Friday, August 18, 2006

Coming into the Country

Perhaps it is because our time in Alaska is coming to a close but I have been immersing myself in Alaskana for the last few months, hoping maybe to glean some extra meaning from the wonderful year we have spent here. As a native Alaskan, I am not sure reading a few books from Alaska will help put more meaning into a life than that which was infused through a childhood in Bear Valley but who knows. Law school can do funny things to a person.

I just finished what I think is one of the true books of Alaska, John McPhee’s Coming into the Country. The non-fiction work breaks apart into three subsections, each dealing with an aspect of Alaska that many people who visit for only a short time don’t see. Nor should they necessarily; it is clear through the book’s 400 plus pages that McPhee, a man from New Jersey, has not only done his homework but gone to great lengths to find the "true Alaska."

The first section, entitled The Encircled River, follows a group of five men (McPhee including himself) as they travel down the Salmon River in the Brooks Range in norther Alaska, whose watershed is "wholly above the Arctic Circle." The men are surveying the Salmon River for possible inclusion in the list of national wild rivers, which would set aside the river and its immediate environs as unalterable wild terrain. At the time of the writing, 1977, Congress was still considering the legislation.

The descriptions of travel down the Salmon merge into a stream of conscious meditation on wildland conservation, the shortage of good fishing in Anchorage, and the native people who live in northwestern Alaska. This section presents the reader with a lay of the land, both physical and emotional, and defines the boundaries of the political, ethical, and moral dilemmas that challenged Alaskans in those pre-pipeline years and that still linger today.

The second section, What They Were Hunting For, is a wonderful snapshot of the original movement in Alaska to move the capital from Juneau to a location closer to Anchorage. Juneau is ringed on all sides by mountains and ocean, providing access for state legislators and the public they represent only via oceangoing ferry or a harrowing and often unreliable plane ride. This isolation was seen as a burden to the represented, a boon to their representitives.

McPhee accompanies the Capital Site Selection Committee as it tours by helicopter potential sites north of Anchorage, most notably near Talkeetna and Juneau. Among the committee members are such famous Alaskans and Arliss Sturgulewski and Willie Hensley. McPhee seems to have an uncanny ability to place himself at the center of the action.

McPhee provides a lengthy history of the naming of Juneau and how the town was founded, suggesting that while its birth and existence may be credited to drunken prospectors’ blind luck, this history is as Alaskan as any and justifies naming the town capital.

Better still, McPhee provides some very telling descriptions of Anchorage (my home town) in its 70s heyday. As evidenced here:

Anchorage is sometimes excused in the name of pioneering. Build now, civilize later. But Anchorage is not a frontier town. It is virtually unrelated to its environment. It has come in on the wind, an American spore. A large cookie cutter brought down on El Paso could lift something like Anchorage into the air. Anchorage is the northern rim of Trenton, the center of Oxnard, the ocean-blind precincts of Dayton Beach. It is condensed, instant Albuquerque.

McPee appreciates the boom nature of Anchorage, the drive of its citizens to consume. But McPhee is quick to point out this development is not in a vacuum and gives us context in descriptions of the ring of mountains and ocean "stunning against the morning and in the evening light" that surround and cradle the town.

But all of this is building material, foundation for the final and longest chapter whose name also graces the cover of the book itself, Coming Into the Country. The phrase is Alaska backcountry slang for moving into the bush. McPhee spends the bulk of this chapter himself coming into the country, living all four seasons in Eagle, Alaska, nestled in east-central Alaska along the Yukon River. Here, if any feelings of distrust have developed in the reader’s mind from McPhee’s disparaging remarks about Anchorage or his awkwardness with wilderness travel, all is forgiven. McPhee’s portrait of the people who inhabit Eagle as a place and a time is magical. McPhee describes in the words of one Eagle resident the importance of Alaska as a location on the landscape of the American mind:

In the society as a whole, there is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go – important even to those who do not go there. People are entioning outer space as, in this respect, all we have left. All we have left is Alaska, which, on the individual level, and by virtue of its climate, will always screen its own, and will not be overrun.

McPhee is fair with the local populace - allowing himself to be taken in by a miner's plea upon destroying the ecosystem around a creekbed that the mine is just a "cork in the sea." After rationalizing the destruction in his own head, despite the meager gains of a salt shaker's worth of gold, McPhee declares: "In the ecomilitia, bust me to private."

MePhee also reconciles his fear of bears that manifested itself in the first chapter. Upon his first taste of ursa horibilis McPhee waxes: "In strange communion, I had chewed the flag, consumed the symbol of the total wild, and, from that meal forward, if a bear should ever wish to reciprocate, it would only be what I deserve." In the hands of a less adroit craftsman, this sentiment would risk audience alienation by revealing the author's own still-unrecognized naivetee but McPhee is forgiven and admitted into the fold of his new more wild self.

On such topics as the Alaska state flag, McPhee is equally generous and gives hints at the change Alaska has wrought within his own self.

The flag, as it happens, was designed by a native. It is lyrically simple, the most beautiful of all American flags. On its dark-blue field, gold stars form the constellation of the Great Bear. Above that is the North Star. Nothing else, as the designer explained, is needed to represent Alaska. It was the flag of the Territory for more than thirty years. Alaskans requested that it become the flag of the new state. The designer was a thirteen-year-old Aleut boy.

While McPhee’s painting of the Alaskan soul leaves patches untended, and while the pre-pipeline boom attitude is beginning to feel threadbare at the edges, there is something in McPhee’s account that touches bedrock. His myriad anecdotes, woven together with thoughtfully placed historical facts and enlightened yet spare commentary are more than the sum of their parts. There is a feeling upon leaving this book that McPhee somehow got it, got why we are here, and more importantly, what our hopes and visions may lead us to.


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