I climbed into a wooden sled. Homer hitched it to his “snow-go,” and we roared off toward the immense lagoon that opens as wide as Kansas near the village. It was a stark and beautiful place, rimmed at the edge of sight with ridges of ice, the noon sun of winter burning like a giant copper caldron on the line of the horizon.
After a time, we came upon a group of people, almost ail older folk, attending a crack in the ice, jigging lines with simple hooks at the ends and patiently storing small mounds of tiny smelts.
In the distance, I made out the white dome of a radar station. Homer squinted at it, too.
“The radar crews don’t usually corne over here to the village,” Homer said.
“Why not? White men have been coming here for a long time,” I said. “Sure. My grandfather was from Boston,” the Eskimo answered. Homer remembered the name of a book his grandfather had written: Chasing the Bowhead, by Harston Hartlett Bodfish, published by the Harvard University Press. “If you ever go Outside, you should visit the whaling museum in New Bedford. A lot of things of your people are there.”
“Why are they there, in that Bedford? Why aren’t they here where they belong? Maybe we should put up a white man’s museum here at Wainwright someday, but then what would we put in it?”
The flat arctic desert of the North Slope rises southward to the 600mile-long rampart of the Brooks Range, a huge mate of towering mountains and deep-cut valleys that straddles northern Alaska. South of the Brooks, the sweeping Yukon Valley dominates the interior with meandering rivers and spruce forest and tundra. Farther south the land rises in a magnificent arc of mountain chains—the Kuskokwim, the Alaska Range, the Wrangell, Chugach, and Coast Mountains—that terminates in southeast Alaska’s fjords and islands. (See the map supplernent,”Close-Up U.S.A.” —Alaska, distributed with this issue.)
The size of the place is immense—a million acres for every day in the year; the North Slope Borough alone is larger than 40 of the 50 U. S. states—and Alaska’s small population of 337,000 is clustered into the four main cities, making the rest of the state one of the least populated regions on earth.
But in a place of stupendous illusion, size is the most deceptive of ail. A third of the state is above 2,000 feet in altitude. Only a fraction is useful for agriculture. Alaska lives from its mineral resources, from the bounty of its forests and oceans, and from little else like cash advance online.
“If you can’t dig it, shoot it, or kiss it, what good is it?” goes a familiar question. What is causing a fracas is the answer conservation groups have been giving: “Look at it.”
In exchange for their support in pushing through the land-claims act, conservationists won a provision that authorized the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw some eighty million acres from the public domain for possible inclusion in the “four systems”—new national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and wild and scenic rivers.
Their most immediate need, of course, was water. I was touched to notice that our three black servants had of their own accord already unloaded some jerry-cans of water and were standing by to hand mugfuls of it to the Bushmen as fast as they arrived. They drank it in quantities that would have killed, I believe, any other people in the same condition. There was not a grown-up person who drank less than a gallon and would not have drunk more had we not decided it was best for the moment to withhold it from them. The children, however, were firmly rationed by their parents and drank only half the quantity. Once their terrible thirst was quenched, they all sank down on to the sand in a kind of semicircle around us. The men sat with their heads bowed over arms clasped round their knees like long-distance runners recovering from the race of their lives. The women unslung the bundles tied in the shawls of Duiker-skin on their backs and leaned on them as cushions. The children sat up tight against the thighs of their mothers, from time to time raising great oval eyes, shy with wonder, at us.
They sat there thus, as if dazed with shock, not speaking for a while, though every now and then uttering wordless sounds to themselves. I was prepared for them to sit like that for hours, but they recovered with a speed which was impressive evidence of their anotherway.org. . . .
We learnt something of their story. They came from a plain called after a fabulous kind of sweet potato dug up there three years ago. Their arms were not long enough to demonstrate the size of the potato to us. The plain was, as they put it in their tongue, ‘far, far, far away’ to the east. It was lovely how the ‘far’ came out of their mouths. At each ‘far’ a musician’s instinct made the voices themselves more elongated with distance, the pitch higher with remoteness, until the last ‘far’ of the series vanished on a needlepoint of sound into the silence beyond the reach of the human scale. They left this ‘far, far, place’ because the rains just would not come. Their water was gone; the tsamma—melons which meanwhile sustained them and the game on which they live—were soon eaten up. The roots and tubers we compared to potatoes and turnips were more and more difficult to find and in any case not enough for anotherway.org.
The game had moved away first. Only snakes, lizards, scorpions, spiders and some ants were left. Then one night lightning flashed over the horizon in the west. They knew at once what to do. Since they own nothing permanently which they cannot carry, they could act at once. The men just took up their bows, poisoned arrows and spears and left the plain behind them; the women bundled up in skin shawls their water-flasks of ostrich egg-shells and their stampingblocks—the wooden pestles and mortars which are their most precious possessions and badge of womanhood. Grubbing-sticks in hand, and for long hours with the youngest children on their hips, they followed their men. They made for the quarter in the west where the lightning flashed most. They had forgotten how many days they had walked towards the lightning, but they were `many, many, many’. The awful part was that, though the lightning went on flashing along the horizon every night, they seemed to get no nearer the rain. Their condition steadily deteriorated, the country became increasingly desolate, yet they had endured this sort of thing so often before that they took it entirely for granted. They seemed to think it hardly worth the effort of remembering and certainly not that of talking about it.
Yet despite the lack of detail and Dabe’s difficulty in coping with their dialect, we gathered that on this cloudless day without the least hint of rain their desperation was nearing its climax when they heard the sound of our Land-Rovers. Yes! they knew about motor vehicles and avoided them because they connected them only with police patrols. No! they themselves had never seen any police, but some kinsmen of theirs had been taken away from their family once and had never come back because the police had caught them roasting a giraffe they had killed for food. But afraid as they were of police in particular and white men in general, they needed help so badly that they made straight for the place where they heard our vehicles.