The Russian Cemetery, Sitka, Alaska

October 18, 2015

Bad news travels as fast as mud: the immigration officer at Seattle airport knew we were flying on to a disaster zone. Sitka sits on a mountainous island in southeast Alaska. 24 hours of constant rain turned a hillside to mud which swept aside a house under construction. Three young men working it were instantly buried. It would take a week to dig out their bodies and the city was wrapped in grief. ‘One 2015-08-21 22.56.52day the landslides will be cleaned up,’ the mayor said, ‘but Sitka will never be the same.”

Sitka once belonged to Russia and was a Russian outpost. A guidebook claims it’s a good place for birdwatching though even the birds have gone. All the memorial statues are beheaded and tombs slide into overgrown paths. A chain of beads with a cross was looped over one gravestone, and a bunch of dead flowers was laid at another, but in truth this is wilderness and not a safe place for the living to walk. Russia sold Alaska and a community migrated, leaving its dead behind.

An ancient man, his spine bent, tended an immaculate garden with great care. His house fronted the high street. He was bent to his plants whenever I passed. When he goes, which can’t be long now, Sitka will never be the same.

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