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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Postcard from Alaska

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord remarks on her trip to Alaska's Aleutian islands -- a place that modern America has not completely transformed.


CURWOOD: There's a corner of America which the human hand and its reach for resources has touched but hasn't yet transformed. Not long ago, commentator Nancy Lord spent some time as a writer in residence in the town of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands.

LORD: They call it the cradle of storms, this part of Alaska that sweeps westward from the mainland, this arc of islands that reaches nearly to Asia. Cold Siberian air masses knock up against warmer air carried north by the Japanese current, birthing windstorm after snowstorm after thick swirling fog. I had always wanted to visit this place of weather: rich in Aleut culture, Russian history, World War II battle scars. Now the top fishing port in the entire nation. Buried in clouds, Unalaska looks like what you'd expect to find at the edge of the world: a landscape so large and severe it might have been made only yesterday. Land meets ocean without curve or slope, but in straight plunges. These are, after all, less islands than mountain tops surrounded by water. The human effects - the ships and houses and canneries, the Russian church with its twin onion domes - are minimalist, nearly lost against the scale of mountains, ocean, sky.

I felt so exposed at first. I had to remember that the Aleut people have lived on the island with considerable success and comfort for 8,000 years. I watched flocks of emperor geese dip in the waves, then listened to a local poet read about the last snow of winter, the snow that melts the snow. A giant new grocery store held its grand opening and the whole town gathered at the salad bar. I attended an art exhibit at the fancy new hotel in the Makushian room. Makushian, previously the Russian name of a volcano, a bay, and an abandoned village on the west side of the island, now applies to thick carpet and windowless walls.

The hotel, like the new grocery store, depends on the Bering Sea. On the business of those who harvest schools of pollack, cod, and other ground fish. The Russians came to the Aleutians in pursuit of fur seals and sea otters. Later, whalers stalked the surrounding waters. In my own memory, the area's crab fishery boomed and nearly busted. Now billions of pounds of ground fish are scooped from the sea yearly. Standing on the hill that morning, my sense of the Aleutians was not as the far edge of the world, but as a center, a cradle indeed, not only of storms but of a certain civilization both ancient and modern. Which will last longer, the pollack fishery or the new grocery store? The hotel or the volcano? Perhaps more than most other places, the connections here seem clearly drawn. The new enterprises won't survive without fish, and the land and sea abide.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Nancy Lord comes to us from Homer, Alaska, and member station KBBI.



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