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Ah, Wilderness!

In some cultures, like Japan, people, by putting the best possible face on disaster or failure, perhaps thereby develop a certain actual imperviousness, but this is not given to Americans. Kramer’s cowboys are ashamed of themselves because, by not being successful the way they had been led by Saturday afternoon Westerns to believe they would be, they have let America down. And America has let them down. Henry is resentful, but he is mostly sad and confused. He has no alternative skills or articles of faith to make another start with, but with other skills—and a more skeptical nature—he might go to Alaska.

If you live in the Western United States, you meet many Alaskans, and people who are planning to go there or have been there, some expecting to get rich, but most looking for a place where a deal can still be sealed with a handshake—where ideals of independence and voluntary cooperation are still functional. Last year I floated the Snake River in deer season; the scenery was matchless, there were no other humans in sight; but owing to the peculiar acoustics of the canyon, you could hear the voices of hunters at every turn, and finally the raftsman, a young local guide and sheriff’s deputy, burst out, almost tearfully: this country is ruined. A man like him can now no longer ever expect to own an acre in the Tetons, or a foot along the river: all is overrun, full of strangers, expensive, impossible. He was going, he said, to Alaska. College kids go up there summers for the lucrative fishing. San Francisco architects will build the new capital. The point is that for many people, especially in the West, Alaska is an actual and possible frontier. For Easterners, one guesses, its significance is mostly metaphorical, and this profound difference is reflected too in the more conservative, romantic, and individualistic politics of the West.

For some people Alaska could mean immense profits in timber, land, minerals, and oil, and the sacrifice of the private individual and the public interest. John McPhee, a writer who is able to be interesting on almost any subject, is particularly skilled at presenting the dynamics of those complicated conflicting forces. An outdoorsman, romantic but also astute and accepting, he understands the wilderness, he appreciates naïveté, and he also sees who will sell out whom.

The writer of recent nonfiction chooses his role in his narrative as carefully as a novelist does. Jane Kramer, after explaining her presence in Texas and admitting to uneasy dreams of rattlesnakes and tornadoes, fades gracefully out, leaving the reader to wonder how she managed to overhear those misogynist cowboys on subjects they would not consider proper for women to hear. McPhee is more vividly present throughout his book, asking questions, commenting, making himself the butt of an occasional joke or misfortune, admitting to scary dreams about grizzly bears. He has a fine instinct for knowing when his corporeal presence is essential, as here, in a wilderness of unimaginable vastness and coldness, where to see him squatting apprehensively over a campfire or huddling in a deserted cabin is to make the unimaginable accessible to us.

Coming into the Country is in three parts, beginning with an account of a river trip by canoe and kayak in northern Alaska with four other men. Here he tells us something of the size and climate of the state, and a few of its myths. One myth, a friend tells him, “is that in Alaska there’s a fish on every cast, a moose behind every tree. But the fish and the moose aren’t there…. To get to the headwaters of a river like this one takes a lot of money. The state needs to look to the budgets and desires of people who cannot afford to come to a place like this.”

In the second part, McPhee flies over Alaska with people who are appointed to choose the site of a new capital, which will (perhaps) be built from scratch because political factionalism prevents the small Alaskan population from agreeing on which of the already existing cities would do. The search provides McPhee an occasion for discussing the positions of each party: natives, old timers, environmentalists, developers, and feds squaring off for the biggest land grab in history. Alaska consists of 375 million acres. Forty million have been settled on native Alaskans. The fate of the rest is largely undecided, but some 80 million acres have been proposed for national parks and wilderness area.

In the third and longest section of his book, McPhee talks to people in Eagle, Alaska, in the Yukon. It is a kind of chorale for Alaskan voices, and gives the reader a strong sense of the kind of original, skeptical, resourceful people who have come here. With what patience McPhee records, and with what fascination one reads the minutiae of the Alaskan diet or dwelling: “Boone chinked his walls and insulated his floor and ceiling with moss collected by his children, planning to supplement it with cement and lime, while the Greenes used fibre glass between their logs. With their heating stove and cooking stove, the Greenes had powerful defenses against the coming cold, almost enough to drive them out into the snow, because if their cabin was handsome, it was ten times as snug. A lighted match could make it warm. The Greenes burn wood at the rate of four cords a winter. The Boones, with their larger cabin, use fifteen.” “Jack Greene has built an efficient cistern, with an adroit plumbing system that services a kitchen sink and a solar-heated shower.” There are about 250 pages of such information—Alaska as utopia, albeit a utopia with population problems and littered with old rubber tires.

Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, writes of the human love of musing on primitiveness: “restored, desired, and experienced through simple images, an album of pictures of huts would constitute a textbook of simple exercises for the phenomenology of the imagination.” McPhee’s book is, in a way, such an album, for the hut-dreamer, for the city-dweller. Even the coldness of Alaska is of primal importance: “a reminder of winter strengthens the happiness of inhabiting” the warm flat. McPhee, at home in Alaska in a way that Kramer is not in Texas, is sympathetic to simplicity, and his is a communicable sympathy. “What a striking thing it is that a mere image of the old homestead in snow-drifts should be able to integrate images of the year one thousand in the mind of a child,” exclaims Bachelard. If you loved Swiss Family Robinson, you’ll love John McPhee.

The people McPhee talks to point out that Alaska is our last chance wilderness, meaning either that it is our last large unspoiled area, to be preserved from development and environmental exploitation, or that it is the last place a man like Henry Blanton can go when he is pushed out by industrial or corporate or governmental interests in the Lower Forty-Eight that have no regard for him. At the moment the wilderness preservers, with the federal government as an ally, seem to prevail. Until 1958, the settler could acquire federal land by homesteading, but now it is hard for a private person to buy land in Alaska. People are huddled together on small lots in cities, and urban crowding is a matter of genuine concern. The federal agent makes the solitary trapper leave his little hut, and the trapper and squatter have come to see the fed as the enemy, the same kind of enemy big cattle interests are to Henry Blanton. Behind the federal agent is the big-city dreamer with his sentimental yearning for the primitive wilderness. Alaska is not for private interests, say the preservers, but for all Americans, and therefore it cannot belong to Henry, or to the sheriff’s deputy from Wyoming, or to the alienated college kids who wish to recover the good American myths, who want to get away from cities, from regimentation, and from politics. (Even Western politicians want to get away from politics, like Paul Hatfield, the new senator from Montana, whose initial remarks at his swearing-in last week expressed the common Western view: “I have been increasingly concerned about the continuing infringement of federal activity on the sovereignty of the states and the lives of the people.”)

Between the ecologist and the lone trapper there need be no antagonism, for neither will do the other much harm, and it will be too bad if these factions become locked in an opposition so intense that they cannot combine forces against the much more powerful oil, mineral, and real estate interests who care for neither of them, nor for the wilderness, nor even the idea of the wilderness. And one cannot help questioning the motivation of the US government, suddenly so conservation-minded, where only four hundred thousand people are concerned, when it does so little to preserve the environment of millions of people in the Lower Forty-Eight against entrenched private interests. Alaska presents the government with a cheap way to placate environmentalists without offending big real estate or big oil or big timber by trying to protect the more accessible, rarer, and therefore more precious areas in the rest of the US. We’ve given you eighty million acres of wilderness preserve, it can say; what do you want to worry about Lake Tahoe or the Everglades for? And meanwhile the Alaskan wilderness is inaccessible even to Alaskans. “We need parks near our cities,” an Alaskan told me. “Go fishing near Anchorage, you’ll get someone else’s fishhook in your eye. To get away from other people you have to charter a plane.”

McPhee’s own prescription for Alaska seems sensible:

Only an easygoing extremist would preserve every bit of the country. And extremists alone would exploit it all. Everyone else has to think the matter through, choose a point of tolerance, however much the point might tend to one side. For myself, I am closer to the preserving side—that is, the side, that would preserve…[the lone trapper, or Henry Blanton]. To be sure, I would preserve plenty of land as well. My own margin of tolerance would not include some faceless corporation “responsible” to a hundred thousand stockholders, making a crater you could see from the moon. Nor would it include visiting exploiters—here in the seventies, gone in the eighties—with some pipe and some skyscrapers left behind…. Alaska…by virtue of its climate, will always screen its own, and will not be overrun. If I were writing the ticket, I would say that anyone at all is free to build a cabin on any federal land in the United States that is at least a hundred miles from the nearest town of ten thousand or more—the sole restriction being that you can’t carry in materials for walls or roofs or floors.

In the society as a whole,” says McPhee, “there is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go—important even to those who do not go there.” This proposition, which most Americans would accept without argument, may have some things to be said against it. Societies without frontiers are different from those that have them, and perhaps have advantages. Just as life in prison is said to be more endurable when there is no chance of escape, so perhaps will we only learn to live in our cities—the real places Americans have to learn to live—when we cannot dream of escape. Without a frontier we would have to address ourselves seriously to living with what we have, something which the attitude in Congress toward energy makes clear we are at present unable to do.

A society without frontiers must devote itself to politics; politics means factions, divisions—or, to put it positively, engagement. To the Westerner, those are qualities of Eastern American life he would avoid, and he feels them coming West. The Easterner is suspicious of the laid-back Westerner, and may feel that his myths are degenerate and brutal, associated with things like guns which our society would be better off without.

If the urban civilization is ripe or inevitable, it could be that keeping Alaska in wilderness, or as a last frontier, may be just an unnecessary cultural luxury, slightly fake, like a giant Disneyland Wilderness Visit temporarily closed for repair; maybe we would do better to subdue it at once, incorporate its riches, abandon our individualist philosophies, and resign ourselves to our perimeters. But most of us would agree, I think, with the implications of McPhee’s book, that keeping an Alaskan frontier is in fact a cultural safeguard, protecting certain valuable myths of independence and cooperation and personal enterprise that appear to be surviving there. Maybe noble lies can only thrive in open clean places, and if they can survive, then maybe they can exert some regenerative power over the rest of American life.


Unkind Cut June 15, 1978

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