Four years ago, a series of presentations by kids from Tanana galvanized the statewide Elders and Youth and Alaska Federation of Natives conferences. The young people, wearing camo-kuspuks, shared a disturbing litany of abuse, suicide, pain and addiction in their community. They were members of a local 4-H club started by my guest today. Cynthia Erickson is a store owner in Tanana. After she and her family were rocked by a sequence of suicides, she decided enough was enough. If this were Hollywood, her pluck and determination to make a difference by starting the local club would have resolved the issues into a better way of life for the young people of her village. As you’ll hear, it didn’t play out that way. After an initial flurry of concern and attention, life settled back into old patterns, and Erickson discovered the 4-H organization wasn’t the right fit for the political action she had in mind. So, Erickson started her own organization called “My Grandma’s House.” Later this month, she is organizing a family event at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. That’s followed by a healing journey down river to several Interior communities. Her effort has found support from various Native and local agencies. I spoke with Erickson last week about her drive and the speeches delivered four years ago by her kids.
Also, on the show: For most of us, mathematics beyond balancing the checkbook or calculating a tip can be abstract and intimidating. It is a subject best left to professionals. But as University of Alaska Fairbanks math professor and Northern Soundings’ Math-Guy John Gimbal tells us, that isn’t always the case. Be prepared to think in color and on an infinite plane.
And, author and neurologist Oliver Sacks died in 2015. He’s best known for his early book Awakenings, which was made into a popular movie starring Robin Williams. But Sacks also published on a wide range of topics. He always brought to his subjects, elegant prose and deep and compassionate reflections. Reviewer Frank Soos looks at several works by Sacks, including a volume published last year, River of Consciousness.
Back in the day, KUAC’s Alaska Edition would air a monthly segment with my guest today. Neal Brown had an ability to identify an aspect of the natural world, whether it was the aurora, the solstice, weather patterns or green-up, and explain some of the science driving his topic. His style was never snooty, and he always displayed an easy-going enthusiasm for the subject. Next Monday, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Summer Sessions will salute Neal with the Legacy Lecture. In fact, it is less a lecture than a video-taped conversation Neal and I had some weeks ago. The legacy salute represents just one of the many honors UAF and the UA Board of Regents have bestowed on Neal. The range of recognition isn’t surprising when you consider the many roles he has played at the school. To prepare for the legacy conversation, I visited Neal at his home overlooking Fairbanks to chat about his life and various passions.
Also on the show: summer is just around the corner. Chris Lott and Katexic Clippings is in with an appropriate word.
As regular listeners know, I periodically address the theme of perseverance. This episode has it in spades. University of Alaska Fairbanks historian and author Terrence Cole is retiring after 30 years at UAF to address his diagnosis of gastric cancer and to finish a book. His brother Dermot, a columnist, author and political commentator, has ventured into the world of blogging. Later in the show, I air the second half of my conversation with Dermot and Terrence.
I begin today with Andy Sterns a much-admired endurance athlete. Andy teaches rock climbing at UAF and has participated in events like the Iditarod as a musher and as a solo athlete in the Iditasport. More locally, he can be found on the trails in the 50K Sonot Kkaazoot ski race and Equinox Marathon. While not unusual, his participation is extraordinary in the fact he has survived two serious, debilitating accidents: One in college, when he skied head-long into a tree and was hospitalized, and again five years ago, when he was caught in an avalanche. In this second incident, after an arduous rescue, he spent more than a month in the hospital recovering from two seriously broken legs and a coma. As you’ll hear, neither accident deterred him from pursuing his love for the outdoors and physical activity.
On May 23, University of Alaska Fairbanks historian Terrence Cole will give his “Final Lecture.” Terrence is retiring from UAF to concentrate on his health and to finish a book. He is the recipient of many honors and awards, several of which he shared with his identical twin Dermot, a respected journalist and commentator of the Alaskan political landscape. Dermot has also transitioned into a new role as a blogger and columnist at large for several publications. Both are noted authors, with a long list of books to their credit. Another Cole brother also played an important role locally. Pat Cole who passed away in 2013 served the city of Fairbanks for decades in several roles including attorney and chief of staff. And all of them, including their kids, on occasion, were hosts for KUAC-FM’s Any Old Time during pledge week. I invited Dermot and Terrence into the studio to reflect on their history in Fairbanks and at UAF.
Also, on the show: Not long ago Northwoods Book Arts Guild opened a new studio with the purpose of crafting beautiful books. One of the guiding spirits behind the venture is Margo Klass an artist and an art historian. I met her in the new studio to discuss the book, the studio and the source of her own magical creations.
Pinned birds: photo courtesy of UA Museum of the North
Fairbanks is amid an annual rite of passage as thousands of migratory birds make their way farther north. Geese, ducks and swans can be spotted at various fields and ponds around town. And a well-timed pair of events at the University of Alaska Museum of the North salutes our transitional and permanent avian neighbors. On Thursday May 17, the museum celebrates the remarkable legacy of Dr. Brina Kessel, who was a passionate scientist, administrator and curator at the museum for decades. On May 10, the current curator of the museum’s bird collection Kevin Winker spoke about the unexpected importance the bird collection is having for researchers looking at more than birds.
Also, Frank Soos is professor emeritus of English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He’s also the author of several works of short stories and essays, most recently Unpleasantries: Considerations of Difficult Questions. Frank is also a regular reviewer on Northern Soundings and he’s in today to talk about a book published 50 years ago – Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night.
Former FBI director James Comey’s new memoir A Higher Loyalty has attracted both praise and condemnation. Comey lays out the argument that President Trump is “unethical and untethered to truth and institutional values.” The higher truth for Comey lies in the rule of law, which he feels is in jeopardy.
The author of another recent book on the state of our state hasn’t received nearly the same amount of attention as Comey’s. Nevertheless, Yale historian Timothy Snyder issues his own warnings. Reviewer Frank Soos looks at On Tyranny.
Recently, hundreds of graduates recieved diplomas and certificates from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Among the gowns and mortar boards, processions and speeches was a figure officially documenting the proceedings. JR Ancheta is UAF’s chief photographer and videographer. If his images show a special appreciation for the emotions of the graduates and their friends and families it might be because it wasn’t that long ago the JR was one of those receiving a diploma from the school. But his story offers a compelling case for the United States retaining a robust immigration policy.
Greg Shipman is known for his craftsmanship at University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute. He runs its machine shop that manufactures anything scientists need that can’t be had off the shelf. Last year, the shop’s reputation led a local surgeon to see if Greg’s crew would print a 3-D scale model of a boy’s femur to aid a tricky operation. What many of his colleagues on campus may not know about Greg is that he is also a serious writer with published poems, stories and plays. I recently sat down with him to find out how he balances his two passions and where he learned his craft.
Also on the show: Matthew Sturm is a frequent guest on Northern Soundings. Matthew’s the author of Finding the Arctic and he’s also our guide to some of the remarkable people and expeditions that every citizen of the Far North should know. Today we hear about Greenland’s Knud Rasmussen.
This episode wasn’t supposed to be about Earth Day. Originally, I thought I’d focus on art and literature. I spoke with painter Madara Mason about her exhibit at the UA Museum of the North. Her work sparked this episode’s Katexic Clippings. But then two surprising offers came my way. First, an independent radio producer in Minnesota Jim Gallagher offered me a wonderful portrait of Fairbanks singer, educator, and environmentalist Susan Grace. The crazy thing is, their discussion took place in East Africa. Then later in the show, I talk with author Marilyn Sigman and her new book about the ecological, cultural and historical connections found in Kachemak Bay. But I begin today’s show with the second offer to come my way last week. Guest producer John Perreault pointed out to me that the warmer temperatures in the north would soon spark a healthy and perhaps healing opportunity. Here’s his conversation about birch sap with Kimberley Maher.
Years ago, KUAC aired “The Radio Reader” where the host would read entire books a half-hour at a time. Once, the host tackled a book about Alaska, and whenever his eye and lips ran up against the town of Nenana or the Tanana River, something weirdly inflected reached our ears. The station was flooded by callers who wanted to register their indignation. If nothing else, that experience impressed on me that Alaskans are sensitive about our place names. And as guest producer John Perreault discovered, that sensitivity extends to Alaska’s First Peoples. John talks with Edward Alexander of the Gwich’in Council Internationalabout reclaiming Alaska Native place names.
Also on the show: Years ago I joined the Fairbanks North Star Borough LibraryCommission at the invitation of the library director Greg Hill. Although Greg is retired now, he continues to work with The Library Foundation and on the Guys and Gals Read program where men and women enter schools at lunchtime and read to students. The program’s aim is to instill a love of reading into the young. I talked with Greg about the program and the continued relevance of libraries in the age of “fake news.”
Some years back, Greta Johnsen, served as KUAC’s morning host. She now works for WBEZ in Chicago and she is co-host of a fun and engaging podcast called Nerdette. Recently the podcast focused on Greta’s rare genetic disease, a disease she inherited from her dad, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen. The affliction is known as Best disease, after the physician who most clearly described it. Broadly stated, Best disease is a form of macular degeneration. As serious it is, Best disease turns out to be ideal for a new genetic therapy using a technique called CRISPR. The Johnsens are subjects in a University of California, San Franciso study run by the Institute for Human Genetics.
Before talking with Jim Johnsen, I spoke with University of Alaska Fairbanks evolutionary biologist Diana Wolfabout CRISPR: how it works and what its name means.
Also on the show: Randy Zarnke is a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who specialized in diseases. His book “Alaska Tracks” is a popular profile of 30 Alaskan trappers, fishers and hunters; it’s drawn from oral histories he’d collected over the years. And this year Randy was tapped by Governor Bill Walker as Conservationist of the Year.