Nonfiction by Krista Christensen
—Hesiod, Works and Days
tran. Hugh Evelyn-White
In Alaska, autumn has a special name: September.
On the fourth day of this single-month season, the sun hangs antithetically high in the evening sky, still and yellow and cool. The late-coming tourists are out. This is how we speak of visitors in Alaska, that they are “out” in the same way that the moon might be “out,” which is to say that they are unlikely to be missed and difficult to avoid. Droves of people ring this small grassland, just a few hundred yards in diameter. From the neck of one man, a heavy black Nikon dangles, fully equipped with a lens the length of my forearm. The man occasionally lifts this behemoth to his face and squints in concentration; on a viewing deck, a woman maneuvers her earnest toddler awkwardly up to the mounted binoculars. When the toddler pulls his face away, his eyes are ringed, raccoon-like, from pressing his chubby face against the lenses—from his efforts to see what there is to see.
My guess is he sees nothing but darkness. Nonetheless, he is appeased.
They are here for the birds: this field is a major stop-off for migratory waterfowl, all heading due south, away from the snow and ice that will coat the land, and soon—in six weeks or less, and certainly before Halloween. Flocks of Canada geese have descended on the plain, and the mass of black and white feathers is punctuated by the tall taupe figures of sandhill cranes, who on their stick legs seem to strut haughtily around and between their squat, goose-y companions with their waggling hind ends. At a distance of fifty yards, hundreds of feathered bodies wriggle over and under one another, and all I can conjure is a swarm of bees, or a litter of new blind mammals, mewling.
And fertilizer. Lots of that will be left behind.
I moved to Alaska for the second time a few weeks ago, having taken a job teaching here (for the second time), partly for the stout paycheck and partly because I missed the extremity of it all—the boundary-pushing, oxymoronic twin senses of excess and privation. Nonetheless, my hours this early September have been spent almost entirely indoors. My classroom, because I am new to the district and low in seniority, is windowless, so that even though I have come to the land of midnight sun a full month before the equinox, I am not a party to the long days happening beyond the thick walls of the school building.
So on I march, past the Nikon man and his many twins, and at the end of the field loop trail, I duck into the shade of trees, slipping away from the birds and their audience and into the forest. This is the Interior of Alaska, the heart of the Taiga, the boreal forest that today makes up the largest land biome in the world, where stands of birch and scatterings of spruce and tamarack form a cocoon, a protective coating buffering me from the squawking of birds and people. The allure of migration means that this loop of the nature preserve will be nearly empty. I’m happy about that.
The birch have, even now in the first week of September, begun to glow, ember-like, their limbs trimmed in shimmery gold leaves, although August is not five days into history. At their feet, rose hips ripen, and these leaves of wild rose bushes glare a deepening red, so that the forest appears fiery, sunk in a season of sun going down—quickly, at the rate of seven minutes per day—in flames. The trail transitions to a wooden boardwalk, transporting me across a body of water I persist (it turns out, incorrectly) in calling a slough because it harbors, each warm season, the runoff of meltwater from the previous winter. Helpfully, a sign farther up the trail informs me that this is, instead, a thermokarst pond, meltwater swelling seasonally on blunted land—former permafrost that thawed during a wildfire, causing firm soil to sink and bulge in unexpected places before refreezing again and again each winter. From my place on the boardwalk, I take in a vista of drunken trees across the still water, a tilted grove of spindly birches decked in white paper and the gold of a northern autumn. These are interspersed with stubby black spruce, all upcurved arms that appear always to be shrugging, unsure of their place in the way of things but smirking nonetheless.
One of every five trees, I estimate, lists heavily at an odd, intersecting angle, giving the whole forest a chaotic, prickly feel. The boardwalk is tilting and shifting beneath my feet—imperceptibly at first, but as I delve deeper into the woods, the angle of the planks grows intense, forty-five degrees or more in some places, and abruptly the tilt of the trees becomes acute, not simply in the mathematical sense of less than a right angle, but in the medical sense of severity, of highly problematic, of approaching life-threatening. Certain birches duck so low that their gold leaves are swallowed by the mucky water, still and greenish and topped with floating leaves and lily pads and opaque films that swirl hypnotically. I pass a toppled tree’s massive root ball; it lies prone before me, exposed, a gaping hole yawning below where it overturned, the whole business naked in a spread-eagled way. Its splayed essence reminds me of gynecological exams.
Three-quarters of a mile in, the boardwalk’s listing reaches critical mass, and my feet slide down the planks where the left half of the boardwalk juts up high and the right dips low, grazing the coated water. The bridge is toppling by seasons, one centimeter at a time. I steady my steps with a hand on the nearest birch—another listing tree, it and the boardwalk both products of this heaving world of freeze and thaw, its mud-colored under-trunk tacky where the papery outer layers have been peeled clean, like many birches here, by moose yearlings higher up, by snowshoe hares lower down.
Here, in the subarctic, life is lived by degrees. The leaning trees mirror the tilt of the world’s axis, the serendipitous geophysical phenomenon that bestows on us not only the birch’s gold profusion but also the bounty of seasonal agriculture in general, the wobbliness of the world a blessing upon which we all depend. The very earth here is a harbinger of constant change; it shifts perpetually, a dynamic system that protests being pinned down by roadways and building foundations. Thawed ground freezes, iron hard, in the deep of winter, swelling up as if inflated from beneath, only to deflate, like an empty balloon, at spring’s thaw. Frost heaves, these are called. I marvel at how their behavior mimics breathing, that constant swelling and deflating of existence. Their cycles of melt and freeze, of soft and firm, of pliability and resistance, produce ever-shifting mounds of earth, and it is this that fascinates me: the instability of what is seemingly stable, the contradictory nature of life in the far north, where the oscillating seasons, each in their turn, deliver abundance and punish absolutely.
The birch, like the tilted world, is a deceptively modest source of abundance. For so long, Athabaskans and northerners have tapped birch sap for boiling into syrup, much like maples are tapped on the other side of the continent. They have skinned the birch in the early spring, carefully harvesting the bark in great sheets that they sewed over canoe frames, crafting vessels worthy of rivers as wide and mighty as the Yukon and Tanana, while from smaller swatches of spring-harvested bark they sewed bowls of various sizes. All this they did using bone-carved awls for piloting holes, green high cranberry-bush switches for rims, and moose hide or threaded spruce roots for sewing. Like their canoe cousins, birch bowls are water-tight; even without cookpots (or sewing needles), Athabaskans used these bowls to cook moose, hare, squirrel, and more by heating stones in fires and placing the hot stones in birch bowls with water and strips of flesh. The conducted heat coaxed the water to boiling, and the flesh into food. Soaked bark bowls, among other tools, also served to transport smoldering coals, giving the people easy access to a warm fire throughout winter travel between camps.
What Athabaskans achieved with this one simple resource is truly marvelous, a word I do not employ lightly: the birch bark bowl I have held in my hands is a baffling wonder of human skill and ingenuity. I can produce nothing so significant, for it is a product squarely residing at the intersection of form and function, of use and beauty. Even so, all this business, from bowls to boats, is crafted with what humans in many places consider Stone Age technology—as in, fashioned without metal tools or supplies.
Stone Age. The notion itself is a wholly Eurocentric concept. The Association of Social Anthropologists has long issued edicts insisting that references to people as “Stone Age” and “primitive” are inappropriate. Institutional mandates cannot eradicate these stereotypes, which nonetheless persist. The generally accepted end to the Stone Age (and humanity’s corresponding entrance into the age of metalworking) is between 8,000 and 2,000 BCE. This dovetails with the time that humans in today’s Eastern Europe and northern Near East began extracting copper from the Zagros and Taurus mountains. Yet archeological evidence shows Athabaskans did not begin metalworking in the Copper River Delta until about a thousand years ago.
Contemporary Westerners have the habit of lauding such “Stone Age” artifacts for their beauty and usefulness with a spectator’s awe, impressed at how people managed to create such a thing in spite of their supposedly limited technology. This is a common landing area for the indigenous narrative in the hands of Western history: a place of awe contaminated with a subversive—and pervasive—pity, or at the very least some backhanded acknowledgement of lack, a perpetual reminding that, while these people made amazing objects and survived well and adapted to harsh conditions and maintained complicated social and cultural structures and struggled with the same existential questions we all do, they nonetheless did it without _____________. This, at its core, is a presumption that these societies were somehow incomplete until “advanced” Westerners arrived, bringing whatever fill-in-the-blank they deemed necessary to bring “primitives” out of their dark Stone Age.
Think of the great care taken to record archaeological and anthropological locations and details: the first instances of primates using tools, the first evidence of quarrying and mining, the first appearance of metalwork, of shaping and smithing. Indeed, the notion of Western ancient history completely centers on the progression of humanity through ages of increasing complexity. The assumption is that making things more complicated inherently improves a people’s success and wellbeing. Sometimes that’s the case, I suppose; sometimes not. Nonetheless, this focus on “progress” and forward momentum has a tendency to portray human history as a wobbling yearling, one before which we twenty-first century-ists sit, clapping and cooing encouragements at each toddling step that “primitives” make toward “progress.” Even pointing out the date at which the Athabaskans began working with copper gives a sense, still, that they are somehow behind their peers, as if they were children held back in school.
But was the move out of a hunter-gatherer social structure a leap forward, rather than a change of course? Why are mining and smelting ore considered the hallmark of human progress? This seems like an arbitrary point of development at best, and a contentious one at worst. Indeed, what was lost in the transition from barter systems to coin currencies? What was traded for the advances of gunpowder and broadswords? What sprang loose in the human heart at the advent of gold and silver and shining treasures? For all the children protected by vaccines we have traded the children dead of miners’ black lung disease. For today’s smartphones we have traded black children in the Congo mining coltan. For the convenience of speedy travel we have traded oceans slicked with spilled oil and gyres of accumulated plastic offal. For the safety and comfort of indoor plumbing, we have traded cyanide-laced water tables in the vicinity of open-pit mines.
These last two matter a lot, especially here in the Arctic. Gold is what brought Americans here in the first place, after the Russians had all but decimated small mammal populations in their fur trade (and I use the term trade loosely). Now Alaska is home to six very large mines that extract mostly gold but also zinc, copper, and other minerals, such as molybdenum. The land is peppered, too, with prospects: more than seventy-five of them active, each a potential mine in itself, and dozens more abandoned, now nothing more noble or useful than a gaping maw of hungry earth.
Fort Knox, an active open-pit gold mine, lies twenty-six miles northeast of where I stand now, surveying my tilted birches and listing boardwalk and scummy water, where the squawks of birds and their watchers are mere echoes, where you’d never know by the lifted sun that the time nears nine at night. And close by there is, too, that other product of holes drilled in earth, the black gold oozing through it at the rate of a million dollars an hour. It’s just eight miles away: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, snaking south to Valdez, a place synonymous with oil and disaster, down from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean, where no fewer than sixteen rigs hover on icy sea and sand in the largest petroleum reserve in North America.
See how they speckle the land, all these punctures, these wounds in the earth. Out of them spill valuables, costly treasures that she surrenders, and after, when the earth is spent, when the hole has been thoroughly routed, she is abandoned. Where the pounding and thrusting and drilling and excavating took place, only the empty shaft is left, a window into this unstable, shifting ground, a gap in land that thaws and refreezes violently, uprooting trees and buckling roadways and crumpling foundations—a land literally heaving.
For most of us, though, opposition to mining is terribly hypocritical. The industry fuels the Alaskan economy in tangible ways: funding road repairs, for instance, which are constantly necessary given the swell and ebb of ice beneath the ground (or rather, given that automobiles are a wholly unsuitable mode of travel in the Arctic). It gets personal, too. I use a smartphone, I wear a wedding ring, I cook in stainless steel, I own a refrigerator and a car and lots and lots of cheap jewelry. And each evening, the incandescent (or, more likely, compact fluorescent) glow of lamps in my home and on my street comes at the cost of coal mined 118 miles southwest, at Usibelli; 37 miles west of that coal mine is Mount Denali, the highest point in North America, a place surrounded by an eponymous national park and preserve. Yet none on my street hesitate to flip their light switches, and all around lighted windows become beacons in the black of long northern nights.
The children of gold mine employees fill the school at which I am a teacher; our town is, as one child so eloquently put it, a place where minors become miners. Here, too, are the children of North Slope oilmen and women who work two or three weeks at a stretch, laboring in bitter cold so cars can run and water can flow and light can beam into the perpetual Alaskan dark. These people, whom we affectionately dub “Slopers,” are hardworking and generous, as are the miners. They work long, thankless hours to provide the best for their families and communities. They love the outdoors, love to hunt and fish and, I must add, follow environmental regulations for both activities diligently. Many are conservationists, and almost all are far more knowledgeable about survival in this harsh landscape than I will ever be. Mining and oil drilling, as industries go, give blue-collar rural families substantial economic advantages.
Still. Nothing is without its costs.
In the last half of the eighth century BCE, Hesiod, a successor to Homer, laid out a theory of man—one that is in every way the reverse of ours—in his Works and Days. For him, humanity was engaged not in a progression but in a degradation, an ever-widening chasm between the glory and perfection of the age of the gods and the hard, heavy labor that characterizes the age of men—a perpetual fall from grace, an everlasting delve into the worst aspects of human nature. “The father will not agree with his children,” he wrote, “nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime . . . Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be.” An epoch, it appears, culminating in might-makes-right. A perennial season of ingratitude, of selfishness, of willfulness and longing and envy and pain. A time quantified by gain, by means and not by ends, by cleverness rather than kindness. And now, in the past fifty years—the past twenty years, the past ten—we have ushered in a new age, one dubbed the “age of information.” What progress have we made? Have we leapt forward, or away?
Toward what do we collectively turn our faces?
In the 1950s—during the birth pangs of the information era—Enrico Fermi defined an astrophysical paradox about alien life. He computed, in numbers so enormous I cannot replicate them here, that the odds of intelligent life in our “local group,” our neighborhood in the Milky Way galaxy (an area roughly ten million light years wide) was far from impossible. He postulated, in fact, that intelligent life in the universe—based on sheer massive odds—must exist. Yet we have met exactly none; thus the paradox. Recently, physicist Brian Cox posed a solution to the Fermi quandary, and it is this: that a race of beings with the capacity for interstellar travel will, by default, annihilate itself before establishing successful settlements on distant planets, for any group of beings smart enough to develop such technology will collapse before achieving it. The power to colonize other worlds is also the power to destroy one’s own. This goes for those who would seek us, and for those whom we would seek.
The theory is simple, then: intelligence predicates extinction.
I wonder whether these theoretical alien civilizations anticipated their apocalypse or whether their lives continued, as ours do, in a merry, distracted way, eyes on the everyday, meandering through a life of constant progress, until suddenly life wasn’t anymore. Did everything go in a flash, or did they die slowly, by degrees? I wonder how it was with them in their demise. Did they see it coming and try to avoid the inevitable? Or were they vibrant and happy, right up to the end?
* * *
September, our sole autumnal month in the far north, is ending, and I have returned to the trees. The first frost of winter settled last night, September 28, and this morning the ice was thick enough for a scraper. A year ago today, people woke to seventeen inches of fresh snowfall; this afternoon, the roads lay frigid yet bare. It has been three weeks since last I walked here: three weeks of work in my windowless classroom; three weeks of papers graded and calls placed and meetings attended; three weeks of increasingly dark commutes and on-time dinners and squealing alarm clocks.
The field is empty now of birds and birders alike; all the geese and sandhill cranes are halfway to Texas, and this afternoon, though it is still high in the sky, the sun hides behind massive clouds, gray and pregnant and fierce. Now is a time of retraction, of breath sucked in and held, abs clenched in anticipation of the gut-punch that is winter in the far north. All my birches are bare now. Three weeks ago, a halo of golden leaves trembled overhead, and now those same leaves paper the walking trail, their evaporated life crunching and squishing by turns on the boardwalk beneath my boots. I pass into the forest and pause, as I have before, inhaling the tableau of crooked, tilting trees and disturbing a lone flock of ducks whose leader issues me noisy remonstrations. Soon, they too are gone—winging off to warmer climes, I hope. I move through expired bulrushes, a late-autumn sludge staining the hem of my skirt. Where before I was caught unaware of the tilts and slants of the earth and its proxy, the boardwalk, I now steady myself on birches here and there. I pass my upturned root ball, that fallen tree hyper-exposed, and ponder, again, the violated scene, mull once more the parallels between the holes made in earth and those born from their products, filtered as they are through engines and generators of all kinds. I can’t get over it: the gaping soreness of this defeated tree, its draggled roots dangling from the roundness of the trunk’s underside, their ratty, torn edges a helpless witness to its sudden demise. For months after, this tree, overturned, will haunt me.
All around me, the world heaves.
Now that the undergrowth, too, has lost its greenery, the forest floor appears more and more a birch graveyard, fallen trunks crisscrossing haphazardly all about, some deflated in decomposition and coated in lichens, some freshly down with their paper still peeling back in a revelatory way. They appear, today more than ever, like fallen soldiers, and I’m taken with the desire to memorialize them, to be for them some Seussian speaker-for-the-trees, to give them, somehow, their proper due. The collapse around me highlights a fault of my own, and I feel responsible for them, in spite of the truth that, contrary to all my moralizing, I am far more Once-ler than Lorax.
I’m not alone in that fact. All along this hike are interpretive signs like the one from my last walk here that corrected me, told me that this was no mere slough, but a thermokarst formation, a house of melted cards, oozing. Farther, past the defeated tree, past all the defeated trees, I meet another sign. It is titled emphatically “Why IS the Forest Collapsing?” The sign gives me a truncated answer—a few sentences beneath the mounted plastic. The issue is so simple, I suppose, that it may be laid out clearly in a two-by-three square of print media.
I learn from this sign that the heaving boardwalk on which I stand was first constructed in 1977, but since 1996 it has needed constant re-routing to accommodate Earth’s changing climate. From the sign, I am introduced to the functions of ice wedges, how their underground thawing causes what are mistaken as sinkholes in a land far from limestone; they in essence subvert the permafrost with their impertinent melting. Finally, in small print, speckled with new and old mud, is a logo: ConocoPhillips, the sign’s sponsor.
I pause here, smirking at the irony that this sign, the one explaining the effects of global warming on this particular forest, is sponsored by a purveyor of fuel responsible for the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. But this—the melting ice wedges and thawing permafrost beneath this pond of slanted trees—this is not all ConocoPhillips’ fault. It’s not all big oil’s fault either. Basic economics dictate that a demand will be supplied. Progress marches on. Change is inevitable. There are no false starts in nature, no do-overs allowed. Evolution never runs backward, and it won’t ever let us begin afresh, at the first single-celled organism, to see how close to perfection we can come. We must swallow our fuck-ups. And so, I am back at Fermi’s paradox, staring at an alien annihilation—ours.
Deeper into the forest, near the end of my walk, I have my eyes on the boardwalk so as not to be taken by surprise at unexpected slants and heaves. Among the decomposing birch leaves at my feet I catch a glint of yellow, bright and out of place: sawdust, I finally surmise, and look up. A few feet ahead, I am confronted by a freshly sawn stump. A particularly tilted birch has been sacrificed, I see, to the gods of the heaving world, mown down in the prime of a life spent leaning, present though off-kilter, crooked but surviving. How like the birch are we, I think: pushing on into unusual territory, listing but making do, knowing things aren’t as they should be but pressing forward nonetheless, leaning into progress as if it were the natural way of things. I marvel, up close, at the fresh wood, so brilliant at the point of severance, with such distinct rings that show, clearly, how very alive the tree was—right up to the end.