Saturday, December 27, 2008

Postmodern Reflections on Alaska

The craziest thing I ever did in my life was sell all my stuff and move to Fairbanks, Alaska to marry a guy I met on the internet. I say, the "craziest," and not the "stupidest" because Brian are still together and still in love with each other. As for Alaska, I can say that it is a place that I approached with an open heart and mind. I wanted very much to settle down and live here and love it the way that Alaskans do. But I came to Alaska with the same attitude as a woman who is in love with the idea of being in love, but understands neither her lover nor herself as individuals. When I finally got to know Alaska for what it was, I realized that I couldn't love Alaska while at the same time being myself. I could respect it and understand it, but I could not love it in the exclusive way that it demands.

Alaska and I do not get along because of winter. If you want to embrace Alaska, you have to embrace winter as an old, familiar friend. I wanted so desperately to love winter and I was certain that all of those tales about how awful it was from the mouths of those who shunned it for sunnier climates were gross exaggerations. I'm originally from Texas so I always had this romantic fascination with this strange, rare, beautiful substance known as snow. I believed that it transformed our dull, dreary world into an otherworldly, unfamiliar place. However, I have learned that when fresh, white snow becomes old and familiar, the world feels tired and in need of renewal.

But there is more to an Alaskan winter than the snow. There is the darkness. By the time we get to winter solstice, the sun doesn't rise until 11 in the morning and it has set by 3pm. The days rapidly get shorter before solstice and they will soon rapidly get longer. Then there is the extreme cold. For instance, since moving here, I have learned that it is possible for it to get too cold to snow. Yet years go by between school cancellations. The world goes on in Alaska. You are expected to defiantly go about your life anyway as if this is normal because it is normal for here. If it is 4o degrees below zero, you must boldly go out into the world and prove yourself as a better human being because you willingly embrace this challenge so many refuse. And intellectually, I knew this to be the case when I moved here. Yet I didn't expect it to matter, for I thought that living in Alaska might somehow be a little like living on the moon. I wanted to believe that someday we could be free of our need for the Earth to carry on with our lives. And perhaps this underlying assumption of mine explains better than anything why I will never make the transition from cheechako to sourdough.

I remember the first time I got off the plane in Fairbanks, I looked at the cars in the parking lot that all had chords with plugs dangling from their fronts. In my youthful naivete, I exclaimed, "I didn't know that Ford and Chevy made electric cars! I think that is so nice that Alaskans are so environmentally conscious." That was the moment my education about Alaska really began, for I learned that cars will not start at the temperatures we get in the winter if they are not plugged into a block heater. And if it is cold enough to need to plug in your car, it is far too cold for this Texas girl to not complain about having to take the time to be outside long enough to do so. People tell me of the old days before they had plug-ins when you had to remove the oil from your car and take it in to heat it up and then put it back in the car the next morning. True sourdoughs will tell you that 40 below isn't that bad because it used to be 60 to 70 below for weeks. And I wonder about these people who choose Alaska because it is Alaska - these people who came here from elsewhere because they thought it was so beautiful and who now can't imagine why they would want to live elsewhere.

Then there are always people who ask things like, "Do people who live in Alaska actually live in igloos?" I was not one of those ignorant people. Instead, I dared to look at some of the new construction here - the things like Wal-Mart and Home Depot and the rumors that we might someday get a Target or an Olive Garden in Fairbanks and think, "I could live in Alaska. It's not really that different to live here." Even with the car plug-ins and the hours of darkness in the winter and the temperatures cold enough to make me think that surely I was living on a planet other than the Earth from which I came, I still believed that Alaska had modernized enough to be able to carry on the same sort of daily life one might carry on elsewhere, especially since it is expected to do so here. Deep down inside, I believed that Alaska was Texas, but with snow and an exotic set of scenery that could indulge my fantasies enough to make me feel like I had been an astronaut and traveled to live on another planet.

There are some similarities between Alaska and Texas. Both are large, oil-producing, red states in which people have composed a great number of songs about how great it is to live there and proudly declare they like their state better than their country and who also like to own guns. But I knew a large number of reluctant Texans - people who thought they were in temporary exile from another place, but who gradually grew to love and embrace a Texan identity. They don't particularly dislike Texas, per se, they just don't understand why people see it as the promised land flowing with milk and honey, but over time warmed up to the idea. But Alaska is one of those places that quickly demands a strong opinion. And if you think like I did, that the ideal of living in Alaska is to prove that humans are capable of maintaining and carving out a civilization absolutely anywhere and that someday we will be among the stars, then you will find that this is not the place for you. For the people that love and choose Alaska for being Alaska embrace its harshness because they want to believe that there is a limit to human progress and that there are still places one can go where one must respect nature and be connected to the Earth. I don't think Alaskans ever look forward to a day when they get to add another seat to the House.

They come here because they want to get away from "people" by which they mean society, government, rules, rampant commercialism, and an instant connection to the rest of the world. A friend once told me that Fairbanks needed January and February because without those harsh months, too many people would come here and then it wouldn't be "Fairbanks" anymore. Now, I know that every town has its group of citizenry who decry "box stores" as the destroyer of the local businesses, but even that is not what Alaskans really mean when they complain about them. They do not want to ever live in a place where you can forget where it is that you live and feel like it is any town in America. And they are a strange mix of people, who proclaim to want as little government in their lives as possible, yet often work for the government. They vote Republican, but join labor unions and they fear global warming, but want to drill in ANWR.

I think to be a true Alaskan, you have to respect the land. The people here value connection to nature more than connection to human society. They embrace the winters because they hope that the severity will always keep the "progress" at bay. I have met many Alaskans who say that they never want to move from here because they enjoy being able to go out in the dark, cold of the winter and know that they are alone and that no one can see them. I know people who want simple things like going to work or stopping at the store to always hold the possibility of a life-threatening adventure. I have met people here who want to be isolated and know that for the weekend, if they wish, they can still drive to a place where no people are around for miles and miles and experience what it truly is to be alone with nature. I know a great number of people who have moved here from places like Texas because they were tired of cities and crowding and the change that comes with a steady influx of new people. I have met people who don't know what it is to have a next door neighbor that they can see from in their house and don't want to know what that is like. I know many people here who gladly choose to embrace land, trees, and outdoor space over modern conveniences such as plumbing and in some cases, even electricity. I know a great many Alaskans who want to live as much of their lives by their own two hands as possible. They want to kill their own food, build their own houses, make their own clothes, grow their own gardens, and they want to stand and face the harshness of winter repeatedly to prove that they can do it by themselves because they are both strong and independent. And both unbridled capitalism and liberal socialism require a level of assimilation that would take away too much individuality from the Alaskan spirit, but they will tolerate just enough of these to allow them to live here.

I find it ironic that in discovering that Alaska was not my place, I realized that I was more connected with the Earth than I ever wanted to believe. I struggle with severe Seasonal Affective Disorder and winter depression. I have learned that it is impossible to ignore the weather and carry on a daily life and that the seasons and the rising and the setting of the sun are important. I have learned what it is to miss things like fresh air, the warmth of the sun hitting your skin, and gentle breezes. I have learned not to take things like the smell of freshly cut grass or the chirping of birds for granted. I have learned to appreciate fresh fruits and vegetables. And I realize that even though in the darkness of depression, I sometimes wish to be alone, that I really do not want to be in a place where no one could hear me or see me because I cannot think of a more cruel fate than to be cut off from the rest of the world and forced to truly be "alone." Alaska taught me what it is to be human and for that I will forever be grateful. Many people move to Alaska to experience the great outdoors. I moved here because I thought the outdoors were irrelevant. But I promise that when I leave, I will respect the land. I will grow a garden and I will walk as many places as I can and I will pay attention to the trees, the flowers, and the other plants I took for granted. For I know now what it is to be a child of this Earth and to need the community and fellowship of other human beings. And I have learned that while I have been imbued with the western notion of progress to such an extent that I do not believe I cannot be happy without it, I can at least recognize my assumptions and cultural limitations and respect those who yearn to embrace something different.

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