Skip to content

After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 5, Sec 1.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.






They never allow themselves a day of quiet. Nothing can take their minds off figures; nothing of beauty can forget the export trade and market prices for a single moment.

—Knut Hamsun, The Cultural Life of Modern America, 1889

I recorded these mutually unrelated conversation fragments during fifteen minutes in the cafeteria of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, October 1977, three months after the oil began to flow:

  • It’ll be worth $2 million in a year.
  • I’m asking twenty thousand for it.
  • Fifteen hundred acres.
  • How much did you try to get for it?
  • He lives at 7.5 mile.
  • 250 gallon capacity.
  • We’re pushing Title IV, though ARMB has asked for its consultant back.
  • Reserves accumulating at the pump station.

Let the bastards freeze in the dark

—Bumper sticker, Fairbanks, 1974.

‘Mama asks if you would not cut down the orchard until she leaves.’

—Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard, Act IV


I FIRST SAW The Cherry Orchard at Sadlers Wells in about 1950. It was performed by the Russian Art Theatre and though I didn’t understand the words, still, something non-verbal at the end of the play impressed itself on me. This was the off stage beat of axes that accompany the departure of the cherry orchard’s ex-proprietors in Act IV and this percussion communicated a transition the audience might have anticipated but would not be witnessing: a process of economic, social, regional, perhaps national development, of perfunctory, utilitarian separation from the foregoing spectacle of quiet, social and familial disintegration — though I would not have comprehended this in 1950.

The orchard also had an aesthetic component. The grace of the trees, and after a brutal Russian winter, their lovely, harmless blossom and finally the cherry harvest. All this in early and middle spring. The women would make jam to eat with tea, construct cherry pies and pickle the residue against next winter. The orchard then would go into leaf and the family would have picnics in its shade. There was continuity to this rhythm. The cherry orchard was a lovable and intimate space. The servants were not explicity excluded. They might enjoy it vicariously from a suitable distance.

THE MESSAGE THAT Fairbanks day coming from nearby axes reminded me of how old Russia, at least the way Chekhov described it, went through transformation. Put more bleakly: parts of the Russian country were being hatcheted to oblivion, abused, layed into, trampled. And while some characters in the drama would participate in the clearance process and the creation of new, small, neat environments that Chekhov satirised in short stories, other characters, in the grip of anxiety or in bewilderment and denial, drifted towards a future that would perhaps remain a vague, albeit temporary continuation of past intimacies and their certainties. There were, on the other hand, ancien regime victims such as Feers (or Firs or Fiers), the abandoned retainer, who is the last on-stage character to make his voice heard. Feers is ancient and moribund. For Feers-like people, and those who were younger and more active, there was apparently neither the possibility of life in the old, increasingly inaccessible world which had exploited them, nor participation in the new which would sweep them aside.

While the thud of axes heralded one aspect of old Russia’s transformation, the wood chops punctuating Mrs Charlotte’s conversation proclaimed something that was both parallel and different.

While the thud of axes heralded one aspect of old Russia’s transformation, the wood chops punctuating Mrs Charlotte’s conversation proclaimed something that was both parallel and different. The historical transitions suggested by axe percussion that Fairbanks afternoon both communicated subsistence continuities that were being partly superseded by the technologically dominant modern world but also, paradoxically, suggested the perseverance of continuing hands-on life ways. Certainly there would be changes in the sub-Arctic. But this was 1975 America, not nineteenth-century Russia. There would be people affluent enough to do what they wanted, in which case the use and pursuit of the hand-made would become an issue of choice. Presumably they would be stacking their wood sheds long after Prudhoe Bay oil started flowing in ‘77. And there would also be poor people who would have no choice but to continue cutting firewood by hand, providing trees continued to exist. There were those on the other hand, for whom wood-burning stoves would become antique, obsolete, or transformed to decorative features in a centrally heated, oil-fired domestic space.

In the silences surrounding Mrs Charlotte’s conversation and its background ostinato, I became aware of two contingent histories: one, as suggested, was ancient, vulnerable but not yet dead, the second was of the future, whose super-modernity was embodied by the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline that was clattering, as Mrs Charlotte talked, out of earshot, in loading bays and railway sidings on the north side of town. Construction, organised from Fairbanks and in the twelve initial construction camps (there would eventually be thirty-two) established along the pipeline’s eight hundred mile trajectory, had started in 1974, and the last weld would achieve an OK after a slight delay, followed by the proclamation in summer 1977 of the longed for “Go!” when oil would begin flowing towards the tankers awaiting cargo in the Gulf of Alaska for transport to refineries in California.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

The two histories, ancient and super modern, were contiguous. But they coexisted in what was also an unspoken absence of mutual recognition. These co-existent histories were also happening world wide whether in Iran, Nigeria, Mexico, the US Gulf States, Venuzuela. Here in Alaska, as elsewhere, there continued to be people felling trees, hollowing boats, cutting house posts with axes. There were, on the other hand, still here in the Great Land, millions of previously scorned ‘waste’ acres purchased from the Russians for $7,200 million in 1867, and now the most complex and virtuosic feat of engineering in history would be layering its presence from the north to the south of Alaska, the nerve centre of whose organisation lay dead centre in Fairbanks.1

Continuity aside, the sound of axes that autumn afternoon also expressed an elegiac timbre. It was a melancholy music. Listening to the ‘surly sullen bell’ in Shakespeare’s sonnet, the survivor to whom the poem was addressed was assumed by the writer to have a life ahead of him.2 But the writer’s imminent death was also implied. The church bell in Stratford upon Avon, like the axes in Fairbanks, would ring into the future.


I IMAGINED MEN and women in their sixties, sourdoughs who’d been cutting wood here since the nineteen twenties and who cultivated vegetables in downtown gardens. They hunted moose along the Tanana, went fishing in the autumn and bartered surplus with their neighbours. Equally, they might be Brad and Darlene, Trudi, Kora, Ernie, or freaks high on a mix of home-grown dope and fundamentalist Christianity. Yards down the track from Mrs Charlotte’s, I coincided with an East Coast M.A., dropped out from Princeton: spotted blue and red bandana, with a necklace from which vaguely native amulets depended and who pressed his stubble on the axe shaft handle, quoting William Carlos Williams between whistled variations on a Dylan ballad. The guy’s hands were blistered. He had accustomed them only to the exercise of turning pages. ‘But this is real America’, he told me, splitting an ambiguous division (pace Princeton English) between worlds and histories he had studied. He’d last read modern writing in the security of a classroom and now, as if it were a caged bird, let free a poem to the early evening, reciting, like a line-gang shanty, Williams’ 1920s vision:

The pure products of America
go crazy…

and we degraded prisoners
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of golden rod in

the stifling heat of September
It seems to destroy us…’3

‘I’m doin’ it,’ he growled at me. ‘You’re doin’ it. It’s the other way round from Williams’ meaning. Ain’t we both destroying it? Whitman saw it coming: manual work passed on, it had to be, to engineers and foundries. Williams handed down the old man’s message.’ The graduate assumed I understood him, which I didn’t, any more than Chekhov’s Russian.


THERE WAS ALSO an irresistible momentum of technological advance that would presumably, in the end, render the hands-on way of life superfluous. It was this momentum that launched eight hundred miles of Japanese pipe from the far north to the south coast of Alaska. Perhaps there seemed a kind of ineluctability to this engineering epic. It was all too easy to take it for granted. I’d lived in Chicago, and it seemed natural to my naivety that a ‘completed’ America should move northwest, and that the far north should take on the character of the lower forty-eight that would, in the end, assimilate it.


THE PRESENCE AND IMPACT of the pipeline in mid-1970s Alaska was unavoidable – except perhaps to someone like Mrs Charlotte who had removed herself from contemporary issues – though, Mrs C ironically, had childhood memories of the Black Hills gold rush in the 1890s, and had she lived, would satirically be aware in 2018, of how parallel pipeline issues threated Native people facing the Keystone XL project to run a line through Sioux lands in the Dakotas. Asatchaq was also largely unaware of TAPS (the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System). And while Mrs Charlotte was ancient and semi-immobilised, Asatchaq, her junior, was preoccupied with the logistics of survival and with memories of a Tikigaq culture that were largely impossible to communicate. The line as people called it, was otherwise a daily feature of 1975 Fairbanks life.

Still, pipeline aside, Euro-American acquisition of minerals, fish, furs, timber and Arctic products such as ivory and baleen, had been a focus of major Euro-American activity since the sixteenth century. TAPS was unique in that the complex nature of its planning and construction transcended everything that went before. The project of ‘resource utilization’ nonetheless also harmonized with everything in previous acquisition initiatives.

The pipeline itself had its separate history. But while TAPS touched almost everything in 1970s Fairbanks, one of its most curious aspects lay in its coexistence not only with the worlds of Mrs Charlotte and the softball tyro Trudi, but with the magical realm that Native elders who still lived and dreamed ancestral visions. Innumerable discordant things have always coexisted. But in the coincidence of TAPS and the continuation of traditional Native belief systems lay a paradox which touched my work intensely.


THE COEXISTENCE OF these mutually jarring milieux will mark the social and historical environment I shall try sketching, albeit incompletely, in what follows. But to start with, this part of the narrative will open with a condensed outline of ways in which TAPS represented a climax to four hundred years of exploration in the Americas.


Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow—
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’

‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado.’

—Edgar Allan Poe

…the rapacious fury of the people of Europe, who have an unaccountable fondness for the pebbles and dirt of our land…’

—Voltaire, Candide

The pebbles and dirt lying around in Voltaire’s legendary kingdom were what Europeans recognised to be precious stones and gold. But these had economic value only to outsiders like Candide. The legend of El Dorado, the dream of a golden American paradise, tantalised sixteenth century Spain and England in equal measure. This wealth was attainable, albeit with difficulty. And the search for gold also came at the price of the decimation of many indigenous societies and the deaths of countless treasure hunters whose visions of lucre contrasted, often diametrically, with those of American natives for whom luxury materials sought after by Europeans frequently held only ritual value.4

Insecure wealth acquisition and likely death, equally, were the reward of countless old world adventurers, and American resources, viewed by Europeans as routinely available properties, were regarded as theirs for the taking.

To give just two examples of European wealth acquisition and its consequences. When in 1545 the Spanish part-drained Lake Guatavita in central Columbia they retrieved gold figurines which had been tossed into the water in the course of a king’s initiation. Spanish gold-salvaging expeditions over the following three centuries were partially successful, but none met expectations raised by European recollection of native profligacy, exemplified by abandoning gold in lake water. Second, Walter Ralegh’s pursuit of gold in Guiana in 1617 resulted in both the death of his son Wat, and once Ralegh the elder had returned to London, in his own execution. Insecure wealth acquisition and likely death, equally, were the reward of countless old world adventurers, and American resources, viewed by Europeans as routinely available properties, were regarded as theirs for the taking.

While part of Ralegh’s purpose, as he wrote in The Ocean to Cynthia, was to re-secure favour with Queen Elizabeth, one object in seeking Eldorado, was, in his words – and this was true of most adventurers – ‘To seek new worlds, for gold, for fame, for glory…’ The alternatives, for Ralegh, were sterility and dereliction: ‘From fruitless trees I gather withered leaves,’ he lamented in the same poem, ‘I seek fair flowers amid the brinish sand.’

The desire for possession in which male eroticism was homologised with New World exploration, the hypnotically magnetised movement in the direction of the enriching, desired object, was more explicitly expressed by John Donne some twenty years later:

‘Oh my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdome…/My Myne of precious stones, My Emperie,/How blest am I in this discovering thee!’ Thus Donne in To his Mistris Going to Bed,5 homologising movement towards erotic possession with the acquisition of New World possessions.

Quotations from Ralegh and Donne exemplify rather than explain the phenomenon of colonial appropriations. There were milder but no less explicit, contemporary voices such as Gonzalo’s in The Tempest, who, paraphrasing Montaigne, declared, ‘Had I plantation of this isle…

‘All things in common nature should produce/Without sweat or endeavour,’ and ‘nature should bring forth/Of its own kind all foison, all abundance/To feed my innocent people.’

Which expresses a similar, but more moderately considered vision of New World plenty available, given white men’s rule over ‘innocent people’, to European usufruct. Gonzalo, like most Renaissance folk, is represented as content to be the sort of European who assumed, in self-confident ethnic pre-eminence, that the globe beyond Europe was there to be opened up and exploited. No self-questioning need to be involved, certainly no guilt.

Fanciful excursions taking off from Renaissance poetics lead us not away from but directly to the cold fact of Old World/New World economies of transaction. From the moment that the American continent entered European history, whether in the eleventh century Norse view or in sixteenth century exploration, the New World represented an object of ‘resource utilisation’. However Shakespeare may have represented Gonzalo, even his genteel sounding sort of European adventure would inevitably assume European consumption implied by New World appropriations.

VI Bartolome de las Casas

THE SPANISH IN the Caribbean and Meso-America exemplify the most spectacular example of ethnic, national and religious self-justified appropriation, and the genocide perpetrated by sixteenth century conquistadors in, for example, Hispaniola and Cuba, was outlined by the Dominican monk Bartolome de las Casas in his book of the mid- sixteenth century.6 He wrote:

Nay dare we boldly affirm that in Forty Years space, wherein [the Spanish] exercised their sanguinary and detestable Tyranny, above Twelve Millions have undeservedly perished. Nor do I conceive that I should deviate from the Truth by saying that above Fifty Millions in all paid their last Debt to Nature.’

The horrifying details of de las Casas’ descriptions of torture, enslavement and murder demand no reproduction. But despite all the wrongs done to Native people on the north American continent, nothing on the scale outlined by de las Casas occurred in north America, even at Wounded Knee – which was disgraceful enough.

All of de las Casas’s details ‘for the Extirpation and Exterminating of this [Native] people’ are important to acknowledge. But of most significance here is his affirmation that

‘the ultimate end and scope that incited the Spaniards to endeavour the Extirpation and Desolation of this People was Gold only…’ This blunt insight lies at the heart of the present discussion.

VII Resource Exploration in North America

NINETEENTH-CENTURY NORTH AMERICAN sequillae to Spanish mining histories exposed by de la Casas are well known. And the phenomenon of gold prospecting, for example, runs parallel to north American industrialisation, urbanisation, employment crises, the land hunger of dispossessed Euro-Americans and the growth of immigrant populations. America-wide communications during the nineteenth century improved even for the poor who could in some degree depend on the protection of the US army and at the least, paths through open spaces. The continent was being settled. White smallholders and pioneer farmers continued to feel threatened by Indians whose lands they were travelling into; clear but uneasy patterns of division were being established. Indians continued to represent an ownership and development challenge but Indians also could be defeated in war and displaced onto reservations. Thus ‘from sea to shining sea’, the country moved into the control of federal and state authorities.

The continent during the ‘discovery’ period in the sixteenth century was viewed, as expressed by Ralegh, as a source of ‘gold, fame and glory’. North America, as generally viewed by incomers, was a barely inhabited wilderness with freely available resources. It was true that the Norse, in the eleventh century, seemed to have limited their interest to timber and iron. And exceptionally, the Venetian explorer (his Anglicised name: John Cabot), made north east American landfalls merely for water. That said, the Grand Banks south of Newfoundland had by the early sixteenth century become important fishing grounds for Europeans. Basques, Portuguese, Bretons, Normans, English and Irish fishermen who rendered the Americas a prime source for what would end up as stockfish, thus competing with Norwegian cod as a European staple. The seventeenth century next saw the French and the Dutch harvesting furs: marten, otter, ermine, fox, raccoon and lynx skins. And, given this animal’s near extinction in Europe, competition for beaver. By the end of the seventeenth century, the British and the French became engaged in trading conflict in the northern USA and Canada, variously using Iroquois, Huron and Mohawk Indians to support their causes.

Two main points arise from these reflexions. First, that the Americas, throughout, were regarded consistently, regardless of Native interests, as a food and wealth resource. Secondly, American abundance functioned to make up for scarcities in a Europe that itself was challenged by growing populations.

And while the histories of such utilization are too many to explore here, there remains the single outstanding point that American land and water have represented to Euro-Americans, at least since the sixteenth century, a wealth and property resource. And that while Native people have always themselves also utilised local resources, in pursuit of subsistence, Euro-Americans have uniformly identified resources as means towards ends not associated with inherited land interest and local value.

Euro-Americans were migratory and their interests derived not from inherited values but from extrinsic drives. The incomer need not in this respect be entirely discredited.

This latter could not be. Euro-Americans were migratory and their interests derived not from inherited values but from extrinsic drives. The incomer need not in this respect be entirely discredited. It is a fact of history. The five big nineteenth-century gold rushes exemplify material exploration by non-Natives in its crudest character: i.e those, in the mid-west and west, starting with the 1849 California Rush and followed by the 1858 rush in Pike’s Peak, Colorado, the Black Hills rush of 1874-77 and those of the Klondike in 1896 and Nome, Alaska in 1900. And just as Alaskan oil exploration in the mid-nineteen seventies was, in part, an American response to the 1973 oil crisis, so nineteenth century gold fever was tied to the global economy which was based on the gold standard – not a factor in the forefront of the individual prospector’s thinking.7

VIII The Americas Viewed as a Resource

GIVEN THAT TODAY’S North America is experienced as a nation among contemporaries, it takes an effort of imagination to conceive how it might have appeared to earlier people who viewed it, in contrast to thickly and often agonisingly populated Europe, largely as a uninhabited space. Resident Natives did exist and settlers had to compete with them. But there weren’t many Natives and because they were unchurched ‘savages’, they were regarded at best as semi-human. Their interests not unlike Caliban’s in The Tempest sometimes competing with those of incomers, were secondary and essentially they didn’t matter. What did matter were the acquisition of land and the accumulation of wealth.

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).


  1. To build houses and boats, make weapons and stay warm, the axe had long been one of the mainstays in hard countries. Later in the season, I’d see Trudi in an aisle of JCPenney with an axe in one hand and in the other curtain fabric. The axes punctuating Mrs Charlotte’s conversation proclaimed the perseverance of ancient lifeways that Trudi and Mrs Charlotte’s neighbours continued to pursue. There was no reason why these shouldn’t survive. The axe in Trudi’s one hand and the curtains in the other belonged to same hand-made environment she belonged to. But there would be no stopping oil development.
  2. Shakespeare, Sonnet 71
  3. William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, 1923
  4. The words ‘El Dorado’ in fact refer to the person of a Muisca ruler, whose installation took place at a lake where he’d painted himself with gold dust before plunging into the water. A king, not a place, was ‘the golden one’. There was of course a minority of Euro-Americans such as Mrs Charlotte who expressed Miltonic disdain for the earth’s wealth.
  5. Given the nature of the extract, the reader might anticipate ‘thus discovering’. But Donne wrote ‘this’, which refers to a present moment of uncovering.
  6. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, written 1542, published 1552.
  7. As casually evoked in Sherlock Holmes stories, there were also nineteenth century prospecting rushes in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and South Africa.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *