Nov 28, 2007

too dark...must read..

the onset of darkness during the winter always pushes me toward books. i recoil. i get weary of thinking in circles about things that seem trivial when the sun shines, and i need to replace the words i repeat to myself with the words of someone more precise.

my stack of Alaska books on my winter reading list is growing unmanageable. it's funny; when i lived in Colorado i didn't seek out Colorado authors (although i did read quite a bit of Wyoming with Ehrlich and Galvin), and i'm afraid i couldn't name an Iowan book with a gun to my head. this, i regret. but, my need to read Alaskan authors runs deep. i guess it's still my uneasiness about knowing this place. but, with every photo i take i come closer. i'm coming to the realization that if i can understand the Interior and North alone i may have to be satisfied. i've got a lot of work to do.

the question that has nagged at me lately, and one i've been searching for in the books i've been reading is - when are we Alaskan? i don't think just having a 907 area code does it. i know many people here that know no more about Alaska than what the coffee table books at Walmart tell them. i'm wondering lately what unit of measurement is used. i'm unclear, but i do know that as a photographer the requirements for finding something greater are, well, greater.

just when i think i have it down, i think of my good friend (and author) Ned Rozell and my theories get all mashed up. if i used him as a yardstick in my quest to be a true Alaskan i know i would come up miles short, and probably just miss being a man as well. he's true grit.

so, what is it? and more importantly, what does it mean to be a photographer, or an artist in any medium, in Alaska? what are the responsibilities? what qualities do we possess to add to the discussion? aside from geography, what do own to be a part of the dialogue? how do we avoid wholly the clichés and the tourist vistas? what is the cocktail of ingredients? i'm getting a handle on it i think, but it's worth asking the question. it feels like the clichés have been bastardized, and then trademarked, as the truth.

so, back to books. i've been reading John Haines' Living off the Country this week. his book of essays is a much needed steel toe kick in the sweet spot. his criticism and sharp pen is such a refreshing companion to the November darkness.

the following is an excerpt from his essay The Writer as Alaskan: Beginnings and Reflections:

It is not only the land itself that faces us in the North today, as real as that is, but the entire drama of European life on this continent reenacted at a place that leaves us stunned and gasping. The experience is hard to come to grips with; there are few names for it, and too many old responses. We see Alaska through clichés to save us from thinking: "The Last Frontier,""The Great Land." What do these really mean, aside from a great opportunity to grab? "North to the Future," that preposterous slogan once flaunted on the state auto license plates: the whole thing is a travel agent's invention. There is no place called Alaska, just as there is hardly anything today that can be identified as California. But of course there was, and is, such a place, though it can scarcely be found any longer for what we have done to it, and are beginning to do here. What i read about Alaska in magazines is for the most part the superficial message of the tourist-he who comes to gape, but not to understand.

How long might it take a people living here to be at home in their landscape, and to produce from that experience things that could be recognized anywhere as literature of the first rank? Several hundred years? A few generations? we know from history how long a people have lived in a land and then found ways to express that living in song and other forms of art. Closeness is needed, long residence, surrender, abandonment, or just a sense of somehow being stuck with it. whatever it is that is needed, it can't be merely willed. And much of what we say about it will be conditional; in the end it will depend on the right circumstances and on the genius of a few individuals who know what they want to do, and whose material and direction can not be predicted. All we can do is to project a few apparent needs and conditions.

- John Haines


Anonymous said...

When I was in grad school, my first year or two in California, I was trying to write a collection of essays about Los Angeles. At least that's what I told myself. The truth was that I was trying to be Joan Didion. Needless to say, I failed in the collection of essays. But I succeeded in walking away with more questions than answers, and one of the major questions on my mind was, "Am I a Californian yet?" The "yet" was key for me, because I knew that eventually, I would be. I just didn't know when. I'm a Californian now, but I'm not sure when it happened. I just know that I started thinking of going back east to visit my family as "going back east to visit my family," and I started to think of returning to California as "going home." I think it was around that time that the shift happened. Alaska may be different, though. I think every place has its own requirements. And it seems, for me at least, that I can't ever figure out what the requirements are until I've already, unwittingly, met them.

ben huff said...

you're right Liz. maybe knowing is in not feeling the need to ask the question any more.

but, also, and maybe a bit unrelated. is there potential for a clearer vision if you are not 'Californian' or 'Alaskan'. is the cliche slower to set in? is there a sweet spot in between?

just thinking out loud...well typing out myself...

Jessie Jane said...

Have you read any John McPhee? How about...shit the name escapes me now. A poet (contemporary), she wrote/writes about California and geology. I didn't much care for the work, but I'll have to look her up—seems applicable.

Um, I would say geography tells us when we belong there. We may think we know or don't know—but we don't know. I never felt I was OF New England until I left it for a very long time. As soon as I started to feel I was OF California, I feel New England taking over again.

Good luck, bub. Let me know when you figure it out. ;)

ben huff said...

hey JJ. it's funny you mention McPhee. no, i haven't read Coming Into The Country. i don't want to harp about Haines too much, but he has a chapter about McPhee in this book as well and talks about an Easterner coming in an making a book about Alaska when he can't truly know it that soon. he goes on to say...
"Coming out of the country finally, McPhee will go back to Princeton to complete his book and then to another writing project somewhere" (John Haines from After McPhee)

anyway, i feel OF Alaska more than anywhere. i have things to be done here. i just question regularly my perception of things. i'm not sure how healthy that is..

subarctic mama said...

Great post. So much to think about. I don't have an answer either. It's an issue, lurking here at the end of the road. The News-Miner's use of "sourdough status" in its community profiles reminds me how important the question is to Alaskans.

Jeremy said...

Brenda Hillman is the name of the CA poet concerned with geology mentioned in the post above by jessie jane; Hillman's book Cascadia is of particular relevance here. "Physical earth reveals itself as persons."

Ben, great blog, and I appreciate very much your attention to Haines' work. Discovering this site is a welcome reminder of Alaska, the place I have lived and where I'll live again where I feel most myself.

Good luck with the photographs.

Cheers, Jeremy

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