Literature of the Last Frontier

The Alaskan Dream and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

| May / June 2006

For the moment, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) stands as a protected last redoubt on a continent trimmed and plowed and mined unrelentingly for four centuries. The refuge's protected status has long been under siege, in part because it goes against the American grain to let land lie fallow. It's a leap for us to assign value to nature simply for itself -- as itself. Writers like John Muir and Aldo Leopold have tried to convince us that nature has intrinsic value, but such a land ethic is still far from universal. How to account then for the fact that most Americans are opposed to oil drilling in ANWR?

One answer starts with the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. In her book Nature's State (2001), Susan Kollin describes how images of oil-soaked wildlife and shorelines threatened 'the meanings and values assigned to Alaska in the popular national imagination.' An industrial accident on the 'last frontier' contradicted the state's wilderness identity. Part of the incentive for protecting ANWR is to keep in reserve the sense of possibility that frontier has long represented in North America.

It's no accident that little of the rich literature of Alaska is about oil exploration. Instead, writers such as Muir, Robert Marshall, and Margaret Murie have recounted Alaskan wilderness adventures. Even more popular have been Alaskan homesteading narratives, tales of people who have gone into the bush not for oil or short-term adventure, but to live.

The homesteading narrative is a venerable American genre that begins with William Bradford's reports on the colony at Plymouth and moves slowly westward. According to writers such as Frederick J. Turner and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the work of 'settling' a recalcitrant land has shaped Americans into an intrepid, self-reliant, and exceptional people. Eventually this narrative reached our 49th state, but not quite intact: What distinguishes the Alaskan version is the necessity of continued wildness. Instead of making over the land into a pastoral ideal, homesteaders in Alaska have striven to sustain the wilderness conditions their hunter-gatherer lives require.

It's these people's efforts to reconcile use and preservation -- so at odds in the ANWR debate -- that may account for the popularity of their stories. They are using the land but trying to preserve its basic qualities; they are seeking a transformative personal experience without damaging the land.

When Heimo Korth left Wisconsin for Alaska in 1975, he was part of a generation of 'Outsiders' going north in search of a better life. In The Final Frontiersman (2004), James Campbell recounts how Korth learned to trap, hunted with Eskimos on St. Lawrence Island (where he met his wife, Edna), and eventually took up residence in the southeastern corner of what is now ANWR. The Korths and their two teenage daughters, ANWR's only full-time homesteaders, live today as hunter-trappers, relying on caribou and moose, marten and lynx. They enjoy a sustainable and satisfying way of living on the land -- a way of living that mining or drilling would compromise.

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