Nature's State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier

Nature's State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier

by Susan Kollin

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An engaging blend of environmental theory and literary studies, Nature's State looks behind the myth of Alaska as America's "last frontier," a pristine and wild place on the fringes of our geographical imagination. Susan Kollin traces how this seemingly marginal space in American culture has in fact functioned to alleviate larger social anxieties about nature, ethnicity, and national identity.

Kollin pays special attention to the ways in which concerns for the environment not only shaped understandings of Alaska, but also aided U.S. nation-building projects in the Far North from the late nineteenth century to the present era. Beginning in 1867, the year the United States purchased Alaska, a variety of literary and cultural texts helped position the region as a crucial staging ground for territorial struggles between native peoples, Russians, Canadians, and Americans. In showing how Alaska has functioned as a contested geography in the nation's spatial imagination, Kollin addresses writings by a wide range of figures, including early naturalists John Muir and Robert Marshall, contemporary nature writers Margaret Murie, John McPhee, and Barry Lopez, adventure writers Jack London and Jon Krakauer, and native authors Nora Dauenhauer, Robert Davis, and Mary TallMountain.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781469648095
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 06/15/2018
Series: Cultural Studies of the United States
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Susan Kollin is associate professor of English at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Read an Excerpt

Nature's State
Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier

By Susan Kollin

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807826456


Inventing the Last Frontier

[O]ur powerful images of country and city have been ways of responding to a whole social development. This is why, in the end, we must not limit ourselves to their contrast but go on to see their interrelations and through these the real shape of the underlying crisis.
—Raymond Williams, The Country and the City

[L]andscape is an object of nostalgia in a postcolonial and postmodern era, reflecting a time when metropolitan cultures could imagine their destiny in an unbounded "prospect" of endless appropriation and conquest.
—W. J. T. Mitchell, "Imperial Landscapes"

After the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled eleven million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound during the spring of 1989, a great public outcry arose as the nation witnessed images of dying wildlife, oil-drenched beaches, and polluted seas on nightly television and front pages of newspapers. Considered one of the world's only remaining wilderness areas and one of its most popular tourist destinations, Alaska has been widely regarded as the "Last Frontier," a region whose history has yet to be written and whose "virgin lands" have yet to be explored. The oil spill threatened to disrupt Alaska's wilderness status, however, as Prince William Sound came to signify the profound environmental catastrophes facing the United States at the end of the twentieth century. According to many news reports, the Exxon Valdez disaster was most tragic because it took place in an area whose natural beauty was thought to surpass all others. If the region was a relatively unknown location for many Americans before the disaster, in the weeks and months after the spill, the media ensured that Prince William Sound became a household name through stories tracing its decline from a formerly pristine ecosystem into a place of extreme pollution.

Over the past two hundred years, however, intensive land and resource use in the form of mining, whaling, logging, and fox farming had altered this seemingly pristine region in rather dramatic ways. Even though forests in a secluded bay in Prince William Sound had been logged out by 1927 and second-growth timber had already been harvested by the time of the spill, the mainstream media nevertheless used images of this same bay to portray the sound as a once untrammeled but now endangered wilderness region.[1] While few reports questioned the accuracy of these depictions, a look at the oil industry's own record of operations in Alaska also indicates that the Exxon Valdez spill was just one of many environmental disasters taking place in the history of Prince William Sound's industrial development. The 1989 disaster, for instance, marked the four hundredth spill in the region since oil began to be transported from the North Slope in Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez in Prince William Sound. Even when production in the North Slope began to decrease in the late 1980s, six hundred Alaskan spills were being reported each year, prompting the EPA to name several locations in the area as severely contaminated.[2] In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster, however, most mainstream news reports ignored the history of the region's economic development, and instead produced stories lamenting the destruction of one of the world's last remaining wilderness areas.

I highlight these points not because I wish to suggest that the oil spill was a small mishap that should be quickly brushed aside or that a strong public outcry was somehow unjustified; rather, I draw attention to these points in order to foreground the ways Alaska was shaped in the weeks, months, and years after the disaster. When we consider the rhetoric of the outcry following the spill, it becomes apparent that something else was at stake in discussions of the Alaskan landscape for, in addition to destroying populations of wildlife and polluting vast areas of sea and land, the disaster also threatened the meanings and values assigned to Alaska in the popular national imagination, understandings that were not necessarily shared by indigenous populations across the state. Patrick Daley has examined the media coverage of the spill, comparing the ways Alaska Native and nonnative newspapers defined the event. He argues that for the most part, mainstream reports relied on conventions of the disaster narrative, seeking to lessen confusion and assure the public that the danger was contained. Later, these news reports began concentrating on the human-interest aspect, voicing the frustrations of local residents who were disillusioned with the oil industry, and with state and federal governments. The people who predominantly figured in this coverage were white commercial fishermen from Valdez and Cordova, cities located between twenty-eight and fifty miles from the spill.

With this focus, however, the mainstream press ended up neglecting the disaster's impact on Prince William Sound's largest private landowners—the Alaska Natives. Particularly absent were the voices of the Aleut villagers of Tatilek who resided only six miles from the spill's origin. In contrast to mainstream reports that featured images of oil-drenched birds and damaged beaches, symbols of a once untrammeled nature now polluted, Alaska Native reports focused on other, less sentimental, concerns. Tundra Times, a weekly newspaper dedicated to the concerns of the state's indigenous population, primarily addressed the impact of the spill on subsistence issues; instead of featuring dramatic images of oil-soaked wildlife, Tundra Times told of villagers' attempts to cope with the crisis now facing a population for whom nearly 50 percent of its food is harvested from the sea and the land. I point to this study and its comparison of news coverage of the disaster for the ways it highlights competing responses to the oil spill and for the ways it foregrounds contested understandings of human relations with nonhuman nature.[3]

These different understandings may be noted in the way Alaska has been situated as a sublime wilderness area in the nation's spatial imagination.[4] Widely regarded as the Last Frontier, Alaska is positioned to encode the nation's future, serving to reopen the western American frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner declared closed in the 1890s. In this sense Alaska functions as a national salvation whose existence alleviates fears about the inevitable environmental doom the United States seems to face and, like previous American frontiers, promises to provide the nation with opportunities for renewal.[5] This notion of regeneration and renewal is not merely psychological but also involves an economic dimension. With its vast timber, fishing, oil, and mineral reserves, Alaska is thought of as a land endowed with great natural wealth, a terrain offering unlimited commercial opportunities. As a result, it is considered one of the few remaining areas where the United States may enact what Richard Slotkin calls "bonanza economics," the acquisition of abundant natural resources without equal inputs of labor and investment.[6]

During a time when discussions about the environment are repeatedly framed by what Alexander Wilson calls a discourse of "crisis and catastrophe," caring for wilderness areas such as Alaska becomes an increasingly urgent project.[7] I would contend, however, that this anxiety-laden rhetoric does not merely reflect concerns about nature but, more important, signals concerns about U.S. national identity.[8] The discursive construction of Alaska as the Last Frontier marks a yearning for undeveloped lands in a world whose surfaces are perceived to be fully mapped.[9] Because the urge to protect a Last Frontier points both to anxieties about the environment and to concerns about the nation's status and future, Alaska emerges as an object whose production is linked to the United States' identity and expansionist history.

Nature's State enters current debates and discussions about the U.S. environmental imagination, tracing the ways Alaska, a seemingly liminal space in American culture, functions to alleviate larger anxieties about nature and national identity. While Alaska often fascinates Americans because of its status as the Last Frontier, the region nevertheless remains largely outside the United States' imagined community, serving as an extraneous space not fully accommodated into a national sense of self. Like many U.S. weather maps that feature a greatly reduced version of Alaska next to southern California, most studies of American literature, history, and culture also consign the state to their margins, if they include it at all. Nature's State addresses this lack and examines the ways popular responses toward Alaska foreground larger concerns about the meaning of America while also illuminating important aspects about the connections between nature advocacy, landscape conventions, and U.S. national development.

Here I argue that the environmental discourses shaping Alaska cannot be separated from the nation's larger expansionist concerns and its history of development. As much as it might be tempting to consider the protection of nature and the expansion of nations as radically different projects, they have frequently worked hand in hand in defining specific uses in which to employ Alaska. The Euro-American drive for continental control during the late nineteenth century, for instance, situated the Far North as a strategic frontier for national expansion. Because of its position in the Pacific near Russia, Canada, and the Arctic, Alaska emerged as an important geopolitical site for national security and foreign policy concerns. At the turn of the century, however, a movement also arose that expressed concerns about the proper uses of the national landscape. During this period, frontier discourses helped shape environmentalist rhetoric, and ecological projects became closely linked to U.S. expansionist enterprises.

Popular perceptions of Alaska as the Last Frontier stem from two nineteenth-century developments: the United States' overseas expansion and the Progressive-era conservation movement. During a time when it was widely believed that the internal American frontier faced exhaustion, both projects had great stakes in locating a new frontier. Although historians have indicated that the "closing of the frontier" was actually a myth, the idea nevertheless held great power in the national imagination, providing yet one more rationale for the United States' expansionist projects.[10] After the Civil War, the nation began creating an overseas empire designed to curb the problems of agrarian and industrial overproduction and the closing of the frontier. As the primary architect of what Walter LaFeber calls the "New Empire," Secretary of State William Henry Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 in order to secure a strategic base for the nation's overseas markets.[11] Alaska was intended to be the first in a long line of territorial acquisitions the United States sought in creating a "security perimeter" of American-owned lands in the Pacific.[12]

Alaska's position on the nation's map, however, also threatens to dismantle myths of national identity; in particular, it calls into question notions of American exceptionalism, as the region's location tends to highlight the entangling alliances of imperialism the nation engages in but continues to repudiate. Historian Morgan Sherwood, for instance, once wrote that Alaska's separation from the continental United States made it a "freak in American development—the first important colonialist effort of the European variety."[13] While we could argue that each attempt to include new lands, continental or otherwise, in fact signals an instance of U.S. imperialism, Sherwood's remarks concerning Alaska's geographical position are nevertheless quite telling.[14] In U.S. national narratives, it is typically assumed that American development is continual rather than disconnected; Alaska's position on the map thus appears "freakish" to Sherwood and others because the region cannot be narrated through the accepted paradigms of American national expansion. The geographical continuity that Sherwood seeks mystifies the fact that each incorporation of new lands marks yet another moment in the history of U.S. nation building. The discontinuity between Alaska and the rest of the United States appears "freakish" to him, in part, because it signifies a rupture that the nation continually attempts to ignore. During the purchase of Alaska, for instance, Secretary of State William Henry Seward and other nation builders sought to annex British Columbia along with Alaska in an effort to secure continuous U.S. rule throughout the hemisphere. Alaska was envisioned as the first in a long line of territorial conquests that would include Canada and Latin America.[15] As the gap on the charts indicates, however, efforts to expand the nation's borders up through Canada were defeated. The separation between Alaska and the rest of the country thus points to a failed moment in this particular expansionist project and signals a disruption in the nation's efforts to gain continental control.[16]

Some national maps encode yet another response to Alaska. On certain U.S. charts, for instance, the region is depicted as a landscape whose tremendous size gives it great national importance. In an effort to highlight the significance of this territorial acquisition, maps such as those appearing in school textbooks or on postcards of the forty-ninth state often superimpose Alaska upon the continental United States, with the region's coastline stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. Because maps, as cultural geographers tell us, are never mere reflections of the world but operate as cultural documents that serve particular nationalist functions, charts that place Alaska across the continental United States are especially intriguing for the "patriotic allegory" they depict, revealing the nation's territorial imperatives and the value the United States places on expanding its geographical borders.[17] In this case, expansion involves incorporating a territory that comprises more than 586,000 square miles, roughly one-fifth the area of the rest of the United States. By highlighting the region as an important source of national pride, these maps more fully serve the needs of American national development, foregrounding the United States' ability to extend its borders and renew itself once again.

Close readings of the nation's maps indicate, however, that while some charts celebrate Alaska as an important national entity, other maps present the state as an almost insignificant terrain. Alaska's national importance, for instance, diminishes on many U.S. maps that present a greatly reduced version of the state next to southern California. Hawai'i receives a similar fate as it, too, is frequently transplanted from its geographical setting in order to be placed in closer proximity to the rest of the United States. These efforts involve more than merely saving space on the chart; instead, the diminished distances between Alaska, Hawai'i, and the rest of the United States serve larger purposes, for on these maps, the United States remains intact as one geographical entity which gives the nation an appearance of territorial stability. Alaska's shifting position on the nation's maps thus presents us with multiple versions of a national epic. While one map indicates a desire for empire by proudly displaying the fruits of the United States' territorial conquests, the other map demonstrates a denial of empire by reducing the evidence of the nation's imperialist past. Although the nation's westward expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific may be regarded as the appropriate course of empire, the acquisition of Alaska and other lands not geographically connected to the continental United States threatens to expose the nation's imperialist gestures, for on these charts, the gap signifies empire in a way that the continuous line from coast to coast doesn't.

Sherwood once described the United States' expansionist interests in the Far North; according to him, Alaska served as a "bridge between the Old World and the New," "a fertile, strategic, and virgin ground," and "an unused laboratory that promised to yield evidence confirming or refuting some of the [world's] great theories."[18] Indeed, Alaska's geographical position has inspired many ambitious transnational projects. One such enterprise conducted in 1867 by the Western Union Telegraph Company sought to build a submarine cableline from Alaska, over the Bering Straits, and across Russia in an effort to create an international communication system to facilitate U.S. interests in Asia. The project was abandoned, however, with the installation of the Atlantic line. Another ambitious scheme was developed in 1899 by the railroad magnate E. H. Harriman, whose dreams of constructing a New York-to-Paris route involved an excursion through the same region.[19] In both of these instances, the geopolitical position of Alaska provided the means through which the New World could map itself onto the Old World.

Just as the legacy of U.S. expansion helped position Alaska as a Last Frontier, the Progressive-era conservation movement also played a role in shaping ideas about the region. With the perceived closing of the frontier and the realization that the nation's natural resources could not be endlessly extracted, conservationists sought ways of curtailing uncontrolled development and establishing more efficient uses of natural resources.[20] The Progressive-era conservation movement eventually splintered, with advocates of conservationism favoring carefully planned resource development and supporters of preservationism arguing that the nation's wilderness areas should be protected from such uses.[21] Although they differed from each other in certain ways, the two groups nevertheless shared much in common: arising out of what appeared to be the closing of the frontier, both of them looked to the environment as a way of solving the crisis of exhaustion facing the United States. The two movements also converged in other ways: while conservationists valued nature for its economic uses and preservationists valued nature for its aesthetic and amenity uses, both groups considered nature a valuable commodity in an era when U.S. landscapes were increasingly at risk.[22] Recently scholars have begun addressing this other history of U.S. environmentalism, restoring to memory the underside of nineteenth- and twentieth-century concerns for nature, and relating them to larger projects of expansion. Environmental historians, for instance, have chronicled the removal of American Indians from their homelands in the establishment of wilderness regions and national parks across the nation, and from there have gone on to describe new forms of environmental interventions in other parts of the world that strongly resemble older forms of colonialism.[23] Efforts to protect, conserve, and wisely use nature—whether it be "our" nature or "their" nature—have been central elements in the production of American identity, and for that reason deserve to be reexamined for the larger concerns they address.

Beauty Marks and Oil Spills

Today, constructions of Alaska as the Last Frontier continue to perform a crucial function in the national imaginary. Melody Webb, for example, investigates recent depictions of the Last Frontier, pointing out that these portrayals of Alaska emerged in the 1970s as a state slogan and advertising ploy used to romanticize the nation's expansionist history. Webb contends that images of Alaska as a Last Frontier helped resituate the frontier past in the present era, nostalgically enlisting the region as a new site for national myths about the winning of the West.[24] Depictions of Alaska as a mythic frontier space also encode other meanings in the Euro-American imagination, appearing as a rallying cry for environmentalists concerned about threats to the nation's landscapes. William Goetzman and Kay Sloan argue, for instance, that competing impulses shape the Far North which result in what they call the "two Alaskas," a vision of the region as "a wilderness to be preserved and a frontier to be exploited."[25] Rather than viewing these responses as antithetical to one another, however, we might instead consider the ways they operate as mutually sustaining ideas. Mainstream environmentalist rhetoric often advances notions of American exceptionalism, masking the nation's expansionist desires in myths of the United States as a benevolent international force, the protector of imperiled landscapes and populations alike. These desires continue to shape various environmentalist efforts, surfacing in recent efforts to protect wilderness areas such as the Brazilian rainforest, or in responses to acts of ecological destruction such as the Kuwaiti oil wells set on fire during the Persian Gulf War.[26] In these instances, U.S. concerns about the environment, especially other peoples' environments, are typically presented as an ecofriendly gesture.

Environmentalist rhetoric of this sort frequently obscures development ideologies in other ways as well. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when industrial development had extended across the nation, environmentalists responded by demanding the protection of natural landscapes for nonindustrial uses. Alexander Wilson points out that in hindsight these nonindustrial uses have largely turned out to be tourism, an activity that shares much in common with the imperialist adventure by advocating an "unquenchable appetite for the exotic and the 'uncharted.'"[27] Wilderness protection itself has often contributed to a lucrative tourism business, transforming landscapes in ways that can be as destructive to the environment as other forms of industrial development.[28] During the spring of 1989, for instance, the Exxon Valdez disaster challenged the nation's image as a protector of the environment and threatened to disrupt Alaska's status as one of the most desired destinations for international tourism. The crisis management following the disaster therefore faced the double duty of cleaning up both the spill and Alaska's soiled image. While the country struggled to make sense of the disaster, the Alaska tourism industry acted quickly, devising a public relations campaign intended to counter the spill's negative effects. One full-page text appearing in several major U.S. newspapers featured an image of Hollywood movie star Marilyn Monroe. "We've changed this picture to make a point about a legendary beauty," the line across the top of the page reads. In smaller print, readers are told that Monroe's beauty mark has been removed from her cheek, a process that is then likened to the aftermath of the oil spill. The text explains:

Unless you look long and hard, you probably won't notice her beauty mark is missing. Without it, the picture may have changed, but her beauty hasn't. The same is true of Alaska. The oil spill may have temporarily changed a small part of the picture, but the things you come here to see and do are as beautiful as ever.

Designed to minimize the damaging effects of the oil spill, the ad presents the spill as a blemish, as if it were merely a small aspect of a larger picture, a calculated act instead of an environmental disaster. Through this analogy, the tourist industry portrays the oil spill as changing only a "small part of the picture," causing only "temporary changes" to the wildlife and environment which are supposedly barely noticeable to visitors. The lack depicted here in the form of Marilyn Monroe's missing beauty mark is regarded as inconsequential, a loss that will hardly be registered by viewers. The ad, however, reverses what had actually taken place after the disaster: in a more logical analogy, the beauty mark should become larger, encompassing a greater area of Monroe's face, rather than simply disappearing with the aid of an artist's airbrush.

As Donna Haraway has suggested, much is at stake in our judgments about nature, in what counts as nature or culture, and who gets to inhabit natural categories. Arguments from nature are often absolutely central to larger social debates, especially those concerned with race, gender, and class.[29] In this way, the ad taps into contemporary race and gender discourses, engaging its meaning by employing not just any Hollywood film star, but Marilyn Monroe, the nostalgic icon of white femininity and glamour during the 1950s. This use of an unambiguously white actress as the embodiment of the Alaskan landscape ultimately effaces the state's native populations by naturalizing whiteness as the proper sign of the racialized landscape.[30] The advertisement also advances problematic notions of gender by presenting Monroe as an enticing come-on, a figure beckoning readers to enjoy what she has to offer. According to the text, the movie star's attraction lies in her seemingly abundant sexuality, a quality apparently mirrored in Alaska, whose own lush landscapes indicate that the region is safe from ever being completely destroyed. In other words, the endless abundance associated with both entities suggests that there's enough of Alaska and Marilyn Monroe for everyone to enjoy.

The decision to enlist the actress in efforts to reglamourize Alaska may seem an odd choice for an ad campaign charged with the task of promoting a landscape in need of renewal. After all, not only has Marilyn Monroe's own image been threatened by scandals over the years, but her natural beauty was also highly constructed. Yet, in spite of or perhaps because of it all, Monroe continues to be regarded as desirable, a legend who survives in American minds despite her death over three decades ago. Obviously the industry hopes the same will be true of Alaska, for according to the ad, the cleanup efforts following the spill enable visitors to experience what they have always enjoyed about the region. "From the Kenai Peninsula to Ketchikan, Mt. McKinley to Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound, Alaska is still home to spectacular fishing, plentiful wildlife and untold adventure. So come to Alaska this summer. And see one of the most beautiful faces on earth."

What is likewise intriguing about the ad are the ways it foregrounds how U.S. expansionist concerns continue to shape the region in the dominant national imagination. By suggesting that Alaska's beauty has been restored during cleanup, the advertisement displays aspects of what John McClure calls "redemptive unmapping," a response arising in the era of late imperialism when the West began to perceive that new global conquests were no longer available to be claimed. Redemptive unmapping enables the West to empty landscapes of their signs, not in an effort to leave them untouched, but in order to recreate the conditions for their own remappings. The tourist ad engages this process by erasing Marilyn Monroe's beauty mark and the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In describing these marks as coming off rather than going on, the ad seeks to return the landscape to a prediscursive moment, to a time when "untold adventures" and other acts of exploration may still be experienced. The ad campaign thus contributes to a project of unmapping by allowing Euro-Americans the opportunity to wipe the slate clean so that they can secure the means for their own inscriptions in the present era.[31]

Because much of the post-disaster news coverage engaged in a project of remapping that obscured the area's history of development, few people noted that the outcry following the spill in some ways mirrored responses that surfaced during the eighteenth century when European explorers sailed to the area and found that, even then, the region was not the unspoiled terrain they sought. In 1778, for instance, when Captain James Cook arrived off the coast of present-day Alaska at a site he later named "Prince William's Sound," the British explorer remarked that the land already showed signs of European contact. During his stay in the area, Cook noted that the natives he encountered appeared familiar with western goods even though to his knowledge they had never had direct contact with Europeans. According to Cook, the natives indicated their desire for trade but also explained that they already had a surplus of certain European goods such as copper, by "pointing to their weapons, as if to say, that having so much of this metal for their own, they wanted no more."[32] In his travel account, Cook thus expressed his dismay that the region and the people he encountered had already been altered by the political economy of European expansion before any of the natives had actually met its representatives in the flesh.

A decade later, the British explorer George Vancouver returned to Prince William Sound, noting that great changes had taken place since his previous voyage with Cook. Vancouver noted, for instance, that during his surveying excursions, "not a single sea otter and but very few whales and seals had been seen." He also remarked that "Many trees had been cut down since these regions had been first visited by Europeans," a sign indicated "by the visible effects of the axe and saw."[33] As information about European voyages in Prince William Sound became public during the latter part of the eighteenth century, other explorers quickly arrived in the region, hoping to reap benefits from the area's natural resources. Traffic off the coast of Alaska soon reached such heights that one English commander who sailed to nearby Cook Inlet in 1786 responded to the sight of other explorers with dismay, noting that "some nation or other had got to this place before us, which mortified me not a little!"[34] Another British explorer who arrived in Prince William Sound the following summer also bitterly remarked that the presence of other European merchants in the region served as a "coup de grace to my future Prospect of Success in this line of Life."[35]

Like their eighteenth-century predecessors, today's travelers continue to lament their belated arrival in the North, and in the spring of 1992, one post-spill tourist ad tried to capitalize on this anxiety. Appearing in popular magazines three years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, a World Explorer Cruiseline advertisement described Alaska as the "final American frontier," a place that is "meant to be explored." The cruiseline promised to provide tourists who sail on the "S.S. Universe" a "full . . . 14-day adventure for the heart, mind and soul." Adopting the rhetoric of discovery and exploration, the cruise ship ad captures once again how depictions of Alaska often rely on frontier nostalgia and anxieties of belatedness, advancing ideas about the region as a site for adventure and intrigue in the modern era.[36]

Although the spill marked an important rupture in the nation's ideas about Alaska, five years after the spill, tourism industry figures showed that travel to Alaska actually increased dramatically in the years following the disaster, with the number of tourists visiting the state on cruise ships alone rising more than 50 percent.[37] Rather than curtailing interest in Alaska, the 1989 disaster may have had the opposite effect, as news coverage of the spill made travelers more anxious to visit the Last Frontier. During the first months following the disaster, some tourist agencies even advised travelers to book ahead for passages to Alaska in the following summer.[38] The desire to visit the state thus remained powerful even after the Exxon Valdez disaster complicated the region's status as a wilderness area. The spill, in fact, may have accelerated tourists' sense of urgency to visit Alaska as the environmental catastrophe itself became incorporated into the spectacle of the Last Frontier.[39]

Green Ideology

Although Alaska has been valued, appreciated, and marketed to potential consumers as a "state of nature," this study proceeds with the assumption that the region should be understood less as a natural terrain than a socially constituted entity. In this sense, Alaska's status as a natural wilderness area might be best understood as a sign of its intense and even unrelenting cultural production. In an era facing a rapid depletion of natural resources, places regarded as wilderness areas typically serve important national functions. Wilderness regions are often regarded as sanctuaries, as sites that allow us to escape from the realm of human activity. The concept of wilderness, however, needs to be reassessed, for, as several critics tell us, the very project of assigning certain areas wilderness status inevitably requires that they become incorporated into the domain of culture, an act that transforms wild areas into products of human design.[40] We see this process take place today as wilderness itself has become a strong growth industry, a valuable commodity that may be packaged, marketed, and sold in a postmodern era nostalgic for pristine or unspoiled lands.[41] Far from being places of escape from the social world, wilderness areas are also governed by unwritten but very real rules that dictate the types of behavior acceptable in those spaces. In that sense, the social protocols associated with wilderness regions are often as detailed and elaborate as those associated with urban spaces.

During the aftermath of the disaster, the region and the nation's environmental health appeared grim, and the spill seemed most disturbing because it occurred in one of the nation's most valuable wilderness areas. In an age of ecology, natural sites are assumed to have greater value than places that are lived in, and certain areas themselves become invented and reinvented as wilderness sites. Such was the case with Alaska during the wake of the disaster. The project of restoring the landscape to a pristine state (as if that were even possible) resulted in various misguided efforts, one of which included the use of highly toxic chemicals to break down oil deposits in the ocean. Many biologists have since argued that these cleanup attempts actually had the opposite effect on the region's ecosystem, as some of the chemicals used proved to be even more damaging to marine life than the oil itself.[42] Efforts to clean up the spill also contributed to the destruction of the ecosystem in other ways by creating tremendous amounts of waste materials, including what one journalist called "ten tons of toxic garbage," much of which was burned in incinerators that polluted nearby Valdez.[43] It was estimated, too, that the spill ultimately created a rise in the GNP as more than $2 billion was spent on cleanup and another $40 billion on other damages incurred as a result of air pollution, amounts that would probably not have been reached had the disaster taken place in a less scenic part of the country.[44]

Yet if nothing else, the spill helped catapult environmentalism to a national public awareness with a force greater perhaps than even twenty years of Earth Day celebrations. The nation's response to the disaster, however, reveals the importance of examining how nature advocacy is constituted and absorbed into national culture. Timothy W. Luke argues that the popularity of environmentalism may not be the victory many would like it to be, but suggests instead that the recent "greening" of America might be better understood as a project orchestrated in large part by multinational corporations. After confronting a fierce battle waged by environmentalists during the 1970s, many companies began to cash in on the popularity of the green movement, mounting their own environmental strategies aimed at domesticating ecological radicalism. By the late 1980s, a new rhetoric of reform emerged which suggested that major corporations were no longer primarily responsible for pollution; instead, each individual consumer was now a major factor in determining the environmental health of the planet. As a result, what once had been radical environmental critiques were now reduced to a corporate ideology of green consumerism. The shift away from corporations has led to the emergence of what Luke calls an "ecological subject," a green consumer whose everyday economic activities now somehow play a crucial role in deciding Earth's fate.[45] Luke specifically points to the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as an important moment in the production of this ecological subject.[46] Although the disaster had a great national impact, playing a central role in bringing environmental awareness to public attention, the event marked another turning point as Exxon's insidious and successful move to appropriate environmental discourses also made concerns about nature appear to be a politically safe project. For any study interested in examining the contours of U.S. environmental struggles, then, it becomes important to investigate the institutions and groups involved in advocating nature as well as the cultural work that is performed in the process.

A word about language is in order here. Because environmental awareness has long been incorporated into a national sense of self, it becomes important to examine what Langdon Winner calls "the text of nature," the ways social concerns shape nature as an object of interest in its own right.[47] Andrew Ross argues a similar point, calling attention to the ways the concept of nature operates as the "ultimate people-pleaser"; the sheer ease with which concerns about nature are disseminated in culture, often by the very forces associated with environmental destruction, should warn us about how nature can be made to speak for almost any political project.[48] Fears about the destruction of nature that reached a peak after the Exxon Valdez disaster must therefore be examined as part of a larger set of beliefs structuring national culture and national terrain. The environmental anxieties about Alaska following the spill highlight how frontier nostalgia and the yearning for natural plentitude continue to shape responses to North American landscapes in the present era.

Also, because landscapes are not naturally given, but rather are socially constituted entities whose meanings shift as the result of specific social practices, concepts such as the Last Frontier must be investigated for the ideologies they encode and the cultural work they perform. David W. Noble suggests that the frontier serves an important function in European American constructions of national identity. Envisioned as the "threshold . . . between a decadent Europe and a vital America," the concept enabled the ascendance of "American space" with its possibilities of renewal over "European time" with its inevitable forces of corruption. According to this national narrative, the North American landscape seemed to offer the United States limitless opportunities for expansion which supposedly enabled it to avoid the economic and social exhaustion other European countries faced.[49] The concept of the frontier also helped inaugurate the idea of American exceptionalism, the belief that the United States stands apart from the rest of the world as a unique national entity.[50] Amy Kaplan demonstrates that notions of American exceptionalism perform important ideological work, most notably by obscuring the study of U.S. imperialism. In depicting the United States as a unique national development, American exceptionalism forecloses the idea that the nation also engages in colonizing projects. Imperialism is thus projected onto other countries, Kaplan explains, as "something only they do and we do not."[51] In American cultural discourse, "frontier" often appears in the place of "empire," serving as a euphemism for the nation's acquisitionist activities. Europe may have empire, the story goes, but the United States has frontier, a term intended to signify a more politically innocent project. The frontier therefore functions as a complex rhetorical strategy that simultaneously advances the United States' desires for and denial of empire.[52]

During a time when the nation's projects of westward expansion and course of empire are being examined for their ideologies of conquest, frontier discourses are also undergoing reconsideration. In a discussion of Alaska's frontier status, Eric Heyne likewise suggests that we regard the frontier as a "rich textual" concept, a discursive space that is constantly reinvented as an aspect of the national obsession with exploration and conquest.[53] Michel Foucault likewise points out that many of our spatial metaphors including "region," "province," and "field" operate within a political realm. He reminds us, for instance, that "region" derives from "regere" which means to command, that "province" derives from "vincere" which refers to a conquered territory, and that "field" evokes the battlefield itself. One could also add "frontier" to this list, noting the way it refers to the front line of battle. For Foucault, the pervasiveness of these landscape tropes is a reminder of how the military has managed to "inscribe itself on the material soil and within forms of discourse."[54]

Because the concept of "wilderness" is also closely associated with Alaska in the dominant American imagination yet remains a highly contested word among scholars and activists, I also find it important to analyze the multiple meanings and ideologies embedded in this term. Throughout this study, I argue that the concept of wilderness, so central to the mainstream environmental movement, expresses assumptions about the national landscape that are exclusive to a Euro-American point of view. As environmental scholars contend, notions of a pristine or untouched natural landscape devoid of any human contact operate as an asocial concept that can only emerge by ignoring the history of native peoples in North America.[55] Many historians, in fact, now recognize that wilderness regions might be better understood as rural spaces, sparcely inhabited lands that are nevertheless occupied by human populations.[56] In this study, then, I use the term wilderness to speak of a socially constituted space that says more about the making of a Euro-American self than it does about any actual geographical landscape.[57]

Nature's State raises a series of questions about the nation's environmental concerns for Alaska. What is the dominant history of our thinking about nature, for instance, and how did this understanding affect the ways Americans responded to an event such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill? How did Alaska emerge as a pristine site that somehow has only recently been contaminated by human activity, and what purpose does this construction serve in the national imaginary? And finally, in what ways do popular understandings of Alaska as a wilderness area or Last Frontier actually share a great deal with other national narratives about the environment, especially with myths about the limitless abundance of the North American landscape? To answer these questions, I examine how ideas about nature connect to and help shape national identity, arguing that environmental anxieties have dominated thinking about Alaska from the time the United States purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. Many environmental historians point out that the ecological demise stemming from western expansion gave rise to an American environmental movement, with debates over resource development and water rights forming some of the movement's first concerns.[58] While this argument may lead us to adopt a narrowly defined understanding of environmentalism that overlooks struggles taking place in urban places located outside the West or that disregards the efforts of American Indians and other communities of color whose ecologies have not been central to the national effort, it is nevertheless important to investigate how certain social developments in the American West nevertheless enabled a particular type of environmental thinking to emerge.

Because the conquest of Alaska through discourses of expansion and environmentalism operates as an important chapter in U.S. history, debates about the Alaskan landscape may be investigated for the ways they serve larger national enterprises. In this way, the cultural production and reception of nature in the nation's spatial imagination becomes a crucial issue to examine in understanding Alaska. As Raymond Williams once explained, the idea of nature "always contains an extraordinary amount of human history."[59] While it often goes unnoticed, nature is perhaps culture's best invention. In the spirit of Williams, then, Nature's State examines how ideas about the environment shape texts about Alaska, and at the same time help constitute Alaska as a text in its own right.

The title of this book recalls the work of Perry Miller, who half a century ago influenced the direction and development of American Studies, writing one of the field's landmark books, Nature's Nation. In his study, Miller described Nature as the "official faith of the United States," a major premise for white national self-consciousness.[60] The Euro-American identification of Nature with virtue, he argued, linked the very health and personality of the country to the fate of its landscape, and in doing so, set in play a whole series of problems that still plague national consciousness, from beliefs in an American exceptional identity to the persistant bias against urban spaces and urban culture in national life.[61] Although this "misguided cult of Nature" may have little real impact on how Euro-Americans actually behave toward the natural world, Miller pointed out that it nevertheless has had everything to do with how the populace understands its own conduct in the world. Miller thus warned about the need to assess what he regarded as the "sinister" dynamics operating behind national conceptions of Nature.[62]

Miller's observations are important to keep in mind in assessing depictions of Alaska as the Last Frontier. My aim in this book, then, is to address how the thinking that fetishizes Alaska as a pristine natural space connects to larger national preoccupations, making the region an important northern extension of "nature's nation." As scholars in environmental cultural studies contend, nature is always a highly contested entity that never merely speaks for itself. Geographer David Harvey argues along these lines, focusing in particular on the ways nature has always been central to processes of nation formation; as he points out, "nationalism without some appeal to environmental imagery and identity is a most unlikely configuration."[63] From the United States' purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and beyond, ideas of nature have created visions of an American past and future, establishing in the process a link between expansion and concerns for nature, and between nature and national identity.

Excerpted from Nature's State by Susan Kollin. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

A thoroughly researched and well-argued book on the role that Alaska has played in the national psyche. . . . Highly recommended for those wishing to build an understanding of the way Alaska and the concept of wilderness have influenced the American concept of self.—Choice

Kollin's well-organized study uses a wide array of literary and historical sources to explore the ways that Alaska was transformed from Seward's Folly into a 'fetishized' pristine nature that functions as an environmental safety valve for modern Americans. . . . An insightful and well-written book that raises important questions about environmentalism and national identity that transcend Alaska.—Journal of American History

Kollin's book shows how Alaska has been constituted as a natural object, leaving no doubt that the 'natural wonder' of Alaska is a deeply cultural phenomenon. Her analysis is careful and prudent, but it's also lively and persuasive. Nature's State should enter the genre as a leading example of cultural inquiry into natural contexts.—Bill Chaloupka, University of Montana, Missoula

Based on scholarship in a wide variety of fields, from postcolonial studies to the environmental justice movement, attentive to the concerns of Native writers, Nature's State is an eminently readable book. Kollin is particularly insightful in exploring both connections and disjunctions between the imaginary and the historical as she analyzes how popular imagery associated with Alaska generates larger meanings about the relationship between the myths of national identity formation and the 'reality' of how the United States has 'developed' its natural resources. With its focus on the rhetoric of nature advocacy and justifications for 'multiple uses' and its analysis of the formation of environmental policy, Nature's State is a particularly timely book as government officials push increased oil drilling in designated wilderness areas.—Melody Graulich, editor, Western American Literature

Kollin examines how accurate the meanings and values assigned to Alaska have been. . . . The literature of the American West, women's studies, environmental studies, and multicultural literature. All of those fields contribute to Nature's State, in which the approaches of environmental studies and cultural studies merge.—Chronicle of Higher Education

Lively and well-written. . . . A welcome addition to the field of cultural studies, and overall an engaging and informative read.—Environmental History

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