THE LAST LIGHT BREAKING by Nick Jans (Alaska Northwest Books: $21.95; 224 pp.) They're coming now, the bulldozers and cranes. They're putting together a huge mining operation on the vast tundra where caribou and grizzlies and wolves have roamed free for millennia, and where Eskimos on snowshoes have tracked them for nearly as long for hides, fat and the fresh red meat that still sustains them. They're putting the mine in one of the last wild places, Arctic Alaska, west of the pipeline that already cleaves a land of spectacular beauty.

Nick Jans has lived there for 13 years of "progress," most of which he deplores but which the nonchalant natives have embraced, from snowmobiles to food stamps. Jans, lured by place names such as Natmaqruaq, Quvachuraq and Tunuquchiaq, came to gawk and stayed to teach in the hamlets of Amber and Noatak, each with a state-of-the-art high school for 50 students, courtesy of the oil money. He remains unjaded by the arctic landscape's "pure, impersonal beauty--a place without beginning or end, beyond mortal constructs."

As Jans teaches he learns: Raised eyebrows mean yes ; it's bad karma to eat berries and blubber at the same meal; cut the throat of a slain animal to let its nigiluq (soul) escape. He helps two elderly squaws land 4,000 fish in a single day. He hymns the annual migration of a huge herd of caribou. He lauds the intelligence of the wolf (who's stalking whom ?). He kills a grizzly for no apparent reason.

Way, way out, at 40-degrees below, a red fox demonstrates its disdain of "civilization" by urinating on Jans' snowmobile, while in town, an Inupiaq friend says, quite happily, "Eskimo ways gone. Gonna come roads, gonna come mines. Ambler gonna bigger." There is no future tense in Inupiaq. It's just as well.

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