Sunday, September 23, 2007

On an Alaskan Shore

The words Nancy Lord weaves into elegant sentences glisten with the same salt spray that washes over the gillnets and corklines she sets every morning on Alaska's Cook Inlet where, for the past eighteen years, she and her partner have made their home.

When a writer earns her livelihood from fishing, it's unsurprising that she might try to reshape her life among nets and boats and fish into subjects for her stories. But the stories that Lord has collected in Fish Camp: Life on an Alaskan Shore are truly remarkable, not simply because her prose is so miraculously attuned to the music of the land and sea around her but for the way her words capture the music within Lord's own heart.

The force of Lord's words can strike with the force of a sudden wave, awakening a reader to the mysteries of the tide, the beauty of a simple leaf that she might pause to observe during a hike, or the full miracle of being alive at night under a sky shot full of stars while a bear rummages for food nearby.

Her work is crafted with such skill and love, and the words unfold on the page with such amazing grace, that reading one of her sentences is a bit like slipping inside Lord's heart and listening to her meditate on the miracle that is life.

In this passage, Lord returns to the beach and her cabin after winter's thaw and observes how the landscape has changed in her absence:
The land lifts and wears down again, lifts and wears down again. The process takes millennia, and it happens before our eyes.

The winter's sea ice, too, has helped rearrange the landscape. Shoved about by tides and currents, it gripped and dragged substantial rocks with it. Just in front of the cabin, there's a boulder we've never seen before, the size of a laundry hamper. The slabs of ice haven't been gone long from the beach; all along its top edge the sand has a quilted look, raised and depressed in odd patterns that collapse when we walk on them, so delicately were the grains arranged by the shrinking, fracturing ice.
And here she describes her first night back at camp:
We play Scrabble and eat popcorn and chocolate kisses and then go to sleep on our flannel-covered futon to the sounds of the creek and the incoming tide. The wind shifts in the night. We haven't yet added an extra length of stovepipe to lift the chimney over the roofline, so coal smoke blows back down the chimney and into the cabin. At two in the morning I run down the beach with a shovelful of coals, sparks flying in the wind, my comfy, old no-longer-elastic long underwear falling down around my knees. I throw the coals into the water, where they hiss and go dark. The tops of the waves catch what light there is, pushing it in overlays like lace onto the sand. Somewhere out there the king salmon are quietly passing.
And here she writes about mending her nets:
I pull through more net and come to a huge hole the size of a seal. I stretch web over the sand so that the hole lies flat, and then I take my scissors and begin trimming. The key to mending large holes is first to enlarge them, to cut them out until you can see starting and ending points, until the patterns of re-making the mesh is apparent. I cut tails and I cut good web, leaving sides and points to the diamonds, all around the hole, until I have only two corners where three strands join.
I tie to one of these and then begin, connecting to a point, to a side: judging lengths with my eye; pinching twine; circling strands with the needle; pulling loose more twine; snapping knots tight. Gradually the hole begins to fill with new diamonds. The only sounds are those of birds, breeze, water slapping, twine coming off the needle with a plucking like harp strings, the thoughts in my head. I kneel in the sand and weave, and at last I see the pattern of the closure; then I'm back to the final three-sided corner to tie off. The hole is gone, the web remade, but my satisfaction exceeds the simple task; in a very real sense, I feel myself woven right into the fabric of the net, into the whole, webbed life that surrounds me.
This summer, on our family's trip to Alaska, I discovered Lord's work in a bookstore in downtown Anchorage and fell in love with Alaska through her words, awed by the penetrating insights that she shares about writing and fishing and, most of all, about living part of the year in a remote wilderness.

Alaska is where Lord "finds it easier here than elsewhere to honor what I value. Here I find stories that make sense to me. Equally meaningful stories exist elsewhere, too, but I find them hard to sort out from all the 'noise' of modern society, where so many people seem to plunge along with so little awareness of what it will take to leave a world fit for a future."

"From the edge of the woods," Lord writes, "tsik' ezlagh, the golden-crowned sparrow, sings its three-note name, reminding me of the best I can do within my own heritage, my own inhabiting of this place. I can listen to what's here. I can look under my feet. Always, I can try to learn the connections, to live as much as I can--with whatever I can bring to it--a felt life."

No matter where you live, listen to Lord's words the next time you begin to write:

Listen to what's here.

Look under your feet.

Alway try to learn the connections.

And live as much as you can--with whatever
you can bring to it--a felt life.

For more information about Nancy Lord and her work, visit her website:

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