Report from ASLE’s Off-Year Symposium in Juneau, Alaska
Day One: Thursday, June 14, 2012
It’s been a cloudy, drizzly and intensely green experience so far at the ASLE off-year symposium in Juneau, Alaska. Those of us staying in the dorms have a beautiful, 3/4 of a mile walk through lush temperate rainforest to reach campus. We have been treated each morning to the ethereal songs of hermit thrushes, the tapping of a red-bellied sapsucker, and the video game song of a winter wren.
Yesterday morning, Julie Cruikshank started the conference with a fascinating talk on indigenous knowledge and environmental anthropology. We learned that whatever you do, don’t cook bacon near a glacier lest it think you are making fun of it and surge. Seriously. Dr. Cruikshank discussed the need to break down dichotomies between nature and culture, animal and human, art and science. Amen, Sister.
We also received an invocation and blessing of sorts from a Marie Olson, a Tlingit elder. “Breathe the air,” she said. “This is clean air.” She has a calming and powerful presence that all of us felt sitting in the library before a wall of windows looking out onto spruce trees, snowy peaks (between the clouds), eagles and ravens.
By the way, Juneau has the biggest dandelions I’ve ever seen. The effects of so much sun?
Another highlight today (surely all agree) was the session, “Ice on the Stove: How Poetry Responds to the Northern Imagination,” in which Holly Hughes, Allen Braden, and Derek Sheffield read poems of their own and poems by poets from Oregon, Idaho, Canada, Washington, and Alaska, including native voices, and including poems by Derick Burleson, Anne Coray, William Stafford, Robert Wrigley, Joan Kane, Todd Boss, and Peggy Shumaker. In between the poems, they sprinkled some analysis. They felt fortunate to have UAS poet Emily Wall chair their presentation.
During the afternoon session, I attended a panel called “Poetry of Place,” in which Emily Wall, Lauren dePaepe, and Deborah Fleming evoked their particular places: boat and sea, earth and leaf, and Ohio. Since I was finished with my panel, I was able to relax and enjoy their evocative work.
Many of us finished the day by attending a field trip to the Mendenhall Glacier. Mike Hekkers, a scientist at UAS, was kind enough to give a talk on on glaciology. He said that some years ago they were able to calculate the mass leaving the glacier annually at the equivalent of 50,000 olympic-sized swimming pools. He said that now it’s probably more like 150,000 swimming pools.
While he gave us the details on measuring depth and movement, flocks of arctic terns turned in the air beyond him. They were nesting just below the lookout point where we were gathered.
Day Two: Friday, June 15, 2012
Just after another big and delicious breakfast in the UAS cafeteria, we viewed a screening of Ellen Frankenstein’s Eating Alaska a wry odyssey into sustainable food choices.
During the afternoon session, I attended a panel titled Places of Strength: How Will Writers Find the Strength and Courage to Do Our Work for the World? Panelists Nancy Lord, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Hank Lentfer combined readings, discussion, animal sounds, and music in a very moving session. We talked about hope and despair with respect to our work and the planet’s future. Between their readings, the panelists played bird calls and frog song and other wild sounds. They also gave us an advance listen to the poignant song, “What do you do when the life rafts are burning?” by Libby Roderick. This panel clearly embodied Rachel Carson’s point: “It is not half as important to know as to feel.”
About eight of us accompanied Dr. Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation, UAS Professor Dr. Heidi Pearson, and intrepid Alaskan Nick Jans on a whale watching excursion. Captain Greg Brown took us on his boat, Weather Permitting, to the right spot. In a word: spectacular. We saw two mother humpback whales and two infants. According to Dr. Sharpe, the infants were about four to five months old. The mothers and their children were very active, fluking and breaching. We even heard a deep, throaty (or should I say holey) utterance from one of the mothers after she breached and spouted. Two Stellar sea lions looked to be playing with one of the infant whales and were even “surfin’ the snout,” as Dr. Sharpe put it. We learned that whale flukes are akin to fingerprints. Scientists can identify individuals by the notches and markings on their flukes. Thanks to Dr. Heidi Pearson for these photos:
Day Three: Saturday, June 16, 2012
Nancy Lord’s plenary address, Stories from the Warming North, was informative and troubling. In an essay soon to appear in the Northern Review, she reminded us that the effects of climate change are disproportionately distributed in the North. While global temperatures have increased about a degree, she said, the average temperature in the Arctic has increased 3.4 degrees in just the last 50 years. She also spoke of the “other” CO2 problem, o
cean acidification, and the villages already needing to relocate due to rising sea levels.She told us that 99% of Earth’s living space is in our oceans and half the world’s population relies on the ocean for its primary source of food. Her book, Early Warming, documents these many effects vividly. Look for an interview with her by Holly Hughes in the fall issue of Terrain.org: “Ruin and Renewal.”
A particularly awful note to me was hearing about the increased polar bear tourism as people realize their chance to see a polar bear is a limited-time offer. Appropriately, Nancy offered us a quote from the journalism world: “We write to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
Those of us who attended the Salmon BBQ at the Auke Village Recreation Shelter were not disappointed. Not only did we dine on delicious salmon and the best crab cakes I’ve ever had, but we were were delighted to be joined by some surprise attendees. About 17 conversations stopped abruptly as someone shouted “Orca!” We watched the large, scything fins of two adult orcas sew their way across the bay, not to mention the littler one of an infant orca.
Meanwhile, a Dall’s porpoise slipped quietly away in the opposite direction. Amazing. At this point, all agreed there was no reason to have an off-year ASLE symposium anywhere else ever again.
Then the music started up. Scott Knickerbocker played the banjo and sang song after folksy song as David Nunez Toews accompanied him on the harmonica. There was a lot of toe- and finger-tapping going on and Lauren dePaepe did a Montana-style jig.
Day Four: Sunday, June 17, 2012
On this Father’s Day, I also celebrated my birthday. Even though I missed my family, I did feel good about celebrating with such excellent people.
Unfortunately, I missed the plenary session, which I hear was very moving and brought many to tears. Ernestine Hayes’s talk, What Shall We Do With Our Histories?, poignantly evoked the plight of the Tlingit and other indigenous peoples.
During the morning session, I attended a panel titled Northern Literary Imaginaries in which Eric Heyne offered an insightful analysis of Nancy Lord’s The Man Who Swam with Beavers, Corinna Cook presented while proudly wearing her XtraTufs (the preferred footware of Juneau-ites), and Will Elliott introduced me to Timothy Morton’s term, “echomelancholia.”
While I listened to Bill Kupinse discuss Waste and Empire in J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur during the afternoon session, I happened to catch glimpses of a very lively panel happening outside in Raven’s courtyard between the cafeteria and the main building. I learned later that this was Brownwyn Preece’s panel, Embodying This Changing Place: An Eco-Somatic Dramatic Experiential Exploration . . . Outdoors! She led her attendees through different exercises of sensory perception, poetry, and dramatic interpretation. In other words, while everyone else was talking about the need to collapse the dichotomies between mind and body, inside and out, culture and nature, she was doing it. Kupinse’s presentation was at once striking and funny. And Kelly Sultzbach gave an ecocritical reading of several of Auden’s poems. I was fascinated to learn that the two magazines Auden subscribed to were Nature and Scientific American. I’m betting Auden would also have been an ASLE member and subscribed to Orion, if he’d had the chance.
After the last session, many of us attended a field trip called Alaska Native Juneau Tour. We drove to Eagle Beach along the Lynn Canal and were treated to Tlingit stories. Marie Olson, the most respected Tlingit elder in Juneau, told us a story in which Raven tricked the Old Man and managed to take from his possession the stars, the moon, and the sun. That’s why we have those things today. We listened to the stories, swatted at the occasional mosquito, and ate salmon strips, caribou sausage, and crackers with homemade blueberry-cranberry jelly. On the trip back to campus, a young Tlingit woman, Latia Jackson, shared the story of her family name, which means “bear.” She explained that this means she and her family members are descended from bears and so they need never fear bears. Not ten minutes later, we came to a beautiful black bear browsing on the roadside.
Yours from the raindrops of Juneau,
Derek Sheffield, Terrain.org Editorial Board Member
P.S. Thank you to Sarah Jaquette Ray, Kevin Maier, Virginia Berg, and the rest of the staff and students at UAS for a wonderful conference. You made us participants feel very welcome and taken care of. You live in an extraordinary place.