Last month, my friend Michael sent me an envelope containing 15 black and white photos of dead salmon, mostly bone, some sand and gravel. He asked for advice: who should get fish heads? Does this one, with the decaying fin pointed upward and the mouth trapped in a fishy snarl, look like its flipping off the camera? Good. This needs to happen before the legislative session ends. How are artists different than politicians? Will anything come of it? We’re not going to save Bristol Bay with this. Is this all a waste of time? “Well, yes,” i said, because what else could it be but a waste of time once you throw in a verb like “save” and a place, any place, that’s not already ranked in terms of revenue but could be someday. “But you’ll always have been the guy who sent fish heads to Don Young. And that’s something, isn’t it?”
Over the weekend, i skied on a frozen river that might be dammed, and after the race, ate salmon with friends. Race organizers had joined forces with the people working to stop the dam, and placed signs at intervals along the trail asking dichotomous questions of salmon and skiers: a big wild river or a little expensive energy? Would you rather waste money or respect nature? There was one sign about LED bulbs, another about earthquakes, and something about the Titanic. The rhetoric annoyed me, but the need for the rhetoric annoyed me more, and my own cynicism even more than that. Over dinner, our friend who served the salmon and helped organize the race said she wondered if people were unhappy to see the race politicized. And i wondered about the people who could ski on a river and not think at least a little bit about the river, and if that’s political or if it’s only showing the slightest awareness of your surroundings. Is it political to make note of whether your feet rest on ice or water, snow or bare ground?
“The dam’s not gonna happen. Some people are saying they’re only pushing it to distract us from Bristol Bay,” my friend said. As if “we” can only focus on one place. As if we can even focus on one place. As if looking skyward, or groundward, upstream or downstream are politically separate acts. All our internal maps are fragmented and in constant shift.
Understanding and engaging with the legislative process doesn’t seem to translate much into desired outcome so we might as well go skiing or make art. Art is outcome. And process. Sometimes futile lawsuits against government entities are the right course of action (see page 2), just so you can always say you did it; maybe that’s a kind of artistic process too…? I’ve never really had reason to expect “results,” or at least results that reflected the work put in.
I suppose we are all distracted. Hopelessly distracted. I refuse to answer a question like “would you rather have a wild river or cheap energy.” I would rather have a conversation. I would rather go for a ski. I would rather arrange photos of dead fish in a half-circle around me on the floor and think about how river gravel feels on bare feet. Who’s asking the questions here? Where am i supposed to be looking? Upriver? Bristol Bay? Juneau? Ha. Google maps? Have i mentioned that online petitions make me cry sometimes? Can we talk about this? It would be…something.
(title: Anne Carson)