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Authors: Marjorie Kowalski Cole

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BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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Turns out she had come to Fairbanks to teach a course and to compete in the World Ice Art Championship contest, held annually during our winter carnival, which starts in February. This competition was becoming world famous. Carvers show up from Kazakhstan, Russia, Japan, Europe. Judy had come from Montana. This work explained the jumpsuit, with its wide fuchsia belt and the fuchsia stripes down the arms and legs. She needed to keep warm out there and look good at the same time.

“Let's look at your truck,” Tad said.

We spoke to the counterman, who swiveled in his chair and consulted a computer I hadn't noticed before. He moved a chunky, blackened finger across the screen like a second-grade teacher following a line of print, then stood up and came out from behind the counter. He led us to the back door.

“End of that row, near the east corner of the lot,” he grunted. “Blue-green Ford Ranger. It's got no front left.”

“No front?” I repeated, stunned.

“Front left,” he said. “Driver's side headlight's gone and all.” He handed me a key wired to a cardboard tag. “Go ahead and start her up and what all, but come back if you want to drive it off the lot.”

Tad held out a hand to Judy and said, “Okay if we look a minute?”

She gave her approval. We set out across the hardpacked weeks-old snow, and the dog trotted along.

With all the foot traffic over it and the lack of fresh snowfall, this snowpack had turned hard as concrete. It was fouled with frozen dog shit. I felt nervous, as if I was going to meet a long-lost relative. It was something about the dazzling woman on Tad's arm that upset me. The afternoon's mission had heightened from
mundane errand to test of my very existence—I mean, the lens was on me. Did she do all that? Yet I was being forced to account for myself, forced to mount some kind of performance.

I know now it's because Judy Finch was one of those people who always saw herself at center stage. So if you were next to her, then that's where you stood, too—exposed, accountable in a new way.

We walked past silent, frightening wrecks, crumpled hatchbacks and the remains of a Sidekick. We stopped all of a sudden, the three of us, at a silver van with its driver's side crushed in. Turns out the passenger side was crushed as well, as if the van had been caught between two semitrailers, like a soda can you crushed between your hands.

“Jesus,” grunted Tad. Judy seemed to be making the Sign of the Cross; her fingers in huge, puffy astronaut's gloves touched her forehead and maybe her lips.

That wreck gave me pause. It seemed almost certain that someone would have been killed. What a place this was! Maybe I didn't want to buy a car here.

We were still subdued when we finally found the Ranger, but after a few minutes of inspection I began to cheer up. The Ranger was a winsome little truck. Its cheap paint glittered like a Christmas tree ball. It had been sideswiped by a Suburban, and the metal driven into itself on one corner, but the engine started right up. Not bad for five below.

“Climb in,” I said.

Judy slid over, Tad followed, and the Lab leaped into the bed. I got squared away with the gearshift, then we rocked forward and took off on a circuit of the salvage yard.

“Five hundred, maybe,” Tad said.

“You do a lot of business here?” I asked.

“I've tried salvage. There's money in it, but it's a grim business.
I don't like to keep taking advantage of other people's bad luck—believe it or not, Gus—which is what you have to do in this racket. And it's so easy to do.” He smiled as if sometimes it was fun, too. “Whoa, see that there? Looka that.” We stopped at a Caterpillar D9 with a cancerous rust eating its way toward the cab. I wouldn't have taken a second look, but Tad's antenna zinged.

“Hold on a sec,” he said. “I've been wanting one of these.” He climbed out and set off on a hike around the huge machine. Judy and I watched him.

Tad was a big, good-looking man, black haired with an overlong mustache and slightly bulging, dark eyes. He moved in a slow, deliberate way that held your attention. People who set their own pace: it's as if they know they belong here, on this earth, it's territorial. Despite all of Tad's misdemeanors he'll always have a home to come back to, his own physical self. I envy that self-possession. It compensated, with him, for the wildness inside.

He and the Cat appeared to be sizing each other up. I suppose Cats are to Alaska what, oh, barbed wire was to the plains, something on that scale. Cats put the means of reshaping the land into the hands of any ordinary man. D9s to D6s, maybe a certain type lusts to drive them. Not a type of man you'd spot right away, not necessarily a man's man at all; it could be anyone. Poets, pencil pushers, engineers, the guy at the natural foods store, the guy who remodeled your bathroom. They love Cats.

This size, the D9, is used by miners. Maybe that's why they become miners—in order to drive one of these. In order to remake the landscape out in the roadless country where they don't have to worry about buried power lines or weight limits. It's the Eros story. Some of these guys have been pierced by the arrow, and they lust to handle machines. Not yours truly, as we know.

The spectacular woman next to me turned and said, “What do you do, Gus?”

“It's what I need the truck for,” I explained. “Delivering papers.”

“Oh, you deliver papers. You're between jobs?”

“No, I deliver my paper. The
Fairbanks Mercury
. I'm editor and publisher.”

“Terrific. Alternative press?”

She didn't let up. And she didn't care, either. I looked into her blazing blue eyes. In that bleak setting, Unity Auto Parts in the middle of a short February day, you wanted to be with those eyes. Was she going to keep putting words in my mouth until by process of elimination she got it right?

I gave her a description of the
Mercury
in the few sentences I knew I'd be allowed before she rushed in.

“And are you solvent?” she asked. Christ, how did she know?

“Well, I—”

“It's an important task. We must do the important tasks and let the universe provide.”

“Or not.”

“It will, if it's the right task.”

“Ice carving brings you up here? And it's your first trip?”

“Ice Art,” she said, and waited for an acknowledgment.

“Yes, ice art,” I repeated.

“Most of the year I do metal sculpture. The universe called me here, perhaps to meet Thaddeus.”

Anyone else, I might have laughed. You didn't laugh when she spoke, but your mouth dropped open. I watched Thaddeus climb up into the frozen Cat, take the seat, reach for the controls.

“I always felt he had untapped qualities,” I said.

She was silent for a moment, and when I looked at her, she looked different. Younger. As if she had plumped up, lost five
years, gained five pounds. Her skin: despite the cold, it looked dewy. She was thinking about Tad's untapped qualities, I guess.

“He ever tell you about the airboat?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

I debated briefly; should I be the one? No, there was no good reason.

“He's good with machines,” I said finally, “and lumber. And money.”

“The physical side of life,” she said, as if she liked saying it.

“Yep. That's right. And more besides,” I said. I imagine she felt that she provided the missing spiritual side. What a collision the two of them must have made.

While Tad was driving heavy equipment on the North Slope in the seventies, the lumber yard he co-owned in Fairbanks did a million dollars' worth of business in three months. For several years he couldn't not make money. He bought some land and sold it at the right time, and ventured into the subdivision game, skinning more land of its spruce trees, staking the ground, selling it off to contractors.

He was good at the physical side, all right, but not immune from those proddings of the heart and soul that drive you to do some crazy things. We spent several R&Rs together in Fairbanks. I was not a drinker, but I enjoyed being in a bar, for some reason that I cannot explain. Tad got quiet when he drank. He was a dreamy fellow, in his way, but then he would get up from his bar stool and act on his impulses. That was the dangerous part, but some of them were good impulses.

Putting the
Mercury
partnership together, years ago, I tracked him down to Lucky's Last Gravel Bar for the final sell. I had been nagging him for weeks on the subject, and he encouraged me, with a nod here and there, a good question or two. We sat at Lucky's for an hour with my handwritten business plan in front of
us. I went over and over it; he read, he nodded, he looked out the window, he carried on an argument with some friends at the next table. I realized he had a bet going with them, on the qualities of various watercraft, but I was more interested in my own proposal and his obvious willingness to consider playing a large part.

About midnight he took a worn, hard-used checkbook out of his breast pocket and wrote me a check for ten thousand dollars.

“Christ almighty,” I said, studying it.

“It's not like I wasn't going to help out,” he said, standing up. I stared at the check in delight and pure pleasure, feeling the floor drop from under me like I'd just stepped into an express elevator. It was really going to happen.

At the same time people were leaving the bar. When I heard the sound of an airplane engine and noticed people leaving, and joined the exodus, it was too late to stop him.

Tad lived on the river and owned a few boats, and tonight he had shown up at the bar in his airboat—a shallow-water craft powered by an above-board airplane engine and propeller. Just now he had persuaded his two betting buddies to help him haul the boat out to the highway. It turns out they had been debating how much water an airboat needs; Tad held out for none at all. Now he brought his engine to full power and set off up Airport Way on the skin of the hull while his fellow drinkers cheered. Then we all fell silent in amazement as Tad progressed steadily toward the airport in a horrific gale of sound.

As the powerful engine roared up behind him, a trucker thought a small plane was actually landing on the road and called the police. By the time they stopped Tad, he had ruined the boat but won a thousand dollars. The troopers charged him with drunk driving and confiscated his license and the remains of the boat, but Tad later won his case in court, too. His lawyer, the appealing and offbeat Robin Rowe, came up with the astounding argument
that a driver's license is not required in order to operate a watercraft on land. Therefore drunk driving statutes did not apply. Tad got off scot-free, although the statutes were later revised to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

“What we're paying you for,” I imagine he told his attorney. Once he won the case, Tad quit drinking, mostly. Today, at Unity Auto Parts with Judy at his side, he seemed on good behavior to me, restored to himself and then some. The influence of the ice artist.

This would be a good day to touch him for help, if I needed help.

He opened the door of the Ranger and climbed back in next to Judy.

“I think that's the Cat the fellow drove into a settling pond up at the mine on Coffee Dome,” he said. “Last year—look at the rust on it. Remember that fellow? Problem is with D9s, it's hard to feel what you're doing. A D7 or D6 is dandy for most things, you can feel the ground. Plus I can haul mine from place to place. I can't justify one of those. But Jesus, I'd like one, someday. That's a formidable machine.”

His hand in a mustard yellow work glove rested on Judy's snowsuited leg. He looked at her and they grinned at each other.

We drove around the yard a bit more and then opened the hood to contemplate the Ranger's engine. It meant nothing to me, of course; I already wanted this truck. It was the color of a hummingbird.

“Should I have a logo painted on the door? You do that sort of thing, Judy?”

“You absolutely must,” she said.

“But not till you get that body damage tidied up,” Tad murmured.

“And you don't want to spend all of your time in the truck,”
Judy went on, as though she hadn't heard him. “A walking routine will help you get rid of this. I'll help you design an exercise program.” She actually poked my belly with her astronaut's fingers. Tad's eyes were amused. His mustache twitched.

“Does she like me or what?” I whispered when she had moved out of hearing distance.

“Judy doesn't have time for small talk,” he said.

The thug behind the counter and I arranged a trade-in on the Honda, and I wrote a check for the balance. When I drove away from Unity in my new truck, the Lab stood in the bed, legs wide on either side of his stocky body, as if he had chosen me for something. We bounced up the driveway, through the fence of peeled stakes, and I stopped just before turning onto the highway, at the sign that said Open. I looked in the mirror as the dog gathered himself and leaped out, sailed over the tailgate. He trotted back to his weird and dingy domain. Disappointed, I turned onto the highway.

But delight quickly returned: to have wheels again! My truck and my newspaper were back on the scene. That's how I saw it at the time, but there's another way to see things—the Ranger and the
Mercury
were decorations in the margin of the old map of Fairbanks. Like a little cherub or a wind god, cheeks puffed, blowing curls of smoke.

T
HAT WINTER A FAIRBANKS LEGISLATOR DOWN
in Juneau proposed opening up the state forest near Fairbanks for logging and timber processing. He hit on the idea of offering twenty-year concessions to large timber companies from outside the state. You could not have predicted the outcry. That bill in the Alaska State Senate became an unexpected rallying point for Fairbanksans of every political view.

In spite of our dwindling oil royalties, lack of revenue, and refusal to pay an income tax, most of those who spoke up in response to this proposal—a real assortment of people for a change, not at all the usual suspects—soundly repudiated it. Our trees are so marginal, the senator claimed, and our location so remote, that in order to attract capital we need to offer a real attractive package. For reasons that weren't clear to me, most people in Fairbanks—going by public testimony and letters to the editor, that is—did not buy this. They found the argument unacceptable.

Over the coldest months of winter, we followed this bill as it worked its way through the senate.

The big daily came down hard in favor of timber concessions and pushed for the bill's passing. Their editor even came up with the weird premise that logging would result in “stable habitat for some of our more edible wildlife such as moose and hares.”

Hares? I circled that one with a Sharpie and gave it to our cartoonist. Poor sucker, I thought, trying to bulk out a sentence, we've all been there. Whoever wrote that sentence knew it lacked a balanced set of vocables.
Edible wildlife
, he wrote, struggling already,
such as moose
…and, and what? What else is there, that's not a predator? Can't say beaver or muskrat; so he grabbed at
hares
.

“To be starvin' on rabbits up there,'” Felix sang, after seeing that comment. He knew a lot of songs.

“Which of your Irish poets is that, Felix?”

“Not Irish. Robert Service. He's very popular back home.”

I chuckled. “Thought it would be like that in Alaska? The deep deathlike valleys and all that?”

I should have known better. Never get a poet started. Felix began to declaim.

“The Wanderlust has lured me to the seven lonely seas, Has dumped me on the tailing-piles of dearth…' Everyone else in my family went to New York, but I wanted to see Alaska.”

“Not like in the poems, is it?”

“But I didn't expect it to be,” he said, prompt and mild as always. Not disappointed in the least.

Gayle went down to the public teleconferences to cover the local uproar over this bill, and I joined a number of Fairbanksans on a two-day trip to Juneau, where they lobbied against it, and another legislator proposed an alternative: salvage sales of those acres known to be foredoomed, somehow, to loss through wildfire or insect infestation.

“That would be the whole damned forest!” shrieked a forestry
professor in the hallway outside the senate, actually jumping up and down in frustration.

Back home we sat down in the newsroom to divvy up our tasks.

“So many people oppose this bill around here,” I said. “It's not falling out into the usual factions. It's kind of wonderful. We have to show that.”

“The time isn't right for a bill like this. We aren't there yet,” said No.

“Not yet?”

“Gus, this is terrific, this hue and cry, but don't get stars in your eyes. The big problem is that the giveaway is too obvious. Logging will come, but it has to be more subtle.”

“No, what a cynic you've become. I don't completely agree.”

“Wood is in short supply, it's become a limited resource, I think. If we have something here that big companies want, they will find a way to get it when they really need it.”

“Wood is in short supply,” I repeated. “That's an interesting idea. No one else is saying that, are they. The daily, the folks down in Juneau…they're all talking about the forest like it's endless.”

“As endless as the plains and the buffalo,” said Noreen.

“So Felix, why don't you give us a sidebar on that idea. How does Alaska's chunk of northern forest stack up, to what's left worldwide?”

“Circumpolar,” said Noreen. “Say circumpolar, not northern.”

I looked around, proud of my staff, and saw Gayle gazing over my shoulder, frowning, looking a little sad.

“Gayle?” I said, and then thought: don't bark at her, Gus, damn it. You don't own these guys. You're not paying them a living wage. Her quietness—I always rushed in too soon.

“I don't know,” she said. “I can't figure it out. Maybe, like
you said, there are too many angles. This is real hard to understand.”

I waited a minute before saying, “What do you mean, Gayle? What are we missing?”

“Seems to me,” she said, “a few years ago when we were harvesting mushrooms and spruce cones and things, working with people who didn't have any capital at all, the forest still provided a living. When I was growing up, it was the best part. It's a mystery to me that people could consider selling it off—selling their own home. It's been providing a living to my family for generations, and it—it works. The forest itself, works beautifully. Of course,” she added, “my own Native corporation is already logging.”

We sat silent for a minute, slightly uncomfortable. What do you do with such a comment? It occurred to me that there had to be a wealth of knowledge about this forest, even scientific knowledge, imbedded in the Athabascan language and in the soft speech and odd timing of the Athabascan villagers. How do we include it in the legislative debate? It's not possible, is it? Most often bringing up something labeled Native ways of knowing means that other people in the room turn off their ears, head out for popcorn, or go to the bathroom. It's time to stop listening, because Native ways of knowing—that's treated as halftime entertainment, up here. It is not the main ball game. These thoughts came to me in the silence that followed Gayle's remark.

We had to bring it into the main ball game. That's what we should do. That's what the
Mercury
could do. Somehow.

“Gayle,” I said, “when you're at the public hearings and listening to the testimony, listen for the different points of view. Go after a few people and talk to them. It doesn't seem like enough, does it?”

“No,” she said. “I'll call the senator from Rampart, too. I know she's opposed to it.”

As the weeks went by, we covered the issue from so many angles, week by week, that I began to dream of a Pulitzer, or at least an Alaska Press Club citation. I selected quotes from citizen testimony to highlight and box throughout the news pages. I noticed, however, that we did not get nearly as many letters to the editor as the daily, and that bothered me. It seemed to indicate a thinner readership, a lack of involvement, even though newsstands sold out and subscriptions went up.

When I went over the books I found that our income was not going up by a substantial amount, either. Not enough to cover the increased delivery expenses, my low-budget trip to Juneau, long distance charges, too much art on the inside pages. That would have to stop.

I traced the figures and found a drop in advertising sales. What the hell is this?

In addition to writing for us, Gayle had followed up her advertising accounts, and a new kid from the journalism department, a Randy something, was supposedly hustling new ads. But this did not look good. By God, here was a little flurry of cancellations. What's going on?

I felt a childish panic, like when you step out a bit too far in the lake and the deep water is suddenly cold.

In the spring we'd get twenty-five thousand from the borough for proofing and publishing the borough foreclosure list and distributing it with every copy and then some. That was our inexhaustible cow. We could certainly hold on. Look at all these bills that I could delay, just a bit, here and there, maybe overlap payments.

Canceled advertising accounts—I'd rather see a bear in my driveway. Two restaurants, an insurance company, a furniture store, and an automobile alignment place that I knew to be rabidly right wing—maybe they were fed up with our political drift
of late, however they saw it. I'd get on this Randy kid to see what's up.

I asked Gayle if she had any idea why they canceled. “‘We've come to believe that the paper is not what our customers read,'” she repeated. “That's what the one fellow said. Do you want me to—”

“Oh, Gayle, no, you're doing plenty.” I felt so strongly about this that my hand went out and gripped her bare forearm, briefly, and a shock went through me. It was just meant to be a gesture. But the palm of my hand was suddenly loaded with sensors: the warmth of her arm, the tendons, the hard oblique shape of it, the exact width from narrow to the wrist, widening toward the elbow—suddenly the palm of my hand took a reading that I could have used to find Gayle in a crowd.

I removed my hand and looked at her. Her eyes, with that same light, deep inside, were as reserved and expectant as always.
Yes, what is it
, she could have been saying or thinking, nothing more. I didn't know. I didn't get the clues.

The timber concessions bill passed the Alaska Senate and headed to the House, and the storm escalated. Gayle tallied the speakers at every public hearing, talked to the legislative information office, and told me that testimony was running five to one against this legislation; but the Republican senators remained convinced that a “silent majority” supported the bill.

“Not a whole lot of thinking is going on down there,” Noreen raged. “There are not even any costs listed in this bill. What, do they expect it's all gain, no expense whatsoever? Don't they know the least thing about human nature?”

“It's standard procedure to minimize the negative when it comes to a pet project,” I said, and thought, zero expense, all benefits: like Gus Traynor taking over the
Mercury
. “Even businessmen can forget about things, No. That's human nature for you.”

I'd forgotten about Dr. Leasure's view, too, so one afternoon when Gayle and I left the Department of Natural Resources, after a public hearing, and headed back to the office, I was astounded to see the transformation that had taken place on the clear-cut since October. Dozens, maybe fifty or sixty, little tourist cabins, like fancy storage sheds, stood cheek by jowl on the spot. We couldn't stop, but we stared from the highway bridge and I slowed the truck. Row after row of unfinished cabins sheathed in pink insulation were lined up from the highway access road down to the river's edge. The lookout resembled nothing so much as an enlightened camp for migrant labor, a happy stop for road-weary travelers like those in
The Grapes of Wrath
.

The setting sun turned the whole scene a creamy pink, the sunset and the insulation both casting something like alpenglow. How strange to see beauty in these altered acres, this artificial set. That was it—a movie set without the movie. Action to be provided by the customers.

I looked at Gayle, and she pressed her mouth together firmly so that her tattoo lines rippled.

Compared to the tremendous energy of disposable income, of investment capital or whatever that flows across Alaska, what's a weekly paper? I thought. We have to stay alive. We can't come down on our best patrons for minor offenses. Who's going to watchdog the big problems?

“Tourism is the future,” I muttered. “They need somewhere to sleep, those people.”

“What you get used to,” said Gayle. Blunt, not explaining herself. I didn't ask her to explain, either.

Instead, I threw a meal at the problem. When we got back to the
Mercury
I coaxed her next door to the Palate for a vegetarian burrito. In the parking lot of the sporting goods store, we studied a huge ice carving of a man and a dog skijoring. Ice art, excuse
me, not ice carving. The skier bulged with crystal muscles. The dog leaped forward against the towline.

Now there was an idea. Why not take a short break from this forestry activism and get on down to the World Ice Art championships next week? Gayle could get Jack inside the Ice Park with her press pass. A dose of beauty would cheer us up. Jack would love all those medieval fantasies made larger than life. Tad Suliman had bragged that Judy Finch was carving a griffin; I said I couldn't remember what a griffin was, and he admitted to the same ignorance.

“I didn't tell her, but I went to the library and looked it up,” he said. “Body of a lion, head and front claws of an eagle. Soon as I saw the picture I remembered.
Alice in Wonderland
.”

“A soft topic, not hard news,” I said to Gayle over our lunch. “But we owe it to ourselves. Ice art sells copies, too.”

“Jack would like that,” she agreed. “I don't let him roam around much.” Did she look a little stressed?

“It must be very difficult sometimes. How is everything going?” I said.

“It's not like when we were kids and on our own all the time. I can't let that happen, especially not these days, in Fairbanks. Too dangerous. I'm on him like a hawk. I'm sure that's not good for him, Mom hovering all the time. But I can't bear to take a chance. I know what can happen.”

I had no knowledge of this—how it would be to watch out for someone else.

“What I see, Gayle, I think you're doing a good job with a tough situation.”

“It's not so tough. But it's a little crowded at my house right now. My cousin moved out from Allakaket to stay with us for a bit, and she's still a kid. She likes to have a good time—doesn't have that out of her system yet. It makes me very nervous…I know
it's important for Jack to have these ties to the village, but she's not the kind of girl you want to look after your children, either.”

“Can she stay somewhere else?”

“I don't want to push her out. Eventually, she will.”

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