Craig Childs | Navigating Sources and Migration

Guest blogger Craig Childs will be speaking Thursday, June 21, from 5-7 PM at the UAA/APU Consortium Library in room 307, presented by the University of Alaska Campus Bookstore. Craig’s new book, Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America, chronicles the last millennia of the Ice Age, the violent oscillations and retreat of glaciers, the clues and traces that document the first encounters of early humans, and the animals whose presence governed the humans’ chances for survival. 

I was in an Anchorage bar with a gang of archaeologists attending a symposium, doing the rounds with my notebook. The subject was Pleistocene archaeology, the arrival of the first people, a sticky subject made more fluid by loudness and pitchers. I’d already auctioned off my boxers for $200, money going to some good archaeological cause, and had to deliver them on sight.

A journalist friend of mine, a respected science writer, makes a clear rule of never drinking with her sources. I come from a different literary camp. There must have been 30 or 40 Far North researchers in the bar and the place was booming. I just came from a round table interview with a Japanese lithics scholar who told me that imagining the Ice Age is hard from Tokyo where he is crammed into a train for a few hours a day, which is why coming to Alaska is such a relief. He said out here he can actuality imagine a world with more land and animals than people.

My interest is migration, how and why people jump continents. More to the point, how and why it happened in the Ice Age, but that wasn’t so long ago. Motivations may seem different now, but at a fundamental level I don’t believe they are.

At the bar I spoke with archaeologist Jenya Anichenko. She is an expert in kayak and early boat use in the Holarctic north. We were talking about how boats figured into the earliest human entries into North America, while we knocked back three vodkas in quick succession, which as you can imagine made for a lively conversation about boats and migration.

Anichenko is an immigrant herself. She had only recently switched hemispheres as a scholar from Russia. After plenty of talk about ice floes and walrus skin boats that could have carried families in the Ice Age, she told me that if I wanted to understand migration, I should move to another continent, and never go back. Until now, she hadn’t understood what it was like to leave for good, to leave Russia, where she was born and raised. She said this might be the only way I could truly comprehend human migration. There was a sadness in her, or maybe it was a flame. I remember her gripping me in her blue-eyed stare, saying, “Migration is a sickness.”

Later she asked I change the quote to ‘immigration’ is a sickness, to be more clear. But I think she was clear enough.

Migration is not easy. Not every one makes it. Yet we do it. I want to know why. I wrote a book about the matter, focusing on the first people in the Americas, perhaps the most profound migration in human history. What is it like to enter a side of the planet with no other people, an unmapped and unknown world?

This has always been a continent of migrants. Back to the oldest remembered Native American stories, the beginning of time was about arrivals, first people landing in a clamshell on a mythic beach, first people climbing through a hole in the world, people emerging from a cave. They came from somewhere else to show up here, calling this the birth place. The story of arrivals has never ended. Every family line has its tale of a journey, and touching ground here.

I cleaned up the interview with Anichenko, removed the bar as a setting, dumbed down the atmosphere so as not to make it distracting, slightly altered her quote at her request, and printed it on page 72 of the book. In my mind, the conversation was livelier, colorful, and I could see in her eyes the hurt of migration, what it really means to pick up and leave one side of the world for another.

Craig Childs is the author of several books including his most recent, Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America. He has been a writing instructor at University of Alaska, Anchorage, and lives off grid in western Colorado.

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