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Pioneers of Culture

PONDER Blog

Pioneers of Culture

Chelsea Behymer

  Temperate rainforests line the shores of Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage. 

Temperate rainforests line the shores of Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage. 

If there was one word to describe the Nature of Southeast Alaska, it is “changing.” It is a place where Naturalists and ecologists alike come to know and value living models of dynamic ecosystems. From historic logging to retreating glaciers, a variety of disturbances expose a landscape to the earliest stages of ecological development, allowing opportunity to watch part of a landscape start from scratch or at least repair itself. 

For a detailed account of ecological succession regimes in Southeast Alaska, Carstensen, Armstrong, and O’Clair’s The Nature of Southeast Alaska is a must-read! Succession is complex, involving a network of plants, animals, and elements that all work to influence the rate and sequence of events. In the words of the authors themselves, “To understand the present or predict the future, we look into the past.”

 

But Southeast Alaska is also a place of cultural disturbance. For the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes of Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian people, both the ecological and cultural communities were disturbed when the first Westerners made contact. And in some cases, the impacts of Western influence and colonization are described as cultural disaster. I am by no means an authority on these Native cultures, but it is difficult to escape taking note of something so deeply entwined with the landscape, also trying to reclaim itself. 

  On the terminal moraines left behind by the retreating Turner (above) and Mendenhall (below) glaciers, forest succession begins with soil-forming lichens, mosses, and red alder, followed by western red cedar and sitka spruce taking hold, and finally the shade-loving western hemlock fills in the gaps.

On the terminal moraines left behind by the retreating Turner (above) and Mendenhall (below) glaciers, forest succession begins with soil-forming lichens, mosses, and red alder, followed by western red cedar and sitka spruce taking hold, and finally the shade-loving western hemlock fills in the gaps.

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Like a glacial moraine sits uninhabited, seemingly lifeless for a time, the first steps of change go undetected. But tiny forms of life, most notably mosses and lichens clinging to the bare substrate are setting the foundation. Over time they will turn to soil suited for the plants that will eventually develop into forest communities. In a disturbed community of people, the process of rebuilding is even more complicated and takes more time.  

Last week, during my visit to Juneau's State of Alaska museum, I saw new roots taking hold. The majority of the place is a wonderfully chronicled and displayed account of the past. But the most striking part of the newly renovated building is stepping in to the present, in the form of a room full of modern art created by native Alaskans. In the exhibit titled “Decolonization,” the artists tell their personal stories, expressing a reclamation of a culture that is theirs. Comparing their work to that of their ancestors, who commemorated significant moments in time with totems, modern forms are not necessarily an attempt to rebuild exactly what was but to embody what is, in the wake of dramatic change. The future here has yet to be written. 

  Art is a universal, timeless expression of cultural regimes. Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, AK.

Art is a universal, timeless expression of cultural regimes. Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan, AK.

While I failed to grasp the meaning of many individual pieces, the concept of the collection as a whole reminded me of succession. Like the art itself, it is more abstract to characterize cultural succession than it is to describe ecological succession. But there are parallels. In a recovering ecological community, the early plants are called pioneers, “adapted to stressful environments.” Alaskan artists are like 'pioneers' that will ultimately set the foundation for the future of 'old-growth' re-stabilized communities of people deeply connected to this place.

I still have a lot to absorb, but I will continue to take note of people alongside plants and animals as part of the interconnected communities that make up the dynamic ecosystems of Southeast Alaska.