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Monthly Archives: June 2012

The internet is a wonderful place, but “unstable”–my web site has been hacked before by a porn site–maybe the pictures were more interesting–but my web site seems to have recently disappeared–but here is some of the work from the past:

Front Street Kotzebue Web

 

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I’ve lived in Alaska for 25 years now, first in Kotzebue and the surrounding country for four and a half years, then in Fairbanks since.  Especially in the early years, my wife and I spent a lot of time out in the country, away from the towns and cities and roads, in the wild country that remains typical of most of Alaska.  Unlike national parks in the lower 48, where small portions of land are set aside because of their spectacular beauty to prevent them from being overrun by people building cabins, Alaska remains roadless and nearly empty, and not just in areas set aside as parks.  The land is protected not just by laws, but by how difficult it is to live in these remote places, mostly inaccessible except by boat or snow machine or float plane.  Even more sobering is the multitude of ways the place finds to kill you—we’ve lost friends in airplane and boating accidents, or falls from cliffs.  And help is never close.  While the land remains vast and open, it is not welcoming—it always retains its distance—it always exists at a scale beyond human.  One can never possess it, or be accepted by it.  Even the Eskimo folk tales are full of hunters walking into the landscape, never to return except in animal form after being transformed by evil shaman.

More than 20 years ago, while living in Kotzebue, my wife and I purchased a piece of property in northern Washington, a small ranch (as easterners, we tend to call it a farm, but the locals here all call it a ranch)—a 92 acre parcel of land at the end of a county gravel road, up in a valley all by itself.  We used to joke that we needed a place to buy a one-way ticket to when they ran us out of town in Kotzebue—a joke that might have been funnier if it were not so bitterly true (as federal Fish and Wildlife Service employees we were known as “the fucking game wardens”—a term used entirely without affection).   At that time, land in the area was cheap—some recently timbered steep slopes without power or water could be had for as little as $500 per acre—we paid more because our property had water, a south facing exposure, power, and an old farmhouse that had recently been disgraced with a poorly executed “upgrade” of two toned aluminum siding and a shabbily constructed addition.  The nearest neighbor was about a mile away, and there were (and are) no houses in sight.  Until a cell tower was constructed a few years ago about 15 miles to the west of us there were no visible human lights at night.   The property is large enough to feel spacious, but small enough to feel that it holds you, and that you in return might be able to care for it.

There is a lot of wildlife on the farm—black bears, wild turkeys, white tailed deer, elk, moose, bobcats, cougars, and dozens of different species of birds.  When we first looked at the property twenty years ago, what stuck us was not the silence, but the noise of the birds—their chatter is the soundtrack to the place.  Woodpeckers, meadow larks, snipe, doves, robins, sparrows—all singing at all hours of the day, but especially loudly at dawn and dusk.

But the interactions with nature are not always pleasant.    At least twice our renters have had cats eaten from the porch by cougars, who also killed a much loved dog at our neighbor’s house.  Our lawn is full of gophers—at the advice of neighbors, I’ve taken to poison.    Mice invade the house every fall, and for many years skunks lived under the house.  Perhaps worst of all are the flies that crawl into the siding in the fall, eventually finding their way into the living space through cracks, only to die in large numbers and pile up next to the windows.  Living here requires a level of acceptance of nature at the reality level.

The problem in the area is how to make a living—good jobs are hard to come by—some of our neighbors have managed to find jobs at mines or as local government employees, some are retired from other places, and some have managed to subsist at the level of the local economy—part time work in the timber industry, handymen, or cattle ranchers.  We managed to find steady work in Alaska, and a series of renters for the old farmhouse, and a local rancher interested in managing our meadow.

By lower 48 standards, our property is “remote”, but it isn’t wilderness by Alaskan standards.  We tend to think of it as “half-wild”—a term used to describe gardens (and one I understand better after visiting China).   The meadow was cleared by a homesteader who settled here in 1907, and our land was timbered hard by the previous owner just before he sold it to us.  All the surrounding land has been timbered since we purchased the property, the most aggressively by a new corporate owner named Forest Capital.  Those lands have been clear cut and planted with a mono-culture stand of trees, changing the feel of the place from a forest to a tree farm.

Not to say that our ownership of the land has been much better—when we purchased the property, the fence surrounding the property had fallen into disrepair, allowing the meadow to fall under the “open range” laws of Washington, meaning that cattle from any owner could run free across our property.  The result was that our meadow was overgrazed, and weedy.  Not until two years ago did a local rancher complete the building of a half mile of new fence did we gain control of the grazing on the meadow—and it seems to be doing better after being left to rest for most of the past two seasons.   And the forest on our property should be thinned—it’s all second or third growth forest, and simply letting nature take its course doesn’t seem to be the best way of managing the land after timbering.  It is not clear what is the best way to care for this land, especially during years when rain is scarce, and the land is so easily damaged.

I’m visiting the property now for the first time in two years, trying to fix a chimney that got swept off the roof during a heavy snow several years ago, and hopefully at the same time fix a leak in the roof that has been persisting for the entire time we’ve owned the house.   We thought we had a new renter for the place, but after long discussions about how long we were willing to rent for (not more than three years) and the use of the pasture (already rented to the local rancher), the prospective renter backed out.   Which is fine by us—if there is a renter in the property, it is hard to visit the place—we need to stay in a motel fifteen miles away, and don’t get to sit on the porch and watch the sunset.

(The pictures here were made with a new digital camera—the Sony NEX 7 with the 18-55 mm lens—a glorious little camera that reminds me of a Lieca M3 that I used for about a decade—compact, solid, sharp, and capable of creating real pictures—a real camera.  (Photographers I know talk about “real cameras”—when a non-photographer asked the difference between a “real camera” and a “camera”, the only definition we could come up with was that a “real camera” was the one you used to make “real pictures”—the ones you cared about—while other cameras didn’t.  For years, I’ve used digital cameras as something like the way a painter might use a sketch book—something to get the gist of a picture in the field, but not the preferred way of making a finished image.  That was a job for a large format film camera.)   The NEX 7 also has a panorama feature that combines multiple images taken while sweeping a scene into a single image in the camera—avoiding the tedium of stitching images together in a computer, and allowing you to see the results immediately.)

Walking in the clear-cuts near the farm is a sobering experience—I think of Robert Adams pictures from “Turing Back” during these walks—but two or three years after the devastation, wildflowers are growing.  Even places this damaged are graced with occasional beauty—which is not the same as forgiveness or redemption—but does offer some hope that our destruction is not complete.