The Ash and the Literature • A Diptych
Once upon a time I lived across the street from the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse, Yukon. In the winter I pulled on boots and a headlamp to cross the street and attend Beringia Centre events. I remember a queer film festival, a migratory bird talk, and an open house for school children to see Zhùr, the 40,000-year old desiccated wolf pup on tour from the Klondike.
I no longer live across the street from the Beringia Centre. But now that they excel at digital programming the Beringia Centre draws an international audience—myself included in Alaska—to everything from pre-scheduled Thursday Morning Science Talks to technical-briefings-du-jour about a newly discovered mummified baby woolly mammoth. If the Beringia Centre hosts it, I stream it.
This essay responds to a Beringia Centre Thursday Morning Science Talk by Todd Kristensen, an Alberta-based archaeologist who moves between storytelling, social commentary, archaeology data, linguistics, and geology. I like his style. I also like his story: simply put, Kristensen thinks a volcano erupted and people cooperated. Alongside Kristensen’s presentation and correspondence, this essay also draws from my conversations with Yukon-based archaeologist Christian Thomas, and from the hours Thomas spent with me in the stacks at the Yukon Paleontology Lab.
I’m interested in the volcanic ash deposition layered right into the boreal forest’s soils. I’m especially interested in the social foundation that layer represents. In other words, I’m interested in cooperation as an element of Alaska-Yukon human inheritance, and in what this inheritance offers to borderlands of today.
I hear the boreal forest is cold and acidic and preserves more than just ash. I hear alpine ice patches preserve tools, right down to sinew lashings and ancient feathers. In sum, I hear it’s not only subterranean permafrost but also sky-high ice that holds the land and people’s stories.
Alongside this I hear the cold is warming; what’s frozen is melting. I hear there’s tumult afoot. But layered right into this rumbling, I also hear boreal forest people have a track record of uniting with neighbors to invent a good way forward on changed and changing land. They seem related, the things I hear. This essay is an attempt to make all that audible.
Corinna Cook is the author of Leavetakings, an essay collection. She is a former Fulbright Fellow, an Alaska Literary Award recipient, and a Rasmuson Foundation awardee. Her essays appear in publications including Alaska Quarterly Review, Flyway: A Journal of Writing and the Environment, and Alaska Magazine. Corinna’s PhD is in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. Her current book project focuses on Alaska-Yukon art, ecology, and history. Newsletter signups and more at www.corinnacook.com.