"What I'm after," I'd told Richard yesterday, after we both mourned the theft of the "Yes Sir" oosik from his truck, "is landscape that looks like a ghost." We were driving around Nome, scouting for musk ox; at the airport, we'd heard rumors a wedding was being delayed because there were a bunch of them standing on the lawn where the service was going to take place, but by the time we got there, there was no trace of musk ox, or even a wedding party. And although from Anvil Mountain, up by the old Defense Early Warning station that looks like a drive-in screen that only shows really paranoid science fiction movies, we could see over thousands acres of tundra, low willows, old scars in the landscape from gold works, and then the ironed flatness of the sea, not a musk ox was in sight.
I settled for taking pictures of a white butterfly on saxifrage, its wings as thin as breath.
"What I want is to understand," I told Richard, former Broadway star, former seller of freezers to Eskimos, current tour guide extraordinaire, "at least as much as I can, is what this looked like when the bridge was still there."
Because back in school, they lied to us. Or at least willfully let us misunderstand. "The Bering Land Bridge," we're told, and we all picture this strip of land maybe ten feet wide, a bunch of cave men migrating across it, squeezing to one side to let camels go the other way, everybody balancing like walking on the edge of a memory.
But the Bridge was actually more than six hundred miles, north to south, and it wasn't a bridge at all. It was just that the Bering Sea wasn't there; the Bering was a sea in waiting, was still waiting to happen. All that water that would become a wild sea was locked up tight in the ice of the last ice age, glaciers along the Alaska Range, on the far side of the Mackenzie River. And in the middle, straddling the arctic circle, this vast steppe, hiding from the rest of the world like cookie dough ice cream in the back of the freezer.
So it wasn't a matter of crossing from one continent to another, but simply an undifferentiated landscape. Asia didn't end, North America didn't begin. They were the same place.
The last entire earth. The last lost world.
That lost world had mammoths, so many that during the gold rush, miners made cabins out of bones and tusks. Mammoths are, of course, no more. That world had steppe bison, who are no more. It had scimitar cats, teeth curving like death's own scythe, who are no more. It had horses not much bigger than beagles, who are no more. Beavers the size of coffee tables, sloths the size of cars. All gone.
The ice melted, the rivers filled, the dry steppe grass was replaced by plants more adapted to wet. Trees migrated north and west, seeds carried on the last gasp of katabatic winds, pushing an entire landscape of life ahead of them.
One world gone, another moved in to take its place.
Today, maybe carrying their goody bags from the wedding, the musk ox—somewhere in their genes, the trace memory of that other place, that other time—have all moved up to the hills because it's so hot out, pushing 60 degrees. Reindeer, which were imported by a missionary, bred like roaches, and have no business at all being here, seem fine with the temperature change as they block the road, trotting purposefully away from Teller and sounding like sleigh bells.
For a moment, they are all around us. I will later spend a considerable amount of time trying to tell friends what reindeer smell like, but all I can ever come up with is that they smell like sleigh bells sound.
Beside the dirt road, streams roll into their own dead ends. From a distance, everything is either a golden brown or a golden green, but up close, it all flows like a box of melted crayons: dozens of different flowers, few bigger than a pinhead, each claiming part of the daylight.
Nothing in the landscape is more than ankle high, not the bones that we cannot figure out what they might have been when they were alive, not the stones covered by a lichen that looks like a smudge of burned rubber, not the trees whose branches stretch along the ground as if they're playing limbo, not wanting to spend a winter away from the warm earth.
Except that's not all entirely true. It's what should be true. What I should say is that nothing that actually belongs in this landscape is more than ankle high. That's the world that should exist, like that feeling of perfection when you look into the right pair of eyes. But in this world, the world that should not be, the world that is becoming something very different and very else, the streambeds are clogged with willows, three or four feet tall and seriously out of place. They weren't there the last time I was here, just a few years ago; the landscape is having to be renamed as it changes its shape like it's being looked at through a kaleidoscope.
The tree migration has begun again, chlorophyll chasing sun and unaccustomed warmth.
This world, what has been for us the true world, is about to be as lost as the lost world. As gone as the mammoths, and we won't even have the satisfaction of leaving behind bones big enough for construction works.
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