit the UK’s National Maritime Museum’s exhibit “High Arctic: Future Vision of a Receding World” (read the post here). During my visit, I picked up a little book of poems by Nick Drake, the featured poet in the installation, simply called “High Arctic.” The book doesn’t contain all of the poems that are associated with the exhibit, but I thought I would share one of my favorites–and I highly recommend getting a copy of his poems for yourself.

Phytheas says:

 

I sailed with the sun

Into a dream;

North past the sacred promontory

To the emporium called Belerion,

A land subject to frost

Where they shape tin from the mines

As a man’s knucklebones.

North along the coast of Britannike

Into a strange summer

Beyond the edges of the world;

The gnomon of our mast

Lengthened across the sea each day;

The nights diminished;

New stars appeared, never before seen;

The pole star rose from the northern horizon

Higher and higher;

Finally, after six days at sea, we saw

The lost land called Thule.

Theophrastus says time

Is an accident of motion

And surely what he says is true;

For we came to a place where the sun did not set,

And the ocean stopped

And the waters congealed,

And the gnomon of our mast

In that frozen noon

Cast a shadow that reached to the horizon.

In the brief dark

I beheld Arktikos, the Great Bear,

The Pole Star

And the seven stars

Turning above my head

As if we were the still point

Of everything.

 

I staked my life and sailed into a dream;

When at last I returned home

They did not believe me.

I wrote the truth in a book,

But then the book was lost.

I am Phytheas, the Greek.

This was my dream.

Drake’s poem is based on the Greek adventurer who is presumed to be one of the first explorers of the Arctic who returned to write and publish his musings on the experience. He also references “Thule” in his poem, an evocative image of the north that has a suitable poetic history. One critical study of the works by the renowned Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, written in response to Rasmussen naming his Greenlandic trading station “Thule,” states that “Thule” is a poetic, even a legendary name, one that always points across horizons, a place where only imaginations can travel. She explains the political aspect of this poetic naming practice:

Ultima Thule as a concept for the far North means engaging with particular horizons and perspectives. Horizons reflect peoples’ concerns with both openness and closure that determine what we experience and how we interpret what we experience. When a horizon and whatever lies beyond it are given articulate form, they freeze our view of the reality that immediately confronts us.

We can think about how the northern horizons given a material presence in Rasmussen’s trading post is linked to Drake’s re-imagined evocation of place, time, desire, and the north. Drake uses imagery of time to ask us to rethink our global responsibility to the north in terms of our contribution to climate change (which puts an expiration date on the Arctic) through the long history of western fascination with pushing boundaries, moving horizons.

Riddle me this…

Can you get this one? “I drag my shovel on the trail.” Or, how about, “I broke my bow, shooting at caribou.”

No? The answer to the first one is a beaver and the second is the northern lights!

The other day, I picked up a wonderful little publication from one of my favorite bookstores, Tidal Wave Books in Anchorage, Alaska: “Koyukon Riddles.” The little book is adapted and introduced by Richard Dauenhauer, the husband of the renowned Tlinget poet and linguist, Nora Marks Dauenhauer. Published in 1975 for The Alaska Bilingual Education Center, the riddles were originally collected by one Fr. Julius Jette, S.J. in 1913 (the Koyukon are an Athabascan people that live on the Koyukuk and Yukon Rivers in Northern Alaska). According to Dauenhauer, winter was the time for riddles after the hard work of summer and fall, when “the food supply had been gathered and prepared.” For the Koyukon, specifically, riddles are associated with “the return of light” during the second half of the winter.

Dauenhauer also explains beautifully how riddles relate to the everyday world, when they might appear to be only evocative flights of fancy: “Riddles are like poems. A riddle is an act of imagination–an act of seeing something in terms of something else…riddles turn things upside down and inside out [and] gives us a new or different way of seeing the everyday world.”

What do you see in the world of the Koyukon from these few examples? Here are a few of my favorites–feel free to add your own in the comments!

1. Far away, a fire flaring up.

2. We come upstream in a red canoe.

3. Grease-like, like sun on water, streaking in opposite directions.

4. We go singing in the water

______________________________________________________

1a. Red Fox tail

2a. Red salmon

3a. Sled runner tracks

4a. Paddle whirls

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