I've been sick for over a week, but still I don't think that's an excuse. I've ignored the free cable TV offerings that are included in my rent for almost two years, except for major league baseball, so why I turned to it now is inexplicable and maybe unforgivable. Perhaps I can blame the internet, which is an easy way to waste time while running a low-grade fever. Somehow when I was noodling around on that, I found that a family I was acquainted with in Alaska had their own reality show that involved living la vida homestead on the Kenai Peninsula.
When I was much, much younger, I briefly went to school with the leading man of this opus, and I grew up on a homestead myself, and I was feeling too wretched to concentrate on reading. I'd never seen a reality show and I wasn't too sure of what they were exactly, except reality didn't seem to play a large part in them, according to what I'd read. Paris Hilton on a farm? Mafia wives brawling in New Jersey? Sarah Palin and her offspring?
I do remember much too vividly the reality of homestead living: eating far too many meals of beans and potatoes, the smell of a freshly-killed moose when it was slit open to be cleaned of its offal, the dismal cold mornings before a fire was kindled in the wood stove, the dubious aerobic benefits of racing to the outhouse several times a day, hauling wood and water home...Oh the list goes on and on, with a Greek chorus in my head asking the same question repeatedly. Why would anybody continue to live that way in the 21st century? And even if they wanted to, could they?
Even in the 1960's, homesteading on the Kenai was changed forever by citizen-band radios and pioneer access roads put in by the state of Alaska. Subsistence living, a shaky affair even in the early days of homesteading, had long ago been eroded by a depletion of game and an ability to order groceries from wholesale catalogs. Now, in our era of iPads, Amazon, and the Information Highway, satellite television, and streaming Netflix, the isolation that was the keynote of homesteading seemed downright impossible to achieve. How was this family managing to still maintain that particular life?
The answer seems to be "Very, very carefully," and with a generous helping of heavy equipment. This particular family has lived on this homestead for three generations and is busily creating the fourth. Over the decades, they have accumulated an all-terrain vehicle, a landing carrier, a small fishing boat, and a couple of backhoes, along with an impressive collection of firearms. They also have increased the family's original homestead allotment of 160 acres to 600, which may rival the size of Rhode Island.
Hills of pastureland overlooking a bay and rocky beaches form the setting for what seems to be a rudimentary farm, with a small herd of cows, some horses, and poultry. It seemed strange that this extended family living in a part of Alaska that is far from Arctic temperatures wouldn't have enough livestock to keep them alive through the winter. But maybe that would create too large a carbon footprint, whereas hunting wild game for winter supplies is part of the natural order of things.
Unless of course, the hunter hops into a bush plane and flies 625 miles to an island in southeastern Alaska to bag a deer that dresses out to 90 pounds of fresh meat. For a large extended family that seems to consist mostly of strapping males, that would probably last for a week. Why not, I wondered, stay closer to home and bag a moose or two?
Moose meat has long been the traditional staple of Kenai homesteaders but not to this family. They set their sites on bears, black bear which live on fish and berries, and are always a form of gustatory roulette. If bears have been living on fish, their red meat will taste rather horribly of salmon. Even if they've been glutting themselves on berries, their meat is far less succulent than moose. But even so, this family is quite excited about bagging bears, to the point that one of them even dives into a thicket of alder to pursue a bear that he might have wounded. Strange behavior--unless the man in question truly does harbor a strong death wish.
And except for a wife or two, this family is resolutely male, even though the generation I had known was quite female, with six girls and two boys. Only one of the girls shows up in the episodes I watched, and then quite tangentially--a mosaic tile, not even a cameo. Since two of the daughters still live on the homestead, that seemed peculiar.
Then I realized not only the female line of this family was invisible--so were all of the primary dwelling places. What is shown are hunting cabins, pastureland, chicken coops, small boats
and the males who dominate this setting--along with the hale and hardy women they have married. Suddenly I had the feeling that what is being shown is a homestead preserved in amber, an Alaskan version of Colonial Williamsburg.
But what has not been preserved hermetically is the leading male character, whom I last saw at a community party when we were both fifteen. Suddenly the reality component of this show became devastatingly clear and I don't recommend it to anyone. Seeing a boy whom you remember as a young teenager peering out from the grizzled countenance of an aging man with stringy white hair is enough to throw any woman into shock. I went to bed to dream of living on a homestead and woke up with a piercing headache, a pervasive nausea, and a return of my low-grade temperature.
So much for reality--bring on Downton Abbey, thank you very much.