On January 9, 2018, Outside Magazine published the article Women Writing about the Wild: 25 Essential Authors. The list spanned centuries – from Susan Fenimore Cooper’s naturalist writings in 1850 that were consulted by Thoreau to Rachel Carson in the 1950s to Terry Tempest Williams, Ann Zwinger, poet Camille Dungy, and a slew of other historical and current writers. Not a single Alaskan women writer was included, however.
I am, of course, biassed, but I want to add my shout-out to the three Alaskan women writers who mentored me into the genre of creative non-fiction.
The first is Nancy Lord who introduced me to Creative Nonfiction in a class she taught at the Kachemak Bay campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage in Homer. I had other opportunities to learn from her in her writer/instructor role in the annual Kachemak Bay Writers Conference and in the UAA Creative Writing and Literary Arts MFA program. As a writing teacher, she has the admirable ability to deliver incisive and dead-on critiques calmly and clearly, a model she facilitates for peer reviews among “emerging” writers.
Nancy is who I want to be when I grow up – an author who lives in Homer, Alaska, (the place I am working my way back to in order to retire there) and combines fierce and uncompromising environmental and moral activism with excellent science-based nonfiction writing. After demonstrating her mastery of the personal essay in Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore and Green Alaska: Dreams from a Far Coast (based on her participation in the 100th-anniversary reprise of the 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska), she turned to fiction and short stories in The Man Who Swam With Beavers. She then wrote the long-form Beluga Days: Tracking the Endangered White Whale to examine the plight of beluga whales in Cook Inlet where she and her long-term partner, Ken Castner, have their summer fish camp.
Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life compiled a decade of essays into a collection that came out in 2009, in the midst of her tenure as Alaska’s Writer Laureate from 2008-2010. “I have written largely about Alaska, in this book and others,” she wrote in the Preface, “not only because Alaska is my home and thus the place I know best but because it’s the last place in America that big enough and wild enough to hold intact landscapes and the dreams that are so absent from almost everywhere else.” Writing about Alaska’s “remarkable beauty and examples of the visible linkages between natural systems, history, and the present,” Nancy offered the hope “that this book will encourage readers to search their own home places for some of that beauty and connectedness, and understanding” so that they “might protect and even restore what they love.”
Her essayistic writings often involve “ride-alongs” or rather, “hike-alongs” with scientists in the manner of John McPhee, demonstrated by the essay “Fossiliferous” she wrote about dinosaur research in Denali National Park when she was the writer-in-resident there one summer. Her 2011 book, Alaska Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North, was based on re-visiting places and people she had first encountered in western and northern Alaska several decades earlier. Not content with the response to the urgency of the message of the impacts of the rising arm of the hockey stick graph of CO2 emissions, she undertook the writing of a novel to reach a broader audience. pH, published six years after Early Warming, is about, of all things, ocean acidification. Readers are hooked and carried along, as well as effortlessly educated about chemistry that usually evokes shudders, with a well-plotted storyline about intrigue within the scientific community and its intersection with an artist.
As she worked on writing her novel, Nancy was invited to edit the anthology Made of Salmon: Alaska Stories from the Salmon Project. The anthology, published in 2016, includes essays by twenty-one of Alaska’s best essayists, including Ernestine Hayes, Seth Kantner, and Heather Lende; and thirty-plus more personal stories by Alaskans about their relationships with salmon. “This is the way of Alaskans and salmon,” she wrote in the Introduction. “Alaskans . . . are quite literally made of salmon. The protein, omega oils, and calcium pass from salmon into our bodies and bones, our good health. Beyond that, our families and friendships and communities are all made of salmon – through the ways we work together, eat together, and share not just salmon but common values. Follow the circles out, and it’s easy to see that Alaska itself, our home place, is to a great degree made of salmon.”
I also knew Nancy in her role as the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Alaska Conservation Foundation during the time I also served as a Trustee. She served on the Board for seven years and as the Chair for two, somehow balancing her writing life with her huge contributions of time and wisdom to the organization.
In future posts, I’ll feature Sherry Simpson and the late Eva Saulitis, as well as some of the Alaskan women whose writing I became acquainted with through the UAA Creative Writing and Literary Arts MFA program.