The wild home of hope

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Rock Water Wild: An Alaskan Life
Nancy Lord
248 pages,
hardcover: $24.95.
University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Alaska writer laureate Nancy Lord's infatuation with that state dates back to a fourth-grade school project. Like so many transplants, she moved to the Far North to reinvent herself. Alaska's remoteness, its low population density, natural wealth and often-harsh living conditions recall a younger West, making it a repository for hope -- as if we've been given another chance there and can somehow avoid the mistakes of the past. In prose clear and fluid as mountain water, Lord has composed a paean to "the last place in America that's big enough and wild enough to hold the intact landscapes and the dreams that are so absent today from almost everywhere else."

But the author of Rock Water Wild is no soft-handed scribe. She has worked a number of odd jobs and, with her husband, fishes commercially for salmon near Homer. With her hands deep in fish guts, immersed in subsistence activities thousands of years old, she explores "visible linkages between natural systems, history, and the present." In doing so, she acknowledges geopolitical contexts and how they affect local communities. A good example is an essay that contrasts subsistence-style and commercial whaling. Sojourns outside Alaska, such as a trip to Wyoming where she contemplates ancient teepee rings and modern fence lines, only sharpen her focus on her home state. Other chapters address the importance of landscape in the Dena'ina Athabaskan language, or the impact of roads upon wilderness areas. The political fuses with the personal: A tale of species extinction precedes that of an Alzheimer's-plagued parent, whose displacement feels just as devastating.

A collection like Rock Water Wild, which spans over 20 years, can feel somewhat fragmented; two chapters about literary influences barely relate to Alaska. But the book reveals the maturing of a voice. What does it take to become an Alaskan? Lord's answer to that question also sums up her style as a writer: "a certain restlessness of spirit, a comfort in space and quiet, and more than a streak of independence." These essays connect like the webs of a fishing net, linked by the writer's belief in a "right place," a place where lives can find their true shapes. Luckily, Lord has found hers.