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Field Notebook

August 31, 2012
Apocalyptic Planet Excerpt: St. Lawrence Island, AK

I borrowed someones four-wheeler and joined a hunter on his way east in his own bouncing ATV. We cut across tundra and black-cobble shorelines littered with generations of whalebones. On a cape several miles out from Savoonga, he stopped and unstrapped gear from the front of his fat-tired vehicle. Wearing greasy Carharrt overalls, he hoisted the shovel over his shoulder and walked into a stiff-blowing mist coming from the Arctic. 

Some times of the year he hunts seal, or nets salmon. He lays trap for the white foxes who raid wild eggs gathered seasonally by the village.

This time of the year, as permafrost shrank and loosened the ground, he was hunting artifacts.

Inside the lumpy, tundra-covered ruins of an ancient Yup'ik village was a pit he'd been digging for years. He was looking for prehistoric harpoon tips and fossil walrus tusk he could sell, which a St. Lawrence Island native can do legally, this island being a Native Corporation and not an Indian Reservation. All around the site were muddy spoils. People had been digging here for many years. Hundreds of exhumed walrus skulls and countless little artifacts lay about; busted sled runners and bone ice scrapers with holes drilled into them so they could be tied on as a carry-tool. I crouched over one of the ice-scrapers. It looked like seal-bone, maybe five hundred years old, maybe a thousand.

Thats a long time to be in one place, enough time family belongings become coveted artifacts, St. Lawrence Island selling to collectors and museums worldwide. My own artifacts would count for little. An arrowhead of my great grandfathers, a ring of my grandmothers. From where I stood on a mist-driven mound littered with muddy walrus skulls, my years felt few.

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