Sunday, 10 October 2010

What’s Hot in Alaska?

Cruise ships disgorge hundreds of thousands of visitors to Alaska randy for glaciers and towering mountains covered with sleek Sitka spruce. They ooh and aah right off the Exhilaration Index.

On my first visit to Alaska, I hyperbolized with the most goggle-eyed tourist. But I was pleasantly surprised to find so many new ideas percolating in the 49th state better known for moose hunting than for nursing the Muse.

But unless my fortnight there was mysteriously atypical, the Land of the Sourdough is not an intellectual backwater. Indeed, in some ways, it seems presciently ahead of the Outside (as locals refer to the Lower 48).

First in long-range significance to me was the third Northern Regions Conference, 600 policymakers and journalists from eleven countries with a stake in the 1 percent of the human race that lives above the 60th parallel.

The governor of Hokkaido convened the first such polar palaver in 1974, but because of the U.S.S.R.’s stonewalling about returning the Kuril Islands to Japan, Moscow boycotted both the initial and second conference, convened by the Canadian provincial government of Alberta in 1979. But a delegation of sixty post-glasnost Russians were all over the place smilingly networking like Rotarians at the Third powwow.

Alaska Airlines announced with a flourish during the conference that it had just gotten landing rights for summer tours to Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, and Magadan. I noticed a story in the Anchorage Daily News about a Magadan teacher spending a year teaching Russian in the Kenai Community College.

But the biggest initiative, announced with a flourish by the Lapp governor of Norway’s Trondheim Province, concerned the practicability—possibly the imminence—of a Northeast Passage. Ships could save themselves 6,000 miles on a trip between Asia and Europe by following a route across the north of Russia through a passage kept free from May to October by Russian icebreakers.

But the Northeast Passage was merely the most dramatic of the overtures the polar nations were making to get on each other’s agendas of self-interest. More pressing are the currently volatile issues of air and water pollution (those Arctic wastes only look pristine; toxicities are building up inexorably, and even more permanently, as the temperatures discourage the normal processes of bio-degrading), fishing rights, oil and other mineral leases, and mundane things like reducing the horrible loss of life and boats on the Arctic fishing grounds.

Information flow is crucial to the shaping of mutual agendas, and concurrently with the major conference was a briefing of a score of Russian journalists on life in Alaska and the rest of the Union. Howard Weaver, the ebullient and self-made (“I started out in high school covering wrestling for $5 a pop!”) editor of the Anchorage Daily News was the high I.Q. compere of this unusual bit of perestroika.

He was ably complemented by Alexandra McClanathan, publisher of a remarkably state-wide weekly, The Tundra Times, which aspires to be a catalyst on all the issues confronting a multi-ethnic state. A particularly interesting feature covered the burnout of the only native Indian interpreter on the evening TV news in the bush town of Bethel.

He poignantly explained why he didn’t want to be a cold freeze Dan Rather but insisted on relating news events to the pace and priorities of his Indian viewers. I don’t know how much the Russians were getting out of these briefings (a great deal, I expect to judge from the pertinence of their questioning), but I was fast escalating to higher plateaus of comprehension.

There was even the pleasure of an international film festival on the themes of the conference conceived by the feisty Cyrano’s Book Store and CafĂ©. It began with the American premiere of Paul Simme’s first fiction film on how a Lapp teenager learns to value the traditional wisdom of his grandfather living in the bush: The old man’s teaching him how to snare ptarmigans for food in the winter, and how properly to pluck them for cooking were marvels of traditional wisdom presented with easy-going pedagogical brilliance.

The filmmaker is only 30 years old, with ten years of Swedish TV documentaries under his belt to give his new muse heft. He explained to me that this was an autobiographical fiction; he was the know-it-all youth, and he badly wanted to get the message to the new generation of young Lapps that they shouldn’t dump their millennium-old inheritance for a mess of mass media potheads.

The second film was a significant revival—Willard Van Dyke’s 1933 “epic” for MGM on an Eskimo badly abused by European fur traders. The Mounties who pick him up for murder, only to be beguiled into identification with this somewhat too Noble Savage, are a bit too Dudley DoRight for my suspension of belief mechanism.

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