My sister Julie and I are looking forward to a proposed months-long visit in 2022 from a second cousin twice removed, a hard-working gal and recent high school graduate who has spent just enough time here to have some slight intimation about what she’s plunging into. However, I am less confident about her suggested thesis on the sustainability of our Bush life.
By “sustainable” I suppose she means living in a way that eliminates or at least greatly reduces the deep and far-reaching impact most individuals have on our only inhabitable planet, whether from plastics contaminating the ocean, agricultural runoff creating dead zones, or burning of fuel that both pollutes and drives up carbon dioxide levels leading to subsequent disastrous weather events.
It is true that we obtain much of our food locally, whether fish, moose and other game, home-raised chickens, or garden vegetables, wild plants and berries.
Running a gill net for fish supplies provides sustenance for the dog team as well as ourselves, and our hardy little Icelandic horses free-range most of the year. Locally-harvested, renewable firewood heats our home, solar power contributes to much of our electrical requirements, and a stream 200 feet from our house fulfills water requirements.
People like the idea of living in a sustainable fashion, “off the land.” It’s “what Bush folks do.” But while I find the harvest of local supplies to be immeasurably rewarding and fulfilling, we’ve never lived exclusively off the land. Not only that, non-local food, animal feed, and other supplies must not only be transported thousands of miles from the supplier to Interior Alaska, but then travel the last 150 miles by inefficient small aircraft.
Dog-powered transportation may seem like a sustainable method of travel. Powered by locally-caught fish, self-repairing, and producing their own replacements, our sled dogs have undeniably hauled us for thousands of miles over the decades. But even during more fruitful fishing years, our nets rarely supply more than enough to make up the protein needs of our 12 to 15 dogs. Rounding out their diet requires nearly a ton of rice and 20 forty-pound buckets of fat, not to mention the ton of commercial dog food necessary most years to fill out a lack of piscatorial provisions.
And those home-grown chickens? We import several hundred pounds of feed to raise a dozen or so fryers and roasters. Eating commercially-raised fowl would probably be more sustainable and certainly cheaper, if less nutritious and humane. Even our two aggressively-foraging horses require a ton of feed to see them through several months of deep snow.
Again, whether rice, fat or commercial feed, it all (excepting some Alaska-grown horse chow) travels from the lower 48 to Alaska, followed by that last gas-guzzling flight to reach the bush. That is after being commercially produced often with the aid of herbicides and pesticides, inorganic fertilizers and hormones, much of which degrades and pollutes the world in an unsustainable manner. Commercial farmland additionally takes up land that might otherwise be wilderness which could provide other lucky folks with meat, fish, furs, and other wild harvests.
Roughly half of our own food comes directly from the land, yet even that requires outside supplies. Since we don’t produce and save our own seeds, they must be grown elsewhere and flown in. The tiller burns gas and oil, and requires periodic replacing. Hoes and rakes, shovels and wheel barrows, all flew in after being manufactured elsewhere.
Then produce requires preserving. Sugar and pectin prove nearly as invaluable as berries in jam-making. Pickling needs glass jars with lids and bands as well as vinegar, sugar and salt. Freezing, which preserves the bulk of our produce, means burning propane to heat blanching water, plastic bags for storage, and propane or electricity to power freezers.
Yep, while much of that power comes from the sun, and even with a new upgraded battery system, we need a gas-powered generator for cloudy periods. In addition to a small electric freezer, we have a propane freezer at home, and a huge chest freezer six miles away powered by the community power plant. That all involves imported fuel.
If the munificent land provides half our food (a rough approximation at best), then the other half must be imported. Oatmeal and boxed cereal, peanut butter and raisins, sugar and mayonnaise, evaporated milk and chocolate and the odd pack of hot dogs, butter and sour cream (who wants home-grown borscht without that sour cream?) barely scratch the surface of our 5-page master grocery list. Whether mail-ordered from Fred Meyers or boxed up and mailed during rare trips to the City, it all was raised elsewhere, hauled to Fairbanks, and flown to the bush.
Even our gas requires fuel to deliver from Fairbanks, much less the distant refineries in the States. Dogs power us through much of the winter, but the snowmachine and, during ice-free months, a gas-powered outboard, provide fast and efficient if less sustainable transportation.
Moose meat may seem free, but even it requires a bullet or two (or a box, if we actually invest in some pre-hunting target practice), plus gas and oil for the outboard, not to mention wear-and-tear on equipment from rifles and tents to our increasingly-decrepit meat shed.
Clothes, nails, sewing needles, pie pans, books, chain saws, printer ink — the list of myriad supplies we cannot obtain from locally-grown sources goes on and on.
Even in prehistoric times some precious items — obsidian, and likely shells and other marine products — had to be imported over hundreds of miles, although back then it would have done more sustainably by human power.
In a literal sense we are heavily reliant upon local resources. But sadly, thinking holistically, living a sustainable life? — eh, like most folks these days, not so much. I hope our second cousin twice removed is not too disappointed.