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Environmental Studies

It’s a Big Sea Out There!

September 14, 2009

J.R. Howard Hall

September 14, 2009

It all started the summer after freshman year when I got a salmon cannery job on Bristol Bay. Actually, it all started with my 10th grade history teacher, Mrs. Monahan. She was a powerhouse at my high school: brilliant, young, funny, and a great storyteller. She regaled us with tales of her 1980’s jaunt to the Northern slime-lines. Crazies making Jell-o out of seawater and guts, impossible work, incognito gangsters, and the ping-pong table that shared the break-room with a murdered corpse for 3 weeks, all set at the end of the world. She spawned the goldfish of an idea in my fishbowl head to one day test my mettle where the tundra meets the sea. I went, and hated it. I actually loved it, but what I loved I also hated. We compared the cannery to an abusive relationship; you couldn’t escape and always came back. I was hooked on the absurdities, the awesome open landscape, the fish gore, the beautiful souls I met, and the frantic cocktail of pace and sleep deprivation. Regardless, it was great for my photography and I returned for two more seasons to work in the plant and then aboard a tender.

This first summer proved to give a strong current to my ENVS career. I was a member of the first class to have complete freedom over the design of our concentrations, and I decided to pursue art. I was greatly encouraged in the alternative photo classes I took from Jacinda Russell. With her help I created mixed media, alternative, and installation pieces inspired by the theories, issues, and concerns brought up in my ENVS classes. At the same time, “my issue” topic for ENVS projects gravitated to marine fisheries.

Having successfully snagged a Mellon Situated Research Grant in my junior year, I traveled and lived abroad in Primorskii krai, in the Russian Far East. For 6 months I interviewed people involved in most aspects of fisheries (NGOs, Government Industrial and Scientific fishery orgs, Academia, Commercial fishing companies, etc.) conducting research for a thesis verbosely titled “Fractured Visuals. How Russian Images of Far Eastern Fisheries Encourage Predicated Ways of Seeing? An Adaptation of Center-Periphery Relations.” This was a departure from art, a sociological study of images as products that have been produced with inherent cultural values, meanings, and orientations.

With this background it seems too perfect that I stumbled into the “Project/Outreach Coordinator” Americorps position with the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, a non-profit established to create a forum, sense of unity, and represent the interests of the roughly 40 subsistence/commercial fishing villages along the Yukon River. It is the only river-wide, representational group open to all citizens. I will be organizing volunteer service and environmental education programs for high school youth based around salmon conservation and community development. The YRDFA’s goal is to enable newer generations to become active community members and retain their local, cultural traditions. The happy byproduct is that I get to travel to remote and rural parts of Alaska that would otherwise be inaccessible.

As they say, it is a big sea out there. One full of fish, a lot of garbage, and some spectacular opportunities for those willing to risk it. You can’t stop swimming!

Evan Blankenship, ENVS 2009 alumnus