Alaska lost a champion and a highly regarded poet and thinker when Fairbanksan John Haines passed away on March 2. Haines was the author of eighteen books of poems and essays, including his first and perhaps best-loved Winter News and the memoir The Stars, The Snow, The Fire. Over his lifetime he was the recipient of many honors, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Congress. His spiritual home was always the hill country in interior Alaska, above the Tanana River, where he homesteaded after the Second World War.
ACF board president Nancy Lord, a writer herself, considered Haines a friend and mentor. “John’s art got its life from the big spaces and the deep quiet of Alaska. He was an absolute original, a sometimes cranky voice, and a defender of wild places and simple, rural ways of living. He often spoke about the importance of art for understanding our human place in the world, and he encouraged us all, Alaskans and artists, to recognize ‘the dangers and choices held out to us by our involvement with the earth.’”
“A Requiem for the Arctic Refuge” first appeared in OnEarth (Winter, 2006). Haines wrote it after an Alaskan politician famously held out a sheet of white paper and declared that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was that—a desolate nothing, to be valued only for the oil deposits that lay underneath it.
A Requiem for the Arctic Refuge
No sign of life, no bird calls,
no mating cries from the tundra…
Only the strewn wreckage of a passing
Illness — the discards of metal
and trash left behind by those
who write sorrow on the earth,
and leave to renew their plunder.
I remember, and so must you,
the lost sweetness of this land,
and far to the south a people
for whom it was home, driven to
forage your crime-cemented streets.
I hear a voice from another age
that would speak to us now:
“Forests precede civilization,
and deserts follow…”
Tell me, citizens in your lighted
Is this what you wish
for our loaned and borrowed future?
When your houses are darkened
and your stations shut down,
your thousand-year dreampipe emptied…
And of our lost earth-bound refuge,
only a broad sheet of white paper
once held by an official hand —
now certified and fingerprinted,
smudged and stained with oil.
— John Haines
Read more about Haines and read additional poems. Also see Nancy Lord’s remembrance.