Central Connecticut State University
Our plane descended for landing in Anchorage, which was fully visible at 10 pm in June’s Alaskan midnight sun, and I stored my book: Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, about the young man who starved to death four months after he entered the Alaskan “wilderness” alone. The book squared with what I expected from Alaska: an environment that suffers no fools, where the distance between life and death is obvious and narrow, where humans have no illusions about their place in the food chain. I had begun my trip twenty hours earlier with DEET, a reservation for REI’s bear and moose safety class, a broken foot (bad), provisions (Cheetoh’s—good!), and my 12-year-old son, who was reading Jack London’s White Fang. We were headed to a land where every other descriptor seemed to be “harsh,” “stark,” “extreme.”
But our strongest experience over our two weeks’ visit were of a gentle generosity. This does not erase very real harshness, including harsh human realities: our visit, anchored by the Association for the Study of Food and Society/Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society conference, “Finding Home in the Wilderness,” hosted at the University of Alaska Anchorage, came a month after US Attorney General William Barr toured with Alaskan Native Villagers and brought attention to the nation’s highest levels of domestic violence. And over our two weeks, the weather swerved from un-seasonally balmy to uncannily harshly scorching and smoking.
Which made how Alaskans (gently) introduced us to their home eye-opening and imperative. Their welcome immersed us in a critical environmental Alaskan resource: the matter-of-fact and constant rhythm of alerts, heads-up, survival tips:
“You only have two minutes, maybe three, if you fall in the bay.”
“Always lean back on snowmobiles, so you don’t go through if the ice breaks.”
“Cotton kills” (Wet cotton clothing is dangerous in the cold).
“Pre-act, don’t react”
“It is easier to stay warm than get warm.”
Some of the tips were direct instructions about the food chain reality:
“If you run into a bear…”
“If you run into a moose…”
“If you run into mosquitoes…”
“If you run into cow parsnip (Alaskan “nettle”)…”
Others were directly related to food, and there too, Alaskans gently alerted us:
“The long summer days here raise oxalic levels in broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage.”
“We have over forty varieties of rhubarb; three are poisonous.”
“Reindeer meat does better with high heat, but moose needs low, slow heat.”
“When you kill your fish quickly after landing it, it’ll taste sweeter later.”
I wasn’t expecting such a culture of generosity in a state renowned for self-reliance and survivalists (“Preppers,” people gently corrected me. “Preppers, not survivalists.”): which reflected my ignorance. Old-timers, skilled, experienced and knowledgeable people, know that self-reliance depends on good information, adapting and re-skilling. They include newcomers (even tourists like me) in the “tips” and “alerts” economy, quietly, and not pedantically. Newcomers, after all, can turn into old-timers, and will also depend on re-skilling, receiving and swapping alerts and information.
All around us, I met people learning to adapt and re-adapt, skilling and then re-skilling. Getting ready to hike a popular trail near Anchorage, I met Johanna, who had moved her family from their coastal Native village, so her younger sister and her daughter could continue high school. My 12-year-old hiked with the girls and her boyfriend, and she and I fell behind in a comfortable, companionable pace. I was limping with the broken foot and she was hampered by overweight that came on quickly since their move and her office jobs; the sedentism brought her through the nutritional transition abruptly. But she made me a walking stick, and though she apologized over and over for being out of shape, we finished the three-plus mile hike.
She was so much more fit than I, in the larger sense. As we walked and talked, I learned about her life on the coast, about locating, catching and preparing different kinds of fish. About hauling fuel and supplies for miles. About harvesting and preserving wild fruits and plants. She hunts, handles firearms, can butcher moose and seal. So can her girls. Her mother showed them all how to improvise and survive when weather blocked supplies. Her father grew a garden every summer, a skill his native people had adopted from European settlers. When he married Johanna’s mother and moved to her village, he experimented with gardening in the new conditions, and fed his growing family. When the permafrost started thawing, and the village laundromat and other buildings “tore themselves apart,” the villagers had to re-think hunting seals over winter ice.
Through the conference field trips, we visited with Alaskan organic farmers, who are constantly learning, adapting and re-skilling: extending the seasons through high tunnels, meshes, different varieties; harvesting at high speed around the solstice when broccoli and herbs will bolt in a matter of hours; reveling in Alaska’s few pests but confronting invasive species; re-inventing composting [photo]. The farming scene in Alaska is dynamic and the state claims the highest rate of new farmers, including women farmers, in the nation! Farmers rely on their networks and exchanges of information and techniques: Alaska has only four extension agents for the entire state.
We met some of these new farmers during another conference field trip, women and men re-settling after violent displacement from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Nepal, Somalia, Guatemala. They showed us how they were re-inventing farming in urban Anchorage and shared food they adapted with Alaskan ingredients. I highly recommend the tamales filled with grapes and sorrel.
In Alaska, everyone seems to be involved in moving food from the raw to the cooked. When I chatted at a Friday evening reception with conference organizers about Alaskan hunting and fishing traditions, I realized that these women, these men–fashion forward and expert schmoozers –they hunted, fished and gathered.
I went “North to the Future,” as Alaska’s state motto encourages, while Alaska’s fires, heat and smoke made national news. The climate change peril was palpable as the warmest spring ever crossed the solstice and became the hottest summer ever. We are all facing harsh, stark, extreme environmental change, and Alaskans may be well-positioned to weather the Future that is coming. I, a returned traveler, am Alaska Grown now as well.