My sister Julie and I are looking forward to a planned month-long visit in 2022 from a two-time second cousin, a hardworking friend and recent high school graduate who has just spent enough time here to get a glimpse of what she's up to . However, I am less confident about your proposed thesis about the sustainability of our Bush life.
By “sustainable” she means living in such a way that the profound and far-reaching effects that most people have on our only habitable planet are eliminated or at least greatly reduced, be it through plastic that pollutes the ocean, through agricultural runoff, creating dead zones, or burning fuel, which both pollutes and increases carbon dioxide levels, leading to catastrophic weather events that follow.
We obtain a large part of our food from the region, be it fish, elk and other game, home-grown chickens or garden vegetables, wild plants and berries.
Operating a gill net for fish supplies provides food for the dog team as well as ourselves and our sturdy little Icelandic horses, which live free-range for most of the year. Locally harvested, renewable firewood heats our house, solar energy contributes to a large part of our electricity needs and a stream 60 meters away from our house covers the water needs.
People like the idea of living sustainably, “off the land”. It is “what the Bush people do”. But while I find harvesting local supplies immensely rewarding and fulfilling, we have never lived entirely on the land. In addition, non-local groceries, animal feed, and other supplies must not only travel thousands of miles from the supplier to Interior Alaska, but travel the last 250 miles in inefficient small aircraft.
Dog powered transportation may seem like a sustainable way to travel. Our sled dogs are powered by locally caught fish, repair themselves and produce their own replacements. But even in the more fertile fishing years, our nets rarely provide more than enough to meet the protein needs of our 12 to 15 dogs. It takes nearly a ton of rice and 20 pound buckets of fat to complete their diet, not to mention the ton of commercial dog food that is needed most years to make up for a lack of fish supplies.
And what about these home-bred chickens? We import hundreds of pounds of feed to make about a dozen deep fryers and roasters. Eating commercially raised poultry would likely be more sustainable and certainly cheaper, albeit less nutritious and humane. Even our two aggressively foraging horses need a lot of feed to get them through months of deep snow.
Whether rice, fat, or commercial fodder, everything (with the exception of some Alaskan-grown horse fodder) travels from the lower 48 to Alaska, followed by that final gas-guzzling flight to reach the bush. That's after they're made commercially, often with the help of herbicides and pesticides, inorganic fertilizers and hormones, much of which degrade and pollute the world in unsustainable ways. Commercial farmland also takes up land that could otherwise be wilderness, which could provide meat, fish, furs, and other wild crops to other lucky people.
Around half of our own food comes directly from the countryside, but this also requires external supplies. Since we do not produce and store our own seeds, they have to be grown and flown in elsewhere. The rotary tiller burns gas and oil and needs to be replaced regularly. Hoes and rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows, all flown in after being made elsewhere.
Then the product must be preserved. Sugar and pectin prove to be almost as valuable as berries in jam production. The soaking needs jars with lids and ribbons as well as vinegar, sugar and salt. Freezing, which preserves the majority of our products, means burning propane to heat blanching water, plastic bags for storage, and propane or electricity to run freezers.
Yes, although much of that energy 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 freezer six miles away that is powered by the community power station. It all includes imported fuel.
If the generous land provides half of our food (a rough estimate at best) then the other half must be imported. Oatmeal and cereal boxes, peanut butter and raisins, sugar and mayonnaise, condensed milk and chocolate and one or the other pack of hot dogs, butter and sour cream (who wants home-grown borscht without that sour cream?) Hardly scratch the surface of our 5-page master shopping list . Whether ordered by mail from Fred Meyers or packed and shipped on rare trips to the city, everything was raised somewhere else, dragged to Fairbanks and flown into the bush.
Even our gas needs fuel to be supplied by Fairbanks, let alone the remote refineries in the States. Dogs drive us through the winter, but the snow machine and, in the ice-free months, a gas-powered outboard motor ensure fast and efficient, if less sustainable, transport.
Moose meat may seem free, but even it takes a bullet or two (or box if we actually invest in some pre-hunt targets), plus gasoline and oil for the outboard, not to mention the wear and tear on gun and tent equipment to our increasingly dilapidated meat shed.
Clothing, nails, sewing needles, cake pans, books, chainsaws, printer's ink – the list of countless supplies that we cannot get from locally grown sources goes on and on.
Even in prehistoric times, some valuable objects – obsidian and probably mussels and other marine products – had to be imported over hundreds of kilometers, although this would have been more sustainable at that time through human strength.
In the truest sense of the word, we are heavily dependent on local resources. But unfortunately think holistically, live sustainably? – uh, like most people these days, not so much. I hope our second cousin, who has been removed twice, is not too disappointed.