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Authors: Marjorie Kowalski Cole

Correcting the Landscape

BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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Correcting the Landscape

A Novel

Marjorie Kowalski Cole

Este libro se dedica a Patricio
.

Contents

Prologue

I AM KNEE-DEEP IN STALKS OF FIREWEED below the edge…

One

SANDRA LEASURE, M.D., A WIDOWED PHYSICIAN and subscriber to my…

Two

I HAVE A USGS MAP OF ALASKA TACKED TO MY…

Three

WITHIN A FEW DAYS I DIDN'T MISS DR. Leasure's trees anymore—unless…

Four

SOMETIMES WINTER CLOSES DOWN ON FAIRBANKS like a cell door.

Five

THAT WINTER A FAIRBANKS LEGISLATOR DOWN in Juneau proposed opening…

Six

THE NEXT FRIDAY, THE FIRST MORNING OF the big-block competition,…

Seven

JUDY FINCH'S TEAM WON SECOND PRIZE IN the large-block competition.

Eight

UNDER THE ONSLAUGHT OF PUBLIC TESTIMONY, legislators in the statehouse…

Nine

LATE THE NEXT MORNING, I HEADED FOR that duplex in…

Ten

WE WERE A SUBDUED NEWSROOM FOR a few days. Noreen…

Eleven

BACK IN THE OLD DAYS, WHEN THOUGHTS were sins, I…

Twelve

THEY SAY TO TAKE AN INVENTORY WHEN you're worried about…

Thirteen

SUMMER IN ALASKA IS FAST AND CHAOTIC, from first to…

Fourteen

TAD SULIMAN LIFTED A PILE OF IMPORTANT papers out of…

Fifteen

TAD THOUGHT I OUGHT TO GET HELP. I wasn't averse…

Sixteen

I DROVE HOME SO SUFFUSED WITH THE CHANGE in my…

Seventeen

WHAT A HELL OF A DAY. AFTER THAT late breakfast…

Eighteen

NOREEN AND SHELLEY SULIMAN ARRIVED Saturday afternoon to bail us…

 

PROLOGUE

May 1993, Fairbanks, Alaska

I
AM KNEE-DEEP IN STALKS OF FIREWEED
below the edge of the George Parks Highway southwest of Fairbanks, reaching down to wrap my gloved fingers around another beer can, another dirty chunk of packing foam. A mile to go tonight on my adopted highway, fulfilling my community service. I'm well outfitted for this job, dragging a sack that matches my International Orange vest and gloves. Since yesterday the aspen on this hillside have leafed out into puffy pale green spheres, a contrast to the evergreen triangles of the spruce trees among them.

I peel off my gloves, pull out my yellow notebook with the rainproof cover, and note the date of this observation. I'm turning into an amateur naturalist and why not? It's seven P.M. on a glorious evening and bright as noon. Nothing's kicking for attention in the back of my mind, nothing's about to go bad on me. Sometimes my lower spine stiffens up something fierce; “It's because you're carrying all that belly fat, Gus,” my sister Noreen says. She's right, as always. This duty should help.

A semi is roaring toward me from the south. Those trailers sway all over the road in a way that is terrifying when you're a solitary trashpicker in a gully below the highway. I step higher up toward the edge of the woods and brace myself for the blast of dislocated air.

This time it's a logging truck, the trailer loaded with a dozen red-tailed spruce logs headed for the railroad yard in Fairbanks, and from there to Japan. Alaskan white spruce, the anchor of this forest, heading for a chip mill. I grew up in the logging country of western Washington. In those days, lumbermen would have laughed to think of cutting the puny trees this far north for anything but fuel wood and local housing needs. They're fine trees, this is a beautiful forest, but you do have to get used to it. No behemoths north of the Alaska Range.

I write that phrase down in my book and look after the truck. Then I remember the trees on the bank of the Chena River, and Gayle Kenneally, my junior reporter, staring at me with that remarkable expectancy in her face. Holding herself in reserve. She always got my attention.

I have a confession to make.

ONE

Evolution did not intend trees to grow singly. Far more than ourselves they are social creatures, and no more natural as isolated specimens than man is as a marooned sailor or hermit
.

—J
OHN
F
OWLES
,
T
HE
T
REE

S
ANDRA LEASURE, M.D., A WIDOWED PHYSICIAN
and subscriber to my weekly newspaper, the
Fairbanks Mercury
, came home one September afternoon to her house on the Chena River where she had lived for twenty years, a few miles outside Fairbanks. She sat down at her kitchen table, turned her head as usual to take in the river, and shrieked. She jumped up and shouted in her empty house, “What happened to the trees?”

Across the river the mixed spruce-birch forest had disappeared, chewed up by heavy machinery. Chopped and splintered wood covered the ground. She looked over a sheared wasteland to the George Parks Highway. The highway had been there for years, behind the trees; suddenly it was almost in her living room.

Sandra stared at the revision of her landscape for a while before
she reached for the telephone and called us. It may seem an odd choice, to call a small weekly newspaper rather than, say, the mayor's office or the department of planning and zoning, but, she told me later, “I had to make an instant decision and I didn't want to hear a spokesperson.” Instead, she happened to get me, the editor and publisher, just putting down my pen from crossing out half an editorial that wasn't going well.

“Up and down the bank,” she told me. “The shock of my life. The trees are gone.”

I like Dr. Leasure. When I took over this newspaper a year and a half ago, she responded immediately to our call for subscribers and donors. She was also a nice doctor. My sister Noreen and I had seen her a couple of times, before she retired. Kind of woman you felt chivalrous toward, although she'd managed fine on her own in Alaska for several decades. I didn't know what to say about the trees being cut, except that for starters I'd drive on over and take a look.

I stuck my head into the newsroom to see if anyone would like to come along.

My sister Noreen, chief reporter, supply officer, and adviser, was fixed in front of a computer screen. She hammered on the keys as though it made a difference how hard you hit them. Her blue eyes had gone ice cold; she chewed her lips. Must have been working up that interview with a marine biologist on the long-term effects of the
Exxon Valdez
oil spill. I looked around for someone else.

A journalism student from the university, hired by Noreen to sell display ads for us, stood nearby noting something on the dummy that lay on the light table. Gayle Kenneally was a quiet Alaska Native, and one of those older students who have lived awhile before they decide to finish a degree. A single mother, I think Noreen told me. I didn't know Gayle well at all. She
stopped in with a couple of ads twice a week and rarely spoke, but she seemed like pleasant company. I'd seen her with a camera. Maybe she needed a subject for her photography class.

“Ms. Kenneally,” I said, a bit on the hearty side as I stepped into the room. “A story's come up. Maybe. Bring your camera today?”

She had three blue lines tattooed on her chin, above them a shy and pleasant smile. Freckles. Mixed heritage, like the rest of us.

“Yeah, I can come along,” she agreed.

“Grab an extra can of film.” I waved toward the supply cupboard. We operated hand to mouth at the
Mercury
but so rarely did our own photography that I knew there'd be film left from Noreen's last shopping trip.

My Honda wouldn't start right away. It wasn't going to make it through the winter. Gayle didn't say a word.

On Dr. Leasure's two acres, every birch tree was wrapped in chicken wire to discourage the beavers. But across the river, wood was scattered as though it had been through a grinder. The emptiness that faced us made no sense. Robbed of context, you couldn't even get angry. I stood there trying to see the land as it might have looked a day before: impossible. The look on Dr. Leasure's face, however, was unmistakable. She was moving from shock to grief. Those trees weren't coming back.

Gayle and I drove over the highway bridge and parked to walk over the cut ground. Splinters covered the earth like a suffocating blanket. Not a thing was standing. It smelled pungent, but nothing moved.

This time of year in the woods, yellow leaves fill the air. They float right off the trees at every shiver of wind as the whole place strips down for winter. But here nothing moved, and the aspen leaves on the splintered branches around us were already fading to brown. Gayle began to take photographs. She was so quiet, I al
most forgot she was with me, except that I started to hand out orders as if she couldn't think for herself. “Get one with this carnage in the foreground and the doc's house in the background,” I said. She knelt down and tried to do just that. I stared at her and realized I'd been obnoxiously barking commands.

“Gayle, thanks,” I said, when she stood up. She nodded. “The doc is a friend,” I added. “An interesting lady. She doesn't deserve this.”

“I wonder what they are going to put in here,” said Gayle.

“Well, we need to find out.” There was a moment's silence as we walked back to my car. I thought about it.

“Would you be interested?” I said.

“In what?”

“Pursuing this. Start with a few calls to the borough, find out who owns this property, call the owners, and go from there. Gather a little information. What do you think, do you have that kind of time?”

“You mean, write a story?”

“We have to find out if there is a story here, first of all.”

Maybe she felt I was bumping her up from ad sales to reporter a little too suddenly; I didn't even know how far along she was on the road toward her journalism degree. This tree slashing was clearly a case of some aggressive developer with big plans. Why not let Gayle take a stab at it, flesh out the details, find a few answers, if she wanted the job? “What do you think? You have time for this?”

“I can try,” she said, after a minute. “It's why I'm in school.”

I noticed that she didn't respond to things right away in conversation; she had her own timing. I took a closer look when we were in the car. She might have been nearing forty—she had that trembling kind of skin along her jaw, and she looked kind of savvy, too. While I drove, she rewound her film and emptied the
camera. We looked back at the clear-cut from the bridge. I was glad I could drive away from it.

Treeless, the land looked so exposed, so pathetic, no longer able to do its job of shielding us from each other. But we'd get used to it before too long—everyone but Dr. Leasure, I guess. You see a town changing so fast, you learn how short memory can be.

On the streets of Fairbanks, a few old birch and white spruce still grow here and there, prize shade plants or sentinels to be strung with Christmas lights. This far out of town, jungly forest can be found in patches along the river. A boat ride down the Chena has you drifting through ragged oases of wilderness interspersed with gravel quarries, hotels, waterfront bars, suburban homes. The river water is dark brown, opaque even, lethally cold to humans but home to beavers, ducks, kingfishers, and plenty of fish—grayling, burbot, and king salmon. Not long ago, a moss-covered barge, long abandoned, was sinking into the bank downriver from the doctor's house. The sudden peace of wild country surrounded you, removed you from the city, even just a few miles from town.

Until recently. Something's happened to this town in the past decade. Maybe it's inevitable. We've started pouring concrete again in a big way. This half-mile of trees across from Dr. Leasure's house was one of the few bits of forest left close to town, to show us where we started.

Gayle, I thought, might be a novice reporter, but maybe she'd have an interesting perspective on this land-development angle. Nice to think I was giving a student this chance, a leg up. Made me feel more upbeat as we drove back to the little house on College Road we called an office.

But then it was time to lay out the week's paper. Spread out on my desk like a hand of cards were half-finished editorials and notes on other story ideas: a local group forming to bring back
the state income tax, which had been eliminated from the Alaska Statutes by the legislature at the height of the oil boom; a proposal to offer timber concessions in the state forest; a university scientist winning a big prize for discovering that squirrels could lower their body temperature below freezing during hibernation; a scandal out at the hot springs, where a local assemblyman shot out his neighbor's TV with a Luger. What was he doing with a Luger? And the closing of our Nordstrom store downtown. According to one woman I had talked to earlier in the week, Nordstrom's departure would leave us without a good women's store for the first time in seventy or eighty years and result in the razing of our last historic building.

“Nothing but junky boutiques out in the malls,” she moaned. “I'll spend more, if they'll stay!”

Not thrilling stuff, but it was taking hold of people. It mattered. More changes coming to the character of Fairbanks.

I fanned out my stories and delighted in their range. Wednesday was the worst day of the week, for me, and the best: too much to choose from, unable to pursue everything, I wasn't blind to the wealth of it all or the privilege of my position. When I got going on bringing another issue to life, I didn't have to worry about finances or white space; I just built my picture of Fairbanks. As brave and fair as we could be. Sounds like a song, almost—what song?

Noreen had dug up a few more items. She handed me a brief article on a book that a group of conservative parents had just challenged at the public library and her interview with the visiting marine biologist, along with her proofed copy of my editorial in support of the income tax, and finally, an extra-long police blotter.

Several inches described a man who had died a couple of nights ago in the detox van while the driver was trying to pluck a
few more customers out of the alley behind the Homestead Bar on Second Avenue. Turns out the poor guy died of a bleeding ulcer, wasn't even intoxicated this time. Why, I wondered, didn't they send an ambulance for him in the first place? Could someone with a little more training have saved his life? It seemed worthy of note.

Noreen and I talked the issue through as Gayle made a few phone calls and gathered her material. She'd develop the film up at the university and stop at the borough property office the next morning, but right now, Gayle said, “I need to pick up my son.” Then she added, putting a finger on the police blotter copy, “I know him. I used to drive that van.”

“The detox van?”

“Wally Stonington, the man who died,” she said. “He's from home, from my village. You want some more information about him? Talk to the lady who runs the bead store on Third Avenue. She fed him lunch every day. I stopped driving the van a couple years ago, for that reason—made me nervous.”

“I should think so,” I said.

“Not for the reason you might think.” She shuffled back into her light cloth parka. “Made me nervous because sometimes, people were really sick, and we didn't have any way to help them. I'm not a medic. But the city thought they couldn't afford the ambulance. So they'd send us.”

Noreen and I looked at her for a minute. Gayle's timing was such that we still looked at her, even after she fell silent. I looked away.

“So, time to move on, I said to myself.”

“How long ago was that?” Noreen asked.

“Oh, my. Five years ago? I was with the Native corporation. Did a lot of things.”

“And you wrote a play,” said Noreen.

“Oh, just the one,” said Gayle.

A play? Should I express curiosity, thus indicating that I'd never heard of her play, or take this revelation in stride? But Gayle was already out the door.

“What play is that?” I asked Noreen as we turned back to the pages of the dummy.

“A sort of tragicomedy about being lost in the woods,” said Noreen. “You were working in Juneau that year. You missed a few things.”

“I've heard of that play. Did she write it?”

“She's done a lot of things, it turns out. And get this.” Noreen warmed to the delivery of intimate details. “She's been married four times.”

“No kidding.”

“How would a person manage to get married four times, plus spend a few years as a single mom, before even reaching forty?”

“We wouldn't know, I guess.” I was trying to be gentle.

“No,” said Noreen, with regret. “We wouldn't.” We didn't have much success in our love lives, Noreen and I, myself with fairly little activity and Noreen with, I thought, a bit too much. It seemed like I had stopped looking for love, and Noreen couldn't stop.

“Come on now, let's get to work,” I said, attempting to steer us away from Noreen's heartache and Gayle's interesting private life. I noted it down, though, while Noreen went right ahead and filled me in on Gayle's work history, bits and pieces she had found out over the past few weeks of running this office while I made rounds here and there. Gayle had not only written a play, which had been produced at the civic center, she had also organized cottage industries for the regional corporation, such as waxing spruce cones for export to Germany and organizing crews of homeless men to scavenge for morels in August. She ran the Head
Start office for a year. She had worked at the jail. It seems Gayle took unusual part-time jobs until she tired of them (I understood that) or until they vanished beneath her feet. Her father or mother was Athabascan, the other parent part Swedish. Gayle moved through her various cultures with enviable ease. She grew up in the village of Allakaket, Noreen said, northwest of Fairbanks. Up toward the Brooks Range.

What Gayle had to say about the man from her village who died in the detox van intrigued me.

“Why don't you call this lady at the bead shop? Or should one of us go down there?” I wondered aloud.

“Any excuse to get out of the office,” Noreen said. “I won't be kept inside of any building I don't want to be in.”

BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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