Up until now, I’ve never lived for any significant chunk of time anywhere that wasn’t a city. Boston, New York, New Haven, Istanbul, Prague, anywhere I’ve stayed long enough to unpack a duffle bag had at least two forms of mass transit, a cornucopia of cool cafes, ample access to curated art, and other trappings of urbanism. When I’ve traveled, either in the U.S. or abroad, it has been, with few exceptions, to cities.
So Nome is new. Before coming I wondered if going from a city to a rural community would be a bigger culture shock than going from the U.S. to a foreign city. And through it’s too early (three weeks + one day) to make a conclusive declaration one way or another, the most pronounced difference here so far is the diminished boundary between the built and natural environment.
The built environment refers to any human-made installation, be it a rock formation like Stonehenge to a nuclear power plant. If human hands dropped it into the land, then it’s grouped into the “built environment” category.
The natural environment is a more intuitive concept: it’s whatever the earth made on its own. Mountains, valleys, streams, coastlines, or, if you’re in Nome, the endless tundra that yields to steep, rounded hills and the undulating grey Bering Sea. These are all part of the natural environment.
In my experience, the only time the natural environment appears as a force within city life is when weather veers towards extremes. Heat waves, snow-storms, three days of rain in a row—these are what would pop up and remind me that the earth has a life of its own. Otherwise, nature was a bit of a commodity: lush parks, tree-lined street, a nice garden. A bit like a Yorkshire terrier: small, manageable, and an inconvenience when it piped up.
So far, in my 3+ weeks in Nome, the natural world has been demystified again and again. Human life and environmental life, the built and natural environments, are not so dislocated. Before coming to Alaska I’d thought of the tundra as just green splotches on maps, something semi-sacred, like the vistas in state parks; an entity reserved for post-cards. Turns out, tundra is pretty much just fields. Long, scrubby fields off the meager, dusty roads, stunted by the shallow permafrost that keep any substantial flora from sinking roots.
When I was told a group of us were going blueberry picking one weekend I imagined the orderly rows of fruit bushes within the orchards of my ancestral home-state, Connecticut. Instead, we parked the car half off the road, scrambled up a rock-strewn ditch, and walked a quarter-mile over the spongy tundra until we found blueberries, cranberries, and crowberries in quantity (just be clear, while blueberries taste blue, and cranberries taste cran, crow berries do not taste like crows). As casual as that, we made use of the land, and that night ate blueberry pancakes for a late snack.
After work one Friday a few of us volunteers joined two friends who were “going fishing.” Again, I thought back to a nice pond, a row-boat, rods and reels—the fixtures of hobbies and recreation. Instead, our host just needed to stop and check his net, almost like an errand, as normal and natural as peeking into the market to check whether the produce was fresh. At a little stream winding beneath an overpass a short walk from the road, we helped haul a net that had snared two salmon, then gutted them right there in the mud (I did the littler one), tossing the innards into the shallow water.
And a week ago, five of us climbed an abandoned gold-dredge. A dredge is basically a big machine used for moving immense quantities of dirt out of the ground to sift it for gold. Before there were vacuum tubes strong enough to do this, hulking factories were floated in ponds, strung up to improvised power stations, and then giant shovels ran on a conveyer-belt, scrapping up the muck below. Nobody cleaned them up, and now portions of the flat, reddening tundra are speckled with the long necks of fallow dredges, slowly blending into the landscape as they rust and wither. After hiking over thin streams and scrappy, scrubby willows, we arrived at “Dredge Number 2,” so named for the #2-sized shovels mounted to it. We crept inside the decrepit vessel, looming in its little pond like a pirate ship from the industrial era, run ashore then abandoned. It felt like a cross between a jungle gym, a deserted museum, and a prop out of “Water World” or “Mad Max.” We climbed inside, outside, up, down, around, and eventually scampered high up into the neck, perched like seeds within a pod on the outstretched arm of a tree.
The division between built and natural realms is blurred here. A hike might wander through tundra paths but terminate in what is essentially a rusting industrial mess. Berries for pancakes and lemon-loafs are scavenged freely just off the roads—far enough away so that the dust kicked up by 4-wheelers hasn’t soured the taste. Fishing salmon from a river is less an event than an errand. The rhythms of life in Nome are not autonomous human designs, but built partially atop a temperamental landscape.