donderdag 16 juni 2011

Science Fictional Alaska & owl soup


'Coming into the Country' (1977) is John Mcphee's classic book on the Alaskan wilderness. It consists of three parts of which only the first is an absolute must-read. On rereading it I am still amazed by its science fictional quality: Mcphee's Alaska is a distant world, completely alien to everything I know. Here are two examples to give a feel for the unfamiliar worlds that exist on this planet.
In the first paragraph Mcphee writes about forest eskimos, really the Koyukon Indians also described by Richard Nelsen (earlier and earlier).
Their male-order likeness to the rest of us does not go very deep. They may use Eagle Claw fishhooks from Wright & McGill, in Denver, but they still know how to make them from the teeth of wolves. They may give their children windup toys, but they also make little blowguns for them from the hollow leg bones of the sandhill crane. To snare ptarmigan, they no longer use spruce roots - they use picture wire - but they still snare ptarmigan. They eat what they call "white-man food," mainly from cans, but they also eat owl soup, sour duck, wild rhubarb, and the tuber Hedysarum alpinum - the Eskimo potato. Some of them believe that Eskimo food keeps them healthy and brown, and that too much white-man food will turn them white. Roughly half of their carbohydrates come from wild food - and fully four-fifth of their protein. They eat - and more to the point, depend on - small creatures of the forest. Rabbit. Beaver. Muskrat. Thousands of frozen whitefish will be piled beside a single house. At thirty below, whitefish break like glass. The people dip the frozen bits in seal oil and chew them.
And about bears (also see):
One could predict, but not with certainty, what a grizzly would do. Odds were very great that one touch of man scent would cause him to stop his activity, pause in a moment of absorbed and alert curiosity, and then move, at a not undignified pace, in a direction other than the one from which the scent was coming. That is what would happen almost every time, but there was, to be sure, no guarantee. The forest fear and revere the grizzly. They know that certain individual bears not only will fail to avoid a person who comes into their country but will approach and even stalk the trespasser. It is potentially inaccurate to extrapolate the behaviour of any one bear from the behaviour of most, since they are both intelligent and independent and will do what they choose to do according to mood, experience, whim.

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