Living deep in place

  • Porcupine on the banks of a north Alaskan river.

    Seth Kantner
  • Erna and Howard Kantner, in the kitchen of their sod igloo at Kapikagvik in 1967.

    Don Williams
  • Crossing sea ice by snowgo at dusk.

    Seth Kantner

Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska
Seth Kantner
240 pages, hardcover: $28.
Milkweed Editions, 2008.

Shopping for Porcupine is a book that weaves between worry and worship, to borrow a phrase from its author, Seth Kantner. The autobiographical essays collected here offer a glimpse of Kantner's life in his native north Alaska, portraying a harsh landscape at once torn by progress and brimming with wild blessings.

This abundance first emerges in Kantner's recollections of his childhood home, built from tundra and isolation outside of Ambler. Kantner and his brother track and trap animals by dogsled, tangle muscular fish in nets, wander barefoot until the snow is too deep, butcher a lynx in their sod igloo and then wipe away its blood before spreading out their schoolbooks. People are a rarity in their lives. Kantner's list of foods that make it to the table reads like a map of seasons: Fireweed shoots, cottongrass stems and wild onions in the spring. Cranberries, blueberries, crowberries and stinkweed in the fall. And always meat -- caribou, moose, bear, beaver, fox, porcupine, rabbit, salmon, ptarmigan, squirrel, and more caribou. "We ate eyes and hearts and paws,‚" Kantner writes, "then scraped and tanned the skins with sourdough and alder bark.‚"

 As an adult, Kantner takes up a camera (and later a pen -- publishing the remarkable first novel Ordinary Wolves in 2004) and sets out to "harvest‚" beauty for its own sake: charging foolishly into a cold lake after a bull moose (how better to dramatically fill the frame?), snapping fine portraits of the distant hindquarters of fleeing caribou, chasing capering wolves onto river ice.

But the ancient magic that captures Kantner's heart is tempered by loss. The local Inuit and white hunters increasingly rely on snowmobiles and high-powered rifles -- losing some of the hardship and sense of reverence that make hunting sacred. A warming climate gobbles coastal villages with brutal storms, collapses sea ice under travelers and coaxes a scrub of berries and spruce trees from the once-open tundra. Oil wells and sprawling mines promise jobs and spark a hunger for material possessions and ever more modernization.

In the end, though, there's still the land. Kantner remains, makes his own home, and his toddler daughter explores the "game and family path, padded down over the decades‚" by her grandparents' boots, her young father's and uncle's bare feet. This deep occupation leaves a lingering sweetness, long after the book is closed. Kantner, describing a tundra-rimmed lake close to home, closes with this entreaty: "I'm telling of this treasure in hopes of reminding us all to stand and guard our own.‚"

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