Harvesting Irony in Alaska

Sometimes the world hands us metaphors too startling to ignore. A week ago, awaiting takeoff to Alaska on the tarmac of Seattle-Tacoma Airport, a man turned to me and announced he was a seasonal Alaskan logger. Big and bulky and built, his arms golden and glistening and indicating the particular attributes of a man in youth — a tattoo for the Chicago Cubs, and another of a bulldog — he told me this summer would mark his third in Ketchikan, cutting and hauling timber for one of the nation’s largest logging companies.

“You have to picture it,” he said. He stretched his hands out in the air between us. A giant crane, he explained, with knee-thick cables heaved logs larger than most houses high above the forest, high above his head, practically in the clouds, swinging them up and over the forest before lowering them into a boat.

“The biggest boat,” he says, “you’ve ever seen.”

The trees are Sitka spruce, primarily, and they come from the Tongass Forest, nearly 17 million acres that comprise the world’s largest contiguous temperate rain forest and that span the entire Alaskan panhandle. Some of these trees — the trees whose job it is for this man to fell — are more than 1,000 years old, but they are also, it turns out, the finest source timber for musical instruments: guitars, primarily, but also pianos and violins and musical instrument soundboards. That is because of their clean resonance.


CreditVisual China Group/Getty Images

“This boat,” he said, “this enormous boat — we fill it up with all these trees, and then it floats on down Ketchikan Creek and out to sea and to Japan.”

In Japan — and elsewhere — the trees are whittled, sanded, polished. Acoustic guitar manufacturers, in particular, require Sitka spruce at least 250 years old, as only antiquity ensures that the trees are large enough to provide the dense diameter of clearwood — wood without blemishes, knots or other disfigurements — necessary for the refined aesthetic of Yamaha, of Steinway, of Martin.

This at the height of a summer of grave concern for Alaskans everywhere. For just as Anchorage reported record-breaking heat — reaching 90 degrees on July 4 for the first time in recorded history, surpassing by a staggering five degrees the previously held record — dead whales began to wash up on the beaches of southern Alaska, possible casualties of climate change, including nine in a single weekend.

And, in an act less visible but equally consequential, the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy — a right-wing ideologue and rabid Trump enthusiast — vetoed much of the state’s 2020 fiscal year operating budget, resulting in deeper, apocalyptic cuts to organizations and services statewide. Dunleavy aggressively and disproportionately reduced social services and ripped safety nets that protected some the most isolated and vulnerable Americans in the country. The cuts largely affected health care, education and climate change efforts — including $130 million from the budget of the University of Alaska system, home to one of the largest climate change research institutions in the world and a vital hub for scientists worldwide. They eliminated entirely the Senior Benefits program, reduced money for kindergarten through 12th-grade classes by $30 million and reduced Medicaid spending by $50 million, which will affect more than 184,000 Alaskans.

CreditDaryl Pederson/Design Pics — First Light, Getty Images Plus

But in a move unparalleled in irony, Dunleavy’s cuts also completely eliminated the Alaska State Council on the Arts, which makes Alaska the only state in the country without an arts agency. Beyond its unparalleled work in promoting arts education throughout Alaskan communities, the council has been the leading champion of bringing Alaska Native arts and artists into Alaska schools, which helps to advocate, preserve and build pride around the extraordinary artistic and cultural achievements of the Alaska Native people, who are often able only through these programs to reconnect with their rich cultural heritage — truly a lifesaver for thousands of vulnerable young Alaskans whose burden it is to live in a state with some of the highest rates of domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse in the country.

As a result of his egregious, aggressive cuts, Dunleavy himself is now facing growing threats for a recall; in order to produce a recall petition on the ballot, Alaskans must collect signatures from at least ten percent of the state’s voting population who participated in the last general election, or approximately 28,500 signatures. They reached that number within two weeks.

CreditMark Thiessen/Associated Press CreditMark Thiessen/Associated Press

The man sitting next to me — his would-be a summer of outlandish, wild adventure — glowed, enigmatic, as the plane gained speed and took off. I, too, was heading for a summer in Alaska, not to cut and heave heavy timber, but to serve as faculty at a fine-arts camp that provides some of the most highly intensive arts education in the country. In 2018 alone, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in Sitka, Alaska, served 1,006 students from 37 Alaskan communities and 29 states. ​During the coming rigorous two-week session, my students would take classes in ballet and partner acrobatics, mime and wheel-thrown pottery, creative writing and photography and raku and the cello. Evenings, they would sample gorgeous, plump salmonberries picked along dusty roads, jump from rope swings into Alaskan water, and hike through extensions of the very forest the man beside me had been hired to clear-cut. Ironically, they would play the very instruments my seatmate’s work — just hours south — made possible, his work of harvesting dense wood from the nation’s oldest forests for some of the world’s finest artistic instruments. And my students, in turn, would play them in a state that no longer deemed their sound of value.

Upon my arrival in Sitka hours later, a Tlingit friend would tell me the fishing this year — like last year — was abysmal.

“The water’s too warm,” he explained, “and it’s stressing and affecting the salmon migration.”

CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times

He told me about a Tlingit friend, who — because of that low volume of fish — had to shoot his dogs, rather than watch them starve to death. He explained the way Native elders were telling younger generations: We have nothing to teach you; the world — and sustenance living — has changed.

A week later, news media would announce the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) sudden reversal on the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay — long been opposed by environmentalists, Native American tribes, and those in the fishing industry, with scientists reporting the project will result in a “complete loss” of the bay’s fish habitat — thanks in no small part to Dunleavy’s private meeting with President Trump aboard Air Force One as it was refueling in Alaska on its way to the G20 summit in Japan.

The man next to me — he thumbed the glossy surface of his cellphone, showing me his photos: of the fruits of Alaska, of exploitation, of industry.

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