The Yupik are a Northern tribe ; they make a scant, hard life among the frozen seas, perched on the perma-frost, chasing fish in the water like seals, and seals on the land like bears, the great white bears of the North. And running away from bears as best they can, when they do manage it.
The human capacity for happiness is constant, and constantly exercised ; the Yupik are as happy a tribe as any other tribe, they smile their stone-age smile just as well, and just as often, and just while more advanced tribes smile their Space Age smile -- it is, really, the same one smile. The human capacity for misery, however, is boundless, entirely boundless ; and the Yupik dwell below any degree of misery you could readily imagine. They haven't yet discovered soap, for lack of ready interaction of much abundant ash with young girls rising their skirtsi in the shallow waters, doing the laundry -- for one thing, it's never quite warm enough for bare-legged girls to enjoy the erotic capacities of the wake ; and for the other thing ash needs the burning of wood, for the Yupik more of a condiment than a waste product. Indeed, they use ash to season food, for absence of salt. It's good for them, actually, it goes a long way towards supplementing the many mineral defficiencies driven by living atop a pure water distillation plant.ii
They don't have pottery -- there's no clay anywhere, except a mile or three underneath the hard, hard ice. Ever tried to dig a hole in the ground ? It's a lot harder to dig a hole in ice. For the Yupik to make a clay pot the usual way stone-age Greeks made pots, it'd take ten to a hundred million times the effort -- meaning, the yearly production of a putative city of Athens in Yupik lands would be almost a third of an oil lamp. Except, of course, it's not one of those things where put in the effort, get the product, put in a millionth of the effort, get a millionth of the product. No, rather, it's an all-upfront sorta deal, either you do all the work, or else you get none of the product. You know, like discovering America : getting 10% of the way there is just as much "not getting there" as getting 99% of the way there -- which is why the Africans never discovered Zanzibar ; and why the Yupik never discovered the pits of their own misery.
There's no basket weaving, there's therefore no satellites, because yes, the satellite node requires, however many thousands levels above but nevertheless requires basket weaving. There's nothing else. Bones, and skins, and tendon rope, and nothing else.
Yet they have enough to make huts, and so they do ; and they have enough to put a lamp in the huts they made, and so they do also. They have enough to make children, and so they make those as well ; but in a world with no distractions life toghether between man and woman's outright impossibleiii, so they split their time : in the summer, while the fishing's good, they live out as families, catching salmon, perhaps even trapping seal if there's enough boys old enough to help. The rest of the year, however, the men live in the men's hut, with the boys ; while the women live in the women hut, with the girls.
It's not a hard or fraught separation, they don't get too excited by it, it's just a thing, like the coming of the snow, about as trepidatiously received as sunrise -- how many sunrises have you watched out for, to date ? And besides, they switch for a few weeks each year. The girls move into the men's hut, to learn how to trap and how to fish and other manly things, and to get impregnated ; while the boys move into the women's hut for the same interval, to learn how to cook, and clean, and make clothing and vessels of hides tanned in their own urine, and how to not kill the women.
The children come a few months prior to this, and the Yupik have a tradition, of giving the newborn child the name of the last one in the tribe to die. So when an old Yupik died one day, his eldest son, who respected and loved the man very much, took his tools to the great whale skeleton, a good day's sledride East, and days later returned with one of the great ribs of the long dead animal weighing down the dogs.
He put it upright in between the two huts, and on it, up top, he carved the name of his dead father -- because the children had just come, it was soon to be mixup time, which always confused things in the camp, and then the Summer will come again, with its separation of clans and families, before it'll be time for the children again ; and he didn't want his father's name to be forgotten by then. It was his turn, by rights ; and when the children do come it'll still be his turn, hot damn!
The Summer came, and went ; more Yupik died, and everyone asked to have their name carved on the pole at first, then just did it without asking -- the carving had become a tradition of the camp. Then the children started coming, and as they came the names were slowly removed, one by one, from the bottom -- the first child born took the last name released by its previous holder, and so slowly, by and by, new lives retracing old destinies, old souls coming back into the world as children, and with their coming striking name after name off the namebone until just one was left.
The son sat on his sled, and looked at the bone. His dogs sat around him, and looked at the bone too. His father's name was still on it, alone. The girls were all done, none swelled remained. The women, too. Next year, he thought. There's plenty of room on the bone, and next year his father's turn will come too.
Next year it didn't, though, nor the year after that, nor the next. Names came and went on the namebone, with the movement of the tides and the migrations of the fish and the seals ; sometimes more, and sometimes less. Sometimes, just one, always the same one, always there atop the list.
Eventually, the small Yupik tribe died out, and their camp died out, as is the fate of subsistence hunter-gatherer primitives, none of their dwelling places stand for thousands of years like the proud wonders of bronze and iron-age men. The huts, disused, were slowly ground down by the elements, which in that part of the world consist of water-air, and water-rock, and also, occasionally, water, pure and simple.
Eventually, only an upturned whale bone stood, barely discernible carvings struck out covering al its surface, except for one name, clearly still visible atop. The one name whose turn never again came.
The end ; though the seasons do go on.———
- There's a (George Cosbuc I believe) poem I'd have liked to sample here, about some girls doing the wash, and checking to see if anyone's looking so as to lift their skirts higher (so they don't get wet!). Sadly I can't now find it, so...
If you know it let me know. [↩]
- Do you understand the horror of snow ?
Think, if you will. "Pure as driven snow", yes ?
Snow is not merely "water", such as the filthy, useless water in the rhyme of the ancient mariner, "water, water, everwhere -- yet not a drop to drink". Snow is recrystallized water, meaning absolutely pure water. Absolutely pure. When it vaporizes it leaves behind everything, everything else ; and when it comes back down again, fluffy insulation layer of perfect perfection, it's nothing else but itself : the definitive solvent.
There's no other solvent as competent as water. It'll readily dissolve things. Your things. All your things.
Snow holds you insulated with one hand, suspended however many inches, feet, miles above the life-giving Earth. Snow sucks the very everything out of you, through a process known as osmosis, with the other hand. The permafrost is an endless reservoir of nothingness, but ravenous, starved nothingness. It wants your everything -- do you have some potassium chloride ? It could dissolve ten quadrillion tons of it, how much you got ? How about sodium chloride ? How about anything else ?
Soon enough you'll be eating ash yourself, in an ultimately doomed attempt to preserve some semblance of minimal mineral load. See ? Living in that wasteland of perfection is a lot like living in a mechanical deboning plant. The teeth are much smaller and the workings much slower, but you are being deboned, step by step. [↩]
- "You take TV out of this relationship... it is pure torture!" [↩]