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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 5, Sec 3.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.

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XIV

Fairbanks Journal, Autumn 1975

LATE AUGUST. I’VE now been in Fairbanks twelve or fourteen days and I’m reeling already. I’ve spent two months in Juneau, a smaller, gentle town, low slopes of mountains lined with hand-built clapboard buildings: pretty houses with a smell of carpentry, whiffs, here and there, of marijuana. Southeast Alaska is damp and bountitful. There are lupin meadows by the water, walks into the foothills among wild flowers and berries. I went sailing with friends between islands to fish halibut and browse samphire on mud flats.

I’d arrived in Juneau after three months in the Arctic and settled on a quiet boardwalk house, with gardens, flowering bushes, humming birds at window shutters. The ambience, by contrast, here in Fairbanks, harmonises with my rootless status. I’m living at the edge of downtown at the invitation of my friend the linguist Larry, in a modest 1940s building. It’s dark, unbeautiful and due for demolition. Still, the central heating is in working order. I’ve come to study Beginners Inupiaq in Larry’s class at university and hadn’t understood how far the pipeline’s overwhelmed the city. Still in search of Asatchaq, I learned, a few weeks after my arrival, that he was in a local care home.1

XV

THIS, IN THE FACE of the 1963 oil crisis, during which America’s pursuit of independent energy, is where the latest boom’s in process. And here in Fairbanks, centre of construction planning, it’s a mishmash of ethnicities and archetypes, a melting pot, refusing to amalgamate, a Rimbaud-esque procession2 of new homing-on-the-pipeline vagabonds, as I jotted ecstatically, the Princeton M.A.’s axe blows whistling behind me, who had arrived, like him, to score a contract. Hence this other notebook entry in which pipeline aspirants are crowded:

There are hashishim from gumbo kitchens in the Louisiana bayous.

Dog mushing backwoods eco-warriors who drag the smell of dog shit through the Teamsters registration office. (‘Sorry, feller. Try the Laborers.’)

Quiet mid-western linesmen who follow the best dollar.

Yupiit from the Kuskokwim the Yukon rivers, forearms folded, in line to register at union offices.

North Slope Inupiat, equivalently patient.

Young white Alaskans in 50 below t-shirts.

Oklahoma pipeline techno-migrants tracking the pipe northward.

Cactus and honey Israeli princesses.

Survivors of resistance in Chile, Buenos Aires, Paraguay and Cuba.

Low in throat voices, and chisels hanging from their belts and pockets, young women carpenters and tractor drivers.

Sado-masochists in leather gunned up from the lower states on Harley Davidsons.

Lieder aspirants who’ve come to earn their fare to Salzburg and Vienna.

Sun Dance ethno-groupy boys from drama colleges.

Past tense Beatniks burning to revive the Fifties.

White Sikhs in white dastaars here to start sub-Arctic ashrams.

Novel crazies pregnant with the Great American. They plough through Jaws and Shogun in the union lobbies.

Astro-physics post-grads, here in flight from M.I.T and Berkeley.

Soloists from Julliard burned out by Liszt and Czerny exercises.

New Yorker Essay junkies on research trips.

Bluesy cowgirls, studs and rhinestones in their denims.

Yelping bluegrass saints in hot bandanas.

Frowning Hassidim on mission weird to herd Jews towards a Williamsburg yeshiva. At 3 a.m. they shout in Yiddish down the wire from freezing phone booths.

Prostitutes from Salt Lake and Las Vegas who’ve dropped from Mormon gene trees for Jack London-esque adventures.

Your down home roughneck US fucker travelled north to fuck the last, inflated US dollar from the pipeline.

 

XVI

A PART-PARADIGM of this convergence of the young Americas lay ready-made on Nome’s golden beaches, in the Klondike, the Black Hills of the Dakotas. But while today’s Alaska’s population is cosmopolitan, last century’s gold and oil adventurers were, as missionary writers called them, ‘saloon bar sweepings’: mainly white Americans, unchurched, drifting, unemployed, albeit some were immigrants from Central Europe, Italy, Ireland, China and less this rainbow gallery of opportunists, whose parallel, the present century, lay tragically in young men taken into the conscription offices and women drawn to army hospitals by nursing adverts. It is sobering to compare this influx of adventurers in Fairbanks with the conscripts recruited, these same months, from poor farm communities, urban ghettoes, native villages, paid, as Kunuyakauluk remarked later, ‘to pay natives to kill natives’.

It was as though Fairbanks, which was the most efficient entry point for line employment, represented the funnel top, capacious and broad-lipped, for the process of suction into the economy. Like the vision in the Gita of God’s mouth, into which the armies of the warring kings are sucked,

They rush into your mouths, O Vishnu, you devour all people, lighting up the universe and scorching worlds…3

Which, given the ongoing reality of the Vietnam war, was not a far-fetched image of Apocalypse. Just as armies flew helplessly through Vishnu’s teeth, so healthy men and women are fed into the Vietnam conflict. Or rush towards Alaska and are swallowed by the line’s intoxicating honey.

XVII

THE DEMOGRAPHIC PARADOX represented by this community also had its antecedent in the Whitman poems which Mrs Charlotte mentioned. ‘I contain multitudes,’ wrote Whitman in Song of Myself. But the cosmopolitan character of present multitudes lay even beyond what the poet might have imagined he could fold in his ‘turbulent embrace’, as Mrs C’s grandfather called it.

Nor could Mrs Charlotte, herself, a grand dame of the contact period, relate knowledgeably to this new demography, so otherwise conspicuous. She may not even have been aware of it. What she had known were the inter-relations, in earlier decades, of white folks and Natives, and thus surveyed, on visits with her daughter to Asatchaq’s care home, the residents, with the eye of one who’d loved them as young people. And wept at their displacement.

There was a further, wider demographic discrepancy. Just as I’d viewed Tikigaq from the air and Mrs Charlotte had seen her Mission as a chemical spot on an photo from the air, so in similar reduction, I saw the populations of Fairbanks and also the rest of Alaska in simplified reduction.

Gazing down in imagination on the pipeline population, this view was of people in vertically ordered assembly. Like blackfly on a bean stalk, they were organised in singular and linear disposition. Fed into the line, which as the word suggests, was linear — albeit it swelled into micro S-shapes — they queued up and were fed, or fed themselves, in a direction that took them to points along the single metallic thread that constituted a trajectory from which they were incapable of diverging.

Thus the population took on a pictographic disposition of the pipeline itself and became, in this vision, a partial version of its geometry. Once it had spent itself on the adventure, the population scattered…

Thus the population took on a pictographic disposition of the pipeline itself and became, in this vision, a partial version of its geometry. Once it had spent itself on the adventure, the population scattered, as had the Euro-Americans described in earlier rushes, and the short-lived homogeneity of the pipeline community no longer existed. Still, for the period of its existence, while the line was being constructed between 1974 and 1977, these thousands of individuals (28,000 men and women worked on the line, plus thirty-two fatalities) were, at least within the condensation of my limited vision, singularised and homogenised.

Looking, in imagination, down on the totality of the Alaska Native populations, the picture was very different. Here there was no single line of people clustered round a solitary metal conduit and clotted at its intersections in construction camps and pump stations. Instead, there was a panoply of peoples in mobile and self-organised patterns:

North Slope, Kobuk and Noatak River, King Island Inupiat, Yup’ik people of the lower Kuskokwim and Yukon, St Lawrence Island Yup’ik, south western Eyak and the Chugach Eskimos, South Eastern Tlingit, Haida, Tsimsian people, Athabascans: Koyukon, Gwich’in, Holikachuk, Ingalik, Kolchan, Tanaina, Ahtna.

A minority queued at Fairbanks and Anchorage Union offices. For the most part, Natives pursued lifeways in their villages, travelling through snow and sea ice, negotiating rivers, hunting, setting fish nets, cutting timber, berry picking.

Otherwise, even for those city-dwellers who were detached from the oil project, the pipeline, or skinny city, as line workers called it, ran like a vast umbilical through our houses, into sitting rooms and bedrooms, bathrooms, classrooms, cafes, restaurants, it was present in the streets and bars, shops, motels and thrift stores. The concretion of everything that people talked about, our dreams projected on it, whether that be in ecologically informed opposition, on economic dependence or financial self-improvement. But somehow we were all there, whether or not we travelled the new Dalton Highway and took temporary root in work camps where construction happened:

Five Mile, Deadwood, Galbraith, Dietrich, Atigun, Prudho: paradisos where the happy souls who got onto the union rotas worked and roistered, earned mega bucks and over time, with restaurants where fresh vegetables were rarer goods than steak done how you like it, west coast king crab, lobster.

XVIII

I’D WALKED ROUND a freight yard several times on foggy autumn mornings and was dazzled in the twilight by flatbeds piled with lengths of pipeline, inert, looming through the frost haze. It was hard to credit that these glossy, chopped up macaroni, close-up, tangible, would soon be trundled to the Arctic and welded to that big enormous everything, eight hundred miles in length, of engineering.

Still, here it lay in intimate and dislocated segments. You could raise a gloved hand, stroke it and go home to breakfast. Yet it stretched back through history and touched both future and the past where all development had started with the Spanish treasure hunters.

 XIX

THE PIPELINE WAS however a monumental artefact of commerce. And like the north-south, east-west Continental Divide, it separated for-and-against’ opinions.

Given the political, logistical and financial clout of corporate intention and the support of Alaska state legislature, the environmental lobby was insufficient, even after exhaustive hearings, to block the construction initiative. Christo, at the cost of millions, might have negotiated rights to install his Running Fence across twenty-four miles of Marin and Sonoma Counties in summer 1976, and which would billow across the landscape for two weeks before being recycled,4 but the Alaskan pipeline, to be completed twelve months later in summer ’77, was being built on lands bought and leased from a dizzying variety of owners to endure indefinitely in an incalculable and threatening series of landscapes which, at vast expense and an unprecedented complexity of planning, had been designed to survive. TAPS did not pretend to the mind-expanding uselessness of art.

Viewed imaginatively as though from the air — to repeat what we have already tried — the line might optically be construed as a mega-Christo: an emblem of human and mechanical intervention into the pressures of multiple environments of challenge. This was both paradoxical and impressive. A statement and a geste of human power in pursuit of the utilitarian. The virtuosic concretion of countless scientific calculations to project Alaska into the forefront of advanced engineering. And to accomplish the seemingly impossible in the face of almost insuperable obstacles that previous pioneers had confronted with their vulnerable bodies and their puny equipment. The gold panner, the fur trapper, the whale and bison hunter: those heroes of individualism and slaughter whose progenies now were corporate adventurers of unprecedented power to plan, employ and execute. Picks, pans, satchels, orts of sourdough, gold dust. These were the seeds, the germens and the embryos from which this land leviathan had risen. ‘Crack nature’s moulds,’ as Lear shouted, both knowing what he meant and recklessly unknowing. ‘All germens spill at once,’ he ranted. And in this least promising of hyperborean seedbeds, they were sown and nurtured with astonishing virtuosity.

XX

DURING A CONVERSATION in Jane Eyre, the eighteen year-old protagonist confronts her future husband with a subversive insight. ‘The men in green,’ says Jane of the spiritual beings of rural folklore, ‘all forsook England a hundred years ago.’ This was only slightly less true in late nineteenth century Ireland, about which W.B. Yeats wrote:

‘There was an old man who lived near a bog a little out of Gort, who saw [faery people] often from his young days, and always towards the end of his life… His neighbours were not certain that he really saw anything in his old age, but they were all certain that he saw things when he was a young man. His brother said, “Old as he is, and it’s all in his brain the things he sees. If he was a young man we might believe in him…” A neighbour said, “The poor man! They say they are mostly in his head now, but sure he was a fine fresh man twenty years ago the night he saw [the faeries] linked in two lots like young slips of girls walking together.’5

The parallel here lies in the coexistence of the pipeline’s world of pragmatic fact and the archaic imagination of an Alaska Native belief world. The historical paradox in the mid-nineteen-seventies of pipeline coexistence with the inner lives of Natives was one clashing and irresolvable factor. Another was peaceful coexistence of both with America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, which — given the current climate which it had partially created — still pursued violence. As the Princeton M.A. whose axe punctuated Mrs Charlotte’s peroration, sang out, quoting Williams’s poem, ‘the pure products of America go crazy’. And this institutionalized insanity had the appearance of normality. Likewise, just as many Native people at the turn of the twentieth century submitted themselves to a ‘heavenly father’ (Tikigaq’s first missionary’s phrase) while also retaining belief in their local shamans, so the paradox of local tradition in the context of late twentieth century adventurism.

XXI

Future centuries will presumably view oil as having acted as a temporary convenience, as obsolete as the micro-organisms from which it has evolved.

I’VE ALLUDED TO GOLD and have marginalized the way oil has dominated the last two centuries. Oil has been described as black gold, and without displacing that metal as global currency, oil, in darker weeds (as Orsino might have phrased it in Twelfth Night) crept up to merge with her older sister. And while none of us can do without the oil towards which we feel an irreconcilable ambivalence, future centuries will presumably view oil as having acted as a temporary convenience, as obsolete as the micro-organisms from which it has evolved. And while, again, it has kept modern society functioning, it will presumably kill us.

I repeat these easy truths because, in the context of the TAPS, the contrasts are bleak. In no other place and at no other time – the vast landscapes of mid-twentieth century Alaska and the minds of its older inhabitants – could oil’s mismatch with the environment and with human experience be starker. And the TAPS project, as experienced at the time, represented a remarkable climax. It was beautiful and barbaric, its virtuosity expressed in parallel perhaps most conspicuously by the completion of the Standard Oil Company tower (‘Big Stan’) in downtown Chicago. This exquisite building was completed in 1974 just when the TAPS project went into operation. And just as the climactic importance of Alaskan oil, by 2015, had become dwarfed by oil production in the US Gulf States and California, so Big Stan, over its first forty years, having been shuttled between owners, was forced to shed its marble cladding and re-build at the cost of its original construction.

Renaissance perceptions of ‘gold, fame and glory’ and the transience of heroic endeavours are, in comparison with the complexities of US economics, relatively uncomplicated. But they express a truth whose simplicity put Big Stan and the TAPS enterprise, as its measure, into the perspective of species survival.

It was ever climactic, and without insistence on Freud, oil’s sumptuous first upbursts after long, dry drilling was at each discovery (thousands of new wells are drilled annually) followed by the happiness of achievement. ‘What is all this juice and all this joy?’ as Hopkins wrote in 1877, a hundred years before Alaskan oil began moving.

Alaskan optimism was natural and a relief to those in the state who had been disappointed by the failure in 1962 of Project Plowshare, or Chariot as it was renamed. Chariot had been a US Atomic Energy Commission project which in association with Edward Teller and the Liveright Laboratories, had proposed detonating five atom bombs at the southern end of Cape Thompson. The intention supposedly had been the creation of a deep water harbour, but a number of factors, including opposition by Alaska Natives, university scientists and an American environmental lobby had discredited a plan so absorbing that no Chariot supporter publicly took note that sea-ice would prohibit ship traffic for eight months of the year and so the commercial development of Alaska by the indirect means of ‘peaceful nuclear excavation’ was aborted, just three years after statehood had been awarded in 1959.

XXII

THERE WERE AN incalculable number of precedents, and it would be as hard to enumerate the oil strikes in America as it might be to describe the entire world. The oil industry, itself, is a vast world within our world. Briefly, in the USA, starting in 1859, there was the Drake Well, Pennsylvania, oil finds continuing into the Civil War that spread to western Pennsylvania, New York state, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Rockefeller, in New York and Massachusetts, consolidated oil production into Standard Oil in 1874. There were major discoveries in California and Colorado in the 1860s, while the 1890s saw oil strikes in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. The list is enormous and thousands of companies remain engaged in exploration, production, transportation, refining and distribution.

An incalculable infrastructure of railroads, tankers, pipelines and trucking companies carried oil to every part of the nation. Alaska joined Texas, California and the Dakotas as one of the top oil producing states in the second half of the twentieth century. And while Alaskan production began dropping in the two thousands, Prudhoe Bay oil continued to represent a major resource on which the state economy depended. Viewed rather as I’d visualized TAPS pipeline construction, it was as though the entire continent and not just its big north western state had been punctured all over and the subsurface spouted.

As Berger’s informants recorded, the central issue was unitary and straight forward. Given the existential relationship of Native people and their lands, industrial development represented a threat to the entire structure of Native society and its cultures.

The incalculable complexities of development represented the assertion of a particular way of life, that of Euro-American development.

The incalculable complexities of development represented the assertion of a particular way of life, that of Euro-American development. Such was the process of modernization: the extension of what mainstream America perceived as civilized, normalizing, ordinary-making. This, in reality, as compared to the older traditions of hunter-gatherer societies, was new and unprecedented, and oil production was its major representation. Oil would, indeed, sustain modernized society for the time being. The future, however, looked much like the past: a wilderness derelict of the sort of macro-energy without which humans had subsisted in their pre-industrial generations. This latter was the alternative life way. But because it was represented by small contemporary societies which in themselves often lacked internal cohesion, the Europeanising life way would achieve dominance while the oil lasted.

 XXIII

THE LAST SECTIONS have been polemical and I’d promised to avoid polemic. There are books, papers and web pages devoted to details that would be out of place here. It remains to confess that both oil and pipeline culture have so far been a success and their triumph will presumably continue during our lifetimes. But these victorious monuments, thrilling as they are, will eventually constitute earth’s mausoleum. Our present fount of life will be our coffin.


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. ‘The Bellman’s Story’, (see above) sketches comic possibilities of a life in Fairbanks.
  2. J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage, Rimbaud, Les Illuminations
  3. Bhagavat-Gita, Book 11
  4. “Photographs of the Fence’s construction reveal the magnitude of the undertaking. Stunning photographs of the completed project enable us to see what [has been] described as a ‘startling piece of calligraphy. . .’ Running Fence may have stood for only two weeks, but its grandeur as an object and, moreover, as a testament to perseverance, courage, and belief, is enough to earn its permanence in our memories. Journey to Running Fence, University of California Press Blog 2010. Thus seduced the art world’s interest.
  5. ‘The Friends and the People of Faery’, in Mythologies, essays republished in 1959.

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