Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life
By Nancy Lord
University of Nebraska Press, $24.95
Reviewed by STEFAN MILKOWSKI
In the preface to her new book, Nancy Lord writes that she never worried about what she would do in Alaska. "From the beginning, I understood that my life depended on place, as opposed to traditional concerns like job opportunities and family ties." Lord's Rock, Water, Wild is an exploration of that place — the land, its people, and the interaction of the two — told by a careful and loving observer of it.
Lord moved to the small coastal town of Homer in 1973 and is currently Alaska's writer laureate. She has written several books, including three collections of short fiction and three non-fiction books.
Rock, Water, Wild is a collection of essays and short memoirs, many of them previously published. In "Words Honor Place," Lord offers a thoughtful exploration of connections between language and place that goes beyond the exaggerated Eskimo vocabulary for snow and likens the extinction of languages to the extinction of species. In "In the Giant's Hand," she artfully describes scenery prone to clichés. "Rumblings of rockfall attest to the work-in-progress nature of this nature; freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, and gravity exerting its pull," she writes of the Brooks Range's Arrigetch peaks.
A commitment to getting it right runs throughout Lord's wide-ranging essays. First-hand experience mixed with news-like reporting give authority to her voice. Even a story on baseball hints at Lord's desire to fit her experiences into a larger context.
Lord's approach works particularly well in essays about environmental issues, which seem to run on for decades here and carry epic stakes. For a story on road building in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Lord counts geese from a blind with a refuge biologist. For a story on sea lions, she weaves together voices from scientists, a ferry captain, and a halibut long-liner. In all of her stories, Lord writes with the built-up wisdom of someone who's read widely and experienced Alaska as a fisherman, legislative aide and naturalist on adventure cruises.
Lord's essays span great distances in time and space. A few focus on places far from Alaska (the Mediterranean, southern Arizona, the Soviet Far East), and a few reach back a century and more to John Muir's experience of Alaska and John Burroughs' ability to make others appreciate the world around them.
In several essays, Lord smartly explores the seeming contradiction of respecting Alaska's wild lands and creatures while using them at the same time. (One of Lord's previous books, Beluga Days: Tracking a White Whale's Truths, explored this question for belugas.) Preservation is based on a "no-take policy," she writes, while conservation allows for the use of resources on a sustainable basis.
In an essay about life at a remote fish camp, Lord explains how someone who loves nature can hack at brush and mourn the loss of a lifestyle that includes salmon and people. "Who will love this place when we're gone?" she writes. "Who will know to watch the fireweed blossoms to announce the arrival of the red salmon, or will care that the salmon follow the beach and the bears walk the tide line?"
Some essays are richer than others, and a few left me wishing Lord had traveled a little farther from the beaten path. A story on grizzlies at the remarkable but less-than-wild McNeil River State Game Sanctuary benefited from Lord's consistent study, but lacked the far-flung feel and insight of other stories.
Rock, Water, Wild is a collection of essays, and Lord does offer direct pleas for science-based whale management and action on climate change. But Lord's essays are also stories — stories that together offer a sense of this giant place, where selfinvention is still possible, and where the wild is never far away.
Stefan Milkowski is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks, Alaska.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2009-10 issue