Conversations

Charles Wohlforth,
author and Anchorage-based journalist, speaks with Jeannine Stronach,
Kiriyama Prize Manager

Charles Wohlforth, author and journalist

Jeannine Stronach for WaterBridge Review: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? 

Charles Wohlforth: I am first a journalist. My experience
lies in traditional American journalism, with its ethos of disinterest
and nonpartisanship. That perspective feeds into my personality and
philosophy as a writer, as well. I believe a writer of nonfiction carries
a heavy obligation to be truthful, in the sense of conveying as closely
as possible what the world really is like. I wrote The Whale and
the Supercomputer
so the experience of reading would be as close
as possible to the experience of living—that is, details accumulate
and the reader has a sense of reaching his or her own conclusions about
what they mean. In terms of my personality, I’m not a joiner
and I like to formulate my own ideas, so that also keeps me out of “ism” camps.

On the other hand, I don’t think literature can exist outside
of a political context. Clearly, I had to reach conclusions in the
process of researching the book, and I had to choose details that would,
I hope subtly, lead to the truth as I perceive it. There is truth in
the world, certainly in the natural world, and the consequences of
dealing with or obfuscating that truth are significant and unavoidable.
In that sense, my book does serve a political purpose, albeit a journalistic
one.

For me to deny being an environmentalist would be absurd. Increasingly,
I have devoted my life to raising my family in the natural environment
of the Alaska. Increasingly, I find our species’ impacts on that
natural environment unacceptable.

WBR: The Whale and the Supercomputer is
about global warming, as the subtitle suggests, but it is also very
much about the way the Iñupiat people of Alaska and the scientific
community relate to one another and work together. Did you have
that theme in mind when you first set out to write the book, or did
it evolve gradually out of your experiences writing it?

CW: The book grew from its subject. Growing up and
living in Anchorage, I experienced how the weather has changed over
my lifetime. That experience set the original question of the book:
why was it happening? I thought the answer would be purely scientific,
but in the course of more than 100 interviews as I was developing a
publishing proposal and outline, I realized that the most perceptive
Arctic scientists were studying what Alaska Natives perceived about
the changes that were happening. Science about the Arctic system, it
turned out, was surprisingly primitive and short-term. Native knowledge
was complex, holistic, and long-term. Moreover, the Iñupiat were putting
their lives on the line to subsist in a radically changing environment.
It didn’t take long to realize this was a far more compelling
story than simply following scientists around as they did their measurements.

WBR: Your book is full of colorful characters
and you paint an intimate portrait of the people you write about. How
did you earn the trust of the Iñupiat community and the scientists
that you observed and interviewed for the book?

CW: The book is the product of the immense generosity
of the people about whom I wrote. Gaining their trust was the most
important and difficult step. The Iñupiat have been mischaracterized
in the media so frequently—indeed, Eskimos seem to be that last socially
acceptable target of racist caricature—that they are extremely shy
of talking to reporters and have even set up formal systems to prevent
unscreened journalists from obtaining access to their whaling camps.
As a life-long Alaskan, active in local affairs, as are my parents,
I had a natural advantage over someone from outside.

I also took the effort of writing a long feature article about whaling
and indigenous knowledge for the alternative Anchorage Press, which
allowed me to demonstrate my journalistic ethics to my prospective
sources, including my willingness to let sources read and comment on
the text before publication. Finally, I cultivated a relationship with
a crucial gatekeeper, Richard Glenn, who is a leader in both the Iñupiat
and scientific cultures in Arctic Alaska. Without Richard’s help,
the book would not exist.

The scientific sources were easier to access. The challenge was to
bring myself up to a level of technical literacy so I could ask the
right questions and understand the answers. A few initial helpers assisted
me by telling me what books to read, including John Walsh of the University
of Alaska Fairbanks Institute for Arctic Research. The key to joining
scientists on field research was to take care of myself: I handled
my own travel, brought my own equipment, and tried to pull my own weight
in the field.

WBR: You present Alaska as a highly unique place,
not only with its own special physical differences, but also with its
own cultural differences. What are some of the ways in which Alaskan
culture differs from the Lower 48s’? 

CW: Alaska is a diverse place, with urban problems
of gang violence and air pollution in Anchorage and rural problems
of fish and game allocation and loss of indigenous languages in the
bush. But there is a white Alaskan culture, or at least a set of cultural
norms shaped by a collective self-image. The key features of this self-image
are self-reliance, individualism, outspoken libertarian politics (on
the left and right), privacy, and a willingness to help others on a
one-on-one basis. These are essentially pioneer frontier values, arising
both in the response of individuals to the environment and because
the people who choose to go to Alaska tend to have an individualistic
streak.

The values of Alaska Native people in many ways are the reverse of
pioneer values. Native cultures are communitarian. Determining family
links starts any new relationship. Humility before others and before
nature are key. Highlighting individual accomplishments is rude, putting
yourself above others almost unforgivable. Cooperation and avoidance
of conflict are critical elements of personal interaction. Privacy
is far less important than acceptance of others, blame is not important.
These qualities are perfectly suited to creating a cohesive group that
can succeed in a harsh environment.

WBR: In addition to the recognition it got from
the Kiriyama Prize judges, the book received the Los Angeles Times
Book Award for science writing. What drew you to write about
a scientific subject?  Are there other science writers you admire
or try to emulate?

CW: My interest in science comes from basic curiosity.
I’ve always wanted to know why things are how they are: how machines
work, why a rock looks as it does, where energy comes from. Over time,
I’ve come to see these as the basic questions—the spiritual questions,
if that’s the word you choose—that are most valuable in explaining
the world and giving it meaning. Scientists have made the most important
cultural advances of the last two centuries: name a more important
cultural figure than Charles Darwin. I think it’s odd that people
see any division between science and culture.

Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine had a great
impact on me when I read it more than 20 years ago in a history of
science class, because of the vividness of the storytelling, which
I hadn’t realized was possible on a scientific topic.

(continues)