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Monthly Archives: September 2012

The increasing number of fires in Alaska and the possible connection to climate change has been a hot topic in Alaska for several years now, especially during the huge fire seasons of 2004-2005 and the more recent very hot early fires of 2010.  This year, though, the weather turned quickly wet and cold in June, and the fire season petered out rather quickly in Alaska.

I did manage to revisit the site of one fire I photographed in June, 2010, and made some new photographs—with the new Sony NEX camera rather than the bulky 8×10—capturing the beauty of the second season of fireweed (it soon gets overtaken by grasses and bushes—it really thrives only just after the fire)—

2010 Fire site, Elliot Highway, Alaska, July 2012

The other fast moving topic is me—I’ve moved out of Alaska—a fast move that was a long time coming—I’ve spent 25 years in Alaska, I’m now 55, and the long winters have become oppressive, not just for me, but for my family.  The cold streak of last winter may have been the last straw—I know many long term Alaskans who thought that the winter of 2011-12 was one of the hardest ever—and my whole family rebelled at the thought of another winter like that one.  This summer, we spent time on our property in northern Washington, and visited a few other places in Oregon and Washington—but elected to move to Spokane, partly for a good school for our son, and partly because Spokane is within easy weekend commuting distance from our farm.

I sometimes think about Isak Dennison writing her classic book Out of Africa,  how she spent only 20 years in Africa and didn’t even start to write until she was back in Denmark. Her book dealt largely with the first few years of her time in the country—after she established the coffee plantation, much of her time was taken with the day to day operation of an agricultural enterprise— Which is somehow to say, 25 years in the country counts for something…  I may be gone, but the country is not forgotten…

Shortly after arriving in Spokane—I planned a day looking for apartments—I had a list of five apartment complexes to look at—one of the first questions asked was when I needed the apartment—my response was always “tonight”—only half in jest—I was willing to spend a few nights in a hotel until an apartment opened up, but the fewer the better—and one place had an apartment almost ready—when we walked in, the view through the apartment was into a meadow with cows—and I knew I was home—at least for now.  While waiting for our credit check to clear, we drove into the country just beyond the city limits, and immediately saw smoke.

Just south of Spokane, the wheat country begins—rolling hills covered with huge fields—and I had heard, long ago, that those fields are sometimes burned to get rid of  the stubble, and knew what the smoke was coming from.  I tried to drive to the fires, but distances are tricky in clear air—I drove into Idaho (not that far) but couldn’t seem to get close to any of the fires—roads kept twisting in the wrong directions, dead ending in casino parking lots, or barricaded to prevent access—but eventually I found a view of a fire about a mile away.  I sat and watched as a small fire grew, then suddenly billowed in front of the wind—an unexpected gift.

Wheat Field Fire, Western Idaho, September 4 ,2012

I struggle to think about the differences between the wildfires in Alaska and the wheat field stubble fire I just saw—one triggered by lightening, the other deliberately set, one bursting beyond containment, the other bounded by the soil carefully turned at the edge of the field.  But I also think of the scene in the movie version of Out of Africa, when the servant comes to the bed of Isak Dennison, to announce “I think that you had better get up, Munsab, I think that God is coming”—his way of announcing that a fire was destroying the coffee mill, and that her time in Africa was ending.

Has my time in Alaska ended?  I don’t know.  When Karen Blixen traveled to Africa in 1910, travel was by steam boat and rail—the journey required days if not weeks to complete—I’m still only a few hours jet ride away from the country I’ve come to know and love.  But I know, for now, my home is elsewhere.  As Thoreau said, “I dwell in civilization again”.