In the summer, I enjoy biking with family and friends and some of those friends take pedaling pretty seriously. They will often bike 50 to 100 miles without thinking twice about it. My guest today is writer Daryl Farmer. His book Bicycling Beyond the Divide recounts a 5,000 mile trek he made, not once, but twice. It is a lyrical and engaging narrative that explores the American West as well as the author’s emotional geography. It won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Farmer also teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and he has a recently published collection of short stories entitled Where We Land. The collection displays Farmer’s keen ear for dialogue, ability to conjure up arresting characters and deploy them in interesting stories.
Farmer recently received an Alaska Literary Award and an artist’s residency to write in Iceland. I asked him to begin our discussion by reading from his first book: Bicycling Beyond the Divide.
I first heard Ross Coen before I met him. This was years ago at KUAC. Ross was a volunteer host and I was immediately caught by his engaging on-air presence and terrific set of pipes. When I actually met him I was further impressed by his intelligence and great sense of humor. As so often happens at public radio stations, Ross moved on and I lost track of him. That was until about five years ago when I spotted a copy of his book The Long View on the shelves of a local book store. When I cracked the book open I found a wide selection of short essays on Alaska’s history, all of them informative and exhibiting the same engaging style as his on-air hosting.
Right now, Ross is finishing up a PhD in History from the University of Washington in Seattle, but he already has publication credits any tenured professor would envy. Besides academic articles he is the author of two other books: Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil, which charts the voyage of the oil tanker SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage, and Fu-go that explores high altitude balloon bombs the Japanese sent aloft towards the U.S. during World War Two. Fu-go also sparked a delightfulRadiolab episode that explores the story.
I caught up with Ross last month when he was giving a talk about who owns Alaska’s history. So I began by asking him if today there was a definitive historical narrative to own.
A combination of computer issues and the holidays put Northern Soundings on hold for a while, but I think this episode is particularly timely. Sunday, in her Golden Globes award acceptance speech, actor Meryl Steep spoke about her art and industry. In part she said:
“You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.”
Her words resonated with me, and I suspect with my guest today. Leonard Kamerling has crafted some of the most deeply penetrating documentary films about Alaska Native Culture. He is also Curator of Film for the University of Alaska Museum of the North, and a professor of English at theUniversity of Alaska Fairbanks. Perhaps his best known film The Drums of Winter is in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. However, he’s created other wonderful examinations of cultures and personalities. Len’s most recent work, Changa Revisited looks at the life of a Masai tribesman over the course of 30 years. It recently garnered a win at an international film festival in Romania. I began our discussion by asking him about the film and the festival.
I never saw my mother perform, but I have pictures of her in high school and college productions and even a few from an amateur theater group in San Francisco she joined when she first arrived. Later, her love for drama, musicals and grand opera found expression in the music we listened to at home and the productions she took me to as a boy. As a consequence I also was drawn to theater in high school and college. And when I moved to Fairbanks I also performed for a time in local productions. All of this is by way of saying I can’t remember a time when theater wasn’t a part of my life.
It is often remarked for a town our size, Fairbanks is blessed with a flourishing arts community. This is true theatrically, as well. Besides wonderfully gifted actors, directors, set and costume designers we have several thoughtful and passionate playwrights, perhaps foremost is Anne Hanley. [Here is Anne’s page.] Her most recent production The Winter Bear examines the issue of cultural identity and village suicides. The play draws on myth and history: one of the play’s key characters is the late Sydney Huntington of Galena and draws on his book Shadows on the Koyukuk. [You can find out more about the project here.]When I invited Anne on Northern Soundings, I was pleased to learn her love of theater also sprouted from childhood experience.
The longest car ride I can remember was the 15 minutes it took me to drive Julie and our newborn son Evan home from the hospital. It was an afternoon in late October, and small flakes of snow descended in the dimming light. Every flake seemed a potential threat, diminishing my vision or compromising the road. Admittedly, I was a little wound up; all I could think about was getting them home safely.
I share that story because my guest today is poet and essayist Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. She and her husband TJ faced an experience every parent dreads, suddenly discovering their child has a potentially life-threatening disease. Today, on Northern Soundings she talks about that and about her award winning collection of poems Steam Laundry which examines the lives of historical figure struggling to live during the Yukon and Fairbanks gold stampedes.
Nicole and I attended the graduate writing program at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and I remember vividly an essay of hers KUAC broadcast about freezing blueberries. Her voice, both on the page and in her delivery, was distinctive, vivid and wry.
That was more than a decade ago. Lately, Nicole has been writing about teaching, and I started our discussion by asking if teaching had always been a goal.
Earlier this year KUAC’s newsroom received a substantially sized box. Since we normally don’t get packages delivered to us, we opened it with something like the anticipation of Christmas morning. Inside was a 1200 page tome called Alaska Politics and Public Policy. A quick glance through the table of contents revealed amazingly detailed chapters on every conceivable topic about our state. Moreover, each chapter began with an overview of the subject followed by more comprehensive analysis.
Clive Thomas, the book’s editor and chief author, says he designed the chapters that way so newsrooms and political aides could quickly get an overview of a subject and then delve into details as needed. Thomas is now retired, but he taught political science at the University of Alaska Southeast for years. He also started an influential statewide legislative internship program.
In September, I had a chance to interview Thomas when he was in Fairbanks. From our talk I generated a news story. But I recognized our conversation deserved more attention, especially in this divisive political season. With KUAC’s permission, I air it now on Northern Soundings. I began by ask him about his background and how he got interested in politics.
Whenever I’ve skied the 50K Sonot Kkaazoot, no matter the weather, I feel like it’s more a vision quest, than a race. Towards the end, as I’m limping down the Chena River towards the finish line, I expect to see a bison head materialize in front of me and offer some profound insight, something along the lines of “Don’t do this again.”
Endurance athlete Bad Bob Baker founded the race and for him 50K must seem like an appetizer before the main course. He’s skied more than a thousand miles several times: along the Iditarod Sled Dog Race trail and along the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race course.
But as you’ll hear, a recent heart attack has brought him a new found appreciation of life and the limits of endurance. I began our discussion by asking about how he met his wife Sharon, who can often be found skiing right alongside Bob and volunteering with him at ski and track events.
If you want more information about the Sonot Kkaazoot and “Bad Bob” go to sonotkkaazoot.org
I’m still fairly new to cross-country skiing, but one name I learned early on was that of endurance athlete Bob Baker. First I was told, he’s known as “Bad Bob.” Second, I learned for a long time he dominated endurance skiing events, such skiing the thousand mile courses of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races. He is the founder and longtime organizer of the Sonot Kkaazoot, Fairbanks’ 50 kilometer spring time Nordic Ski event. Lastly, he’s participated in the grueling Equinox Marathon 38 times, this year most recently.
But this year was different. As you’ll hear, Bob suffered a massive heart attack running a different event three months before the Equinox. He collapsed without a pulse after finishing first in his heat in the Jim Loftus Mile. Luckily several physicians and a defibrillator were handy. After a successful bypass surgery, many thought he’d sit out the Equinox this year. But that isn’t how Bad Bob Baker rolls.
As I have come to know him in the last few years, I also discovered he’s tied into a remarkably tight knit network of friends. Many of those friendships were forged at Lathrop High School in the early 70s. On top of that foundation, he and his wife Sharon can be found volunteering at most of the youth track and ski events, encouraging new generations of athletes.
In this first of a two-part discussion, I began by asking Bad Bob about crossing the finish line at this year’s Equinox.
I learned this week that University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions posted the video of my conversation with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
It was a remarkable event, and I feel quite honored I was part of it. While I was prepared for her to get up from her chair and wander the Davis Concert Hall, it was a first for me to lose a guest in the shadows. At some points I was casting questions into the void; at least that’s what it seemed, with the spotlights in my eyes and her having passed into the darker recesses of the auditorium. Nevertheless, Justice Sotomayor quite captivated the audience as she roamed up and down the aisles, shaking hands and exchanging a few words here and there. Her responses to questions were thoughtful, of course, but also delivered like a gentle rabbinic scholar combined with a wise aunt.
It is that combination of humanity and thoughtfulness her memoir My Beloved World exhibits. It proved so helpful to me in preparation for the interview. In it, Sotomayor displays a gift for drawing vivid portraits of family and friends and providing gripping descriptions of her hardscrabble childhood. Often many of her scenes put me in mind of passages from Dickens. I recommend it.
In any case, I’m glad the video is finally available. I hope you enjoy it.
Dancing into the Dark by Kesler Woodward. Used by permission.
If you recall, several episodes back I featured a collaborative project and discussion between the poet Peggy Shumaker and the painter Kesler Woodward. Today I talk with Kes about another collaboration: OneTree Alaska at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The program attempts to engage young people and adults to reflect on their ecological environment. To do that, it draws on a collection of disciplines including science, technology, engineering and math. Perhaps most importantly, for today’s show, the local group also draws on the arts; and this is where Kes comes in. The boreal forest is an obvious point of departure for OneTree Alaska, and Kes has a reputation as one of Alaska’s premier landscape painters. His portraits of birch trees are particularly prized. This Friday OneTree Alaska is hosting an open house featuring paintings by Kes. I thought the event offered a wonderful opportunity to talk with Kes about his work and OneTree Alaska.