Editor’s note: This excerpt from Leavetakings, a book of essays by Corinna Cook, is reprinted with permission from University of Alaska Press.
“The headwaters of Bristol Bay” is a heavy phrase. It means this: the headwaters of Alaska’s most important salmon fishery. These are the fish that feed the forest, that feed the animals, the people. These are the fish that make all of us relatives. In all the carriages of all our bodies we ride the steady silver ocean throb.
My project in 2006 was to trace the shape of the debate. I asked people what was going on and what they thought, and I listened to how they talked about it. In Anchorage I recorded interviews, sat in offices, took tours, accepted bumper stickers, and chatted in elevators. Then I went out to Bristol Bay’s headwaters region. There I took mail planes between villages, hitchhiked from airstrips, conversed, listened, walked dirt roads, walked over tundra, looked at fish, looked at rocks. Watched the creeks flow with spawning sockeye, watched the salmon close-up as they nosed the stones, fanning their gills. I also watched the salmon from small planes. From the sky, fish look dense and dark, packed in like ants as they follow the threads of their creek-trails. Flying over, you can see how crowded a creek is the same way that from a jet, you can see how crowded a city’s highways are.
When I visited the central mining exploration site in the village of Iliamna, I saw carpenters sawing and nailing plywood wings to a series of heavy objects slated to be lifted by helicopter. I watched a wooden outhouse lift off. With its fresh plywood wings, the outhouse rose into the air straight and true—no spinning at the end of its cable, no dangerous pendulum swing from the belly of the chopper. Whoever made those wings even painted them with a few black curves to suggest wing feathers.
When I started the project, I was trying on policy. I thought one day I would work in natural resources. But the Pebble conversation struck me as senseless. I felt tossed away, for both the mining project’s supporters and its critics treated precisely the same facts as the bedrock of opposite conclusions. In this sense, there was no debate at all—I found instead that an impasse divided fundamentally disconnected ideologies, that the real divisions were deeply buried and largely unvoiced, and that a head-on policy approach thus missed both the depth and the complex silences at the heart of the disagreement. And so I changed from policy to art. In the arts I sought a more roundabout mode of inquiry, or points of entry that would draw much closer to the heart of my questions by following Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” More specifically, that is when I began a search—one that continues—for a kind of ethnography capable of mapping the odd mixture of humor and holiness and love and irony that moves a person to paint wing feathers on plywood so that bound across the tundra, a shithouse will fly straight.
A mail plane took me to the other side of Lake Iliamna, where the water edges mountains. It dropped me off in the village of Pedro Bay, population forty-two.
I met a large black and white dog there, Oreo, who walked many miles with me over the course of several days. One morning he walked me to the Tribal Council Headquarters. And he was waiting when I emerged several hours later, already rising to his feet as I stepped out the door and into the fine rain. Oreo had no questions. He simply took me as his charge. To him I owe a great debt. There were villages in which I was not permitted to walk freely. Bear country, and other reasons. Good ones. But in Pedro Bay the people trusted Oreo, and Oreo’s oversight allowed me to wander, make my small discoveries, sip the air.
My philosophy is, rely on the dog. The dog’s senses go far; the dog always knows. Oreo’s patient vigilance was a great courtesy and a gift I could not reciprocate. But it was also more than that. It was an induction, consummating my link to a region in which I neither grew up nor properly lingered. I left with a baffling sense of accountability, another complicated debt.
Beware the poetics of juxtaposition. Here coexist large-scale mechanized infrastructure governed by capitalism and vast, vast ecosystems governed by organic processes. These two poles both take up a lot of space, and if enormity has charisma, opposite enormities have all the more.
And beware the related and kind of fantastical disjunction riddling the north. Heavy industry coexists with living tradition, with lifeways both contemporary and ancient at once. I remember the mining company’s human relations person explaining their local hire policy was a bust, We send company pickup trucks to wake them up in the morning because they’re not used to shift work, she told me. We even pack them sandwiches. She pushed on the word sandwiches. I still remember her voice. They had to recruit, fly in, and house many workers from out of state because so many Bristol Bay locals, even many who want to work for the mining exploration sites, disappear. I remember nodding, as I had been nodding throughout my conversation with the human relations person. They go hunting, I prompted, and she shrieked, because that was exactly it, and she could not fathom.
Finally, beware the hypervisibility of heavy industry’s inherent problems. For example, part of what oil engineers do to keep the industry’s infrastructure working is to design retrofits and new plans, including elevated drill rigs, to account for the melting ice caps, rising sea level, and loss of permafrost their own scientists predicted—to a T—in the seventies. In the north, this is no abstraction. Buildings sit on this melting permafrost, requiring frequent adjustment to remain level. Villages fall into the sea where the shoreline, no longer protected by sea ice year-round, is laid bare to erosion by summer storms.
I am, like so many, enraged. I am enraged by the simplest facts of the system and by the depth of my complicity in it.
But I designed my travel on the road neither as confrontation nor denunciation; I try to remember my purpose now is more contemplative. I am not studying a mineral deposit so vast it is yet to be fully delineated, a deposit underlying grief and resilience and ferocity so vast it, too, may be unmapped. No, on this trip I just wish to glimpse the shape of the continent. I am simply trying to see something I am too small to see. This is, I believe, a perfectly normal human endeavor.