I feel that a measure of respect is essential when making a living within the “Wilderness”. I don’t feel that wilderness and humans are mutually exclusive, but there is little denying that humans on the whole have a habit of stripping the “wilderness” of any useful natural resources; it is for this reason that some sections of the wild should be set aside and protected. I think it is impossible to separate the protection and exploitation of nature because without one, there is no need for the other.
Cronon plays into the logical fallacy that correlation implies causation, as when he asserts that “If one saw the wild lands of the frontier as freer, truer, and more natural than other, more modern places, then one was also inclined to see the cities and factories of urban-industrial civilization as confining, false, and artificial.” I would argue that the juxtaposition of nature with urbanity could just as easily show the strengths of each as it would the strengths of one and weaknesses of the other. Living for a year in a waterless, powerless cabin was an experience I would not trade for the world. I did feel a communion with nature; I did feel as though I was part of a grander tradition of living off the land that both the indigenous people and the hardy pioneers of our great state began. I also loved, and I mean loved moving into an apartment and flipping a light switch, taking a hot shower, and drying my clothes in an electric dryer as I pleased.
Cronon only very briefly touches on the inherent battle of humans vs. nature that has been waged since man came down from the trees. Of course the wilderness was once the enemy; as such it was portrayed that way in literature and in the public mind. In the eyes of most societies, even those with a deep and abiding respect for nature, nature was respected as the formidable enemy that it was. In Velma Wallace’s masterwork Two Old Women, excerpted in the Last New Land, the titular women wage the battle against the fiercest elements imaginable. “It awaits us, this death. Ready to grab us the moment we show our weak spots…If we are going to die anyway, let us die trying!” (pp.474)
I feel that in Cronon’s zeal to prove his point – that there is no true “wilderness”; that what there is is made ugly and artificial by its sad history – he ignores the fact that there is, indeed, still some semblance of nature to be enjoyed. Just because he disagrees with the methods of the American people and their abuse of the landscape does not make the glaciers and bays and ranges of Alaska, for instance, any less majestic. Nor does it cheapen the appreciation of and the ability for us to enjoy that “wilderness” that is still available to us, especially here in the Last Frontier.
When writing about, reading about, or surviving in Alaska, resources are typically interwoven, overtly or otherwise, into each and every interaction. Even for a modern Alaskan living in the heart of Anchorage, one can be measured and your lifestyle defined by the simple separation from the natural resources that have shaped the history of the citizens of the state… and even then, there is no guarantee that some of the natural resources won’t still track you down.
The contrast between the spoiled, industrialized life of the common American and the hardscrabble survival of Alaskan citizens from the time of the Bering land bridge to the Native cultures pre-contact with the Western world is one that is difficult to truly appreciate. In this instance, I wonder if ignorance isn’t truly bliss; would the North Slope Alaskans observed by Richard K. Nelson in his anthropological treasure “Shadow of the Hunter” been so dedicated to their lifestyle if they knew how only a few thousand miles to the south, humans were living in relative ease, even leisure?
Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. Because aren’t humans to this very day seeking out adventure in the waters and ridges and tundra of Alaska? Hunting and fishing comprise a portion of the Alaskan economy that numbers in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year. [http://voices.yahoo.com/economic-impact-fishing-hunting-alaska-2851001.html] There has been, for the most part, an extreme shift in this state from utilizing natural resources to survive, and using them to enhance or even distract from that life which is ostensibly so much easier (and some ethnocentric individuals would say “better”) than using your brains and tools and Alaska’s resources to survive.
Pam Houston’s “Dall” embraces the dichotomy of city slicker in the deep woods, the transformation from knowing about the wild second-hand and actually physically enveloping yourself in the kind of nature most people can’t even dream about. Or, as Pam so eloquently puts it, to “intentionally deprive yourself of all the comforts of normal life… We carried only enough water so that we were always on the edge of real thirst… It seemed important, in fact, not to eat any fruits and vegetables, to climb up and down the steepest part of every mountain, and to nearly always get caught out after dark.” [p.435-6]
(So maybe it isn’t for everyone.)
A great example of a man who has chosen his preferred combination of the new and the old is embodied in Tom Walker’s “Moose: Season of the Painted Leaves.” In an excerpt rich in detail and reality, Tom describes a man who is dancing between both the industrial world with his “35x spotting scope”, “instant coffee”, “oatmeal, raisins, and brown sugar” with a “cup of powdered milk”; and the world of the indigenous people, having trained himself “over the years.. to look for a turn of horn, a section of haunch, an unusual profile, a shadow, a color out of place, a difference in texture.” He knows that “seeing is all a matter of tuning in, of knowing what to look for.” [pp. 416-9]. These skills, sought after and honed by choice in this tale, were truly a matter of generational life and death in the history of Alaska and the people’s pursuit of the natural resources offered by the land.
That a modern man with all the comforts of the 20th century would take the time and dedication to hone this skill is a testament to the primal draw that the pursuit of natural resources, not just those for economic gains but those historically needed for survival, has on many souls.
Richard “Dick” Proenneke in known through Alaska and beyond as a man who epitomized the spirit of wilderness living. His relationship with the Alaskan wilderness was one of reverent respect; rather than asking himself — as so many of his fellow Euro-American settlers had done — what he could take from the land, he asked himself how he could leave the smallest possible footprint, how to take what he needed and nothing more. This relationship is one that had been developed by indigenous Alaskans since the first settlers came over on the Bering Land Bridge, and a mindset that wholly lacked value in the eyes of most Western settlers of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Dick, born and raised among 5 siblings on a farm in Primrose, Iowa, was a thoughtful man with a quick intellect that lent itself to a natural understanding of machinery. He began his career in the Navy, serving during World War II, where he began his education in carpentry. After the war he held several civilian positions, working as a diesel mechanic in Iowa before moving to a sheep ranch in Oregon. In 1950, Proenneke made the jump to Alaska; first settling on Shuyak Island to work on a cattle ranch. Shortly thereafter, he moved to nearby Kodiak Island to lend his considerable skill to the naval base as a heavy equipment operator and repairman. Over the following decade and a half, Proenneke worked on and off as a commercial fisherman as well as with his large machines, developing a deep and unending love for Alaska. Finally, in 1967, he retired to a plot of land near Twin Lakes, AK. Summer 1967 was spent scouting the perfect location for a dream cabin, and felling the logs he would need to build it. One last winter was spent in Iowa, preparing for his dream Alaska adventure, and on May 21, 1968, he returned to his land to begin construction.
Utilizing centuries-old skills and his mastery of hand tools, (many of which he also fashioned by hand), Dick worked the land and built his 11′ X 14′ dream cabin wholly without electricity or machinery of any kind. In addition to the cabin itself, also built all of his own furniture, including tables, chairs, and sleeping bunk, as well as most of his own dishes and other housewares, and capped off his camp with a food cache built high above the ground on stilts.
Having built a similar-sized cabin with gratuitous use of electric-powered tools and gas-powered machinery, I can appreciate the skill, concentration, and dedication to wilderness ideals Dick held so dear.
Dick spent the following fall, winter, and spring at Twin Lakes before returning to Iowa to live near family. The call of Alaska was too powerful to resist, however, and the following summer Dick returned to his cabin where he would spend the next 30 years in a comfortable symbiosis with Alaska, with a few necessary supplies flown in by his nearest neighbor and friend, bush pilot Babe Alsworth, and leaving only occasionally to visit his family.
Over those decades, Dick carefully crafted a magnificent gift to the people of Alaska and beyond; he captured in film, writing, and physical construct the habits and ways of a man living almost solely off the land, and in beautiful harmony with it. His cabin and all of its contents stand today and visitors are encouraged. A portion of his admirable quantity of written records have not only been edited into a spectacular book, One Man’s Wilderness, by the late Sam Keith, it has also given us a great deal of information on the wildlife of the Twin Lakes region, as well as the longest-running meteorological record of the area currently available to scientists.
Finally, Dick brought camera equipment in an attempt to both create a step-by-step record of how to build a structure by hand as well as giving visual imagery to the tales he brought his family back in Iowa. In doing so, Proenneke captured extraordinarily valuable footage of his building methods and ways of life, offering a rare first-hand glimpse into the kind of life most people can hardly imagine.
Through his writing, most of all, Dick illustrates and illuminates his psychological landscape and the methods through which he lived the most personally fulfilling life possible. The book One Man’s Wilderness, though only encompassing a relatively short time very early in Dick’s Alaskan life, offers inspiring glimpses into how one goes about focusing their inner scope, finding great pleasure in seemingly simple or mundane tasks. “Chores are easier if forethought is given to them and they are looked upon as little pleasures to perform instead of inconveniences that steal time and try the patience,” writes Proenneke sagely [p.221]. He revels in the simple pleasure of a sourdough biscuit in leftover onion gravy [p.222], and finds joy in constantly stumbling upon “something else to think about,” whether it’s the eating habits of the mountain lynx or the weather habits of the Alaskan winter [p.223].
When he opens and reads his mail, sharing the exploits of his family and friends, he caps off each description with the reasons he dearly wishes they would visit; considering the joys and pleasures they would find in this wilderness. I find it remarkable that though he desires their company (because “a man’s root system has to be nourished by contacts with family and old friends” [p. 231]) or even that of the wild animals around camp, he contends that “work is really the best [companion] of all.” [p.231].
This work ethic of his is, to me, the essential context through which we must read his thoughts and know his life. For a man who had worked physically demanding jobs his entire life to seek out one of the most consistently demanding lifestyles imaginable for his “retirement”, and to not only work the land but develop such reverence for it, is a remarkable example of Alaska bringing out the best in a person. As evidenced by his prose – at times lyrical in its description of the land and at others stark in its instructions on how to live there – Dick Proenneke cultivated a deep and abiding love for Alaska, its wilderness, its beauty and its hardship, and became addicted to the bittersweet nature of this dichotomy. The tangible gifts he has left us, from his film to his writing to the cabin itself, are proof of his connection with the landscape of Alaska, and a magnificent example of the way this land enters us quietly, takes hold, and never truly lets go.
The term landscape, in a narrative context, is as broad and sweeping a term as the Alaskan wilderness itself. In very general terms, all writers have careful choices they must make about the type of landscape they provide to us, the reader. Will they choose a tundra-like view; spare and flat, large and mostly shapeless, so that the subtlest bloom or tiniest creature will have a significant impact to the detail-starved eye?
Or will they embroider a rich atmosphere akin to the temperate rainforests of Kodiak; dense and lush with life, thick springy mosses and lichens carpeting below and crowding overhead, massive rounds of towering spruce pine marking out the land, brimming with animal life especially in the summertime, where a peaceful woods stroll is accompanied by a veritable cacophony of praise from various birds, bugs, and beasts?
This decision on the part of the writer will shape not only the writing process but the way the story is received, as well as the method of fleshing out the characters, the angle and impact of the events in a plot or poem. Some tales lend themselves to certain parts of the spectrum; a story like the excerpt Two in the Far North by Margaret E. Murie, for example, gains a great deal by immersing itself in detail and offering the reader a landscape rich in the kind of detail the nine-year-old protagonist is likely to notice: the softness of her mother’s new traveling dress, the wonder that every passenger on board can crowd on one rail and not cause the ship to “roll over,” “heavy voices of authority.” But then interspersed within this childlike view are unmistakeable adult touches; “hordes of pie-hungry, home-hungry, adventure-hungry men” or that “All was costly, everything was done on a lavish scale, life was exciting and each day a story in itself, and nothing was worth worrying about.” Through her narrative, Murie pulls us firmly into the days and nights of her experience in 1911 Alaska, and gives little room for personal interpretation; perhaps guessing, quite rightly, that he average reader will lack any semblance of context with which to imagine her tale.
Other stories, particularly traditional folk tales, historical narratives, or cautionary fables, are more sparing in their detail. This comes from the dual purpose of having little need to provide necessary context and of guiding the reader (or, traditionally, the listener) to the intended message or outcome of the tale, rather than allowing them to meander off the marked trail within their own imaginations. For instance, the legends offered in the opening pages of The Last New Land are devoid of the kind of flowery descriptions typically found in traditional tales retold by and for Westerners. Consider the following lines from two tales; one a traditional “Eskimo legend” called “The Legend of the Aurora Borealis,” the next a “fictionalized account of prehistoric Alaska,” written by a modern-day novelist, called “Summer Light”:
“They sat up very slowly and crawled to a nearby willow which had been covered partially by a snowdrift.” [ The Last New Land, pp.9]
“There was a place along the beach where the wind had bent a row of seagrass into hoops and a trail of flecked white boulders pointed out a line between the tundra and the sea.” [The Last New Land, pp. 18]
There is little question which quote offers a greater scope of detail, or a richer landscape for the reader. However, the aim and intended audience of the tales differ as greatly as do the writer’s methods of telling them. Neither is, in my opinion, more or less effective or valuable, and an author’s individual approach to the landscape of his or her tale is invaluable in finding their own unique voice.
And yet the different methods of descriptive “landscape” typically chosen by native Alaskans and those transplanted from Western cultures are seemingly at odds with their attitudes toward the literal physical landscape, specifically the transmutation of nature into a resource. Traditional Native ways of knowing identify nature almost as an extension of oneself; an unending chain of give and take, balance and equality. A reverence for nature was ingrained into every Native child and they were by and large taught to see themselves as small parts of a great whole. The passing of the seasons, the relationships between animals and humans, the cycle of birth and death and growth and rot were all part of life. Commensurate with this, oral tales do not dwell needlessly on specific details of life’s wonder and nature’s beauty. That was all common enough; such reverence and thanks was a daily activity.
On the other hand, Westerners, with their smash-and-grab methodology to resource management — hydraulic mining, ocean trawling, mass deforestation — seem to overwhelmingly delight in written description of the beauty of our Earth, the majesty of the very landscape we set out to destroy. Many areas, especially during the colonization of Alaska, were seen only in terms of what resources were available for exploitation. Such a dichotomy is difficult for me to understand, but there is little denying that it exists.
Mergler, Wayne. The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska, past and Present. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1996. Print.
Shen Zhou is considered one of the most important Literali painters of the mid-Ming Dynasty period . Shen Zhou turned the concept of Literati painting, whereby an artist serves as a government official and paints solely to document events, into a livelihood. Zhou was a master painter of flowers/birds and people, but was best known for his beautiful landscapes.
My absolute favorite style of artwork are Chinese landscapes and Japanese woodblock prints. Shen Zhou’s Poet on a Mountaintop [ China, Ming Dynasty] is a beautiful example of everything I adore about some ancient Asian works of art. Eloquent simplicity, beauty, and graceful lines define this work. It is amazing how much feeling and beauty can be found in one simple, monochromatic canvas. I love how the poet appears to be envisioning the poem itself rather than viewing the landscape before him. The poem, by the way, translates as follows:
White clouds sash-like
wrap mountain waists,
The rock terrace flies in space,
distant, a narrow path.
Leaning on a bramble staff,
far and free I gaze,
To the warble of valley brook
I will reply, whistling.
Frida Kahlo’s Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas y Colibrí [Self-Portrait Wearing a Collar of Thorns and Hummingbirds]; Mexico; 1940
Frida Kahlo was an incredible talent from Mexico. Her style of painting expertly captured endless nuance of human emotion; typically focused on anger, pain, rage, or sadness. Most of her works are self-portraits and feature folk influences. “Kahlo (1907-1954) taught herself how to paint after she was severely injured in a bus accident at the age of 18. For Kahlo, painting became an act of cathartic ritual, and her symbolic images portray a cycle of pain, death and rebirth.” 1
Painted shortly after divorcing her husband, Kahlo uses both Christian [thorns] and native [hummingbirds] themes of suffering to illustrate her deep sadness. ” The seemingly placid image is about to erupt into violence.The hummingbird, a Mexican love charm, is in the throes of deathafter pecking at Kahlo’s chest, causing the thorns to pierceher skin. The cat, perched on her left shoulder, is about toleap on the bird. When that happens, the pet monkey, for Kahloa symbol of domesticity, will no doubt leap into the fray.”
The muted colors serve to augment the emotional anguish contained within every stroke. A strong, centered composition frames Kahlo’s pained face in black. Just viewing the painting is enough to make my neck ache with the sympathetic pain of those thorns. I love this work, how Kahlo’s eyes seem to burrow into your soul. Her blank stare, her infectious loneliness despite being surrounded by wildlife – the calm before the storm that is doubtless about to descend on the scene. The juxtaposition of calm, quiet misery and the promise of action is very exciting. Viva Frida!