“Land of Bear and Eagle: A Home in the Kodiak Wilderness”
By Tanyo Ravicz; Hancock House, 2022; 280 pages; $24.95.
Homesteading in Alaska was still possible in the 1990s. The original Homestead Act, signed into law in 1892 by Abraham Lincoln, had recently expired, but the state allowed applicants to obtain a parcel of land. In exchange, they had to live on and improve it for five years (a process known as “proving up”) after which they could take ownership if they completed the necessary work.
Author Tanyo Ravicz was in his early 30s in 1996 when, realizing it was likely then or never to live his homesteading dream, he applied for and was granted land on Kodiak Island. The story of living on the property and building his home is the subject of “Land of Bear and Eagle,” a collection of essays about the life he and his wife chose for their family. It’s a story told in individual installments that dispenses quickly with the myths about lone Alaskans building their homes in the deep wilds, removed from the frenzy of civilization.
Civilization is, in fact, a good place to begin, because Ravicz clarifies that his family never fully unplugged from it. They couldn’t. For one thing, other people lived on the island. For another, they needed fuel, construction materials, groceries, hunting equipment, and more, and these things can only come from civilization. This, in turn, meant that Ravicz needed money, which meant he couldn’t fully extract himself from the economy either. Thus the myriad ways that economies operate and civilizations are defined is discussed in an early chapter that in many ways sets the tone for this philosophically inclined volume.
“Our civilization is tenuously erected on a substrate of wilderness,” Ravicz writes “the wilderness inside us, and the wilderness outside, and the principles of nature apply to a civilization as they apply to an untenanted wilderness cabin.”
This is perhaps the core message found in these pages. The family, with two young children, could not for practical reasons simply settle on the homestead. It would have been uneconomic. Therefore Ravicz and his family drift between their parcel on Kodiak and the world they depend upon. These contrasting experiences provide him the opportunity to examine both.
The essays are arranged alphabetically by title, so shortly after the one titled “Civilization,” we find “Deer,” where Ravicz recalls a young buck that frequented the area near his cabin one summer, and follows this with a successful fall deer hunt. The animals, like Ravicz, are not native to Kodiak, yet they adapted well after being introduced. In closely observing them navigate the land, Ravicz finds an understanding of the place he lives.
The intermingling of wildlife, landscape, and Ravicz’s life on the homestead form the basis for a number of chapters. Fireweed, he tells us, is the primary component in a sea of pink wildflowers that grow everywhere by early August. The chapter on foxes starts with the behavioral similarities they share with dogs. His young daughter, busy with homeschool lessons, explains to him that resident spiders are arachnids, not insects. Magpies, beautiful birds but a bane to some, are drawn to dirty diapers. And a trio of otters apparently finds Ravicz picking his way across a beach as entertaining as humans find them.
There are humans as well. Neighbors figure deeply into these tales, especially the Petersons, an older couple long resident on the island. Ravicz, alone and confronted by grief on the anniversary of his father’s death, is drawn to their company. Other neighbors pass through, including one couple whose homestead was caught in a land dispute with the Afognak Native Corp. Their homestead was trespassing on corporation land and ANC sued to evict them, sparking disagreement among local residents over how the matter should be resolved. Civilization, by way of an Indigenous-owned corporation, sought to restore original ownership. Ravicz briefly summarizes both ends of the dispute, finding sympathy with each. That homesteading took land from its original inhabitants and handed it to new ones is not lost on him.
Even homesteaders were part of Kodiak’s economy, naturally, and that economy was rapidly shifting during the years Ravicz spent proving upon his claim. Most of what he writes about occurred in the 1990s, a dizzying decade when markets boomed and financial wealth was exalted. Historians a century from now will still be unsnarling how that era of irrational exuberance led us into such darkness and pessimism a mere quarter-century later. Ravicz, who forewent the quest for money, provides thoughtful reflections on what took place at the time, offered from the physical distance he frequently kept it at, and the chronological distance that allows him to reflect.
In some ways, the book becomes an observation of the mainstream culture and economy of that era from an observer who describes himself as being “out of step with the times.” For those of us who, like Ravicz, squandered our young adulthood during years when pundits proclaimed that civilization had achieved its apex and conflict largely a thing of the past, it’s a reminder of how surreal it all seems in retrospect.
This rather singular, and singularly fascinating, book covers the mundane as well, from Kodiak’s fabled weather, which Ravicz describes as “fluid in both senses of the word: wet and changeful,” to laying a floor in his cabin, when he advises readers, “don’t hold against humanity an overachievement as ingenious as vinyl,” to his outhouse, which prompts the observation that “All civilization started from a hole in the ground and progressed from there.”
There’s that word again: civilization. It’s what Ravicz, whether he wished to or not, was ultimately building. Expanding civilization was the purpose of the original Homestead Act. On the final page, the light from a fishing boat passes within sight of his window, which is illuminated by its own light, the two visible to each other, evoking a line from earlier in the book. “Human relationships are part of the ecology of a place.” In “Land of Bear and Eagle,” Ravicz shows us why and how.