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Awakening in the Wilderness

One Montanan’s chronicle of life on the last frontier

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A man like John Haines of Helena is the literary equivalent of an endangered species. While there is no shortage of writers who have lived amidst nature and written about it, to find a writer with his talent who lived in the manner that he lived, when and where he did is truly a rare find.

Living southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, Haines homesteaded and learned the art of fur-trapping from the old timers in the area. These men, who had stayed on for the slim rewards of a hard life after the gold ran out, were old in 1947, Haines’ first year in Alaska. They were accustomed to “living off the land,” which had little or nothing to do with conservation, ecology or sustainability, and everything to do with the systematic trapping, skinning, utilizing and selling of small and large fur-bearing animals to purchase the homesteader’s essentials: nails, bullets, coffee, beans.

What is so remarkable about his life and work is that he had been trained as a painter, but being unable to paint during his first long, dark year, turned to poetry. He would later say, “As a poet I was born in a particular place, a hillside overlooking the Tanana River where I built a house and lived for the better part of twenty-two years.” Thus, as he discovered his facility for poetry, which requires exquisite observation of detail, he was simultaneously undergoing an elemental experience which forced him to either sharpen his powers of observation and sense of the world around him, or die. So, his daily chores on the homestead, things like fur-trapping, salmon-gaffing, moose-poaching and dog-training, serve as a carefully wrought reminder that unflinchingly evokes a vanishing way of living.

He describes fishing the salmon run in October: “The big hook made a nasty gash in the side of the salmon, and fish blood soon stained the snow where I piled them, one by one. … There was something grand and barbaric in that essential, repeated act. To stand there in the snow and cold air toward the end of the year, with a long hook poised above the ice-filled river, was to feel oneself part of something so old that its origin was lost in the sundown of many winters: a feeling intensified, made rich by the smell of ice and cold fish-slime, by the steely color of the winter sky, and the white snow stained with the redness of the salmon: the color of death and the color of winter.”

Few of the experiences that he relates in his book of essays are the kind that would inspire a non-writer to pick up pen and chronicle the tall tale he has just heard or relate the amazing thing that he had seen that would not be believed back in the Lower 48. Instead, Haines’ gift is that he is able to write about the quotidian without sounding mundane. So he writes about burning a porcupine, or the occupational silence of the trappers. Even in the requisite grizzly encounter, both bear and man walk away only scathed.

Because Haines supported himself by trapping—one year he lived on his garden, what he could kill, and $300 dollars in fur sales—he relentlessly explores the implications of life as a trapper. In the essay “Of Traps and Snares” he says:

“The old handbooks are filled with talk of lures and sets and skills. The subject has its own fascination, and to one attracted to life in the woods this knowledge seems essential and good, something handed down, useful, and binding in time. … Sooner or later the thinking man considers the barbaric means for what is plainly a kind of murder: the steel jaw and the wire noose, the choking and the crushing, the cutting and tearing of the wet skin from the cold body of the dead beast. … In all that hardness and cruelty there is a knowledge to be gained, a necessary knowledge acquired in the only way it can be, from close familiarity with the creature hunted. … But however close that familiarity, something is always withheld; the life of the animal remains other and beyond, never completely yielding all that it is.”

Haines sees clearly that while this experience was seminal for him, it is unmanageable for the vast majority of humans anymore; fur is a luxury, and we can probably get along just as well with fleece made from petroleum polymers. If Haines’ frankness is unsettling, it is tempered by the knowledge of the time in which he lived—in a time before treading lightly, low-impacting and leaving no trace while recreating in the wilderness was in vogue, or even possible.

Haines’ apolitical, clear-eyed portrayal of a life lived on the land is what is endangered and worth preserving. His experiences, which are insupportable if generalized to all humans, is a stirring portrayal of a life that cannot be lived any longer. In the fall in Montana, when we are all hunting, fishing, canning, or preparing for the winter, we can somewhat participate in the life Haines describes thus:

“And yet to some fortunate individuals there have been few things more deeply attractive than this seasonal pursuit of the wild. It is life at its fullest, uncertain and demanding, but rich with expectation. … It will never be an easy life, the gift comes with its hardships firmly attached. … Some things make sense only in light of their personal necessity, and what that necessity is to be we choose for ourselves.”

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