[Editor’s Note: Yukon Dispatches is a four-part Assay project by Corinna Cook and will explore place-based writing, ekphrastic nonfiction, and research as she completes a year-long Fulbright. If you missed Part 1, click here!]
“It is a young land,” writes Ken Coates, “yet at the same time almost unimaginably old.” He’s describing Canada’s Yukon Territory where I started researching contemporary art in order to think about ways to live with colonial history. But for the past couple months, I’ve been more focused on learning about that yin-yang Coates expresses: the sense of strange newness folded in with deep, ancient time.
This is what Coates means: this bedrock in the Yukon virtually all formed within the last four hundred million years. Made of “new” rocks, the land is quite literally young.
It’s the human scale that reveals the Yukon’s ancientness. This area—including most of the Yukon and most of Alaska—has been home to humans since they migrated across the Beringian Land Bridge. Only much later, after a few tens of thousands of years of habitation by ancient people, did humans migrate south and populate the Americas. So this “wilderness” is perhaps the most profoundly humanized place in the hemisphere.
And that backdrop of super-old human presence inhabiting super-new land strikes me as profoundly relevant to the present moment and our social and environmental struggles to cohabit, heal, cooperate, and flourish.
Because my earliest conversations about art and politics led me toward geology and archaeology texts, and because the complexity of those texts led me back to human conversation (now with geologists and archaeologists), and because those conversations led me to hike particular mountains with a new consciousness and a new eye for the details of my surroundings, this dispatch focuses on the mode of inquiry that makes such research leaps not only possible, but coherent. I think of it as “deep research.” Simply put, I’m thinking about how the long-term dig plays out for us as writers and readers and thinkers, the frequency with which it takes unexpected turns, and how a sustained process of seeking underpins so much literature in the field of nonfiction.
Svetlana Alexievitch’s Voices From Chernobyl comes to mind. The book compiles interviews, and especially fragments of interviews, with survivors of the nuclear reactor accident. It is “polyphonic literature” to the core: an accumulation of voices. The text is not only the product of Alexievitch’s vast, vast listening, but reproduces for the reader a mode of uninterrupted/uninterruptable listening mediated by no narrator.
Mark Jenkins’s Off the Map also comes to mind. In 1989, Jenkins and six others bicycled five thousand miles across Siberia from Vladivostok to Leningrad. Off the Map relies on a poetics of lucid reverie and the extremes of physical experience. Unlike Alexievitch’s text, Jenkins’s involves a hyper-present narrator: he dreams himself straight in to the psychologies, the bodies, and the memories of others.
Perhaps Alexievitch’s text works with excruciating remove. Perhaps Jenkins’s works with excruciating embeddedness. But of course deep research—inventive in its methods, multifaceted in its results—drives both.
But here are some comments that give me pause:
Alexievitch, who composed (her verb) Voices From Chernobyl from between five and seven hundred personal interviews, is not really interested in Chernobyl. Not as such. (“My interest in life is not the event as such, not war as such, not Chernobyl as such, not suicide as such. What I am interested in is what happens to the human being, what happens to it in our time…”)
And here is what Jenkins has to say about his writing. “Sold my first story in 1983. Was about map and compass use. I’m still trying to find my way.”
Here’s what I get from these. With extensive interviews on personal experiences of a concrete historical event, Alexievitch pursues the question: what happens to the human being? And with a long-term, physically very strenuous traverse across a specific place at a specific political moment, Jenkins pursues the question: what is the way? In both, the authors show that their rigorous and long-sustained research endeavors aim off to the side of the actual target.
Along these lines, I’ve been thinking that deep research is often enough a mode of inquiry in which you cannot always ask what you are asking. Perhaps that begins to explain why I am asking so many questions about rocks.
Another angle on “deep research” could be “slow research.” Two weeks in the field yields one kind of book, and a decade there yields a different one. Six conversations with six experts yields insights of scope XYZ while six hundred conversations with six hundred proximate people yields insights of scope PQR. We have different methods for different purposes, of course. But the more time I spend asking questions about Beringian vegetation and Chindadn spear tips, the more I appreciate the extent to which nonfiction is a literary field that lends itself to slowness. To deep research.
Along similar lines, Susannah Mintz uses the verb “to pool.” I understand her image best with the following contrast: where a poem works with compression or density of meaning, an essay tends to build meaning with incremental accumulations. Meaning seeps in and gathers, pooling bit by bit. And I think we might take this pooling movement seriously not only as a textual pace toward which forms of the essay are particularly inclined, but also as a research method in itself.
Here is an example of that slow, pooling process has played out for me. In front of a wildlife conservation painting project, I asked the artist a question about color. She said the ochres and browns were earth colors, which brought prehistoric cave paintings and ancient cosmologies to ming. In this way, our conversation about natural resource conservation focused much less on isolated battles over today’s changing North, and much more on tapping in to ancient rhythms of migration, hunting, and spiritual/ecological interdependence. It is this wide-angle thinking that captivates me—it is at once divorced from and yet profoundly invested in modern politics.
Now that I’m listening for it, I’ve encountered a similar scope of thinking among other artists as well. And I’ve also found it in the fields of geology, archeology, and paleontology, for these fields make an art of quite concretely delineating ancient history in socially-relevant ways. (For example, much geology research informs present-day mining. And local archeological research informs present-day land claims negotiations.) And that is how it came to pass that “research,” to me, at this time, in this project, means seeking out perspectives on a particular sense of the present moment. That is, perspectives on a present imbued with deep time.
The deeply researched works I’ve discussed above are: Svetlana Alexievitch’s 1997 book, Voices From Chernobyl, and Mark Jenkins’s 1992 book, Off the Map. I’m also delighted to point interested nonfictionites toward Susannah Mintz’s article, “Creative Non-What? On the Poetry of Prose” in the March/April 2016 Writer’s Chronicle. Finally, and to come full circle, Ernestine Hayes’s 2006 book, Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir will be of special interest to readers and writers of nonfiction invested in that edge between present day life and dialogue with the ancients.
Corinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan currently based in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, where Fulbright Canada supports her writing on art, ecology, and living with colonial history. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and is a recipient of the Ak State Council on the Arts and the Ak Arts and Culture Foundation’s 2018 Literary Award. Corinna’s essays appear here and there, including Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, the Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Ocean State Review.