Writing starts from the world—doesn’t it?—something you see or hear, or hear about. Newspapers. TV. Restaurants. Coffee Shops. Family Reunions. Bus Stops . . . a “trigger,” was how Richard Hugo put it, and it arrives from anywhere, anytime, like meteors, fish bites, hail, or dawn. Sometimes it can be as simple as a word. Take sabotage, coming to us from sabot, the French word for wooden shoe. The first instances of “sabotage” were likely peasant revolts against oppressive landowners, peasants tossing sabots into machines with the intent to destroy the machines: a word turning into event, or story.
Early in my Air Force career, I found myself stationed at a radar site atop the Brooks Range in central Alaska. The base camp sat beside the Indian River that connected to the Koyukuk, a primary northern tributary to the mighty Yukon. There was an Indian fishing village, where the Koyukuk met the Yukon. During the winter, when the Indian River froze, the fishermen would manipulate their snow machines up that frozen track to our radar site to play cards and drink liquor. We obeyed the federal law forbidding the sale of bottles of alcohol to the Indians. There was no such law against pouring all the drinks they could pay for. The Indians would drink up, then head back to their village, swerving and whooping in the refrigerated dark.
There was an older Indian who came not by Ski-Doo, but by way of dogs and sled. He’d drink, then go outside to sleep with his animals. It could be fifty below and he’d trudge out. You’d hear the dogs yipping in the morning—at four or five—as he’d toss them frozen fish. Once when he’d mushed up for a night, I asked, "Why don’t you drive a snowmobile?” He gave me a look. “If your snowmobile dies,” he asked, “what are you going to do—eat the carburetor?”
I should report that the old fellow offered to exchange seal-skin mukluks for a half-gallon bottle of booze. Idealist young Air Force Captain that I was, I refused. He told me he would make them, taking in visually, the size of my shoe. Now, forty years past, I feel foolish for having dashed his small wish and my off-chance good fortune.
The summer before I left Alaska, the old Indian walked me along the river to Gold Camp, five or six miles upstream. He’d hiked in from Koyukuk to visit. He’d brought two dogs and the fish to feed them. The huskies stayed within range, like sheepdogs.
On our way to the camp we steered clear of the banked gravel and walked on tundra, which gave with our steps and released clouds of mosquitos and gnats. I wore long sleeves and a cap with netting. When I sprayed my hands with repellant, the old Indian closed his mouth and covered his nose.
He’d pointed out the dredged banks of the river. He told me about the hydraulic mining before the war. He meant he said, “The World War: Number Two.” He extended an arm to wave it across the screen of the sky. “Overdigging,” he said, toeing the bleached gravel, which stretched out of sight, both banks. “Water mining strip living earth. Pollute watershed. Kill fish.”
In Gold Camp, the dredgers were rusted, bears had ransacked the cabins, and returning soldiers had had better offers in the lower states. We found swollen cans of tomatoes bears had missed, old newspapers, and mattresses filled with thin snakes and rodents. From the scat, we could see that even moose had sought shelter. The old Indian talked about gold and arsenic and spoiled water. He smelled like salmon.
Before we headed back to the radar site, we walked along the river. What I thought to be a glacier canopied the water at a bend. I asked how old the ice was.
“Gone by August,” he said.
The ice—blue as sky—towered above. We stood just within, beside where the river tunneled, tempted by the micro-climate. Following us from the twenty-two-hour sun, the mosquitoes and gnats joined black flies in the mist. It was as if we stood inside a cool bell.
Because I attended graduate school late in life, I often felt as though I’d awakened to find myself surrounded by amateurs who’d purchased expensive and muscular Ski-Doos. These folk circled to talk torque and horsepower and to pretend intimacy with snow and killing weather. I felt like the old Indian who wanted privacy and safety and to sleep with his dogs. It was in this environment that I came to know that, both temperamentally and substantively, I was hardly destined to become a literary critic, professional or otherwise. I once repeated the old Indian’s words in a graduate course where the students came each week to books with tools: excavators, dredges, powered things. I said, “Hydraulic mining strips living earth, pollutes watersheds, kills fish.” And when no one understood: “You can ruin anything—love, art—with too much of this.” Then: “Tell me you love me. Count the ways. Specify. Provide five reasons in descending order as to why you love. Tell me more.”
What I gain from reading creative nonfiction is a sanction to write about life as life has occurred to me and as I have learned to perceive it as the stuff of “story”—the ore available for smelting, for transformation into what any working writer hopes is art. "Of course life and art are different," an early mentor instructed, "if they weren't, we wouldn't need art." And if art generally strains towards making sense and seeking meaning, most have lived long enough to know that life is under no such obligation. Aristotle’s notion that History accretes, but only Poetry unifies is a notion that bears its weight. “It’s all in the art,” V.S. Pritchett wrote, “you get no credit for the living.” Though art and life are different, they are yoked. And art, at its deepest level, is about preserving the world.
Longtime editor of War, Literature & the Arts: an international journal of the humanities, Donald Anderson is editor, too, of Aftermath: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction, When War Becomes Personal, and Andre Dubus: Tributes. His collection Fire Road won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. His most recent book is Gathering Noise from my Life: A Camouflaged Memoir. Donald’s nonfiction piece AWOL was published in issue 296.2 of the North American Review. You may visit his website at www.donaldanderson.us.
The illustrations are by Clay Rodery. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, and he has created illustrations for such clients as: The New York Times, the New Republic, HBO, The Atlantic, Grantland, as well as many others.