Wheat flowering, Ben VanderWeele's farm, July 21, 2015.
bread in hand
farmer resting from sowing
wheat for next year’s loaf
Knik Valley wheat fields – they are harvested by farmers from the Midwest, from the Netherlands, from temperate climates, who brought their seeds to plant in the subarctic shadow of Pioneer Peak. The Denaina Athabascan/Ahtna Indians who came a thousand years ago after the Yupik/Chupik people called the area Benteh (many lakes). They fished and hunted around Eklutna, Niteh, and their other villages for eight hundred years before the Russian Orthodox missionaries came looking for souls in 1840, and the American and European adventurers came seeking gold thirty years later. The Indians knew nothing of grains or bread until the Russians brought them Holy Communion and the Sourdoughs brought them fry-bread.
Saint Herman of Alaska, the first Russian Orthodox priest to stay in the state; he settled off Kodiak Island.
The soil into which the Knik Valley wheat sinks its shallow roots is eolian – wind-blown, loess – dust particles from the rocks ground away by the glaciers. Two hundred and fifty million years ago the Mesozoic Era began, bringing dinosaurs, ferns, forests, the grassy ancestors of wheat, and the first mammals. Pangaea was breaking up. Late in the Mesozoic the tectonic plates were carrying the continents to their present places on the earth, pushing ocean floors up against the continental plates to build the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Alaska Range, and the Chugach mountains that frame the Knik River Valley. The earth is still restless today, pushing the mountains higher and reshaping the valleys.
In those hundreds of millions of years, seas rose and fell, covering much of North America. The sea creatures died, settled into the dirt and detritus that collected underwater, and slowly packed together into rocks. When the ocean floor began crunching against the continental plates, the beds of bodies and sediments pushed up and shaped the mountains, mixed in with rocks spewed out from the hearts of volcanoes. In science-speak, “The Mesozoic lithologies, primarily marine sediments and volcanics, have been intensely metamorphosed, folded, and faulted and have been intruded by small to moderate-size igneous [rocks from the volcanoes] bodies.”
Then the glaciers arrived, covering and uncovering, and re-covering the river valleys, wearing the rocks into soils made of silt and sand. Shallow-rooted white spruce, large cottonwood trees, and balsam poplar forested the flat lands in the river valleys, with shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses on the slopes. The farmers who came in the early 1900s stripped the land of its trees, and sowed wheat into long straight rows stretching from their roads to the feet of the mountains.
Ben VanderWeele's wheat, August 2, 2015, Knik Valley with Chugach Mountains in the distance.
Today winds blow off the Knik and Matanuska glaciers, lifting the soil made of ancient ocean lives from the bare fields in late winter and laying it down on forests to the south and west. The farmers must fertilize what’s left, and irrigate in the spring and summer to make up for the sparse rain. Sixteen inches in a good year, it falls in August and September when the grain should be drying for harvest. Even the nineteen hours of sunlight in June and July doesn’t warm the air enough to make up for the cooling winds off the glaciers and the nearby ocean. It’s not ideal for wheat, but the stubborn farmers grow it nonetheless.
BenVanderWeele's wheat -- the rows in the middle ground (wild grasses in the foreground). Snow on the Chugach Range. September 5, 2015.
heavy brown wheat heads
too wet to harvest this week
snow on the Chugach
wheat rows in slanting light
of September dusk
Ben VanderWeele photos by TW Carns.