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David Basckin... On the Couch: On cow bras and survival in Alaska

Idols is back and wouldja belieeeeve it, it’s déjà vu all over again. Despite glitter, decoration, fluff and random loud noises the show is identical in essence to everything it has ever been. There are hopefuls, laconic judges, pumped-up contestants and the usual queasy mixture of personal disappointment and corporate cynicism unmediated by remorse. 

It’s not too different from watching swimmers doing lengths in a shark tank, or rubber-necking at a five-car pile-up. But what the hell sinners, that’s the good old electric thrill of watching other people’s sadnesses and dismay. There’s only one winner, which means that Idols is a non-stop carnival of personal failure. Great way to build a nation.

Meanwhile, back in Alaska this hack has been watching The Last Frontier on Discovery. It raises all sorts of fundamental questions of which the most puzzling is, why is there so much Alaskan-themed material on this channel? The reality of the place is based on three facts: Alaska is cold and dark most of the time, the Americans bought it from the Russians at 2 cents an acre, and the State consumes more aid and social grants per head of population than any other region in the USA. It is also quite beautiful, a frozen Eden, populated in documentaries like this with all sorts of strange survivalists. 
The show concentrates on the farming and foraging lives of an Alaskan extended family called Kilcher. Ancestor Kilcher came to this dark and chilly place as that most singular of all things, a refugee from Switzerland. 

In Alaska he built a homestead and put down roots. The family today continues to live as frozen cowboys, fishermen and bear hunters. It seems that the big issue in Alaskan agriculture is a three-month summer of almost non-stop sunshine. This is followed with inevitable post-Faustian horror by nine months of snow and darkness.  

So for the Kilchers, the three month summer means extremely hard work to get in enough food for winter. Yes, I grant you this is a curious mixture of Aesop’s Fables and the gloomier chapters from the Brothers Grimm, but what the hell, it certainly makes great television.
Unusually for documentaries such as these, the content is high, the production values excellent, the stories both heartwarming and quaint. The Kilchers themselves are hard-working straightforward folk who never fall into caricature. 

We, the audience, thrill to various Alaskan events. One set of the family catch salmon with dip nets in a rapidly-flowing river. It may be summer but the water is just above freezing and this hardy couple – man and wife – stand into the flow wearing trout waders with water up to their chests. 

Alaskan agriculture event number two consisted of building a bra for the cow. The cow in question had been excessively abused by her calf leading to lacerated teats. The bra prevents further damage and allows the wounds to heal. There’s much more, including constructing an outhouse plus shooting, skinning and eating a bear. Watch this show next week.

Finally, religion. And once more God had a role in a Super Rugby final. The Cheetahs played the Lions and as is their constitutional right, both Cornel Hendricks and Willie le Roux thanked the big coach in the sky for their tries.

But then along came seven tries and nine out of 10 successful kicks for the Lions, who unbeknown to the Cheetahs had the Holy Ghost on the bench. Please rise.

This column was first published in the 20th July 2014 issue of SMtv

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