Monday, February 02, 2009

North and North and North to the Future

An unexpectedly great part of my Alaskan gallivanting has been my visit to Fairbanks, so close to Anchorage but unbelievably different in climate. It made me want to go and go north, to the Yukon, to the Brooks Range, Kotzebue, the Red Dog Mine, Prudhoe Bay, Barrow, the Arctic Ocean, to the end of the earth. Several people suggested going South to Homer, which of course I'd love to do, but North in the winter seems right. I wanted to feel the cold of the interior. Fairbanks in winter was just spectacular, a place where climate controls lives in a way in no other place I've ever been. I wish I had scheduled more time there.

On the plane back from Fairbanks I sat next to a hard rock miner from Montana. In Stetson, ranch shirt, elaborate belt and jeans. We talked for a while about his job, the initial drilling to find parameters of an oil field, and I know I would be really into seeing what's what out on the North Slope. This guy has 30 days on, 12 hour days, then 2 weeks off. When he gets back, he goes out into the bush by himself, camping on his own for a few days and then goes home and spends the rest of his time off with his family. Like a lot of people I've talked to, he likes Alaska because it's "open." I feel that. Montana sounded as wide open as Alaska, but it's still "Outside."

Alaska is a place comprised of outsiders who call any other place "Outside" and while Alaskan Natives have lived here for thousands of years the 1nd or 2nd generation folks who live here will still get into pissing contests with each other about who's lived here longest, e.g. "Since '52" or "When we were still a territory." It's a place where most people are from "Outside," but there's not a license plate other than Alaska to be seen at all.

I can't thank Ben Huff enough for driving me to a few spots to see the pipeline.... the pipeline blows me away. As a structural achievement, as an important part of late 20th century American culture, as a resource, as a metaphor. I wonder how old you have to be in the contiguous 48 to be able to use and understand the one word description of the 800-mile-long Alyeska Trans Alaska Pipeline System; "pipeline." The pipeline was a big notch in a belt made of Alaska's offer of wealth for those willing to work, a different kind of prospecting.

Many, many people, literally almost everyone I've met, has told me that summer is so joyous that just the promise of it can get you through the winter, but I am 100% percent certain that winter was the right time to come.

Every place here is fascinating and beautiful, even the disturbing and generic Wasilla.


Marc said...

Aren’t Outsiders just as likely to bring up in conversation that they were “born and raised” in Boston , Baltimore, New Orleans or wherever? I agree that Alaskans are more likely to boast of number of years lived here, rather than generations, probably hoping that it says something about a personal life decision and not happenstance of birth (not that that makes it less annoying a pissing contest).

Seems like you see a general lack of recognition in Alaska for Native people’s role in the history of this land. To whatever degree that’s true I’d say that’s not Alaska-specific either. That’s the whole of the USA. I sense a better than average understanding.

zs said...

Yes, most people are right there to tell you I'm from East St. Olaf or wherever, but Alaskans seem to have a different way of stating their place. I think you're absolutely right, "the years in Alaska" statement marks a personal decision, a indication of self-reliance that tells you when they made their way away from circumstance of birth. But I feel like I've never been in a place that so many people phrase where they're from by starting in the place where they are now.

Actually, in relation to the popular American cultural ideas about the folks who lived here pre-America, I think there seems to be a much stronger recognition of the varied Alaskan Native cultures and their connection to the land up here, much more that many places I've been to down in the contiguous 48. Of course, this comes from my relatively brief time here and is just a surface opinion... I can't really speak to anything more than just saying I'm a lady visiting.

The Whiskered Auklet said...

Your impressions of Alaska are just as fascinating as your pictures - honest and thought provoking. I originally came to Alaska on a three week photography trip (I used to live in Pennsylvania / Maryland area) and moved up here the following year. That was ten years ago and ZERO regrets later, I look forward to many more years in spite of the cold, darkness, and constant threat of earthquakes and volcanoes. Yes, a sub-set of the people who live here do so by choice and for those individuals, there is an extra sense of pride in being part of what can only be described as the Alaskan Experience. It is definitely not for everyone since Alaska is as much a state of mind as it is a place.
I look forward to your presentation on Wednesday at the Museum and perhaps you will have some time to discuss your experiences in photography for art and documentation inside and outside Alaska.