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Archive for October, 2012

Aerial View of the Brooks Range

The fourth book on my reading list was Arctic Village by Bob Marshall. Marshall was an important figure in the wilderness movement of the early twentieth century and one of the founders of The Wilderness Society, and John Miles discusses him in this context in his book, but Arctic Village actually has relatively little to say about Marshall’s wilderness advocacy. Instead it is a detailed sociological study of the upper Koyukuk River area in the central Brooks Range of north-central Alaska in the early 1930s, focused on the community of Wiseman. Marshall came to the Koyukuk more or less on a whim and stayed for about a year, ostensibly to study tree growth at the northern tree line as part of his PhD studies in forestry at Johns Hopkins University, but as he admits right at the beginning of the book he didn’t end up learning much about the trees because he spent most of his time hanging out with and learning about the people. The book is the result of that learning.

It’s a fascinating book in a bunch of ways, and probably the most interesting to me of the five on my reading list. Marshall had a very specific agenda in writing it, which was essentially to present the society of Wiseman and the Upper Koyukuk as a sort of utopian “civilization” that could serve as a model for society in general. His methods were those of social science rather than history or memoir, and the book is full of numbers and statistics. These are generally of dubious value for generalizing beyond the Koyukuk itself, but the amount of work Marshall put into collecting and analyzing them is impressive. Marshall himself comes across as something of an odd guy. He was a committed socialist and atheist, and he emphasizes the aspects of Koyukuk society that align well with these ideologies and downplays those that don’t. To his credit, however, he does include and acknowledge the data that conflicts with his overall thesis, although he doesn’t emphasize it. A few portions of the book are in the form of narrative or dialogue, but most of it is the sober recitation of statistics. Marshall clearly wanted it to be taken seriously as sociology, and it seems that it was. It was an enormous commercial success among general readers as well, which ironically led to a surge in tourism to Wiseman that quickly changed the character of the society Marshall had extolled.

The society Marshall describes is basically that of a small community of gold miners and others providing services to them during a “bust” period in the boom-and-bust cycle that has long characterized the economy of Alaska. There are fewer than 200 residents in the huge area Marshall covers, a small fraction of the number during the “boom” period of the 1910s in this area. Marshall’s attempts to portray this society as a “civilization” at all, let alone one that could serve as a model for people everywhere, are therefore quite unconvincing. He argues at one point that the Koyukuk might be able to carry on without any contact from the larger society for as much as a couple of years, which I think just emphasizes the extent to which this was a distant, frontier appendage of a much larger civilization rather than an alternative to it.

This impression is intensified by the realization, amply documented in Marshall’s detailed demographic tables, that the society he describes is mostly composed of older white men, mostly those who originally came in earlier gold rushes and ended up staying for various reasons. This group is supplemented by a sizable minority of Eskimos, who are also not indigenous to this specific area but came from other parts of northern Alaska following the gold miners and the opportunities they presented to supplement a fundamental hunting-and-gathering economy with occasional wage work. Marshall describes both the white and Eskimo populations in  considerable detail and romanticizes both to some extent, although there is no obvious reason to discount the accuracy of his data. One point he emphasizes is the relative lack of racial prejudice, which would have been a considerable difference from most of the US at the time. It’s worth noting that the fact that  nearly all the women in the area were Eskimo may have had a significant impact on the white miners’ opinions about the Eskimos, and Marshall does in fact go on at some length about the attractiveness of the young Eskimo women.

Overall this is a fascinating snapshot of life in rural Alaska at a certain point in time, as well as a largely unintentional glimpse into the psyche of an important figure in the modern wilderness movement. I liked it a lot, although others might find the extensive tables and lists a bit much.

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