Tribeless in McDonaldsland

Golden arches, milkshakes and fries, that redheaded clown, over a gazillion hamburgers served. McDonald’s is one of the great symbols of corporate America. This is my cultural inheritance, at least what the powers of my childhood wanted for me. The powers of my childhood didn’t understand me at all. I knew I was a sagebrush, but they tried to make me into a marigold.

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The sagebrush in my front yard lives quietly among neighbors’ marigolds and bluegrass lawns

I’m sorry, powers of my childhood. I can’t accept your world. I can’t accept the trademarked, artificial culture that’s been peddled my whole life on cereal boxes and milk cartons, by housekeeping magazines and smiley television spokesmen. It’s a beautiful dream you tried to give me, powers of my childhood, this American Dream. If only it wasn’t off limits to most of humanity because of skin color, gender, or financial status. If only it wasn’t an illusion that only seems real within the male, white-privileged world.

It is no coincidence that the clown has red hair. Clan McDonald is one of the great clans of Scotland, a stronghold of redheaded warriors, ancient and fierce. But now it’s all about two-all-beef patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun (or if you’re under age 40, you’re supposed to be lovin’ it).

In my veins runs the native blood of Algonquins, Irish Clans, Gauls, and Vikings. This indigenousness is my most powerful weapon in the battle with McDonaldsland. But being raised in the world of marigolds, I’ve not inherited most of the culture, language, and connection to my own ancestral tribes. Because of this I’ve lost much of my power. Still I persist, recognizing that indigenousness may be the only real hope for the future of humanity. McDonaldsland is not sustainable, yet corporations are still focusing on their profit margins while continuing to eradicate things like sagebrush in the process.

I recently read a book called Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. Their landscaping approach is based on recognizing and embracing the mixed nature of plant communities, using native and introduced species together to heal our scarred landscapes. Maybe this is can be a metaphor for human cultures too. There are a lot of us sagebrush out here, with mixed heritage but a unified purpose. Maybe we can help reclaim some of our own damaged landscapes by opposing the corporate mindset that scarred them in the first place. We can hold out against McDonaldsland a little longer.

 

The Abandoned North: Part VIII – Amchitka Island: Natural Beauty on a Small Scale

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Amchitka Island shoreline

Some of the first things I notice when I arrive at Amchitka Island are all of the coral-reef colors of anemones, sea stars, fish, and kelp that can be seen below the dock in Constantine Harbor. It reminds me that the Bering Sea is a richly diverse place in spite of harsh conditions on the  surface.

Nootka lupine

Nootka lupine

There is a lot of natural beauty here, but it isn’t like the stark, volcanic mountains, waterfalls, or wild ocean spray of many of its neighbors. This part of the island is quite flat, although there are small mountains in the distant wilderness area that I can’t glimpse through the heavy clouds.

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A tiny ecosystem on an old sawn board, with an urchin shell ornament

 

Amchitka’s beauty is on a smaller scale: flowers, lichens, mosses, birds, and urchin shells. Whole communities of mosses and other tiny life forms are even developing on the tarmac. On the island’s soils, in low areas that have been undisturbed for at least a few decades, thick pillows of peat have formed, with their own complement of plant life.

At higher altitudes, the ecology becomes more complicated. In these exposed areas, winds dry out the soils and plants, creating bands of miniature shrub communities built around crowberry plants that alternate with with bands dominated by tundra grass. Neither is considered to be a climax community by ecologists because the bands shift over time, a constantly morphing patchwork of slow-growing life. Different still are the verdant ecosystems near the ocean. There is huge diversity here, if you stoop down and look closely enough.

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Bryophyte communities growing on Amchitka’s abandoned runways

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Plants along the shoreline near a rusty battleship mooring

One of my favorite experiences on Amchitka Island was witnessing flocks of Aleutian Canada Geese. They look like miniature replicas of the large flocks I see migrating in Colorado, complete with their striking black and white heads. But these have white collar feathers, and their honks are higher pitched. Every time I hear them, it makes me smile. Aleutian Canada Geese were listed as endangered in 1967 but upgraded to threatened in 1991. They recovered enough to be delisted in 2001. In the early 20th century, trappers brought nonnative foxes to the Aleutian Islands to expand the fur trade. These foxes decimated the nesting grounds of the geese. Lots of people worked to remove the foxes from the islands and relocated populations of the birds. These included efforts on Amchitka Island, where the geese were once extinct.

The human footprint since the 20th century on the Aleutian Islands is heavy and undeniable. But, here as everywhere, nature eventually creeps back into the works of human beings. My trip to Amchitka Island has reaffirmed for me the need to continue to attend to the remote places, the need to help them heal. Maybe they are the most important places of all.Chimney

The Abandoned North, Part I – Bound for the Aleutians

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The Aleutian Islands

The Aleutian Islands are a vast, volcanic archipelago that runs west from the Alaska Peninsula towards the mainland of Russia. On a map, the islands are draped like necklace beads between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. People don’t crowd to get to the Aleutians, at least not anymore, since most of the United States military installations there were abandoned after the Cold War. Many born-and-bred Alaskans have never set foot on an Aleutian Island.

It is June, 2016. The desert heat in my home town of Grand Junction, Colorado, is already building, but I am loading bags full of cold-weather gear to board a plane bound for Anchorage. Our final destination is the uninhabited island of Amchitka, one of the Rat Islands in the western part of the Aleutian Chain. The site of three underground nuclear detonations, it is distant, cold, and off-limits without a special permit. It is by far the most remote place I can ever hope to visit.

Sitkin Peak above the clouds

One of the Andreanof Islands in the Aleutian Chain is Great Sitkin Island, dominated by the Great Sitkin Volcano. It is an active stratovolcano with a caldera and dome, last erupting with an explosion and a pale plume in 1974. In July and August of 2013, two swarms of earthquakes were reported at Great Sitkin. All is quiet in 2016 as our airplane glides by.

Every five years, scientific teams are sent to Amchitka Island to perform environmental monitoring for the U.S. Department of Energy, the long-term steward of the detonation sites. I am an ecologist by trade, a botanist by education, and I am fortunate to be chosen as a member of one of the teams. My job will be to measure and record the vegetation growing on landfill covers. Plants are an essential part of the cover design. The landfills contain hazardous wastes that were generated from drilling the holes for the underground detonations. The radioactive materials from the detonations themselves are entombed deep underground – none have ever been detected on the surface, in the ocean, or in the ecosystem. The once-classified detonations are now public record, and you can read about Amchitka Island on the Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management’s website. This blog in no way speaks for the Department of Energy or any of its contractors – this is simply an account of my personal adventure.

Left: The greening slopes of a volcano in the Andreanof Islands.
Right: Meltwater plunges down the black cliffs towards the sea

It will turn from spring to summer in the Aleutians, as we will spend the Summer Solstice there. If there is a warm spell up north, the temperature may top out at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Chilly even in summer. The Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea are not for the faint of heart. But my journey doesn’t begin with Amchitka Island. After a layover in Denver and a long flight, it begins with a night in Anchorage, the land of the midnight sun.