FAIRBANKS — Seventy miles southwest of Fairbanks lies the homestead that birthed poet and essayist John Meade Haines. Not physically of course — he was 23 years old when he came to Alaska — but metaphorically. Over several decades, it was that homestead and the country around it that shaped much of his writing. In his poem, “Homestead,” he wrote, “The land gave up its meaning slowly, as the sun finds day by day, a deeper place in the mountain.”
For those of you who don’t know John Haines, he was a superb poet and essayist who spent much of his adult life in Alaska. Haines and his writings were rooted in the earth. His poems and essays are often deeply introspective and filled with haunting imagery of the wilderness around him and the few humans who shared it with him.
In addition to numerous other honors he received, he was a former Port Laureate of Alaska and was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Congress.
Trained as an artist, Haines drove to Alaska in 1947, hoping to make his career as a painter. He bought a 160-acre homestead on a hillside above the Tanana River near Richardson and set about building a home.
An abandoned section of the Richardson Highway ran through his homestead, as did Gasoline Creek (so named because Richardson was one of the few places along the highway where motorists could obtain fuel). On the advice of a local sourdough, Haines salvaged planking and squared timbers from an old bridge across the creek, and built a 12-foot by 16-foot frame cabin a few hundred feet away along the down-slope edge of the abandoned right-of-way. A south-facing window-filled wannigan and enclosed entry to the east was added later.
Eventually, a string of buildings (including an old trapper’s cabin moved from Banner Creek) lined the edge of the road. The trapper’s cabin served as his workshop, and an outhouse and several storage sheds completed the line-up. On the up-slope side of the road were his garden plot and greenhouse. Dan O’Neill, a friend of Haines, told me that poet William Stafford, also one of John’s friends, once said John’s little assemblage of buildings looked “like a train coming around the curve.”
Although Haines moved to Alaska as a painter, he eventually abandoned art (when as he says, his paints froze) and took up writing. That hardly paid any bills during his early years in Alaska, so he earnestly lived the life of a homesteader — gardening, hunting, trapping, fishing and working odd jobs. It is from these experiences on the homestead that much of his writing sprang.
His success as a writer allowed him to step away from some of the duties of a homesteader, and he eventually built a small writing studio uphill from his cabin. In 1969 he sold the homestead, moving to the Lower 48. He returned to Alaska years later, living at the old homestead for a time before moving to Anchorage and then Fairbanks. He died in Fairbanks in March 2011.
On top of the ridge above his homestead there is a bench in a small south-facing clearing where Haines would sit and ponder, gazing out over the Tanana River Valley. It is here that some of his friends gathered last summer to scatter his ashes. Attached to a stone near the bench is a memorial plaque with a single line from his essay, “Spring.” It reads simply “Be still, like a stone in the sun.”
• Conversation with Dan O’Neill, long-time friend of John Haines
• “John Haines, A Poet in the Wild,” obituary in the March 5, 2011 New York Times, by Douglas Martin
• “Other Days, Selections from a Work in Progress,” essays by John Haines, 1982
• “The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer,” collected poems by John Haines, 1993
• “The Poetry of John Haines,” (the introduction to “New Poems: 1980-1988”), edited by Dana Gioia
• “The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years in the Alaska Wilderness, by John Haines, 1989
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.