Swallowed by the Great Land and Other Dispatches from Alaska's Frontier
By Seth Kantner; Mountaineers Books; 2015; $15.95; paperback
Seth Kantner appeared on the national literary landscape in 2005, when his Alaska-based novel "Ordinary Wolves" won significant acclaim and earned him a prestigious Whiting Award. He followed that with the essay collection "Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska" and, last year, the charming children's book "Pup and Pokey". Now, 10 years after his debut, we're treated to a sampling of nonfiction writing that has steadily accumulated, like layers of ice and snow, from his life in northwest Alaska.
Kantner was born into and continues to lead an unusual close-to-the-land life, even by Alaska standards, and these brief essays — each just a few pages long — illuminate a way of life that's sure to intrigue and inform readers. If there's an overall theme, it's about loving a hard and generous land and respecting those who belong to it. It also serves as an inquiry into values and the rapid change that's overtaking northern lands and an older way of life.
As Kantner says in his introduction, "Just living is what these stories are about — life here, and some of the characters living it, above the Arctic Circle and hundreds of miles from the nearest road. . . . My ties to the land remain of utmost importance to my identity, as is the case for many people in this region."
Many of the essays here were published previously, some in Alaska Dispatch News. A listing of those first publications would have provided useful credits and placed the individual pieces in time.
As it is, the collection's organization is by theme, not chronology, which can be jarring. Kantner's daughter, for example, appears at varying ages throughout, and events in the larger world are hard to sync with the writings, as when older essays related to road, mining, and oil development plans appear near the book's end. Dating information might have helped readers follow and appreciate the author's own maturation and transitions.
This is a book perhaps best read in short sittings and somewhat casually — a story here, a story there — instead of continuously, front to back. Think of it as treats of tinnik berries (arctic bearberries that are the subject of one of the essays here). Tinnik berries, according to Kantner, are hard to find, worth every bit of effort, and best when coated with rendered bear fat. They are sometimes known as "tundra caviar."
For this reviewer, perhaps the most interesting section is that devoted to "characters of the Arctic." In it, Kantner profiles several individuals he's been fortunate to know, and it's clear he values the wisdom of elders. In this section and elsewhere, he shares the stories of a Kotzebue woman who spent her youth traveling by dog team, another family living "out" with Iditarod dreams, a 100-year-old woman and her son, and an old-timer who, to Kantner as a boy, was "an encyclopedia of intriguing projects."
Although he repeatedly says how much he hates "bothering people," Kantner has managed to interview and otherwise tell of those he's admired for their traditional knowledge and ability to meet the Arctic's challenges.
"Shaking hands with Oran is like grabbing onto a 2-by-4," he writes. "His palms are like the sea mammals he hunts, and his huge fingers are random lengths, half of them missing pieces."
'Swallowed by the Great Land'
The titular story, "Swallowed by the Great Land," is perhaps the most moving essay here. It's also the one where readers may get the most insight into Kantner. In it, he relates the disappearance near Ambler of a man described as a "survivalist." But he does more than that; he explores his own transformation from someone who, like many Alaskans, was given to "despising Outsiders who walk into the wild and find trouble" to a more reflective and empathetic person who joined the search.
Throughout the book, weather is a character all its own. A whole section is devoted to "Ice and Snow." Ice fog, frostbite, checking ice for thickness, kayaking to cross a river full of moving ice sheets, shoveling out doorways, trying to secure a door against wind, sun leaking through clouds and the brilliant glare of it on ice and tundra — they're all here.
And food. Hunting caribou, picking berries, fishing, growing turnips, bartering one food for another, cooking and eating, sharing: Subsistence activities are central to almost every narrative here. Kantner presents a convincing portrait of subsistence life and the values that go with it.
Like any expert hunter, he's an acute observer: the herd of caribou crossing a river "is like a rope beginning to swing sideways in the current." Once the caribou he's chosen from a herd is lashed to his sled, he anticipates what comes next: "To bury it in snow at home to keep the meat thawed and aging. To fry the fresh liver and heart, and to give away to elders and friends the choice tongue and brisket and most of the animal, another tradition believed to break trail for more to come."
You may never want to live in — or even visit — the Arctic, but by reading this engrossing collection you will come to understand why people do and what's so necessary about the place and the life it supports. In the end, Kantner leaves us not with nostalgia but with a warning as loud as the crack of ice. In his 50 years in the north, Kantner has seen tremendous change — little of it good for the land and its residents, human and otherwise. "Storm clouds," as he calls them, are here: fast machines overtaking dog sleds and snowshoes, the "warm winds of a weakened winter," plans for roads and mines, cultural loss, the empty promises of politicians.
In one of his most beautiful and heartfelt passages, he tells us, "Always on this barren land I've found beauty and sustenance, intertwined under the huge sky: berries and big bears, musk ox, beaver, wolves and wolverine, and the winding rivers and tundra and mountains without names. Always I return home here to the Kobuk. This sky feels right to my eyes in December darkness, and in sun-filled spring nights when the birds return. Even the mosquitoes in June — every bite feels exactly as it should."
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing