Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
When I began calling people in the Alaskan interior for my Knight Science Journalism fellowship project, one of the first questions they’d always ask me is whether I had been there. My answer, always sheepish, was “no.” I’ve spent weeks among the dripping rainforests of Alaska’s southeast coast, and nearly two months on its Bering Sea islands. But the interior — particularly above the Arctic Circle — is vast new territory for me.
In Alaska, perhaps more than elsewhere, direct experience with place and people, time invested, deep roots — these are the things that assure residents that you have the minimum tools required to communicate to readers what’s at stake in fights over building a mine, an oilfield, or in the case of my project, a long road in a landscape that has none.
One young woman told me she felt that outsiders hoping to convey something about her home should visit for six months, at the very least to understand the transition of seasons. But until recently, the pandemic made travel impossible. Interior villages — all of them majority Alaska Native, and with terrible memories of the 1918 flu pandemic — wisely shut down to visitors in order to protect themselves from coronavirus.
I found myself confronted with a question: How do you come to see a landscape from a great distance?
Without a practical or safe way to go to the Interior in person, I asked others to share their eyes with me. The glimpses of the world they offered over crackling phone connections gave their places breadth and depth I could never know on my own — bits and pieces of the universe around the news, a universe that is the real view and the real story.
The landscape came alive with a past and a lived present, in the stories some people told of their parents and grandparents, who came from country farther upriver where a village was, but now wasn’t.
I couldn’t picture with precision the contours of the peaks people mentioned, or the curves and sounds and moods of the undammed rivers that flowed near their homes, or what it was like to pass among the tight-packed, bottle-brush spruce trees that spread away south. But I heard that it was a balmy 10 degrees below zero, or a storm was coming, closing everything in white. I heard about sinking in snow up to the armpits while cutting firewood, chainsaw held high overhead. Later, I saw the first leads of spring river ice breakup on Instagram, and, in Facebook messages, snapshots of kids sleeping under tarps on wide green tundra during a goat hunt, high in the mountains in a past summer.
The landscape came alive with a past and a lived present, in the stories some people told of their parents and grandparents, who came from country farther upriver where a village was, but now wasn’t, who spent their summers camped beside the same waters they themselves now frequented, fishing for the same species of fish they now caught and cut and lined on racks to dry — salmon, sheefish, whitefish. The landscape came alive with a future, in the ways they told me how they hoped that their grandchildren would carry on the same unbroken cultural lines in the same places, whatever their lives might look like.
Places in these stories were something elemental — not backdrop, but the building blocks of body and experience and everyday occupation. Many of the people I’ve spoken with continue to harvest much of their food from the wild land, like those fish, following its offerings through the seasons, year after year. Tracking down newly-arrived geese for meat in the spring. Gauging when to harvest different berries in the summer. Watching for moose or the first migrating caribou to pass in the fall, to feed their families and others’ through the winter. “There’s a time for everything and it can’t be interrupted,” one elder told me.
Unbroken land not as mere scene, but as memory, and identity, and larder, and clock, and story — all things that can be transformed forever by a road, and all it brings, should it be built.
In this time of stillness, I have learned and re-learned what has always been the backstop of good journalism: Telling true stories depends on learning their multidimensional context from the people who are living them. Going to a place helps, but it is nothing without the generous hearts of those who risk trusting you to listen, that they may begin to show you what is actually there.
To see a landscape from a distance, you must ask.
Sarah Gilman is an independent writer and illustrator, a contributing editor at Hakai Magazine, and a former staff editor for High Country News.