In November 1990 I was in New York City to serve as a Pulitzer juror.
I used the trip as a chance to recruit talent from Columbia Journalism School
and filed this column.


Are you a watcher or a doer?


NEW YORK -- I have been talking to people about living in Alaska -- job applicants, actually -- and that always seems to help me focus on what I like about the place.

In their questions and my descriptions, we cover a lot of ground. Much of it is predictable, of course (salaries, job duties and the like) but we also wind up talking about more important things. What we're really looking for a way to tell whether they'll be happy and productive in Alaska.

The kind of person who wants to know right off how cold it is often isn't going to be right; the person who asks about how best to handle the darkness often is. If she asks about professional sports teams, I worry about how she'll fit in; if she wants to know about bike trails, I feel better.

Is it really as easy as all that? Of course not, but there are definite clues to be gleaned from how people approach the question of "watching" versus "doing". Alaska, I have come to believe, makes a better home for participants than spectators.

In a society that is still defining itself, there is still room for an individual to do likewise. We're less constrained by things that have gone before, by "we-don't-do-it-that-way" mentalities. Less now than 30 years ago but still more than in most other places, Alaskans are able to script their future by performance, not credentials.

The rules are not all written here just yet. Nobody says a guy from Naknek can't be governor, or an insurance salesman can't be mayor. There are some growing dynasties afoot in Anchorage (second and even third generations have entered some of our affairs) but your dad still doesn't have to own the store for you to end up running it.

Alaskans are mostly here as a matter of choice. Rare is the resident who's living here just by chance or circumstance. That gives us an average level of involvement far greater than most cities, where the populace has a lot less direct connection to location than do Alaskans.

Alaskans' ferocious involvement in local affairs is born partly from that. People who have journeyed thousands of miles from family and friends to build a new life in a new place tend to care a little more deeply about what happens there. When you have made sacrifices for something, you care about it.

The fierceness of that attachment gives birth to some of our greatest conflicts as well as those nobler aspirations. It is the passion of the sportsman matched against the cultural imperatives of Alaska Natives that makes the subsistence fight so bitter. It is deep attachment to natural beauty matched against the prospect of epic discovery that animates the debate over ANWR.

We do not tread lightly over those questions, because they matter to us. Pioneers love their new land because it offers them the promise of new beginning. They are also attached to their frontiers partly by knowing there is no place else to go.

Return to links from Storm Out of Paradise
Return to main Storm Out of Paradise essay