Literature of the Last Frontier

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.

In Coming Into the Country (1977), John McPhee,
describing one of Heimo Korth’s contemporaries, writes, ‘Like many
Alaskans, he came north to repudiate one kind of life and to try
another.’ Alaska homesteading signifies dissatisfaction with
conventional American life. It implicitly rejects, as Heimo Korth
says, ‘the waste, excess, consumerism, and softness of American
society.’ These are characteristics that can be directly tied to
environmental degradation, and thus to plans to drill in ANWR.

‘Soft’ also suggests a lack of basic skills. Alaskan
homesteaders, by dint of their isolation, have had to be
self-sufficient, especially in terms of food and shelter. In
One Man’s Wilderness (1973), Dick Proenneke describes how,
working alone, he built a cabin in what is now Lake Clark National
Park. He shot 16 mm film of himself engaged in the building process
(talk about self-reliant), footage included in Alone in the
Wilderness (2003), a recent PBS staple.

The film’s popularity has much to do with how Proenneke makes a
place for himself in the wilderness. He uses only hand tools to
transform trees into walls and roof, door and hinges. His great
skill is another sort of repudiation — of modernity and
specialization. From this perspective, reliance on machines — and
on oil — is a sign of cultural illness. Homesteading is an
antidote.

On the other hand, few PBS viewers will seek the satisfactions
of life in the Alaskan bush. There’s a certain irony in
romanticizing Alaska, not least in that most of us continue to
consume a whole lot of oil, but also in that living like Proenneke
or the Korths is a substantial physical and emotional challenge.
When ‘hippie’ members of a California commune, in T.C. Boyle’s
excellent novel Drop City (2003), try settling in east
central Alaska, they experience more suffering than
satisfaction.

Still, the possibility of failure does not damage the frontier
myth, it just gives it a sharper edge. The land remains intact,
indifferent, and thus still capable of providing solace. The appeal
of homesteading — and by extension of ANWR — may be nostalgia for
a way of life we revere but don’t want to live; it may be explained
by discomfort with, even loathing for, the way we do live. More
importantly, it shows that we retain a respect for hard work,
manual skills, and self-reliance, and thus for what might be called
the Alaskan Dream.

Protecting a place like ANWR preserves at least the possibility
of this dream. Ironically, such a refuge by definition precludes
new trapping permits or homesteading claims, which explains why
Heimo Korth ‘can’t stand parks.’ A preservationist land ethic
leaves no room for someone like him. Speaking of his daughters, he
says that they ‘are the last people in America who will ever be
able to live like this.’

He’s no doubt right, at least for a time. Our propensity for
exploitation and damage gives weight to strict preservationism.
Follies like the ‘Healthy Forests’ initiative have made many
skeptical of so-called compromise. But as the homesteading
experience comes to an end in Alaska, it lives on in the American
imagination, and in the books by and about the last pioneers. In
this age of ever greater consumption, the homesteading narrative
may be a paradoxical myth, but as another way of thinking about
what constitutes a good life, it may also be a useful
corrective.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.