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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
on an Alaskan Shore. By Nancy
Lord. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1997, xviii, 261 pp.
Reviewed by Craig Mishler, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (retired).
Lord is a seasoned Alaskan writer who lives in the small community of
Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula. During the summers she does commercial
salmon fishing on the opposite shore of Cook Inlet from where she lives,
in an area of ocean beach that largely remains a wilderness. This
book reflects back over a period of fifteen years at the fly-in set net
site that Nancy and her partner Ken Castner have maintained over that
is an autobiography. It is part life history and part essay, as she
writes about her life outdoors and her reflections on the natural world. But
as autobiography it is only a glimpse, for although we learn something
about her childhood in New Hampshire, we learn precious little about her
present life away from the fish camp, what she does in town the other
nine months of the year. We get the impression that these other nine
months are being saved for another book, or perhaps that they are much
too pale compared to the adventurous lifestyle she and her partner have
carved out for themselves on the beach.
is also an autoethnography. Lord is serious about documenting what
she does, recognizing that the shore-based commercial fishermens'
culture, even in Alaska, is at best poorly understood and certainly politically
and economically endangered. Her ethnographic sensibility is especially
vibrant in the chapter entitled "A Day in the Life," where
she leads us through a day of work from dawn until dusk. Unlike her
other works, which are short story collections, much of this book benefits
from the immediacy of writing in the present tense and seems to be taken
directly from her journal.
in Lord's and Castner's fishcamp not every day is a fishing
day, due to limited openings of the commercial salmon fishery. This
leaves Lord with time to keep up her journal, play Scrabble, collect agates,
and read. She reads widely among naturalist writers such as Thoreau
and at the back of the book she provides a list of kindred readings. She
has also read deeply into the history and ethnography of the Dena'ina
Indians who occupied the coastline near her camp in historic and prehistoric
times. She draws many of her local insights from ideas found in these
readings and from close observations of the plants and animals that surround
her. Although tightly connected with the natural world, Lord is also
socially alert and cherishes visits to her charming elder fishing neighbor,
George, and his family.
work is for the most part non-fiction, but it exhibits a treasure of creative
fictional and poetic techniques, such as the extended metaphor when she
pretends to be a drop of water flowing down the creek and into her makeshift
hot tub, or later on when she tries to think like a berry bush. "Someday,
when I die," she writes, "I expect to become sweet salmonberry,
rain, spindrift, eagle, dream, fluff on a dandelion seed, webbing between
a beaver's toes, a piece of black coal." These imaginative
reflections lift the book considerably. Lord has a wonderful way of celebrating
the local and the particular, and this is how she locates herself in the
universe, creating her own cosmology.
is an attractive, thoughtfully produced book. It is printed on recycled
acid-free paper and handsomely illustrated with ink sketches by Laura
Simonds Southworth on the dust jacket, title page, and at the beginnings
of each of the five sections. These sketches contextualize the writing
and establish a softened mood and tone for the book.
part of this book between flights at the Salt Lake City, Utah airport,
where I was constantly distracted by the blaring CNN Airport Network television,
beeping electric carts, and people in suits and dresses walking and talking
on cell phones as they pulled their wheeled suitcases along. It made
me feel good that there is still an opportunity for people like Nancy
Lord to live meaningfully and quietly in out of the way places without
all the latest technological gadgets. We do have a choice.
Readers may also be interested to know that another book entitled Fishcamp, written by an Alaska Native woman, Dorothy Savage Joseph, was also published in 1997 (Bend, OR: Maverick Publications). Joseph's fishcamp, where she spent all of her summers as a child, is located on the Yukon River ten miles below the village of Holy Cross. Although not written on the same literary level as Lord's, Joseph's memoir provides an interesting counterpoint, in that her camp was used by her family for at least three generations for subsistence rather than commercial fishing. Both writers demonstrate fierce loyalty to place and memory. While the two women were apparently unaware of each others' work, the convergence of their minds around the word "fishcamp" illustrates its great power as an Alaskan image and metaphor. Their experiences are vastly different, but it is more than a coincidence that the titles are the same.