Cold weather with a waning moon disappearing into the sea early in the morning. Last night there was a strange warm wind that started to thaw the ground and small puddles began to appear in the ice pockets of frozen dirt in the rubble of the pathway to my writing shed.
I met John Haines a long time ago. He was grumpy and fairly well deaf by then, but if you caught him in a good mood he could be funny. One night with Wendell Berry on a fundraiser for the Island Institute in Sitka Sound we got him to recite Limericks and tell bawdy jokes, and when he laughed he looked like a woodland elf of some sort. He like to drink, and tell stories in the right company... he loved beautiful women... he particularly loved smart, artistic women and for being the poet of the wilderness he didn't like to be alone. He could be gruff and he didn't suffer fools, but as I got older I came to appreciate more and more what he had done with his writing, how, early on he had expressed something important about living in Alaska, something that I come back to over and over in my own life. From reading writers like John Haines and Richard Nelson and Nancy Lord, I have wondered if I have lived up to my own ideals, to my own credo that I have set out for myself. I have come to recognize that every writer sets a standard for themselves whether they know it or not, every writer believes in something. They make choices whether they are philosophers or policy wonks, mystery writers, or mystic wilderness poets. The key, to your own sanity, and happiness in the doing the work, is to know who you are and what you believe. John Haines did, and he was the first Alaskan in whom I recognized the conviction.
In the early eighties John Haines wrote the page shown above. Today it appears in his book Living Off the Country: Essays on Poetry and Place. In it he writes a kind of declaration of concern: "My theme is Alaska, and beyond that, North America: what does it mean to be here in this place at this or at any time--- once, and in time to come?"
This book is wonderful and is still prescient, it is largely a book of ideas, not a book of public policy, not an environmental text though John Haines was certainly against rampant development. but more he was in favor of a culture that listened to the land and paid attention to the world. He was in favor of a humanity that lived in a reciprocal relationship with the earth and the local landscape where one lived. That is, if you took something from the place it behooved you to at the very, least notice, pay attention, show respect for it and don't expect that thing to just be free and in ever abundant supply as the modern consumer dream world would lead you to believe... that all resourses are at the moment...limitless.
Haines was interested in saving not only the fact of Alaska but the idea of Alaska. He wanted to save Alaska from the cliche makers who would first put an Idea between the brain and the eyes to filter reality... then sell this idea, all with the intent to make it easier to dig the earth up for the gold, or the oil underneath. "Alaska, the Path To The Future".... Slogans such as these make it seem like each hole in the ground was leading to some social good. Just as "Jobs for Alaskans" does. When in fact most of the jobs in bunkhouse projects don't go to Alaskans and each job represents a hole in the local economy where money is leaking out.
So what do I believe in? On one hand I love humanity, it's Art and Music, I love it's crass humor and it's incredible expressions of technological power. I think a Trident Submarine is a dark and dangerous miracle, I love the infrastructure that goes into the invention of modern brain surgery. I love the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the French Quarter of New Orleans. I am grateful for modern medicine, while at the same time, I believe in the power of the land, and the water, the "other" Alaska. I believe in the undug, and the uncut, the unpaved and the unbridged. This "left aloneness" cannot be overrun, or else I honestly think the human mind will perish because it will have nothing to reboot to.
Science fiction writers speak of the "singularity" with grave seriousness. They predict a time in the future when intelligent machines will think for themselves and will usurp the power of the planet from human beings. I'm skeptical that designers wont be building power plugs that can be pulled or alt-control-delete keys that can't be pushed that will prevent such Terminator scenarios. But as a metaphor the "singularity" looms large in my imagination. A world in which machines reflect back all of human consciousness can numb and enslave the populace. A world where humans demand that all environments be mediated first... before we experience them... such a world is a series of theme parks run, finally by a corporate planner. This is not far fetched at all. We are becoming far too used to environments made to suit our needs to go back now, to the ancient world where we were humbled by the vastness and the dynamisim of the "other."
But right now, some humility is needed in order to understand the forces we are tinkering with and it does not take a mystic to hear the grit in the clockwork mechanism begin to slow the gears of our most prized constructs.
My father, who was a man who was attuned to status, asked me once, who were the big writers in Alaska. I thought for a long time. I told him this, and this is what I still tell people when asked about Alaska Literature: First there is the Land itself, Alaska is still revealing secretes that we had no idea it was holding, secretes about climate, about paleontology, geology, energy, you name it. The land and the water are still the greatest story tellers. And you can't say that about other regions of this world. Second there are the first peoples. Their lore is being collected translated and shared, what they know about the transition to modernity will define what modernity means both good and bad. Their stories are invaluable to our self knowledge.
Third comes John Haines, the first European poet to take nature seriously in all it's profundity: a solemn man and lover of limericks.
On a strange warm night
waiting for the moon to rise
I write out your name.