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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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A century of change
A Century of Change


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An Alaskan Gazette

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Alaska Tourism

Nature and Art
Nature and Art in Alaska

Anchorage Museum Gallery
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Poetry in Alaska
Poetry in Alaska

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Poetry in Alaska


Much of the poetry written aboard the Elder in 1899 was humorous verse. Oftentimes one writer was poking fun at another's mishaps; Bernard Fernow, for example, wrote several stanzas teasing C. Hart Merriam for mistaking two arctic swans for polar bears. But poet Charles Keeler took Alaska verse seriously. One of his poems, "Alaska," opens the first volume of the published journals of the expedition. Another, "To An Alaskan Glacier," was included in Idylls of El Dorado, a collection of poems he published a year after the trip. The opening lines, copied below, include the striking metaphor of the sea as mother to a glacier, with an eery image of the calved iceberg slowly disappearing.


"To An Alaskan Glacier"
Out of the cloud-world sweeps thy awful form,
Vast frozen river, fostered by the storm
Upon the drear peak's snow-encumbered crest,
Thy sides deep grinding in the mountain's breast
As down its slopes thou plowest to the sea
To leap into thy mother's arms, and be
There cradled into nothingness...

In his journals and letters from the trip, John Burroughs often talked about being homesick. This poem, inspired by the song of the Lapland longspur, is no exception. Even the song of a new bird did not stop the nature writer from thinking about his home in the Hudson Valley of New York.

"To the Lapland Longspur"
 On Unalaska's emerald lea,
On lonely isles in Bering Sea,
On far Siberia's barren shore,
On north Alaska's tundra floor;
At morn, at noon, in pallid night,
We heard thy song and saw thy flight,
While I, sighing, could but think
Of my boyhood's bobolink.



Unlike Burroughs, the poet Sheila Nickerson, a participant in the 2001 expedition, feels very much at home in Alaska. She was the state's poet laureate from 1977 to 1981. In the following poem, she gives the grizzly bear, the largest terrestrial carnivore, a voice both succinct and surprising.


"Grizzly Bear"
 Home of the North Star,
I roam the night sky
as well as the north woods.
Nothing escapes me.
They have called me
Owner of the Earth,
Pride of the Woodland,
Forest Apple, Light Foot,
believing my strength flows
from a secret honey in my paws.
What they do not know
who worship me in fear
is the hunger:
the immensity of the search.



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Charles Keeler
Charles Keeler



Charles Keeler, photographed in 1899.
Click image for a larger view

 

"I am actually tired of the constant strain of trying to take things in. I am trying to learn from the scenery, the life and the people about me including botanists, geologists, marine invertebratologists, ornithologists and professional story tellers."

Charles Keeler in a letter to his wife, Louise, dated June 4, 1899.


John Burroughs

John Burroughs, photographed by F. P. Clatworthy in California in 1909.
Click image for a larger view

"Passed my place on the Hudson at 4:00 P.M. Looked long and fondly from the car window upon the scenes I am to be absent from until August. The sun is shining warmly. I see the new green of the vineyards. Wife is waving her white apron from the summer house. I sit alone in my room in the Pullman car and am sad. Have I made a mistake in joining this crowd for so long a trip? Can I see nature under such conditions? But I am in for it."

John Burroughs, writing about his decision to join the Harriman Expedition, in a journal entry dated May 23, 1899.

 

For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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