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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 2 Sec 1.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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Part Two.

I.

Night visitors and telling stories

September 5 1975

I SWING THROUGH the doors of the Care Home with the casual self-assurance of a thirty-five year-old with no anxiety about his legs and who doesn’t expect to lose his balance. An octogenarian whose legs and hips, by contrast, have been worn out on the sea- or river-ice and by transporting heavy animals, observes the mobile arrogance of a younger man with blazing and reflective recollection and sees deep, through cataracts and semi-blindness, as if by x-ray, into working joints and ligaments.

‘I’m gonna borrow your cheeks,’ an old man scarred with frost bite barked at me one winter in the village. Another growled, ‘I’ll have his legs. He can try mine. He won’t like ‘em.’

Dead air and the smell of thrift store seconds hit me. Nonetheless, the bungalow is light, clean, up to date and situated at the edge of town in undeveloped woods, footpaths, meadows and log cabins.

I walk down a passage and stop briefly in the common room where half a dozen Natives and a black man sit in wheelchairs. The TV’s inexhaustible. Charlie’s Angels, re-run for Alaska, is playing. A Yupi’k woman, dark blue tattooes around her face and hand-backs dozes in a wheel chair.

A Yukon River man in check shirt sits by her. His eyes are white with cataracts; his lips mumble. He may never have seen a coastal Eskimo till he came to Fairbanks. His ancestors reached Alaska eight thousand years ago; hers perhaps six thousand later. If they share any language and happen to talk, it must be in dialects of English. She would be Orthodox, perhaps Moravian, he Episcopal or Catholic.

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The men are in shirt-sleeves. One Inupiaq man wears seal-skin boots. The Athabascan man wears moose-skin slippers. The black man is Henry, an ex-rail-coach steward, retired in the fifties from the Burlington Northern, to chance his hand ‘Where Northern means north, man… Ready to go, to go out now,’ he whispers, as though humming a blues line.

I stand in the doorway. There’s a man in the corner slumped across a copy of the Daily Telegraph. I peer through his fingers at the date of his paper. It’s an April edition, five months old now. The old man wakes, adjusts the paper and starts talking. Name of Alfred. Cockney. Merchant seaman.

Wot‘s yor nime, ven? You fr’m London? Long way, ain’t? Come to live wiv Esky-moes? You’ll find plenty of old Esky-mo codgers rahnd ‘ere, nice lot mainly… This ain’t such a bad place. Wot’s ve difference where you die, eh? Bye now, Tommy.’

The ‘o’ of ‘Tommy’ is drowned by wheezing. Alfred lives his days with philosophic courtesy. He’s brought his character in perfect order to this terminal contraction and has started to unload it.

I go to the desk and ask if Jimmie Killigivuk’s available. ‘Jimmie? Sure!’ says the woman with a friendly downward intonation. ‘He’s down this corridor, then to the left in Room Nineteen.’ For seven months I’d searched for him in Tikigaq and Fairbanks. Locating him now is disarmingly straight forward.

II

I FIND ASATCHAQ asleep on his bed. His room is small, square, quiet and uncannily remote from routine care home business. It’s lit by a window which stands open onto spruce, birch, willow bush and fireweed. He might be camping in the forest.

I stand watching a jay bird in a dusty willow. Aspen and cottonwood crowd against a rough lawn underneath the window. Chickadees play in late summer foliage. Bees stumble through a clump of ragweed. A man with a toolbox emerges from the generator shed whistling a Dolly Parton number. A White Admiral shimmers past him and a dragonfly shuttles to and fro though grass moths and no-see-ums.1 Late summer is precarious. Winter could arrive tomorrow.

Asatchaq’s curled in a rough arc on his bed top. He’s a small man, stocky, thin, bow-legged. He has short grey hair; his hands and feet are arthritic. He wears a white shirt and black worsted trousers. There’s a walrus tattoo on his left inner forearm. Below the walrus hangs a loose, gold-plated wrist watch. The room’s sunny and quiet. Apart from a pair of glasses on the bedside table, Asatchaq has no belongings. And aside from his bare feet, he’s dressed soberly, as though anticipating company.

Now I’ve found him, I am disappointed. Is this all? Just this old man, by himself, asleep here? No agents, ethnographers or heads of department competing at the bedside?

As for the person I intend to be informant, maybe he’ll be more than I can handle. Why not slip out now before he sees me? If he wakes before I exit, I’ll pretend it’s a mistake. ‘Sorry, I was looking for Alfred.’ The old man would turn over. I’ll never have existed.

These thoughts zigzag between larger questions. (Why here, my life, and not in some European garden, at some library table?) More immediately, there’s etiqu­ette. Approach him with speech? A cough, a shuf­fle? There’s village gossip. He’s miserly and and autocratic. White men, in the past, have flown to Tikigaq. They seek out ethnographic conversations. A mean, withdrawn, disdainful look comes over his face and suddenly the stranger’s on the air strip waiting for the mail plane. In what guise do I approach this person?

There’s the kind, well-meaning Christian visitor, the university professional, the ethno-hipster come to groove on palaeo-linguistic vibes. There’s the principal investigator, anxious not to waste a grant from Washington, investing his sabbatical on insider views which speak from the margins.

I’ve encountered some of these personae in myself already. Westerners who’ve lived in Third World villages uncomfortably struggle with guilt-generating knowledge of their privilege. Of equal non-importance is the nature of the Westerner’s identity. Set down by a plane on the Kalahari or the tundra where your personal psychology’s invisible, you realize, that to people round you, that you could be anyone. Or simply you’re a type. And this echoes ways that you see ‘them’: they’re less individuals than representatives. You’re a white man. They are ‘Bushmen’, ‘Eskimos’. Types that resist exfoliation.

III

I HOVER ON the threshold and contemplate the patriarch. Potentially he’s dangerous. We’ll start work together; then he’ll slam the brakes on. Then I too will shuffle towards the mail plane with an empty notebook. Last year I had an office at the university. I talked enthusiastically with self-importance. The students called me Dr or Professor L. In London, once my contract had run out, I found work as a filing clerk, then part time on ‘supply’ in the school where five years back I’d headed a department. Late summer, as I calculate vicissitude, blazes through the window. It is beautiful and transient.

Both this redoubt of Caucasian America and, outside, the sub-Arctic struggle to prolong its season, accentuate the old man’s isolation from his village far above the tree line. Trees to the old man are irrelevant, anachronistic. A story he recorded twelve months later tells how trees once grew in Tikigaq until a man hurled his mittens at their trunks and felled them.2

Asatchaq’s secluded from this phase of boreal ecology. But he’ll recognise the winter. The two of us, in mutual separation hang within this four-part structure:

There’s the care home, stone-built following the flood of 1967 which wrecked much of clapboard and log cabin Fairbanks. Framed in geometric section by the window there’s the final afternoon of summer.

In the foreground, Asatchaq’s asleep, enclosing in his body, as though carrying a micro-film, an enormous ancient culture: songs, stories, genealogies, topographies and visions. Anxious and ambivalent, I hesitate to cross the threshold.

IV

According to Tikigaq belief, mammoths were giant rodents… harmless and shy when frightened. Tikigaq’s old, latest mammoth lies here in the Care Home in semi-exile.

I KNOW HIS surname Killigivuk which was converted by Driggs in 1891 into a surname from Asatchaq’s father, kiligvak (mastodon or mammoth). The man kiligvak was small, the Pleistocene beast from which the missionary derived a surname was enormous. 3Tusks and molars of this Old World migrant that ancient hunters chased across the Land Bridge emerge from the earth through Tikigaq river banks and beaches. According to Tikigaq belief, mammoths were giant rodents. They were harmless and shy and burrowed in the tundra when frightened. Tikigaq’s old, latest mammoth lies here in semi-exile.

The strong light of the day has faded. I cough and then call his name politely. Asatchaq half-rises and in counter courtesy, casts round for his slippers and adjusts his watch-strap. Then sitting straight in quizzical anticipation, he recruits his awareness and extends a hand that grips mine softly. I’m gratified and disconcerted.

I think later of the work this hand has accomplished. The meat, blood and fat it has harpooned and hauled up, skinned, dragged, butchered, given with self-deprecating generosity, and eaten. The nets and rifles, spears, slings, snares and harpoons, dogs, harnesses and packs, the lashings of sleds and skin boats it has managed. The drummings, dances, rituals, sexual escapades it has engaged in. Soft, yielding and domesticated, this hand now stretches out to greet the possibility of friendship.

‘What’s your name?’ His first words in English accompany a handshake.

‘Tom. Aniqsuayaaq,’ I offer him in shorthand.

‘Who gave you that name? Aniqsuayaaq was Taam too. My father’s harpooner.’

‘Pauyungiin named me.’ It happened last winter.

‘We were vacuuming the school room. He said I looked like Tom Goose, Aniqsuayaaq. He wore the same blue woolen hat as I did. Our hats were atiqs,’ I joked unwisely. Asatchaq ignored my sally. Atiq, namesake, also means a soul component. Your living or dead atiq is a soul relation.

By the time he’s aligned my presence with old Aniqsuayaaq who’d died in in the early 1940s, I gather that Asatchaq’s agreed to know me. Or at least he’s retrieved some parallel identity on which to mount the apparition of my presence. I have, via atiq theory, become a version of old Tom Goose.

‘My fa­ther’s skinboat. Aniqsuayaaq always worked with him.’ I tell him that I’ve come to work in Tikigaq.

Asatchaq replies with memories of Aniqsuayaaq. ‘I last saw him on the south side. It was 1930. June time. After whaling. His camp was this side.’ He gestures with his forearm, as though measuring an angle drawn along the south beach.

‘He was walking slowly. Carrying a tatilgaq.4 Legs round his shoulders. Its wings hid him.

‘I thought that bird had come to get me. It was like a puguq.5 Just the head and feathers. I saw his hat then. And his gun stuck out. Bird, hat, gun. Beak hung down onto his usuk.’

What the puguq was I didn’t yet know. I learned later how as children, Asatchaq and other ten-year-olds lay on the qalgi roof and watched autumn rituals through the skylight.

Pogok,’ wrote Rainey, ‘is the name applied to numerous carved figures which were made each year at the time of [a qalgi meditation]… These were usually made of wood and represented seals, bears, caribou, whales, walrus, birds, or mythical animals…’ (Rainey 1947: 247)

The puguqs invoked souls of animals and brought good luck to hunters. Tom Goose at that 1930s visual moment was a compound of a man, dead sandhill crane and ritual object.6

Artists and statesmen live in revolt against obliteration. Not so Aniqsuayaaq who simply worked to live and was leveled in death with the billions round him.

His name’s retrieved briefly in a single image of a hunter walking west past skin tents, ice floes, meat racks, marshes. Once back in the village, he vanishes entirely.

V

THE PEOPLE IN the care home know Asatchaq as ‘Jimmie’. His family called him Asatchaq in memory of two late forebears: one was an aunt, the other was the shaman Asatchaq, a distant uncle. The names ‘Jimmie’ and the surname, ‘Killigivuk’, were donated by the missionary. According parish register, the first Christian converts took names from the Bible: Sarah, Eva, Judith, Isaac, Simon…Powerful atiqs.

VI

BACK, AS I sit with Asatchaq next week, I close my eyes and imagine the Kuukpak River inlet, north of Tikigaq, then paddling downstream in a skin boat. From the banks on the river, mammoth tusks dislodge and fall into the water. Two years later, on the north beach, I am pegging out a fish net when I scoop a fossil molar from the gravel. It lies on the beach stones: huge, gold-brown, perfect. The surface ridged for grinding their favourite Artemisa grasses.

The first Native Americans followed mastodon, then mammoth, woolly rhino, lion, elk and wild horse towards Alaska through Beringia. When the glaciers melted ten or twelve thousand years ago, the rising sea divided the new continents and the ancient beasts fell victim both to climate change and over-hunting. Kiligvak, back then, was both hunted and propitiated. First the mastodon perished, then mammoth.

We drift into silence. I stammer news from Tikigaq and he listens with indifference. Half an hour passes. I’m desperate to go home and am doubtful of the future. Then the old man says abruptly:

‘Sure. I’ll tell stories. We’ll go back together.’ I gather my things and walk home to supper. He seems scarcely to notice.

VII

September 7 1975

THE CARE HOME’S at the town’s edge off the airport highway. Sometimes en route, I stop at McDo­nalds or at Pizza Hut to fetch him a hamburger. This goes with the beer we drink together. At first, we wrap our cans in paper bags but soon, when I realise it’s legal, we don’t bother to disguise it.

The road to the home starts with roaring traffic dust and peters out in scrub land where the railway meets the river. This is the stretch I like walking or biking. Town life dissolves. There are ponds, gravel pits and little cabins.

One landmark near the home’s a herbalist. I once knocked on the door and then pressed my face against the window. Spearmint, yarrow, willow bark, dried mushrooms stand in preparation. A dog sleeps by the cabin steps. A small pine tree grows next to the kennel.

Another cabin sports two bodhisattvas at the window. What Buddhists live here, or are the icons ornamental? Maybe they’re candles. A group of pot-heads live across the meadow. In blue and white gingham, Darlene, on the front porch, sorts through berries and a-fixes of her winter pickles. Brad’s come south from Five Mile Pipeline Camp where he spent his down time welding a small suit of medieval armour. Halberd extended, the iron man stands rigid on a whiskey crate from which flourishes a bush of marijuana fed by outhouse oozings and mantric vibrations. A window mandala proclaims Om in a lotus.

Opposite the nursing home, the Dept. of Parks and Recreation has reclaimed some wasteland and ringed a softball pitch with a link metal fence, complete with baseball diamond and a stand of benches.

Before biking home, I watch the women playing in the dim September evening. Tonight’s the final between Swann’s Dril­ling Team and Frith’s Fossels. They’re union women from the ‘Over Thirty-five Geritol League’. Their husbands, boy friends, children and col­leagues crowd the benches and lean on their pickups with cans of beer and Coca Cola, shouting their teams on.

‘O.K. girls! Come on! Let’s play ball!
That’s the way, Trudi! Swing, girl, swing!
Go! Go! Go! Let’s catch that ball!
Force the third! One way now!
Swing! Stay ready out there, girls!’

Trudi, cropped hair, forearm bandaged, skies the ball over Frith’s Fossels outfield and deep into wasteland. Two home runs. The league is over for the season. The women cluster round a stand of trophies on a blue Dodge pickup. A speech from a young, male Fossel follows, with wisecracks about tits and fannies raising cheers and whistles as Trudi steps up to accept the trophy.

VIII

September 9 1975

IT’S TWO PM and thunderously muggy. I’m thirsty from my walk through town and out again across the outskirts. In the Care Home car-port there’s an ice-cream van. It’s flaringly painted with transcendental iconography. Planets, UFOs and Third Eyes float above a paradise of Himalayan temple gardens. Yogis and yakshas sprawl in foliage round the driver’s window, where a scholarly young man in army fati­gues sits reading comics, studiously smoking.

An Athabascan girl, lured out by Schumann’s Traumerei on the ice-cream bell, limps through the swing doors, buys a strawberry, lights a Camel and goes in smoking. The ice-cream music modulates to Brahms’s Guten Abend and the van drifts off towards the river.

IX

September 10 1975

THE TRACK BY the river twists into scrub past cabins where Inupiat and other Natives spend summer and autumn. The men come to Fairbanks to work as drivers, linemen, carpenters, electricians. Their families travel south to visit and then cousins and brothers fly down to replace them.

It’s a tranquil spot. The men walk home evenings and check the snares they’ve fixed for rabbits, ptarmigan and squirrel between birch and willow. Moose and coyote blunder through them. The men fish through the ice, October onwards. No-one stops them.

I walk down here on sunny afternoons and stroll round the ponds. I recognise some dragonflies that correspond to European species. The huge Anax that feeds late into autumn and the blue winged Agrion splendens of slow European rivers. Owls take over from the loons and pintails in the early evening. Yesterday I stumbled on a pellet of coyote scat in which I found a vole’s skull, whose own defecated body packed its cranium.

X

September 12 1975

IMAGINE AN OLD folk’s home for multi-national Nobel laureates. Powerful as they were in their time, they spend their last days paralysed, incontinent, dressed in cast-offs, penniless, dementing.

Since science was abolished fifty years ago, the world is run, in a mysteriously improved way, on a new, reformed system of which these old women and men have no conception.

Since science was abolished fifty years ago, the world is run, in a mysteriously improved way, on a new, reformed system of which these old women and men have no conception. Here they sit, respectful and compliant, while with patronising self-confidence, the kindly peons of the master-race bustle round to make them comfortable. The arrogance of this new breed, limited as it must be by an absence of historical awareness, is not, however, cruel. The nurses, afterall, are just the orderlies. How could they understand what their present masters have obliterated?

The old scholars, nonetheless, remember the principles by which they once lived. Smiling and nodding obediently to their keepers, they’re wheeled into the common-room each morning, and as the TV raves and jingles, they sit contemplating the tremendous theorems which brought them so much joy and suffering.

Their attendants bounce in and out, shouting in their ears and tittering to each other. Since each one of these old folks comes from a different part of the world and are specialists in separate, arcane fields, they communi­cate with each other hardly at all. Sometimes, rarely, a couple who spoke cognate languages find their wheel­chairs touching. But the TV’s roaring and they’re too exhaus­ted to raise their voices. What’s the point anyway? Their knowledge has no place in the new dispensation.

XI

September 14 1975

‘THE SIMPLICITY,’ I scribble in a notebook as I leave Asatchaq after our second meeting. ‘Above all the simplicity. And behind the simplicity, realms of complexity I can’t imagine.’

An old Inupiaq from Bering Strait sits staring at the window. His life is finished. He dwells in the coda of existence in which work and doing nothing counterpoint one another. That double rhythm is expressed in stories.

The word sungitchuq: ‘does nothing’. First there’s work, love, dancing, danger, violence. Then suspension. Each segment of experience an act of being. The violence and stress of travel, hunting, butchering a moose or caribou. They pack up the meat and bind it in the skin. A long journey to the village. Hills, rocks, cliffs, snow, blizzards, marshes. The wind passes through and blows against them. The hunter fills space with his body, his equipment and the animal he’s taken and then leaves it empty. Space, too, has its being. At home there’s more work. They distribute shares. Carry meat to subterranean caches. The women scour the hides and tan them, stretch them out and peg them tight above the beach heads. Then there’s cutting and shaping, measuring and sewing. And then it’s over for a day, at least until the weather changes. They eat, then sleep deeply. First work, and then nothing.


Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).

NOTES.

  1. Biting midges
  2. In February 1895, the missionary Driggs travelled south from Tikigaq to the Noatak valley and wrote: ‘Yesterday was the first time I have seen trees in nearly 5 years…It seems good to be in the woods and out of the wind.’
  3. Down coast, to distinguish him from Kobuk River kiligvaks, people called the father kiligvauraq: ‘little mammoth.’
  4. Sandhill crane
  5. Ritual figure
  6. I thought of Papageno with his wild bird costume who had entered musical existence on C.L. Gieseke’s return to Dublin with his specimens from Greenland.

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